Normal posting should resume soon after I finally clear through an especially bad new year crunch, but I do have a piece up at n+1 about Jose Donoso’s daughter Pilar, author of the recent memoir of her family, Drawing the Veil.
Two daughters bookended my year. One is Pilar Donoso, daughter of the great Chilean writer Jose Donoso (1924–1996). Fellow Chilean Roberto Bolaño called Donoso easily the greatest Chilean novelist of the century. I have long thought Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night (1970) to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, besting the better-known novels of the Latin American Boom. It is a phantasmagoric, surreal, and narratively unstable book that combines folklore, horror, and political and familial corruption to create an allegory of artistic creation, which is embodied by the central figure of the imbunche, a troll-like monster in Chilote mythology whose body is folded in on itself, with all its orifices sewn shut.
While researching an article on Donoso, I discovered that his daughter Pilar had written a book called Correr el tupido velo (Drawing the Veil)
, which was published in 2009. A sort of posthumous collaboration with her father, it tells the story of his life by drawing on her own memories as well as her father’s diaries, released only after his death in 1996. A chronicle of her father’s torment, paranoia, self-hatred, and mistreatment of his family, as well as his deeply closeted homosexuality,Drawing the Veil
is all the more uncanny for its echoes of the blatantly anti-realisticThe Obscene Bird of Night
, in which boys try to take revenge on their fathers by writing their biographies: a central theme of the book is the conceptual and emotional prisons made for us by our parents. Donoso later wrote, “This novel, which took me about eight years to write, is one and the same in my memory with the experience of pain and disease.”
The book was not Pilar Donoso’s idea; her father asked her to be his biographer. It took her seven years to write, and after publication, her marriage fell apart and her children went with their father rather than her. Pilar Donoso said the book destroyed her family, but that writing it was a necessary catharsis. She also said that she did not consider herself a victim. In November, after I finished the article, Pilar Donoso was found dead by her own hand. The obituaries mentioned a passage late in her father’s diaries in which he sketched out a story about the daughter of a deceased writer who reads and publishes her father’s diaries and then commits suicide.
The second daughter is my own, born at the beginning of the year. The next decades of my life have now been partly written: I have and will always be this child’s father. As I’ve grown attuned to this new being who changes, inexorably, far faster than anything else around me, I’ve crossed from the Brooklyn world of professionals, artists, and hipsters into the separate but consubstantial world of parents and children. I now feel the constant presence of her and other inchoate creatures who unconsciously absorb every hidden meaning and motive of those around them.
I am writing my daughter’s life, knowing I must make room for her to do so herself when she is able—knowing I must be careful. Pilar Donoso wrote, “One should not know the intimate thoughts of anyone. Least of all those of one’s own parents.” I wonder what thoughts I may need to hide from her so that she will be able to expand out into the world and not fold up into a void. I hope I will be able to do so.
This is a meme of my own invention (as far as I know). [Update: Nope, Paul did it first. I may have subconsciously plagiarized him. Sorry Paul!] The books that had the greatest impact on me year by year. Obviously very subjective, and vexing for all sorts of different reasons. Not always the best books, not often the most helpful books, just those that occupied my mind more than others. The years are to my best recollection; I may have fudged some of them.
I’ve had to list a number of unbreakable ties, where I remember the influence of each book as being so dominant and the books as so incommensurable that it was impossible to choose.
And there were a couple near-ties where I painfully excluded a runner-up. (Invisible Man, Catcher in the Rye, Wittgenstein, Lucretius, and Hegel’s Phenomenology all fell into this category.)
So, by age, from the beginning!
- Goodnight Moon
- Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, Virginia Lee Burton
- What Do People Do All Day? (unabridged), Richard Scarry
- Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Judith Viorst
- The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, Dr. Seuss
- Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics, Carl Barks
- The Pushcart War, Jean Merrill
The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster (tie)
- The Westing Game, Ellen Raskin
- The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, Daniel Pinkwater
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
What is the Name of This Book?, Raymond Smullyan (tie)
- “By His Bootstraps” and “—All You Zombies—”, Robert Heinlein
- The Singing Detective (script and serial), Dennis Potter
- The Sirens of Titan; and Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut
- White Noise, Don DeLillo
- To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
Moby Dick, Herman Melville (tie)
- Ulysses, James Joyce
- Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates
Imaginary Magnitude, Stanislaw Lem (tie)
- The Tunnel, William H. Gass
- The Castle, Franz Kafka
- Lanark, Alasdair Gray
Interstate; Frog; Gould; assorted short fiction, Stephen Dixon (tie)
- The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil
- Michael Kohlhaas, Heinrich von Kleist
- The Melancholy of Resistance, Laszlo Krasznahorkai
- The Obscene Bird of Night, Jose Donoso
How It Is, Samuel Beckett (tie)
- The Waves, Virginia Woolf
Epileptic, David B. (tie)
- The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi
Simultan, Ingeborg Bachmann (tie)
- Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust
- The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams
Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot (tie)
- Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
- A House in the Country, Jose Donoso
I am sure there are many books that felt more significant at the time whose influence I have mostly forgotten because I failed to pursue the directions they signaled. My memories have persisted of those books that were close to the parts of me that remain with me now.
This is probably as good an autobiography as any. Anyone else want to try?