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David Auerbach’s Books of the Year 2015

I was dissatisfied with my 2015 reading. A number of projects and situations contrived to cut down my reading time drastically, and so this list feels even more provisional than most years, a grab-bag of things that stood out for me stood out for me personally rather than a considered ranking. I think in a better world we would all do books of a given year 5 to 10 years down the line, and the resulting lists would be far more well-considered. Maybe 25 or 50 years would be even better.

I was pulled into a number of projects and situations that obliterated both my concentration and reading time, the biggest being my Facilitated Communication investigation, which consumed an entire quarter of the year. That would not have been so bad by itself but a handful of other similar matters made it difficult to do as much comprehensive reading as I would have liked. I’ve resolved to change that this year.

So, wish a bit of disappointment and shame, I am attaching a “Promising Nonfiction” section of books I haven’t yet assessed. These are books that due to their subject matter, pedigree, author, or some other factor struck me as being worth investigating, but which I didn’t have time to do so. Note that it is entirely possible that some of these books are terrible–they just merit a look in my mind. (Example: Cesar Hidalgo’s Why Information Grows would have been on the promising list, but I did get time to take a look at it and it did not fulfill its promise. On the other hand, I am near-certain Noel Malcolm’s latest tome of scholarship is brilliant, but simply didn’t have time to get to a work so far outside outside my current area of focus.) If any readers have opinions on them, please chime in.

Book of the Year

Fiction

Thought Flights
Robert Musil
(Contra Mundum Press)

The Blizzard: A Novel
Vladimir Sorokin
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

The Complete Works of Primo Levi
Primo Levi
(Liveright)

Horse of a Different Color: Stories
Howard Waldrop
(Small Beer Press)

The Librarian
Mikhail Elizarov
(Pushkin Press)

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths
Barbara Comyns
(NYRB Classics)

A General Theory of Oblivion
Jose Eduardo Agualusa
(Archipelago)

The Wake: A Novel
Paul Kingsnorth
(Graywolf Press)

Kvachi (Georgian Literature)
Mikheil Javakhishvili, Mixeil Javaxiesvili
(Dalkey Archive Press)

Eyes: Novellas and Stories
William H. Gass
(Knopf)

Book of Numbers: A Novel
Joshua Cohen
(Random House)

The Door (NYRB Classics)
Magda Szabo
(NYRB Classics)

Callimachus: The Hymns

(Oxford University Press)

Silvina Ocampo (NYRB Poets)
Silvina Ocampo
(NYRB Poets)

Eileen: A Novel
Ottessa Moshfegh
(Penguin Books)

A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel
Marlon James
(Riverhead Books)

The Tale of Genji (unabridged)
Shikibu Murasaki
(W. W. Norton & Company)

Macbeth: Third Series (The Arden Shakespeare Third Series)
William Shakespeare
(The Arden Shakespeare)

The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes (Hackett Classics)
Jackson Crawford
(Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.)

Incidents in the Night Book 2
David B.
(Uncivilized Books)

Dungeon: Monstres - Vol. 5: My Son the Killer (5)
Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim
(NBM Publishing)

Melody: Story of a Nude Dancer
Sylvie Rancourt
(Drawn and Quarterly)

The Eternaut
Hector German Oesterheld
(Fantagraphics Books)

Fatherland: A Family History
Nina Bunjevac
(Liveright)

Nonfiction

World Philology

(Harvard University Press)

Chaos Imagined: Literature, Art, Science
Martin Meisel
(Columbia University Press)

The Pseudo-Platonic Seventh Letter
Myles Burnyeat, Michael Frede
(Oxford University Press)

The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution
Timothy Tackett
(Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press)

Physics: a short history from quintessence to quarks
J. L. Heilbron
(Oxford University Press)

Forgetting: Myths, Perils and Compensations
Douwe Draaisma
(Yale University Press)

The World the Game Theorists Made
Paul Erickson
(University of Chicago Press)

Persius: A Study in Food, Philosophy, and the Figural
Shadi Bartsch
(University of Chicago Press)

European Intellectual History from Rousseau to Nietzsche
Frank M. Turner
(Yale University Press)

Orientation and Judgment in Hermeneutics
Rudolf A. Makkreel
(University of Chicago Press)

The Occupiers: The Making of the 99 Percent Movement
Michael A. Gould-Wartofsky
(Oxford University Press)

Darkness Visible: A Study of Vergil's "Aeneid"
W. R. Johnson
(University of Chicago Press)

The Computing Universe: A Journey through a Revolution
Tony Hey, Gyuri Pápay
(Cambridge University Press)

Greek Models of Mind and Self (Revealing antiquity ; Book 22)
Anthony A. Long
(Harvard University Press)

Track-Two Diplomacy Toward an Israeli-Palestinian Solution, 1978-2014
Yair Hirschfeld
(Woodrow Wilson Center Press / Johns Hopkins University Press)

Heart of Darkness: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Invisible Universe (Science Essentials)
Jeremiah P. Ostriker, Simon Mitton
(Princeton University Press)

Promising Nonfiction

Database of Dreams: The Lost Quest to Catalog Humanity
Rebecca Lemov
(Yale University Press)

A Sense of Power: The Roots of America's Global Role
John A. Thompson
(Cornell University Press)

Realpolitik: A History
John Bew
(Oxford University Press)

Two Arabs, a Berber, and a Jew: Entangled Lives in Morocco
Lawrence Rosen
(University of Chicago Press)

Phishing for Phools: The Economics of Manipulation and Deception
George A. Akerlof, Robert J. Shiller
(Princeton University Press)

A Foot in the River: Why Our Lives Change -- and the Limits of Evolution
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
(Oxford University Press)

The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945
Nicholas Stargardt
(Basic Books)

A Country Called Prison: Mass Incarceration and the Making of a New Nation
Mary D. Looman, John D. Carl
(Oxford University Press)

The Black Mirror: Looking at Life through Death
Raymond Tallis
(Yale University Press)

Violence All Around
John Sifton
(Harvard University Press)

Barbarism and Religion: Volume 6, Barbarism: Triumph in the West
J. G. A. Pocock
(Cambridge University Press)

KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps
Nikolaus Wachsmann
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

China Under Mao: A Revolution Derailed
Andrew G. Walder
(Harvard University Press)

The Third Reich in History and Memory
Richard J. Evans
(Oxford University Press)

The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism
David M. Kotz
(Harvard University Press)

Universal Man: The Lives of John Maynard Keynes
Richard Davenport-Hines
(Basic Books)

The Country of First Boys And Other Essays
Amartya Sen
(Oxford University Press)

The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore
Michael Dylan Foster
(University of California Press)

Books of the Year 2014

I had less time for reading this year than I would have liked. When I selected Drago Jancar’s haunting and beautiful The Tree with No Name for Slate’s Overlooked Books, it was still with the knowledge that I’d read a lot less fiction than I’d wanted. And Antal Szerb’s excellent, though modest Journey by Moonlight is a bit of a cheat, since I read it (and wrote about it) when Pushkin Press published it all the way back in 2003, rather than when NYRB Classics reissued it this year. It’s stayed with me, though, so I can pick it with more certainty than some of the other choices.

Seeing Richard McGuire’s long-gestating Here finally be published bookends my reading the original 8 page version in RAW when I was 13, when it changed my life. I wrote about the original Here in 2003 too.

And Alonso de Ercilla’s 1569 Spanish-Chilean epic The Araucaniad has been an alluring title to me since I read about it in David Quint’s fascinating Epic and Empire in connection with Lucan’s Civil War. Quint described The Araucaniad as one of those rare epics that takes the side of the losers, and it’s one of those artifacts, like Lucan’s Civil War, that doesn’t fit neatly with any common sense of literary history. Its relevance stems from its own grim variation on a theme that is at the heart of so many great epics and books: in Quint’s words, “that those who have been victimized losers in history somehow have the right to become victimizing winners, in turn.” It deserves a new translation.

As with last year, I haven’t read the entirety of some of the nonfiction selections: Chris Wickham is an excellent historian but I’m not going to deny that some of his Annales-ish wonkery had my eyes skimming. And while the biology and physics books are pretty interesting, I can’t say with much certainty that they’re accurate.

If anyone’s curious as to why some book or other made the list, feel free to ask in the comments. Thanks again for reading my work here or elsewhere.

(As always, I do not make any money from these links; they’re just the easiest way to get the thumbnails.)

Literature

The Araucaniad
Alonso de Ercilla Y Zuniga
(Vanderbilt University Press)

Contemporaries and Snobs (Modern & Contemporary Poetics)
Laura Riding
(University Alabama Press)

The Tree with No Name (Slovenian Literature Series)
Drago Jancar
(Dalkey Archive Press)

I Am China: A Novel
Xiaolu Guo
(Anchor)

All Our Names
Dinaw Mengestu
(Vintage)

Foreign Gods, Inc.
Okey Ndibe
(Soho Press)

Prae, Vol. 1
Miklos Szentkuthy
(Contra Mundum Press)

The Time Regulation Institute
Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar
(Penguin Classics)

The Alp (Swiss Literature Series)
Arno Camenisch
(Dalkey Archive Press)

The Stories of Jane Gardam
Jane Gardam
(Europa Editions)

Harlequin's Millions: A Novel
Bohumil Hrabal
(Archipelago)

Journey by Moonlight (NYRB Classics)
Antal Szerb
(NYRB Classics)

Midnight in the Century (NYRB Classics)
Victor Serge
(NYRB Classics)

 

Nonfiction

Time, History, and Literature: Selected Essays of Erich Auerbach
Erich Auerbach
(Princeton University Press)

The Classical Tradition: Art, Literature, Thought
Michael Silk, Ingo Gildenhard, Rosemary Barrow
(Wiley-Blackwell)

Inside Paradise Lost: Reading the Designs of Milton's Epic
David Quint
(Princeton University Press)

Why Is There Philosophy of Mathematics At All?
Ian Hacking
(Cambridge University Press)

A World without Why
Raymond Geuss
(Princeton University Press)

From Akhenaten to Moses: Ancient Egypt and Religious Change
Jan Assmann
(The American University in Cairo Press)

Social Dynamics
Brian Skyrms
(Oxford University Press)

Absolute Music: The History of an Idea
Mark Evan Bonds
(Oxford University Press)

Common Knowledge?: An Ethnography of Wikipedia
Dariusz Jemielniak
(Stanford University Press)

July Crisis: The World's Descent into War, Summer 1914
T. G. Otte
(Cambridge University Press)

The Logical Must: Wittgenstein on Logic
Penelope Maddy
(Oxford University Press)

After Hegel: German Philosophy, 1840-1900
Frederick C. Beiser
(Oxford University Press)

Pay Any Price
James Risen
(Brilliance Audio)

Becoming Mead: The Social Process of Academic Knowledge
Daniel R. Huebner
(University of Chicago Press)

The Congress of Vienna: Power and Politics after Napoleon
Brian E. Vick
(Harvard University Press)

Children into Swans: Fairy Tales and the Pagan Imagination
Jan Beveridge
(McGill-Queen's University Press)

Earth's Deep History: How It Was Discovered and Why It Matters
Martin J. S. Rudwick
(University of Chicago Press)

Forensic Shakespeare (Clarendon Lectures in English)
Quentin Skinner
(Oxford University Press)

The Computing Universe: A Journey through a Revolution
Tony Hey, Gyuri Pápay
(Cambridge University Press)

In Other Shoes: Music, Metaphor, Empathy, Existence
Kendall L. Walton
(Oxford University Press)

 

Comics

Here (Pantheon Graphic Library)
Richard McGuire
(Pantheon)

Beautiful Darkness
Fabien Vehlmann, Kerascoët
(Drawn and Quarterly)

Beauty
Hubert
(NBM Publishing)

Dungeon: Twilight - Vol. 4: The End of Dungeon (4)
Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim
(NBM Publishing)

Sam Zabel And The Magic Pen
Dylan Horrocks
(Fantagraphics)

Incomplete Works
Dylan Horrocks
(Victoria University Press)

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth: A Novel
Isabel Greenberg
(Little, Brown and Company)

The Encyclopedia of Early Earth: A Novel
Isabel Greenberg
(Little, Brown and Company)

Weapons of Mass Diplomacy
Abel Lanzac
(SelfMadeHero)

A Conversation with Janice Lee

Janice Lee is an American writer, artist, editor, programmer, and generally well-rounded intellectual. We discussed her recent book Damnation and its influences from the work of Hungarian director Bela Tarr and writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai (responsible for the film Damnation), the difficulties of being an “American” writer and what that even means, the grim brilliance of Hungarian culture, and the end of the world. I recommend checking out Damnation and her earlier works Daughter and KEROTAKIS, available at her site JaniceL.com. She is also the executive editor of Entropy Magazine. Many thanks to her for her time and patience in engaging with me.


DA: I was happy to see you mention Pamela Zoline’s science-fiction stories in your best of the year. I read “The Heat Death of the Universe” as a teen and thought it was quite remarkable, and quoted it in an art essay I wrote last year, Archimedes’ Mindscrew. Zoline’s story is, I think, very directly apocalyptic, which connects her to Tarr and Krasznahorkai’s work. Krasznahorkai has spoken of his “personal relationship with the apocalypse,” and Tarr’s landscapes often look like the black and white residue of some post-nuclear blast. “Even if this is the apocalypse, if you stay indoors and mind your own business, the angels and demons will leave you alone” (Damnation). What I get from all of these artists is a negating of the seeming scale of things: apocalypse isn’t a definable event or a point in time, but something baked into the order of things. (Which is why, I presume, entropy has held such an appeal to many apocalyptic writers.) Krasznahorkai says that the apocalypse has already happened. So what is apocalypse for you?

JL: “We are living in the apocalypse. The first moment of life was the first moment of the apocalypse and death. Please, don’t fear the apocalypse.” This quote by Krasznahorkai is maybe the one that resonates with me the most, this idea that we are already and have always been living in the apocalypse. The apocalypse, for me, is more of an anticipatory state. In another interview Krasznahorkai talks about birth as a journey towards failure, this inevitable journey that becomes the life in which we live, bookmarked by these two events in time. But, as we see in Tarr, time carries on without us. Time is the vantage point from which we observe and anticipate. And in one way, the real tragedy is that we must go on whether or not the apocalypse is really coming. That we go on, is the heroic gesture, is the gesture of hope. The apocalypse is about failure, but also about relief and hope. It is about the modification of reality, the ability to see the world from a pair of eyes not just one’s own. It is about disintegration and ruin, yes, but also about empathy and the relationships between human beings. It is about the acceptance of uncertainty over clarity and an abandonment into the beauty of reality. It is about the plateau, the daily struggle, not the end.

From Bela Tarr's Damnation.

From Bela Tarr’s Damnation.

DA: For all the talk about the “death of the subject,” it seems like people still return to interpersonal relationships, even familial relationships, as a place to ground themselves. Even if we are neurologically predisposed to find meaning there, we do not seem to want to let go of family or friendship in the same way that we let go of God. You titled a book Daughter, where you call a daughter “the excavator of dead gods,” and you dealt with Frankenstein, the synthetic child, in KEROTAKIS. I’ve been amazed at the sense of stability and certainty (comparatively, at least) given to me by my child. Campanella and Plato wanted to emancipate humanity from the idea of the family (nuclear or extended oikos), but the idea has never gotten much traction outside of cults. For me it’s due to two nigh-unassailable factors: the ability of creation within the family, and the reification of blood ties (real or virtual). The family is the ultimate self-propagating cult. You’ve written, movingly, about the death of a parent; what does that mean to you relative to the apocalypse, relative to time?

JL: The death of parent both changes nothing and everything. What happens during grieving, which lasts an entire lifetime, is different at various moments of life. When my mother died, it was sudden. I was sad, yes, but also shocked, and heartbroken in a way that only dealt with the finality of a life, trying to come to grips with an absence that wasn’t felt as a significant presence until the finality of death. Probably what hit home the hardest was when we returned to my parent’s house one evening and my dog proceeded to run around the house looking for something. He went into every room repeatedly, sniffed all of the corners, looking up at me, looked some more. He was looking for her of course, without the ability to understand that she wasn’t coming back, but also with an understanding that something was wrong. The apocalypse is a prolonged state for me, the anticipation of some finality, but this, too, is living. In one moment I remember my mother and realize how much I have become like her. In another, I lament the strange construction of an identity I have created after her death, how the collage of memories I have pieced together into an identity says more about what I need in this moment from her than who she really was as a human being. I think about how we remain constantly and incessantly surrounded by ghosts, and again, these ghosts say more about the present moment in which we find ourselves in than the ghosts themselves. After all, it is us who keeps them here, not them who linger.

From Bela Tarr's Damnation.

From Bela Tarr’s Damnation.

DA: Does time go on without us? One modern philosophical theme is the idea of the block universe, the idea that time is a human construct and all moments exist on equal footing with no concept of “now.” I read this as fundamentally similar to Nietzsche’s eternal return, since each moment is a moment that becomes emblazoned eternally. Yet physics seems to indicate profound incomprehensibility at the heart of things, such that even as we try to grasp the universe-without-us, the universe-without-us turns out to be the universe-without-us-with-us.

JL: Indeed. There is time, and then is time. What both Krasznahorkai and Tarr really point to is how subjective time is, how eternity isn’t a quantitative measurement, but more of a feeling, an endured and continuous state. Eternity can last 4 seconds, it can last hours. So time becomes something that may or may not exist outside the human world, but at least it is only significant and felt when embodied corporeally.

DA: I recently read British-Chinese novelist Xialu Guo complaining that American “realism” was a limiting ethic. Your work certainly doesn’t embody the sort of conventional writing to which she’s referring, but my reaction was Krasznahorkai’s work certainly feels more real to me than the sort of literal mundanity peddled by people from Franzen to Tao Lin. Looking at the situation in Ferguson, it reminds me more of The Melancholy of Resistance than The Corrections. But then, American literature always seems to have had a legitimacy problem. As Ann Douglas wrote, “Melville’s writing is alive with his outraged conviction that he cannot produce a work significantly better than his culture.” I think that the aspiration to a 19th century European-style realism (like that of early Henry James) is one alternative response to that problem. Is it time to reclaim “realism”, or throw it away?

JL: Realism is always such a tenuous and odd term for me. I mean, much of art has been dealing with this notion right. What is more or less realistic? What more or less embodies or expresses what is real? Once in a writing class a professor compared the work of Samuel Beckett, where real is someone trudging through the mud for countless pages, versus Bertolt Brecht, whose plays point to constructedness of reality itself. Or to look at a photograph of a vase of sunflowers versus a painting by Van Gogh where the deformity and texture and warpedness and colors of the sunflowers enacts a different kind of reality than the photo representation. Krasznahorkai’s work feels real to me in the way that it invokes such familiar qualities of abjectedness and intertia. There is mud, yes, but the humans who insist on moving through the mud, persistent. These kinds of impulses seem to human to me, so real, even if these people are so far from the reality that I live in everyday. Even something about Krasznahorkai’s sentences, the language that seems to constantly overturn itself, these protracted moments where the present gets drawn out in this way but continues to change direction. “Real” makes me think of expression and the dilemma of expression, or the dilemma of representation. So much is inarticulatable. And sometimes the inarticulation becomes the articulation. For example, I’ve been obsessed lately with taking photos of the sky and the sunset in Los Angeles. But these photos can’t capture any of the essence of what I feel in those moments looking up at the sky. That’s an impossibility. But the photo then becomes the articulation of that inarticulatable moment in a way that the evidence acts as a frantic ghost, a wound, a relinquishing of the everything of a single moment into a concentration of something, no matter its density or weight.

From Bela Tarr's Damnation

From Bela Tarr’s Damnation

DA: America has a long-running streak of Millenialism in its religious populations, but in my own reading I’ve always felt like Eastern Europe has really had the monopoly on doomy apocalyptic literature–and that in contrast, modern secular America is very good at minimizing eschatology and doom (malaise, yes, but not doom). So when reading Damnation through two lenses, first my own American lens and then through my image of Tarr and Krasznahorkai’s European presence, and I felt somewhat dislocated, caught between my preconceptions of American garrulousness and Eastern European austerity. This was one of the reasons I wanted to read your other work, to see how to what extent I would feel one association or the other; what I noticed in those other works was, in fact, that your use of religious and morbid content acted to smooth over the gap between these two divergent conceptions. So aside from asking for your reaction to my own impressions, I’d like to ask whether you feel a particular American component to your work, and to what extent you feel other lineages (whatever they may be) tugging on you?

JL: This is a hard question for me to answer. Mostly, because I’m not sure. I’ve never been to Europe. I can start there. I’ve actually never left North America. Nor do I feel any strong or direct connection to the history or culture of Eastern Europe. Yet, nonetheless, the worlds of Tarr and Krasznahorkai make sense to me, make more sense to me than probably any of the other worlds I’ve encountered in film or literature or art yet, and I’m still wondering why that is. I was very pleasantly surprised, when, taking this silly little online quiz, to find that my test results deemed Hungary as the country of my internal citizenship. So maybe there is something there. But something more to do with the bleakness, the worldview, the hope, the empathy, etc. rather than the specific history or culture. Whether I feel a particular American component to my work, I can only answer that with the above, and an added piece of information that, well, yes, I’ve lived in America my entire life and will probably die here. Yet, I’m still not sure of this relationship between a writer’s country and the art that is produced.

DA: Hungary, or more generally the “Alpine-Carpathian zone” (in Paul Magocsi’s term) has been a touchstone for me as well. The area produced a huge number of influential scientists and mathematicians in the 20th century as well, in addition to its great artists, yet I’d be hard-pressed to make a generalization about it other than a generally dour, skeptical, yet curious worldview. When I was in Slovakia two years ago, I felt a bit more at ease with the willingness of people to criticize and express themselves unselfconsciously, as though the freedom to speak one’s thoughts would be welcomed without it being taken as a personal affront. Even something as simple as saying, “Have you read X?” to a stranger and hearing “Yes, I didn’t like X” was refreshing. But as Douglas says of Melville, the inability to come to grips with America is probably one of the signposts of being a real American writer. America simply does not seem to produce national figures like Goethe, Pushkin, Shakespeare, or Soseki. T.S. Eliot had to go to England to become a national figure there!

JL: I’m becoming more and more convinced that I really need to visit Hungary ASAP, to really be in the physical space and investigate what it is about that place that draws me so close and which I somehow, from a great distance, empathize with so closely.

From Bela Tarr's Damnation

From Bela Tarr’s Damnation

DA: You work as a programmer, as have I. There was a time, centuries ago, when the sciences and the humanities were not so differentiated, long before C. P. Snow made his “two cultures” argument. For me this split is something I live, because writers of all stripes are so different from technically-minded people, and each points out the deficiencies in the position of the other (and how I possess both sets of deficiencies.) More than anything else, the public image of technology, in the eyes of writers, bears no resemblance to technology as I relate to it and as most techies I know relate to it. What is often called dehumanizing or mechanistic I see as blessedly regular and beautiful, a source of beauty purer than that in all but the greatest works of art. This was why I was drawn to Robert Musil, for trying to reconcile the two, and Krasznahorkai touches on this at length in his references to the mathematics of tuning and Cantor’s infinity. This too seems to be common to the region; Ferenc Karinthy’s Metropole is one of the most precise books about being lost in language that I know. And it is the fierce organization of sections like “The Machinist” in Damnation that makes me think of programming. Where are the joins for you?

JL: I agree that it seems these kinds of modes of thoughts and roles seem to be getting more and more specialized. But honestly, to me, I’ve never distinguished between these disciplines. I work as web designer, yes, one of my many modes of thought and being. Evident from my first book, KEROTAKIS, I’m also research-obsessed and have a lot of interests, including neuroscience, the occult, alchemy, the paranormal, ufology, biological anthropology, psychology, theology, phenomenology, etc. I just mentioned in another interview that I like to stay away from aesthetic categories that act as constricting forces and rather, see all these disciplines and areas as overlapping wavelengths on a broader spectrum, or different perspectives on the same subject of study, namely, life. I wouldn’t be a writer if I didn’t study science first. I wouldn’t see narrative the way I do if I hadn’t, in some part of my life, been on the track to be a doctor. And I wouldn’t have the relationship with language I do today without the films of Bela Tarr. That is to say, it’s hard for me to separate between these areas, between the sciences and humanities even, at least in my own practice.

The Black Pushkin and The Blackamoor of Peter the Great

Alexander Pushkin was descended from Ibrahim Gannibal (1696-1781), a black page kidnapped and brought back from “Lagon” in Africa–possibly either in modern-day Cameroon or Ethiopia. Given as a gift to Peter the Great, the emperor became Ibrahim’s godfather and brought him up as a noble with education and responsibility. Ibrahim became a captain in the army, wrote on geometry and engineering, and was called “the dark star of the Enlightenment” by Voltaire.

Ibrahim was possibly Pushkin’s great-grandfather on both parents’ side, at least according to this essay. Pushkin’s black heritage seems a bit better-known than, say, George Herriman’s (and Pushkin was more open about it than Herriman), but it hasn’t sufficiently passed into common knowledge for Jonathan Gill, the author of Harlem: the 400 Year History, not to write that “J. A. Rogers saw everything through the lens of race, insisting that even Beethoven and Pushkin were black.”1

In 1827, Pushkin started a fictionalized romantic history of his ancestor, The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, dubbing Ibrahim “the son of a black sultan,” thus noble through and through. He abandoned it after about thirty pages, so what’s left is more or less just the setup for an ensuing drama that was never written. What got written, though, is fascinating. Ibrahim is a likable, suave, and thoughtful nobleman who goes to Paris for a time (culture! education!) before returning to St. Petersburg in the early 1720s. While in Paris, he romances the Countess D., and they fall seriously in love with each other. She also gets pregnant, to the scandal of everyone save her oblivious husband: “men took bets on whether the Countess would give birth to a white or black baby.” Disaster is averted when the (black) baby is swapped with the newborn of a destitute woman, and Ibrahim’s son is raised far far away.

Thus the public, which had anticipated an uproarious scandal, was frustrated in its expectations and had to content itself with mere vilifications.

Ibrahim, displaying characteristic caution, decides it best to leave the Countess before (a) her husband finds out, or (b) the Countess grows tired of him. Ibrahim does not foresee his own love dying, but he’s sufficiently alarmed by the prospect of losing her that “the torments of separation would probably be less painful.” Though brutally matter-of-fact to himself, he handles the matter with spectacular grace in his Dear D. letter to the Countess:

My happiness could not last. I have enjoyed it in defiance of fate and nature. You were bound to cease loving me: the enchantment was bound to vanish…Society, with its fickle ways, persecutes in practice what it permits in theory: its cold mockery would have sooner of later overpowered you, it would have humbled your soaring spirit, and you would have in the end have grown ashamed of your passion…What would then have become of me? No1 I’d sooner die, I’d sooner leave you, than wait for that terrible moment…

Your tranquility is dearest of all to me, and you could not enjoy it while the gaze of society was fixed on us…Just think: should I subject you to the same worries and dangers even longer? Why struggle to unite the fate of such a tender and graceful creature with the unlucky lot of a Negro, a pitiful being, scarcely granted the title of man?

The Countess is upset but gets over it and takes a new lover. Ibrahim responds with the resignation that he did the right thing but wishes it hadn’t been the right thing:

What sensations filled Ibrahim’s heart? Jealousy? Rage? Despair? No; rather a deep benumbed feeling of depression. He kept repeating to himself: I foresaw this; this had to happen…He wept for al long time. The tears eased his sorrow. Then, looking at his watch, he realized it was time to go.

Ibraham’s sensible circumspection contrasts with very nearly every other character in the Pushkin oeuvre, not to mention the dominant archetypes of Russian literature in general, who tend much more toward the passionate than the hyper-rational. He also contrasts with the bumbling fop Korsakov, a friendly though callous noble back from Paris who doesn’t know Russian matters and is soon humiliated at a ball through a ritual fraternity-style hazing presided over by Peter himself. Korsakov’s mistake was in trying to dance with the young Natasha, whom Peter soon decides would make a great bride for Ibrahim, and so suggests a marriage. Ibrahim initially demurs, but after Peter insists, Ibrahim starts to entertain the idea:

To marry! And why not? Or am I destined to spend my life in solitude, never experiencing the greatest joys and most sacred obligations of a man, just because I was born below the fifteenth parallel? I cannot hope to be loved, but that is a childish objection. Can one trust love in any case?…The Emperor is right: I must ensure my future…I will not demand love from my wife: i shall be content with her fidelity. As for her friendship, I will win it by unfailing tenderness, trust, and indulgence.

Natalia’s family is horrified. “Don’t throw Natashnka into the clutches of that black devil,” cries her grandmother. But her grandfather accedes, for three reasons. First, the Emperor has asked; second, the Emperor promises great favor to his whole family; and third, Natalia is in love with Valerian, an orphan of lower origins whom her family took in. Her grandfather is so horrified by her love for Valerian that he decides that marriage to Ibrahim is the best course to stave off his daughter’s unfortunate passion. Natasha is thoroughly repulsed and takes sick just to avoid Ibrahim, only to find out that her family is now apparently entranced with him. (Her aunt says, “What a pity he’s black; otherwise we couldn’t wish for a better bridegroom.”) This is, she realizes, because of her love for Valerian, and she is stuck.

Only one hope remained for her: to die before the hateful marriage came to pass. This idea comforted her. She submitted to her fate with a faint, sorrowful heart.

And that’s where Pushkin stopped. Pushkin’s friend A. N. Wulf wrote that “The main intrigue of the novel, as Pushkin says, will be the sexual infidelity of the Negro’s wife, who gives birth to a white child, and is punished by being banished to a convent”–an inversion of the earlier adulterous pregnancy. (Indeed, this did indeed happen with the real Ibrahim’s first wife, who went to jail for ten years.) Would the father be Valerian? Korsakov?

Even in the short fragment, two contrasting portrayals repeat. First, Ibrahim as the superior noble, favored by Peter, adored by the Countess, possessed of rare intelligence and wisdom easily besting that of fools like Korsakov and Valerian, traits for which he is recognized not only by the Emperor but by most of the characters. Second, Ibrahim as the curiosity and outsider, given the gifts of nobility yet sealed off from familial and amorous integration with the native population among which he lives. It is not until the Emperor proposes the marriage that Ibrahim even considers the possibility of starting a lineage and becoming a patriarch.

The opposing portrayals meet in the reaction to the marriage: while Natasha’s family disdains Ibrahim on racist grounds, her grandfather still prefers him (in a second) over a lower-class heel like Valerian. Ibrahim becomes the instrument by which the lower class can be kept out of the family and their nobility preserved. This time, class trumps race. This was to end in the irony that a white baby would signify Natasha’s infidelity and betrayal, and would presumably meet with a worse fate than the secret but treasured son of Countess D. Yet both these relationships are less inflected by race than his relations with most people. He considers himself an object of curiosity to most: “As a rule, people looked at the young black man as if he were some strange phenomenon.” He even resents the affections of women because of this, as “He felt that in their eyes he was a kind of rare animal,” and he dislikes being fetishized in that way. Yet on the next page the narrator intercedes and tells us that many women do see him “with feelings more flattering than mere curiosity, though he in his prejudice either did not notice anything or fancied only flirtation.” It takes the Countess’ guileless attention to dissolve his suspicions and allow him to fall in love.

So Pushkin tells us explicitly that for all his intelligence, there are limits to what Ibrahim knows of other people’s thoughts, and he cannot always distinguish genuine affection from fetishistic curiosity. The question, then, is whether this is the source of Ibrahim’s doubts about the Countess. His performance regarding her, in relationship and in separation, is seamless, but when he worries that the Countess is capricious, is the caprice in matters of love alone, or with regard to her perception of race as well? Does he fear that he will fall out of being viewed as a human and become a curiosity again? The same confusion ironically comes to light in Natasha’s loathing of Ibrahim, which, because it originates from her love of Valerian, obscures whether she sees him as a curiosity or merely as the guy she’s being forced to marry. And despite Peter’s good will, Natasha’s family goes through with the marriage because of his identity as a noble, which sufficiently overshadows his race, yet also reduces him to a single dimension.

There is an undercurrent of race-as-epistemic-confusion, because the introduction of a new social category (race) knocks existing categories (class, family role, even lover) off-kilter, and not in predictable or unidirectional ways. Translator Peter Debreczeny suggests that inconsistency and general confusion, particularly with regard to Ibrahim’s character, prevented Pushkin from continuing the novel. It’s hard to say. But while Eugene Onegin may be the more sharply-drawn and memorable character, I find Ibrahim to be the more mysteriously evocative.

  1. J. A. Rogers (1880-1966) was quite a character, though. Henry Louis Gates writes:

    If America hadn’t already invented the “one-drop rule” by this time, Rogers most probably would have. He seems to have had some sort of miscegenation-meter, which he used to “out” all sorts of “white” people as having black ancestry. And while he erred on the side of excess as he peered into the proverbial woodpile, Rogers got it right an impressive amount of the time, especially considering when he was publishing his work. (At the other end of his collected works, though, stands The Five Negro Presidents, which, shall we say, would get the “Black History Wishful Thinking Prize,” hands down, were there such in existence.)

Books of the Year 2013

It was a pretty good year, especially for fiction. I stand no chance of ever catching up on my backlog of books to read, so these are less “Books of the Year” than “Books of My Year,” ones which happened to be published in 2013 (or late 2012). A boom in non-Waggish writing resulted in me not having time to write up some of these books, which I really do regret. I spent a month rereading old Pynchon novels alongside Bleeding Edge, which was blessedly worthwhile, but did not help my productivity. Reading list longa, vita brevis.

The order is fairly random though I have tried to put my favorites toward the top of each section. Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo was probably foreordained to be at the top, while the final appearance of Lem’s Summa Technologiae in English was a major event for me. (See my review here.) As with War and War when I first read it, I don’t have a lot to say about Seiobo right now. Maybe in ten years.

As with last year, I haven’t read the entirety of some of the nonfiction selections: Judith Herrin’s two volumes of essays will take some time, while the Maimonides book had me flagging on several topics that just aren’t my thing.

If anyone’s curious as to why some book or other made the list, feel free to ask in the comments. Thanks again for reading my work here or elsewhere.

(As always, I do not make any money from these links; they’re just the easiest way to get the thumbnails.)

 

Literature

Seiobo There Below (Ndp; 1280)
László Krasznahorkai
(New Directions)

Towards the One and Only Metaphor
Miklos Szentkuthy
(Contra Mundum Press)

Tapestry
Philip Terry
(Reality Street)

The Black Spider (New York Review Books Classics)
Jeremias Gotthelf
(NYRB Classics)

Anti M
Lisa Samuels
(Chax Press)

Blinding
Mircea Cartarescu
(Archipelago)

The Collected Stories of Carol Emshwiller: Vol. 2
Carol Emshwiller
(NonStop Press)

Dossier K: A Memoir
Imre Kertész
(Melville House)

Mo Said She Was Quirky: A Novel
James Kelman
(Other Press)

When the Time Comes
Josef Winkler
(Contra Mundum Press)

The Forbidden Kingdom (Pushkin Collection)
Jan Jacob Slauerhoff
(Pushkin Collection)

Cannonball
Joseph McElroy
(Dzanc Books)

Bleeding Edge
Thomas Pynchon
(Penguin Press)

Middle C (Vintage International)
William H. Gass
(Vintage)

All That Is
James Salter
(Knopf)

His Wife Leaves Him
Stephen Dixon
(Fantagraphics Books)

The Childhood of Jesus
J. M. Coetzee
(Viking)

The Sinistra Zone
Adam Bodor
(New Directions)

The Guy Davenport Reader
Guy Davenport
(Counterpoint)

The Adjacent
Christopher Priest
(Gollancz)

The Book of Monelle
Marcel Schwob
(Wakefield Press)

Georges Perec and the Oulipo: Winter Journeys (Atlas Anti-classics)
Georges Perec, Michèle Audin, Marcel Bénabou, Jacques Bens, Paul Braffort
(Atlas Press)

A Hero of Our Time (Oxford World's Classics)
Mikhail Lermontov, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, Andrew Kahn
(Oxford University Press)

 

Nonfiction

Summa Technologiae (Electronic Mediations)
Stanislaw Lem
(Univ Of Minnesota Press)

Nagarjuna's Middle Way: Mulamadhyamakakarika (Classics of Indian Buddhism)
Mark Siderits, Shoryu Katsura
(Wisdom Publications)

Being, Humanity, and Understanding
G. E. R. Lloyd
(Oxford University Press)

Savage Energies: Lessons of Myth and Ritual in Ancient Greece
Walter Burkert
(University of Chicago Press)

Properties as Processes
Johanna Seibt
(Ridgeview Publishing Digital)

Oral Tradition and the Internet: Pathways of the Mind
John Miles Foley
(University of Illinois Press)

Foundations of Modern International Thought
David Armitage
(Cambridge University Press)

Baroque Science
Ofer Gal, Raz Chen-Morris
(University of Chicago Press)

Dirty Wars: The World Is A Battlefield
Jeremy Scahill
(Nation Books)

The Matter and Form of Maimonides' Guide
Josef Stern
(Harvard University Press)

Consciousness and the Social Brain
Michael S. A. Graziano
(Oxford University Press)

Trade and Romance
Michael Murrin
(University of Chicago Press)

Unrivalled Influence: Women and Empire in Byzantium
Judith Herrin
(Princeton University Press)

Margins and Metropolis: Authority across the Byzantine Empire
Judith Herrin
(Princeton University Press)

Complexity and the Arrow of Time

(Cambridge University Press)

The Engine of Complexity: Evolution as Computation
John Mayfield
(Columbia University Press)

How Did Poetry Survive?: The Making of Modern American Verse
John Timberman Newcomb
(University of Illinois Press)

Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea
Mark Blyth
(Oxford University Press)

The Essential Hirschman
Albert O. Hirschman
(Princeton University Press)

Worldly Philosopher: The Odyssey of Albert O. Hirschman
Jeremy Adelman
(Princeton University Press)

Quantum Computing since Democritus
Scott Aaronson
(Cambridge University Press)

 

Comics

Incidents in the Night: Volume 1
David B.
(Uncivilized Books)

Black Paths
David B.
(SelfMadeHero)

Interiorae
Gabriella Giandelli
(Fantagraphics Books)

Barnaby: Volume One HC
Crockett Johnson
(Fantagraphics Books)

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