The Year in Fiction (Vol. 91)
The Year in Fiction by Bruce Allen
The best American novel of 1995 was, beyond question, Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater, which was lavishly praised throughout the review media, won the National Book Award, and in an oversight so stunning it amounts to a snub, was not even nominated for the Fiction Award presented annually by the—er, well—prestigious National Book Critics Circle (of which I am a member: peccavi).
It is arguable that Roth has already garnered more than his share of awards. What seems to me indisputable is that he has never written better—even in the comparably salacious and high-spirited Portnoy's Complaint—than in this compellingly funny and fierce portrayal of incipient old age in thunderous eruption.
Its protagonist is sixty-four-year-old Morris "Mickey" Sabbath, a former puppeteer and an unregenerate sexual gamesman whose appetitive energy and refusal to age gracefully, or even slow down minimally, sustains his rapturous zest for life and romance, both remembered and currently enjoyed—most memorably, however, with his late Croatian mistress Drenka, a Madonna, so to speak, of the gospel of sex who rivals the saturnine Sabbath himself as the most gloriously lustful character Roth has yet created.
Another career performance was produced by Madison Smartt Bell, the Tennessee-born novelist whose previous nine books have analyzed mostly urban discontents with grim irony and often feverish intensity. Bell's eighth novel All Souls' Rising, offers a wide-angled view of the eighteenth-century rebellion of Haiti's slave population against its French masters. The intricacies of the island's racial hierarchies are explored with meticulous specificity, and the dramatic narrative pulses with horrific excitement (the carnage is vividly detailed). Bell's characterization of the redoubtable slave leader Toussaint-Louverture seems perfunctory and predictable, but he has created in the thoughtful Doctor Hébert a protagonist of believably flawed understanding and mixed sympathies; and in the Arnauds, a slaveowning couple of almost inhuman viciousness, Bell has given us a pair of monsters that the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin might not have disclaimed. This will not be an easy book to forget.
It's a pleasure to realize that our final encounter with the work of the late Stanley Elkin (who died in 1995) will have been the beguiling Mrs. Ted Bliss. This is the story of a Jewish widow's retirement, and resignation to the approaching end of her days, in a Miami condominium complex where her serenity is comically challenged by the affectionate kvetching of her distant children and the romantic importunings of several distinctly unconventional Latin would-be lovers. A climactic hurricane arrives on schedule, but it's no more a match than are any of these earlier distractions for the imperturbable Dorothy Bliss: a wonderful incarnation of her invaluable creator's explosive verbal wit and wry warmth. We'll miss Stanley Elkin.
A surprising reappearance was made in 1995 by Dorothy West, a veteran participant in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s scarcely heard from since her previous best known work, her 1948 novel The Living is Easy. No matter: West's The Wedding, produced in her late eighties, relates with almost casual mastery the story of a middle-class black family on Martha's Vineyard in the 1950s muddling through as its beloved daughter plans to marry her white fiancé and a rival black entrepreneur schemes to change her mind. It's the other side of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, and something more: a lyrically (if a bit stiffly) written comedy of manners that introduces us to a seldom-explored social milieu. Last year also saw the publication of West's The Richer, The Poorer, a nondescript collection of "Stories, Sketches, and Reminiscences" including several decades worth of very uneven pieces, only a few of which—such as the brilliant 1930 story "Funeral"—show that, at her best, Dorothy West is a sharp-eyed observer of the nuances of black experience in America. Her work deserves to be remembered.
In The Education of Oscar Fairfax, veteran novelist Louis Auchincloss composes one of his most telling portraits of professional and social rectitude challenged, though not changed, by the pressures of time's passage and society's demands. In an episodic series of encounters with friends and family members who are confronted by various moral dilemmas, the eponymous Oscar—a well-to-do lawyer who perceives in his recessive literary sensibility a kinship with that other protean blue blood Henry Adams (whom Auchincloss's title evokes)—subtly nudges them toward right action, while—amazingly—never settling into self-satisfaction. This elegant novel will seem retrograde to many readers, but it's a beautifully constructed story, and an appealing character study of great dignity and depth.
The Collected Stories of Evan S. Connell is a large omnibus volume of fifty-six short stories, many previously uncollected, by the unpredictable author of such disparate works as the paired suburban novels Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge and his popular nonfiction study of General George Armstrong Custer, Son of the Morning Star. It's a very mixed bag, flawed by the highly artificial satirical "Leon and Bébert" stories but redeemed by such incisive parable-like tales as "The Yellow Raft" and "The Anatomy Lesson," and especially by several involving Connell's introverted "man of the world" Muhlbach (see "The Mountains of Guatemala" and "Saint Augustine's Pigeon"). Also the protagonist of his superb novel The Connoisseur, Muhlbach is, along with the Bridges, the most intriguing personality in Connell's sometimes excessively impersonal oeuvre.
I was less impressed by William H. Gass's The Tunnel, an elaborately rhetorical fiction in which the private lusts, guilt feelings, and convoluted personal history of a respected academic historian are ironically counterpointed against his recently completed study of Nazi Germany and his (numbingly symbolic) compulsion to dig a tunnel out from the foundations of his house (and hence, we infer, from the imprisoning cacophony of his thoughts). Gass varies the mix with high-octane prose, dirty limericks (some quite funny), and attention-getting graphics and typography—but there's an immense weariness at the core of this ponderously declamatory book. Gass spent thirty years writing it, and it feels as if it isn't finished yet.
Independence Day resumes the heartfelt though clear-eyed scrutiny Richard Ford focuses on Frank Bascombe, The Sportswriter of his 1986 novel, now a New Jersey real estate salesman who gets comically and frustratingly involved in the lives of his colleagues and clients (and a probable alter ego whom his author understands the way John Updike understands "Rabbit" Angstrom). Ford is not a stylish writer, but Independence Day bumps along building powerful momentum, and there's something painfully universal in Frank Bascombe's erratic passage into middle age and the intimation of his own mortality that makes it uncomfortable to look back as this tough-minded novel stares you down. Another of the year's best books.
T. Coraghessan Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain, his sixth novel and tenth book in just over fifteen years, forsakes this versatile author's trademark brazen comedy for a relentlessly serious examination of America Today. It's an altogether politically correct melodrama contrasting the lifestyles, experiences, and probable futures of a wealthy Los Angeles yuppie pair and a luckless Mexican "illegal" couple who collide, in several ways, yet can never bridge the socioeconomic gap that separates them—and that betrays the talented T. C. Boyle into leaden contrivance and blunt statement, making the book (which its publishers hint is a Grapes of Wrath for the 1990s) little more than smoothly written social-problem movie-of-the-week.
Moo is Jane Smiley's comic retake on the sobering view of midwestern America offered in her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres. It's a lighthearted and generally effervescent romp set on the campus of an agriculturally oriented university nicknamed "Moo U.," where the race for research grants and government contracts and the mechanics of departmental power struggles cross-pollinate amusingly with a farcical flowering of sexual combinations and recombinations worthy of a downhome Shakespearean comedy. Smiley expertly juggles these warring motifs, along with a large and attractive cast of characters featuring, most notably, a prize hog named Earl Butz and a prickly little martinet of a Texas billionaire whom no reader of any political persuasion will fail to recognize, or appreciate. Moo is a hoot.
The delightful Minnesota novelist Jon Hassler has (since Staggerford in 1977) produced at agreeably regular intervals solidly plotted chronicles of midwestern stürm und drang populated by stoical-comical everymen and -women who'd be right at home in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon. Rookery Blues, which documents the unrest that ensues when antiwar protest and a threatened teachers' strike besiege a small state college in the late 1960s, is Hassler's best yet. It's a perfect blending of serious and comic matters, told in the smoothest prose imaginable, and in detailing the interrelations among members of a faculty musical group who call themselves "the Icejam Quintet," Hassler has invented people so warm and real and frantic and funny you hope he'll return to them in subsequent novels.
Eric Kraft has been following the fortunes of his Babbington, Long Island protagonist Peter Leroy since the first Leroy novellas were published separately in the 1970s (they've since been collected as Little Follies). His latest, At Home with the Glynns, continues the middleaged Peter's informally Proustian recall of a boyhood that Tom Sawyer would have envied: growing up naive in "the clam capital of America" in the bosom of a townful of invincibly eccentric family and friends. This time around, Peter surrenders to the lure of the title family's pragmatic restructurings of reality: its father Andy's enlistment of Peter to "improve" the skills of Andy's art students, mother Rosetta's compulsive contest- entering, and—most formative of all—its twin pubescent daughters' bland appropriation of Peter as (what he thinks is) a sex object. It's a bewitching mixture of dreamy reminiscence and, as Peter cheerfully admits, therapeutically enhanced lies. Readers who haven't previously encountered the Peter Leroy books will find that it's certainly possible to start with this one. It's just that they won't find it easy to stop there.
Several American writers of more recent vintage produced memorable books last year. Michael Cunningham's second novel Flesh and Blood, for example, surveys four generations of a Greek-American family whose conflicted members are both united and divided by their hunger for success and their vagrant sexuality. It's an emotionally charged and involving story, distinguished by superb precision of statement and evocation of intricate emotion; a book that tugs at you and haunts you.
Michael Chabon whose witty coming-of-age novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was one of the brightest debuts of the 1980s, followed that cheerful chronicle of extended adolescence with Wonder Boys, a devious and deeply funny tale of literary skullduggery that takes place at a collegiate "literary festival" and features the disastrous interactions of an avaricious writer-teacher, his nervous editor, and a scheming graduate student who might accurately be labelled Unlucky Jim. One of the year's most entertaining novels.
There's also high entertainment value in Richard Powers's Galatea 2.2, the fifth imposingly brainy novel published in the last decade by a writer whose intellectual range and stylistic facility have earned him serious comparison with De Lillo, Pynchon, and Bellow. Powers's newest tells the story of a novelist named Richard Powers who recovers from romantic disappointment and self-imposed exile by participating in an academic experiment "training" a computer to master the study of English literature. The interrelations of artificial and human intelligence and the distinctive limitations of each are explored with insouciant wit and inventive lyricism in this highly original book from one of our most resourceful writers.
The House on the Lagoon, an ambitious family chronicle written in English by the Puerto Rican novelist Rosario Ferré, encapsulates that territory's precarious position throughout the twentieth century—midway between U.S. statehood and full independence—in the deliciously melodramatic relationship of a mutually suspicious wealthy couple. The aggrandizement practiced by Quintin Mendizabal's grasping family and the outraged exposure of their avarice proclaimed in his wife Isabel Monfort's accusatory roman à clef vividly embody the extremes of their culture's experience. Readers should note, too, that Ferré's lavish romance employs the ever-popular "magic realist" methods of Gabriel Garcia Marquez to stunning effect.
Yolk is a brilliant collection of interconnected short stories, both seemingly autobiographical and surreally comic, by Croatian-American author Josip Novakovich. His affectionate recall (assuming it is that) of Central European village life is enchantingly varied and deepened by his wry portrayals of expatriate sexual, political, and religious experience. "The Eye of God," "Wool," and "Honey in the Carcase"—the prize pieces in this praiseworthy collection—are about as good as contemporary stories get.
Thom Jones's Cold Snap collects ten more highpowered short stories by the author of the highly praised The Pugilist at Rest. They're extravagantly raw and vivid slabs of experience featuring prize-fighters, drunks and addicts, miscellaneous adventurers: people who travel beyond safe boundaries and plunge almost matter-of-factly into menacing liaisons and the scariest depths of themselves. "Dynamite Hands" and "Ooh Baby Baby," perhaps the best, dance along the dangerous edge of the seamy side of contemporary life with an unblinking concentration that's reminiscent of Hemingway and Algren in their prime.
In The Summer Before the Summer of Love, Marly Swick (author of one previous collection) examines the varieties and consequences of domestic intimacy and misunderstanding in generously observed and fully plotted stories that bring the whole weight of her complicated characters' histories and memories to bear on their present experiences. Rich, emotionally gratifying stories like "The Prodigal Father," "Crete," and especially the wonderful "Sleeping Dogs" offer an American near-equivalent to the uniquely layered tales of Canada's celebrated Alice Munro.
Exceptional first books of American fiction included Paula K. Gover's White Boys and River Girls, nine lively and gritty stories about love gone wrong, racial conflict and sheer damncussedness, and disappointed family hopes in deep Southern and midwestern locales whose feisty characters sing the blues with an authoritative and funny mixture of resigned sadness and combative personal pride.
A similar buoyancy distinguishes the magical and realistic world of Alberto Alvaro Rios's Pig Cookies, which contains thirteen linked stories set in a nondescript Mexican town in the early years of this century. Rios is concerned with the continuity, and appealing human comedy, of his several families' on-going interrelations. "Pig Cookies" and "Five" are particularly delightful component parts of a splendid concoction that probably ought to be savored a story at a time—though most readers will probably swallow them all in a single gulp.
The Point by Charles D'Ambrosio gathers seven replete, patiently developed stories of failed relationships and personal losses, in which estrangement, addiction, and death push their protagonists gradually toward an understanding of what they must do to cope and survive. "Open House" and the intriguing title story are standouts in a nicely unified collection whose overall somber tone is effectively varied by its author's deft plotwork and sensitive observation.
The best American first novel of 1995 was Benjamin Taylor's Tales Out of School. This is the story of an immigrant Jewish family living in Galveston, Texas, in 1907 and struggling to adapt to their new land while also preserving their own culture and religion. Taylor exquisitely details his young protagonist Felix Mehmel's precarious adolescence and uncertain commitment to his family's business (a brewery), traditions, and expectations for him in a flexible and seductive narrative voice that might almost be called biblical-vernacular.
Its style is also a prominent distinguishing feature of Philip Graham's first novel, How to Read an Unwritten Language, the lyrical and episodic story of its protagonist Michael Kirby's development of an unusual and healing sensitivity. When Michael's eccentric mother challenges her children's imaginations through storytelling and role-playing, it is he who begins, as a result, to intuit the complex significances latent in familiar objects and the private feelings and fears that shape the lives of those nearest him. It's a haunting concept, brought memorably to life in a most unusual and original novel.
Don Kurtz's South of the Big Four is the solidly constructed and gripping tale of two parallel struggles that take place in Indiana's endangered farm country: that of stubbornly optimistic Gerry Maars to make a success of the land he now farms, against cruel odds; and that of the story's protagonist Arthur Conason (whose family once owned Maars's farm) to return to his origins and remake himself, against even steeper odds. The two men's intertwined fates, and the ways in which they challenge and change each other, are explored with unsentimental candor and force in a moving novel that is both satisfyingly "traditional" and disturbingly contemporary.
Raising Holy Hell is first novelist Bruce Olds's exhilarating portrayal of abolitionist John Brown, from the traumatic experiences that shaped his childhood sensitivity to injustice, to the climactic raid at Virginia's Harper's Ferry and its bloody aftermath. Olds combines fictionalized scenes and monologues, eyewitness accounts and "impressions" of unknown and famous contemporaries alike, and supporting documentary statements to produce a fascinating kaleidoscopic image of his complex central figure and a many-levelled picture of Civil War America.
Eric Zencey's Panama is a two-pronged mystery set in late nineteenth-century Paris at the time of the building of the Panama Canal (and of a scandal involving the French backers of that project). The novel features the eminent American intellectual Henry Adams recovering from his wife's suicide and pursuing an enigmatic woman whose fate will link his own "investigations" to that of the supposed scandal. If the resolution of these various mysteries proves less than fully satisfying, Zencey has nevertheless imagined his story's remote milieu with convincing particularity and given us a Henry Adams who is both a credible detective and an agreeably distracted and fallible human being.
The historical past is also a vivid presence in the most noteworthy novel from Great Britain to have appeared here last year. A Dead Man in Deptford, the last novel completed by Anthony Burgess before his death in 1993, is much more than a convincing reconstruction of the vigorous life and violent death of Elizabethan poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe. Like Burgess's earlier fictionalization of Shakespeare's love life Nothing Like the Sun, this superb novel offers a feast of gorgeous language and impertinent wit, and is especially noteworthy for its creation of an intricate espionage plot and its presentation of Marlowe's genuine intellectual nature and poetic power. Burgess's last novel may indeed be the best he ever wrote.
Peter Ackroyd's The Trial of Elizabeth Cree contrives splendid, if grisly entertainment in a hallucinatory recreation of Victorian England besieged by a series of savage murders of prostitutes in London's East End. Ackroyd's employment of a variety of narrative devices and rhetorical forms, and of the historical figures of Karl Marx and novelist George Gissing among others, add color and rapid-fire momentum to a lush tale whose ingenious resolution of several subsidiary mysteries introduced in its opening pages is only one of the story's interwoven satisfactions. A treat.
The Ghost Road, which won Britain's most recent Booker Prize, memorably concludes Pat Barker's First World War trilogy whose earlier volumes are Regeneration and The Eye in the Door. This novel counterpoints, to over-powering emotional effect, the winding-down of the war itself, the fateful resolution of its antagonist Lieutenant Billy Prior's sexual and social dysfunctioning, and her protagonist Dr. W.H.R. Rivers's meditative assessment of the ordeal his generation has endured and the lessons, if they be such, that it has to teach us. The best novel sequence since the similar work of Doris Lessing and Olivia Manning, and one of the great works of contemporary British fiction.
Another of Britain's best writers, the Anglo-Irish William Trevor, produced in Felicia's Journey one of his most eloquent dramatizations of the unfortunate collision of lonely souls unable to escape their own imprisoning natures. When the innocent and hopeful (and pregnant) Felicia accepts the "protection" of the sinister middleaged Mr. Hilditch, the stage is set for a precisely observed dual character study that is expertly wedded to a suspenseful and increasingly nerve-wracking plot. This skillfully modulated narrative displays the concision and focus for which Trevor's marvelous short stories are so noted, and it's his best full-length novel in many years.
Suspense and surprise are also essential ingredients which flavor The Cunning Man, the final novel from popular Canadian author Robertson Davies, who died in 1995. It's a rich brew of satirical comedy, Dickensian caricature/characterization, and enjoyably nonsensical melodrama, narrated by a retired police surgeon whose lavish episodic recall of his watchful involvement in the lives of (among others) an emotional clergyman and a curious pair of women artists has the relaxed, sprawling fascination of a nineteenth-century novel. Robertson Davies may have been a throwback, but it remains an incomparably rare pleasure to be thrown back into the crowded and colorful world of his addictive fiction.
Anita Desai's delicate and poetic portrayals of her native India reach a new level of complexity in her eleventh novel, Journey to Ithaca. This intricately woven story tracks forward and backward in time to recount the history of a western couple's confused introduction to Indian spirituality: the wife's recoiling from what she feels is the exploitation of their naivete, her husband's obsessive devotion to a popular Guru known as "the Mother," and the latter's own secular past and wavering religiosity. It's a novel whose several ambitions are only imperfectly realized, and does tend toward discursiveness, but it triumphs as a display of Desai's lyrically descriptive style and in its ironical presentation of outsiders' attitudes toward "the mystery that is at the heart of India."
The Shadow Bride is Guyanese-born novelist Roy Heath's absorbing narrative of an Indian physician's passionate efforts to heal the abused natives who labor on a Guyanese sugar plantation, and of his resistance to his domineering, wealthy widowed mother, who escapes her own alien status in this strange land by devoting herself to the calculating blandishments of a Hindu "holy man." Although the novel is suffused with exotic particulars, it focuses on three rather flat main characters who are all too recognizable in their hunger for self-definition and a sense of belonging. The neglected Roy Heath is, nonetheless, one of the foremost writers to have emerged from the Third World.
Japan's Kazuo Ishiguro has become one of the most popular and critically successful of the younger British novelists. His newest book (since the prizewinning The Remains of the Day), The Unconsoled, is a fable redolent of Kafka or Beckett, concerning a famous concert pianist's gradual understanding that the clamorous lives of those who perversely insist on intimacy with him (which, initially, he resists) are in fact unacknowledged or repressed aspects of his own sheltered psyche. The novel is dauntingly mysterious, but its expert pacing and frequent infusions of wry comedy make it a highly original and surprisingly accessible portrait of the vagaries and limitations of the artistic temperament.
1995 also saw a significant number of foreign-language novels and story collections from both younger writers and writers new to us: for example, Mexican novelist Francisco Rebolledo, whose Rasero won the fifteenth annual International Pegasus Prize for Literature. This is an elaborately contrived historical fiction, set primarily in eighteenth-century France and populated by such vividly reimagined real figures as Voltaire, Diderot, and Robespierre—and, centrally, its Mexican protagonist Fausto Rasero. He's a young, impressionable mixture of intellectual and sexual hungers which amusingly connect him, not just with the best minds—and bodies—of the Enlightenment, but with the promises and terrors of the future he is fated to have beckon him.
Rice is young Chinese writer Su Tong's harrowing melodrama of an ambitious young drifter's collision with a prosperous merchant family in the pre-Communist years, and of the self-destruction that inexorably engulfs them all. The greedy antihero Five Dragons and the two embittered sisters whose paths intertwine disastrously with his are painted in broad slashing strokes, but they are invested with a Zolaesque intensity that give this sordid story an irresistible narrative and thematic momentum.
Goran Tünstrom's The Christmas Oratorio, our first acquaintance with its acclaimed Swedish author, is an appealing generational saga about a closely-knit farm family altered for generations afterward by the accidental death of its loving and nurturing mother. The characters of Aron Nordensson, his alienated son Sidner, and the latter's estranged son Victor have a plaintive and haunting hyperreality, and the way in which each life is directed by the search to be loved and to become part of something larger, transcendent, confer on this charming novel a satisfying and moving unity. This is Tünstrom's ninth novel, and one hopes that more of this remarkable writer's work will be soon forthcoming in English translation.
In Battlefields and Playgrounds, Hungarian novelist Janos Nyiri offers an ironical perspective on the fate of his country's Jewish population during the Second World War. His protagonist, Jozsef Sondor, is a truculent hellion who's equally unfazed by the homilies urged upon his rebellious spirit by teachers and clergy, the impassive derelictions of his absent father, and, up to a point, the threat of Hitler's approaching armies. Jozsef is the survival instinct incarnate, and the central feature and strength of a vivid novel that shows us the Holocaust in an entirely new way.
Peter Hoeg's The History of Danish Dreams is the first novel written by the author of the spectacular international success Smilla's Sense of Snow (his third novel). It's an amusing and imaginative portrayal of his native country's distorted images of itself, covering nearly four centuries and examining the tension between languorous passivity and reformist agitation through the beguilingly told stories of such memorable individuals as an arrogant nobleman who believes he can control the passage of time and a family of thieves who are disgraced by their offspring's perverse commitment to social justice. Hoeg's sly and unconventional novels are among the most interesting that have appeared in the 1990s.
Several prominent novelists of long-established international reputation also produced new books last year. Umberto Eco's The Island of the Day Before continues the technique of learned historicism employed so successfully in The Name of the Rose and less successfully in Foucault's Pendulum, with results somewhere in between. It's a tale of shipwreck in the South Seas, of the quest to master "the mystery of longitude," and of its protagonist's, highborn Roberto della Griva's, inevitably compromised recapture of his past and grasp of the knowledge he lives to acquire. The novel bogs down in various arcana, but is enlivened by Eco's witty polymathic approach and by the presence of such prodigious inventions as an Aristotelian memory machine and Roberto's impressively eccentric fellow traveler and mentor Father Caspar Wanderdrossel.
Of Love and Other Demons, an exquisite novella from Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, possesses in miniature form many of the virtues of his classic magical-realist romance One Hundred Years of Solitude. Set in a nameless town near the Caribbean Sea, this is the story of a disgraced marquis' daughter condemned as the devil's handmaiden, the introverted and lonely cleric who casts his fate with hers, and the destiny in store for a proud family whose wealth and prestige are built on the inequities of a notorious slave trade. The mixing of bloodlines becomes an act of liberation in this fascinating tale, at once a sardonic criticism of South America's ingenuous ruling classes and a brilliant evocation of the undercurrent natural world that opposes, and outlasts, all efforts to control it.
Extinction was the final book written by the great Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard, and a fitting capstone to a uniquely consistent career during which Bernhard cast a baleful satirist's eye over the full depressing spectrum of what he perceived to be his culture's stultifying vanity and complacency. His familiar technique of virtually nonstop monologue here expresses the venomous sensibilities of Franz-Josef Murau, a self-styled aesthete whose abomination of his smothering provincial family is raised to blackly comic heights when the death of his parents in an automobile accident brings Murau back to his home to reclaim his inheritance. Murau's splenetic, self-justifying tirade becomes the vehicle for an unforgettable characterization: that of a lonely, vitriolic misanthrope for whom no human connection is satisfactory and no happiness is possible.
There also appeared in 1995 a first English translation of an interesting, if somewhat overwrought late novel by the dark genius of twentieth-century French fiction—and, almost certainly, a major influence on the pessimistic rhetoric of Thomas Bernhard: Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894–1961). London Bridge, a sequel to his 1954 novel Guignol's Band, continues the ribald adventures of Céline's alter ego Ferdinand, having (in 1944) fled France where he was under attack for his anti-Semitism (as Céline himself was and continues to be) and found "refuge" in a hallucinatory wartime London populated by the manic grotesques and sexual predators familiar from his earlier days (and writings). Though not on the level of Céline's masterpieces Journey to the End of Night and Death on the Installment Plan, this comparatively more subdued picaresque forms a significant pendant to them and a necessary addition to its author's outrageous, inimitable, and controversial oeuvre.
Notice should also be taken of the appearance of A Book That Was Lost, a generous collection of twenty-five stories representing the long literary career of the great Israeli writer (and another Nobel Prize winner) S.Y. Agnon. Included among these powerful and vibrant tales of Jewish village life and survival throughout centuries of hardship are such intricate masterpieces as "Hill of Sand," "The Tale of the Menorah," and—what may as well be called Agnon's intellectual autobiography—the unforgettable title story.
Last year also brought the first complete English translation (of almost eighteen hundred pages) of Robert Musil's vast epic of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the years immediately preceding World War I, The Man Without Qualities. It's a diffuse and exasperating work, marred not only by its incompleteness (though Musil wrote and rewrote it over a twenty-year period) but by its digressiveness and didacticism. Still, in Musil's exhaustive inventory of his confused title hero's mental and moral education, and especially in the vigorous satirical passages depicting the capture of a notorious mass murderer and his relation to a stunned bourgeois culture that thinks itself free of such imperfections, there is much to savor in this massive and forbidding work. Few will finish it in a year or less, but many may want to keep dipping into it over a lifetime; that's the way Robert Musil wrote it, and it seems the only rational way to read it.
Finally, I must pay tribute to three of the year's happiest literary surprises. Imperfect Paradise collects twenty-four short stories and two free-form nonfiction pieces by Shen Congwen (1902–88), an acclaimed Chinese writer whose vividly realistic stories of life in his native Hunan province date from the 1920s and 1930s but retain an astonishing freshness and modernity. Shen's work is permeated by a sober (though not somber) apprehension of time passing and things changing, observable both in his unillusioned looks at military service ("Black Night," "The Company Commander") and revolutionary ardor ("Big Ruan and Little Ruan") and in his deeply moving stories of embattled village denizens (the best of which, "The Husband," examines from its title character's anguished viewpoint the ordeal undergone by his wife, who works as a prostitute to support their impoverished family). But there are many other successes as well in this wonderful display of work by a superb writer who will be new to almost all American readers.
The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov includes sixty-five almost aggressively brilliant fictions from the late multilingual master who wrote with equal ease in Russian and English (and, occasionally, French). The book collects all of Nabokov's previously published short stories plus thirteen early works that are translated (and briefly annotated) here for the first time by his son and frequent collaborator, Dmitri. The chronological arrangement gives us the "new" thirteen first. These come from the 1920s when he was writing for and about Russian emigrés displaced from their culture and recreating themselves in Germany as artists, civilized souls, and lovers ("Wingstroke" and "Sound" are exemplary). Later stories display Nabokov's refreshing variety, sometimes expressed in accents of Chekhovian simplicity (in such stories as "Perfection" and "Christmas"). And, most distinctively of all, there are the ironical and expertly fashioned portrayals of deracination and alienation in a variety of stylistic and thematic forms (see "The Circle," "The Potato Elf," and "Signs and Symbols," to name only the finest) that are Nabokov's distinctive contribution. He knew what it was to be exiled from one's language and traditions (and, as a result, dissociated from oneself), and he wrote of it with a mingled plangency and inventiveness that were new to fiction when his work first appeared, and may never be equalled.
But nothing amazed me more in 1995 than the publication of The First Man, the uncompleted novel that was found in the wreckage of the automobile in which Albert Camus died in an accident in 1960 at the age of only forty-seven. At last released by Camus's daughter (having been previously withheld from publication out of fear it would lessen his reputation), this is an obviously autobiographical portrayal of its author's childhood and youth, and incipient yearnings toward a literary vocation, in Algeria in the time between the two World Wars. Unfinished or not, this is a heartfelt evocation of a brilliant literary sensibility just developing: an invaluable key to an understanding of Camus's family relations and intellectual affiliations, and a generous and unanticipated gift to we grateful readers.