End-of-Year Pleasures and One Disappointment

The recent flurry of ‘best of’ lists that appear without fail at this time of year has reminded me of many of the wonderful books I read in 2013 and alerted me to others I hope to turn to in 2014. Equally, though, it has made me aware of just how many of the best things I read this year appeared not in book form but in a handful of recent literary publications, most of them online, which have helped to prepare fertile ground for the flourishing of longform criticism with a focus on literary aesthetics.

Music and Literature is far and away the most valuable new publication to appear this year. It caught my attention with its third print issue, one half of which focused on Gerald Murnane and included a long letter by Murnane, an excerpt from his forthcoming novel A Thousand Windows, and a critical roundtable on his body of work. At present, the preparation of the journal’s fourth issue coincides with the creation of a space for online content which includes, most recently, provocative interviews with László Krasznahorkai and Steven Moore as well as a peek inside the Murnane archives. Given each issue’s tight focus on the aesthetics of the work of one writer and one composer, and the length and variety of the critical considerations of those aesthetics, Music and Literature is a must-read for anyone whose curiosity about the life and times of an artist is subordinate to an interest in the subtleties of their art.

Aside from Music and Literature, Douglas Glover’s Número Cinq, online since 2010, was a wonderful new discovery for me this year, and I also found pleasure watching the Sydney Review of Books establish itself as a venue for the meticulous consideration of prose fiction following its launch in June. Most impressive about Número Cinq is the material being collected in its Book of Literary Craft, especially Jason Lucarelli’s two long pieces on the aesthetic legacy of Gordon Lish (one, two) which led to an equally impressive discussion on that subject between Lucarelli, David Winters, and Greg Gerke, available at The Literarian. It’s harder to pinpoint a single shining star in the Sydney Review. The best piece published there so far is easily Julian Novitz’s review of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries: a review that not only contextualizes the novel and elaborates on its merits but also reviews the reviews it has received and approaches all of the above in light of John Barth’s speculations on “the literature of exhaustion.” The best writer on that site, however, is surely Brian Castro, an Australian novelist whose work I dearly hope will someday attract the international appreciation currently being lavished upon the work of a Gerald Murnane. His review of W.G. Sebald’s A Place in the Country is beautiful, as are his ruminations on the writtenness of literary theory and the mysterious inner forces that spark the act of writing.

My one big disappointment this year was Hannah Kent’s début novel Burial Rites, hyped for having received a seven figure advance from Little, Brown. Ben Etherington at the Sydney Review published a fantastically detailed examination of Kent’s use of language and its aesthetic effects in Burial Rites, putting a finger on some of what I found disappointing about the novel, although what made my sense of disappointment even more pronounced was what Kent herself wrote for The Guardian as an introduction to the reprint of a short extract. When she muses on the reasons why her imagination was so captured by reports of an Icelandic woman put to death in 1830, she tells a very short story — a story of herself, a story of obsession, a story of her compulsion to tell the story of someone else — which is far more captivating than the bland verisimilitude and strained lyricism of the novel she went on to publish. Why the belief that a work of historical fiction should be so seemingly free-floating, severed from the motivations that resulted in its writing and cleansed of all traces of the inner urge that forced its author to attempt to reconstruct the past via words on a page? By  effacing herself from her work, a work born from the powerful connection she felt towards her subject, Kent drained all the vitality from a novel whose genesis was bursting with it.