The problem with the internet is that one can read an online article for only so long. After even just a few lines (in fact, right about now), you start getting restless and feel the urge to check out whether Luis Scott-Vargas has uploaded another Magic drafting video at ChannelFireball.com. …Or is that only me? It is? Please, kindly don’t mock me overmuch, as I’m sure you have your own embarrassing vices. (Feel free to post what they are in the comments!)
This post began as a list of my favorite books new books circa 2009. I wrote a list, but then I found myself wanting to say more about each book, because you probably don’t know me, and who am I, anyway? And what good would my little list do you? You rightly want words of praise, and more words—descriptive words—as well as evidence that these books really are worth your while. (And that’s assuming you’re even still reading this, and haven’t gone and checked out LSV’s latest draft—said draft is the reason why I didn’t post this last evening.)
Ah. Well, because I desire to please you, and want to convince you to actually read these books, I’m splitting what had become one very, very long post into multiple posts. This will please you, I think, and will also please John—see? I’m posting! I will never catch up with Shya, but I am posting!
So starting today, I’ll list my four favorite books of 2009, one per day. And after that, I’ll devote a post to the year’s other new books that I enjoyed. And then, starting next week, I’ll post ad nauseam about the cinema (which I think we all know is what we really want to talk about, anyway).
MY FOUR FAVORITE NEW BOOKS OF 2009
Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda, translated by Martha Tennent (Open Letter Books, 2009)
What have we been doing without this book? (Well, those of us who don’t read Catalan.)
It’s currently December in Chicago, a few days before the Solstice, and already my friends and I are yearning for the spring (which will arrive, perhaps, in the final week of April). Rodoreda puts me in less of a hurry, reminding me that spring is itself a time of death, because life succeeds only by destroying other life.
In her obsessive final novel (published posthumously in 1986, and translated now for the first time into English), the residents of an unnamed mountain village eke out a miserable existence by brutalizing nature, and by being themselves brutalized. The narrator poetically details the villagers’ violently arcane customs: how they bury their dead and dying inside trees; how they slaughter horses, eating the flesh raw (“chopped up and mixed with herbs”), and shaping the fat into balls that they hang in their houses; how the Senyor who lives above them hires men to cut back the ivy that would otherwise shatter his mansion. Pregnant women wear blindfolds lest their unborn children adopt other men’s appearances. Young children drown; other children stomp bees that are busy gorging themselves on honey. Black birds (“mourners”) are driven from their nests by vicious white birds, but return three days later to kill those birds. And every year men must swim the underground river beneath the village, to clear it of obstructions; their faces are torn away in the process, for which they are shunned.
The novel is harsh, and often gruesome, but it is never gratuitous; it is instead boldly earnest as it lays out a perverse logic by which nature and civilizations function. What I find particularly brilliant is the balance Rodoreda strikes between realism and fantasy: I often found it impossible to tell which customs might be true (or based in truth), and which (if any) were invented. The world is, after all, extremely strange, and it is a great and rare thing when an author is skilled enough to reflect this strangeness in her writing.
And to make it so fascinating. The short chapters and utterly hypnotic prose of Death in Spring make it a compulsive read—mysterious, tense, and repeatedly cathartic:
In front of me lay the forest, where the elderly went from time to time, and when they did, they locked us children inside wooden cupboards in the kitchen. We could only breathe through the stars on the cupboard walls, empty stars, like windows in the shape of a star. Once I asked a boy from a nearby house if he was sometimes locked inside the kitchen cupboard, and he said he was. I asked him if the door had two panels with an empty star on each side. He said, there’s an empty star, but it’s not large enough to allow much air in, and if the elders are long in returning, we start to feel ill, like we’re suffocating. He said he watched through the star as the elderly people set off, and after that he could see only walls and ashes. Everything conveyed a sense of loneliness and sadness. Even the walls grew sad and old when the elderly left them alone and all the children were locked in cupboards like animals. And what he told me about things was true: alone, they grew old quickly, but in the company of people they grew old more slowly and in a different way; instead of becoming ugly, they became pretty.
The narrator returns repeatedly to eccentric customs and observations, and our impression of the village and its inhabitants accumulates gradually, elliptically. Both grow more familiar, but never become any less mysterious, never any less sad or troubled (or troubling). The result is such that by the last page (and the ending is absolutely devastating) we feel as though we, too, have spent a lifetime there.
As I read (and I read this book repeatedly, over and over—to myself, to others, silently, aloud), I was reminded of a handful of melancholy films (Rodoreda’s writing is extremely descriptive). In particular, I thought of films that depict what it is like to be a child, and to live in the world and to observe it closely, but to not understand it. More than once I pictured John and Pearl floating downstream, orphaned and menaced by Robert Mitchum in Charles Laughton’s immortal Night of the Hunter (1955). Elsewhere, I thought of the little girls who arrive at their boarding school inside coffins in Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s instant-classic Innocence (2004). (The stars on those coffins strengthens this odd resonance.)
Death in Spring is the equal of those two great films; it is, without any exaggeration, one of the finest books I’ve read.
Read it this winter!
Tomorrow: the second book.
15 thoughts on “My Four Favorite New Books of 2009, #1: Mercè Rodoreda’s Death in Spring”
Stop trying to catch up with me.
No, I really should try, because then I might post more than five times. I need a role model!
Seriously, though, nice post. I’m a little reminded of a book by Polish author Magdalena Tulli called Dreams and Stones (Archipelago Books). It is about the growth of a city–but the growth feels organic, something living, all written in elliptical, repetitive dream-like passages.
I’ll check that out, thanks.
One thing I may not have communicated in this post is how clear Rodoreda’s writing is. The book has a mystical feel to it, to be sure, and it proceeds elliptically (in that the reader is always piecing together an impression of the village from fragments), but the writing itself is rather clear—harsh, even. It’s all very bold, which is one of the things I like about it. I’m not much a fan of a lot of the vaguer, less communicative writing that’s so in vogue these days (although it has its place).
Always a danger in using that word, elliptical.
I enjoyed this. The village’s peculiar customs sounds like it could have been taken from a fantasy novel, albeit one with a lyricism to match its eccentricity, its invention. And that passage you quote about the kitchen cupboard borders on a kind of Bachelardian phenomenology.
Thanks, John. And I’d be curious to hear what you mean by this—the connections you see with Bachelardian phenomenology. I must confess that I don’t know anything much about Bachelard. Except that he had a notorious affair with Jélloïse .
I’m thinking that that passage lyrically limns intimate spaces in a way similar to the Bachelard’s book-length examination of space, The Poetics of Space, where he explores the grandeur, or what he calls “intimate immensity,” of enclosed spaces, of nests and shells, of furniture like chests and wardrobes and its parts, even corners of houses and angles in a room. The Rodoreda quote approaches horror more than awe, and is probably where it diverges from Bachelard. But those two feelings, as there is such a fine line between them, strike me as maybe coming from a similar place.
Oh, yeah! The Poetics of Space! Thanks for reminding me of that, John. I started reading it earlier this semester (a student of mine was reading it, and I stole it from her for a day). I meant to get back to it, but then forgot about it. Seemed fascinating.
One of the nifty things about Death in Spring is that the narrator reserves judgment about what he’s observing. He narrates with curiosity, but he is also accustomed to his strange world (strange to us—well, strange to me, at least). So there’s a certain kind of acceptance of what I found to be horrifying situations. Which made it much scarier.
I think it’s fair to characterize Rodoreda’s novel as being a horror novel, to some degree. Not because it’s a conventional one—but because it’s at times quite horrific!
…I hope that doesn’t put people off from checking out the book. The horror is extremely engrossing and compelling horror. (And don’t people like horror? They read Stephen King and Dean Koontz, right? Read this, too!)
Yes, this is the kind of horror that Brian Evenson unravels in his fiction: strange communal rites and the tensions created by enclosed spaces, albeit negotiated through a fractured mental state.