Best Reads 2012: Fiction

My photograph of Rome's Pantheon, setting for the final scene in Hawthorne's The Marble Faun.

My photograph of Rome’s Pantheon, setting for the final scene in Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun.

I read fiction because I really love good writing and because I hope some of it will rub off on me.  In my field (history), the literal seems inordinately privileged, and it can be a challenge to convince history students that fiction provides important sources for understanding the past. The Gradgrind/Joe Friday approach to education (“just the facts”) means that students have to work harder to see the differences between what is factual and what is true. Searching for the latter is why we bother with the former, and sometimes the clearest path to both enlightenment (and a new set of conundrums) lies through fiction. In any case, I can’t really live without it, so I managed to squeeze in some new-to-me titles in 2012. If you are looking for the best books published in the past year, you’ve come to the wrong place. In my never-ending game of catch-up, here are the fictional works that stood out for me over the past year. Alphabetical by author.

The Marble Faun, Nathaniel Hawthorne.

This 1860 novel is generally considered the weakest of Hawthorne’s four longer productions, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. In general, I am a bigger fan of Hawthorne’s short fiction, but in this case I am sure my enthusiasm had something to do with reading the novel in Italy, where Hawthorne began writing it and where it is set. Nineteenth-century readers used it as a guidebook to Rome, and wandering the city’s streets, I couldn’t really blame them. The four students who read it with me decided that they had the personalities of the four main characters, which made for a most interesting discussion when we sat down in front of the villa outside Florence where Hawthorne began writing. The unusual tower or cupola in which he worked also figures in the story. A great example of American fascination with and fear of European culture, and a fitting close to the pre-Civil War era of American writers and artists visiting and envisioning an Italy of distant romance and classical ruin.

Ruins at Fiesole, newly discovered at the time Howells wrote Indian Summer.

Ruins at Fiesole, newly discovered at the time Howells wrote Indian Summer. Photograph by Benjamin Cawthra.

Indian Summer, William Dean Howells

The same class read this 1886 novel set in Florence and enriched by the time Howells spent in the city living on Piazza Santa Maria Novella. A mild comedy of middle age perhaps lost a bit on, um, less experienced readers, the book asks why we travel and how we cope with life’s unfulfilled dreams. We discussed the novel in a cafe at the Etruscan archaeological park in Fiesole, a town a few miles above Florence with extraordinary views of the city where the climactic event in Howells’ narrative occurs. I also assigned some of Howells’s reflections on Venice, where he served as American consul during the Lincoln administration. I have sometimes not looked forward to reading Howells and have always been glad I did. A Foregone Conclusion—set in Venice—(1875), The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885) and A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) are all worth the time.

Portnoy’s Complaint and The Great American Novel, Philip Roth

Philip Roth has retired from fiction, and a good thing, because I’ve only made it up to the late 1970s with his work. In what he says is his last interview, Roth states that he had been re-reading his fiction backwards and stopped at Portnoy’s Complaint (1969). “I had lost interest,” he told the New York Times, “and I didn’t read the first four books.” Maybe the prospect of wading through When She Was Good and Letting Go daunted him. Roth should go ahead and re-read Portnoy’s Complaint anyway. There are so many outrageously funny passages in Portnoy, Roth’s breakthrough novel, that its finely tuned ethnic and class dimensions can be forgotten. They shouldn’t be.

Roth considers The Great American Novel (1973) to be a lark, a fun book to write. It is his most relaxed early novel, great for indulging one’s love of both baseball and American literary history and a perfect way to get from deep winter to that day when pitchers and catchers report. Long live the Patriot League, that forgotten third major league that fell victim to, among many other things, the postwar red scare.

Sacred Hunger, Barry Unsworth

Anyone who has studied the Atlantic slave trade will be familiar with Unsworth’s careful research in this 1992 historical novel set in the mid-eighteenth century. “Fixed melancholy,” “dancing the slaves,” “the bloody flux,” and the rest of the horrific details are just as vivid as one would expect in the hands of this Booker Prize-winning English novelist, who died in 2012 in his adopted home of Umbria, Italy. But fiction at its best sharpens the moral senses in ways that venture beyond the documentation of fact, often uncomfortably so. Unsworth is less concerned with the details of the past than with the will to enslave, embodied in a surprising range of his characters. That will is a far more problematic aspect of human nature than the argument over the legality or abolition of slavery as a practice, important though that is. What is freedom? What constitutes progress? Such unanswerables are at the heart of Sacred Hunger, and they necessarily inflect not merely the actions of individuals and of nations, but of mankind and its efforts to sustain itself. Unsworth sees the profit motive in its purest form as devoid of ethics, but how utopian are the alternatives? Many answers compete, and vividly so, in this most gripping and unsettling read.

Also: Nathaniel West’s Miss Lonelyhearts (1933); Roth’s The Breast (1972), My Life as a Man (1974), and The Professor of Desire (1977); Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights (1882); and the Clifford Odets plays Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! (1935). Best repeats: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930) and Henry James’s Daisy Miller (1878).

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