Sunday, January 01, 2017

2016 - The Year in Books

2016. There may never be another year during which I read so many of the Great Classic Novels for the first time. Let me list them: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevksy, Ulysses by James Joyce, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Moby Dick by Herman Melville, and The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot. I also chucked in a few of the great plays for good measure: Hamlet, King Lear, and Twelfth Night (this one I'd read before, and remains a favourite), all by William Shakespeare.

As a bonus, I also had the chance to read two of the most beautiful and startling philosophical treatises: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill and On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche.

But back to the novels. It is difficult to do justice to any those great works individually, let alone all of them. Their collective influence on arts and culture in the West is practically immeasurable.

The epic scope and narrative invention of War and Peace is legendary, but it is even more breathtaking when actually read. The array of characters, the depth of their characterisation and the movements of history combine to provide rich nourishment for the soul, and reveals the sophistication and nobility of the Russian spirit.

Moby Dick was a real surprise for its intellectual ambition. One expects adventure on the high seas, and instead is given something much more: the enterprising American spirit as seen at once through its cultural links to Europe and Britain (Shakespeare looms large) and forging its own way, expanding, pondering the nature of its own spirit.

Ulysses is a juggernaut of linguistic invention and deliberate intellectual playfulness. It is perhaps the least accessible of these great classics, and perhaps also the most divisive, but its intellectual rewards are great and in a sense it remains ahead of the times.

But it is Don Quixote for which I want to reserve the most emphatic recommendation, in part because I believe it is the most easily overlooked, and too readily dismissed as antiquated or irrelevant. It is not. It is unique among nearly all of the great classics for being truly, laugh-out-loud funny. More than 400 years have not dimmed the humour. How much funnier still it must have seemed to contemporaneous ears who understood the subtler references that are lost to time and translation.

Don Quixote is not only funny, but also full of pathos. The main character centres in himself something of both the ridiculous and the sublime, and while we are treated to the former most of the time, the shape of the latter emerges over time, especially in Volume 2.

Personally, I found Volume 2 to be even better than Volume 1. Its latter two thirds are as funny as anything in Volume 1, and yet it also treats of more serious matters. I particularly marvelled at and appreciated the story's innovative reference to characters' knowledge of the first volume, published ten years before it. This is an ingenious device that seems more at home in the 20th or even the 21st century than in a novel from the early 17th century. If there can be any doubt that Don Quixote is inventive and linguistically imaginative, this fact alone should dispel it at once.

It is a pity that English readers (myself included) cannot appreciate the full craftiness of the language at work, in particular the contrast between the deluded knight errant's Old Castillian and his compatriots' modern Spanish.

All the other classics seem to take themselves a bit too seriously when we compare them to Don Quixote, and it is only when placed next to Shakespeare that we find a similar use of comic devices in great literature.

2016 marked 400 years since Shakespeare died, and all year long his works were commemorated with performances that are set to continue well into the New Year and beyond. How many of us knew that 2016 also marked 400 years since the passing of Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote?

Remedy that neglect immediately, and place Don Quixote on your reading list!

2016: A Torch Gone Out

Let's wipe away 2016, but first, let's set the record straight. Was it really such a bad year? Such a sad year? Yes! It's not just the celebrities who passed away - although that had a lot to do with it.

Think about it: a terrible war in Syria, thousands upon thousands of refugees, threats of terrorism, and the sense that politics was slowly turning on its head: first Brexit, then Trump. With these undercurrents churning in our collective unconsciousness, a bit as if the poles are slowly switching, suddenly many of our culture icons passed away. In a weird and distorted fashion, they must have seemed like the visible casualties of a known but unseen undercurrent. Vulnerable heroes who were unable to bear up any longer.

Or another sign of the uncertainty of our collective future. The old guard, whose hopes can no longer sustain this new world, leaving us to work it out.

Either way don't believe the statistics. It's not about the numbers. It's the context as much as the individual stories.

First David Bowie died. Pop stars' cultural reach are almost unparalleled, but David Bowie isn't just a Justin Bieber or a Lady Gaga. He changed the rules of pop. Among pop stars he was an immortal.

And then there's Prince. And George Michael. Losing both of them is more than a mere annual tally of statistics. As individual stars they are almost peerless. If you speak to those who came of age in the 80s and ask them to pick their top 10 male solo artists, the triumvirate of Michael Jackson, Prince, and George Michael will make almost every list. In fact, many might pick them in their top 5, maybe even their top 3. Michael passed away in 2009, now we've lost the other two. How is that not traumatic?

So let's forget the whole statistical mumbo jumbo, there are simply not that many David Bowies, Princes, and George Michaels to go around.

And dare I mention one more hidden knot in this already knotted ball: Freddie Mercury. Many are still mourning the man who died 25 years ago. Who can forget David Bowie and George Michael singing for him. Feeling the pressure, anyone?


We haven't even mentioned Leonard Cohen yet. Sure, his reach wasn't as broad as those pop singers', but on a song-by-song basis it went deeper. Cohen's was an intimate art. His poetic approach ensured that he touched the soul. His career spanned six decades. Who is left alive from that generation, a singer songwriter in the same league? A few, perhaps: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Paul Simon. Not many.

I can't speak for others, but there was certainly a feeling of "too soon" in the passing of many other beloved actors and cultural pioneers: Alan Rickman, Zaha Hadid, and yes, Carrie Fisher. And a sense of disbelief that some of the names and faces who have been around ever so long should have gone away: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Gene Wilder, Nancy Reagan, Richard Adams.

There is no doubt, however, that it is the wider political and social unease that has amplified the significance of those passing. And this confluence of factors means that 2016 really felt like the moment when a torch went out.

The old guard are passing the gate, and those of us left behind can only wonder: where do we go from here?