A Man in Love with the Past: the year in retrospect

Friday 28 December 2007

Last December Georgina wrote in Sarsaparilla about her books of the year:
Instead of naming a book that was released this year, how about we name a book that was our ‘one’ of the year, regardless of when it was published. Perhaps you might have read something that was particularly pertinent, perhaps you finally got around to reading something that really stood out from the bedside pile. Perhaps you read nothing of note.

I haven’t written nearly as much about books this year as I wanted to, so here’s my chance to make it up a little.
Book of the year: For me, this was William GaddisThe Recognitions, a novel whose 950 pages I finally read after finding an ex-library copy in Melbourne’s Grub Street Bookshop years ago (thanks, Macrobertson Girls’ High!) Taking up from where Wyndham Lewis left off, it’s one of those books which has just grown more and more relevant to our world with each year since its first publication 50-odd years ago. Its double-edged dissection of the dearly-held belief that art reveals truth is set in a society whose slippery duplicity is probably more familiar to us than to Gaddis‘ contemporaries. The book’s unique written style was later echoed by Pynchon, De Lillo, and others, but I’ve never read anything so uncompromising or sinister in its relationship with the reader.
Runner up: As is all too typical, I became interested in Gilbert Sorrentino just after his death. I’d lazily pigeonholed his novel Mulligan Stew as one of those faddish, would-be cult novels from the 70s, based solely on its dogged recurrence in those little bookseller’s ads at the backs of yellowing paperbacks, with the inevitable trite comparisons to Joyce, Vonnegut, and Moorcock which publishers used interchangeably back then. In fact, it’s one of the funniest literary satires written, especially for people who sometimes grumble to themselves that they’ve read too much to really enjoy books any more. Best of all, it never lets up on the gags to explain the philosophical and emotional core that its facade attempts to conceal. A book that’s worth it for the first page alone.
Literary discovery of the year: Ronald Firbank. From dilettante and fin-desiecle also-ran, to cultish outsider, to the inventor of modernism. It’s those jokers you have to watch out for.
Reverse-Humiliation: Apart from The Recognitions, I finally knocked Jealousy and Life: A User’s Manual off my to-read list.

Music gig of the year: Even before his death, my thoughts about music kept coming back to the February performance of Stockhausen’s Trans. A student orchestra, some dramatic lighting, and not just Stockhausen’s imagination, but his boldness and self-assuredness when making something new; all came together to create an uncanny experience which leaves people bandying around expressions like “otherworldly” and “life-changing”. There’s no other piece of music quite like this; nor, in all likelihood, will there be.
Music recording of the year (any type): Special thanks are due to Different Waters, for uploading a complete version of La Monte Young’s long-deleted masterpiece The Well-Tuned Piano.
CD of the year: It was a year in which I avoided CDs and vinyl in favour of foraging for downloadable music, so you might blame my limited range of discs for my choice; but honestly, I don’t think I could have possibly heard anything more surprising than Paul McCartney’s Memory Almost Full album. An elderly ex-Beatle makes a CD for Starbucks, and instead of cobbling together a lazy cash cow he finally makes his first album in, well, forever, that embraces all of his strengths (brilliantly crafted songwriting and arrangements, brought off with a disarming informality) and almost entirely rejects all his weaknesses (complacency, bombast, second-guessing, ill-judged whimsy).
Music discovery of the year: Zygmunt Krauze, whose piece Folk Music I heard thanks to The Rambler’s fascinating description of Polish “Unism“, a home-grown movement of minimalist art and music that emerged in the 1960s.

Art event of the year: Too much new art that I saw in London looked like high-falutintchotchkes created for investors with at least one eye on the auctions. My personal highlight was a visit to the Groeninge Museum in Brugge and seeing renaissance Flemish masterworks by the likes of Memling, Van Der Goes, and Van Eyck, the same artists I’d just been reading about in The Recognitions. Looking at this art you can understand what Ezra Pound meant when he said that Western culture went wrong somewhere in the 17th century.
Public art event of the year: After a mysterious extension to its intended stay, Mark Quinn’s Alison Lapper Pregnant finally came down from the fourth pedestal in Trafalgar Square. Honestly, it looked like the sort of thing Coldplay would turn out if they were paid to make a sculpture.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)