The first book I read in 2021 was James Lee Burke’s 1987 New Orleans noir, The Neon Rain. The last book I read before filing this column was Jane Austen’s 1817 autumnal masterpiece, Persuasion. In between, I read a lot more Burke (he’s terrific) and a lot more Austen (she’s pretty good, too). Some new books—Paticia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, Francisco Goldman’s Monkey Boy—impressed. Many—almost all of the literary biographies I read—disappointed.
But even disappointments can bear fruit. The new Elizabeth Hardwick biography wasn’t very good, but reviewing it led me to reread Hardwick, and no year spent with her is a total loss. In Sleepless Nights, Hardwick writes of Billie Holiday, “Somehow she had retrieved from darkness the miracle of pure style.” Retrieving a miracle from darkness: that’s an appropriate image as we head toward another long, dark winter—one where, it seems, we’ll again have plenty of time to stay at home and read.
Here are some of my favorite books published in 2021. As always, they’re books that I didn’t get a chance to write on; as always, they brought this particular reader great pleasure.
Julia Parry, The Shadowy Third: Love, Letters, and Elizabeth Bowen (Duckworth, $27.50, 384 pp.)
It’s a donnée straight out of an Elizabeth Bowen novel: the correspondence between two lovers, both married, sits in a cardboard box in an attic for years, forgotten or hidden or some combination of the two, until the letters are inherited, opened, and pored over by a critic. Except in the case of The Shadowy Third, one of the lovers was Bowen, the other was the Oxford don Humphry House, and the inheritor was House’s granddaughter, Julia Parry. This is Parry’s first book, and it’s a remarkably assured one. It’s smart on Bowen’s work (in her fiction, “the past beds down with the present”), on Bowen’s life (for her, “experience means nothing until it repeats itself”), and on Parry’s grandfather. And it’s a gift just to have more of Bowen’s writing, like this glancing, perfect description of the Norfolk wetlands from a 1936 letter: “The reflections translate everything: I mean there is a sort of democracy of strangeness. A young woman in a sky-blue satin dress walked past along the bank, by a row of poplars, while we were having tea, like a Renoir figure.”
John Edgar Wideman, Look for Me and I’ll Be Gone: Stories (Scribner, $26, 336 pp.)
“Think of layers within layers. Within layers.” That’s how Wideman’s story “Death Row” begins, and it’s how his writing tends to operate. In his latest book, fiction is layered with memoir, which is layered with essay, which is layered with historical documentation; voices and tenses and languages accrete and enrich one another; sentences fold in on themselves and then open back up. Too often, critics tend to think of stylistic experimentation and moral seriousness as opposed. If you’re playing around with form, you can’t be concerned with goodness or beauty; if you consider goodness or beauty important, you can’t be concerned with making form new. To which Look for Me and I’ll Be Gone responds, “Just watch me.”
To take one example, “Whose Teeth/Whose Story” opens with an email (“Okey-how are u, where r u”); reconstructs the biography of William Henry Sheppard, a Black Presbyterian missionary who spent twenty years in Africa; dramatizes the narrator’s own archival interest in Sheppard; and plays these stories against Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Chinua Achebe’s famously outraged response to it. (Wideman even includes a peroration on how outrage, etymologically speaking, doesn’t arise from unthinking emotion but from a process in which “reason and intellect have been engaged.”) All of which is to say, it’s as formally layered as a story can get, and it uses this formal layering to consider the ethics of storytelling: “Who listens to suffering’s ever-present wails. Who is wailing. Who suffers. Who profits.” Storytelling is always morally compromised; it’s also the very means by which we consider morality—its compromises, yes, but also its demands. As Wideman writes, “Nothing inside if stories stop.”