The Providence Athenæum in Providence, Rhode Island (Providence Athenæum)

Sigrid Nunez’s recent novel, The Vulnerables, opens like this:

“It was an uncertain spring.”
 

I had read the book a long time ago, and, except for this sentence, I remembered almost nothing about it. I could not have told you about the people who appeared in the book or what happened to them. I could not have told you (until later, after I’d looked it up) that the book began in the year 1880. Not that it mattered. Only when I was young did I believe that it was important to remember what happened in every novel I read. Now I know the truth: what matters is what you experience while reading, the states of feeling that the story evokes, the questions that rise to your mind, rather than the fictional events described. They should teach you this in school, but they don’t. Always instead the emphasis is on what you remembered. Otherwise, how could you write a critique? How could you pass an exam? How could you ever get a degree in literature?

I suppose I’m part of the problem that the narrator identifies here. I’m currently grading a bunch of student essays. Next week I will administer two final exams. I can’t help but inform you, professorially, that “the book” Nunez refers to is Virginia Woolf’s The Years, that it was published in 1937, that it was perhaps Woolf’s most difficult book to finish but ended up being a bestseller.

Still, as I reflect on my past year of reading, I’m struck by the narrator’s claim that what matters isn’t what happens in books but what happens to us when we read them. Last January, I read Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince. I remember that it’s about a novelist, though I can’t remember the novelist’s name. I remember that he falls in love with the daughter of a rival writer and that it ends very badly, but I can’t remember the precise nature of the badness. I can remember falling in love with the book, its Shakespearean wit and metafictional tricksiness. I remember wondering, how did she do that? And I remember driving to a used bookstore in Jacksonville immediately after finishing to pick up a few more Murdoch titles.

In offering some of my favorite books from 2023 (I chose those that I didn’t get a chance to write on), I want to pay attention to what Nunez’s narrator says we should: the states of feeling these books evoked, the questions they brought to my mind, the details that stuck with me. A year from now, I probably won’t remember their plots or their arguments, but I will remember what it was like to spend time in their worlds.

Gabrielle Bates, Judas Goat (Tin House Books, $16.95, 104 pp.)

Earlier this year, Phil Klay asked on Twitter, “What are the best opening lines in poems?” There were some good responses—lots of Heaney, Auden, Dickinson, and Frost—but one stood out, from Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Song”: “Listen: there was a goat’s head hanging by ropes in a tree.” Now that’s how you get a reader’s attention.

I’d been meaning to read Gabrielle Bates’s first collection, Judas Goat, and this Twitter conversation got me to it. After all, the book is clearly in conversation with the work of the late poet Kelly, and not just through its titular animal. One poem, “I Asked // I Got,” ends by declaring that the speaker has longed “for a mother to be honest” and has received “Sharon Olds / Lucille Clifton / Brigit (is it OK if I call you …).” Another poem, “Mothers,” begins, “When Brigit Pegeen Kelly writes about holding her daughter, / I pretend this is my mother speaking.”

I want to pay attention to what Nunez’s narrator says we should: the states of feeling these books evoked, the questions they brought to my mind, the details that stuck with me.

This got me wondering: if Bates is Kelly’s poetic daughter, where can we see the maternal inheritance? Partly in Bates’s sonic richness, partly in her turning again and again to a host of animal figures (goats and dogs and snakes), mainly in her interest in the braiding together of holiness and violence, language and desire. As she puts it, “If I describe something, anything, long enough, / language will lead me back to wanting it.” Plus, like her would-be mother, Bates isn’t bad at openings, either: “Boredom. Everything is boredom. Beauty, especially.”

Bennett Sims, Other Minds and Other Stories (Two Dollar Radio, $18.95, 202 pp.); Jamel Brinkley, Witness (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27, 240 pp.); Tessa Hadley, After the Funeral and Other Stories (Knopf, $28, 240 pp.)

Three superb story collections by three masters of the form. I find it hard to keep stories straight when I’m in the middle of a collection, let alone weeks or months after I’ve finished it. But moments will stick with me from all three of these books. In Sims, it will be the David Lynch–level creepiness of “Unknown,” the Sebaldian hauntedness of “Portonaccio Sarcophagus,” and the Thomas Bernhardesque internal convolutions of “Introduction to the Reading of Hegel.” (Those three comps should give a sense for Sims’s stylistic and tonal range.) In Brinkley, it will be the old woman in “Sahar” who writes undelivered letters of intimacy and confession to her food-delivery woman, as well as the sharp observation that children “exist in a state of temporal confusion, inhabiting various eras at once.” In Hadley, it will be a lot—this is close to a perfect collection—but especially a character’s description of Francis Steegmuller’s translation of Madame Bovary that could double as a description of Hadley’s own writing: “Nothing could spoil the ferocious pure aim of the words, right at the heart of reality.”

Dan Sinykin, Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature (Columbia University Press, $30, 320 pp.)

This is the best kind of criticism: a book that told me things I didn’t know (about corporate conglomeration in publishing and how it has helped shape literary production over the last century), illuminated things I thought I knew (Sinykin persuasively argues that Beloved “allegorize[s] the publishing industry for a black woman who worked as an editor at a major house for sixteen years”), and made me want to argue back against some of its claims and descriptions. Sinykin wants to think of authorship as corporate, both meaning that it arises from many people—the writer whose name is on the cover, yes, but also publishers, editors, marketers, agents, Barnes and Noble book buyers, Kindle purchasers—and that it emerges from big, profit-generating companies. This is a useful corrective but can be, and sometimes is, pushed too far. Marilynne Robinson’s singular work as an example of the “class-mass” and “upper-midlist” fiction demanded by Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s drive for “more predictability and profit”? I’m not buying it. Call me a romantic, I guess.

One kind of typical passage, effective in its bland summing up of corporations eating and being eaten by other corporations, reads like this: “Doubleday acquired radio and television stations in 1967, and the New York Mets in 1980. Time Inc. acquired Little, Brown in 1968. A Canadian communications company acquired Macmillan in 1973. Bantam went to IFI, an Italian conglomerate that owned Fiat, the car company, in 1974. Simon & Schuster went to Gulf+Western in 1975, Fawcett to CBS in 1977.” Another kind of typical passage, unromantic and archivally attuned, goes like this: “On receiving [Jonathan] Franzen’s fourth novel, Freedom—dedicated to [FSG head Jonathan] Galassi and [agent Susan] Golomb—Galassi wrote to him, ‘It’s clear you’re the greatest novelist of our generation.’ He was, at least, the novelist of a conglomerate FSG.”

Ayana Mathis, The Unsettled (Knopf, $29, 336 pp.); Dennis Lehane, Small Mercies (Harper, $30, 320 pp.); Mariana Enriquez, trans. Megan McDowell, Our Share of Night (Hogarth, $28.99, 608 pp.), Kate Briggs, The Long Form (Dorothy, $18, 448 pp.)

In offering his overview of the last century’s shifts in American publishing, Sinykin offers the complex histories by which certain genres became solidified: “multicultural historical fiction” (think Beloved or Midnight’s Children), “literary genre fiction” (both Patrick O’Brian, a genre writer of literary distinction, and Colson Whitehead, a literary writer who borrows from genre conventions), and more experimental work published by nonprofit publishers (Percival Everett at Graywolf, Fanny Howe at the Fiction Collective, etc.)

My favorite work of historical fiction from this year was Ayana Mathis’s The Unsettled, a novel centered on Black experience and radicalism in 1980s Philadelphia. My favorite work of literary genre fiction, emphasis on genre, was Small Mercies, Dennis Lehane’s crime novel about the Boston bussing crisis of 1974 (I have no idea how I’ve never read Lehane before; I will rectify this in 2024), while my favorite work of literary genre fiction, emphasis on literary, was Mariana Enriquez’s terrifying Our Share of Night. Finally, my favorite experimental novel was Kate Briggs’s The Long Form, a strange meditation on motherhood, attention, and time.

David Yezzi, Late Romance: Anthony Hecht—A Poet’s Life (St. Martin’s Press, $40, 480 pp.)

What a gift: a first-rate poet writing a first-rate biography of one of the last century’s greatest poets. I read a lot of this on a plane ride to Chicago—hardly the right context, it would seem, for the biography of a writer whose life was filled with much suffering. Hecht's poems are famously elegant in spite of, or as a response to, the historical and personal ugliness from which they emerged. Born to a Jewish family in New York City in 1923, he experienced familial darkness early (his father attempted suicide on three occasions) and historical darkness later (he was present as an infantryman at the liberation of Flossenbürg concentration camp in 1945). He married badly—his first marriage rivals T. S. Eliot's for unhappiest in twentieth-century poetry—and he suffered greatly, spending three months at a psychiatric hospital in 1961. And yet his poetry exhibits an unmatched formal refinement, luxuriating in and recreating for us paintings and music, the pleasures of the mind and body.

“Boredom. Everything is boredom. Beauty, especially.”

Hecht once described criticism as “a musical obligato; that is, a counterpart that must constantly strive to move in strict harmony with and intellectual counterpoint to its subject.” Yezzi perfectly harmonizes with Hecht. He’s written a disciplined biography, refusing the bloat that is common in many such works. Yezzi’s details are well chosen, including Hecht’s worries over literary prizes: “Oyster-like with nacreous secretions,” he wrote in a 1968 letter, “I am cultivating a pearl of an ulcer, waiting for that goddamn Pulitzer committee.” But what I’ll most remember is Hecht’s unlikely friendship, developed first in a classroom at Bard and later in the local pub, with Chevy Chase. Yes, that Chevy Chase.

Saskia Hamilton, All Souls (Graywolf, $17, 72 pp.)

The most moving reading experience I had in 2023 was Saskia Hamilton’s poetry collection, All Souls. Hamilton died in June of this year. She was only fifty-six and had a young son. It was impossible to read the book, which came out in September, without this knowledge in mind. All Souls is exquisitely and adventurously formed; context only enriches and deepens it.

Here is a poem from the title sequence. “Ricks” refers to the critic and editor, Christopher Ricks. (Hamilton herself edited the letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop’s Poems / Prose, among other books.) Note the careful thinking about grammar and time, language and love. Note, as Nunez urges us to, what you experience, what states of feeling are evoked and what questions are raised in your mind, while reading this learned, exacting, beautiful poem.

How strange—but then ‘strange should be dried out
for a millennium,’ Ricks says. Journey,
too. Poor old words. Even so, how out
of the way—? to be the subject.
To whom would it be otherwise?
Who becomes familiar with mortal
illness for very long. I was a stranger, &c.
Not everyone appreciates it, no
one finds being the third person
becoming, it’s never accurate,
and then one is headed for the past tense.
Futurity that was once a lark, a gamble,
a chance messenger, traffic and trade, under sail.
The boy touches your arm in his sleep
for ballast. It’s warm in the hold. Between
ship and sky, the bounds of sight
alone, sphere so bounded.

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Anthony Domestico is chair of the English and Global Literatures Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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