My Literary jouissance of 2016

This year has been a tough one for many reasons.  It is hard to believe that there could be a “best of” list for anything related to 2016 and I really wasn’t going to bother making a book list.  But Grant from 1st Reading  twisted my arm a bit and I was reminded that if there is one thing that kept me moving forward in 2016 it was the plethora of fantastic books I came across this year.

The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, in his most recent book entitled Coming, explores the French word jouissance (pleasure) and the similarities between sexual pleasure and artistic pleasure.  Sexual jouissance and orgasm are irresistible desires for humans which we can never fully satisfy and thus we are constantly coming back and reaching for The Other.  Nancy argues that even when an artist produces a jouissance in his or her viewers, there is always a constantly renewed dissatisfaction that keeps the artist working again and again.  I would extend Nancy’s argument about renewed desire and satisfaction to include Bibliophiles such as myself who wallow in the aftermath of a great piece of literature.  We, as avid readers, are always attempting to renew that high, that euphoria, that bliss which slowly creeps up on us when we close the last page of a great book.  Some of us, after a good read, might even have the same expression on our faces as Caravaggio’s Ecstasy of Mary Magdalene which is depicted on the cover of Nancy’s book.  So the list of books below were the ones that brought me jouissance this year; or if I may be so bold as to say they were the standout books that caused me to experience a literary orgasm.

coming

Two Lines 25 is published by Two Lines Press and this 192-page volume contains fascinating literature translated from Bulgarian, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian and Spanish.  What excited me most about this collection is that it introduced me to the philosophy and writings of Jean-Luc Nancy.

The writing of Jean-Luc Nancy is one of my favorite literary and philosophical discoveries this year.  I have read three of his books: Corpus, Listening and Coming.  His philosophy explores what it means to be human and he deals with subjects of touching, listening, desiring and loving.  My review of Coming will be out next month and I have so many thoughts about this slim volume that is only 168 pages.

Oblivion by Sergei Lebedev is a haunting reflection on what life was like for the author during the years of the Soviet Union.  Lebedev’s prose is dense and poetic and so thoughtful that I found myself rereading entire sections of the book multiple times.  I am very excited that Lebedev has another novel forthcoming from New Vessel Press entitled The Year of the Comet.

War Music by Christopher Logue is a book that I dismissed as soon as I saw it in the FS&G catalog because I don’t usually read any time of modern retellings of Ancient myths.  But Anthony at Times Flow Stemmed had such great things to say about it that I decided to give it a try and I am so glad that I did.  I have so many things to say just about the first 50 pages of this book that I am not sure how I am going to handle a review.  I am thinking of doing several short pieces on each section of Logue’s poem.  As far as retellings are concerned, I also discovered Christa Wolf based on his suggestion and I thoroughly enjoyed her Medea and Cassandra.

Seagull Books Catalog.  It’s unusual to find a catalog on a best of list, but the one that Seagull publishes each year is very special.  It includes writing from authors, translators and even bloggers from all over the world.  This year I was invited to contribute to the catalog and some of my favorite literary bloggers also have pieces in the catalog.  Selections from Roughghosts, Times Flow Stemmed,   Tony’s Reading List and of shoes ‘n ships can all be found in this fabulous collection of art and literature.

The Brother by Rein Raud is a fast-paced, hard-hitting, short book that uses the plot structure of a western as an allegory for demonstrating the balance of good and evil in the world. It my favorite title from Open Letters this year whose books are fantastic.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes is a skillfully written and poetic novel which serves as a fictional biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The ways in which he must navigate his life and his art around the Soviet regime are heartbreaking.

The Parable Book by Per Olov Enquist is a true literary book that reads like philosophy, meditation, autobiography and parable. Sometimes we are given a very specific story from the author’s life, other times we are given an unclear stream-of-consciousness narrative, and still at other times we encounter a list of questions that the author poses on an entire page of the book. Enquist gives us the totality of a life that includes pivotal childhood memories, a bout of alcoholism that nearly destroys him, and the reflection of his elderly days during which he is waiting by the river to be taken to the other side. For anyone who enjoys serious literary fiction this book is a must-read. So far the English translation has only been published in the U.K. I am hoping it will also be available here in the U.S. This is a book that I look forward to reading multiple times.

A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves from Persephone Books is a charming and entertaining look into the life of a middle-aged British couple that has been married for twenty-seven years. This book was written in 1914 so it brings up many political and social issues that were relevant at the turn of the last century and which continue to be discussed into the 21st Century. Debates that have taken place during the recent elections in the U.S. have reminded us that women are still paid less than their male counterparts, the minimum wage for workers continues to be too low, and millions of Americans still do not have access to proper healthcare.

Berlin-Hamlet: Poems by Szilárd Borbély is my favorite collection of poetry this year published by NYRB Poetry.  The layers of imagery, references and allusions to great figures like Kafka, Walter Benjamin, Attila József and Erno Szép are stunning. I find it so sad and tragic that the author succumbed to his deep sense of sadness and took his own life.

American Philosophy: A Love Story by John Kaag is another work of non-fiction that was one of my favorites this year.  Kaag’s journey from Hell to Redemption in his own personal life via the 10,000 books in Ernest Hocking’s personal library gave me an entirely new appreciation for American philosophers. Kaag also reminds us of the amazing resiliency of the human spirit and that no matter what we might suffer we must keep moving forward.

 

20 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Classics, Favorites, Literary Fiction, Literature in Translation, New York Review of Books Poetry, Nonfiction, Persephone Books, Philosophy, Poetry, Russian Literature, Seagull Books

20 responses to “My Literary jouissance of 2016

  1. So pleased that you enjoyed Logue’s Homer and the two Christa Wolf books, each very special to me in their own ways. Nancy was one of my discoveries of the year, so pleased we shared our thoughts about Listening.

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    • Thanks for the recommendations. I am not sure how to handle a review of Logue. As I am sure that you saw from my message I would have too many thoughts for one post. So I’ll have to either do several posts or no post at all.

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  2. What a diverse selection of books, Melissa. A Lady and Her Husband sounds right up my street so I’ll have to take a closer look at that one. The Persephone list is full of hidden treasures.

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  3. Vishy

    Brilliant post, Melissa! I have Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time. Hoping to read it soon. I want to read Jean Luc-Nancy’s books (Thanks so much for writing about him) and The Brother by Rein Raud. Also Per Olov Enquist’s book! Thanks so much for sharing your favourites!

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  4. There are some fascinating reads here. I have a shelf dedicated to Persephone books. My aunt used to buy me them for my birthday. I miss that. I love their books. Intrigued to read some of the other suggestions. I have bookmarked this for next year! Thanks.

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  5. Whoa, “several posts,” who would want to do that?

    Very nice list.

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  6. I like the title – Literary Jouissance! No better word to describe the feeling. BTW, there’s a ‘Me too! Me too!’ coming your way. My text also appears in Seagull Books catalogue – page 210. 🙂

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  7. I was intrigued by the title of this post. The way we use the word “jouissance” or its adjective “jouissif” and all the pleasure-related words are something I have trouble expressing in English.
    Same for the word “gourmand”, it sounds negative in English.
    All the vocabulary around the joie de vivre, small pleasures of life and even “lust for life” eludes me in English. I still haven’t found the equivalent in English.
    I’ve never heard of most of the books on your list but I enjoyed reading your post and discovering them.

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    • Thanks so much for your comments, they really mean a lot to me. I love how Nancy discusses this word in all of its contexts and although it is associated with sexual pleasure, I wanted to use the expanded sense of the word to describe the books I enjoyed. I was hoping readers wouldn’t view it as salacious or crude.

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      • Lots of words like this one have a broader sense in French and this sense is missing in English. (in my opinion, after all I’m not bilingual)

        Another one is “ivresse”. Sure it’s drunkeness in English but that’s only the literal sense. In French, it also covers the sense of being light-headed, exhilarated, elated.

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  8. This is a tempting list: I’ve only read The Noise of Time and I would agree that it’s a very satisfying book to read.
    I haven’t been following your blog – just visiting it occasionally – so I don’t know why you’ve had a bad year… but I think I can relate to it anyway. 2015 was an annus horribilis for me and I am still recovering from it. But I hear what you say about books and reading, and I agree that they offer solace and a refuge when all else seems a bit much to bear.
    I see also that it was Grant at 1st Reading who reminded you about the pleasures you’ve had, and I too have found that it’s my wonderful friends in blogging who have helped me more than they know.
    I hope 2017 is a better year for you, best wishes, Lisa

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    • I was thinking most of the awful political election here in the US this past year. Thanks so much for visiting my site! It is so nice to connect with likeminded readers who enjoy books as much as I do. Grant at 1st Reading has a fantastic site and I am very grateful that he encouraged me to do this list. It was a good thing for me to be reminded of all the great books I’ve read this year. Best wishes for you in 2017 as well!

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  9. Thank you for this list; now I have some 2017 Resolutions. We all hope for a better world politically. At least there’s no Cabinet post for Arts and Literature….imagine whom he would appoint.

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  10. Wow, great list and interesting collection of thoughts about them and words and philosophical meanderings. I bought myself Two Lines 25 for Christmas and can’t wait to discover the works within it. I love following your blog and your knowledge of literature, thank you for sharing it and all the best for another great reading year in 2017.

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