Post Road Magazine #1

Recommendation: Various

by Sven Birkerts

In the absence of constraint, I have decided to do this [recommendation] in casual form, suggesting a few works of fiction that I have found better than very good and which have not, either recently or ever, found the kind of response/acclaim I would have imagined for them.

Let me start with two Canadians. Novels. The Colony of Unrequited Dreams by Wayne Johnston, a very witty, well-paced, informative and generally absorbing account of one politician’s long career in Newfoundland politics. Sounds deadly, right? But there is a keen ironic edge, a wonderful tormented relationship, and superb writing throughout. Then, just very recently, I read a novel called Summer Gone by David Macfarlane. A moody, atmospherically thrilling (for me) account of one man’s life memories unfolding during a canoe trip he takes with his teenage son. The thrill in this one has everything to do with the space-time jumps, the utterly credible ambushes of memory and revelation. A sophisticated stylist—a book that takes you to the dark heart of summer nostalgias.

Other much enjoyed books of recent provenance: Ward Just’s A Dangerous Friend (very Graham Greene-ish, set in Vietnam in the era of the French occupation, quick with moral insight about loyalty to self, place, country, etc. …Sharply paced.) David Gates’ Preston Falls—very funny about disaffected aging 60s males, just as Francine Prose’s Blue Angel is deadly good on the hypocrisies of academic life and the choke-hold of p.c. thinking.

How about some under-acknowledged oldies? Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno (hilarious pre-Portnoy send-up of psychoanalytic process), Max Frisch’s I’m Not Stiller (modern masterpiece of betrayal and the torments of identity), Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps (undervalued classic from Latin America), David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon (beautiful writer—anything by Malouf is good), and finally, because literary friends have been urging him on me relentlessly, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet. I read five pages and had to admit, grudgingly, of course (not really) that they were absolutely right.

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