I read far more fiction than I do nonfiction; and the perusal of the latter is limited mostly to in-depth journalism, cultural critiques and essays, and travel narratives. Every year or so, though, I discover a nonfiction writer who manages to merge all three genres, and do more besides.
In 2005, I lucked out with Patrick Leigh Fermor, who walked across Eastern Europe in the years directly before WWII, fought with the Greek resistance against the Axis during it, and managed to learn a dozen languages and absorb whole shelves of art history after it. Then, he wrote about it all. In January 2005, I wrote that Fermor’s prose was “extravagant, meandering, magnificently detailed, [and] ripe to the point of being purple.” His labyrinthine sentences are dazzling, Baroque (hell, sometimes they’re downright rococo), but never dizzying. He conjures up people, places, aromas, and ideas in his magic-carpet language—we’re pleasantly lost in his pages, but never so much that an almost tactile world is ever less than fully realized.
So, my favorite nonfiction reissues are Fermor’s adventures in Greece: Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese and Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece, with new introductions written respectively by Michael Gorra and Patricia Storace. The New York Review of Books’s publishing arm continues its quest to reprint Fermor’s beautiful books along with other lost classics. Pick one (or both) up and immerse yourself in luxurious lands and luxurious prose.
In 2006, though, I found out (quite happily) that the old-school, genre-less, New Yorker writer who was interested in a variety of things, rather than just one subject—think back to the days of Joseph Mitchell, A.J. Liebling, A. Alvarez, and E.B. White—still existed. More or less: Lawrence Weschler actually stopped writing for the magazine about six years ago, but thank goodness he hasn’t stopped writing.
I knew I was in love by the end of the first paragraph of “Shapinsky’s Karma,” the first long essay I’d read by Weschler. It appears in 1988’s Shapinsky’s Karma, Boggs’s Bills, and Other True-Life Tales, but is reprinted in A Wanderer in the Perfect City: Selected Passion Pieces:
I was up late one night last fall, absorved in Serge Guilbaut’s provocative revisionist tract How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art, when, at eleven-thirty, the phone rang. A stranger on the line introduced himself as Akumal Ramachander, from Bangalore, India. He was calling from Washington, D.C., he informed me in a spirited voice. He’d just been in Warsaw a few weeks earlier, where he’d had many fascinating experiences. He’d read a book I’d written on Poland, and could see that I’d given the situation there much thought. He was going to be in New York City later in the week, and would it be all right if we got together? It all sounded mildly diverting, so we set a rendezvous.
And we’re off. It turns out that Ramachander—a reporter for a local Indian paper—has discovered his calling: Harold Shapinsky! Who, you might ask? (Weschler did ask.) Shapinsky is a forgotten Abstract Expressionist painter living in New York, not far from Weschler’s apartment. Within a few pages, both Ramachander and Shapinsky are vividly drawn by Weschler’s startling, witty, acutely observational prose. In 60 pages, we get an deeply informed history of modern American art; a profile of an artist as he’s being helped out of obscurity by a semi-mad Indian; and a careful critique of the contemporary art world and the politics of power within it.
Art, literature, and cultural politics are the three lens through which Weschler examines everything from the stock market to chess to bookselling to alternative comics. (He was one of the first great cultural critics to champion Art Spiegelman’s Maus— “Art’s Father, Vladek’s Son” is reprinted in A Wanderer…—and Julius Knipl cartoonist Ben Katchor.) Slyly, though, it’s hard to tell when one lens clicks on and another slides away. He moves effortlessly from high culture to the lowbrow, always with a keen ear and eye for the telling detail, an ability to surprise, and a lack of condescension. Each of his pieces veers into directions that I couldn’t see coming, but which seemed inevitable by the conclusion.
2006’s discovery of the year, for me, is Weschler. I devoured Shapinsky’s Karma, A Wanderer…, Vermeer in Bosnia: Selected Writings (perhaps the best starting point for Weschler neophytes), and Calamities of Exile: Three Nonfiction Novellas in twelve months. I’m always looking out for more.
(One caveat, however: Weschler books, since there’s usually collections of previously published material, tend to repeat themselves. Vermeer in Bosnia is a greatest-hits collection from 1980 to 2004 or so; much of it can be found in A Wanderer…, and much of A Wanderer… was originally published in Shapinsky’s Karma; the final piece in Shapinsky’s Karma was expanded upon to make Boggs: A Comedy of Values. I haven’t read any of Weschler’s narrative books that aren’t essay collections, but I notice that a piece on artist Robert Irwin that appears in Vermeer in Bosnia is actually the introduction to his monograph on Irwin.)
Beyond catching up on the old stuff, I was thrilled to read his new Everything that Rises: A Book of Convergences. In it, Weschler teases out connections between seemingly disparate works of art. These weird convergences—juxtaposing a Marc Chagall painting with an odd cloud formation, comparing Gerhard Richter’s Betty with Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring—reveal unsettling, often funny ideas about humanity (or, at least, about Weschler). The images are reproduced in full-color, with McSweeney’s customary sumptuous graphic design (How can this book only cost $29? They can’t have broken even on this.) It opens with Weschler interviewing photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who spent months shooting images of Ground Zero in the weeks just after 9/11. He chats with Meyerowitz, pointing out how a certain photo reminds him of… an 1809 painting by Caspar David Friedrich. Just when you think it’s idiotic free-association, the book shows you the photo and the painting side-by-side, and you gasp. Meyerowitz sometimes acknowledges the associations (whether conscious or realized later), sometimes argues with Weschler, and is occasionally stunned by a connection that even he didn’t realize. It’s a gorgeous, mesmerizing conversation to read, and it sets the tone for the whole book. Everything that Rises is beautiful to behold. It’s my favorite nonfiction book of 2006.
My #2 is by an artist who—talk about convergences—provides the cover photograph for Weschler’s A Wanderer in the Perfect City. Slide Show: The Color Photographs of Helen Levitt collects her best New York City photographs from the 1970s through the mid-1990s. I’ve written about this book before, and here’s part of what I had to say then:
Her shots are so casual that it takes a moment to register how carefully the compositions are made, that (despite the subtle graininess) you can read the lettering of the Coca-Cola can that a man sips in the background, that the color patterns of people and the walls behind them are juxtaposed beautifully. Levitt is documenting lives, sure, but don’t be fooled into thinking she’s slapdash.
Her photographs are streetwise but not confrontational, beautifully composed without being self-conscious about it, and so considerate of the people within them that it’s hard to grasp how carefully composed they are.
Andrei Codrescu takes on a different city—his beloved, beleaguered New Orleans. New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writings from the City (#3) collects his best about the Crescent City from 1985 to post-Katrina. A large chunk of these were originally radio commentaries for NPR, and so are necessarily short. In each, he trains his eyes and nose (especially his nose; Codrescu’s sense of smell and taste is marvelous) on a specific aspect of the city. He debunks stereotypes, sketches characters and places, revels in food, and builds an architecture of atmosphere that resonates. Still, the best essays are the longer ones. The introduction lays out how this Romanian poet/novelist got seduced by the city. “My City, My Wilderness” is the most articulate and passionate defense of the city I’ve read. Throughout, Codrescu’s pungent, pugnacious prose provides a cockeyed, sexy perspective on New Orleans and its (often strained) relationship with the rest of America.
#4 is a little oddball. Grégoire Bouillier’s The Mystery Guest details a neurotic’s attendance of a party given for a woman he doesn’t know, whose friends are more successful than he is, at a time when he can hardly arouse the desire to get out of bed. But his ex-girlfriend—her leaving is the source of his prolonged depression—asks him to attend as the party’s “mystery guest.” To please her, though he doesn’t even know why he should do so, he accepts the invitation. This could have been an exercise in solipsism. But Bouillier points his lacerating wit at himself most of all—his self-pity and moroseness are sources for laughs. It’s howlingly funny. Bouillier veers between hysteria and paranoia as the party’s date draws near. The party turns into a cringe-inducing laugh riot, but it’s also a letdown. The denouement, however, is exquisite and touching. Bouillier’s tale resonates beyond himself, attaining an almost-mystical significance. (The last line is perfect.) You’ll never look at expensive red wine, small talk, or Mrs. Dalloway the same way again.
My final nonfiction favorite is also a small gem. New Yorker and Nation writer Calvin Trillin has been writing about his wife Alice for years, in his droll magazine pieces of reportage and travel. She’s the literary straight man (er, woman) to his slapstick numbskull. Or, at least, that’s how he’s always shown her. His love for her has always been clear (and utterly charming) but she came across as a “dietitian in sensible shoes.” When she died of lung cancer on September 11 (yes, that one—Trillin had a miserable day all around), he was devastated. In About Alice, he steps back from the sitcom persona and writes about the true Alice. It’s still hilarious but it’s also painful and heartwrenching. In 78 pages, he gives us an openhearted, caring portrait of his lifelong love and how she quietly changed his world. Even more than that, he shows that rare, precious thing—a wonderful marriage full of light and love. Conversational, unpretentious, quick but not brusque, the prose of About Alice sings.
I’ll post my favorite comics and fiction titles on, respectively, the 15th and the 22nd.