Compiled by Bill Marx
An eclectic round-up of the favorite books of the year from our critics, including some disappointments.
In addition to the authors I reviewed this year — Eugene Mirabelli, Tom Stoppard, Ernest Hemingway, Alexander Vindman, Elizabeth Warren, and Rabih Alameddine — which were all very good, I would single out the novel Aperiogon by Colum McCann (Random House) as the best book I read this year.
And here are a few choices for end of the year books that deserve mention:
There Is Nothing for You Here by Fiona Hill (Mariner/Harper Collins). A wonderfully frank and always interesting memoir about Hill’s work in the US government, as well as her poignant account of what it took for a young girl from a mining family in the northeast of England to get to such a prestigious place. Her tribute to her parents and mentors who helped her along the way is uplifting and clear-eyed, yet, in the end, hopeful. A book for all ages.
Midnight in Washington by Adam Schiff. (Penguin/Random House) A must for anyone who cares about the state of our democracy and the politics that put us in this precarious place. On paper Schiff is more relaxed than he appears in interviews, very engaged and likable and able to see humor in all sorts of bizarre situations.
The Magician by Colm Tóibín. (Scribner) Although not quite as compelling as Tóibín’s novel about Henry James — The Master — this is a fascinating look into the life of Thomas Mann. Much has been made of Mann’s inner life, which veered toward the homoerotic — made obvious in his story “Death in Venice” — but it is the family scenes here that are most memorable and sent me back to Mann’s masterpiece of family life, Buddenbrooks.
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her latest novel, Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is in its second printing and is available on Amazon and at Campden Hill Books. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus and it is now available as an audio book from Alison Larkin Presents. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for the New York Times and Boston Globe, and writes regularly for the Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2021 was a tough year for living, but a very good one for fiction. If you had to face lockdown, at least you could bear it with a good book.
Which were the year’s best? Here, in random order, were my favorites. Note that these picks reflect only my taste; there was also plenty of good writing I simply wasn’t interested in. I haven’t gotten my hands on Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me if I had it would have ended up on the list.
The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen
Mix one part Philip Roth, one part Nabakov’s Pale Fire, one part Marx Brothers, season it with Cohen’s weird, skewed humor and superb writing, and you get this strange brew. It’s loosely based on the true story of Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s father’s foray into US academia with his family including future Israeli prime minister Bibi as a child in tow. (Cohen’s hilariously skewering of Bibi, by itself, makes this book a must-read.) It’s not just the best book I’ve read this year, but the best book I’ve read in years.
Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen
On the other side of the religious and writing spectrum is Franzen’s latest doorstopper. I expected not to like it because he can be too serious (a cardinal sin, for me) and tendentious. While it would have been a better book with a few hundred pages lopped off and written with a lighter touch, it’s still very good. At the story’s center is a pastor and his church’s 1970s youth group called Crossroads. Blues aficionados know that’s where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. The pastor and members of the group face decisions about whether to do the same. Franzen can be a chilly writer, but in this one there’s much heat.
A Calling for Charlie Barnes by Joshua Ferris
OK, so call me a sucker for exceptionally well written, funny, and moving books by Jewish writers told in the voice of unreliable narrators. If you are, too, give this one a try. (Even if you’re not, give it a try.) It’s my favorite of his novels.
The Sun Collective by Charles Baxter
Yet one more strange book in this strange year. A Trump-like president spreads dread throughout the land, and a murky right-wing group appears to be killing street people. Against this backdrop a married couple searching for their lost adult son come across a cultish group called The Sun Collective, which they hope will lead them to him. Very dark, and occasionally funny in a twisted way.
The Vixen by Francine Prose
I run hot and cold when it comes to her novels … mainly cold. However, this one is very good. A young, would-be writer works at a publishing house and ends up as editor of, in the words of the New York Times review, a “potboiling, bodice-ripping story about (hold on to your shirtwaists and fedoras) the Rosenbergs.” More than the usual madness ensues — Ethel Rosenberg as a sultry seductress? If you can wrap your head around a comic novel featuring the Rosenbergs, this book is for you. If not, walk on by.
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
A one-hit wonder of a literary novelist falls into oblivion and ends up teaching workshops at fourth-rate universities. He steals the plot of a book by one of his students, who dies. The novelist’s book ends up an international best-seller. And then … well, I won’t spoil what happens next. It’s a twisty tale, a satire about the publishing world, and somewhat of a detective story. It loses steam near the end. But it’s still well worth the read.
A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
This isn’t a work of fiction, but it’s about fiction. The world’s best living short story writer teaches what makes for great writing by examining superb short stories by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev, and Gogol. The stories are gems, and Saunder’s dissection of them is as much of a gem as they are. For the writers among us, it’s an excellent master class. For the nonwriters among us, it’s a peek behind the curtain to see what makes great writing great.
Four 2021 Novels by Great Novelists You Should Avoid
A year in which six Pulitzer-winning novelists released books (Anthony Doerr, Louise Erdrich, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Powers, Elizabeth Strout, and Colson Whitehead) should have been a banner year for fiction.
But in fiction, as in life, things don’t always turn out the way you expect. One of those Pulitzer winners, Jonathan Franzen, weighed in with one of his best books. Two of them (Colson Whitehead and Louise Erdrich) turned out good ones. As for the other three … well, read on about the year’s biggest fiction disappointments to see how they and another great novelist fared.
Keep in mind that this isn’t a list of the year’s worst books, but rather the ones I found most disappointing, because of their authors’ talent. Given the quality of the writers and the expectations I have for them, I’m grading on a pretty tough curve.
Silverview by John Le Carré
John Le Carré’s fiction has always transcended its genre. Typically, it’s not just great spy fiction, but simply great fiction.
Not this time around, though. Silverview’s plot, pacing, and characters feel as if they were written by a John Le Carré algorithm cooked up in an Amazon research lab. Yes, it’s polished. It has the usual plot points and twists you’d expect. You can while away some moderately pleasant hours with it. But is that what you want from John Le Carré? Not me. And probably not you, either.
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
If this novel were written by anyone other than Elizabeth Strout, I’d be praising it. It’s a good book about the price of love and the pain of loss, two of Strout’s abiding themes. But it’s not one of her best.
It’s the third book in a series about a writer named Lucy Barton that began with the extraordinarily moving My Name is Lucy Barton, and was followed by set of linked short stories, Anything Is Possible, with Lucy Barton at its core. Strout’s work is typically a slow burn, unearthing submerged emotions simple sentence by simple sentence, until the characters and the reader are overwhelmed by them. Oh William! is slow, but it never burns. The fire never gets lit.
Let me make this clear: You should read this book. It’s well done. Just don’t expect it to be up to Strout’s highest standards. Portraying transcendence is like catching lightning in a jar, and in this case, the storm passed Strout by without her being able to capture the charge.
Bewilderment by Richard Powers
Richard Powers has long been our foremost novelist exploring the strange alchemy that occurs when art meets science. Consider the fabulous and strange novel Orfeo, in which a composer tries to create groundbreaking music by altering the DNA of bacteria via genetic engineering in his home-built lab — and then gets pursued by Homeland Security as a bioterrorist.
Ah, those were the days. Today, we’re stuck with Bewilderment, a pious, pallid paean to the wonders of nature. Dwight Garner of the New York Times sums up the book best: “Bewilderment is so meek, saccharine, and overweening in its piety about nature that even a teaspoon of it numbs the mind.”
I’m as bewildered as he is how one of our great writers could have turned out such a mind-deadening book.
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See was a gorgeously written, compelling book, one of the rare few with high literary merit that doubles as a page-turner. Which is why I found Cloud Cuckoo Land such a disappointment. It features an everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink plot, including the ancient battle for Constantinople, a barely believable sci-fi story about a girl hidden in a spaceship vault, a troubled teenager who plants a bomb in a library, and more. Much, much more, given its 640 pages. I know it’s gotten plenty of kudos and made plenty of “Best” lists. But I found it a tough slog, missing much of the magic of his previous one.
Preston Gralla has won a Massachusetts Arts Council Fiction Fellowship and had his short stories published in a number of literary magazines, including Michigan Quarterly Review and Pangyrus. His journalism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Dallas Morning News, USA Today, and Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, among others, and he’s published nearly 50 books of nonfiction which have been translated into 20 languages.
Tamas Dobozy’s Siege 13, published by Milkweed Press in 2013, instantly became one of my favorite short story collections. I then read two other Dobozy collections, which elevated their author’s status to a contemporary favorite. In September the Canadian came out with Ghost Geographies, easily one of the best books I read this year. Imagine stories that at times evince the whimsicality of Italo Calvino and at others call to mind the intellectual intrigues of Borges, are written with a melancholy lyricism reminiscent of Danilo Kis (but is all Dobozy’s own), and at the same time manage to be bitingly and hilariously satirical without going over the top — and there you have my shot at characterizing Dobozy’s latest collection, published by New Star Books
Another of my favorite contemporary authors, Stephanie Dickinson, has a penchant for the unconventional and unclassifiable. A case can be made for calling Blue Swan Black Swan a novella or a collection of verse (maybe both?). Whatever the consensus, it’s an exquisitely imagined book, an homage to George Trakl, the brilliant but tortured Austrian poet. Haunting and hypnotic, Blue Swan is a sustained mood tinged black with melancholy and the blue of madness subdued by beauty. You read it to let that mood overtake you, to enter the dreamlike flow of Trakl’s psyche as envisioned by Dickinson. It’s a dark horse of a book that deserves a wider audience.
Brian Broome’s Punch Me Up to the Gods never fails to be engaging. Broome, a consummate storyteller, has an unfailing sense of the stories that need to be told. Most of them dramatize what it’s like to be black, male, and gay, first in a small Midwestern town, which made both of those things inordinately difficult, and then in urban centers such as Pittsburgh, which weren’t all that much better. This memoir is an eloquent and moving indictment of homophobia, racism, and toxic masculinity, particularly among African Americans. Easily one of 2021’s best books.
Vincent Czyz is the author of Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction that was awarded the Eric Hoffer Award for Best in Small Press; The Christos Mosaic, a novel; and The Three Veils of Ibn Oraybi, a novella. He is the recipient of two fellowships from the NJ Council on the Arts, the W. Faulkner-W. Wisdom Prize for Short Fiction, and the Truman Capote Fellowship at Rutgers University. His work has appeared in many publications, including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Review, Tin House, Tampa Review, Boston Review, and Copper Nickel.
Looking back, much of the reading I did this year was of 2020 books or books that I enjoyed but with some caveat. Some of the so-called top books of 2021 I actively disliked (looking at you, Our Country Friends). While there are a ton of 2021 books that I cannot wait to get to (Detransition, Baby, Hell of a Book, Harlem Shuffle, and No One is Talking About This, in particular), these are the new releases that I just lapped right up. In no particular order:
Matrix, Lauren Groff
Milk Fed, Melissa Broder (Arts Fuse review)
All’s Well, Mona Awad
Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, Rivka Galchen
Somerville-based novelist Clea Simon is the author most recently of the psychological suspense Hold Me Down. She can be reached at www.CleaSimon.com.
Editing the magazine cuts down on my time to read. I have not been able to keep up with much fiction, though I was impressed by the atmospherically dour novella Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated by Aneesa Abbas Higgins, Open Letter), which won the National Book Award for Translated Literature this year. It is set in a dead-end of a resort town on the border between North and South Korea: “Our beaches are still waiting for the end of a war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They built hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife-edge. It could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In a winter that never ends.”
I would also recommend books whose authors I interviewed: Emily Katz Anhalt’s Embattled: How Ancient Greek Myths Empower Us to Resist Tyranny (Stanford University Press) and David Livingstone Smith’s Making Monsters: The Uncanny Power of Dehumanization (Harvard University Press). Another provocative work of nonfiction: award-winning historian Alfred W. McCoy’s To Govern the Globe: World Orders & Catastrophic Change (Haymarket Press). This is a sweeping (and very grim) study of how, over the past four centuries, ambitious governments and the economic powers-that-be have exploited their control of energy and its distribution to maintain global domination. According to McCoy, climate change is going to change this arrangement: “Beijing’s hypernationalist hegemony will have just a couple of decades of dominance before it too begins to suffer the calamitous consequences of unchecked global warming.”
What follows is an eccentric hodgepodge of notes on books new and old, the latter by writers who passed away either in 2021 or a 100 years ago. The (sort-of) through-line is my admiration for writers who, in the words of Teju Cole, serve up “a certain kind of … unbearable knowledge.”
bell hooks died this year. She was a far more unruly cultural critic than you would gather from the assembly-line encomium ladled out in the Boston Globe and elsewhere. I picked up her 1996 valentine to film, Reel to Real (Routledge), and really enjoyed it. There are sharp evaluations of Hoop Dreams, Leaving Las Vegas, and Waiting to Exhale; an interesting (if not entirely convincing) defense of Spike Lee’s Girl 6; and a take-down of Larry Clark’s overrated Kids. Some of her lines on race hit as hard as ever: “In the United States, white folk wanting to see and ‘enjoy’ images of black folks on the screen is often in no way related to a desire to know real black people.” Also of interest: an opinionated survey of Black masculinity in mainstream culture, as well as her famous essay on Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It — “‘whose pussy is this?’ a feminist comment.” There are interviews as well, with hooks giving a Black director she highly admires, Charles Burnett, a surprisingly difficult time after he made a film she didn’t like.
As for the critic as relevant contrarian, here you go:
We have to go to films outside of America to find any vision of redemptive love — whether it is heterosexual love or love in different sexual practices — because America is the culture of domination. Love mitigates against violation, yet our construction of desire in the context of domination is always, always about violation. There must be a tremendous hunger for this kind of hopeful love in our culture now, because people are drawn to films like Raise the Red Lantern, Red Sorghum, and Like Water for Chocolate. Pedro Almodóvar almost always explores this tension between our desire for recognition and love and our complete fear of abandonment. In Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! we don’t have this perfect middle-class vision of recovery. Many feminists hate it because the woman falls in love with her kidnapper, yet the fact is that in our real lives there are always contradictory circumstances that confront us. Out of that mess we create possibilities of transcendence. I do feel that a certain kind of feminist discourse came to a complete and utter halt around the question of sexuality and power because people cannot reconcile the way in which desire can intervene in our political belief structure, our value systems, our claims of racial, ethnic, or even sexual purity. I don’t think the average person in the culture knows what passion is, because daily TV and the mass media are saying “It’s best to live your life in certain forms of estrangement and addiction.” We are seeing too many films that don’t deliver the goods, that don’t give us any world that calls us to feel again, and if we don’t feel, then we don’t have any hope of knowing love.
A 2018 stage production of Albert Camus’s novel The Plague, sent me back to his work, and this past year brought a particularly illuminating critical study, Robert Emmet Meagher’s Albert Camus and the Human Crisis (Pegasus Books). He argues that The Outsider is not, as many critics see it, an absurdist endpoint: it was a calculated step in Camus’s search for morality in the face of an indifferent universe. Meagher writes that “we can all say with Albert Camus that ‘the years we have lived through have killed something in us. And that something is simply the old confidence that humanity had in itself, which led us to believe that we could always elicit human reactions from each other if we spoke in the language of common humanity.'” Camus’s volumes of philosophy and fiction, from his short stories to The Plague and The Fall (Meagher is very smart about this “anteroom to hell”) represent his search for a common language. In addition, Penguin Modern Classics has just published Albert Camus Speaking Out: Lectures and Speeches, 1937-58, a “definitive new collection” newly translated by Quintin Hoare.
Teju Cole’s Black Paper: Writing in a Dark Time (University of Chicago Press) is a superb collection of prose pieces that “explore a wide range of subjects: the color black in the visual arts, the role of shadows in photography, the consolations of music and architecture, elegies both public and private, and the complex links between political upheaval, literature and activism.” Cole bravely carries on hooks’s demand that art should be about helping to make us feel in ways that must make us uncomfortable. Here he is on the Italian painter Caravaggio:
He was a murderer, a slaveholder, a terror, and a pest. But I don’t go to Caravaggio to be reminded of how good people are, and certainly not because of how good he was. To the contrary: I seek him out for a certain kind of otherwise unbearable knowledge. Here was an artist who depicted fruit in its ripeness and at the moment it had begun to rot, an artist who painted flesh at its most delicately seductive and its most grievously injured. When he showed suffering, he showed it so startlingly well because he was on both sides of it: he meted it out to others and received it in his own body. Caravaggio is dead, as are his victims. What remains is his work, and I don’t have to love him to know that I need to know what he knows, the knowledge that hums, centuries later, on the surface of his paintings, knowledge of all the pain, loneliness, beauty, fear, and awful vulnerability our bodies have in common.
South African actor, writer, and visual artist Antony Sher died this year at the age of 72. He had a long and justly celebrated career at the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1985 he played Father Flote, the laugh-until-you-drop protagonist in the premiere production of one of my favorite plays, Peter Barnes’s Red Noses. The year before he had launched his career with an electrifying (and internationally acclaimed) performance as Richard III — Sher’s King for the RSC scampered around the stage on long crutches, jumping and twirling around his bewildered prey like a manic spider. (My friend, theater critic Arthur Friedman, saw Sher’s turn and described it as a thrilling, Herculean feat of acting.)
I saw two of Sher’s superb RSC performances of Shakespeare: at Stratford, he came on as one of the most aggressive Shylocks I have ever seen, sharpening his knife with evident relish throughout the courtroom scene. Sher was also a powerful Macbeth, holding his own against Harriet Walter’s Lady Macbeth when the RSC production came to the Long Wharf in New Haven in 2000. Despite taking on many of the Bard’s major roles — Richard III, Leontes, Lear, and Falstaff — Sher saw himself as a character actor, and that offers a essential clue to his splendid plasticity as an actor. He didn’t see himself as a “natural” — each role was worked from the ground up, his mastery of the “craft and graft of classical acting” entwined with the tirelessly inventive imagination that he brought to contemporary roles as well the Bard.
Besides acting, Sher wrote a number of books, including four novels, two plays, and an autobiography, Beside Myself, where he detailed his early life as gay and Jewish in South Africa and his difficult years establishing his career in London. I have not read his fiction, but would highly commend his trio of books on the theater: they are fascinating, amusing, gossipy, and educational looks into the complexities of professional theatrical collaboration in all of its aspects, with a special emphasis on the demands of performing Shakespeare. The first is the best, Year of the King, a go-for-broke chronicle of Sher’s creation of the role that made him a major actor on the British stage. The other two volumes are also quite good, though by then Sher’s success had made him much more comfortable — one misses the lean and hungry energy of the first volume. Still, they have the virtue of including his drawings and paintings. I have just finished the delightful Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries, which focuses on how Sher grappled with taking on the role of the Lord of Misrule in the two parts of Henry IV. I have also read the other, 2018’s Year of the Mad King, which records his process of creating a memorable King Lear in 2016’s RSC production.
Two Polish Giants
This year marks the centennial of two of the 20th century’s finest writers, both Polish — Science fiction master Stanisław Lem and poet and playwright Tadeusz Różewicz.
There have been some celebrations of Lem in the media, owing to his international popularity. (“His books have been translated into 44 languages and have sold more more than 30 million copies.”) A generous sampling of his fiction and nonfiction is available from MIT Press, a lineup that includes what many consider his masterpiece, Solaris. I am currently reading The Truth and Other Stories, a recently released collection of Lem short stories that date from early to late in his career, most of which have not appeared in English before. It is terrific, but I would like to recommend a lesser-known novel, The Invincible, which dates from the ’60s, a period that, for me, was the writer’s creative high point. A spaceship is summoned to the planet Regis III to determine the mysterious fate of another vessel. The farcical — but spine-tingling — futility of its mission reflects Lem’s tragic vision, a sense of man’s misbegotten hubris that is worthy of Sophocles. The men on the ship come across a foe that is utterly inexplicable because they cannot understand that “the enemy” is completely indifferent.
As for Różewicz, there has been far less acknowledgment of his genius. His work is harder to find in print and he expressed his tragic vision through a fierce, uncompromising minimalism that ignored conventional formulas. In some ways Różewicz could be seen as part of the postwar tide of absurdists, particularly his plays, whose anarchistic comic furies recall those of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. I touched on his literary importance in a piece on his death in 2014. Rather than offer specific volumes of his poetry or plays, I think a more welcoming way to begin with Różewicz is his nonfiction volume Mother Departs (translated by Barbara Bogoczek, edited and introduced by Tony Howard, Stork Press), a touching assemblage of poetry and memoir that pays homage to his mother and brothers.
Below I have added an excerpt from an unpublished essay of mine on Różewicz. My salute to the 100th birthday of a great poet.
On April 24, 2014, Polish poet Tadeusz Różewicz died at the age of 92. Few poets looked forward to oblivion with such flippant stoicism, taking an almost impish satisfaction in their personal demise. Death was one of Różewicz’s perennial subjects, the tragic-comic linchpin of his minimalist-to-the-max obsession with the pitiless demolition of time — how we waste it and it wastes us. But his was not your “rage, rage against the dying of the light” sort of poetic persona, fighting for every moment of life with an oversized muscularity, hymning visions of beauty, relishing every blessed moment of existence. Occasionally he bestows a vague (wryly tongue-in-cheek?) blessing on some sort of rough-hewn order, but Różewicz mostly envisions extinction as a frighteningly modest matter, a final bump in the road rather than a blast from (or into) the beyond.
For example, his fare-thee-well in “my time is up…’’ barely leaves time for a death-rattle, let along a grand summing up:
my time is up
what’s one to take
to the further shore
and nothing more
so that’s all of life
yes, that’s all
(translated by Adam Czerniawski)
Squeezing simple words as if he was wringing the last drop out of wet sponges (“time,” “nothing,” “yes”), staging a mini-drama with mama, doubling up his rebukes to metaphysical escape hatches – this au revoir is vintage Różewicz. It tingles with the brusque pizazz of imaginative powerlessness; its fierce reticence reflects primal withdrawal.
Różewicz ‘s stark linguistic treatment of death reflects a despair born of being present at catastrophe. He saw the professional death dealers up close during World War II. His initial volumes of poetry in the late ’40s were his pared-down response to the horrors around him. As a young man, he witnessed the Nazi occupation of Poland, the machinery of the Holocaust, and decades of brutal Communist dictatorship. He was far too disillusioned as a witness to savagery to pledge allegiance to ideals and truths, to accept smug versions of transcendence. Polish poet Adam Zagajewski, in his essay “A Defense of Ardor,” insists that “the age’s great intellectual labor … is still chiefly the contemplation of the twentieth century’s vast tragedies. Is there a place for poetry in this labor?” For many critics and readers, the tight-lipped angst of Różewicz’s early verse accomplished this challenging task brilliantly. His poetry was (and is) seen as an aesthetically and ethically powerful response to the madness of mass killing: “I am twenty-four/led to slaughter/I survived.” And, underneath the poet’s disgust at the extremity of violence and evil, critics uncover the predictable flickers of hope, the glimmers of optimism.
Still, everything went up in smoke in history’s conflagration: “and now one has to live/as best as one can/shallowly/quicker.” In tribute to the dead, one was obligated to write quicksilver poetry that evaded false absolutes, denied delusional wisdom.
But how does one go about dying shallowly and quickly? Over the decades Różewicz’s verse offers clues, but always through indirection. His poetry emanates a no-nonsense grace whose power lies in claiming to see things as they are: commonplace rather than cosmic, tawdry instead of titanic, more slippery than sublime. His understanding of death is shaped by utter metaphysical denial, a rejection of centuries worth of counterarguments or reassurances from religion, science, or art. Living with the intractability of decay means learning to prize subtraction, to embrace less rather than more. Różewicz’s marvelous poem “Busy with Many Jobs” explores, with his usual ironic urgency, how we ignore this essential work at our peril:
Busy with very urgent jobs
one also has
I kept neglecting that duty
or performed it
as from tomorrow
things will be different
I’ll start dying meticulously
without wasting time
(translated by Adam Czerniawski)
The interstitial tensions that charge his best verse are here. Is the poet recommending that we learn to die in a conventional fashion? That we excel at the slick version of demise decreed in an amnesiac postwar culture populated by “cannibals,” the indifferent “new men” Różewicz viewed with disgust. Let’s learn how to die better, faster, cheaper, and more often! Or is this his spin on the cliché that we aren’t sufficiently aware that we are busy dying? The poem could be seen as a sardonic call for us to return to the elemental, to embrace dumb finality rather than numb ourselves through the decorative words and images of low commerce or high art. Różewicz’s zero-to-the-bone vision no doubt explains why his brand of “anti-poetry” has not been received with the same adoration as the verse of his fellow Polish poets Czeslaw Milosz and Zbigniew Herbert. The pair’s deftly dialectical moralism does not leave the reader staring into the abyss quite so determinedly. A sign of Różewicz’s literary marginality: The New York Times reported his death about a month late.
Bill Marx is the Editor-in-Chief of the Arts Fuse. For just over four decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and the Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created the Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.