The Adelphi Project: A few stand-out books from the past year

I started this project a year ago, end of October 2015, with just the thought that it would be interesting to read all the books in the Biblioteca Adelphi series in order, and since I read quite fast, it would be a few years of reading, and we’d see what we saw.

It became more than that, by the time I wrote about what I was doing, last August, and since then, again, it has taken on a completely new form and shape.

I am still reading the books in order, but a bit slower than I initially thought, as I am delving much deeper into history and context, and a different type of understanding. I’ve been writing about it, but haven’t nailed it, so it hasn’t posted up yet. Sometimes the writing explains itself to me, and the output is in the process. So, I keep writing.

The past year, Nov-Nov, now, in my world, Adelphi Time, perhaps I shall call it, I read 341 books. Probably the most I’ve ever read in a year, though maybe not by much. I usually average around 300. The difference this year was the level of direction and focus, and the sheer weight of non-fiction, which was probably about 80%.

There is so much I could say about so many of the books, yet here is only a small bit on a few of the stand-outs:

Ödön von Horváth,

1. Youth Without God, Ödön von Horváth, 1937: A teacher’s students begin to change with the sentiment of the times and it his story of how to be the adult in a world in which the children begin to believe in the Fatherland and they begin to mirror the behaviors of their fathers and their state. Reading this last fall, I can remember being struck that Americans needed to take a serious look at what was happening in the country and for what one would be responsible, within oneself and in the broader world. Which made this book feel both important and forgotten.

César Aira

2. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, César Aira, 2000: This book had nothing to do with the project, but it invoked Alexander von Humboldt on the back cover, and it was pretty and short, and seemed like a good Adelphi sorbet course. I still find it hard to explain what the magic is, and find myself just handing it to people, “read this,” and letting it go at that. The visible world is made more visible in his sweet prose, it is straightforward, and engaged with the intellectual and artistic worlds. This doesn’t necessarily explain what about it is different, but perhaps this difficulty to define the magic is exactly the indicator of what magic it is.

Vasily Grossman

3. Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman, completed in 1960 and ‘arrested’ by the KGB, finally seen in print in the 1980s, after Grossman’s death, Robert Chandler, trans: This book covers everything that goes with Stalin and Hitler, the small, familiar, day to day realities of a life in a totalitarian regime. Which says so little about how this book as well, grips you, and carts you off til the dawn hours, refusing to let go, as you ponder how you will make it through another day without sleep. I had read Grossman’s Everything Flows, which is also gorgeous, but the fraying of the edges are quite visible, as he died before he finished it, and so I picked up the 800+ pages of Life and Fate, to get a sense of what he was like when more polished, and that was that.

Count Jan Potocki

4. Manuscript Found in the Saragossa, Jan Potocki, 1804: This book is the third on The Adelphi List and I found it so utterly agonizing to read the entire book that I am fascinated enough to include it on this list. It certainly stands out! It gives me a sense that I have entirely missed something, that it was not engrossing. It has all manners of topics I am interested in and usually enjoy, the gothic, the inquisition, kabbala, adventure, danger, swords, seduction, but no. It took me three weeks of enforced agony (“you have to read 100 pages before dinner or you don’t get dinner”). It reminded me a bit of The Canterbury Tales, but with a whole lot more sex and things going awry, enough so, that I went back and re-read The Canterbury tales. If you read it and enjoy it, or not, let me know. My fascination is not dimming.

Elio Vittorini

5. Conversations in Sicily, Elio Vittorini, serial 1938–9, book 1941, Alane Salierno Mason, trans. 2000: One of the stunning things about the beauty of this book is the language he is using, in the 1930s. It would be stunning if written now, the prose and structure, the language. Salierno Mason’s translation is gorgeous, one of the examples of art entwining two elements and creating more than is expected. The book itself is political and personal, written and published in the time of the censors, so the constraints force what is to be understood beneath the language and the langour of the Sicilian heat, but it is there, racing the narrow gauge tracks, heading into the hills.

Edoardo Nesi

6. The Story of my People, Edoardo Nesi, 2011, trans Antony Shugaar: This is a short and heart-breaking tale of the destruction of the textile industry in northern industry. The post-war period, the ‘recovery’ that was meant to open Italy to a broader market tore down centuries of family business and village life, and Nesi’s tale breaks your heart with it. The personal bits are better than when he attempts to expand to a global view, but even with those, the rest is more than worth the read. And Mr Shugaar is one of my favorite translators, usually translating mysteries and police procedurals, which Italy does well.

Joseph Roth

7. Wandering Jew: The Search for Joseph Roth, Dennis Marks, 2016: This book is physically gorgeous, the red cloth cover, the interior map to orient the reader, the texture of the pages; I can’t be certain I didn’t love the object so much that it colours the feel of the text. However, what Marks’ has done in this little book is much of what I am doing for all the authors on The Adelphi List which really catch my heart: tracing their worlds, their paths, the creation of their selves, and the mysteries that they present to the world, these mysteries which create meaning, in these artifacts they leave us. Marks’ long time fascination with Joseph Roth is pulled beautifully through the book, and if you have read Roth you can follow the untruths you knew he was telling into a deeper space, a contemplative space, with Mr. Marks. If you haven’t read Roth, read some of his first, perhaps The Radetzky March and The Hotel Years would give a quick sense of his extremes.

8. Moscow & St. Petersburg 1900–1920: Art, Life & Culture, John E Bowlt, 2008: A gorgeous survey of the arts of this period, their culture and interconnections. Particularly gorgeous for me, as with all the history and culture I am reading for the project, I can follow all the tendrils out into the world. It is also just a gorgeous representation of artwork that I have never seen personally.

And three that I seem to toss in my bag and carry around a lot, and read and read and read, and I won’t say more than that.

  1. The Complete Essays 1973–1991, Luigi Ghirri
  2. Ardor, Roberto Calasso (trans. Dixon)
  3. What Color is the Sacred, Michael Taussig

writer. reader.