One last glance back at 2017, as 2018 dawns

A little more than a week ago I marked the solstice on a rather positive note after another difficult year. The holiday season has been, however, more painful than I had anticipated. The weather has been brutal—as I type this, the temperature is in the low minus twenties, think -28 or -29C with a wind chill factor approaching -37C, and we’ve received about 30cm of snow or more—which has contributed to a marked degree of cabin fever. But what has weighed on me most heavily is a peculiar loneliness, a very personal emptiness, and a measure of anxiety about some of the changes I thought I was looking forward to, like selling my house and moving into an apartment. I’m feeling a little conflicted now, oddly because if my son manages to stay sober, I think less of escaping a bad situation and think more about the advantages of having someone else around, at least until he is well stabilized and ready to move on. (Okay, there’s also the fact that he saved my life a few years ago…)

Taken this afternoon. Does it look cold? Copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017

However, now that the end of 2017 is upon us, I can distract myself for a moment by looking back over my year in blogging. Although I started this blog in mid-2014, I did not begin to seriously write about books, or venture into the realm of mini personal essays until the end of that year. In the three years since, my blog has grown steadily and, I hope, developed a bit of a reputation for being unclassifiable. This year I noticed a marked increase in traffic from Canada and Australia, a result, I suspect, of my increased engagement with readers and writers from both countries. Still the largest number of viewers came from the US and the UK, followed by Canada, Australia, South Africa, and India. My most popular review written this year was, by a wide margin, of Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe. Mine must be one of the only reviews of this book online; it was even cited in an extensive overview of post-colonial African literature—the only blog review cited in the entire article. This book is a classic of early post-Apartheid South African black literature and I can’t understand why it hasn’t attracted more attention—clearly it was being studied extensively this year judging by the traffic generated. The second highest number of views for a 2017 review was for The Major Refutation by Pierre Senges (tr. Jacob Siefring), the third, My Heart Hemmed In by Marie N’Diaye (tr. Jordan Stump) and the fourth for Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline (tr. Tim Parks). The 50/50 split between new releases and older titles in this selection highlights one of the advantages of blogging—not being bound to focusing exclusively on recent releases as is so often the tendency in other literary venues you can read and write about whatever books catch your fancy. Or not. This year I read much more than I reviewed here or elsewhere.

My own occasional reflective posts, which always make me feel mildly self-conscious, tend to be very well received, generating more hits than the majority of my reviews. Considering that the reviews typically take me much longer to write, it never ceases to surprise me that people actually want to read my idle ramblings… something to hold on to as I start to finally (yes, finally) tackle my memoir project in the year ahead. I’ve been piddling around on this front, to be honest. But it’s so terrifying to put one’s own life on the page. However, I trust I’m not the only personal essayist to struggle with this conflict. As I’ve mentioned several times in recent months, the work of French poet, essayist and ethnologist Michel Leiris has occupied much of my attention this past year (with much to keep me going in 2018). I had expected I would write some kind of a “review” of Scratches, the first part of his four-part autobiographical project Rules of the Game, yet I can’t quite imagine how to write about this book. It has become embedded in my consciousness, and interwoven with my reading of his dream diary, Nights as Days and Days as Nights, and his massive travel journal, Phantom Africa.

Long before Knausgaard starting dissecting the minutiae of his experience, Leiris was reflecting, musing, analyzing, and agonizing over the stuff of his life and, more accurately, his emotional and intellectual engagement with the world as mediated by language and memory. Scratches begins with his earliest recognition that language held magic and secrets that he could unlock as he came to understand the meanings of words. Throughout the book his discourses, which range widely from childhood amusements to recent events and back again, hinge on the associations he has for certain words or phrases. (Lydia Davis’ remarkable translation seamlessly weaves the French words into the text so that the layers of sound and meaning ring through.) It can be quite wonderful to get swept up in his winding and circuitous streams of thought. However, what I love about Leiris is his idiosyncratic emotional volubility. He easily swings from being proud and confident, to wallowing in despair and self-doubt. If the contemporary “journey of self-discovery” model of the memoir enforces the notion that life has a narrative arc that leads to growth and improvement, Leiris is not the model. In fact, much of the time he simply seems to be travelling in wide sweeping circles without getting anywhere at all. Nor is he wretched enough to stand as a forerunner to the popular misery memoir. But he doesn’t hesitate to indulge in a little morbid excavation of his weaknesses and failures when his mood plummets. I well imagine this annoys some readers, but as someone who has struggled at length with mood regulation, I adore the honesty and the way he somehow manages to drag himself out to firmer ground. Toward the end of Scratches he very nearly gives up his entire autobiographic endeavour worrying that he has reduced himself to “a sort of aged child, a prisoner of a bygone period and henceforth shut off from all action—even thought—involving the future.” In his anxieties, I see reflected my own insecurities about committing to a long term project. He justifies his decision to break off work on his book saying:

Since the literary work to which I am devoting myself with such difficulty seems less and less uplifting and no longer necessary (since it gives me nothing beyond what I put into it myself more or less deliberately), it would be better to abandon it and wait for a more favourable time. And right now the most serious hope I have for recovery is to let everything lie dormant until the anecdotal illness ailing me… and my brain cleansed by this period of repose, I can shed my old skin. To come into a new skin after a long period of obliteration in blankness, like a drum one has beaten too persistently and which, even though its body may still seem in pretty good shape, absolutely must have its vibrating skin replaced by a fresh one.

Of course, he not only recovers his enthusiasm but will go on to produce three more volumes after this.

So, looking ahead to 2018, I have a small selection of books that I am especially keen to read, but I know better than to make any public lists. I do want to continue a steady diet of poetry, learning how to read it more deeply, and write some of my own. But writing and photography have to take centre stage. Most immediately, I am heading to India in February to spend a couple of weeks in Kolkata where I hope to be able to find some distance from home, a wealth of inspiration and a little quiet time to write.

Copyright Joseph Schreiber, 2017

Happy New Year to all. Here in my hometown, and in many cities across Canada it is so cold that outdoor celebrations have been cancelled. But if the meteorologists are right, we should start to climb out of the deep freeze tomorrow as 2018 rolls in.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

22 thoughts on “One last glance back at 2017, as 2018 dawns”

  1. Best wishes for the new year from one of your new followers in Australia. I can’t imagine it being that cold. My husband and I often talk about what it must be like but we really have no concept of what it must be like.

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    1. Thanks and same to you! I can’t imagine temperatures in the +40’s myself. We do have central heating, block engine heaters on our cars if its really cold and snow tires. The thing about cold is that you can always add layers for warmth. In the heat there’s a limit to what you can take off to cool down (and remain decent)!

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      1. Yes, the heat is quite crippling and the bushfires can be horrendous, as you can imagine. Luckily we live in rural Victoria so the heat is not constant – we usually only get 2 or 3 hot days in a row and then get a break.

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  2. Happy New Year and a productive time ahead — travels, reading, figuring out how to stay warm….I write from the balmy west coast where we are as cold as we’ve ever been, with low temps and frozen roads but oh, the stars! The moon tonight as we said goodnight to dinner guests! We are starlight, we are golden. (Guess who is reading the new Joni Mitchell biography?)

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    1. Happy New Year to you too Theresa. We are supposed to start warming up tomorrow. I hope so; we’re not used to long stretches this cold here in the land of chinooks. At least the snow stayed white and crisp for the holidays!

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  3. Happy new year my friend, best wishes all way from Somalia
    And thanks for your reviews of books i really discovared many books and experiances in your blog which was both enlightening and educational also
    So thanks for your writings and many thanks for also teaching that writing can also be something curative

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  4. Joe, it looks very, *very* cold where you are! My goodness, Siberian or what! I’ve enjoyed following your blog and the writings you share with us and the ups and downs – I hope that the ups continue to dominate and that 2018 is a wonderful year for you all round!

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    1. Thanks Karen. The temperatures are steadily climbing —at last! It has actually been an air mass from Siberia that has kept us locked in the cold, you were quite right. I always enjoy following your literary wanderings and seeing you so lovingly display your latest acquisitions and hope that 2018 is good to you too!

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  5. It’s been a pleasure to see you develop into not only a wonderful reviewer (I’m not surprised they take time to write) but writer in general. Given how fruitful previous trips have been, I’m looking forward to you visit to India. I’m pleased that you, and Tony, are writing more regularly about poetry – perhaps it will encourage my own poetry reading – a resolution I make every year!

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  6. May today be warmer than yesterday. Like many of your readers, I enjoy your personal essays and look forward to your memoir. I’ve been copying and pasting book titles from your reviews into an ever growing reading list.

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  7. Best of wishes for 2018! Plans are important, whether for big things like apartments or small things like reading lists, but so is being prepared to adapt or abandon them.

    I hope Kolkata refreshes. If nothing else it shouldn’t be as cold…

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  8. Best wishes for 2018 Joe. I hope it proves kinder to you than some previous years have been. The signs are positive so long may that upward trend continue for you and your son. I hope you do embark on that memoir.
    Thanks for the tip about Welcome to Our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe. I’ve not come across this before but I do enjoy reading about South Africa and also reading local autho s so this has gone into my wish list for future reading.

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