Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Best Books We Read 2011

In the Poetics of Space, one of the most achingly perfect books I read this year, Gaston Bachelard writes the following, which applies almost exactly to the best book I read in 2011:
Every good book should be re-read as soon as it is finished. After the sketchiness of the first reading comes the creative work of reading. We must then know the problem that confronted the author. The second, the third reading... give us, little by little, the solution to this problem.
Although I haven't found the "solution" to the problem that inspired Stanley Crawford's Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine, each voyage--I read the book three times in succession this summer, after reading it initially, and a little skeptically, in 2008 when it was first reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press--brought me closer to some essential truth about the prickly dilemmas inherent in human relationships and cohabitation.

The plot of Unguentine is as deceptively simple as a creation myth and has the flavor of one as well: Mrs Unguentine (always Mrs) recounts her seafaring adventures--which are simultaneously her domestic adventures--with her husband, Unguentine (never Mr), a man who "grew nauseous upon land" and so took his wife to sea, fitting out a barge with increasingly elaborate gardens and mechanical devices. In time, the pair become famous in port cities across the world, their home in turn a curiosity, a place of ill-repute, a smuggler's ship. The notoriety eventually dissipates, leaving their self-contained ecosystem a world unto itself; all the better as far as Mrs Unguentine is concerned--even if her good riddance has something wistful to it.

Into deeper and lonelier waters the Unguentines then sail. In an episode that will resonate with anyone who has found him or herself in a relationship that seems to have gone off course, Mrs Unguentine discovers a blank map by which, it seems, her husband is steering. (A map that alludes, possibly, to another.) Silence grows between the couple just as the trees Unguentine has planted grow to render clear navigation impossible. Ages pass, time stops; the barge becomes more and more isolated. Unguentine and everything familiar disappears, then possibly reappears.

What Crawford has managed in this slim and perpetually overlooked book (of just over 100 pages) is marvelous. As with the best allegories, those that lend themselves to multiple and endless interpretations, Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine can be read literally--as a seafaring tale, a creation myth, the story of an unusual marriage--and rooted around in for deeper meaning, each reading revealing just how dense, under its reflective surface, the novel really is: an amalgam of Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Ulysses' journeys, Ahab's quest...

Vija Celmins, Untitled (Ocean), 1977 (graphite on paper)

Near the end of the book, Mrs Unguentine wonders, "what would it be like to live without the presence of the sea?" which seems to me a question that perfectly embodies everything I love about this novel. It's a straightforward, if complicated, question and one that brings a reader to a similar precipice: what would it be like living without the presence of a book like this?

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