War and Peace: February 4 2011: This was an easy choice. I discarded the Garnett translation after 100 pages and recommenced with the Pevear/Volokhonsky which, though I can't vouch for a syllable of Russian, seems more robust and deft in the world it has to translate. A singularly long meditation on the insignificance of greatness; on the excellent stupidity of the upper classes (particularly Petersburg's, for choice); on property, writing, the limits of imagination, the limits of force, the limits of care and solicitude; and on the slow inexorable crawl of a particular seven years of God's time. It is a chronicle of aging as much as of an age; watching Tolstoy's characters senesce was perhaps the principal pleasure I took in the book. Yes, they all get wiser.
Anna Karenina: Mid-May 2011: What else was I to do? This book is incredible. A smartly hybrid love story + feisty rake on crass sanctimonious proto-theosophic religiosity in 1870s Russian intellectual culture esp. as it relates (and is unable to relate) to changing social mores. Many excellent wheat-threshing scenes; Levin's and Anna's numerous quasi-epiphanies proceed in what I'd call sublimated counterpoint and accumulate into what's got to be one of the most ended books ever written.
2666: July 10 2011: There were certain moral agonies in Anna Karenina that perhaps led me to this. The five novellas that make up this book interact in a way that induces in the reader a new kind of brain for novel-reading; they overlap and echo each other, and they build very well (i.e. their order is purposeful), but they're also independent of each other to such a degree that finally reaching the fifth book feels like discovering a new planet, or (to put it otherwise) as if the beautiful violin solo and its heartrending key change at the end of This Heat's "Twilight Furniture" had somehow, on this listen, stretched out for a few whole beautiful days. This book has a phenomenal ending, and by "ending" I mean pages 350 through 890. The gentle reader will note that this includes pages 427-437.
(A little intermezzo scherzando: In the midst of these readings I was writing an instructor's manual for a college health textbook; this probably only took me 250 hours from June to October, but you try writing outlines about starting a family, sports injuries, healthy eating and death a couple hours a day and see how you feel.)
Ulysses: Mid-August 2011: I was so traumatized by 2666 that I turned to Ulysses for a fifth read like a PTSD patient who hears compulsively in his head odd songs from his childhood. This is a real metaphor; such a thing really happens, as I learned when my grandfather survived the big Amtrak crash in Oklahoma 12 years ago that you probably heard about. Ulysses is a novel, it can be read, it's tenacious in its methods yet deploys an abundance of different methods, each with their context and purpose. The Ormond hotel scene is beyond description (and is, worth noting, the referent of an excellent allusion somewhere in Lolita). I don't like how the chapters in Ulysses are now commonly referred to by their Odyssean correspondences as per the Linati scheme. They should be referred to using their location and time. The Ormond hotel scene takes place at 4 PM, in the course of which hour the low air of a hotel bar at the close of day bewitches all, a waiter waits, a stripling cane taps, a song that you can practically hear is sung and a watch stops - the whole composed in mostly new words that halve and double as echolocators in a waking-dreamlike pattern-notation system with lots of cues and feints and reiterations... Ulysses is mainly about surfeit and titles: a relentless, yet in important respects nonlinear, snowballing between private and public speech which describes a particular experience of modernity, subjective and objective genitive. Maybe it's basically a matter of the difference between what one calls oneself and what one tells oneself. "Love. Hate. Those are names. Rudy. Soon I am old."
Dog Years: Early November 2011: This is a vexing one. Grass has a style that you could call "flat," meaning 1) it can stay on one tonal level for the duration of a novel, or a significant portion thereof, and/or meaning 2) it's histrionic or loose or dull in some way, but even that's often parlayed into a strength upon the meaning previously stated. I think this describes the paradoxical feeling of reading this book, which has an excellent narrative structure and conceit, stages bizarre ordeals and mock-epic sequences admirably, contains a lot of side-splitting (and ultimately climactic) Heidegger-obsessed tomfoolery, and I guess Ralph Mandelheim is translating acceptably since he's done all of them and I think I've only ever seen one other translation of The Tin Drum. I'd say Dog Years is easily as strong if not stronger than that book's picaresque style; its two main focuses are the interrelations of the narrators and the many canine and other lineages whose travails and diversions and final ends are totally engrossing, but all rather vestigial still. A war book, it gives a generally creepy picture of Danzig, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Bavaria, and other pre-post-industrial Allemanic lands. Again, great narrative scheme; much is awesome in it, but...I just don't know. You should read it.
Postscript: Over the holidays I read Wallace Stevens' "Someone Puts a Pineapple Together"; Borges' Fictionnes, in the Andrew Hurley translation (I like "A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain" best), and am now on Gogol's collected stories, followed by Dead Souls, which I read at an irresponsibly young age knowing not what to think. Same thing happened to me in 2nd grade with Sphere by Michael Crichton.