There is something particularly literary in obsession. After all, being inside a good book can feel like being pulled down a rabbit hole, with no end in sight. To read a novel is to soak up the thoughts of another, to limit one’s point of view to the pages in front of one, to see, in one’s head, what is depicted or suggested but not literally there. Whether the characters are obsessed with knowledge or love, self-glorification or self-sacrifice, their single purpose draws us in with what James Baldwin called a “Niagara force,” moving us up and down until what we reach the last sentence.
These eight books explore different dimensions of obsession: self-destructive determination, the pursuit of an idea whose limits seem beyond rational explanation. They reveal that obsession is both a perilous tic and a necessary tool for dealing with what might otherwise turn into chaos. Above all, they show that without a bit of obsession, there would be no stories to tell.
Michael Kohlhaasby Heinrich von Kleist (translated by Peter Wortsman)
A romantic poet, playwright, novelist, philosopher and journalist, Kleist was beloved by modernist writers such as Franz Kafka and Robert Walser. His work is full of fatalistic paradoxes, harsh ironies and failed attempts to make sense of an incoherent reality. The titular hero of his big story is a horse trader who has two of his animals seized and mistreated by a corrupt nobleman. Kohlhaas demands payment to compensate for their poor condition, but the noble refuses. So the horse dealer makes the situation worse. He files a complaint, but is rejected. He attacks the nobleman’s castle and kills members of his household. He raises an army and marches on Wittenberg. With typical Kleistian irony, a petty larceny turned into a chaotic peasant rebellion. But isn’t Kohlhaas right? They did steal his horses, after all. It was “his sense of justice”, writes Kleist, which “made him a thief and a murderer”.
Zamaby Antonio di Benedetto (translated by Esther Allen)
The Argentinian writer di Benedetto devotes his first novel to the “victims of waiting” and then sets out to illustrate how a life lived only for the future is no life at all. It’s the late 18th century, and Spanish colonial official Don Diego de Zama wants only one thing: to be moved from his isolated outpost in Paraguay to a new, more metropolitan life in a city. He never succeeds, but this constant tension between stasis and nostalgia gives the writing its unique comic charge. Kafka’s style The castle, we are treated to Zama’s lengthy interior monologues describing his latest surefire plan to free himself from the colony. Yet no sooner has he taken the first step to leave than everything falls apart, again and again – a Sisyphean struggle that continues until the official is old and exhausted. Di Benedetto’s comedy then tips over into tragedy before sinking, in the last pages, into a heartbreaking vision of the human condition. I laugh at Don Diego, he moves me. At the height of his concentration, his thwarted desire to accomplish just one simple task, he exemplifies something very common and very tragic.
Another’s faceby Kobo Abe (translated by E. Dale Saunders)
Abe’s works are marked by frequent transformations: in one story, a man turns into a stick; in a novel, a private detective essentially becomes the man he is looking for. Nothing is constant and everything is in motion, identity above all. In Another’s face, my favorite of the Abe novels, Mr. Okuyama, a plastics specialist, is horribly burned in an industrial accident that destroys his face. His co-workers shun him and his wife is repelled by him, a sexual rejection he experiences as the final annihilation of his old identity. So he sets to work building a new face for himself, painstakingly assembling the materials, taking a new apartment, and testing the mask across town. When Mr. Okuyama wears it, he begins to act surprisingly, as if his new face has come with a new identity, as if he is someone else. Intoxicated by the possibilities of this face, Okuyama begins to live a parallel life and finally decides to seduce his own wife, cuckold, and therefore supplanting, himself. But, the reader comes to wonder, can we really transform so easily? Or do others see us much more than we see ourselves?
North migration seasonby Tayeb Salih (translated by Denys Johnson-Davies)
In this novel by Salih, a Sudanese writer and animator, a young man returns from an English university to his village on the Nile. He is a “traveler” who returned home full of knowledge and postcolonial self-confidence. Yet he is shaken when he meets Mustafa Sa’eed, who has followed a similar trajectory – from home to the colonial metropolis and back – but does not share his optimism. Mustafa’s time in England was disastrous: he remade himself to fit the ideals of English imperialism, a transformation that left him spiritually scarred and full of rage. He describes his life as a “lie” and decides to take revenge on a series of English women, seducing them, manipulating them and ultimately ignoring them, leading most to suicide. But to do that, he must diminish himself again, indulge their colonial fantasies (he summons Othello repeatedly), and shatter his own identity in the process. By destroying women, he destroys himself. Although there’s a lot more going on in this slim book, Mustafa’s story is bright, hot coal that ignites the young man’s optimism, pinning him between tradition and modernity, confidence and despair.
In the eye of natureby Nastasja Martin (translated by Sophie R. Lewis)
In 2015, Martin, a French anthropologist. was attacked and nearly killed by a bear while conducting research on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. This hallucinatory memoir, written in the insistent first person, begins at this violent moment and follows Martin through her operation, her recovery and her attempt to understand who she has become. “It’s hard to leave meaning unfinished,” she wrote. “Deciding: I don’t know everything about this meeting. Drawing on her anthropological training and her friendships in Kamchatka, but also on an indescribable new sense that she has been changed in a key way by her attack, Martin dives deep into her new state. In the language of the indigenous Even people, it has become medka: “the one who lives between the worlds”, “half-human, half-bear”. Although the obsessive narrator usually goes in search of meaning, Martin’s status was, in a sense, chosen by the bear that marked her. “Hybridization has taken place,” she writes, “and yet I am still myself.” She derives from her research, her education and her discipline, but her condition is inescapable; there is no undoing what has been done. She was marked by the bear, and that’s it.
Atmospheric disturbancesby Rivka Galchen
In love, the sense of self is often defined by the object of one’s affection. And so we resist change, if only to preserve who we think we are. In Galchen’s first novel, Dr. Leo Liebenstein returns home to find that his wife, Rema, has been replaced by an exact copy. This fake-Rema can act like the real thing in every way, and she can swear up and down that she’s his wife, but he somehow knows that it’s not her. “It was just a feeling,” he says. “That’s how I knew.” And so Leo embarks on an outrageous journey to Buenos Aires, then to the far south of Patagonia, to find out what happened to Rema. Of course something has changed in their marriage – a slight chill, a greater distance – but Liebenstein refuses to accept something so common and so devastating as the idea that he and his wife might separate. Galchen digs into this refusal for suspense, then for comedy, without losing sight of the underlying despair. Its protagonist will insist on the most dramatic and fantastical possibilities – all to ignore the possibility that his love no longer loves him.
Sweet days of disciplineby Fleur Jaeggy (translated by Tim Parks)
Obsession directs our attention: it pushes us to concentrate on one person, one idea, one story, to the exclusion of all others, sometimes even to the exclusion of the object of our monomania. It is therefore in Sweet days of discipline, Jaeggy’s sublime initiation novel. The anonymous narrator studies at the Bausler Institute, a boarding school in the Swiss Appenzell. One day a new girl named Frédérique arrives, her “hair straight and shiny as blades”, with “the kind of forehead that makes thought tangible”. The narrator is attracted by the intensity of the girl’s concentration, her affected handwriting, her willingness to be solitary. The novel is full of descriptions so exact that they seem sinister. Yet Frédérique always remains at a distance – and, as becomes clear late in the book, after our narrator meets her special friend on the streets of Paris after many years, the young girl has kept her inner life entirely hidden. Their unexpected meeting reveals a madness that is always present but never noticed. After so many precise observations, we saw nothing at all.
The long cutby Emily Hall
Literature is perhaps the best channel for exploring fixation, but artists in many mediums have much to obsess about, including, as with the title character in Hall’s first novel, what their art is even all about. Hall’s narrator is a visual artist on her way to meet a gallerist and explain what exactly her job is. This is a delicate subject; as she says in the very first sentence, “I always wondered what my job was.” Constructed as a series of long, looping, digressive, self-referential sentences, Hall’s novel returns to this question again and again, hovering over the same details from different angles, repeating the same sentences but shifting the accents. The struggle to articulate becomes the main mode of the book, exemplified by the way Hall’s sentences double upon themselves. But as the story draws to a close, its narrator comes across something else: negation. She won’t reduce her art by pinning it down; she won’t even describe it. Hall’s narrator turns the impulse to use obsession as a means of discovery against himself. Instead, his sentences drag on and on to avoid having to jump to any conclusions. “What was important, she wrote, was not finding the right words.”
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