Never one to waste words, Leonard Cohen answered succinctly when he was asked to define success: “Survival.” This was around the release of his 2012 album, Old Ideas, and it felt pertinent, not because Cohen sounded past it on songs like “Show Me the Place” and “Amen” – far from it – but because he was 77-years-old and, as events this year have shown, great artists can be taken from us while they’re still creating important work. That’s one thing that makes their deaths so sad but Cohen was occupied with these themes long before he was an old man. On 1992’s The Future, he sings: “Love’s the only engine of survival … ”
In January, I wrote here about literary surprises, how every year a book comes from nowhere to fix itself in readers’ imaginations. Would that happen in 2013? Would any work unsettle and exhilarate me as Open City did in 2011? Or prove as strangely thrilling as Leaving the Atocha Station in 2012? The answer is ‘no’ because exceptional books immerse us in their individual qualities. But I did read Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing in awe as, with a prose style that feels like it’s all her own, she landed the visceral blows that made Adam Mars-Jones remark: “If every book was as intense as this, reading literature would be even more of a minority pursuit than it already is.”
The best film I saw this year came from an artist who’s benefited from relaxing his style. I disagree with those who consider Noah Baumbach’s previous work joyless but what 2013’s Frances Ha offers, that’s perhaps missing from The Squid and the Whale (2005) and Greenberg (2010), is what one critic called “the prospect that life may hold satisfactions beyond survival.” Watching Frances fail as a dancer, lose her best friend and fall over in public can be excruciating. Her miserable experiences of menial jobs made me recall being sacked from a language school because Catholic students complained when I took the lord’s name in vain, being sacked from a call centre because I accidentally saved a sexual comedy-in-progress to the intranet and being sacked from a café because I couldn’t mix a milkshake. The most disappointing incident occurred when, having landed the cushy summer role of minding a bookshop in a seaside town, I went in to the stockroom on day three and nodded off.
Months after I’d stopped working at the bookshop, and returned to the safety of education, I saw a news report about coastal flooding and there was the bookshop, brimming with water. Next time I visited the town, I was surprised to find the bookshop back in business. It had increased its range of titles, wised up about whom it employed and, as the years passed, I became an occasional customer. I was in there last weekend, in fact, buying lots of books because everything was reduced by 75%. Sorry to say that, after surviving my stewardship and the flood, the bookshop was closing down.
Standing among the bookshop’s bare shelves, I wondered if, when it comes to defining success in 2013, we are all Leonard Cohen. But should we desire more than survival? Three writers, who I revisited recently, considered this topic. The first was Henry David Thoreau who, in Walden, wrote about living deliberately – “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life” – while the second, William Faulkner, said in his 1950 Nobel Lecture: “Man will not merely endure: he will prevail”. But as we remember surprises, survivors, and those who didn’t make it to the end of 2013, the writer who looms largest is the one who wrote of keeping going.