I haven’t been keeping a strict list of books read during 2014 so this won’t be a strict list of best books, but rather a recollection of the most memorable reading experiences. Which itself leads to an interesting question. How much does a book have to stay with you after finishing it for it to be a good book? I ended my TLS review of Mary Costello’s remarkable Academy Street with the observation that I wasn’t sure if Tess was “the kind of character to stay with the reader long after the book is closed, but during the reading of it she is an extraordinary companion.”
I was discussing the book with David Hayden of Reaktion Books, and the name Deirdre Madden sprung up, whose latest novel Time Present and Time Past I’d just read. I said that I’d hugely enjoyed her earlier book Molly Fox’s Birthday, and that although that judgment stood – that it was a good book – I honestly wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything that happened in it at all.
What books have stayed with me, then? For new novels, Zoe Pilger’s helter-skelter semi-satire Eat My Heart Out and Emma Jane Unsworth’s more groundedly rambunctious Animals both offered up visions of contemporary Britain that I found winning and accurate, or appropriately overdone. Unsworth’s had the thing I thought Pilger’s lacked (though there was more at stake in Pilger) – a sense of where the character might be heading at the end of the dark trip of the narrative. Thinking back on Pilger’s book now, it occurs to me – and I wonder if it’s occurred to her– that Anne-Marie would make a superb recurring character. She’s great at showing where London is, a decade or so into the century. She’d be a useful guide to future moments, too.
The characters I spent the most time with over the year were Lila and Elena from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, aka My Brilliant Friend. I read the first volume early in the year, having been previously blown away by the gut punch/throat grab/face slap of The Days of Abandonment. I read the second and third Neapolitan volumes on holiday in the summer. I was reviewing it, so my proof copy is full of scribbles, but the scribble on the final page of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay says just: ‘Wow’. As has been said before, these books do so many things – European political history, female friendship, anatomisation of Italian society, child to adult growth and adult to child memory – but it does two things that I found particularly powerful.
The first is that it offers the kind of family saga that seems to have passed me by until now – that I might have thought to be rather suspect, a guilty pleasure. The second is that it answers the Franzen problem – that women’s writing gets called ‘domestic’ where men’s writing gets called ‘state-of-the-nation’. Well, the Neapolitan novels are state-of-the-nation, to the very extent that they are domestic. Because they describe the female experience, they show the limits imposed by society on that experience. The books contain a whole secondary shadow narrative about Italian society – taking in organised crime, capitalism, politics – that only becomes visible when those things impinge on the women’s lives: when Lila gets propositioned by the factory boss, or when Elena sees how the anarchist students treat women activists. Which is another way of saying that perhaps the worst kind of writing, male or female, is the writing that accepts the conditions imposed on its characters.
I also read Ferrante’s two other short novels, Troubling Love and The Lost Daughter, and the selection of interviews collected as Fragments, prior to participating in the London launch of Those Who Leave… and I thought that had brought me up to speed with all her published work. But no, noodling around the internet I discovered that she has also written a children’s book, La Spiaggia di Notte (The Night Beach), that seems to link in superbly to her other work, and needs to be translated, Europa Editions! Ferrante is the writer I’ve been recommending to people the most this year. Depending on the person, I push them towards either My Brilliant Friend, or The Days of Abandonment.
Alongside Ferrante, the other highpoint of my reading this year was David Markson’s 1988 novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress. I’d read his later and not dissimilar This is Not a Novel a while ago, and though I’d been piqued and amused by it, I hadn’t been punctured. It hadn’t hit home.
WM, like Not a Novel and the two other books that form a loose quartet, is a collection of fragments, marshalled by an organising presence, elsewhere simply Author, though here an unnamed woman who is the last person alive on earth, at present holed up in a house on the beach on Long Island. Many of the fragments are recollections of cultural trivia, here interspersed with notes on her life of mere subsistence on a planet that although truly lonely seems not unwelcoming.
One thing that does happen to be known is that Vermeer was another painter who went bankrupt, however.
Although it was actually his wife who did that, not long after Vermeer died.
As a matter of fact she owed a considerable bill to the local baker.
This baker was also in Delft, of course, so one is willing assume it was not the same baker who had himself once been a pupil of Rembrandt.
And so on.
It’s this contrast, between the unpeopled landscape and the woman’s neurotic attempts to people it with her store of accumulated facts and memories, that makes the book a genuinely powerful piece of work, where Not a Novel is simply diverting.
In his Afterword, David Foster Wallace argues that the novel explores what it would be like to live in a “Tractatusized world” – i.e. a world ruled by Wittgenstein’s “abstract mathematical metaphysics” – but for me it does something far less ambitious. It revives that perennial adolescent fantasy of being the last human left alive, but in a way that transcends callow post-apocalyptic narcissism to resonate with the more measured narcissisms of my adult life. Just as sometimes it crosses my tiny stupid mind how wonderful it would be to be locked up in prison, just to have all the cares of my first world, middle class existence lifted from my shoulders, and time to think and read (so long as books are allowed, of course), so when I read about Markson’s woman roaming the planet, demolishing houses for firewood, I enter into the novel as into a private fantasy. If only, I think, if only that were me.
Not just for the peace and quiet, and for the ease with which she can slip into the great art galleries of the world to gaze on all those old masters without the sodding crowds, but for the simple, monstrously appealing reason that she is able to use all the time afforded her to put into order the lifetime’s worth of cultural detritus that she has amassed, about Vermeer, Rembrandt, Cassandra, William Gaddis and the rest of them. That’s what makes this such an appealing fantasy, such a consolation: that it suggests that all this information we’re piling up, day after day, page after page, review after review, classic after classic, afterword after afterword, will all one day make sense, when we finally have time to sit down and think it through.
That’s why I find it annoying that the back cover copy has that this is “the story of a woman who is convinced – and may ultimately convince the reader as well – that she is the only person left on earth.” Who needs convincing? There is no earthly reason not to believe her, other than the sophisticate’s desire to psychoanalyse and interpret and judge, to uncover motives for pity where none are needed. (There is the small fact of a dead child – a piece of psychological circumstantial evidence. Oh, and the complete absence of other people – no bodies, no mass graves, as in your average post-apocalyptic movie – I grant you that, but still.)
Play it as it Lays, by Joan Didion (1970)
Speedboat, by Renata Adler (1976)
Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill (2014)
These, too, I loved, but – different though they are to Deirdre Madden – they exist more to me now as remembered form than content. The Adler, on the desk in front of me, seems to have sucked all its meaning, all its significance, back into its pages. I look at it, and can’t think that I’ve ever read it. Which needn’t be a bad thing. Skimming back through the pages now it looks like the antithesis of the Markson. It is opaque, unconducive to assimilation. My scribbled notes:
Evidence for a thesis that is never quite propounded. Irony as reticence that never reveals if it hides a definite position, or none at all. Observations that never quite solidify into aphorisms. No world view, and no consciousness that all this matter could be worked up into a world view, this material into a plot, this set of traits and positions into a character.
What’s missing is the character, the plot, the scenes that would stick in the mind, allow the reader to construct a narrative of reading that would then allow us to shelve the book in the mansion of our memory. (I’ve just bought Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read, and I think this may well help me conceptualise some of this stuff.)
The Offill I lent to someone and now can’t track down, but I do remember being put off, at first, by its whimsy, and then being increasingly bowled over by its panicked control.
The Didion, my first novel of hers, I breezed through – it is much more of simple, eyes-on-the-road, narrative-minded novel than either the Adler or the Offill. There’s that comment from Didion in her Paris Review interview that the abortion scene in the book is “a narrative strategy” – i.e. the book is much more about orienting the reader through its pages by way of forward momentum than is the case in the other two books. It occurred to me reading it how much Don DeLillo must have learned from it – the descriptions of driving, that take manoeuvres across motorway lanes like some kind of statement of moral-aesthetic mettle. Its lightness, that must have seemed violently anti-social at the time, now reads distant.
As can be told from this list, I did try to keep the #ReadWomen2014 campaign in my mind as I made my book choices this year. Other happy results of that include my first Elizabeth Bowen (The Heat of the Day – superb, if daunting: read my associated post here), my first Jean Rhys (Good Morning, Midnight – thoroughly good), my first Penelope Fitzgerald (The Gate of Angels, effacing itself, a little, now), a third Iris Murdoch (Nuns and Soldiers) and a fourth Brigid Brophy (The Snow Ball – quite, quite wonderful). Because I haven’t kept a list, I can’t give stats as to books read, but my reviews folder gives me, for full-length print journalism reviews an exactly equal count of nine female and nine male writers.
(I’ll point out here the sad fact that the page on my blog listing review of Randall, my debut novel, which was published by Galley Beggar Press, lists only female reviewer.)
That Murdoch, incidentally, is a bit like the Ferrante in its soap/family-saga-ishness, inviting you to interest yourself in the more or less ordinary life experiences of some more or less ordinary characters, and lifting into dramatic scenes moments that might, normally, be rather more dissipated and diluted. Yet still there were moments when high drama did seem to push through the page, to make you feel anxiety for the characters, make you live your life at the speed of the words on the page. There are scenes and moments in that book, in other words, that I have easily been able to renarrativise to myself, that spring to mind when I think of the book, that stand in for it and make it memorable.
I did have quite a Patrick Modiano jag after his Nobel win, and am glad I did, reading two books in English and one in French before moving on to the three newly translated novellas, which I reviewed. All of his books cast some kind of eye over France during and after the war, collaboration and criminality, and often the deportation of the Jews, and his The Search Warrant covers all these bases in a seemingly straightforward, anti-fictional package that makes a point of holding your gaze and looks, in retrospect, like the answer to anyone who might complain that WG Sebald has kind of cornered that market. I also very much enjoyed reading Rue des Boutiques obscures in the original French.
The pits of the year, reading-wise, was speeding through Lucky Jim during my preparation for giving a paper at a conference on Geoff Dyer. What a shallow, joyless, vicious book that is. (You can read a version of the paper online at The Threepenny Review.)
My other reading project this year has been the Novella challenge – an attempt to not just read but blog about all 52 of Melville House’s The Art of the Novella series. You can read more about that here.