Books of the year 2015
Suite for Barbara Loden, by Nathalie Léger, trans. Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Menon (Les Fugitives)
Reading is all about discovery, so this book had me primed for maximum impact. Why? Well, it’s a new translation of a book by a French writer I’d never heard of, about an American actor I’d never heard of, and specifically her sole directorial outing, which scarcely anyone ever has heard of. Wanda (1970) is out of print on DVD, and only turns up very rarely indeed on the festival circuit. Yet, while I’d jump at the chance to see it, at the end of this distinctive and thoughtful piece of writing, I certainly felt like I’d got a handle on it, or rather a handle on what Léger, the author, thinks of Loden, the actor, and on what Loden thinks of her film’s hero, Wanda, and, through her, the elusive, fugitive woman on whose story her movie is based. In hugely reductive terms, this is Geoff Dyer’s Zona meets Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick: an open and intelligent piece of art criticism that drifts into broader critique of social and cultural issues, and is honest about the fact that it can’t do any of these without also being autobiographical. That it is published in a beautiful edition that gives a boutique twist on the classic French livre de poche style, by a brand new British publisher proudly asserting their ownership of an important but overlooked niche, only adds to the charm. Book of the year.
I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus (Tuskar Rock)
All the stuff about the dissolving boundaries between fiction and non-fiction comes together in this revelatory novel-memoir-cultural critique, which has been steadily spreading its influence since its original publication in the US in 1997. The book starts out as a playful wallow in the abasement of unrequited love and failed creativity – as film-maker ‘Chris Kraus’ becomes besotted with a sexy ex-pat sociologist – and ends up performing a measured but comprehensive demolition of the cultural apparatus that is organised to mispresent and devalue her experience, both private and public. If Miranda July’s The First Bad Man set out to eviscerate the idea of the female author as ‘quirky’, then perhaps this does the same for ‘hysterical’. Kraus weaponises the language of critical theory by hauling it out of its safe zone (safe for men, safe for the status quo) and exposing its blandly sexist foundations – exposing herself and others in the process. It’s a high-wire act, and naturally I am reading it very differently from people who were involved or close by at the time, but, as with Knausgaard, we the readers are in the privileged position of being able to distinguish ends from means, and what Kraus comes up with seems more important than any toes she stepped upon during the process. It’s not written with the ‘general reader’ in mind, and I skimmed some of the Deleuze and Guattari bits, but this is off-set by some brilliant, scathing, undiluted writing about desire, and the differing strangenesses of coupledom and – is this a word? – singlitude.
(I reviewed I Love Dick for The Independent: here)
Pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
I met Claire in 2013 when we were both shortlisted for the inaugural White Review short story prize. She won, giving an unimprovable acceptance speech (to wit: “Fuuuuck!”) and, two years later, here is that piece again, ‘Lady of the House’, in a debut full-length publication, that I suppose you’d have to call a linked story collection, though by the time you’ve made your way through it and out the other side, that designation seems singularly inadequate. (By the way, ‘Lady of the House’ was a worthy winner then, and it’s far from the best piece here, the best of which is superb, a tangled new stab at the literary sublime.) Pond, contrary to its static-sounding title, is a gleeful flow of prose, a series of streams all springing from the same source: the world-view of the unnamed narrator, a woman of strange but persuasive habits, and habits of mind, living out in the sticks, and interacting, now frostily, now charmingly, but always credibly with her own weird world, which, weirdly, is quite like ours. The writing brought to mind Thomas Bernhard, for its table-thumping confidence in its own rightness, and,conversely, Lydia Davis, for its permanent state of inquisitiveness as to how the world might be, and how it might be through language. A wonderful debut, then, but it’s the thought of what Bennett might be capable of in the future that makes me gulp. Please let her keep going! Please let her get better!
Grief is the Thing with Feathers, by Max Porter (Faber)
I first read this debut by Granta editor Porter in proof (a far better cover, I’d have to say, before the unnecessary and over-anxious addition of the Baskin-esque crow) and read it straight; read it pure; read it undiluted by press release or even really the blurb. I read it, in others words, in a spirit of discovery, and what I discovered surprised, delighted and moved me. However, it turns out I had been reading it under the vague but largely incorrect assumption that this eye-popping and exuberant mish-mash of poetry, lit crit and memoir was just that: a skewed, kleptomaniac piece of life-writing. If you had lost your wife, I thought, and felt impelled to write about it, but knew that the market for grief memoirs was, let’s say, reaching saturation point (you were a literary editor, after all), then this is exactly the book you’d produce. Once you have that idea in your head, as a reader, nothing in the book’s published presentation does anything to contradict it. Even the fact that it doesn’t come out and say Porter has never lost a wife seems like a tactful confirmation of it. (I’d love to have been in the marketing meetings when it was being discussed.) Still, what’s interesting about it – beyond the fact that it’s brilliantly written – is that it seems to be approaching that famous dissolved boundary between fiction-non-fiction from an entirely different angle than Kraus, Knausgaard, Sebald etc. The problem with those books is that we all know the truth – the sign posts are everywhere – and so we are able to congratulate ourselves on orienting ourselves, seeing the joins, separating the true ghosts from the false spirits. (Our pleasure in ‘correctly’ reading Sebald is predicated on the idea that some other guy, some rube, thinks… splutter, guffaw, wipe a tear from my eye… that it’s all true. When if you’d read it back in the day, without all the contextual groundwork done for you, that’s what you’d have thought too.) So while Porter’s splendidly reanimated take on Ted Hughes’s Crow and the equally splendid father/widower of the book do eventually meet one another’s eyes, and come to an understanding as to what they owe each other, the book and the reader never really do. This is a good thing.
(I reviewed Grief is the Thing with Feathers for The Independent: here. Make sure you don’t end up reading this hilariously misfiring take on it, from, I guess, The Independent on Sunday.)
The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions)
Of course the question of the ‘truth’ of the book’s contents is knocked right out of the park by Ferrante, through the simple fact of having deprived the reader of any earthly means of coming by it. I read this on holiday, and as with the others in the Neapolitan quartet, it is the perfect holiday read: an immersion in a life far removed from yours in time and space, but chiming in its tenor, characters and events at every moment with how life is, here, today, lying in this particular sun lounger, with the sun just there, and a cold beer within reach. You do need time and space to read the books, it’s true. Some people have given up part way through the first volume (which isn’t the best one – Lila and Lenu grow as characters as they grow as people) but I’d be very surprised if anyone has finished Vol I, My Brilliant Friend, and not wanted, not felt impelled, to go on with the others. I strongly remember my feeling the previous summer, on finishing Volume III, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, which ends with Lenu taking off in an aeroplane with her new lover, and feeling myself – my reading self – lift along with her: a physical sensation. So yes, there is a wonderful soapy, family saga aspect to these books, and yes there is little in the writing to make you jump for joy, as you might find on every page with Bennett or Porter, but they are politically vital, and pscyhologically nourishing; they are the answer to anyone who moans that caring about characters is the last thing you should admit to when talking about your reading. Also, this volume, more than the others, as it comes to the end of the story, manages to glide into some deeply weird territory, when the whole enterprise seems to fold in on itself. Don’t talk to me about the ending. She came close to spoiling the whole damn thing with the ending. But that doesn’t stop the four books being a triumph. I’ll reread them one day. When I’m older. And I look forward tremendously to what I’ll find in them, that I can’t find now.
(I wrote about a launch event for Story of the Lost Child at Lutyens and Rubinstein on my blog, here)
I now want to read both of these!
I was deeply underwhelmed by the Ferrante I read, though in fairness I’ve noticed since that it wasn’t one of the ones anyone recommends. Still, it seemed very melodramatic.
The Porter really appeals. I read a really good blog review of it the other day, and will read your Indy review (and the mis-review). Brilliantly written, what’s not to love? Do I need though to read the Ted Hughes first? I haven’t, I’ve barely touched his work (and then only in school in the context of reading Plath).
I saw Bennett do a reading from Pond and I bought a copy, so I will be reading that soonish and I’m glad to see it on your list. It was on John Self’s too, there’s a bit of a groundswell behind it. Clearly someone to watch.
“And having to break off continually to Google Ted Hughes doesn’t help. For the “crow as grief” conceit is not Porter’s invention. After Sylvia Plath’s suicide, Hughes stopped writing. Crow: From The Life and Songs of Crow, a collection of poetry composed 1966-69, was his means of working through his grief. Unfortunately Porter relies a little too much on the reader’s knowledge of this. “Fourteen months to finish the book for Parenthesis Press; Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis … Parenthesis hope my book might appeal to everyone sick of Ted & Sylvia archaeology,” writes Dad. Suddenly, every abstract turn of phrase that had before simply alienated seems decipherable – given a good working knowledge of mid-20th century modernist/post-modernist poetry.”
I rather feared that. The quote though is from the “misfiring” review, which suggests you don’t agree with it?
Didn’t realise the Dickinson reference could be seen as obscure, but I guess it depends on whether you’ve read her work or not. I’ve read Dickinson so that was obvious. I have to admit though, even not having read Hughes I did pick up that grief and crows might be a Hughes’ reference, it’s pretty much the second thing he’s famous for.
Max, hi there – thanks for the comments. Re: the Porter, I don’t think any knowledge of Hughes is essential, though it wouldn’t hurt to have a glance at the Crow poems. Pond is certainly worthy of the attention it’s been getting. I’m hoping I can see her read at some point…
well i’d have to say you should definitely read Porter then – you can test her theory. my theory is that she’s a BAD reader. Porter is far from a cleverclogs set of literary references. in truth there aren’t any ‘references’ to the poems in an intertextual sense; rather, he’s appropriated the *voice* – and done so brilliantly, in my opinion. so please read it, and help us prove the reviewer wrong!
I should probably read Crow anyway, I was just looking at it and I think I’d find it interesting. Funny how intimidating poetry can be. Anything else, even serious classics, I can just read them and form whatever view I form and it doesn’t worry me that people might say “how did you not spot this? This is what it’s all about!” Poetry however always feels like an exam. I don’t think I’m alone in this, and I think it’s what puts so many off. That fear of just not getting it. Odd.
Bennett is a good reader. She has a mischievous tone. It’s fun.
I’ll definitely read the Porter. Besides, on twitter he alerted me to the fact that his brother who used to be half of Vex’d has a new album out, so I kind of at least owe him a reading after that. (Not that I’d fulfil that particular obligation if the book looked bad, I’m not that nice…)