The best books of the year – or rather the books that gave me the best reading experiences. Meaning the deepest, highest, widest, closest, most pleasurable. In all the strange ways we measure pleasure.
Well, I’d better start by saying I finished my complete, first reading of Proust – which I’d started on 1st January 2019 – on 31st May 2020. The plan had been to read the whole thing in a year, but by October 2019 I was still only on volume 4, and the last date that year (I took to writing the date in the margin to mark where I finished reading each day) was 21st October, halfway through that volume. I picked it back up in February 2020, beginning again at the start of vol 4, and made good progress through lockdown. All along I jotted thoughts and posted screenshots on a dedicated Twitter account (@proustdiary), and if I had the time I would try to scrabble together and collate these into something more coherent. It was a major reading experience, yes, full of great highs but also full of longeurs and swampy sections to trudge through. Don’t go reading it thinking it’s like other novels. It’s not.
Other major reading experiences of the year from books not published in the year:
- Middlemarch, read for the first time, on holiday in that odd distant summer window when I was lucky enough (for lucky read privileged) to be able to spend 10 days on a Greek island. Not just a wonderful, exemplary novel, it is also a vindication of the very idea of the Victorian novel, of what it can do: stolid realism, intrusive omniscient narration, all the things we like to think we do without in our literary style today.
- The Third Policeman. I’d tried At Swim, Two Birds before, more than once, and never got far with it, admiring its precocious undergraduate wit without being convinced that it would develop into anything more worthwhile. This one, though, tugged at me from the first pages, and delivered, in all dimensions. The spear, and the series of chests! The lift to the underworld. The ending! My god, the ending. Let me kneel before the scaffold, which must be the best piece of tactical diversionary business in the history of literature. Read it, then let me buy you a beer to talk about it. (By the bye, I’ve been reading Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier, on and off, this last month or so – for so slight a book, it’s taken a long time to get through – and you think: oh man, you have talent, but you don’t have that bastard’s wicked spear, so sharp it will cut you and won’t even notice. “About an inch from the end it is so sharp that sometimes – late at night or on a soft bad day especially – you cannot think of it or try to make it the subject of a little idea because you will hurt your box with the excruciaton of it.” Recommended to me by Helen McClory, to whom I am grateful.
- Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty. My first by him. The kind of writing I feel able to aspire to. Precise building of characters in the round. All tilting towards a moment. That moment in the Anne Frank House. It made me reconsider VS Prichett’s line about a short story being something glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. That particular scene could have made a great short story, and it would have remained a glimpse. Sometimes, however, a novel can be a heavy and ornate or structurally robust frame or scaffold designed to hold a glimpse, and the glimpse hits home harder than it ever would at the length of a story.
- Autumn Journal. My true book of the year. From March to August I read it every day, as I was writing my own poem, Spring Journal, given out first on Twitter, and now published by CB Editions. I learned so much about metre, and rhyme, from immersing myself in it.
But, of books published this year:
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein, Europa Editions, not pictured as lent out) was my novel of the year. Such a relief, to start with, that she was able to follow the Neapolitan Quartet, and with something that was neither a shorter version of those books, nor a return, quite, to the short vicious claustrophobia of the three brilliant standalone novels. It is perhaps less fully distinctive than any of those works – more similar, in scope, to what other people write as novels, but no less pleasurable for that. I read it, along with Middlemarch, on holiday, and it gave me the great pleasure of holiday reading, of allowing reading time to overflow the usually watertight boundaries of hours and activities, of blocking out the world. It’s strange, isn’t it, how we go to lovely places on holiday – places with great views, great landscape, and great climate – and read. I mean, you could lock yourself up in your bedroom and read, for a week, but you don’t. (If you can afford to, you don’t.) There must be something about the climate and landscape that improves the reading, or something about the reading that makes the landscape and climate more precious, for being ignored, or not being made the most of. The Ferrante reminded me of Javier Marías – who, incidentally, I had auditioned for taking on that same holiday, buying Berta Isla in anticipation, but I glanced at it a few times before setting off and, chillingly, found it utterly unappealing and most likely dreadful.
Similar in a way to Ferrante’s quartet was Ana María Matute’s The Island (translated by Laura Lonsdale), another essential discovery from Penguin Modern Classics. I reviewed it on this blog, here. As I say there, it was the incantatory aspect of the narration, calling back over the years to the lost friends, lost love, lost self, that stayed with me from reading it.
2020 saw the publication in translation of Natalie Léger’s The White Dress (translated by Natasha Lehrer, Les Fugitives), the third part of her trilogy of monograph-cum-memoirs that began – in English – with Suite for Barbara Loden, and continued with Exposition (those two were written and published in French in the opposite order). What a set of books these are! As strong on the furious waste of female artistic talent, and the general and specific ways that men, and male social and cultural structures, set out to achieve this end, as anything by Chris Kraus; as simply, naturally adventurous in its manner of navigating its different forms as Kraus or Maggie Nelson. Each book is brilliant, no one of them is put in the shadow by the other two, but the ending of The White Dress – this book is about Pippa Bacca, an Italian performance artist who was abducted, raped and murdered while hitchhiking across Europe to promote world peace – is as sickeningly powerful in its effect as the end of Spoorloos (The Vanishing). You feel helpless. I wrote more about The White Dress in a monthly reading round-up, before these petered out, here.
I chose Nicholas Royle’s Mother: A Memoir (Myriad Editions) and Amy McCauley’s Propositions (Monitor Books) as my books of the year for The Lonely Crowd. They’re both brilliant, and you can read my thoughts on them here.
Another memoir that I devoured, and that gave me tough minutes and hours of thinking and reflection, even as, on the page, it sparked and effervesced, was Rebecca Solnit’s Recollections of my Non-Existence (Granta). In a way it’s the opposite to Royle’s book, which is only ever caught up in the flow of time as if by happenstance. Royle’s mother happened to live through certain years, and be of a certain nationality and generation, so the exterior world does impinge, but impinges contingently. (The book is about personality, and how personalities bend towards, away from and around each other in a family.) Solnit’s book, by contrast, is absolutely caught in the flow of time. Solnit is who she is because of when she lived, and lives. In this it’s somewhat similar to Annie Ernaux’s superb The Years, which I wrote about here, and chose for my Books of the Year in 2018. And it’s as intelligent and insightful as Léger’s books, though Solnit has no reservations about writing about herself. (Léger, you feel, can only write about herself by way of writing about others. She is reticent, and so to an extent subject to the ego. Solnit writes memoir without ego.) This is certainly the book of Solnit’s that I’ve enjoyed the most.
From memoir to essays – and yes there is a lot of non-fiction on this list, among the new books I mean. I’m not sure why this is. There are other contemporary novels and short stories (in collections, journals, on their own) that I’ve read this year that I enjoyed, but none of them impacted on me as heavily as these books. Perhaps it’s because fiction is less concerned with its impact on the reader here and now, it drifts into the timeless time of world and story that must, perforce, be largely unlinked to the phenomenal world. By contrast, all these essays address me, here today, and demand something of me. (Incidentally, timeliness is not a guarantee of meaning. I tried reading Zadie Smith’s ‘lockdown’ essay collection Intimations, and found it rather insipid. It seemed like noodles and doodles, when Solnit, Léger and Ernaux, as good as sat me down and talked important things to me, things that needed to be said.)
I very much enjoyed Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory and Other Essays (Atlantic), the essays of which seemed to spring from the world – they are about disaster, ecological crisis, terrorism, things that we know as it were unknowingly. They are unknown knows. The subjects seemed to be held still by Gabbert as if by force of will, in a way that seems different from the other non-fiction pieces mentioned here. They were not a natural outpouring or distillation of insight – as, for example, and famously, was Solnit’s brilliant ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ – but worked pieces, pieces Gabbert had to work at, to get right, topics she had to apply herself to in order understand them, to bring them under the law of her thought. She was forcing herself to think, and we were beneficiaries.
Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo) is a characteristically intelligent, urbane, distinguished set of essays that focus on particular writers by zooming in on – and then building out from – single sentences of their writing. They are master-classes, and they remind me of Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, though that book ranged more widely (James ranged more widely, full stop). Suppose a Sentence is wonderful because what it offers is unapplicable. You can’t use it for anything else. Its lessons are oblique. It’s like a walking tour of a part of the city you’d never found on your own, and never will be able to again.
Exercises in Control by Annabel Banks (Influx Press) was perhaps the most interesting new collection of short stories I read this year. The stories are mostly short, and don’t try too hard to be polished or well-rounded, nor to be artfully extraordinary. But they grab you with their insouciance, their not-caring. The story ‘Rite of Passage’, with a girl (I should say ‘woman’) who crawls into hole in a rock on a beach on a date, was thrilling for its unpredictability. It didn’t quite have the courage of its convictions, in the end, but many of the stories left me feeling deliciously unmoored.
Finally, my other book of the year, it goes without saying, was The Snow Ball by Brigid Brophy, reissued by Faber, my favourite novel of one of my all-time favourite writers, who is hopefully becoming better known. This book was, to some extent, the model for my last novel, The Large Door, set, like Midwinter Break, in Amsterdam. I love The Snow Ball with a reader’s passion, that is say excessive, partial, formed by circumstance and transference.
- The following books were courtesy of the publishers: The Island, The Snow Ball, The Lying Life of Adults, The White Dress, Suppose a Sentence. Thank you to Penguin, Faber, Europa Editions, Les Fugitives and Fitzcarraldo.
Part One of my April 2020 Reading blog post covered the essays of Lydia Davis and Natalia Ginzburg. Read it here.
Apart from Ana María Matute’s The Island (reviewed here) the only other book I finished in its entirety in April was, I think, Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth volume of Proust. I started reading Proust last year, as my 2019 New Year’s Resolution, but stalled after finishing the third volume on my summer holiday. By October I’d abandoned the fourth volume. (I’ve been dating the passage where I leave off each day, as well as posting notes on another Twitter account, @ProustDiary.) I picked the fourth volume back up in March of this year, and finished it in April. I am now most of the way through the fifth volume, The Prisoner.
So: I am making good progress, but in fact lockdown hasn’t given me that much more time to read than normal. It’s not just that I am working, from home, but that reading, in a busy house of five people (two adults and three teenage boys) can sometimes be a hard activity to justify. Sitting with a laptop is work. Sitting in front of the television is generally a communal activity, and one that can bring the family together outside of mealtimes in a way that board games and jigsaws, because of particular personality types, can’t always do. Reading, apart from at bedtime, is likely to get you looked at strangely – more strangely, I’m afraid to say, than looking at your phone.
I have been enjoying Proust very much in parts, and drifting through others. Indeed, I felt particularly skewered by this aside in Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature:
To a superficial reader of Proust’s work – rather a contradiction in terms, since a superficial reader will get so bored, so engulfed in his own yawns, that he will never finish the book – to an inexperienced reader, let us say…
So let’s call me an inexperienced reader. Certainly, there have been plenty of bits where I have been bored, and irritated. Irritated by the fascination with the workings of society, and bored by the endless unfoldings, like a piece of eternal fractal origami, of the intricate inner imbrications of sometimes mundane psychological impulses. More on this later. Continue reading
That pile of books looks more impressive than it should. I didn’t read all of the books there cover to cover. The two MacNeice books arrived only at the end of the month, and so far I’ve only read them scavenger-wise, mining them for the parts about the writing of ‘Autumn Journal’, MacNeice’s book-length poem that I’ve been using as a model for a poem I’m writing on our current Covid-times, called ‘Spring Journal’, that you can read here. I also wrote about Ana María Matute’s excellent novel, The Island, here.
The essays (Lydia Davis and Natalia Ginzburg) I’ve been dipping in and out of, as you should with essays. Reading the Davis is perhaps the odder experience. She is so marked by her style, so wedded to it, you might say, and that style across all her writing is so essaystic anyway, or bellelettristic – and on occasion faux-essayistic, faux-bellelettristic – that the essays themselves seem to almost dissolve in their own solution.
Her stories often read like boiled-down or reduced essays, like you reduce a sauce – but reduced to the level of density and taste that Heston Blumenthal would approve of – but they also often seem to be poking fun at the idea of essays, of the gap between their confidence of delivery and the meaning of what is delivered.
None of the essays in the book are as outright enjoyable as the best of her stories, and the very placidity of her voice – placidly arch, you might say – means I kind of drifted through them. Some of them I must have read three or four times now, without them becoming fixed in my mind, good though they are.
(The essay about fragments, for example: how perfect, how useful, how now, how me: I love fragments! And she is interesting and useful about fragments, and she carefully considers various people who write in fragments, or forms that are akin to fragments, but at the end of it I’m no wiser than I was at the beginning.)
Perhaps she is trying hard not to be showy in her writing, which is good, in a way, but in another way it is not good. Certainly she is never aphoristic. She is only aphoristic in her stories, where she is lampooning aphoristic writing, with its idea that you can boil down wisdom into apercus:
‘Examples of Remember’
Remember that thou art but dust.
I shall try to bear it in mind.
Natalia Ginzburg is, on the face of it, a very different kind of essayist. (For those that don’t know, she was a prolific Italian writer and political activist who lived through the second world war, though her husband was murdered by the government, and lived to the early 90s.) She is not primarily writing about literature, and so about things thought, but about life, and lived experience.
(Davis seems to give the sense in her writing that she has not experienced anything in her life that has not been thoroughly, even entirely mediated by words. If you walked up to her and tweaked her nose, she would be thinking about the word ‘tweak’ before the sense-impression of the physical act had even reached her brain.)
The Little Virtues (published by Daunt Books) is another book that I have picked up more than once, and read bits of, and probably reread some bits of multiple times. Perhaps it took reading it under lockdown to really make it stick. Ginzburg is a simple writer, rather in the way that Davis is a simple writer, but the difference is that I am reading Ginzburg in translation, whereas Davis always reads like I am reading her in translation. Continue reading
I have this problem with the novels of Peter Stamm. I love reading them, but they evaporate from my reading brain after I have read them – like the conceptual artist mentioned in Nathalie Léger’s The White Dress who pushed a block of ice around Mexico City until it melted entirely away. All that is left from my reading of All Days Are Night is a sense of a couple coming together in a ski resort, and an all-night rave of some kind, and of the relationship not working; Seven Years I remember barely at all; To the Back of Beyond is more memorable, perhaps because more high-concept: it is a novel built on an audacious idea that all the same builds that idea into something subtle, and moving.
The only thing I could remember about Stamm’s latest novel, The Sweet Indifference of the World, when I put it in that stack of books read in March, and photographed it with my phone, was the idea of the doppelgänger – which is also foundational to To the Back of Beyond. Beyond that, I could remember not a thing.
Writing this, though, the book has come back to me. It is just as audacious as To the Back of Beyond, and for that reason cannot be described. Let me repeat that Stamm tends to write books that start from an audacious conceit, but which drift away from it, or sink down into it, or in any case hedge or fudge their treatment of that conceit, so that you are never forced to actually judge it in the clear light of day, as you would with a piece of speculative or fantastical fiction that leads you to ask: yes, well, but would it actually work like that?
There is a kind of disintegration loops approach to the writing here – these are thought experiments that are allowed to unfold only so far until they start to disintegrate, while continuing to unfold.
Or: they are Schrodinger’s Boxes novels, that allow their conceits to both be and not be, and honour both in the telling, on the page, where normally things just are.
I’ve just picked the book up and flicked through it: no notes, no underlinings, which is unusual for me. And as I flicked through the book I thought about the nasty trick it plays with its gimmick; and that that’s precisely the reason for having it. It’s a book that undermines its own narrative strategy, or at least its narrator, that kills him off and leaves him alive to see it. It made me think of Simon Kinch’s excellent Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness, which plays a more similar trick, I think, to To the Back of Beyond. There is something to be written about doppelgängers in fiction – not the simplistic Jekyll and Hyde type, but the type of novel that plays with the foundational idea of narrative that the narrator is a stable, indivisible unit. There’s also Geoff Dyer’s The Search. It is only men who write this kind of novel?
A thought experiment novel, I like that. Perhaps also a little like a Borgesian novel, if Borges hadn’t been too lazy (to use his word) to write one, and had had the patience to let his conceit roll out and gradually disintegrate, like the 1:1 scale map in That Empire in ‘On Exactitude in Science’.
Just for reasons of titular symmetry I’ll move from Stamm to Sarah Hall’s The Beautiful Indifference. Now, I’ve never quite managed to get to grips with Hall as a writer: I’ve failed to make significant headway with any of the novels of hers I’ve tried, and although I remember being quite affected by the story ‘She Murdered Mortal He’ – the part with the creature following the woman along a beach in some far off holiday country – and I’m sure that I did get to the end of the story at least once, I was still surprised by that ending when I read it this time.
This time I read it because Hall was again picked as part of a Personal Anthology. Continue reading
January was largely taken up with Simenon – for a piece still forthcoming, for which I tried to read as much of the famously prolific novelist as possible. This was not an entirely rewarding experience. After all, which writer can you honestly binge-read to the extent of weeks and weeks of nothing but them? Bear in mind that your average Inspector Maigret novel is around 170pp long, and you can absolutely blaze through them, so unencumbered are they by much in the way of plot, description or linguistic complexity.
The fact that they are crime novels, that they mostly open with a murder, and are peopled by rough, tough types, don’t stop them being, essentially, soft reads. They are close to Barthes’ Degree Zero Writing. As books, they practically read themselves. This is a good thing, individually: the Maigrets are ideal comfort reads; you can pick them up in confidence that you know what you’re getting. In conjunction, in succession, this is not the case.
Simenon’s romans durs (straight or hard novels) are different. Without the broad, brooding humanity of Maigret – so long as you’re not Jewish, or eastern European, or female and ugly – they give off an acid, acrid stench. Their anti-heroes are nastier than Patricia Highsmith’s basically amoral villains.
So, reading lots of Maigrets back to back was not a particularly edifying experience – in my photo they’re represented by Maigret in Vichy: a fine example. It doesn’t help that Simenon seems to have got more slipshod in the later novels. Nowhere really do the books offer up an ‘extended universe’, beyond the dependable lode stars of Madame Maigret and the inspector’s closest colleagues at the Quai d’Orfèvres, but they do repeat themselves, and they get sloppy. I will go on reading them, and acquiring them in their lovely new Penguin editions, and I will seek out more of the non-Maigrets, but by the time I filed my piece I was desperate for something sparkier, something punchier, something with more heart and mind. I turned to Raymond Chandler, thinking I could make do with one story from Pearls a Nuisance, but actually reading all three of them: the title story, ‘Finger Man’, and ‘The King in Yellow’.
Oh, Chandler is such a joy. Like Simenon he knew well enough to make his hero(s) good, honest men with gruff exteriors, knights in tarnished armour. Like Simenon, he knew that we don’t want Poirot or Holmes-style clever-clever cryptic crossword mysteries; we’re quite happy to tag along behind the detective, picking up clues with them. Bad guys are usually pretty obvious, after all. Most murder is decidedly uncryptic. Unlike Simenon, however, Chandler is a delicious prose stylist, who would never settle for Degree Zero. (He is so even in ‘Pearls are a Nuisance’, in which the first-person private dick protagonist talks like a Dulwich College stuffed-shirt, rather than a laconic, tooth-pick chewing gumshoe; when called on it, he answers:
‘I cannot seem to change my speech, Henry. My father and mother were both severe puritans in the New England tradition, and the vernacular has never come naturally to my lips, even while I was in college.’)
But it’s not just the case of a way with a particular vocabulary. The is a splendid sharpness to the narration in terms of what is told, and what is not. Here is a paragraph from ‘Finger Man’, in which the hero, another standard-issue private eye, comes back to his office to find a client, a standard-issue femme fatale, in his waiting room.
I unlocked the other door and she went in and sat in the chair where Lou had sat the afternoon before. I opened some windows, locked the outer door of the reception room, and struck a match for the unlighted cigarette she held in her ungloved and ringless left hand
The ‘ringless’ is a good detail, but you’d expect that from a private eye. It’s the fact of how that unlit cigarette comes right at the end of the paragraph, like the verb in a German sentence, and the way it sits there, patiently, on the page, shows us that she’s been sitting there like that for a while – for the time it takes him to lock the door and open the windows – waiting for him to light it, in the way of femmes fatales down the ages. And it only takes a second look at that sentence to realise (or guess, if you’re being picky) that he, the private eye, had spotted the cigarette, there in her hand, just as he spotted the ring, at some point in his tour of the office windows, and left her there, waiting, while the rest of the sentence rolled itself out. It’s not narrated, but it’s there. Continue reading
This has not been a good year for me, reading-wise. Last year’s Year in Reading post features a stack of great books published in 2018 that I was able to enjoy and write about as they came out. For various reasons, this year’s stack is much smaller. This might be simply that there weren’t so many good books, or it might be that I lost my taste for them – for books, for reading.
There are some other mitigating circumstances:
First of all, 2019 was supposed to be the Year of Reading Proust, something I set for myself as a new year’s resolution, with a dedicated Twitter account to accompany it, and give me encouragement. It started well, with the first two volumes done over the first two months, but the third wasn’t finished until I was on my summer holiday. The fourth volume, Sodom and Gomorrah, sits by my bed even now. Proust calls for time properly devoted to it – you have to have time to find time, or speculate to accumulate you might say – and time this year was sucked up by other things.
There were four intense reading projects that got in the way: a blitz through some unread Iris Murdochs ahead of a panel discussion at the Cambridge Literary Festival; rereading some Brigid Brophys as I put together a chapter for an academic book; reading and rereading Don DeLillo for another academic chapter; and currently an avalanche of Simenons for a long piece to be published next year. These were and are all fulfilling and exhilarating in their different ways, but ate up much of my reading/writing energy while they occurred.
Work got in the way: academia is becoming more gruelling. (Academia, in part, means reading lots of things fast to find the things I want my students to read more slowly. It means strategic, points-based, results-oriented reading.)
Writing got in the way, for a time: my morning commute, which is often my best time for reading, suddenly gave itself over to the first draft of a new book – that now, alas, languishes at 45,000 words, untouched in two months. I have no idea when I will get back to it.
A Personal Anthology has been a happy distraction: all those short stories to read! Obviously, I don’t read all of all of them, but the project has sent me in many different and rewarding directions.
There were months this year – September and November – when I didn’t read an entire book front to back, though I never stopped reading. Reading just became scatter-gun, fragmentary, a bit of this, a bit of that, snacking, never finding the book that would suck me in and close off the rest of the world. Perhaps this is to do with teaching (I am always looking for useful examples of types of writing, always classifying, always comparing), perhaps with writing (I am always looking for inspiration, for something in a book that will light the fuse under my own writing; a snatch of writing can be enough).
I’m somewhat in that mood at the moment, on the last day of the year. Knowing that I have a big piece of writing work to do in January (academic bureaucracy) and a big piece in February (the Simenons), I find it hard to settle on any book that I feel deserves my full attention.
Or rather I feel I don’t have enough to offer any book that is going to make demands on me, as a reader. And I have too much pride to reach for something that demands nothing from me.
Instead, I reach for books that I think will steady me, will give an intense shot of what I need without having to read all of it – a ‘livener’ I think you’d call it. Something bracing. So, in the last few days I’ve picked up:
- an Alasdair Gray novel from the four I have unread on my shelves. It was Something Leather. It didn’t do the trick;
- a John Berger book I have read before (Here is Where We Meet), hoping that it would match or else steer my self-pitying end-of-year rudderlessness (it didn’t);
- a big book of RS Thomas poems. That did the trick for one bedtime;
- then Alasdair Gray’s wonderful The Book of Prefaces, which is the very definition of the intellectual livener.
- And then see me walking back up the road from the high street, having dropped off a selection of books at the charity shop, reading the opening to Adam Mars Jones’s book of film writing, Second Sight, a steal at a pound, and instantly, though temporarily, feeling invigorated. Here is someone writing insightfully, fruitfully, encouragingly about culture, making it all seem worth while.
None of those books, though, have been read enough to count as Reading. They haven’t been ‘ticked off’.
So if I look back at my Monthly Reading posts from 2019, I find that the new books I read that I loved the most were not new books at all, but just newly translated. Continue reading
Wow! Look at that pile books! Did you read them all?
No, of course not. Don’t be so stupid.
Reading has been tricky over the last couple of months – I managed to completely miss out on my ‘September reading’, beyond taking a photo of the relevant book pile. The truth is, I didn’t read all of ANY of the books stacked up under September with the exception of Klingsor’s Last Summer, by Hermann Hesse, which is really just three stories slung together. (Bonkers in part. Boringly chauvinistic in the main.) The only other books I’ve read in toto since the beginning of September, when I raced through Running Dog by Don DeLillo are:
- Case Histories, by Kate Atkinson
- Topics of Conversation, by Miranda Popkey
- Sanshirō, by Natsume Sōseki
But, as I’ve written before, much of my reading is piecemeal. I mean, look at all those other books I picked up, read a bit of, and put back.
Why is this? Perhaps it is to do with the attention deficit that is supposedly affecting us all. Perhaps it is to do with my job, in which I have to read lots of students’ work. Perhaps it is to do with my online project A Personal Anthology, in which every week I ask someone to pick and introduce a dozen favourite short stories… I mean, it’s not like I read all twelve, every week, but I always read at least a few of them, both those I don’t know and those I do. (For instance, oh man, ‘Gusev’ by Anton Chekhov, as picked by Darragh McCausland!) Perhaps it’s the fact that I happen to be judging the Manchester Fiction Prize this year, alongside Nicholas Royle, Lara Williams and Sakinah Hofler, which means much of my spare time is spent reading entries. And perhaps it’s to do with the fact that this year I set myself the project of reading all of Proust, for the first time. (I’m not going to make it, by the way. But hey-ho, it was always just a project.)
But there is more to it than that.
I write. I review (less, just now). I teach. Much of my life is taken up with books and literature and writing, and for that I’m profoundly grateful. But the constant irruption into my eyes of real, good, meant words from all sides – a river of words bursting into an overwhelmed house through every opening – means that whole books have to fight to stake their claim.
To put it another way, the idea of a novel – which is, to be blunt, my foundational idea of what words, put together, can achieve – has started to seem crucial, less joyous.
The novel is the type of book above all which insists on being taken as a whole. It is a monad, as Leibniz would have had it; an absolute unit, if you know your memes. It ring-fences its words, encases them in a protective membrane, so as to stop you from taking any of them except on its own terms. A story or poetry collection is built to be divisible. A non-fiction book, even a piece of narrative nonfiction, can be thought of as containing information in discrete units, separable and parsable without the whole.
The novel is the thing that says: I only make sense if you read all of me. It’s all of me, or nothing! No cherry-picking allowed.
A novel is best read, in my experience, either slowly and steadily, over a week or two, in sedate and regular portions, so that your imagination comes to a reasonable accommodation both with the narrative pacing and with the demands of everyday life, negotiating between the two of them, making space for one in the other, and for the other in the one – or it is best read at a gallop, picked up at every opportunity, a page snatched here or there, between bites of breakfast, between meetings, between conversations: this novel consuming your every waking thought.
Over the last couple of months, I’ve been able to do the latter – twice, with Topics of Conversation and Case Histories – but not the former, or not successfully. Sanshirō is the kind of book that would work perfectly as a leisurely fortnight’s read: not much happens; the chapters are short; the characters are agreeable. (It might help to know that the book was originally serialised in weekly instalments.) You could read a decent chunk of it on a good-length train journey.
(It is the third novel by Sōseki that I’ve read, and certainly it doesn’t reach the poetical highs of Kusamakura or the tragic depths of Kokoro. It is a calmative, a thoroughly delightful and spring-like story about a young man come from the country to Tokyo to study at the university, but although I enjoyed it, it didn’t fit the slightly frantic rhythm of this particular autumn.)
What does a novel have to do, then, to grab you by the collar and force you to read it? To elbow its way into your life and take up temporary residence? Well, an itchily cryptic plot is one way to do it. Case Histories is the first book I’ve read by Kate Atkinson, though I own maybe four or five of them. I keep picking them up, trying the first page or two, then putting them back. (Probably best skip the next paragraph if you’ve not read it, and get to Matilda Popkey, as there will be plot-spoilers.)
Case Histories is Atkinson’s first novel featuring a now-recurring private eye, Jackson Brodie, and from reading it you’d think that she didn’t particularly intend to ever bring him back: the end of the book seems to gift him with the kind of narrative closure most series-writers would only dream of when they’re 95% sure they want to retire their egg-laying goose. (When they’re 100% sure, of course, they close them down completely.) The book is also at odds with the crime genre itself in terms of narrative structure. It opens with the matter-of-fact description of three unconnected family tragedies taking place over x years – one disappearance, and two murders. It’s a bravura performance, with none of the shivery glee with which the worst kind of crime thrillers serve up dead or gone girls and husband-topping psycho-bitches. But much of the rest of the book’s plotting is devious in the extreme, basically challenging the reader to work out not just the mystery of who did the crimes, but the secondary mystery of how these disparate narratives are going to come together, other than that Brodie is investigating them all. They do, in simple and more tangential ways, but it’s a bit of a slight of hand. You couldn’t write more than one mystery book this way.
That reaction only comes right at the end, however. On the way there you are treated to a wonderful mixture of the plottish and the character-led. The book is character-driven, you might say, but by characters who can’t drive very well. It reminded me of Iris Murdoch, for its plainly, even humdrumly unusual characters – but an Iris Murdoch who either can’t write well, or doesn’t care for good writing. I mean, Atkinson is a whizz at plotting, at characterisation, and there is some splendid dialogue here – I laughed, I turned the pages, zip-zip-zip – but at no point in the book did a sentence slow me down, or make me catch my breath, or suggest I reread it or underline it or tweet. Reading the book was like eating a huge bowl of plain pasta, cooked exactly as you like it, but with no sauce. It seemed almost willed. She’s clearly too good a writer not to know what she’s doing. Now I need to read some of her other books to see if she makes anything else of it.
Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation I won’t go into here in detail, because I hope to be able to review it. It’s an excellent debut that splashes around in the currently warm waters of autofiction. You might say it’s a touch derivative – and in fact it has an incredible two-page acknowledgements section at the back that lists all the books, films, essays, plays and pasta recipes that inspired it, however tangentially. It’s wonderfully in your face. To be glib, it’s Rachel Cusk by way of Sally Rooney. But it deserves something more than glibness. I want to read it again, slower. I’m tired. Some more books just arrived. I’m off to not read them all, from cover to cover.
Many thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the Popkey, which is out in February 2020.
(What a pleasingly alliterative set of author names)
There’s an epigraph that I often remember, from Dave Eggers’ debut A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000 – and boy I wonder if anyone’s read or reread that book recently. It would be an interesting experience.) In fact the book has two memorable epigraphs: firstly, ‘THIS WAS UNCALLED FOR.’; and, secondly:
First of all:
I am tired.
I am true of heart.
You are tired.
You are true of heart.
Both of them sum up the radical sincerity and potential mawkishness at the heart of his writing. Both, because of this, are memorable. They stay with me, because as statements they are so widely applicable – they are applicable now – as well as being pertinent to the book for which they act as curtain raisers, or perhaps, rather, mottos painted on the safety curtain of the book’s theatre.
I am tired. Teaching starts next week. Summer’s over. I am sure that you are tired. I make no claims for the trueness of either of our hearts, but let’s accentuate the positive.
I am tired. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
And but so:
Books are wonderful relaxation. They are also wonderful energising. There’s nothing I love more than grabbing my phone to tweet a response to something I’m reading, whether it’s Don DeLillo describing a woman putting a condom on a man’s penis as “dainty-fingered and determined to be an expert, like a solemn child dressing a doll”,
No big deal, just a DeLillo sentence describing someone putting a condom on a penis. Fuck sake, Don. pic.twitter.com/i5oBTEN1ly
— Jonathan Gibbs (@Tiny_Camels) August 31, 2019
or Lorrie Moore pole-axing the reader with the devastating end to the first page of her story ‘Terrific Mother’.
Here is the first page of ‘Terrific Mother’. Who else would *dare* to open a story like that? pic.twitter.com/vr4qFHJFXR
— Jonathan Gibbs (@Tiny_Camels) August 22, 2019
I’ve been trying to read Proust with my phone to hand, too, as an enhanced form of annotation, and that, too, has been fun and exciting.
Fun and excitement: wow. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
But, sometimes, writing about books can be a chore. It’s a terrible thing that a book, once read, even a good book, can be put on one side and forgotten. What’s the point of all of this, you think, if a book that engages your brain and emotions over a number of hours over a number of days just gets put back on the shelf and, to all intents and purposes, forgotten? Because sometimes they are picked up again. Sometimes they are passed on. My August reading contained left-turns and blind alleys, slogs up stony hills and brief gleefully shrieking slides down sandy dunes. There was reading for work, reading for the soul, reading by accident and reading by design.
The Don DeLillos are there for an academic chapter I’m writing, and I found myself zooming through them. Mao II, a re-read, is far from my favourite of his novels: too slick and portentous, too glib in the way it throws around its themes.
In one aspect at least it’s a victim of its success. The famous riff about terrorists having replaced the novelists at the heart of the inner life of the culture is blandly prophetic, but it’s too on the nose. The other ‘prophetic’ moments or images in his novels – such as the most photographed barn in America, or the playing dead response to the Airborne Toxic Event, are more oblique, more generally symbolic. The writing is spiffing. It’s spiky poetry has just become too easy to read.
Running Dog, by contrast, I enjoyed. I don’t think I’d read it before. It’s more corny in its plotting – closer to a spy thriller or a contemporary hardboiled thriller – and that allows the author to have more fun, and for the punchier writing to stand out from the more familiar skeleton. Another extract I tweeted managed to pick out something that occurred to me elsewhere about the male (I think) approach to language. Here it is: Continue reading
I’m coming out of a hectic and not entirely satisfying couple of weeks of reading. I finished the third volume of Proust on holiday, but didn’t have the fourth with me, which lost me impetus. Then the Booker longlist was announced and this sent me back to Ducks, Newburyport, which I had only dipped into but wanted very much to read. Then there was reading for work (variously, and for various reasons, Nick Harkaway, Don DeLillo) and then I read some short stories from the new editions of Granta and Lighthouse, and then one night I couldn’t work out what to read, so turned to Borges, which is my usual response to this problem, and that kept me going for a couple of nights. An unread secondhand copy of a Herman Hesse book, Klingsor’s Last Summer, beckoned when I wanted something to read in the bath, and I found a Hollinghurst in a charity shop I hadn’t read (The Sparsholt Affair) and read the opening pages of that on the train home. There’s a Penelope Fitzgerald re-read face-down and spine-open somewhere in the house. Then, yesterday, Toni Morrison died, so of course I picked up Beloved for the train home. Honestly, it’s a miracle I finish any books at all.
Here’s what I did read in July, however: three short novels by Mario Benedetti, a Uruguayan writer and poet who died in 2009 and is only now being translated into English. So far Penguin Modern Classics have given us Who Among Us?, The Truce and Springtime in a Broken Mirror. These were all wonderful, three broken-hearted love stories of one kind or another, two of them based around love triangles in which a woman leaves her husband for another man, the other featuring a middle-aged divorcee falling in love with a twenty-something woman working in his office.
So, yes, the vibe is melancholic-masculine, with not all but most of the telling coming from the men’s points of view, giving us the sort of pained, elegiac, romantic narrative that men might sneer at in a similar book written by a woman, and women might roll their eyes at when they read in a book written like this by a man. So there’s a risk that they are overly male-gazey, not a million miles from the kind of thing James Salter wrote at his best, though hopefully in a benign kind of way. (The casual homophobia in The Truce, in which the main character despairs when he learns one of his sons is gay, is harder to squint at.)
I certainly found all three books quite lovely and compelling and drank them down like long cold drinks on a hot day. (I reviewed one of them, Who Among Us?, for The Guardian.) In the review I point out that at least two of the books – Who Among Us? and Springtime in a Broken Mirror – make use of subtly destabilising narrative structures, giving the main characters opportunities to reframe and sometimes retell the events of the story in ways that are effective without being aggravatingly demonstrative. In terms of mood I’d perhaps also say that they have something of the at-a-distance melancholy of Yuko Tsushima’s slim books. I’d definitely recommend them – start with any of them, but why not Who Among Us? It’s the slimmest of the three, and the most seductive in its narrative play.
I absolutely loved Nan Shepherd’s influential nature-writing book The Living Mountain, about her lifelong love for – and built out of her lifelong knowledge of – the Cairngorms. The book was written during the second world war, but not published until 1973. Calling it ‘nature writing’ is somehow reductive, however, despite the beautiful descriptions of animals and especially birds: it seems clear that for her the Cairngorms transcend ‘nature’. Nor, really, is it ‘place writing’. The Cairngorms aren’t a “place”. When she is in them, the mountains become her whole world, so perhaps it should be called ‘world writing’. Continue reading
In truth I’m far too tired to write cogently about books, but the Conservative Party leadership election debate is on television and if I don’t sit and try to bash this out now, I’ll only sit following it on Twitter. So I have this pile of books next me – read during May and the first half of June – and Tiger Bay (Tapestry) playing on my laptop, and a small glass of leftover bourbon, and I’m going to see what comes up.
Lanny I read in sunny May, sitting on a slope above a football pitch, while my son trained ahead of a Sunday league final his team ultimately lost. I’d had the book sitting on the windowsill by my desk for a while. It hadn’t particularly grabbed me the few times I’d picked it up – not like Max Porter’s astonishing debut, Grief is the Thing With Feathers, which I remember reading in proof on a train journey from London to Norwich, tweeting as I went (this is just the start of a thread):
Well Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter is superb.
— Jonathan Gibbs (@Tiny_Camels) April 15, 2015
Dead Papa Toothwort didn’t grab me the way Crow did, nor did I particularly care for the curlicues of found or overheard text from the village that spiralled across the pages – spot on though they were in their surgical skewering of the worst of English parochialism. (It reminded me, too, of Will Eaves’s equally many-voiced, equally ventriloquistic The Absent Therapist.)
Things settled down though, once Lanny and his parents and good old Pete the scruffy, hip, half-retired, half-hermit artist elbowed their way into the narrative and Porter began to show what he’s really good at (apart from springing poetry live from the forehead of prose sentences: can we take that as a given?): the cool, drifting, seductive dynamics of middle-class family life.
So: the growing trusting friendship between Pete and the loveable oddball Lanny; the raw, touching concern of Lanny’s mother for her child, wanting to protect and nurture what is unique and characteristic about him, but fearing what price the world will extract from him because of it; the forgivable awfulness of Lanny’s dad; the almost flirtation between his mother and Pete, that really might just be a genuine mutual sympathy. But in a small village, in any small community, who can tell? Continue reading