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.
The list of independent presses actively bringing great literature in translation is long and honourable – from And Other Stories to Fitzcarraldo to Les Fugitives to Tilted Axis – but it’s worth remembering that the big guys do do it too. Penguin Classics and Modern Classics have introduced me to writers over the last few years that now feel absolutely fixed in the constellation of my reading: Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy; Yuko Tsushima’s pellucid novels; Mario Benedetti’s urgent romantic inquisitions; Raduan Nassar’s blistering novella A Cup of Rage. To these I can now add Ana María Matute, with her 1959 short novel The Island. These writers were all working between the 1950s and the 1970s, and it feels absolutely right that our (or my) sense of the international landscape should shift to accommodate them.
The Island is not a direct rendering of Matute’s original title Primera Memoria (First Memories). I think the original title is better, although the island setting is important in the way it focuses the narrative inwards. While the Spanish Civil War is burning up the mainland, Mallorca – for that is where it is set – is a held in an almost fairy tale-like trance. There is reference to Never Never Land, and young Matia’s grandmother is like something out of a Mediterranean Brothers Grimm: ancient, domineering and bound to meddle in fates beyond her own limited purview.
Matia is fourteen, and stuck on the island when the war turns her holiday a permanent vacation. She’s holed up in her grand’s grand old house with her cousin, Borja, who is one year older, and his dopey mother Emilia. Matia’s mother is dead, and her father absent somewhere; he may even – gasp! – be a Communist sympathiser. News comes slow from the war, but there is plenty of drama on the island, largely centred around the Taronji brothers, a pair of local fascists happy to threaten and even kill suspected Republicans. They throw one man off a cliff, then poison his family’s well by throwing down it the corpse of their dog, killed especially.
These personal-political barbarities are really just the backdrop to the story of Matia’s coming of age, however. She has a love-hate relationship with Borja, who torments her even as he needs her as a partner in crime, and over the course of the novel she falls in love with Manuel, son of the man thrown off the cliff. (In her introduction the translator Laura Lonsdale explains the anti-Semitism behind these acts, referring to the Xuetes or Chuetas of the island, descendants of Jews either forced to convert to Christianity or to keep their true religion hidden. She shows how Matata uses them, and the persecution of the Jews by the Inquisition, to draw parallels with Spain’s continued persecution of Republicans, that she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to make when the novel was published.)
The novel plays out over a summer, and is a ripe and vivid depiction of place. I was struck by the many powerful descriptions of the sun – not the wonderful bright Mediterranean sun that you might wish for, but something far more oppressive:
Hatred would burst through the silence like the sun, like an inflamed, blood-shot eye through fog. To me the sun on the island was always sinister, because of the way it polished up the stones of the square, leaving them shiny and slippery as bones, like a strange and malignant ivory.
And there was a well between the agaves, where a grey sun licked at the rusty chain.
The sun outside was a silent red thunderclap, more deafening than real thunder.
So we are immersed in young Matia’s experience, but our vision of the island summer is also coloured by the book’s narrative position which places us in a vague distant future, with the adult Matia looking back on the events with something like wisdom, something like nostalgia, and something like pity for the characters – herself included, but especially Borja. She interrupts her narration regularly with parenthesised reflections, many of them starting with the boy’s name, repeated, in a kind of platonic lament:
(Borja, Borja. We may not have loved each other as brother and sister, as the Holy Mother Church demands, but we at least kept each other company. And I ask myself, my poor brother, with your bravado and your hard, proud heart, if you were not just a solitary creature like me, like all young people.)
These interpolations really make the novel, hauling it out of a coming-of-age story into something more powerful. I’ve been trying to remember what this plaintive cry reminds me of, and I can’t quite pin it down. I thought it might be Cendrar’s ‘Prose du Transsibérien’, with its refrain of “Blaise, dis, sommes-nous bien loin de Monmartre?”, which is not it, but it’s as close as I can get.
It’s a great book, unruly and passionate and brutal. The children in it are “malevolent and capricious, with their stubborn wilfulness and stupid arguments”; the adults, to the mind of the adult narrator, fare no better:
(Oh, how dirty and pathetic, how cheap and pretentious adults were.)
No one comes out of the summer well, but the dirt and the sun and the calm eye for human viciousness will leave you exhilarated.
Thanks to Penguin for the review copy of the book.