In going back through my Monthly Reading blog posts for the year I’ve identified 12 books published this year that I more than thoroughly enjoyed, that I think are great to brilliant examples of what they do, and that I feel will frame and influence my future reading. (A thirteenth, The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, is not pictured because I’ve loaned it to someone.)
A quick scan of the books shows me Faber have had an excellent year – four of the twelve – and it’s no surprise that Fitzcarraldo and CB Editions show up, both publishers very close to my heart. (It’s only fair to point out that those books were complimentary/review copies, as was the Heti and the Johnson. All others bought by me.) And a shout-out to Peninsula Press, whose £6 pocket essays are a welcome intervention to the literary scene. Eight women to four men writers. Only one BAME writer. Two books in translation. Two US writers.
I’m not going to write at length again about each book, but rather provide links to the original monthly blog posts or reviews, but I do want to take a moment again to think about Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which seems to stand out for me as a Book of the Year in a more than personal way. In a year that the “difficulty” or otherwise of Anna Burns’ Milkman (which I haven’t read, and very much want to) became a hot topic, I think it’s worth considering just how un-difficult Rooney’s book is, and how that absence of difficulty, that simplicity, that ease-of-reading – allied to the novel’s clear intelligence – is central to its success, both as a novel unto itself, and more widely. You can see precisely why an organisation like Waterstones would make it Book of the Year: it is utterly approachable; it finds an uncomplicated way of narrating complicated lives and issues.
I read Normal People in September, a borrowed copy, but bought it again recently, and was pleased to find that Marianne and Connell drifted back into my life without so much as a shrug. I think it’s a brilliant accomplishment, while I’m also very aware that this is a book aimed squarely at me: white, middle class, educated. I embrace it because it reflects my situation and concerns, and in addition romanticises and bolsters the generation I now find myself teaching at university. I want it to work, and it does, for me.
Yet I am astonished that it does so much with so little. Present tense, shifting close third person narration. Unpunctuated dialogue. A drifting narrative almost without plot, chopped into dated sections.
I wrote here about how I didn’t want to have to buy it in hardback (though I did) and I wrote here about how these anti-technical techniques made the book a potentially dangerous model for Creative Writing students – it looks like you can get away with Not Much – and it is true that Rooney’s book seems to throw a harsh light on some of the other books on my list, sitting with it in that stack. They seem to be trying so hard: Jessie Greengrass’s Sight is so unashamedly intelligent, Will Eaves’s Murmur so oblique and poetic, Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest so formally inventive (and in a number of different ways), Sheila Heti’s Motherhood so disingenuous in its informality, its seeming-naturalness. (I hope it’s clear that I love these books for the very aspects I seem to disparage.)
By contrast, Normal People seems written at what Roland Barthes called ‘writing degree zero’, by which he meant writing with no pretension to Literature – “a style of absence which is almost an ideal absence of style”. His model for this is Camus’ L’Étranger, and the comparison seems apt, except that L’Étranger is written in the first person. Everything extraneous is taken out. It’s interesting to note that David Szalay’s All That Man Is is written in a very similar way to Normal People, the only real difference being the use of single quote marks for dialogue. Yet they seem a world apart to me. Continue reading
My review of Esther Kinsky’s strange, seductive book (novel?) River, set up and down and around the banks of the River Lea in East London. It’s not an area of the city I know particularly well, though I do visit it while reading the book. Part of the reason it has never particularly appealed to me as a corner of London during the two-plus decades I’ve lived here is that it is the part nearest Essex, where I grew up. When I came into London, it was to hit the cultural hot spots – Camden, Soho, the South Bank – and the green-grey rural-natural-urban-industrial interstices between Stratford, Hackney and Walthamstow looked that little bit too much like home. Now, though, of course, that feeling is reversed, and the Walthamstow wetlands, with the small commuter trains passing across them, raised against the sky, bring out a grey-green nostalgia. Perhaps that’s part of why the book appealed to me so much: although I didn’t recognise the changes and losses specific to the area that she records, I could bring my own personal losses to bear.
Here, then, is the review. There is one passage from the book that I didn’t have space to quote, but has stuck with me, about a man in an abandoned warehouse forecourt, burning rubbish in a metal bin, that I’ll add to this post.
Read the review by clicking below:
A woman walks around the streets and river paths of the Lea Valley in east London – that fine example of British “edgelands”, where the urban, pastoral and industrial continually overlap and erase each other. She is an outsider and an immigrant, and many of the people she encounters “drifting in the river of the city” are immigrants, too: Katz the greengrocer; the Croat who runs a charity shop for Bosnian refugees; a former circus performer. This last character is from Germany, like the author, who grew up on the banks of the Rhine and has felt drawn to rivers ever since.
My month’s reading began with Russell Hoban’s Pilgermann and ended with First Love, by Gwendoline Riley, read in a day, started on the train to work, and finished – nearly – on the train home. I read the last five pages leaning over the kitchen counter, eating hobnobs. If it had been light I would happily have stood out on the street to finish it. How does it end? Unexpectedly, desultorily, off-handedly, as it proceeds. It is, I think, the second Riley I’ve read. It’s excellent: a sketch (not a portrait) of a toxic marriage, with the narrator’s other relationships – ranging from also toxic to just failing to simply meh – doodled in the margins. Looking at it now I feel there’s a real risk that, for all my pleasurable immersion in its slantwise take on life, it will evaporate from my mind, as, indeed has the other Riley I’ve read, Joshua Spassky. (Maybe I’ve also read Opposing Positions. I’ve definitely got it. This isn’t looking good.) So, here’s me telling to re-read First Love in five years’ time. Item: “a small, poxed mirror”. Item: “We walked up to the shops, into the throat of the wind.” Item: “Outside the sunset abetted one last queer revival of light.” Item: the handful of walnuts; those final, vituperative rants. If some novels are the equivalent of a nice cup of tea, this book is a cup of tea, spilled. Deliberately, and pointedly.
Hoban couldn’t have been more different. It’s as much an outlier in the Hoban oeuvre as Riddley Walker, which it follows. A middle-aged reel through the Middle Ages, it follows the man (and owl) Pilgermann through some kind of life, some kind of afterlife. It lifts itself into operatic riffs on various religious preoccupations; it’s got walking corpses and terrible battles and Jewish folklore. It starts better than it finishes, though it starts brilliantly. The idea of picking it up again, now, four weeks on, to work out what was going on in it, seems rather too tiring. I prefer his later, more obviously comic novels, that seem to carry themselves more lightly.
Black Waltz, by Patrícia Melo, translated from the Portuguese by Clifford E Landers, is a re-read. I’d been meaning to try it again. It’s a story of a man – a successful international conductor – unhinged by jealousy. With no apparent reason apart from his own delirium, he he decides that his younger wife, a violinist, is being unfaithful to him. He ends up losing much more than her. It’s smoothly gripping, and effectively guts the reader at crucial moments. It reminded me of the early standalone Elena Ferrante novels, especially Days of Abandonment.
My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout. Well: it’s exquisitely written – but I wasn’t fully taken in. Something about the reticence, the distance with which emotions are held, and for what purpose, meant it didn’t work its magic on me as it has on others. I wonder if it’s something to do with American reticence, which has a slightly different tenor to British, or English, reticence. Perhaps Americans see it as less of an inherent national trait, puritanism aside, and so it tastes that bit more delicious to an American palate.
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics – a Christmas present from my sister – was a bit of a frustration. I mean, how many times do I have to read accounts of quantum physics, black holes and the rest of them, before I actually understand them? I don’t think it will ever happen. (It happened, once, briefly, watching Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. I got it, I really did – with the way the characters walked across the stage representing the movement of quarks or whatever they are – but I lost it the moment I left the theatre.) It doesn’t help that Carlo Rovelli uses some hokey metaphors to try to explain his science. When he says that the elementary particles “combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies, of the innumerable stars, of sunlight, of mountains…” and so on, I just can’t see how that helps. That’s not how letters work, really, and I can’t imagine that that’s how elementary particles work either: placed in sequence to form clusters as much made up with reference to the letters that aren’t there as to those that are, these clusters then being themselves arranged in particular sequences, so as to suggest meaning. That’s how the universe is made? No, it’s not.
River (by Esther Kinsky, translated by Iain Galbraith) and Sight (by Jessie Greengrass) are there because of reviews, still forthcoming. An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk… was homework for that review. (Review links added, to The Guardian and The White Review)
Flight was (re)read for the MA Creative Writing module I’ll be teaching this semester. It’s a great blokey literary thriller, a little too on-the-nose in the way it looks for flight metaphors, but agreeably credible in its blend of mystery and violence, and its slow unfolding of human relations, and evocative in its description of the remote Scottish coastline.
Heinrich Böll’s The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (trans Leila Vennewitz) was read as a palette cleanser, because it was so short. But, for a short book, it’s dicey to read, and not just because this old Penguin paperback is going at the spine. At this distance (it was written in 1974) its twin themes of sensationalist tabloid journalism and the furore around the Red Army Faction terrorist group don’t seem to carry equal weight. The journalism stuff seems heavy-handed, but also naïve by comparison with the way news organisations treat individual privacy today, while the terrorism, so much meatier as a theme, is treated less thoroughly. The documentary style is interesting, certainly, and it’s made me want to keep exploring Böll. His stories, apparently, are superb.
Another short book I (re)read in a day is André Gide’s Strait is the Gate, translated by Dorothy Bussy, who features in Kate Briggs’s fascinating book about translation, This Little Art. Picked up because its title accidentally mirrors the title of my current work in progress, it astonished me again with the pure music of its prose, and the aching passion of its story, melodramatic and melancholy at the same time. It’s the story of a young love destroyed by excess religious sense, that sees heaven only in self-denial. It made we well up, and as good as cry, twice. If you read Gide in French as a schoolchild (probably La Symphonie Pastorale) it might be time to pick him up again. I want to go on straight to another of his books. I’ll see what I have. This, though, is a sublime little book.
The stories (Chris Power, M John Harrison, Bridget Penney, in a lovely old Polygon edition) I’ve been dipping into and enjoying. I may write about them next month.
Also read, but not pictured: The Language of Kindness, the forthcoming nursing memoir written by my colleage at St Marys, Twickenham, Christie Watson. That made me well up more times than I care to remember. A stonkingly human book, brilliantly pitched and controlled.