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
I turned to The Counterfeiters this month after rereading and thoroughly enjoying Gide’s Strait is the Gate, which I’d read when a teenager, along with his lyrical and prophetic The Fruits of the Earth. I’d also read his more straightforwardly existentialist The Vatican Cellars, but for some reason had never got around to this, his other longer novel. I preferred Strait is the Gate, I have to say, for its gem-like precision. Nothing is wasted; everything is focused on the tragedy of the novella’s central relationship. The Counterfeiters (translated again by Dorothy Bussy) is one of those novels that must have been terribly shocking when it came out, for its depiction of nihilistic young French men talking about setting up avant garde literary journals, and probably being homosexual. Shocking – or thrilling, if you get a thrill from the idea of other people being shocked by what you read.
None of that really carries over today. It reads like the sort of literary ‘group novel’ that crops up every now and then. I remember one, by an author I know can’t remember, called All the Sad Young Literary Men, which is a great title absolutely not in need of a novel to justify it. Nor, really, is there any shock to the aesthetic frisson of Gide breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the reader about his characters, and his confusion about where the novel is going. Admittedly the frisson is greater than, or different to, that in, for example, Tristram Shandy, because The Counterfeiters is not “Shandy-esque”: it is by and large a realist novel, and not interested in playing postmodern games, so the gentle looks-to-camera do give something of a jolt. It took me a couple of weeks to read the book, largely at bedtime, and I admit that I rather lost track of who all the disaffected young men and their decadent older friends were, and got them all confused with each other, meaning that the moral impact of the narrative was lost on me. But the Wildean dialogue was enough to keep me amused.
The last book I read in the month was Petite Fleur, by Iosi Havilio, translated by Lorna Scott Fox (And Other Stories, proof copy, for which much thanks!). This is a book short enough to read in one day, on the commute to and from work – though admittedly snowy delays did rather help with the logistics of that. This Argentinian novel carries comparisons on its cover to Tolstoy and César Aira, and the second of those is spot-on in terms of its gleeful, light-as-air ludicrousness – that bottoms out into terrible clarity just when you hope it won’t. I shan’t say much about the plot, as its pleasures come through its masterful sequences of bluffs, feints and double-bluffs, and these deserve not to be spoiled. I’ll say, though, that while it took me a fair few attempts to learn how to enjoy Aira’s output (by taking each book as a part of a broad, diffuse project, rather than a fully independent entity) Havilio manages to build that bold sense of randomness into this one book. The Tolstoy comparison is more uncertain. You’ll see why it’s mentioned when you read the book, but really we’re closer to Gogol than Tolstoy, in the book’s full-pelt playfulness with what readers think novels should be. I realised ten pages in that I’d tried to read it once before, and given up on it. I can see now that I must have been distracted. Elements that I had found merely confusing, before, now carried the full charge of the absurd. It’s a shame, too, about the title, which again makes sense when you read the book, but is hardly representative, and is frankly a bit shit. If Fever Dream hadn’t already been taken, you could call it Fever Dream. I preferred this to Schweblin’s book. Continue reading
The Back of Beyond by Peter Stamm (Granta)
This is my third (or fourth?) Stamm novel, and before I picked it up I was worried I was beginning to settle into something of a pattern with his books. While I’m reading them, I’m transported; the prose – as before, in Michael Hofman’s translation – is impeccable; the situation presented is both eminently plausible and horrifying suggestive. This is realist fiction with the skin peeled off, showing modern human beings (genus: white, usually middle-class Europeans) at their most ordinary, but vertiginous. There, you think, there but for the grace of God – or possibly the grace of Peter Stamm. But, when I think back to some of the previous Stamms I’ve read, I find they have evaporated in my memory, or else reduced themselves to vivid, isolated moments. This one, I can guarantee, will not do that.
The ordinary couple at the heart of the story are a middle-class heterosexual couple, the parents of two young children, just returned from a holiday and preparing for the return to school and work. Only, while Astrid is upstairs, settling their son, her husband Thomas just… walks out. He puts down his wine glass and leaves through the garden gate. Brilliantly, Stamm treats the reader to both sides of this drama, giving us the disappearance and its aftermath in alternating sections told from Thomas and Astrid’s perspective. Novel of the year?
Being Here is Everything: The Life of Paula M Becker, by Marie Darrieussecq, translated by Penny Hueston (semiotext(e)/Text Publishing)
I reviewed this for minorlits, and stand by my assessment, that it is as good as 2015’s Suite for Barbara Loden. They’re similar books in that they’re biographical essays that take a fresh approach to the now familiar job of bringing into the light the lives and work of unjustly forgotten female artists. For both books, that approach involves a personal and fragmentary style that seems to avoid the usual biographical narrative, as if there is something inherently monolithic and stultifying to it, as if it is secretly in service to the patriarchy.
Whereas Natalie Léger’s portrayal of Loden’s treatment by her husband and director Elia Kazan is unambiguously critical, Darrieussecq is more uncertain about the role of the poet Rilke in Becker’s life. They had a close connection. He wrote a long commemorative poem about her on the anniversary of her death, but did not name her in it. He could have done so much more, she deserved so much more. Non-fiction book of the year.
An Overcoat by Jack Robinson (CB Editions)
Charles Boyle’s CB Editions is one of my favourite indie presses. It’s a true one-man operation, based on Boyle’s excellent taste, no-bullshit attitude and willingness to stand in line at the Post Office with an armful of Jiffy bags on a regular basis. So I was sad at this year’s news that the press is going into semi-retirement – but I was cheered by the arrival, this year, of not one but two small books by Boyle himself, writing under his pen name Jack Robinson. Robinson is a righteously angry book about Britain, Brexit, boys’ schools and the legacy of colonialism, but it’s An Overcoat that has stuck with me, for its delightful hop, skip and a jump along that unstable line that separates fact from fiction.
In it, Henri Beyle (known to most of us as Stendhal, author of The Red and The Black) finds himself in an afterlife in small-town England. He hangs out in cafes, tries to date a woman called M, treats the life of contemporary Britain to the dispassionate observation we wish we had time and the eyes for. Unbeknownst to him, however, the book’s author is annotating the narrative with reference to Beyle’s life and work. It is about as far removed from an academic book on Stendhal as you could imagine, but it is very true to his spirit – true to Boyle’s lifelong love of his writing – as well as being true to the spirits of, for example, WG Sebald, Rachel Cusk, Patrick Keiller. Boyle is one of Britain’s best publishers. He is also one of its most intriguing experimental novelists. If he sold as many books as he deserves to, he’d be a National Treasure, and we cannot allow that to happen. Neither-one-thing-nor-the-other of the year.
Blue Self-Portrait by Noémi Lefebvre (Les Fugitives)
In my review of Blue Self-Portrait for the TLS I described it as Bridget Jones as told by Thomas Bernhard, which was glib. But what Lefebvre does, that is at least partly Bernhardian, is treat the neuroses of her female narrator as worthy of close attention. The book is a plotless wonder, a short ride in the fast machine of a narrator’s overheating, near-to-stalling consciousness – in this instance, a woman flying back from a city break in Berlin to her home town of Paris, accompanied by her sister. Mostly what she’s thinking about is the German male composer she met there and had drinks with, but didn’t accompany back to his apartment – though the romantic aspect of their not-quite-relationship is the least of it. This is neither a love story, nor its opposite. It is about personhood, about how we dare to try to be someone different from other people, and the risks that this entails.
Under My Thumb, edited by Rhian E Jones and Eli Davies (Repeater Books)
I picked this up on spec in Waterstones at Waterloo (good that they’re giving table space to indies like Repeater, which is run by the former staff of Zero Books) in part because I’m writing a novel at the moment set in the music industry – that treats, in part, the issue of sex, as in the issue of groupies, as in the issues of misogyny and sexual predation. I’m trying to address the difficult question of whether it is possible to even imagine rock and pop music without sexual oppression, and the slightly more straightforward question of what we should do about rock and pop stars who abused their power to sexually manipulate women, and girls, in the past.
What’s useful, for me, about this collection of essays is how the authors put their own love of music (rock, pop, hip-hop, soul) on trial. How can you deal with the fact that you love the Stones, Spector, Tupac? How and when is it possible to separate the art from its creator? Standout articles include Fiona Sturges on her love for AC/DC, which she was able to pass on to her daughter until it came to the idea of seeing them live, and Frances Morgan on Michael Gira from US alternative band Swans, who has been accused of abusive behaviour by an ex. Morgan is a fan, and has interviewed the musician in the past. Her essay is a thoughtful exploration of her feelings around the situation and the ethical implications. There have many similar pieces since the Weinstein vocalisation, but this was written before that explosion. The book is full of women thinking carefully about their responses to the actions of culturally significant men. As such, you might call it a mirror for magistrates.
My House of Sky: The Life and Work of JA Baker, by Hetty Saunders (LIttle Toller)
I was looking forward to this book ever since the estimable Little Toller books launched their crowdfunder for it. JA Baker was the author of The Peregrine, one of the seminal works of contemporary nature writing, published in 1962. It’s a strange book that is short on what you’d call proper ornithology, and very much faces in the opposite direction to the whole ‘nature as therapy’ subgenre that has led to books like H is for Hawk. It follows Baker’s obsessive hunt for the falcon across the reclaimed coastal landscape of the Essex coast over a series of winters. (It’s a landscape I know well from my childhood, as the son of an Essex birdwatcher; I found it dull then, but – no surprise – am haunted by it now.) Baker made a point of identifying himself with the peregrine in his book, but it’s the land, not the bird, that he seems to disappear into.
The Peregrine was a big success, but Baker wrote one only other book, which flopped. Other than that, he stuck to his marriage, his Chelmsford council house and his birdwatching, but suffered from encroaching ill health until his death in 1987, at the age of 61. Saunders has done a good job in fleshing out the mystery as best she can, and the book is beautifully produced, with reproductions of Baker’s maps and notebooks that recall Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair’s book about David Rodinksy. But in truth Baker was no Rodinsky, and what there was in him that was interesting, you’d have to think, he successfully poured into his one great book. So, while this is a book that was called for, and one to cherish, it is perhaps a slight disappointment for those of us who had invested so much in the areas of Baker’s map that had previously been so tantalisingly blank. Some blank areas on the map, I suppose, are blank because there’s simply nothing there.
Essayism, by Brian Dillon (Fitzcarraldo)
A brilliant disquisition on the essay form, that successfully sidesteps the pitfalls of that particular meta-form, which include banging on about Barthes, Montaigne and Sontag all the time, and coming across as immensely pleased with yourself. Thankfully, Dillon is as self-lacerating as he is intelligent, and this book (like The Dark Room, which I reviewed back in the day, and which Fitzcarraldo are bringing out in a new edition next year) is an acute piece of self-criticism, repeatedly backing into short, unexpected jolts of memoir. It also quotes one of my very favourite passages, from one of my very favourite books, something that made me shout with joy when I saw it.
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial, by Maggie Nelson (Vintage)
I was blown away by The Argonauts when I read it last year, and so I leapt at the chance to read Bluets (2009) and The Red Parts (2007) when Vintage reissued them this year. Bluets I found a little dull (I wrote about it, sort of, here), but The Red Parts gripped me completely. It is Nelson’s account of the trial of Gary Earl Leiterman for the murder of Jane Mixer, Nelson’s mother’s sister, 36 years earlier. It is not a piece of true crime. It is an investigation of various emotional states, and of the ability of writing to capture these, and the risks involved in this. It had me thinking about James Ellroy (whom I used to read a lot) long before Nelson lays into him, decisively. This isn’t quite as mind-shifting as The Argonauts, and it does make me wonder what Nelson will write next. She has a lot to live up to.
After Kathy Acker, by Chris Kraus (Allen Lane)
A third biography in my selection: I seem to be conforming to the stereotype of the reader who drifts from novel-reading to biographies as they age. Why? Well, because, knowing more of the world, you are more able to measure non-fiction against it; and because what comes naturally as a teenager and young adult – imagining yourself into the character of any protagonist – becomes harder as you see how options fall away from around you the further through life you go. I am not particularly interested in Acker as a writer – I tried reading Blood and Guts in High School, sent to me alongside a proof of this biography, and found it pretty repulsive, to be honest. But clearly she was an interesting person, and sometimes the price of learning about and understanding interesting people, and their place in the culture, is reading their books. After all, at the time when Acker was doing the interesting things she did (which included writing books whose interest lay elsewhere than in what they were actually saying), there was no Kraus to write about her. Now there is, and Kraus proves herself an admirable biographer. Parts of I Love Dick were rather heavy on the critical theory, but she is clear about Acker’s dalliance with theory what she brings to bear on Acker, in London, LA and New York, is always clear, always credible. She is also generous with her attention, looking, as does Darrieussecq in her book about Modersohn-Becker, to the partners of important artists, when their work has sometimes been unjustly overshadowed.
The Proof, by César Aira, translated by Nick Caistor (And Other Stories)
This is the third Aira that I’ve tried, and the first one that really clicked. I’m beginning to appreciate his modus operandi – partly thanks to a great interview in The White Review (No. 18). But still it’s hard to align his immense prolificness and imagination to the paradigm of modern publishing. Yes, Simenon wrote a hell of a lot, but with Simenon you knew what you were getting. The hit rate here seems less sure. But there is something so blissfully uninhibited about this short narrative, with its sexy, punky intro and its ascent into glorious, excessive violence, that makes perfect sense.
small white monkeys, by Sophie Collins (Book Works)
I’ve amended this post to make this an actual eleventh book of the year, rather than an addendum. It’s a brilliant, forthright essay about shame written by Collins (primarily a poet; she was in the first of the Penguin New Poets series earlier this year alongside Emily Berry and Anne Carson) as part of a project undertaken at the Glasgow Women’s Library. I bought it online directly after reading an extract published on the White Review website. Read that, and you might do the same.
(The pamphlet visible to the right is ‘Spring Sleepers’ by Kyoto Yoshida, one of a series of new stories from Stranger’s Press, a new publishing project from UEA. Beautifully produced, and some really intriguing stories.)