Posts Tagged Proust
These are the books that have made the most impression upon me, that have made me want to read everything by that author, tweet madly about how wonderful they are and press copies upon everyone I know, during 2017. Many, but not all, appeared during 2016/17.
Earlier this year I undertook a challenge, to read 60 books in 60 days. Reader, I nailed it. I also blogged extensively about the books I read and I don’t intend to duplicate those reviews here, though I will list the books that make my ‘best of’ list which were part of that project. Quite a few, actually.
One of the first books I read in 2017 was Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia. I commented at the time that this was likely to end up being one of my books of the year, and nothing has displaced it. He made me feel incredibly un-well-read, but without making me feel stupid, rather, inspired to go away and read the stuff he was talking about. It’s truly wide-ranging – people he loathes as well as people he admires, acerbically funny, which is not always easy to pull off whilst being erudite, and it’s a book that I will go back to again and again for enlightenment, for brilliantly pithy comments, and for the impetus to read stuff that I haven’t yet braved.
As always, I found myself reading around various aspects of World War II.
Anne Sebba’s Les Parisiennes: how the women of Paris lived, loved and died in the 1940s (2016) is a fascinating account, featuring collaborators and resisters and everyone in between, drawing on some sources that I was familiar with but many more that I wasn’t, and weaving them all into a rich tapestry which shows how life in Occupied Paris was both normal and entirely abnormal at the same time, depending on who and where you were. I thought often of Michel Butor’s comment, speaking of his own adolescence in the city, that it felt as though nothing was happening but that the nothing was bloody.
Lara Feigel’s The Bitter Taste of Victory: in the ruins of the Reich (2016) again draws upon contemporary sources (with particular, but not exclusive, emphasis on some of the women writers, reporters and artists – Martha Gellhorn, Rebecca West, Lee Miller, Erika Mann) to paint a vivid picture of the devastation of Berlin and other German cities after the end of the War, and during the Nuremberg trials. I followed this up with Rebecca West’s near-contemporary first-hand account, A Train of Powder (1955). Philippe Sands’ East West Street (2016) covered this period too, but from the perspective of those who were developing the definitions of genocide and crimes against humanity which were so crucial to the judgments at Nuremberg and to our response to such crimes in the decades that followed. What makes his account particularly powerful is that he weaves his own family history into that of the architects of the legislation. He makes the connection with his grandfather’s home in Lemberg (aka Lwów or L’viv) which was also where Lauterpacht and Lemberg, the two Jewish lawyers who were so instrumental in giving us the legal framework, grew up and were educated – and who are Sands’ own antecedents too, in his life as an international human rights lawyer. Adding to this coincidence, I found myself reading in quick succession two other family histories, that of Eva Hoffman, born in Cracow at the end of the war but whose parents survived the war in the Ukraine, near Lwów (aka L’viv or Lemberg), emigrating post-war from Poland to Vancouver (Lost in Translation: Life in a New Language), and then that of Lisa Appignanesi (Losing the Dead: A Family Memoir), an account of how her parents passed for Aryan in occupied Poland before relocating to Quebec.
Still in WWII but behind the Eastern Front, Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary oral history, The Unwomanly Face of War (2017) lets us hear the voices of the women who fought in the Red Army. Rather than the stereotypes perpetuated by Soviet propaganda or the opposing Western propaganda, we meet real women who did extraordinary things, who confronted not only opposing armies but prejudice from their comrades in arms and commanding officers, and from their families at home. And personal conflicts too – these often very young women fell in love, and mourned the loss of their femininity, and feared whether they would find husbands when the fighting was done. Alexievich’s book first came out in 1985 but has been expanded to bring in more recent interviews, and material from earlier interviews which could not be published previously.
And another remarkable and compelling history from David Olusoga – Black & British: a forgotten history (2016). Alongside bits of history that I was familiar with there’s so much that was new, and ran counter to assumptions that I might have previously made. It also brought back some very early childhood memories, of visits to the forts on the Ghanaian coast, places where slaves were held before they were loaded into the ships to cross the Atlantic.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Robert Webb’s How not to be a Boy, clearly a response to Caitlin Moran’s wonderful How to be a Woman/How to Build a Girl. It is extremely funny, and – as with Moran’s books – often very moving as well.
Other outstanding non-fiction titles which were part of my 60 books challenge: Aminatta Forna – The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest (2003); Noo Saro-wiwa – Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (2012); David Grann – Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017).
When it comes to fiction I resent categorisations by genre, which always somehow end up marking some things as ‘literature’ and others as ‘crime’ or whatever. However, given the sheer number of crime/thriller/detective novels that I read, it makes sense to group them together.
New discoveries this year include Ben Aaronovitch’s somewhat bonkers urban fantasy detective novel, Rivers of London (2011). This is the start of a series, which I have yet to follow up.
I came across Helen Cadbury’s Sean Denton police procedurals, To Catch a Rabbit (2013) and Bones in the Nest (2015) set in South Yorkshire, gritty and gripping. I’d only just read them when I heard that she’d died, an awful loss. There’s one more Sean Denton novel just out, which I haven’t read yet.
I’ve been binging on various series featuring women detectives and as a result I’ve run out of several of my current favourites: Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan (Let the Dead Speak, 2017), Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw (latest one is Persons Unknown, 2017), Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome (Quieter than Killing, 2017), and Valentina Giambanco’s Alice Madison (Sweet after Death, 2017). They all feature central women characters who are complicated and interesting, tight plotting, intriguing peripheral characters, and an overall plot arc which, whilst it doesn’t prevent each novel from being freestanding, gives a depth to the series if you read them consecutively.
Fortunately, whilst I wait for Casey, Steiner, Giambanco and Hilary to come up with new titles (no pressure, but do hurry up!), I’ve got lots to read by Elly Griffiths, whose The Crossing Places (2009) and The Janus Stone (2010) features not a woman cop but a forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway. I’m looking forward to the rest of this series.
Noah Hawley was new to me as a novelist, but I’d loved his writing for three TV series of Fargo, full of wit and heart and surprises. His 2016 novel, Before the Fall lived up to the expectations that Fargo had raised. It’s a thriller, about truth and lies, fame and reality.
And a writer new to me but channelling (very convincingly) one of my all-time favourite detective novelists, Dorothy L Sayers. Four new Lord Peter Wimsey stories from Jill Paton Walsh, a delightful chance to reacquaint myself with Peter and Harriet and Bunter and (oh joy!) the Dowager Duchess, and to see them in the context of world events and radical changes in society. (Thrones, Dominations (1998)/A Presumption of Death (2002)/The Attenbury Emeralds (2010)/The Late Scholar (2013))
And some fantastic 2017 titles which were part of my 60 books challenge: Sam Bourne – To Kill the President, Jo Furniss – All the Little Children, Lesley Glaister – The Squeeze , Jane Harper – The Dry .
Another terribly sad loss this year was that of Helen Dunmore. I’ve read most of her work over the years, this year alone I read three (The Lie (2014)/Exposure (2016)/The Betrayal (2010)). I’m grateful for all the pleasure her books have given me, and that there are a few more for me to look forward to reading, including her final novel, Birdcage Walk.
This was the year I finally finished a ten-year project – to read all of Proust. In French. Le Temps retrouvé bit the dust in April, and I blogged about it here.
Prompted by my University of Sheffield Book Group, I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (2015).
I suspect I’m not the only person with a deep fondness for To Kill a Mockingbird, and a tendency to idolise Atticus Finch, who’d kind of been putting this off, having read some of the reviews (and the controversy about whether Lee genuinely wanted this to be published and/or had the capacity to make that decision). I’m glad I did read it, but it’s complicated, and I will be pondering more about this separately, because reading it sent me off on so many different trains of thought.
And finally, after reading another alt. US history (Philip Roth’s The Plot against America) I got round to Sinclair Lewis’s account of a demagogue, ‘vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic’, who wins the Democratic presidential nomination and then the Presidency. He wins support despite the vulgarity and the lies and the lack of content in his speeches by addressing the people as if ‘he was telling them the truths, the imperious and dangerous facts, that had been hidden from them.’ And he attacks the Press in very familiar terms:
I know the Press only too well. Almost all editors hide away . . . plotting how they can put over their lies, and advance their own positions and fill their greedy pocketbooks by calumniating Statesmen who have given their all for the common good.
It is impossible to read It Can’t Happen Here (1935) without seeing the current incumbent of the White House in the place of Buzz Windrip. In the run-up to his election, the Guardian analysed the similarities, and the Washington Post compared Trump not only to Windrip but to Philip Roth’s Charles Lindbergh. We are forewarned.
As part of the 60 books challenge, I read more from long-term favourite writers Stevie Davies (Awakening, 2013), Patrick Gale (The Whole Day Through, 2009), Rose Tremain (The Gustav Sonata, 2016) and Livi Michael (Succession, 2014). I’ve already followed up Livi Michael’s excellent Wars of the Roses historical novel with the rest of the trilogy (Rebellion, and Accession). I finally read The Handmaid’s Tale and The Garden of the Finzi Continis. I discovered new writers: Sarah Moss, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Per Petterson, and Andrew Michael Hurley, amongst others.
This represents only a fraction of what I’ve read in 2017. The 60 books are fully documented, and outside of that project I’ve tried to keep a note as I go along, but I know I’ve forgotten some things (maybe justly, maybe not). And of course this list represents the best of what I’ve read, the stuff that, as I said earlier, I’ve been evangelical about getting other people to read, and have followed up or plan to follow up with more by the same writer. I have a policy of not mentioning the books I’ve read (completed or abandoned) which I’ve found tedious, or badly written, or just profoundly mediocre (although if I found something I was reading to be pernicious, dangerous, defamatory or whatever, I reserve the right to make a noise about that). Generally, though, let other pens dwell on clunky dialogue, cardboard characters and so forth – the world is full of books that give pleasure and enlightenment, that inform and move and delight, and I’d rather talk about them.
Meantime, my ‘to read’ pile never seems to diminish, no matter how much and how fast I read. Priorities include finishing Anthony Beevor’s magisterial The Battle for Spain, which I put to one side during my 60 books challenge, and have not yet resumed, and others which I have still to acquire, Coulson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, Maggie O’Farrell’s memoir, I am, I am, I am (as well as any of her novels I haven’t read yet), and lots more Ali Smith. Right, better get back to the books…
Around ten years ago, I decided that it was simply not on to be a student of 20th century French literature and to have read only the first volume of A la recherche… and that only in English translation.
And so it began.
I trotted reasonably swiftly through Vol. 1, largely because I had already read it in English, and because I was reading it in conjunction with a friend and fellow student – but things then slowed down rather dramatically. Finally, a couple of days ago, I reached the final sentence of the final volume. Fittingly, I had made some splendid progress whilst staying in the Hotel le Marcel, in one of their Chambres St Loup, after long walks through the streets of Paris.
I’m normally a fast reader. But not in French. In English, I can see large chunks of text and absorb them easily, but in French I have to read each word, and I cannot be sure I have the meaning of a sentence until I get to the end of it – and with Proust that full stop could be several pages away. So my reading speed slows down dramatically whenever I’m reading in my second language. That’s not all of it, however. Roger Shattuck acknowledges (reassuringly) that:
both in translation and in the original, Proust slows most readers down. His sentences move through long spirals that will not be hastened and deserve to be savoured. He offers few paragraph breaks to declare the steps and stages of his thought. In contrast to most nineteenth-century novelists, he does not construct out of short chapters that divide the story into conveinent mental mouthfuls. One simply cannot force one’s speed and hope to register the prose.
But there were certainly times when I thought I might pack it all in, were it not for the fact that my original rationale was still valid – how can I study Butor without having read Proust? – and a certain bloody-minded stubbornness that those who know me will recognise. I said I was going to read all of Proust in French and I would do so. Even if it was the last thing I did. Thankfully it didn’t quite come to that.
Ten years of reading – albeit with some rather long gaps. Was it worth it? Emphatically yes. It’s an extraordinary work and its influence is so enormous, not only on the French writers who came after Proust, but on literature across the world. I expected that, however. What was unexpected (apart from the fact that it was a great deal funnier than I’d anticipated) was that in many ways it did not work as a novel, because it’s not, or not just, a novel.
Earlier this year, I read Clive James’ wonderful Cultural Amnesia, a collection of short essays on writers, film makers, musicians, political thinkers and philosophers, chosen on the basis that they interest him rather than, necessarily, that he admires or loves them. It’s a book that makes you feel desperately un-well-read, but rather than that being alienating, you feel at the same time that any steps you can take towards being the kind of reader that James is – including simply having a bash at reading in languages in which you are far from fluent – are eminently worth taking. His piece on Proust, which I read before I’d finished Vol. 7 because spoilers aren’t really that much of an issue here, is particularly enlightening.
A commonplace book in the classic sense, it is, itself, a set of annotations to all the works of art that Proust has read, looked at, listened to or otherwise enjoyed, and to everything he knows about nature, natural science, love, sex and the workings of the mind.
A la recherche du temps perdu is never done with, because it keeps growing while you are reading it. Like no other book in the world, Proust’s book leads everywhere: a building made of corridors, and the walls of the corridors are made of doors.
There are people who read Proust just for the clothes. But those of us who read Proust for his remarks about life will always be wondering whether A la recherche du temps perdu is really a work of art at all. A work of imagination: yes, of course, and supremely. But is it a novel? Isn’t it a book of collected critical essays, with the occasional fictional character wandering in and out of it?
These qualities of non-fiction are useful to remember when we realize how many qualities of fiction the longest of all novels does not possess. It has, for example, no structure worth speaking of, and probably would not have attained to one even if Proust had been given another ten years to work on it. Characters would still have shown up twenty years too young at the last party, or twenty years too old, or simply still alive when they should have been dead.
Bloody brilliant. I rather wish I’d read this at the start of my project, rather than as I approached its final stages. There were so many moments when I was frustrated by the pages of rumination, distractedly wondering when something was going to actually HAPPEN, rather than realising that the rumination was what was happening. what mattered, what the book was about. (In this context I could not help but recall Monty Python’s All England Summarise Proust competition…) And I wouldn’t have wasted any energy trying to work out how much temps had actually passé, when it really wasn’t about chronology at all.
Readers and critics of Proust reach for comparisons and metaphors, as James does. Roger Shattuck says that ‘Reading Proust bears many resemblances to visiting a zoo’. It’s commonly referred to as a roman-fleuve, a river that flows on relentlessly and the only way to read the roman is to abandon oneself to that flow (though I note that it also has a more critical connotation – a discours-fleuve is an ‘interminable’ speech…). It’s a web (Malcolm Bowie uses this metaphor), in which everything/everyone is connected to everything/everyone else.
It’s an unfinished cathedral (this draws on a passage from the final pages of Le temps retrouvé) – but James suggests that it is instead ‘a sandcastle that the tide reached before its obsessed constructor could finish it; but he knew that would happen, otherwise why build it on a beach?’. For me, it is a labyrinth, a labyrinth in time and space.
Reading the final pages, I wished that my memory of the earlier volumes was clearer. I want to see how the threads relating to the nature of time and to the Dreyfus affair, and so many more, run through the whole tapestry (another metaphor…).
I could always go back now, and start again at the beginning…
Malcolm Bowie, Proust among the Stars (Fontana, 1998)
Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time (Picador, 2012)
Roger Shattuck, Proust’s Way: A Field Guide to In Search of Lost Time (W W Norton, 2000)
With the luxury of retirement, I’ve done a lot of reading. These days, though, I’m more likely to put a book to one side, temporarily (if I know it’s good but I just can’t quite get into it right now) or permanently, if the writing is clunky and/or clichéd. The pile of ‘to read’ books by my bed seems never to be dented by my voracious reading, and that doesn’t even take account of what’s stored on my Kindle. Life is simply too short to read bad books. Not when there are so many good books waiting to be read – by which I emphatically do not mean just serious, literary books, let alone ‘improving’ books, but books that expand the reader’s sympathies, take them to other places, make them care, compel them to read on and read more.
My policy with this annual blog – eagerly awaited, I know, by my loyal readers – is to make no reference at all to the bad books. I want to recommend, to share my enthusiasms, not to knock anyone’s work.
So these are the books that I loved this year.
In non-fiction two titles on current politics stand out. The first is Jason Burke’s The New Threat from Islamic Militancy. Not an encouraging read, but immensely informative and enlightening, and it seems to me that we need to understand the nature of that new threat, if we are to have a chance of defeating it. The second is Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in Dark Times, recommended to me via the That’s Where the Light Gets In blog, and a real tonic at a time when it almost seems that the battle is not worth joining, that there is nothing we could do in the face of the tide of unreason and prejudice.
I discovered Paddy Ashdown’s WW2 histories, thoroughly researched and thrillingly written. Game of Spies told the extraordinary story of a spy triangle in wartime Bordeaux, involving a secret agent, a right wing Resistance leader, and a Nazi officer, whilst Cruel Victory was a very human story of the Resistance uprising on the Vercors plateau after the D Day landings.
I found myself without any particular plan to do so, reading a succession of accounts of long walks. Really, really long walks. Poet Simon Armitage walked the Pennine Way in reverse, Nicholas Crane undertook a seventeen-month journey along the chain of mountains which stretches across Europe from Cape Finisterre to Istanbul, and Cheryl Strayed walked the eleven-hundred miles of the west coast of America alone. None of them were entirely well prepared or equipped for their journeys, all of them were at times injured, miserable, lost. All three write compellingly and with both poetry and humour about the landscapes and the people they encountered. Much as I loved reading about their journeys, I did not feel moved to emulate any of them.
Another book about wandering came from the Fife Psychogeographical Society, whose blog has delighted me for a long time. From Hill to Sea describes various meanderings around Fife and further afield, with poetry and photographs and even a playlist of the music that accompanied the walks. This wasn’t about walking as a challenge, clocking up the miles or the peaks, but about detours and details, spotting the anomalous, the unexplained.
From the countryside to the city, and Darran Anderson’s Imaginary Cities. This is ‘creative non-fiction’, which draws upon a vast range of texts and cultural artefacts to explore ‘the metropolis and the imagination, … mapping cities of sound, melancholia and the afterlife, where time runs backwards or which float among the clouds.‘ An exhilarating read.
Ian Clayton’s Bringing it all Back Home talks about music the way I think about music. How the music you love becomes woven into your life, your loves and losses, the places you live in, encounter and remember. It’s moving and funny throughout, but the coda will break your heart.
And First Light, an anthology of articles in tribute to Alan Garner, whose books have been part of my life since I first read The Weirdstone of Brisingamen as a child of probably 7 or 8 and it scared the living daylights out of me. Garner’s writing is spare and stark and beautiful. Philip Pullman says of him that he explores ‘the mysterious subterranean links between the present and the past, between psychology and landscape, between the real and the dream. If the rocks, caves, lakes, fens, bogs and dens of the land of Britain had a voice, it would sound like Alan Garner telling a story.’ This collection brings together celebrations of his work from writers/readers including Margaret Atwood, Susan Cooper, Neil Gaiman, David Almond and Helen Dunmore.
In fiction this year I finally got round to some classics that I’d either never read before, or had read so long ago that I could come to them afresh. My reading of Conrad’s The Secret Agent was prompted by the TV adaptation, and of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Sam Baker’s excellent modern take on the narrative. Anne Bronte led me to Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte, a story familiar in broad outline but rich in unexpected detail, even if reading it now one cannot help but be aware of the things that could not then be said.
And two French classics, Les Liaisons dangereuses, and Vercors’ Le Silence du mer.
The former is an 18th century epistolary novel, and an extraordinary one. Where this literary device was usually used to give the sense that one is being admitted to the protagonist’s innermost thoughts, here we find each writer presenting radically different versions of events and motivations depending on who they are writing to. These are highly unreliable narrators, and it is up to the reader to try to tease out the truth, if indeed it is there to be found. Are they immoral, embracing transgression for its own sake, or amoral, indifferent to everything except the games they play?
Le Silence was published clandestinely in 1942, during the Nazi Occupation of France. Jean Bruller’s novel, published under the pseudonym Vercors, is a call to mental resistance to the enemy, written before much organised armed resistance was underway. It describes a household forced to take in a German officer, where the father and daughter maintain silence in the face of the officer’s attempts to communicate with them, and to show them that he is a cultured and civilised man.
In contemporary fiction, I enjoyed new work by writers who feature most years in my ‘best of’ lists.
Stephen King completed his Mr Mercedes trilogy with the excellent End of Watch, and also produced a selection of short stories (as always with King’s collections, they’re of mixed merit, but there are some crackers in there).
Cath Staincliffe’s The Silence between Breaths was one of the tensest narratives I’ve read all year. Read it. Just perhaps don’t read it as I did whilst on a train.
I’d read some of Louise Doughty’s books before (Apple Tree Yard and Whatever You Love) and thoroughly enjoyed them. Fires in the Dark was something else again. The narrative takes us from the late ‘20s in Bohemia to the final days of WW2 in Prague, through the lives of a Romany family. Doughty inducts us into their rich culture as well as drawing compelling and complex characters, so that as the darkness of oppression gathers around them and little by little everything is taken from them, we feel it. Harrowing and very moving, and immensely enriching. Her other Roma novel, Stone Cradle tells the story of a family in Britain, through the changes and challenges of the twentieth century, focusing on the lives of two remarkable women.
I found myself drawn to re-read Chris Mullins’ A Very British Coup, which I knew from the TV adaptation years ago with Ray McAnally. Quite unnerving, sometimes the text could be ripped from today’s papers, but in other respects (the risk of a left-wing Labour leader becoming PM, for example) it seems incredible…
New writers to me –
Deborah Levy’s unsettling Swimming Home
Lynn Alexander’s The Sister, based on the life of diarist Alice, sister of Henry and William James
Walter Kempowski’s account of the chaotic days of the end of WW2, through the eyes of a German family, All for Nothing
Elizabeth Wein’s Codename Verity and Rose Under Fire were powerful and moving YA novels of WW2, with female protagonists, not shrinking from horror but focusing on friendship, courage and love
In Patrick Gale’s wonderful Notes from an Exhibition the notes, part of an imagined posthumous exhibition of an artist’s work, build her story and that of her family, non-sequentially, a bit like a patchwork or kaleidoscope.
Glenn Patterson’s The International is a novel about the Troubles that ends before the Troubles begin, but sets the scene vividly and with black humour
And as always, there’s been a fair amount of murder.
Some old favourites (Rebus, Wallander, Dalziel & Pascoe, Ann Cleeve’s Shetland series), more from some more recent discoveries (Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan, Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome, and Allan Massie’s Bordeaux novels set in WW2).
I’ll be following up on Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series, which I discovered after reading her stand-alone novel, The Missing. Another discovery was Michel Bussi, whose Maman a tort was a satisfyingly complex and compelling psychological thriller. And finally, W H Clark’s An End to a Silence was a riveting read, whose sequels I look forward to immensely.
And my novel of the year is Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. I knew several of her other novels, but this one was just dizzying, overwhelming, enthralling. I read it twice, I had to, and will read it again. Its sequel, A God in Ruins, was a different experience and a troubling one, about which I can say nothing except to urge you to read on because somehow it all comes together in a most remarkable way.
A notable omission. I’m stuck on Proust – about an eighth of the way into the penultimate novel of A la Recherche. So my objective for next year, as well as making at least a dent in the ‘to read’ pile, and discovering lots of wonderful new writers, and re-reading some of my favourites, is to bloody well finish Proust…
Lynne Alexander – The Sister
Darran Anderson – Imaginary Cities
Simon Armitage – Walking Home
Paddy Ashdown – Game of Spies, The Cruel Victory
Kate Atkinson – Life after Life, A God in Ruins
Sam Baker – The Woman Who Ran
Anne Bronte – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Jason Burke – The New Threat from Islamic State
Michel Bussi – Maman a tort
Ian Carlton – Bringing it all Back Home
Jane Casey – The Missing, The Burning, The Reckoning
W H Clark – An End to a Silence
Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent
Nicholas Crane – Clear Water Rising
Louise Doughty – Fires in the Dark, Stone Cradle
Fife Psychogeographical Society – From Hill to Sea
Patrick Gale – Notes from an Exhibition
Elizabeth Gaskell – Life of Charlotte Bronte
Sarah Hilary – Tastes like Fear
Walter Kempowski – All for Nothing
Stephen King – Bazaar of Bad Dreams, End of Watch
Choderlos de Laclos – Les Liaisons dangereuses
Deborah Levy – Swimming Home
Laura Lippman – Hush Hush
Allan Massie – Endgames in Bordeaux
Chris Mullins – A Very British Coup
Glenn Patterson – The International
Rebecca Solnit – Hope in the Dark
Cath Staincliffe – The Silence Between Breaths
Cheryl Strayed – Wild
Vercors – Le Silence de la mer
Erica Wagner (ed.) – First Light
Elizabeth Wein – Codename Verity, Rose Under Fire
Once again I have been denied the chance to share with the readership of the quality newspapers my pick of this year’s reading. Ah well, the discerning audience that appreciates my blog will, I am sure, be grateful that I share it with them instead. You’re so very welcome.
Because my default response to a challenge (unless it involves serious physical activity) is ‘challenge accepted’, I aimed to read 80 books this year (as set by Penguin Books for some reason). That’s 80 properly read, cover to cover or the electronic equivalent, not mined for relevant info for the PhD. Of course I exceeded this arbitrary target, and enjoyed doing so. I’ve picked out some of the books that meant the most to me in 2015.
The Bear Comes Home – Ravi Zabor. Hard to explain this book – it sounds bonkers and indeed it is, but gloriously so, and it is some of the best writing about music I’ve come across, so vivid that, as Annie Proulx, who was on the panel of judges that gave it the PEN/Faulkner award said, ”Rafi Zabor somehow makes the reader hear music”. Yes, there is a bear. He plays alto sax. That’s all I can say really – as one of Zabor’s editors said, ‘you have to read it to get it’.
The City and the City – China Mieville. I should have read Mieville earlier, but having loved this one, I am looking forward to Perdido Street Station. It’s a detective novel, but with a kind of sci-fi premise, which I won’t explain in case anyone hasn’t read it and would like to. It’s a fiercely intelligent novel which works brilliantly as crime fiction as well as sci fi.
Two novels dealing with Alzheimer’s gripped, in different ways. Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing is a tour de force by a young debut novelist, with a protagonist who is in the grip of dementia and gradually losing touch with the world around her. Because of her condition, her conviction that her friend Elizabeth is missing is dismissed by everyone – meanwhile another mystery from much longer ago keeps on surfacing and demanding answers. We see things from Maud’s perspective, so we share her confusion. This is quite exceptionally skilled writing. Elizabeth… manages to be funny, without one ever laughing at Maud’s confusion and muddle, because even without a functioning memory, she is a fully rounded character with a sometimes acerbic and sometimes bizarre take on people and events. Lisa Genova’s Still Alice was a heart-breaking read – again our perspective is that of the person with dementia although in this case when we first hear Alice’s voice she is still very much herself, before the first ambiguous signs of the disease occur. Whereas in Healey’s novel the dementia is context and sub-text, here it is the text itself, the narrative following the process of the disease as it robs Alice of so much more than her memory.
Memory was a theme too in Linda Buckley-Archer’s The Many Lives of John Stone. Again, it would be unfair to give too much away – it’s beautifully written, interweaving a vivid historical narrative with the present day. There’s no time travel, or supernatural/paranormal elements – it just uses a hypothetical genetic characteristic as the basis for the plot. It’s engaging, gripping and ultimately very moving.
Emma Freud’s Mr Mac and Me, about Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s time in Suffolk during WWI (reminiscent of Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness, about D H Lawrence in Cornwall)
Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, a hugely ambitious historical novel with an utterly compelling central character, 19th century botanist Alma Whittaker. It’s completely absorbing.
Owen Sheers’ Resistance is a cracking alternative history, where the Allies lost WWII, set in the Welsh valleys. It evokes something of Vercors’ Le Silence de la mer, or Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Française in the portrayal of the interaction between occupying troops and the local population, but is also firmly rooted in the particular landscape and history of its setting.
Steven Alcock’s Blood Relatives evoked very different and more recent années noires, in the city of Leeds during the Yorkshire Ripper years. But the Ripper is not the subject, but part of the background. He’s what people are talking about, but the protagonist is more concerned, as most teenagers would be, with himself and Alcock exuberantly captures the tensions and the textures of this life in full on Yorkshire.
And Cath Staincliffe, primarily known as a crime writer (the Sal Kilkenny series, Blue Murder, and novelisations of Scott & Bailey) made me sob my socks off with Trio, which follows the lives of three young women who give up babies for adoption in the 1960s, the families who took those babies in, and the children themselves as they grow to adulthood.
I also enjoyed a heap of Laura Lippmann’s terrific novels featuring Baltimore PI Tess Monaghan, discovered a new series by Sarah Hilary with DI Marnie Rome, J K Rowling’s Robert Galbraith novels, and Peter May’s Lewis trilogy.
Viv Albertine’s fab memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys was fascinating and heart-breaking and funny. Peter Piot’s life battling Ebola, AIDs and the bureaucracy and politics which gets in the way of tackling those challenges was an inspiration. And – to return to the theme of Alzheimer’s – Andrea Gillies’ Keeper told the story of caring for her mother-in-law whilst attempting to run a B&B, and how the dementia gradually took over all of their lives and thoughts. It’s honest, sometimes brutally so, but there’s black humour too, and poignancy.
Oh, and I finally finished Proust’s La Prisonnière. Two more to go…
I also read and recommend:
Fiction: Iain Banks – Whit, Ann Cleeves – various Shetland and Vera crime novels, Teju Cole – Open City, Michel Faber – Under the Skin, Will Ferguson – 419, Richard Flanagan – Wanting, Andre Gide – Thesee, Paula Hawkins – Girl on the Train, Anne Holt – The Blind Goddess, Kazuo Ishiguro – Nocturnes, Susanna Jones – When Nights were Cold, Han Kang – The Vegetarian, Philip Kerr – Berlin Noir trilogy, Stephen King – Finders Keepers, Tiffany Murray – Happy Accidents, Catherine O’Flynn – What was Lost, Edward St Aubyn – Never Mind, Jim Shephard – The Book of Aron, Louise Welsh – Plague Times vols 1 and 2 (hurry up with 3!!), Markus Zusak – The Book Thief
Non-fiction: John Bayley – Iris, Alan Bennett – The Lady in the Van, Charles Dickens – Selected Letters, Robert Gildea – Fighters in the Shadows, Iain Hacking – Mad Travelers, Sarah Helm – If This is a Woman, Caroline Moorhead – A Train in Winter, Vladimir Nabokov – Speak Memory, Wladyslaw Szpilman – The Pianist
I find myself – as someone who always has at least two books on the go – currently reading both the second volume of Proust’s A la recherche… and Stephen King’s latest blockbuster, 11.22.63. If I say that these present two very different reading experiences, an ironic ‘who knew?’ would be a reasonable response. However, I invariably find that the things I’m reading in parallel, however different they may be in genre, register, subject matter or anything else, create intriguing connections and trigger, at the very least, random ruminations on the various topics that preoccupy me.
Proust is actually immensely readable, if you let yourself go, let yourself float along on his endless sentences, absorbing it all rather than worrying about what is happening (not a huge amount, in general, it’s not about external events as much as internal processes – the process by which the narrator becomes indifferent to Gilberte with whom he has been in love, for example). One doesn’t pick the book up with the sense of urgency that Stephen King can generate, and one is unlikely to be tempted to skip mealtimes or be late for appointments, or to miss out on sleep in order to read just one more chapter. But you can lose yourself in it, immersed in his world – and it’s also funnier than one might have expected. Obviously Proust is hugely influential on 20th century fiction, not just in France. Butor certainly shows the influence of his style in his labyrinthine sentences – bizarrely, he was criticised for this by the literary establishment, on the basis that the French language demands short sentences. Understandably he referred them to Proust, only to be told, well, Proust is Proust. Taking the view that Butor is Butor, he dumped the draft with the short, pithy sentences for the one that draws you in and takes you on a hypnotic journey where the phrases loop around and around so that the key words and images accumulate more and more power as they resonate with each other.
If everyone agrees that Proust is a great writer, not many have actually read any, let alone all, of his great oeuvre. Stephen King is read by millions, but disparaged by many, even if his critical standing is better than it used to be. He now gets reviews in the quality press, even if most still start with a defence of the coverage being given to this kind of book. It wasn’t always so, and the change is reflected in the book covers – early editions looked tacky, whilst more recent reissues and new titles, have a generally classier look. The schlock-horror image put me off for a long time, and I only read King because a friend told me I must, and lent me The Stand. I didn’t expect to like it. But within a page, I was hooked, and read it straight through, twice. That’s one of his great gifts; right from the start he makes you want – need – to know what happens and, very importantly, makes you care about the people he introduces, so that the compulsion to read on is not just curiosity but an emotional connection.
He’s a hugely talented writer, who can transcend genre, but who for the most part is happy to work within it; a horror writer who can go for the gross-out but whose power resides in his ability to make you connect with his characters, and in his ability to make goodness as compelling as evil. Not all of King’s books are great, but none are less than readable, and many will repay re-reading. He uses the classic horror writer’s trick, of starting with the everyday, the familiar, and introducing something that’s just that bit off key, unsettling. Often this is done by the narrator forewarning us that this apparently mundane event is far from it – in 11.22.63 the trigger is a teacher reading the work of a pupil in his adult learners’ creative writing class. We don’t know how or why this will change everything, but we know that it will do so, and everything thereafter is imbued with this disquiet – a sense of the uncanny, das unheimliche, to use Freud’s term. It’s a cognitive dissonance – something is both familiar and foreign, and so one is at the same time attracted and repelled.
One thing King does very powerfully is to create a bad place. Derry, Maine, is one such – a town that just isn’t quite right, where this disquiet is manifested in the mutual mistrust of the locals, the desire of visitors to get the hell out as soon as they can, and a feeling that bad things have happened, may be still happening, and are probably just around the next corner. It’s part of King’s fictional geography of Maine, his home state, a trinity to match Lovecraft‘s Massachusetts trinity (Derry, Castle Rock and Salem’s Lot on the one hand, Innsmouth, Arkham and Dunwich on the other) and we visit it in many of his novels – he references the plots and characters of those earlier novels often too, so the reader who’s familiar with the opus has an added weight of unease. Interesting in this context to see the new Topophobia exhibition and publication, on fear of place in contemporary art.
I thought of that aspect of King quite often when reading L’Emploi du temps. Butor’s narrator arrives in a northern industrial city, his train is late, and he’s lost his letter of introduction with details of the firm he’ll be working for or his hotel, so on his first evening in the city he gets lost, and ends up sleeping on a bench in the 3rd class waiting room. Obviously this is an inauspicious start, but right from these first pages, there’s the sense that it’s more than that. Jacques Revel is afraid. He’s ‘seized with sudden panic…. for one endless second… overwhelmed by an absurd wish to draw back, to give it all up, to escape’ (Passing Time, p. 8). Later, a colleague, who’s never left the city, tells him ‘there’s something peculiar about this place, something which I’ve never seen satisfactorily described in any story set elsewhere, a sort of permanent dread’ (p. 89). Just like Derry, Bleston is a place where we are in suspense, waiting for the bad things to which everything is leading, and which everything is attempting to conceal, and where ‘even at midday the few passers-by hurry, hugging the walls, humming to themselves with lowered heads as if it were black night’ (p. 90). Something is wrong with Bleston, but unlike King, Butor does not require us to accept a supernatural explanation for this. We’re potentially in the realm of Todorov’s ‘fantastic uncanny’, where the apparently supernatural is subsequently explained as illusion (through dreams, drugs, madness), but we are ultimately left with uncertainty, as the book ends with the narrator’s departure, and his acknowledgement of the lacunae in his narrative. The Turn of the Screw is perhaps the classic example of this – the reader is left to ponder whether the governess is delusional, and nothing supernatural has actually happened, or whether the laws of reality have changed as she believes. The French have a higher regard for fantastic literature than we have. Poe and Lovecraft are held in much higher esteem there, and both are present in Butor’s Bleston – Poe’s short story ‘The Man of the Crowd‘ has intriguing echoes in not only the supernatural but the detective story aspects of the book, and we also find the Lovecraftian motif of a place where every route out leads back to the place one is attempting to escape – see Ramsay Campbell‘s story ‘The Church in High Street’ for a more recent hommage to Lovecraft in this respect. To quote Revel’s colleague again: ‘Perhaps you’ve already tried to escape, but in that case you’ve only just made a beginning, M. Revel … you’ll be losing more than your way’ (p. 89-90).
Michel Butor, Passing Time, translated by Jean Stewart (London: John Calder, 1965)
Ramsay Campbell, ‘The Church in High Street’, Cold Print (London: Grafton Books, 1985)
Helene Cixous, ‘Fiction and its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s “Das Unheimliche (The “Uncanny”)”’, New Literary History, 7, 3 (1976), 525-48
Henry James, The Turn of the Screw, 1898 (London: Penguin, 1986)
Stephen King, 11.22.63 (Hodder & Stoughton, 2011)
H P Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature, 1927 (NY: Dover, 1973)
H P Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (London: Penguin, 1999)
Edgar Allan Poe, Selected Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
Marcel Proust, A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, 1918(Paris: Gallimard, 1988)
Tzvetan Todorov, Introduction à la littérature fantastique (Paris: Seuil, 1976)