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Christmas Books I

16 November 2002

12:00 AM

16 November 2002

12:00 AM

Books of the Year The Spectator's regular contributors

Rupert Christiansen

How embarrassing. The authors of the four books I have most relished this year – Nicola Shulman’s elegant monograph A Rage for Rock Gardening (Short Books, £9.99), Virginia Nicholson’s exuberant Among the Bohemians (Viking, £20), Giles Waterfield’s brilliant satire The Hound in the Left-Hand Corner (Review, £14.99) and Selina Hastings’ fascinating biography of Rosamond Lehmann (Chatto, £25) – are all friends of mine, and the etiquette of this exercise therefore inhibits me from nominating them.

So I turn instead to three books which in their different ways prove profoundly illuminating of the dilemmas of 20th-century Mitteleuropa: Eric Hobsbawm’s dodgy but enthralling autobiography Interesting Times (Allen Lane, £20), Sandor Marai’s Blixenish novella Embers (Viking, £12.99) and Sebastian Haffner’s pellucid Defying Hitler (Weidenfeld, £14.99). Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (Fourth Estate, £17.99) transcended all its hype – a funny, moving, generous-spirited novel of real artistry. James Fenton’s An Introduction to English Poetry (Viking, £14.99) explained verse forms with the utmost eloquence, and The World’s Worst Poetry (Prion, $8.99), crisply edited by Stephen Robins, brightened many an otherwise dreary visit to the lavatory.

Anita Brookner

Nothing has pleased me much this year, although the desire to read a well-made book is if anything sharper than ever. Exception is made for The Little Friend by Donna Tartt (Bloomsbury, £16.99) and Any Human Heart by William Boyd (Hamish Hamilton, £17.99). From the beginning of the year I liked Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (Methuen, £6.99), the ancestor of all novels of suburban America, from John Cheever and John Updike right down to Richard Ford and Jonathan Franzen. My favourite authors let me down badly: A. S. Byatt (A Whistling Woman, Chatto, £16.99) and John Banville (Shroud, Picador, £15.99) were both infuriatingly self-indulgent and lacked a clear sense of cause and effect. The self-scrutiny which is probably the basis for all novel-writing seems to be in abeyance. For this reason I particularly appreciated another novel from the beginning of the year: D’Amour by DaniŒle Sallenave (Gallimard, 16 Euros), an account of two unrelated deaths by suicide, is less about love, despite its title, than about loss. Unpretentious, quietly written, and immediately convincing, this has been reserved for further reading.

Jonathan Sumption

This has been a year of completing some long-running multi-volume works, filling gaps that have stood for years like missing teeth on my shelves. The 12th volume of the Pilgrim edition of The Letters of Charles Dickens (Clarendon Press, £80) completes one of the great feats of modern literary scholarship, a revelation of the character of an appalling man and his exceptional times. For the diligent (and rich) another fine work completed this year after decades of labour is the 11-volume Encyclopaedia of Islam (Brill, temporary special offer at approx. £2,500), the ultimate reference book on the history of a civilisation that spans 14 centuries and half the world, about which the other half is perversely ignorant. Neither of these is exactly fireside reading. For that I suggest Peter Spufford’s Power and Profit: The Merchant in Mediaeval Europe (Thames & Hudson, £24.95), a short survey of a vast subject, reflective, well-written and beautifully illustrated.

Digby Anderson

This year I have experimented with buying books not directly for their author, topic or literary merit but by colour. Green books have turned out to be a great success. One problem for those of us who buy books from charity and second-hand shops for 20p to £1 is that these shops display books rather chaotically. It takes time and, for those older ones amongst us, tiring effort to bend and stretch in the hope of finding one particular book. But those Penguin green crime books are easy to spot and so enjoyable to read – I mean those originally written in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties. Apart from the obvious Simenons, Allinghams and Inneses, I have enjoyed, this year, William Haggard (The Powder Keg), Anthony Berkeley (Murder in the Basement) and many others. You can trust the series totally. Just grab a handful. The mystery apart, they picture a charming, ordered England with scarcely a young person in sight; and they do so deftly negotiating the boundaries of irony and pastiche.

The worst book? I do know the author whose books remain stubbornly unbought on the second-hand shelves. Even at 50p no one will buy Anatole France.

Robert Macfarlane

Three books, all non-fiction, particularly impressed me this year. William Fiennes’s beautiful travelogue The Snow Geese (Picador, £14.99) went some way towards closing the gap between North America and Britain in terms of writing well about landscape and nature. Francis Spufford’s memoir-meditation on how we learn to read, The Child That Books Built (Faber, £12.99), reconfirmed Spufford’s reputation as one of the country’s finest stylists, and at least partly explained why The Lord of the Rings exerts such a powerful grip on so many imaginations. And Ken Alder’s The Measure of All Things (Little, Brown, £15.99) was exemplary of how successfully non-fiction can marry intellectual range and human interest. In terms of fiction, Philip Hensher’s The Mulberry Empire (Flamingo, £17.99) and Richard Flanagan’s Gould’s Book of Fish (Atlantic, £16.99) – two novels preoccupied with the idea of originality – were outstanding.

P. J. Kavanagh

Journals, honest self-examinations day by day, observations of internal and external weathers, can be fascinating. Philip Toynbee’s two, Part of a Journey and End of a Journey, are prime examples. So is Jeremy Hooker’s Welsh Journal (Seren, £7.95) in which he bravely, even dourly, questions his life as a poet, as an academic and as an Englishman who, despite himself, finds himself uneasy in Wales: both landscapes, of Wales and of his own interior searchings, keep one reading. (I notice, late, this was published in 2001; a reminder that as time passes it passes progressively quickly.)

Definitely of this year is the belated Collected Poems of Pearse Hutchinson by Gallery Books (£10) whose list and elegance of production become wider and more distinguished year by year. Dubliner Hutchinson is pan-European, dips in and out of languages like a dolphin, with a dophin’s delight, fierce in his protectiveness of the undervalued (people, as well as threatened languages); his individual note is recognised from the first line, and is unique.

Even more bang up to date in Poetry Ireland Review 73 (£7.99) is a long poem by Anthony Cronin, ‘Childe Harold to the Dark Tower came’. Amid much whingeing in the rest of the Review about poetry’s marginalisation, ‘Whither poetry?’ and the like – and plenty of poems included that more than justify its fate – Cronin’s 14 stanzas of 14 lines, technically assured, deeply intelligent, survey a landscape almost as blasted as that of Browning’s poem. It is about the insidious corruption that overtakes even an innocent acceptance of empty, traditionless values: ‘The dark tower knew the philosophic vacuum/ In which mankind now lived and welcomed it.’ Just one good poem a year can answer the idiot query ‘Whither poetry?’ Answer: even at length to be light years quicker than a novel.

M. R. D. Foot

Saul David’s The Indian Mutiny (Viking, £20) is a rarity: a sound history book without a dull page in it. He torpedoes the left-wing myth that it was an Indian movement of national liberation; he also torpedoes the right-wing myth that it showed exceptionally pure British heroism. He shows that the tale of greased cartridges, impure either to Hindu or to Moslem, from which the mutiny was supposed to have arisen, is also a myth; and while he proves atrocious conduct by some mutineer
s, he proves atrocities by British troops as well. Marcus Binney’s The Women who Lived for Danger (Hodder & Stoughton, £20) shows what treasures are to be found in SOE’s papers, now in course of release to the Public Record Office; he rearranges the media’s heroines of resistance in a new and more startling order of bravery, providing fresh insights into one of the oddest corners of the war against Hitler.

Francis King

This year brought a number of good works of fiction. It also brought one great one. Andre• Makine’s A Life’s Music (Sceptre, £12.99) is no more than 106 pages long; but miraculously this Russian-born author, now living in France and writing in French, encompasses within that small space the whole tragic life of a budding concert pianist who, through no fault of his own, is gradually stripped of everything except life itself during the years of Stalin’s rule. At the close, one feels that one had read not a novella but an epic. I was also impressed by Yann Martell’s imaginatively adventurous Life of Pi (Canongate, £12.99). The Booker Prize so often goes either to established authors for books that show them at less than their best or to unknown or little known authors for books of no outstanding merit, that it was a relief that this year the judges got it absolutely right.

John Mortimer

The Booker shortlist for the year 1847-48 could have included Dombey and Son, Wuthering Heights and Vanity Fair. The Communist Manifesto might have been entered for Whitbread. A. N. Wilson has written a perceptive study of this age in The Victorians (Hutchinson, £28) which I gratefully enjoyed. When our army took a hideous revenge on the Indians after the Mutiny, Queen Victoria, I learnt, wrote a letter of protest to Canning in which she said there should be no ‘hatred of a brown skin’. A great justification for royal letters to politicians.

Coming back, after these giant characters, to our pygmy present, I relish Matthew Parris’s Chance Witness (Viking, £18.99). It takes his talent as a writer to make our politicians entertaining.

Christopher Howse

A great treat was Discovering Aquinas by Aidan Nichols (Darton, Longman & Todd, £12.95). Aquinas, perhaps the cleverest man who ever lived, has not been well served by some of his admirers, making him sound like a Gaullist schoolmaster. But his fellow Dominican, Aidan Nichols, is particularly interesting on Aquinas’s account of how people participate in the inner life of the Trinity. The 13th-century theologian gave his work the strong sinews of a rigorous metaphyics, but we learn that his biblical interpretation and patristic knowledge are of no mere historical curiosity.

One Hundred Photographs: A Collection by Bruce Bernard (Phaidon, £29.95) is a sort of posthumous gift from Bruce Bernard, reproducing the collection he made for James Moores, on show for a limited time at the V & A. As with earlier selections, the dominant quality is humanity. This is strongly evident from the anonymous ‘Waterloo Veteran with his Wife’ (1850s) to examples by living photographers such as Ken Griffiths and Toby Glanville.

Philip Hensher

The fiction I enjoyed most this year was Claire Messud’s masterly The Hunters (Picador, £12.99), an astonishing display of technical virtuosity and revealed feeling, and A. L. Kennedy’s supremely expert Indelible Acts (Cape, £12.99). Not everyone seems to find Miss Kennedy as funny as I do, but all, surely, must concede her apparently inexhaustible inventiveness. Zadie Smith’s The Autograph Man (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) was a terrific advance even on her excellent White Teeth, a brilliant comedy with a tantalising throb of mystic philosophy underneath. I have a soft spot for any novel as completely shameless as Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend (Bloomsbury, £16.99), and it tore through every single Southern Gothic convention with irresistible gusto.

The best biography of the year was Claire Tomalin’s life of Pepys (Penguin/ Viking, £20), which transformed him from a cosy bore in a wig into a human being and a great writer. Laurence Kelly’s wonderfully thorough life of Griboyedov, Diplomacy and Murder in Tehran (I. B. Tauris, £14.95) was a first-class work of scholarship and a terrific, sensational read. Orlando Figes’s cultural history of Russia, Natasha’s Dance (Penguin, £25) was excellent. I don’t know why it hasn’t been done in quite this way before, at least as far as I know, and you couldn’t ask for a more level-headed account. A N. Wilson’s The Victorians (Hutchinson, £25) was the book he was born to write; it was evidently the product of decades of love for and familiarity with the period, and not just a year or two of boning-up.

The two most memorable events of the year for me were the conclusions of two very substantial projects. One was A. S. Byatt’s A Whistling Woman (Chatto, £16.99), which finished what must be her major achievement as a novelist, a quartet of daring, boldly innovative studies of postwar English life. The second was the final volume in Oxford’s magnificent edition of Dickens’s letters (£80), a monument to the sort of selfless scholarship now almost vanished from our universities.

The most overrated book of the year was Michel Faber’s interminable The Crimson Petal and the White (Canongate, £17.99). God knows why anyone liked it; its inventiveness, resources and substance came nowhere near sustaining so gigantic a book, and it didn’t seem to me to have any kind of feeling for how Victorians lived, thought or spoke. Apparently it took 20 years to write. Reading something so shapeless and minutely inconsequential, I could well believe it.

D. J . Taylor

Three biographies I particularly enjoyed were Ann Thwaite’s subtly wrought Glimpses of the Wonderful: Philip Henry Gosse 1810-1878 (Faber, £25), Hilary Spurling’s partial but intriguing The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell (Hamish Hamilton, £9.99) and Robert Fraser’s vast anatomy The Chameleon Poet: A Life of George Barker (Cape, £25). Justin Cartwright’s White Lightning (Sceptre, £16.99) was a dazzling addition to a collection of high-grade novels stretching back as far as Interior (1988).

Above all, though, I would recommend Anthony Hobson’s scrupulous edition of Ronald Firbank’s Letters to his Mother 1920-1924 (Maggs, £34.50). Firbank devotees have been crying out for Hobson to finish his labours on these highly spiced but oddly poignant fragments of Twenties esoterica for years. It was worth the wait, and the two Firbank biographers currently at work can press on with renewed zest.

Bevis Hillier

A book which didn’t get many reviews, perhaps because it was spin-off from a television series, was John Sutherland’s Reading the Decades: Fifty Years of the Nation’s Bestselling Books (BBC, £16.99). Its stated aim was to present a portrait of Britain through the works that have made us part with our cash, from literary classics to cookery books. Sutherland is an academic who, without ever becoming a smartypants, has the popular touch. A sample from his introduction:

Bestsellers fit their cultural moment as neatly as a well-fitting glove. And, typically, no other moment. Imagine Bridget Jones in a utility dress and rayon stockings in 1948 . . . Or Joe Lampton popping Ecstasy on the London club scene.

Treating the bestsellers decade by decade pays off. The kinds of questions Sutherland asks, and answers convincingly, are: ‘Why are fantasy and tales of the supernatural so phenomenally popular in 2002 and rare birds in the bestseller lists in 1950?’ The illustrations, in colour and black and white, are exceptionally well chosen. A full page is given to Hamish Hamilton’s dustjacket for the British edition of The Catcher in the Rye, ‘distinctly unlike New York’. (It represents a fairground carousel – the clichZ motif of Fifties graphics.)

In the van of Sutherland’s
Sixties batch, we find John Betjeman’s verse autobiography Summoned by Bells (1960). Even though it was couched in the metre of Wordsworth’s Prelude, that bestseller launched – three years before Larkin’s ‘seminal’ date of 1963 – the let-it-all-hang-out trait of the swinging decade. Autobiographies have become more flensingly confessional since then. The latest in the Cellini-Rousseau-Frank Harris-Ackerley-Kirkup tradition is Brian Masters’ Getting Personal (Constable, £16.99). With unflinching honesty he writes of his difficult childhood, his homosexuality and his Socrates-Plato friendship with Gilbert Harding, and tries to work out why he has been drawn to write about dukes and mass-murderers. (A ducal serial killer might be his ideal subject. I can’t call one to mind, military commanders apart, but there was an 18th-century Earl Ferrers who was hanged for murder with a silken rather than a hempen rope.) Masters’ account of his parents is piercingly moving. The pages about the pianist John Ogdon deserve to go into a future anthology of 21st-century prose.

Another great confessor of our age was Alan Clark. This year appeared The Last Diaries: In and Out of the Wilderness, edited by Ion Trewin (Weidenfeld, £20). To suggest, as some reviewers have done, that the book is too dismal and gloomy is to miss the point. Certainly this volume of Clark’s diaries is less exhilarating than its two predecessors; but here we have a rare record of what it is like to be dying by a master of the English language.

Not that he had yet given up on life. As with the other diary volumes, one constantly wonders: how could a man so clever be so unwise? I think the main problem with Clark is that he was spoilt and (by the standards of most of us) rich. That he never had to work hard or act responsibly or be a crawler was his undoing as a politician. (Even in these declining years, he still half thought he could become Tory leader.)

It is hard to think of two men less alike than Clark and James Lees-Milne, the other immortal diarist of the late 20th century. Clark, with his fast cars and fast women, was described on a recent television programme about ‘Tory Boys’ as ‘the bizarre patron saint of laddism’. Lees-Milne, as precious as his collections, was more likely to be found fretting over the precise shade of gilt needed for a Regeny cornice. What the two men had in common (apart from Eton and Oxford) was their odious right-wing politics and racism; but all can be forgiven for the literary gems they left us. It is pleasant to find Clark writing, in February 1996:

I sit here and, after a few pages of James Lees-Milne (I am dabbling in Caves of Ice at the moment), I felt calmer and more reflective.

In December 1997 he wrote:

James Lees-Milne died at the weekend. 89. Suits me.

I’m not sure if that means Clark was glad to be rid of his chief rival as a published diarist or if he was hoping to live to 89. If the latter, sadly he had another think coming.

The novel that has impressed me most this year is Peter Cameron’s The City of Your Final Destination (Fourth Estate, £14.99). It is set in Uruguay. As it’s about the tribulations of an authorised biographer, it rang bells for me. But, much more than that, it is like Le Grand Meaulnes and Under the Volcano, one of those novels that seizes you, roc-like, and takes you into its power – an experience comparable with the mysterious thraldom of a dream. It is also achingly funny in parts. The book’s beautiful orchidaceous jacket is an extra bonus.

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