Recently I’ve had the good fortune to review three works of magisterial scholarship in these pages — John Haffenden’s William Empson: Among the Mandarins (OUP, £30), Philip Gossett’s Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera (Chicago University Press, £22.50) and Patrick Carnegy’s Wagner and the Art of the Theatre (Yale, £29.95). Because they run in total for over 1,500 pages, I haven’t had time for much else. But I hugely enjoyed John Bridcut’s sensitive study of boy-love, Britten’s Children (Faber, £18.99), and the narrative fluency and psychological acuity of Michael Arditti’s elegant novel A Sea Change (Maia, £8.99). Otherwise, I’ve been obsessively reading the poetry and prose of Elizabeth Bishop, including a revelatory new edition of her uncollected works, Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke Box (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $30).
Mencken: The American Iconoclast: The Life and Times of the Bad Boy of Baltimore by Marion Rodgers (OUP, £19.99). There was never a journalist like H. L. Mencken (1880-1956). In the years when there was no television and American print journalists were stars, Mencken was a galaxy. A fabulously entertaining writer, an authority on the American language, very funny, a libertarian — and an implacable hater of Roosevelt, censors, lynchers, communists, labour unions and most politicians.
The High Road to China: George Bogle, the Panchen Lama and the First British Expedition to Tibet by Kate Teltscher (Bloomsbury, £20). The Scot George Bogle was the first British envoy — of the East India Company — to Tibet. In 1775 he spent six months with the Panchen Lama and spoke of him with the same affection and respect, almost in detail, as those who meet the present Dalai Lama. A vivid look at a lost world.
My third favourite book, read again after the BBC series, was Bleak House. Everyone loved the film. This is even better. What a Christmas present!
The word ‘relevant’ seems to have slipped out of fashion for the moment but cannot entirely be avoided. I found that most of this year’s novels seemed old-fashioned, prelapsarian, as if written for a leisured age untouched by more than personal concerns, and in addition over-hyped, over-praised, and, mostly, over here. For this reason, but more for credibility, I appreciated John Updike’s Terrorist (Hamish Hamilton, £17.99) and Martin Amis’s House of Meetings (Cape, £15.99) because they connected with serious matters and eschewed style in favour of content. I enjoyed A Night at the Majestic by Richard Davenport-Hines (Faber, £14.99), a book as gossipy as its title. This concerns a party given by Sydney and Violet Schiff in May 1922 and attended, among others, by Proust, Joyce, Picasso, Diaghilev and Stravinsky. The slightly hectic effect of this account can be allayed by reading a few pages of Proust, who is clearly the author’s hero. My best read of the year was The White Cities by Joseph Roth (Granta, £9.99), a collection of essays and articles contributed to various German newspapers between 1925 and 1929 — supremely elegant, and an instance of less meaning more.
P. J. Kavanagh
Helena Drysdale’s Strangerland: A Family at War (Picador, 14.99) stays in the mind because of its mixture of history with the personal, which makes the history live. Pre-Mutiny military life in India (the Sikh wars) and a very different pioneer life in New Zealand (the Maori wars), seen through the real-life letters of a wife who followed her husband to both places, loving the first place, loathing the second. Drysdale’s concern for her puzzling fate makes her book read like a novel, gripping you the more securely because it is true.
Alan Brownjohn’s Selected Poems 1952-2006 (Enitharmon, £25) deserves to be bruited forth as loudly as possible. A poet so readable, interesting, witty, angry, descriptive, craftsmanly, should not need such salesman’s adjectives heaped on him. All one can do is implore any poem-shy reader to give him a try.
Edward St Aubin’s Mother’s Milk (Picador, £12.99) was like gin to me, and a tonic too, and he should have won the Mann Booker. I absolutely loved Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins (LittleBrown, £18.99), Rupert Everett’s autobiography, which did win the man hooker prize, though hotly contested by Darwin Porter’s pubic hair-raising biography Brando Unzipped, (Blood Moon Productions, £17.99), bi, it turns out, being le mot juste for that fairy Godfather. While at perfect Pradelles, I blushed and frequently wept with shame for my host nation reading many chapters of Bad Faith, (Cape, £20) a chilling account by Carmen Callil of the collaborating monsters running Nazified France; while my wildest rococo fantasies were tickled by In The Pink, a vivid pictography by Carleton Varney of decorator Dorothy Draper, 1940s America’s plaster saint (Pointed Leaf Press, £50). However, GQ magazine’s suited editor, Dylan Jones, with his social and sartorial strictures in Mr Jones Rules (Hodder, £14.99), is intensely irritating, as he’s always right. Well, nearly always.
The Sydney Horler Omnibus of Excitement by Sydney Horler (Hodder & Stoughton. Charity shop 50p). Arthur Mee’s Book of the Flag: Island and Empire by Arthur Mee (Hodder & Stoughton, 1941. Charity shop 60p, originally 12s 6d).
Every time you read a newly written and published book, one reflecting the exhibitionist, vicious culture of this age, you are not reading a better older book, a Dostoevsky, Waugh or Faulkner. Every time you buy a new book, you are not buying 20 older books from Age Concern. For those of us who do not buy modern books, the best book of the year is the find of the year. A find is an author previously unknown and a good find is one who was, as were most of the older authors, prolific, for that find offers immediate good reading and the promise of lots more to hunt down. The first Innes, Cyril Hare or Freeman Wills Croft is both a joy and a spur. Of course the first-rate authors, the Haggards, Sappers, Orczys and Wrens, have long since been found, but even the third-rate are better than today’s books. This year my finds are, for novels, The Sydney Horler Omnibus with four novels: Chipstead of the Lone Hand, The Spy, Princess after Dark and Horror’s Head. For more serious reading, something rather sounder than the recently republished Our Island Story, Mee’s Book of the Flag, an ideal present for a godson.
Top of my list are two impressive lives of composers, or half-lives; the second volume of Stephen Walsh’s life of Stravinsky (Cape, £30), and the first volume of John Tyrrell’s life of Janacek (Faber, £60). Tyrrell’s in particular was something of a tour de force, since very little of Janacek’s lasting music was written in that period, and it could have seemed like an overextended life of a Moravian music teacher. In practice, it proved entirely absorbing.
The novels I liked best were Claire Messud’s wonderful The Emperor’s Children, (Picador, £14.99), a real Dawn Powell spectacular, Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch (Virago, £16.99) and Will Self’s The Book of Dave (Viking, £17.99). All three showed novelists who have always been good deepening their tone and broadening their range; I thought The Book of Dave attained real architectu
ral grandeur from what might have proved a flippant donnée. I would probably recommend Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day (Cape, £25), too, but at the moment I’m only halfway through it, so I’ll only say that it’s making my head hurt, but in quite a good way.
Overrated books? Well, having observed Mr Bill Bryson’s plain-man-can’t-be-expected-to-read-hard-stuff-like-poetry routine at close quarters when judging a literary prize, I was prepared for the charmlessness of The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (Doubleday, £18.99), but not for its sheer tedium or what looks worryingly like cynicism: ‘I can’t imagine that there has ever been a more gratifying time or place to be alive than in America in the 1950s’. Not if you were black, Jewish, female or gay, but then Mr Bryson’s books never give a strong impression of wondering what it might be like to be anyone other than himself.
I suspect it’s going to be another 99 years before most people can face another word on Nelson, but for anyone looking the other way in October 2005 the paperback version of Tim Clayton’s and Phil Craig’s vivid and widely researched Trafalgar: The Men, The Battle, The Storm (Hodder £8.99) is a class above the usual anniversary stuff. A wonderful memoir — elegantly written, funny, surprising and moving — is Jeremy Harding’s story of his adoptive parents and search for his natural mother, Mother Country (Faber, £15.99). It’s already looking like a bad winter for English cricket, so The Match (Blooms- bury, £14.99), Romesh Gunesekara’s touching novel of Sri Lankan exile and cricketing incompetence might be some comfort.
My first favourite book this year is Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick by Jenny Uglow (Faber, £20), a definitive biography with dozens of tiny, marvellous illustrations of Bewick; woodcuts reproduced with astonishing accuracy and beauty. The packed text revels in his times and the print and production are as fine as Bewick deserves.
Also biography, Georgina Howell’s Daughter of the Desert: The Remarkable Life of Gertrude Bell (Macmillan, £20) is an absorbing account of the life of this terrifying, rather dowdy, eccentric genius who was one of the founders of Iraq. Leonard Woolf: A Life by Victoria Glendinning (Simon & Schuster, £25) is saved from being another slice of Bloomsbury pie by Glendinning’s scholarship and blessed lack of awe. Woolf the colonial administrator in Ceylon is a revelation — the opposite of the background husband who cherished Virginia. The best novel I read was The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (Pan/ Macmillan, £14.99). And the book that is said to be the ‘big’ book this Christmas is the handsome red and gold Baden Powell-cum-Harry Potter vim-and- vigour, The Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn and Hal Iggulden (HarperCollins, £18.99). A massive amount of information charmingly conveyed in beautiful print.
Finally I must mention the belated, incomparable final memorial to the Shell Guides, North Yorkshire by Peter Burton (Charles Russell, £14.95). Betjeman, John Piper and Henry Thorold may well be gone but their spirits here are in good fettle. Inspired, educated, non-flowery prose, and the photographs are stupendous.