J. G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come (Fourth Estate, £17.99) is a dyspeptic vision of a dystopian Britain that has already half-arrived. He is a close observer of our national malaise: indiscriminate consumerism combined with a sense of entitlement, and therefore of resentment. His profound understanding of the place of the teddy bear in our national life made me laugh.
Bruce Clark’s Twice a Stranger: Greece, Turkey and the Minorities They Expelled (Granta, £20) is a brilliant, subtle and very moving exploration of the ironies of modernisation and nationalism in Greece and Turkey. Greek Moslems were deemed Turks, and Turkish Orthodox deemed Greek, and expelled from their ancestral homes accordingly. Yet another painful reminder of man’s inhumanity to man.
There were a lot of old favourites performing well this year in fiction. Martin Amis’s gulag story House of Meetings (Cape, £15.99) was terrific, though he must be sick to his new back teeth of hearing it accorded the back-handed compliment ‘a return to form’. As was David Mitchell’s lovely evocation of childhood, Black Swan Green (Sceptre, £16.99). He’ll be sick of people telling him it wasn’t as good as Cloud Atlas, but boo to them. And hooray for Stephen King, whose new novel Lisey’s Story (Hodder, £17.99) was gripping and scary and moving. I’m just about to get properly to grips with Mark Z. Danielewski’s dizzyingly inventive rotational road trip, Only Revolutions (Doubleday, £20), on a road trip of my own. Great services to lovers of poetry were done by John Haffenden and Alice Quinn. The first edited William Empson’s ceaselessly clever and spiky letters (OUP, £40), as well as completing his magnificent biography (OUP, £30). Quinn, the poetry editor of the New Yorker, drew the uncollected work of the peerless Elizabeth Bishop together in Edgar Allan Poe and the Juke-Box (Carcanet, £16.95).
How did Siegfried Sassoon at 42 in the throes of a love affair with Stephen Tennant, the most flamboyant homo- sexual in the land, and moving in the same smart circle as the Sitwells and the Garsington set, shut himself off from their world and write Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, that wonderfully innocent and moving account of his utopian Edwardian childhood? Later, in search of that lost innocence but tormented by sexual demons, he became a Catholic, setting up an oratory, sometimes praying while stripped naked and achieving a kind of peace. Max Egremont’s magnificent biography about this heroic man is my book of the year (Picador, £25).
The Assassin’s Cloak, edited by Alan Taylor and Irene Taylor (Canongate, £9.99), is an anthology of the world’s greatest diarists. There are 1,800 entries or so. Anyone who is anybody is here: Evelyn Waugh, Goebbels Virginia Woolf, Joyce Grenfell, Tolstoy, Words-worth, Byron, Goethe, Darwin and Siggy himself.
Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorder (Bloomsbury, £15.99) worked for me on every page. Eleven stories with a narrator who shares Atwood’s sardonic, lethal humour, ability to inspire laughter and touch the heart. Family life, memory, the rueful gaining of wisdom and the realities of aging, pinned down with elegant economy. And I caught up with The Penelopiad out in paperback this year (Canongate £7.99). Atwood again — a wife’s-eye view of the Odyssey; witty, clever, with a surface of knowing charm and a shocking sting in the tail that undercuts the comfort of the familiar myth.
And a singular pleasure: a dazzling literary oddity by Christine Brooke-Rose. Life, End of (Carcanet, £12.95), a tiny Trojan horse of a novel, a dark, hilarious disquisition on death, friendship, history, literature and the inadequacies of the narrator’s ex-husband. Brooke-Rose at 83 is bursting with ideas and erudition, laughter never far away — Beckett crossed with Dorothy Parker.
This year seems to have taken a Gallic turn, perhaps appropriately in view of the gathering storm in France. Paris: The Secret History by Andrew Hussey (Viking, £25) is particularly good on low life, as he proves that ‘the corpse of the old whore’ still casts a powerful spell. La Vie en Bleu by Rod Kedward (Penguin, £30) is a complex study of a complex subject: France and the French since 1900. It provides an interesting contrast to Hussey and is an absorbing read.
The French inevitably figure prominently in The Oxford Companion to Military History edited by Richard Holmes with his usual authority and lucidity (£22.99). Finally, an oldish book: Sasha Bonsor wrote a short account of what it is like to escape death from serious illness on the threshold of adulthood. It is touching, courageous and unsentimental. Dipped into Oblivion (Rider, £9.99) appeared in 2004. It was worth re-reading in 2006.
The most stimulating thing I have read this year is Richard Dawkins’ brilliant new book, The God Delusion (Bantam Press, £20). One can hardly read a page without feeling that, if only monotheistic fundamentalists everywhere (in America as well as Asia) could absorb even a tenth of it, the world would be a safer and more peaceful place.
Max Egremont’s Siegfried Sassoon (Picador, £25) is a wonderful biography of a fine poet and complicated man, a triumph of deep research, stylish writing and empathic talent. The Classical World (Penguin, £9.99) by Robin Lane Fox is a great classical historian’s magisterial view of the epic centuries from Homer to Hadrian. And Vyvyen Brendon’s Children of the Raj (Weidenfeld, £20) is a scholarly, sympathetic and entertaining survey of the many trials and sporadic joys of British children in India and in exile at Home.
Usually I have to rack my brains at this season to try to dredge up the titles of the books which have most appealed to me since New Year’s Day. But this year two books stand out. One is John Fowles: The Journals, Volume 2, edited by Charles Drazin (Cape, £25). It was recommended to me by Christopher Gray, the omniscient arts editor of the Oxford Times — I had not even read (but I have done now) the first volume, originally out in 2004 and now a paperback (Vintage, £9.99).
Fowles comes across as a strange, soured man, but then who wants a diarist who pours golden syrup over everyone? His powers of observation are exceptional, his honesty implacable; and he writes as naturally as if he were speaking to us (not, sadly, a virtue of his novels).
This second volume covers the years 1965 to 1990. Fowles writes lyrically about nature; lethally about other authors. Of Bruce Chatwin, whose Utz he had just read: ‘He was too dazzled by his knowledge to see that he hadn’t yet found humanity.’
My other choice is Nicholas Orme’s Medieval Schools from Roman Britain to Renaissance England (Yale, £25), the sequel to his much praised Medieval Children, also published by Yale five years ago. Orme, who is professor of history at Exeter University, shows that modern education isn’t new; it is built on centuries of experiment and improvement going back to the Romans. He recreates medieval schoolrooms to body forth masters and pupils at work and quotes from boys’ exercise books which amazingly survive. It is a fresh, Schama-like take on life in the Middle Ages. Orme’s writing is exhilarating and underpinned by profound scholarship. Why is he no
t a Fellow of the British Academy when so many lesser historians are?
You might be able to guess my unfavourite book of the year: A. N. Wilson’s Betjeman (Hutchinson, £20), a biography of the poet hastily cobbled together for his centenary. From the latest edition he has removed the spoof ‘Betjeman love-letter’ to Honor Tracy which I sent him under a hoax identity (shame: I had hoped for a modest royalty on it) but he has left in the very dodgy assertion, based upon it, that Tracy was ‘the missing link between Iris Murdoch and John Betjeman, having slept with them both’.
The excision reminds me of what Evelyn Waugh wrote in his diary in 1946 after Randolph Churchill went into hospital to have a lung removed. It was announced that the trouble was not malignant, and Waugh wrote, ‘It was a typical triumph of modern science to find the only part of Randolph that was not malignant and remove it.’
In the sprit of goodwill to all men, I am sending Wilson a Christmas present. It is a cribbage board — he is so adept at the game.
Robert and Isabelle Tombs’ That Sweet Enemy (Heinemann, £25) is history with the grand sweep, an elegant and perceptive account of Anglo-French relations over the three centuries since Louis XIV, ranging from food to literature to politics. On a more intimate scale, Nicholas Orme’s Medieval Schools from Roman Britain to Renaissance England (Yale, £25) is a minor masterpiece of social history by a writer who combines his scholarship with an appealing style and a moving empathy with the people whose lives he describes. In a very different vein, Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines (Weidenfeld, £20), collects some of the early letters of a talented historian and a master of the English language who squandered his energies in pursuing relentless vendettas against all around him: a book that fascinates and horrifies at the same time.
I normally get little pleasure from historical whodunits, but C. J. Sansom’s Sovereign (Macmillan, £19.99) is both marvellously exciting to read and a totally convincing evocation of England in the reign of Henry VIII. Peter Hennessy’s Having It So Good (Penguin/Allen Lane, £30) carries on from his magnificent Never Again: Britain 1945-1951 and describes every aspect of British life during the 1950s. Hennessy combines the balance and authority of a historian with the brilliantly selective eye of the investigative journalist; most notably, he extracts enormous pleasure from his researches and communicates it to his readers. Those who lived through the 1950s will find old memories stirred; those who are younger will understand their present much better for this evocation of the past. If the gods gossip, this is how it would sound.
If you have to choose a single volume from the enormous stack of books on Iraq published this year, choose Tom Ricks’s Fiasco (Allen Lane, £25). Unlike many of the other writers, Ricks didn’t start out in opposition to the war — he’s been on the Pentagon beat for years, has famously good contacts among US army brass, and is not exactly a common-or-garden anti-American pacifist. But it is precisely his sympathy for American soldiers that makes this book so good: step by step, he shows how the higher-ups betrayed the army with catastrophically bad planning and a failure to clarify the basic goals of the mission. There will be no better explanation of what went wrong and why.
We have no Whig historians in this country to match the stature of David McCullough, whose reputation in the United States is of Macaulayesque proportions. His Pulitzer Prize-winning 1776 (Penguin, £8.99) can be wholly recommended both for its story-telling of that climactic year and, no less forcefully, for its optimistic perception that change, however hard to achieve, is always for the best.
The recent death of Aleister Crowley’s biographer and executor, John Symonds, prompted me to look again both at his fantastical novels and quirky editing of the self-obsessed old fraud’s diaries. The surreal quality of his 1966 novel, With a View on the Palace, remains comic and wicked.
No living author gives me more pleasure than Kazuo Ishiguro and the profound melancholy of Never Let Me Go (Faber, £7.99) seemed more remarkable even than The Remains of the Day — something I had not thought possible.