A further selection of our reviewers’ favourite reading in 2011
Amidst the din, slogans and panic of modern publishing, my cherished books are tender, calm and achieve a surpassing eloquence by dint of tightly controlled reticence.
Anthony Thwaite’s Late Poems (Enitharmon, £10) are written by a man of 80. Each of them is word-perfect: some recall dead parents; others foreshadow Thwaite’s death; and throughout there is the clear, crisp wisdom, pensive sadness and absence of confessional self-pity that show a mastery of language and feeling.
Amos Oz’s Scenes from Village Life (Chatto, £12.99) is set in an Israeli pioneer village which is being chi-chied with boutique wineries as jackals circle in the surrounding countryside. The landscape and routines of Tel Ilan are sumptuously evoked. Oz’s characters might be drawn from Chekhov: their lives seem an irresoluble muddle of sorrow, baffled hopes and missed chances; his compassion for them makes the reader care deeply about them, too. This is a wise, beautiful and enduring book.
Nicola Shulman’s study of Sir Thomas Wyatt and his times, Graven With Diamonds (Short Books, £20), is both sparkling and scholarly. Nothing I’ve ever read about the court of Henry VIII has made it so vivid. For the first time one could really grasp Anne Boleyn’s wit and intelligence, both of which she must have needed, to keep the king off for seven years — seven years! — until they could marry. The book is marvellous about Wyatt’s poetry: indeed, about the point of poetry in general. A gem.
I loved the young German writer Judith Herman’s short story collection, Alice (Clerkenwell Press, £8.99).The stories are beautifully written, very precise in their detail, yet enigmatic.
Finally, a novel, New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (Dedalus, £9.99). Don’t be put off by the unwelcoming title: this is an extraordinary book, as good as Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient and with a similar mystery at its heart.
It seems to be an unwritten axiom of the Christmas books selection that it should serve two purposes: to praise the books and, perhaps more importantly, to preen the selector’s discernment and esoteric taste. At the top of my list, then, comes Cao Xueqin’s novel The Dream of the Red Chamber, a magical realist, political fable written in China’s Qianlong era, and superbly translated in the 1970s by David Hawkes as The Story of the Stone (Penguin, £15.99). Not only is it an intoxicating read — as though Gabriel Garcia Marquez had written The Pallisers — but its account of the downfall of a Manchu bureaucratic family sheds more light on the modern clash between Beijing and provincial powerbrokers than a library of Sinophile commentaries.
I highly recommend To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora, 1750-2010 (Allen Lane, £25), T. M. Devine’s lucid and meticulously researched dissection of Scotland’s exiled community because it offers an eye-opening view of the link between the country’s imperial past and its possibly nationalist future.
Finally, I enjoyed Richard Dawkins’s latest promotion of science as religion, The Magic of Reality (Bantam, £10). Although coming from the opposite direction, he has begun to bear an unmistakable resemblance to Mary Baker Eddy.
Graham Swift is probably still best known for Waterland, published almost 30 years ago. I rather think he is now out of fashion. Certainly Wish You Were Here (Picador, £18.99) received less attention that it deserved. Swift has the admirable ability to write literary novels about characters who would never read such books. He presents us with a complete world, one which his inarticulate characters struggle to understand. William Empsom wrote that ‘the central function of imaginative literature is to make you realise that other people act on moral convictions different from your own’. Graham Swift does just that.
The Fat Years by Chan Koonchung (Doubleday, £12.99) is a novel that everybody interested in contemporary China should read. Written in a flat journalistic style (in translation at least) it presents a vivid, intelligent and disturbing picture of the world’s emerging super-power, a society where economic freedom co-exists with continuing political repression, a place where vast change has been accepted in order that there should be no essential change.
I greatly enjoyed Andrew Nicoll’s second novel, The Love and Death of Catarina (Quercus, £12.99). Set in an unnamed Latin American country, it is written with a pervasive irony, while having also a compelling plot. It might be described as homage to Graham Greene. Certainly his influence is apparent, without being oppressive. A very good novel indeed.
On the crime front, Robert Harris’s thriller The Fear Index (Hutchinson, £18.99) combined a gripping narrative with intelligence and wild imagination. Reading it, I was almost persuaded that I understood the activities of hedge funds.
Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James (Faber, £18.99) is a tribute to Jane Austen and a sheer delight. A book to banish Boxing Day blues.
Finally, among many good non-fiction books, I would recommend Amin Maalouf’s Disordered World (Bloomsbury, £20), a civilised, sceptical, yet optimistic (if only just) examination of the state of things today. The middle section on the Arab World (‘Lost Legitimacy’) should be prescribed reading in the Foreign Office and on the foreign desk of newspapers and the BBC.
Hemingway’s Boat by Paul Hendrickson (Knopf, $30), not yet published here, offers much more than the title suggests. It is the best and most sympathetic study of Hemingway I have read in a long time.
Snowdrops, a first novel by A.D. Miller (Atlantic, £12.99), deserved to make the Booker shortlist. Centrally flawed — because its narrator’s spinelessness is not believable — it remains the punchiest, paciest and most chilling evocation of modern Moscow I’ve read. It’s true. It crackles with a sense of place.
‘What,’ asks the blurb for The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language by Mark Forsyth (Icon, £12.99), ‘is the actual connection between disgruntled and gruntled? What links church organs to organised crime, California to the Caliphate, or brackets to codpieces?’ Depending on whether words interest you, you’ve either switched off already, or you’re hooked. I was hooked.
There are books for which, amidst all else, one solitary, sustained exposition justifies the lot. In Masters of Nothing: How the Crash will Happen Again Unless we Understand Human Nature by Matthew Hancock and Nadhim Zahawi (Biteback, £12.99) the two Tory MPs’ description of the origins of the crash — ‘What happened?’ (in their chapter ‘Tipping the Bandwagon’) is unforgettable. The thunder and lightning of our economic tempest is producing flashes of insight and originality in the most unlikely places — even the parliamentary Conservative party.
The most nourishing book I have read this year is Armand d’Angour’s The Greeks and the New: Novelty in Ancient Greek Imagination and Experience (CUP, £19.99). The author teaches classics at Jesus College, Oxford. He plays the piano beautifully, and also the cello, can talk fluently on art and literature and so is the ideal person to write this book, which ranges across the whole flow of culture
We all know that the ancient Greeks were the first to do many things, but d’Angour examines the underlying question: what did they think about novelty and why, given their conservatism in so many areas of conduct, did they regard it as desirable? His knowledge of Greek literature is exhaustive and he has a gift for the apt quotation, so every page glitters with gold nuggets. You don’t need to know Greek to get joy out of this rich book: just intellectual curiosity and the power to concentrate on difficult material.
One of the best art books to come out in 2011 is John E. Crowley’s Imperial Landscapes: Britain’s Global Visual Culture (Yale, £45). Covering the years 1745-1820, it examines the landscapes which emerged from the expansion of England overseas during this three-quarters of a century, with special chapters on Canada, the Pacific, India, Australia and the West Indies, as well as the lost colonies of America.
As always with Yale, the book is handsomely produced, with hundreds of illustrations, many from rare prints and books. I met some fine artists new to me, such as Joseph Lycett (Australia), Francis Guy (United States) and the brilliant William Hodges (India), as well as old favourites like the Daniells, Zoffany and James Peachey. A sumptuous volume.
As a man grows older he is forced to rely on books to maintain his reputation as pub raconteur. I am thus grateful to Tom Rubython in And God Created Burton (Myrtle Press, £20) for the information that, with his wife appearing in a West End play, Richard Burton spent his wedding night with the family maid before passing out.
And to David McKie, in Bright Particular Stars (Atlantic, £25), for revealing that Trowell in Nottinghamshire was chosen in 1951 as British Festival Village for the Festival of Britain. The press descended on it and were rude; the villagers were just stupefied, for it did not even have a pub. Trowell was chosen by a jury of civil servants.
What strange persons get themselves chosen to govern us. I have spent quite a bit of the past year reading some brilliant lives of our prime ministers, each of them heavy enough to sprain a wrist but light enough to tickle the imagination: in historical order, David Brown’s Palmerston (Yale, £25), D. R. Thorpe’s Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan (Chatto, £25), and Philip Ziegler’s Edward Heath (Harper, £25). Pam, Supermac and Ted managed to put across very different images of themselves, but all three were essentially solitary and implacable personalities who kept their enmities in better repair than their friendships, all unpopular in youth and chilly in old age. No coincidence I think that they were so extreme in their relations with women: Heath virtually sexless, Macmillan ditto after Lady Dorothy betrayed him and Palmerston, by contrast, screwing everything that wasn’t nailed down, though David Brown disposes of the legend that he expired on the billiard table at Brocket Hall after seducing a maid. In reality, he had a pious Victorian deathbed, surrounded by his illegitimate children.
For those who missed Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado the first time round, I commend the handsome Virago reprint (£7.99) with its Lucienne Day cover. The adventures of Sally Jay Gorce in postwar Paris have lost none of their zap and charm after 50 years.
The Most Human Human by Brian Christian (Viking, £18.99) asks what we are by examining what we’re not — computers. Analysing the success or otherwise of artificial intelligence programmes, the conversation ‘bots’ that try to fool human judges in the annual Loebner Prize, Christian tries to isolate what it means to be a person. That there are no easy answers is one of his points — our love of questions rather than solutions is our beauty, and the beauty of this book.
Tim Jeal’s Explorers of the Nile (Faber, £25) and Franny Moyle’s Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde (John Murray, £20) both prove that the personal is historical. The feminist Mrs W. campaigned against underwear weighing more than seven pounds, while Sir Richard Burton observed the youths of Zanzibar ‘swimming and disporting themselves in an absence of costume which would startle even Margate’.
David Gilmour’s The Pursuit of Italy (Allen Lane, £25) is a riveting history of a country whose unification only 150 years ago may have been the worst thing that ever happened to it. Still a fragile and divided nation, in which northerners deride southerners as ‘Africani’, its troubles anticipate those of a united Europe, for, like Europe, Italy’s glory lies in the achievements of its parts rather than of the whole; or so Gilmour powerfully persuades us.
For pure entertainment, however, it’s hard to beat Craig Brown’s One on One (Fourth Estate, £16.99), which is a chain of 101 stories of chance encounters between famous people. It starts with Hitler being knocked down by a car driven by an Englishman in Munich in 1931 and ends with Hitler meeting the Duchess of Windsor in 1937, meanwhile coursing through 99 other incongruous meetings such as those between Marianne Faithfull and W. H. Auden, and Marilyn Monroe and Nikita Khruschev. Brown, the great parodist, has shown that real events can be no less fantastic and no less funny.
Mark Ormrod’s Edward III (Yale, £30) brings to life one of England’s most successful war leaders, a man so completely buried in conventional praise by his contemporaries that later ages have generally dismissed him as a cardboard cut-out. This is a mistake, as Ormrod shows in this skilfully written and original biography.
Alexander Walsham’s The Reformation of Landscape (OUP, £35), is a fascinating study of the place of landscape in English religious sentiment during the century and a half after the Reformation, a work of stunning originality.
Finally, 2011 has seen another tide of books about the Third Reich and the second world war. Those who have had enough of armchair generals will turn with relief to Zara Steiner’s The Triumph of the Dark (OUP, £35), which completes her two-volume history of international relations between the wars. It is not light reading. But it is one of those masterpieces of exact scholarship, conceived on a vast scale, which will remain the standard work on the subject for many years.
In her hugely impressive book Leningrad (Bloomsbury, £25), Anna Reid turns an appalled eye on Hitler’s three-year-long siege of the city now renamed St Petersburg. With scholarship and narrative verve, Reid makes superb use of unseen diary accounts and other material kept by survivors. For all the horror she conveys, the book is filled with tales of ordinary heroism and fortitude against the odds. Magnificent.
Arthur Rimbaud, the 19th-century French poet, was a ferocious malcontent, who free-wheeled towards self-destruction with the help of hashish and quantities of alcohol. Rimbaud’s most thoroughly modern masterpiece, Illuminations (Carcanet, £12.95), is now translated by John Ashbury, who brilliantly captures the volume’s dizzy-making, metropolitan imagery of subways, viaducts, raised canals and bridges.
Jarvis Cocker’s incomparable pop lyrics are now collected in Mother, Brother, Lover (Faber, £14.99).
Snowdrops, A. D. Miller’s literary thriller (Atlantic, £12.99), has to qualify as the book I was ‘most unable to put down’ this year. It’s set in a contemporary Moscow which I instantly recognised — glamorous, vicious, amoral and terrifying all at once. Miller puts his finger right on what makes modern Russia so compelling to outsiders. When his main character, a bland Englishman, allows himself to be enticed into a scam involving beautiful girls, phony building permits, and enormous amounts of money we intuitively understand why.
For those who prefer their scams closer to home, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (Allen Lane, £25), Michael Lewis’s book on the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crash is a brilliant read, and highly educational. I confess that I really didn’t understand how the Lehman Brothers’ crash happened until I read Lewis’s explanation. Besides, he has a novelist’s gift for evoking the weird world of money management, of people who sit in dark rooms and play with vast sums of money on their computers. They don’t seem to have as much fun as Russian gangsters, but much of what they do amounts to the same thing.
Jane Shilling’s The Stranger in the Mirror (Chatto, £16.99) is an essay on what happens to the narrative arc of a woman’s life when she reaches middle age. It is as deeply felt as it is witty and elegant. Henry’s Demons, by father and son Patrick and Henry Cockburn (Simon & Schuster, £16.99), provides the most compelling insight into schizophrenia that I’ve come across. As Good as God, As Clever as the Devil (Atlantic, £22) would have appalled its subject, the intellectually gifted, sexually tormented wife of the Victorian Archbishop Benson, but Rodney Bolt mines a rich archival vein and transcends gossip. First published in 1946, We Are Besieged, Barbara Fitzgerald’s charming novel of an Anglo-Irish family in the Twenties, is a welcome reissue from Somerville Press at £14.99.
A refreshing marriage of form and function distinguished two of the year’s best novels. In Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (Picador, £20), a hugely enjoyable and very funny portrait of English attitudes and mores over a century of change, bold narrative leaps brilliantly embodied the book’s principal concern with biographical lacunae and the workings of time and memory.
Set in Greenwich, Ali Smith’s droll and playful There But For The (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) was also preoccupied with time, and employed a fragmented narrative to suggest the unexpected ways in which people and the words they use do or don’t connect. In their very different ways, both books were outstandingly well written — as was Paul Farley’s and Michael Symmons Roberts’s Edgelands (Cape, £12.99). In a cheeky counterblast to ‘the new nature writing’, the two poets celebrated the marginal wastelands of contemporary Britain: landfill sites, container yards, wheel-clampers’ pounds, self-storage units, derelict factories and sewage works.
Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story (Fourth Estate, £20) was criticised — grotesquely — in some quarters because she didn’t mention her second marriage, as if that somehow negated the pain she felt when her first husband died. This is a remarkable account of loss in which every moment of grief is anatomised in the starkest possible manner. Throughout the book, you have the sense of seeing the world through Oates’s own bruised, baffled and often despairing eyes.
Patrick De Witt’s The Sisters Brothers (Granta, £12.99) is an exuberantly imaginative, frequently very funny account of two hitmen brothers on one last job in 1850s California — where the madness of the Gold Rush is echoed by all kinds of other madness. Alongside the bravura flashes and comic set-pieces, De Witt, with great delicacy, examines how tenderness seeps into the most unlikely places.
This year, yet again, Oxfam in Kingsland Road, London E8, turned out to be finest bookshop in the English-speaking world, (or at least that part of the English-speaking world within ten minutes’ bike ride of my Mile End slum). Among its treasures I found, A Kentish Lad by Frank Muir, the most charming comedy memoir I’ve ever read. Muir gets scant credit for his two finest literary achievements. Not only did he originate the label ‘thinking man’s crumpet’ for Joan Bakewell, but he came up with the Carry On team’s best ever line. ‘Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me!’ first appeared in a Take It From Here sketch, co-written by Muir with Denis Norden.
The best novel I’ve read for ages is Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. It’s a classic on at least four levels: as a crime thriller, as a romantic tragedy, as a study of schizophrenia and as a portrait of life in 1930s London. There’s nothing quite like a book that allows you to love a murderer.
All Hell Let Loose by Max Hastings (Harper Press, £30). However many books are written about the second world war there will always be room for one more — provided that it is first class. Max Hastings has now established himself in eight separate volumes as a master of this subject. He does not glorify war; indeed through skilful use of eye-witness accounts, his emphasis is on its horrors. No one will regret buying this latest illustration of his skill.
He dwells less on the strategic decisions of those who directed the war and more on the actual fighting as perceived by the civilians who suffered and the soldiers, sailors and airmen who took part. He makes no secret of his belief that in the art of making war the Germans were outstanding. They were finally defeated partly by Hitler’s strategic follies but mainly because in different ways the Americans and Russians brought to bear men and weapons on a scale which the Third Reich could not hope to match. The conclusion may dismay patriotic Britons, but the evidence is probably incontrovertible.
In The Pursuit of Italy (Allen Lane, £25), David Gilmour has turned away from India and produced a marvellous book about his first love, Italy. The love is severe, even to the point of unfairness. He is not concerned with the matchless beauty of Italian cities or countryside. With surgical skill he dissects the main episodes of Italian history, exposing the myths upon which most of us have been brought up. He is scathing about the means chosen for the unification of Italy, and even more harsh on Italian performance in the two world wars. Without mercy, he analyses how it is that Italy is governed today by Silvio Berlusconi. But in spite of all the mistakes and misfortunes, the world’s pursuit of Italy continues. Gilmour’s chastisement is that of a lover; he is cruel only to be kind.
Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child (Picador, £20) is the most enjoyable and thought-provoking new book that I have read this year. It’s hugely ambitious, and it says things about biography which are impossible to say in non-fiction. His subject is an aristocrat and first world war poet, whose poem, dashed off two years before the war, has become the literary emblem of a vanished England, like Rupert Brooke’s ‘Grantchester’. Hopping nimbly through the generations up until the 2000s, Hollinghurst looks at themes such as shifting literary reputations and changing sensibilities after the first world war. The poet’s biographer digs around for illegitimate children, and his findings are shown to be cruelly reductionist and out of kilter with reality. This may not be Hollinghurst’s best book — it’s chilly and sometimes hard to follow — but it’s a powerful and absorbing read and, as always, beautifully written.
My most intense reading experience of the year was sparked off by the reissue of some old John le Carrés in Penguin Modern Classics. Only Kindle owners could fail to relish the tactile satisfaction of this beautifully produced new edition, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is dignified by a superb new introduction by William Boyd, which, like all the best introductions, you really shouldn’t read until afterwards.
It then became known that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy had been filmed and would be out in September. I prepared by watching the old BBC version for the first time since the 1980s and was knocked sideways by it. Its languorous pace and attention to detail are beyond television now, but even when you know whodunit, the tension is all but intolerable. I saw the film on the day it came out, and felt so angry I wanted to punch someone. For a week I brooded. My 1979 Pan paperback, with Sir Alec Guinness on the front cover looking cuckolded, loomed from the shelf. Eventually I could hold out no longer, and read it over 36 frantic hours, as a form of literary detox. It’s bracingly good, creating a world so much more satisfying than any that could have existed, a realism far better than reality. But even reality is better than the film. Other novels old and new I enjoyed this year included Amanda Craig’s A Vicious Circle, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black and Jonathan Coe’s The Rain Before It Falls.
I very much admired The Genius in My Basement by Alexander Masters (Fourth Estate, £16.99). It’s a book in which Masters, an unorthodox biographer, tries to get to grips with Simon Norton, a brilliant mathematician who lives on the floor below him. I love descriptions of untidiness, and Masters captures the mess of Norton’s flat with relish; he also explains that this worldly disorder is a result of the pristine tidiness of the mathematical part of Norton’s mind. Somehow Masters, a mathematician himself, as well as a writer, makes you see the point of maths in an entirely playful way.
I also won’t forget Erica Heller’s portrait of her father Joseph (Yossarian Slept Here, Vintage, £8.99); I got the impression of a man who had a painful split from his wife, followed by a painful divorce, and who happened to write some books before and after this period. Not quite the Heller I imagined, but Erica gets to the nitty-gritty.