Being a slow reader, I first try the shortest, or anyway shorter, works of famous novelists unknown to me. This year, with many misgivings, I read The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil (Penguin, £8.99) and was shocked and impressed by the intensity of the sex and violence he describes at a military boarding school in Austria. But do I really want to continue to the great works? Nagasaki, by the prize-winning French journalist Eric Faye (Gallic Books, £7.99), describes in 112 pages a middle-aged Japanese man who suspects that someone is secretly living in his house. It is as gripping as a thriller, but sad and serious. I shall try another short one.
More confidently, I took Nora Webster (Viking, £18.99) on holiday and marvelled that Colm Tóibín could make the ordinary life of a middle-aged Irish widow so utterly compelling. So now I am reading his earlier, almost related, Brooklyn and cannot wait to find out if the nice young Italian whom Eilis met at the Irish dance in New York is to be trusted. I do hope so.
Tristram Hunt’s Ten Cities that Made an Empire (Allen Lane, £25) is a stylish history of the British empire, told through its cities in sunny, civilised prose. He begins with the bungling of the American colonies and ends with Britain’s bewilderment as its own cities in turn become ‘colonised’.
Constantine Phipps’s What You Want (Quercus, £20) is a verse novel in heroic couplets. It is bright verse, not light verse; a gripping, upsetting story of adultery, which turns into a sort of Dantean journey (while he drifts off in an unwise mixture of whisky and pills) with Freud as Virgil. Unlike many modern novels, this is actually about something. It is moving, scary, funny, endlessly interesting and much the best book I have read this year. We have a Pushkin in our midst, with his gift of saying incredibly sad — and deep — things in bubbly and often ingenious verse.
Inside the Dream Palace by Sherill Tippins (Simon & Schuster, £20). We’ve had biographies of great artists and writers, their spouses and children and their children’s pets. Here’s one about the place where most of them, from Jack Kerouac to Sid Vicious, seem to have hung out: the glamorously seedy Chelsea Hotel in New York. Not just a biography of a building, it amounts to an alternative history of 20th-century culture.
How To Be a Husband by Tim Dowling (4th Estate, £12.99). Less a self-help than a self-hinder book, the Guardian columnist’s account of how he has coped with the challenges of matrimony (answer: badly) should really be called How Not To Be a Husband. It only makes one joke, but it makes it extremely well.
The worst book I read this year is Autobiography by Morrissey (Penguin, £8.99). I don’t like A.A. Gill and I don’t imagine many people do. But in his demolishing Sunday Times review of the pop star Morrissey’s self-important and embarrassingly badly written autobiography, he was spot on. My advice: skip the book, turn the lights out, and listen to ‘Late Night, Maudlin Street’ instead.
Behind the Mask: The Life of Vita Sackville-West by Matthew Dennison (Collins, £25). Brave man to take on the biography of Vita, and he has brought it off superbly. So many facets, so many talents, so rich and full a life. Where do you start? Aristocrat, writer, greatly underrated novelist, garden creator, poet, wife, mother, friend, lover — it’s all here; and this is no dull ‘birth to death’ chronicle. It studies and reveals this extraordinary woman as well as could possibly be. A fine achievement.
The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Mother and Me by Sofka Zinovieff (Cape, £25). If you love Lord Merlin you love Lord Berners, and if you don’t follow me you shouldn’t be reading this. I was once at a book signing in Burford with the late Debo Devonshire when a remarkable elderly lady came up. ‘Coote!’, DD cried, leaping up to embrace her. This was Lady Dorothy Lygon (known as ‘Coote’ to her friends) who late in life married Robert HP, the ‘Mad Boy’ of this book and longstanding young man in residence with Lord Merlin. (Oh do keep up.) Their marriage was, unsurprisingly, unhappy. When Coote left, clutching her signed book, Debo said, ‘She’ll be 90 in a minute.’ For all these and a multitude of other reasons, this book is a must-read. Well, for lovers of Lord Merlin, anyway.
Awful Auntie by David Walliams (HarperCollins, £12.99). No one has any business being as talented as David Walliams. He is one of the few comic actors who is actually funny, and is now the genius writer of ridiculously over-the-top and utterly delightful children’s books like this one, to be enjoyed equally by grown-ups who have never really grown-up. He is the heir to Roald Dahl — and that’s saying a lot.
I couldn’t work out whether Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl (Ebury, £14.99) was aimed at mature adolescents or immature adults, but I loved it anyway — even before I came across the very pleasing mention of myself in Chapter 20, and the even better one in Chapter 24. Tamar Cohen’s The Broken (Doubleday, £6.99) was that miracle — a novel about the disintegration of a middle-class marriage which didn’t make me sneer once, thanks to the cliché-free freshness of the writing. But my favourite book of the year has to be Unchosen: Memoirs of a Philo-Semite (Unbound, £14.99) by Julie Burchill: a wonderfully cool-headed and unbiased writer I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from.
Sheridan Morley was an old enemy of mine, so I was thrilled to see him brilliantly denounced and called to account by Jonathan Croall in his first-class book about writing a book, In Search of Gielgud: A Biographer’s Tale (Herbert Adler Publishing, £10.95). Morley is called an ‘arrogant, self-important and spectacularly lazy hack’, whose work was ‘sycophantic and severely lacking in depth’. One almost feels sorry for the old boy.
Staying with the theatrical theme, Covering Shakespeare by David Weston (Oberon Books, £14.99) is a highly recommended rollicking account of being a jobbing actor. ‘I always thought I’d do Bottom one day,’ says Weston, who was Ian McKellen’s understudy as Lear, ‘but it was not to be.’ It is not generally known that Peggy Ashcroft had an earpiece under her wig so that she could listen to cricket commentaries, or that Edith Evans believed the secret of stage-acting was to ‘stare out front and think dirty’. Hard to grasp what she really meant by that.
Most civilised book of the season is Bevis Hillier’s Going For a Song (Hopcyn Press, £20 ), an anthology of poems about antiques — Keats’s urn and so forth. I am something of an antique myself and am to judge the Oldie of the Year Awards. I hope to find a category for Sister Wendy Beckett, who always makes me laugh and laugh.
Monsieur Dior: Once Upon a Time by Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni (Pointed Leaf Press, £47.50) is the most exotic book I have seen this year. It came in a box, with a slinky silk ribbon. The text, by Antonia Fraser’s fashion-expert daughter, is excellent, but it is the superb photos which make the book. They show Dior dressing some of his most famous clients — film stars, royalty — and many have never been published before. The perfect present for a lady friend. Poor old Dior was a nice man, adored by his staff, but he had a short career at the top. He couldn’t resist rich food and died of a heart attack following overeating.
Colliding Worlds: How Cutting-Edge Science is Redefining Contemporary Art by Arthur I. Miller (W.W. Norton, £22). Miller is a science writer who has been exploring the relationship between art and physics. His book is not easygoing but is most rewarding if you make the effort. Some of the examples he gives are fascinating, and the illustrations startling. This is a book specially for people who go to Tate Modern and can’t get the hang of it.
World Order by Henry Kissinger (Penguin, £25). Kissinger is unique. I recall reading his first book, A World Restored, on my honeymoon because my wife had compiled the index. Though the fruits of his Harvard PhD. thesis, it is still the best account of the post-Napoleonic settlement. Now, 60 years later, he surveys the world we live in today with the same mixture of wisdom, profound knowledge, terse analysis, and contempt for fashionable humbug. Of all the statesmen I have met, with the possible exception of Lee Kuan Yew, he is the most impressive, and this book is his summa diplomatica.
The Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Exceptional Dogs by Mikita Brottman (William Collins, £16.99). I have read thousands of books in my 81 years and this is the only one that has made me happy. Brottman, a psychoanalyst, contends that her French bulldog, Grisby, ‘forms a bridge between my inner life and the real world out there, towards which I am increasingly ambivalent’. This book deals frankly and unsentimentally with the question of whether dogs really love us and describes close relationships between dogs and their owners, going back to Alexander the Great and including Virginia Woolf, Galsworthy and Dickens. And into each learned, sprightly chapter pads Grisby.
The New Emperors: Power and the Princelings in China by Kerry Brown (I.B. Tauris, £20.) Brown, who was once at the Foreign Office, has written the best study I know of the ‘ruthlessly successful multinational corporation’ that is the Communist party of China, and its leaders, whose money, contacts, relatives and women have propelled them to the top.
I haven’t read any books published this year —or last year, come to that. That disqualifies me — doesn’t it?
I’ve reviewed only a handful of books in 2014, but have struck lucky twice. Brian Moynahan’s Leningrad: Siege and Symphony (Quercus, £25) is one of the most moving books I’ve read for ages: a brilliant portrait of Leningrad in the Nazi blockade, culminating in the astonishing events surrounding the first performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony by a depleted army of musical stretcher-cases. The description of the audience (many of them also probably on their last legs) starting their ovation before the end, as if urging exhausted runners on to the finishing tape, will stay with me for a very long time.
I also loved Fiona Maddocks’s long series of interviews with the composer Harrison Birtwistle (Harrison Birtwistle: Wild Tracks, Faber, £22.50), a book full of affection and sharp insights by an author both knowledgeable about and in love with her subject.
I have always loved Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale. I now have an equal fondness for Sathnam Sanghera’s Marriage Material (Heinemann, £14.99), which is a reworking of the Black Country classic translated to a Punjabi corner shop in Wolverhampton. Every bit as rich and sad and comic as the original.
Meanwhile, back in the subcontinent, M.J. Carter’s The Strangler Vine (Fig Tree, £14.99) follows the trail of the Thuggees, the throttling sect of Kali-worshippers, and comes up with a startling denouement. Is it a thriller, or an anti-colonial satire or Wilkie Collins with saris? Irresistible any way you take it.
If you loved Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, you won’t be able to remain indifferent to his Nora Webster (Viking, £18.99). Tóibín is now in full view as Ireland’s greatest novelist since John McGahern, and this is his best yet. The ache of a widow’s grief is rendered with such an unadorned intensity that you might not think the book could be entertaining too, but it is.
‘I left my Brigade HQ to walk to Division HQ…’ Books by brigadiers can be off-putting, and I was put off on page 1. But I Was a Stranger by John Hackett (Slightly Foxed Editions, £16) moves quickly to the civilian realm: wounded at Arnhem, Hackett tells how he was nursed and hidden by a Dutch family. I love the Dutch since reading this, and will never forget his depictions of muffled Holland in the winter of 1944.
Karin Altenberg’s second novel Breaking Light (Quercus, £16.99) is marvellous. It tells a gripping story of childhood damage and adult putting-to-rights. Every sentence shimmers with beauty and wisdom.
Marion Coutts’s The Iceberg (Atlantic Books, £14.99) anatomises the two years from her husband Tom Lubbock’s brain-tumour diagnosis. Searing, shocking, unflinching, profoundly moving. What Julian Barnes did for the aftermath of a spouse’s death in Levels of Life, Coutts does for the prelude.
Alex Monroe’s Two Turtle Doves (Bloomsbury, £16.99) is a memoir plus, brilliantly describing how lived experience is translated by craftsmanship into art. Wendy Pratt’s collection of poems, Museum Pieces (Prole, £6.50), is an example of the finished thing: poetry that turns heartbreakingly negative experience to muscular, querying and positive effect. Up to Mametz (Pen & Sword, £19.99) by Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, man of parts and holder of the Croix de guerre, is among the very best first world war memoirs. It is serious, amused, detached and true. (What was it about the Royal Welch Fusiliers? Graves, David Jones, Sassoon, Hedd Wyn and Frank Richards all served with the regiment.) Of novels published in this year of big beasts, I rate best Joseph O’Neill’s riff on Kafka, The Dog (4th Estate, £16.99): controlled, funny and grim.
Remember Those Great Volkswagen Ads? by David Abbott and Alfredo Marcantonio (Merrell, £39.95). This is the second, revised edition of an advertising classic first published in 1982. VW’s longevity applies to books as well as cars. Abbott, who died this year, was London’s senior delegate to the world of Mad Men and knew the folk at New York’s DDB agency who crafted these marvellous visual puns. It’s an elegiac reminder of a lost age when advertising was witty and intelligent.
Hunan: A Lifetime of Secrets from Mr Peng’s Kitchen by Mr Peng and Qin Xie (Preface Publishing, £25). Hunan is a Pimlico legend (no menu: you take what you get) and Mr Peng its occasionally forbidding chef-patron (fools not suffered, gladly or otherwise). This is a beautifully produced book about a marvellous restaurant and its recipes are doable. Unlike most of the cookbook genre, there’s not a nod to fashion nor any flaming ego here, just quiet pride and authority.
The Last Swan by Marella Agnelli and Marella Caracciolo Chia (Rizzoli, £40). ‘Swans’ was Truman Capote’s term for the grand women of Manhattan who entertained then rejected him. Marella Agnelli, widow of the Fiat heir and happily still alive, was the grandest of them all. This is an astonishing pictorial account of the properties she collected: an autobiography with houses and gardens, whose running text of mournful recollection reminds you, if a reminder were needed, that great wealth and great beauty do not wholly compensate for tragedy and melancholy.
In City of Lies (Weidenfeld, £18.99) Ramita Navai tells us that ‘in order to live in Tehran you have to lie’. Survival there depends on dodging the fatwas of Iran’s medieval theocratic regime. Drink, drugs and paid-for sex proliferate; the divorce rate soars while religious attendance tumbles. Navai paints brilliantly insightful portraits of eight Tehranis suffering under an Iranian revolution which has gone terribly wrong — but with no stomach for another in the light of the failed ‘Arab Spring’.
One of those oversized airport buys was The Paris Architect (Sourcebooks, £9.99), Charles Belfoure’s terrific historical thriller about a young gentile architect who builds hiding places for Jews in occupied Paris. He does it partly to outwit the Nazis but mostly because he needs the money; a reminder that heroism often emerges from self-preservation rather than altruism. Which makes one wonder why there isn’t more of it about.
I’m far enough into Roger Tombs’s timely and magisterial (1,012-page) The English and their History (Allen Lane, £30) to feel already that it’s a great achievement: you’re in the hands of a learned and considerate guide whose judgments, whether you agree with them or not, you can be sure will be well-founded. A very good read and possibly the most important contribution to the subject since Trevelyan.
Michael Goodman’s The Official History of the Joint Intelligence Committee: Volume I (Routledge, £75) should help make up for the neglect in spy literature of the JIC. The alpha and omega of intelligence bureaucracy, it influences what spies spy on and interprets their reports for policymakers. Well written and wisely judged, this first volume takes us through the second world war to Suez.
But we want the stories too, and for those I’d choose Michael Smith’s The Secret Agent’s Bedside Reader (Biteback, £20), a compendium of fiction, memoir and archive material, never less than entertaining and surprisingly informative.
Andrew Hussey’s The French Intifada: The Long War between France and its Arabs (Granta, £25) is indispensable for those who seek some essential background to France’s current political predicament. Philip Short’s Mitterrand: A Study in Ambiguity (Bodley Head, £30) is far too kind to the seductive old fraud, particularly when covering Mitterrand’s utterly dishonest early years. But the analysis of his 14 years in power is masterly, and helps balance the jaundiced views of more cynical observers. Jeremy Treglown’s Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936 (Chatto, £25) is a wonderfully stimulating and original enquiry into the paradoxical flowering of Spanish arts and writing during the years of repression.
For those who prefer the home front there is Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh (Weidenfeld, £16.99). This is a beautifully written, humane, moving and darkly funny memoir by a senior consultant neuro-surgeon at St George’s Hospital, Tooting. Having once been a patient of Mr Marsh’s predecessor, Wylie McKissock — king of the pre-frontal lobotomy — I was fascinated by this frank view of life on the other side of the anaesthetic mist. It takes us deep into both the human brain and the entrails of the NHS, and it is sometimes hard to know which is the more alarming.
Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Secret World (I.B.Tauris, £25) is a posthumous collection of articles, reviews and private letters about espionage, edited by Edward Harrison. It includes a memoir of Trevor-Roper’s recruitment into the Secret Intelligence Service, his monograph on Kim Philby, written at the prompting of the head of SIS, and lively correspondence with Sir Patrick Reilly, sometime ambassador in Moscow. It is pre-eminently sane and deliciously funny, with cool, ironical wisdom playing over subjects that make other writers overheated. Trevor-Roper’s dissection of men and motives is never sharper than in his scorn for the ‘social nihilists’, with their chatter about establishment conspiracies and cover-ups.
This year’s most over-publicised book is Simon Danczuk’s garbled, ill-sourced and rabble-rousing account of Cyril Smith, his predecessor as MP for Rochdale. Smile for the Camera (Backbite, £18.99) has aggravated England’s crazed panic about paedophilia, spread the rush to guilt-by-association and encouraged the worthless stunts in which elderly entertainers are persecuted for sexual ill-manners decades ago.
It takes an elegant pen, eye for quirky detail and deep streak of empathy to render a 656-page doorstopper about a famously tortured African nation a must-read, but David van Reybrouck does just that in Congo (HarperCollins, £25), which finally came out in English this year. The book took ten years to write and is a tour-de-force, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s complex history recounted through the memories of the Congolese citizens who lived it.
Another non-fiction account drafted with poetic skill is Lara Pawson’s In the Name of the People (I.B. Tauris, £20), which probes the moment in 1977 when Angola’s ruling MPLA devoured its children while the western left looked the other way. It’s a fascinating examination of how societies which try to lock away their traumas remain haunted by ghosts rattling their chains.
In fiction, NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names (Vintage, £8.99), which tells the story of an African slum kid who starts a new life in the US, deserved all the publicity it got.
Five Came Back by Mark Harris (Canongate, £30) is a riot of black comedy, as five top Hollywood directors in the second world war for the first time in their lunatic lives collided with reality. John Ford went enthusiastically to war, hoping to get given a sword which he could then brandish; he was, but unfortunately he found that arthritis then prevented him sheathing the thing. William Wyler went in a bomber over Germany, the crew of which heard him bellowing at the pilot to fly towards the flak so that he could get a better picture. Frank Capra (above) was keen when his studio was offered a million dollars by Mussolini to film the great man’s life; the script would be written by Il Duce himself, whose portrait hung in Capra’s bedroom. Alas, at the last minute the studio head remembered something (‘After all I’m a Jew’).
It had not been like this on the sets. Nothing had.
Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters (William Collins, £25) is astounding. Scholarly, but so up-close and personal that you feel it in the guts. This is a love letter to a man who probably didn’t exist; Homer’s stories are our lives. Archaeology, travel writing, memoir, history, poetry — it transcends genre. Be warned: you get ‘time-vertigo’ peering over the historical precipice, but you come away exhilarated.
I’ve loved all Jill Dawson’s novels (especially Wild Boy) and The Tell-Tale Heart (Sceptre, £17.99) is another example of her powerful yet delicately intelligent, haunting writing. A dried-up academic has a heart transplant and the life of the donor — a rebellious, Fen teenager — becomes relevant in bewildering ways. Do our emotions dwell in our hearts?
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is funny, sad and brilliant (4th Estate, £20). A love story that addresses racism and the hilariously complex nuances of braiding vs Afro hairstyles.
Penguin Modern Classics have been re-issuing much of Georges Simenon’s work in new translations, both the Maigret books and his standalone romans durs. These slim volumes are a joy. Try the early Maigret title Night at the Crossroads (£6.99) or The Mahé Circle (£7.99), the first ever English translation of a story of obsession. What they have in common is crisp, economical prose, unexpected emotional depth and a strange sense of modernity.
C.J. Sansom’s sixth Shardlake novel has many excellent qualities but, luckily for us, a Simenon-like brevity isn’t one of them. Lamentation (Mantle, £20) is unsettling and unpredictable — like Henry VIII’s increasingly erratic theological pronouncements, but not for the same reasons. This is both an enthralling thriller and a fascinating trawl through one of the darker periods of early Tudor history.
Philip Kerr’s latest novel is frankly an oddball — and a very entertaining one. Research (Quercus, £18.99) concerns a hugely successful author, his stable of ghost writers and the murder of his wife. It’s a quirky Hitchcockian fable that pokes savage fun at publishers, the book trade and the business of authorship.
To be continued next week.