My top title of the year is Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (Cape, £16.99), convincing proof that the best writers of our time are anthropologists, and that James Joyce, were he alive today, would be working for Google. I also enjoyed Ben Lerner’s 10:04 (Granta, £14.99), a self-deconstructing novel whose metafictional plot speaks of the nature of time and of things being endlessly interconnected. My non-fiction pick is Iain Sinclair’s London Overground: A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99), the psychogeographer’s passionate take on 21st-century London, a place of perpetual change and chronological resonances.
For the most overrated books of the year, see the ‘hatchet issue’ of the London Review of Books (24 September), featuring reviews of Purity by Jonathan Franzen (Fourth Estate, £20) and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Picador, £16.99).
The highlight for me this year was the South African writer Jonny Steinberg’s A Man of Good Hope (Cape, £18.99), hugely topical at a time when Europe is contemplating what it means to be a refugee. I’ve repeatedly found myself recommending it to friends. Steinberg is a novelist camouflaging himself as a non-fiction writer, and his story of Somali tradesman Asad’s meandering journey across Africa — from the clan violence of Mogadishu via the slums of Nairobi and Addis Ababa to the townships of Cape Town and their vindictive, xenophobic attacks — is extraordinarily poignant. A real-life picaresque tale, it doesn’t contain a single dull sentence.
Shame (Weidenfeld, £14.99), a second novel by Melanie Finn, deserved more recognition than it received. The story of a young woman who exiles herself to a remote village in Tanzania after an accidental killing in Switzerland, only to be tracked down by a former neighbour bent on revenge, it’s both disturbing and ultimately uplifting. Her Africa is one I recognise, neither sentimental nor sensationalised. Finn has a light, deft touch as a writer, but the images she conjures up are so subversively creepy they haunt you for days.
Morten Jerven, author of the iconoclastic Poor Numbers in 2013 — a book which argued that not a single GDP statistic in Africa could be trusted — continued his assault on economic shibboleths with the publication of Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong (Zed Books, £14.99), which argues that the ‘Africa Rising’ mantra chanted by would-be investors in the continent has been built on a foundation of false assumptions.
Tom Burgis’s The Looting Machine (William Collins, £16), the first book by this Financial Times journalist, offers another corrective to current obligatory optimism about the continent. It’s a bleak account of the resource smash-and-grab being staged by corrupt political elites and their corporate raider friends. China comes out of this account particularly poorly. An important book with a disconcertingly grim message.
Thomas W. Hodgkinson
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, & the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (Vintage). Originally published in the US, this history of scientology isn’t available in UK bookshops. Buy it online. Hilarious, hair-raising and amazingly evenhanded, given the subject matter, it describes how the science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard turned his toxic neuroses into the basis for an utterly bogus belief system designed to extract money from dupes. This is the guy who punched his wife for smiling in her sleep. This is the guy Tom Cruise refers to, with reverential affection, as ‘LRH’.
If you’re looking for an elegantly written book that will transform your understanding of the British national character, try Weeping Britannia: Portrait of a Nation in Tears by Thomas Dixon (OUP, £25). Turns out the phenomenon of the stiff upper lip was a lot more fleeting than one might have thought: it arose at the same time as the empire, and declined with it too.
Laurence Scott’s The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World (Heinemann, £20) is the year’s most surprising book. I expected a dour, lumbering tract about the dehumanising influence of new technologies, social media and information overload. Instead, I found a real flirt of a book. It’s full of impish gaiety, elegant and lithe in its language, providing intellectual ambushes and startling connections. It examines our evolving notions of publicity, privacy, time-wasting, frivolity, friendship, allegiances, denial, escapism and squalor in the internet age. The teasing, wary optimism is bewitching as well as informative.
The little volumes of the ‘Penguin Monarchs’ series (£10.99 each) will be a matchless collection when completed. Already they provide a first-rate history of England, its monarchy and the effects of power on character. I’ve relished Anne Curry on Henry V, Stephen Alford on Edward VI, David Womersley on James II and Roger Knight’s William IV — but really there is not a dud among them.
For me this has been the year of Meg Wolitzer. She is like Philip Roth with added warmth, better jokes and more sex. All her novels are delicious — The Wife, The Position, The Ten-Year Nap and, most recently, The Interestings (Vintage, £8.99), which is about an artistic summer camp for privileged teenagers from New York. How odd it is that the United States, supposedly the ultimate classless society, should have produced so many masterpieces about upper-class educational institutions: The Group, The Catcher in the Rye, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. The Interestings holds its head up in this company and has more of a tragic edge than any of them.
A long time ago the novelist Marghanita Laski opined that the BBC had been the greatest single influence for good upon the life of the nation since the decline of the churches. A little later my father, Huw Wheldon, called it ‘one of the great institutions of the western world’. Charlotte Higgins regards the corporation as ‘the most powerful British institution of them all’. Her history of the BBC, This New Noise (Guardian/Faber, £12.99) is intellectually coherent and a pleasure to read. It gives proper credit to the ‘pioneer of TV current affairs’, Grace Wyndham Goldie.
Bernard Cornwell’s Waterloo (Collins, £8.99) is excellent, chiefly in its willingness to tell the story from the point of view of the battle’s combatants, while never allowing the narrative — and what a story it is — to flag.
I have at last caught up with Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History (Penguin, £8.99), which I approached in piety but finished consumed.
Neurotribes (Allen & Unwin, £16.99), a superb amalgam of social history and contemporary reportage by the San Francisco author Steve Silberman, looks at the role of autism in shaping human history and the tech bubble of Silicon Valley. In Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London (Verso, £20), Matthew Beaumont chronicles nighttime in the capital city from William the Conqueror’s day to the 19th century. Rarely has a book about darkness been so illuminating.
Michael Jacobs, who died in January 2014, was a polymath Hispanist, art historian and good-time gourmet. I met him six or seven times only but I liked him so much that I coveted him as a friend. His book on Diego Velazquez’s 1656 mirror-game of truth and illusion, ‘Las Meninas’, Everything is Happening: Journey into a Painting (Granta, £15.99), is sublime.
The most overrated book of the year might well be Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights (Cape, £18.99), a work of sub-Tolkien jibber-jabber and negligible import.
My favourite book of the year was The Hotel Years, a collection of wanderings by the incomparable Joseph Roth (Granta, £16.99). I was oddly touched by Everything is Happening: Journey into a Painting, the swan-song of Michael Jacobs concerning the Velazquez masterpiece ‘Las Meninas’. And the grand and peculiar Landmarks seemed to me a welcome change of direction by the uniquely gifted Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton, £20).
Isaiah Berlin’s Affirming: Letters 1975–1997. (Chatto & Windus, £40). This fourth and final volume of Berlin’s letters, admirably edited by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle, brings vividly back to life one of the most wise, witty and generous of men. Alistair Horne’s Hubris (Weidenfeld, £25) provides a penetrating study of six critically important battles of the second world war, each one illustrating how the sin of pride brings disaster on those who indulge in it. It is difficult to know whether to admire more the author’s mastery of his subject or his literary skills.
I wish I could pull off the Anthony Burgess stunt and recommend books of my own — Erotic Vagrancy, about Burton and Taylor, and Growing Up With Comedians, about, well, comedians. Both are doing well on Amazon and have garnered wonderful reviews. They are clearly my most successful and esteemed achievements. Unfortunately, neither title actually exists as such and no words have been written. The publishers jumped the gun with their announcements — though in our ‘virtual’ world perhaps this no longer matters.
A book I do have physically in my hands, which I enjoyed immensely, is David Hare’s The Blue Touch Paper (Faber, £20), which is as phosphorescent as a Larkin poem. It is easy enough to see how the puritanical repressions and genteelisms of post-war Bexhill-on-Sea fomented Hare’s anger and gave him impetus as a playwright — but what about his mother? I have read no more powerful a scene than the one where Nancy Hare, after a lifetime of provincial middle-class ‘recessiveness and apprehension’, waits until her deathbed before she can finally snap: ‘Well then damn you. Damn you to hell!’
This has been a good year for biographies, especially of all-rounders. Hugh Purcell did a lot of digging to uncover the nine lives of that secretive man John Freeman. A Very Private Celebrity (Robson Press Biteback, £25) lists them as follows: pre-war advertising executive, wartime officer (Monty called him ‘the best brigade major in the Eighth Army’), postwar MP, Labour minister, Bevanite rebel, TV interviewer, top-line diplomat and ambassador in Washington, DC, media mogul and star academic at a US university — all first-class of their kind — and fascinating to read about.
Richard Davenport-Hines is equally vivid in Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes (Collins, £18.99). They were altruist, boy prodigy, Treasury official, public man, lover (both homosexual and heterosexual), art collector and economic envoy. A rich story, brilliantly told.
This hardly leaves room for the first volume of Niall Ferguson’s gigantic biography Kissinger, 1923–1968: The Idealist (Allen Lane, £35), another universal man. What a lot of good reading I had in 2015!
No question about the book of the year: it’s Michel Houellebecq’s Submission (Heinemann, £18.99) in Lorin Stein’s fluent translation. It’s France, 2022, when a moderate Muslim Brotherhood government takes charge. While the narrator submits to the new low-key Islamic regime, the liberal left collapses for want of coherence before an ideology intent on winning the battle of ideas through demography. ‘To them it’s simple — whichever segment of the population has the highest birthrate and does the best job of transmitting its values, wins.’ Following its publication, the Guardian asked brightly: ‘Does Houellebecq really hate women and Muslims, or is he just a twisted provocateur?’ But the book is more nuanced and more troubling than that. The narrator doesn’t register women who aren’t young and shaggable — tell me that’s not how men see women — and in this story, it’s libidinous intellectuals who succumb to the new order because it suits them. Plausible? Sort of. Worrying? Yep. Important? Very.
Since retiring from coping with new books I have found it a pleasure not to have to glance at any of them. One, however, Anne Tyler’s 20th novel A Spool of Blue Thread (Vintage, £7.99), was pure pleasure. A quiet family drama over four generations, set in Baltimore as usual, it was never obvious which way it was going. but patterns emerged in the end.
My interest in India is matched only by my ignorance, so almost everything in Ferdinand Mount’s Tears of the Rajas (Simon & Schuster, £25) came as a surprise to me. Through the careers of various enterprising relations, he tells the story of the British in the years leading up to the mutiny — or first war of independence as I now know it should be called. We cannot be said to emerge with great credit, but it is maddening how often someone had the right idea but not the power to enforce it. Gripping.
I reread The Vale of Laughter (originally published in 1967) by a forgotten American comic novelist called Peter de Vries because I remembered the opening fondly: ‘Call me, Ishmael. Feel absolutely free to. Call me any hour of the day or night at the office or at home.’ He must remain forgotten.
No book this year has provided me with such interest and visual delight as Gavin Stamp’s superb Gothic for the Steam Age: An Illustrated Biography of George Gilbert Scott (Aurum Press, £30). The Midland Hotel St Pancras, the Martyr’s Memorial in Oxford, the Albert Memorial in Kensington, the Hereford Choir Screen, Holy Trinity Rugby, where I often worshipped (eheu, now demolished), St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh — one of the finest cathedrals in the world. Stamp is the finest architectural historian of the Victorian era and his evocation of Scott — architect and human being — is a masterpiece, accompanied by superb illustrations. It is an intensely sad book, for so many of the towns which Scott beautified have been wrecked. Imagine yourself standing in Atkinson Grimshaw’s depiction of damp twilight in ‘Park Row, Leeds,’ 1882, full of marvellous buildings (Scott’s red-brick Beckett’s Bank the most conspicuous), every one of which, as Stamp says poignantly, was demolished in the 1960s.
Though artfully plotted and well written, some of Rachel Billington’s early novels, starting with All Things Nice in 1969, had a tinge of Mills & Boon. Reviewing one of them, Auberon Waugh wrote: ‘The hero is described as “smooth and pink”. Good: I hate green, prickly heroes.’
By the time she wrote A Woman’s Age (1979) — a novel covering roughly the same lifespan as that of her mother, Elizabeth Longford — Billington had matured into about the same standing as Elizabeth Jane Howard. Though Howard’s Cazalet chronicles are pleasurable to read and laced with intellect and wit, she is not in the same class of acclaimed ‘literary novelist’ as, say, Colette or Iris Murdoch.
With Billington’s new novel, Glory (Orion, £19.99), she has broken through an invisible barrier into a distinctly higher echelon. Timed for publication on the centenary of Gallipoli — the first world war disaster in which her grandfather, Brigadier-General the 5th Earl of Longford, was killed — her book leaves behind the cosiness of upper-class dinner parties to traffic in carnage; though, like Shakespeare at his goriest, Billington relieves the grand sweep of horrors with oases of humour.
Glory is as near to a British War and Peace as any contemporary novelist is likely to come. Winston Churchill gets a walk-on part — as a villain.
The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science by Andrea Wulf (John Murray, £25). Darwin pronounced him the greatest scientific traveller who ever lived, but the brilliant German Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) left no groundbreaking theory or world-changing book. Wulf sets out to restore his diminished reputation, and has given us the most complete portrait of one of the world’s most complete naturalists.
Derek Ratcliffe occupied a smaller stage but was no less committed to a panoramic understanding of British nature. Writer, scientist, explorer, mountaineer, photographer and unremitting champion of the wild, Ratcliffe had a breadth and talent that is richly celebrated in Nature’s Conscience: The Life and Legacy of Derek Ratcliffe, edited by Des Thomson, Hilary Birks and John Birks (Langford Press, £23).
Oliver Morton’s Eating the Sun will test to the very limits any layperson’s grasp of chemistry and physics, but this wonderfully lyrical, all-embracing pursuit of life on Earth (published in 2009 by Fourth Estate) is an intellectual adventure of the highest quality and a stake through the heart of any climate-change-denying pseudoscience.
Now that I’ve given up drugs, I find myself addicted to psychological thrillers written by women, featuring no gore and a great deal of malice aforethought. My favourites this year were (in order of preference) Disclaimer by Renée Knight (Doubleday, £12.99), You by Caroline Kepnes (Simon & Schuster, £7.99) and I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh (Sphere, £7.99). And Nick Cohen’s brilliant What’s Left: How the Left Lost its Way (Harper Perennial, £9.99) was reissued just in time to provide an explanation for the Labour party’s current ecstatic self-immolation. I have bought and given away a dozen copies of this book, and I plan to buy and give away a dozen more.
Richard Bourke’s Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke (Princeton, £30.95) is a monument of exact scholarship and careful reflection, by a long way the best book that we have on this profound and much misunderstood politician and philosopher.
For those who want more thunder than even Burke can offer, Rory Muir’s Wellington: Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace, 1814–1852 (Yale, £30) completes the author’s outstanding two-volume biography. Finally, Penguin Classics confirms its reputation for range and eclecticism with Magna Carta, with a superb commentary by David Carpenter (£10.99); and Wellington’s Military Dispatches, edited by Charles Esdaile, which is full of the great man’s laconic put-downs and provides an excellent companion volume to Muir’s biography (£9.99).
Royalty Inc. by Stephen Bates (Aurum Press, £20) is a superb account of how ‘the Firm’ (Windsors rather than Krays) became ‘Britain’s best-known brand’. Bates is a veteran royal journalist, though much of his career was on the Guardian, which wouldn’t let him use that title. He reveals that the palace’s own term for their gameplan is the ‘Marmite jar strategy’: pretend you’re a timeless and static part of the national furniture, while subtly and constantly changing to remain relevant.
Simon Hughes’s Who Wants to be a Batsman? (Simon & Schuster, £18.99) brilliantly analyses this fragile creature. Nasser Hussain’s girlfriend accidentally records Neighbours over his coaching tape, Alastair Cook has to have the volume of his car stereo on an even number, while Ricky Ponting’s advice on knowing your limitations applies to us all, cricketers or not: ‘Swim between the flags.’
Tessa Hadley’s subtle and beautifully written The Past (Cape, £16.99) brilliantly evokes the tensions between a clutch of middle-aged siblings spending one last holiday in their old family home. In a variety of ways of which the characters are not always aware, the past impinges upon the present with both funny and horrifying results. This was my novel of the year, but I also enjoyed and admired Panos Karnezis’s The Fugitives (Cape, £12.99), an elegantly spare tale of a troubled priest’s involvement in the fight for land between Indians and squatters in a South American rainforest.
Treat of the year was Raymond Cauchetier’s New Wave (ACC Editions, £40). The name may be unfamiliar, but the images are world-famous: Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo on the poster for À Bout de Souffle, a moustachioed and flat-capped Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim, Jean-Pierre Léaud as three incarnations of Antoine Doinel. Cauchetier’s on-set photographs capture perfectly that exhilarating moment when la nouvelle vague broke upon the shores of world cinema.
This year I have read two very original and gripping British novels: Lurid and Cute by Adam Thirlwell (Cape, £16.99) and Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (Cape, £16.99). The first is a phantasmagoric tale of a modern world full of sex and violence, which is both funny and shocking. The second is an image of another part of the modern world — the daily dominance of computers and their language and imagery — which takes place in anonymous worlds like airport waiting spaces and grey offices.
I have admired both these writers since I started reading them; each new book is different from its predecessor, with new storytelling and language which are an intrinsic part of their worlds. I can’t imagine what Thirlwell and McCarthy will do next, but I look forward to it. British fiction is alive and full of energy.
Dominic Sandbrook’s The Great British Dream Factory (Allen Lane, £25) is very long, but I read it in less than two days, my attention never flagging. Sandbrook’s main contention is that as Britain declined as an imperial power, it reinvented itself as a purveyor of popular culture to the world. Embracing everything from Black Sabbath’s guitarist, Tony Iommi, losing his fingers in a sheet metal press to the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, it’s dramatic, perceptive and often extremely funny.
Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life (William Collins, £30) is very long too — and somehow manages to be both prim and prurient. But there’s also plenty of fascinating stuff here. It says a lot about Hughes’s baleful allure that — on separate occasions — he was mistaken for Engelbert Humperdinck and the Yorkshire Ripper.
I am unashamedly sticking to my own home territory. Cambridge has become something of a literary hotspot. Last year it was Ali Smith (How to be Both) and Helen Macdonald (H is for Hawk). This year we have Clive James’s wonderful (and let’s hope not last) collection of poetry, Sentenced to Life (Picador, £14.99), including the marvellous ‘Japanese Maple’, which unusually for a poem went viral after it first appeared in the New Yorker.
And then there is Ruth Scurr’s extraordinary literary reconstruction of the diary of John Aubrey: My Own Life (Chatto, £25), which has already been marked down as a ‘Desert Island book’.
2015 has been a terrific year for women writers. I have especially enjoyed Mary Beard’s sceptical and subversive history of Rome, SPQR (Profile, £25); Alexandra Harris’s literary history of the English weather, Weatherland: Writers and Artists Under English Skies (Thames & Hudson, £24.95); and Antonia Fraser’s witty memoir of growing up, My History (Weidenfeld, £9.99).
I loved Anne Enright’s darkly glinting novel of family life, The Green Road (Cape, £16.99), but my female novelist of the year is Elena Ferrante. I found Ann Goldstein’s translations of the Neopolitan novels — My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child (published by Europa Editions)— completely engrossing: like a return to childhood reading.
More Books of the Year next week.