Back in 2006, David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, hired me as guide for his first trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to research The Mission Song. Evenings were spent on the terrace of the Orchids Hotel in Bukavu, watching pirogues languidly traverse Lake Kivu, ice cubes clinking in respective glasses of Scotch. It was easily the most entertaining ten days of my life, despite the stonking hangovers. Cornwell proved to be a thespian manqué. The wry, extremely funny anecdotes about his career as diplomat, spy and writer, his charming conman father, his peripatetic childhood and his encounters with the likes of Yasser Arafat, Richard Burton and Rupert Murdoch were all gloriously enriched by the fact that he can do all the voices. Not approximately — it’s pitch perfect. Reading The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (Viking, £20) felt like being back on that terrace. I savoured the gravelly, quietly insistent voice of a master storyteller examining his own life.
Another highlight of the year was a new biography of Africa’s most extraordinary monarch: King of Kings: The Triumph and Tragedy of Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia (Haus Publishing, £20). Its author, Asfa-Wossen Asserate, was the emperor’s great-nephew; his nobleman father died in a coup defending the leader he no longer believed in. It’s an accessible, well-written insider’s account, and the depiction of the doomed royal court’s last days is haunting.
We Are Not Such Things by Justine Van Der Leun (Fourth Estate, £14.99) was a book I carelessly picked up but kept returning to. It’s not so much the story of the idealistic US activist Amy Biehl’s murder in the South African township of Gugulethu but about what happened next: the lies and self-delusion of both perpetrators and family and the inevitably manipulative ends to which her death was put in a nation still choking on apartheid’s legacy. Van Der Leun has a compassionate but admirably clear eye.
It was also good to see another chapter in the DRC’s tortured history probed in Spies in the Congo: The Race for the Ore that Built the Atomic Bomb (Hurst & Company, £25). Susan Williams unpicked the mystery of UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld’s death in her previous book. This time she turns to the discovery in Shinkolobwe of the uranium eventually dropped on Hiroshima by the Enola Gay. An intriguing, beautifully documented tale.
Does size matter? This year my go-to stocking filler will be the pocket-sized Grow a Pair by Joanna Walsh, from Readux Books: 64 pages of unadulterated pleasure ($4.99). Walsh’s collection of hilarious, nimbly interlinked ‘fairy tales about sex’ (‘The Three Big Dicks’, ‘The Princess and the Penis’) is a comic gem to set beside Nicholson Baker’s slim masterpiece Vox (1992), a book about phone sex. Make like Monica Lewinsky and give Vox to the Bill Clinton in your life, or treat yourself and go solo: either way, both these books will make you laugh, blush, and nod in delighted — if risqué — recognition.
Not so good on sex was Eimear McBride’s highly anticipated The Lesser Bohemians (Faber, £16.99). ‘Come with me, he says and I, holding on as it rises, the high tide.’ There were a few demurrals this time round, but I’m still surprised that McBride’s skimpy bouillabaisse of modernism has so many people coming back for seconds.
Hot on the heels of his books about the Bible and the Queen comes A.N. Wilson’s witty, learned, utterly self-possessed novel Resolution (Atlantic, £16), about the turbulent life of George Forster. He was the Polish-born, Warrington-raised, multi-lingual Enlightenment scholar-scientist who, aged 18, was appointed botanist on board the Resolution. His popular account of the voyage pipped Captain Cook’s own book to the post. So Wilson’s Forster is a guilty man, a protégé who murdered his master:‘It now amazes me that I had the gall, the sheer cheek, to write my Voyage book. I wrote it fast. We finished it before Cook. It sold well — only now do I see how justifiably angry the Captain must have been! I’d done more than jump the gun. I’d violated him.’ Forster’s own protégé, Alexander Humboldt, praised him for combining scientific accuracy with ‘the vivifying breath of imagination’. This is also A.N. Wilson’s achievement. Best novel of the year.
Easily the most original novel of the year was Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist (Faber, £16.99). It tells the story of an English governess who finds herself caught up in the Russian Revolution; but instead of retreating to the safety of Cornwall, she stays on in order to join a sort of prototype commune run by the charismatic Futurist Nikita Slavkin. Entirely sui generis, it also boasts the year’s best cover design. This is the book I’ll be giving people for Christmas.
World events were gloomy when Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth (Bloomsbury, £18.99) and Ali Smith’s Autumn (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) appeared. Each of these books describes the best in human nature: our capacity for love and loyalty and kindness; our love of storytelling. Fantastic writing, big ideas and generosity of spirit. If I had been in charge of the Man Booker Prize this year, I would have given it to one of these.
Speaking of which, how on earth did Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (Penguin, £8.99) find its way onto the shortlist? I absolutely hated this squalid little tale of small-town revenge, which rejoiced in its own nastiness. The characters are flat, the story flimsy, the writing clichéd: it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, like last night’s onion gravy. When I heard the author being interviewed on the radio, I was disgruntled to find that she sounded lovely: her editor should tell her to stop trying to shock.
Kate Loveman’s Samuel Pepys and his Books (Oxford, £60) abounded in memorable touches: Pepys buying a Mass book in 1660 and reading it aloud late into the night ‘with great pleasure to my wife to hear that she long ago was so well acquainted with’; or Pepys writing handy memos to self: ‘Consult Sir Wm Petty about the No. of Men in the World &c’. I like the ‘&c’.
From The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver (Oxford, £40) I learnt that Charles Onions, 1872–1965, the OED’s fourth editor, pronounced his name like the vegetable and, on a larger canvas, of the stupendous struggle to wrestle millions of pen-and-ink quotations from 1,000 years into a history of the language.
My biggest surprise was to be swept away by The Bird of Dawning by John Masefield, which should be republished and made into a Netflix series.
Thomas W. Hodgkinson
Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize should have persuaded everyone to reassess their snobberies. Can a songwriter be a literary genius? Then how about a graphic novelist? Charles Burns’s Last Look (Cape, £16.99) is a sleazy, slow-burning, page-turning exploration of a midlife crisis, in which the queasy imagery of William S. Burroughs meets the Death Hex and sex horror of Hamlet — all sketched out, incongruously enough, in the spare ligne clair style of Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin. I doubt if Burns will be up for a Nobel any time soon, but he’s not a million miles off.
A curmudgeonly scholar, who lurks in a little village on the north coast of Corfu, Richard Pine has long been publishing his monthly reflections on the state of Greece in the Irish Times. His highly readable book, Greece Through Irish Eyes (Liffey Press, £14.45), provides an excellent introduction to the country’s recent troubled history.
A good year for novels. Rachel Cusk’s Transit (Cape, £16.99) is a brilliant and original enterprise, as well as a hymn to the joys of the good story. Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton (Viking, £12.99) shouldn’t work, but its frail texture was a triumph of tenderness, and sent me back to her excellent Olive Kitteridge. And I loved David Szalay’s scabrous, intelligent and hugely engaging All That Man Is (Cape, £14.99). My major discovery, though, was Joy Williams, whose collected stories, The Visiting Privilege (Tuskar Rock, £16.99), proved an electric and dangerously human volume. Not making sense, and making too much sense, is Williams’s alarming territory. You will probably do what I did afterwards, and order her old novels from America — I don’t think they were ever published here. Cheever would have liked her Breaking and Entering in particular.
In non-fiction, Edmund Gordon did a splendid job with the first Angela Carter biography (The Invention of Angela Carter, Chatto, £25). The responsibility of the research and the just sobriety of his writing have produced a book which will always have a special place on the Carter shelf. Stanley Price’s James Joyce and Italo Svevo: The Story of a Friendship (Somerville Press, £14) was lovely, even joyous. Srinath Raghavan’s India’s War (Allen Lane, £30) is a book that has unearthed a lot of interesting and generally unfamiliar material. Unusually for this subject, it had no particular axe to grind or point to prove.
Spymaster by Martin Pearce (Bantam Press, £20) is a study of my late constituent Sir Maurice Oldfield, once the head of MI6. Oldfield rose high from a small Derbyshire village, fell very hard — denounced in the press as secretly gay — and died in something close to national disgrace. He was the author’s great-uncle, but this is a frank and clear-eyed, if affectionate, biography of a great public servant, cruelly traduced.
The Bible for Grown-Ups by Simon Loveday (Icon, £12.99) persuaded your columnist, a confirmed atheist, of the power and beauty of the Old and New Testaments, and to see them as a window into humanity’s soul.
My hopes of Tristan Gooley’s best-selling How to Read Water (Sceptre, £20) were dashed by a book that sacrificed depth for popularity. The most interesting thing about puddles, surely, is how splashing through them enlarges them. And to say a river’s level is a good guide to the local water table is dangerously inaccurate.
Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts (Penguin, £30). De Hamel has spent a lifetime working with medieval manuscripts, and he provides a superb and sometimes idiosyncratic history of the manuscripts themselves. The book sheds a penetrating light on an extraordinary medieval world which until now has been closed to most of us. Brilliant and original.
Artemis Cooper’s Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Dangerous Innocence (John Murray, £25). Biography at its best, this is the story of a novelist whose life was in some ways stranger than the fiction she wrote. Cooper gives a vivid, insightful account of Howard’s romantic misfortunes, and especially her doomed marriage to the impossible Kingsley Amis. A cracking read.
I must admit that I write a beautiful essay about my dad in My Old Man: Tales of Our Fathers (Canongate, £14.99, edited by Ted Kessler), but it would be nearly as good without me.
James Bloodworth is one of the most elegant and passionate (not an easy combo) writers about politics in this country today, and in The Myth of Meritocracy (Biteback, £10) is especially eloquent on the way the diversity divas have diverted attention from the lack of opportunities for a whole swathe of underprivileged children put beyond the pale of pity by their risibly named ‘white privilege’.
We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Faber, £7.99) is the first book of short stories by Thomas Morris, a young writer whose descriptions of the mundane magic of everyday life make one blissed out beyond envy. And while I very much enjoyed Richard Cohen’s How To Write Like Tolstoy (One World, £16.99), I do for the first time feel like calling down the wrath of the Trade Descriptions Act, as I’ve seen no improvement whatsoever.
For sheer readerly pleasure, two books stand out. Sebastian Barry’s novel Days Without End (Faber, £17.99) is an American Civil War tearjerker about the many kinds of suffering that people inflict on each other (and sometimes on themselves), but is written with such swaggering charm you end up wanting to read it at two speeds simultaneously, turning the pages as quickly as possible while lingering over every beautifully crafted phrase.
Alan Bennett’s memoir Keeping On Keeping On (Profile/ Faber, £25) is equally quick with its one-liners, and altogether they add up to a handsome brick of a book some 700 pages long. Don’t give a copy to your neighbour unless you want the soundtrack of Christmas Day to be dominated by muffled laughter coming from next door.
‘I pray I shall not find a biographer,’ said Steven Runciman, eminent historian of Byzantium and the Crusades, Grand Orator to the Patriarch of Constantinople, Astrologer Royal to King George II of the Hellenes, Laird of Eigg, screaming queen, howling snob and honorary whirling dervish. His prayer has been denied, but he could not have found a better biographer than Minoo Dinshaw, whose Outlandish Knight (Allen Lane, £30) is monumentally impressive: scholarly, witty and gorgeously written.
When Runciman was in charge of the British Council in Athens after the war he dismissed Patrick Leigh Fermor from the only job he ever had, having tired of ‘Paddy’s little irregularities’, such as drinking too much and not paying his debts. Paddy took it badly at the time but later forgave him, as he had a generous and sunny spirit, which irradiates Adam Sisman’s selection of his letters, Dashing for the Post (John Murray, £30), a feast of adventure, gossip and flirtation.
I don’t really care — as I’m sure you don’t either — whether Duchess Kate agrees to a photoshoot or whether Dolce and Gabbana will show up at the gala centenary dinner. But you will when you read Alexandra Shulman’s Inside Vogue: A Diary of My Hundredth Year (Penguin Fig Tree, £16.99). In a candid, introspective, generous and witty way, Vogue’s editor shows the slog, guts and diplomacy that are needed to produce the magazine — often to the detriment of family life. The eventual results of a year’s long-planned coups are page-turners.
The people of Thierry Coudert’s The Beautiful People of the Café Society: Scrapbooks by the Baron de Cabrol (Flammarion, £75) are surely anything but café — château and yacht more like. Beginning in the 1930s, Fred de Cabrol painted faux-naif watercolours of the grandest European houses, gardens and resorts, which he enlivened with invitations, menus, cuttings and découpé photographs of their frequenters at balls, races, hunts, weddings and on the beach. It’s a lavish panoply of the elegant style, decor and beauty of a long-forgotten world. One of its most serenely elegant beauties was Fred’s wife Daisy, shown wearing a simple couture creation franfreluché — delicious word meaning ‘with ribbons’.
The war didn’t prevent that set from having a gay old time, or Coco Chanel from holing up in the Ritz in Paris with her Abwehr officer and other collaborateuses horizontales. But Anne Sebba, in her meticulously researched Les Parisiennes (Weidenfeld, £20), paints a very different picture of many other women at the time who were trying to preserve some vestige of dignity as they witnessed and worked against the humiliation and terror that the Nazi occupiers inflicted on that city. Not many ribbons, then; rather more Ribbentrop and his like.
This has been a bumper autumn for first-time biographers making tremendous debuts. Three of them have deployed radiant empathy and keen detective instincts to produce compelling studies of self-concealing, image-conscious and teasingly deceptive subjects. James Stourton’s Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation (William Collins, £30) leads the field. It is such a lithe, elegant, astute celebration of patrician values, all-surpassing intelligence and glorious style. I read it with joy. Edmund Gordon’s The Invention of Angela Carter (Chatto, £25) is a wise, generous and inspiring book by an exciting young scholar who writes like a prize-winning novelist. The combination of emotional cool and protective tenderness in Gordon’s approach is specially appealing. Minoo Dinshaw’s Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman (Allen Lane, £30) is idiosyncratic in some of its digressions and structure, but Dinshaw bubbles with nimble wit, wicked gossip, curious oddities and a walloping glee for his subject.
A study of medieval manuscripts which is also a gripping page-turner might seem a most improbable combination. But Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel (Allen Lane, £30) is just that. Like many excellent books, this is a unique hybrid of heterogeneous ingredients. De Hamel mingles meticulous scholarship, enthusiasm, autobiography, wit and gossip while pursuing each clue about dating or origin with the tenacity of a detective.
It is sometimes said of such books that they read just like a novel. But John Preston’s account of the affair of Jeremy Thorpe, Norman Scott, Peter Bessell and Rinka the dog — A Very English Scandal (Viking, £16.99) — is more engaging by far than most fiction. The story it narrates is an astonishing farrago of wickedness, insouciant risk-taking and stratospheric levels of incompetence. Preston’s account is frequently hilarious and — especially when dealing with the tragicomic figure of Bessell — poignant too.