I suspect many people won’t bother to read Katherine Rundell’s The Wolf Wilder (Bloomsbury, £12.99) because it’s a children’s book. Don’t be one of those people. You’d be depriving yourself of a ferociously paced, brilliantly imagined piece of gorgeous, immersive storytelling — and really, why would you want to do that? Set in Russia a century ago, it’s the story of a girl and her friends (some of whom are wolves) forced to be brave, and to right some great wrongs.
We began 2015 with the introduction to another bright new talent, following the publication of The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Portobello, £12.99), superbly translated by Deborah Smith. Set in contemporary Korea, it’s an irresistibly weird and sensuous story of betrayals, transformation, flesh, domestic and social taboos, family responsibility and sex. This one is not for children. But read it anyway.
Two biographies that changed my mind. Gerard Kilroy’s Edmund Campion: A Scholarly Life (Ashgate, £80) vividly sketches the intellectual worlds of Oxford and Prague in the first half of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. They were not as cut off from each other as we might suppose. Campion, one of the men who connected the two, dominated his time with impressive composure, even as he suffered appalling treatment. Too late for last year’s best books was The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope by Austen Ivereigh (Allen & Unwin, £20), which shows why Pope Francis is not a silly old commie. The author’s insights into his Argentine background and hard spiritual road make sense of his rejection of the trappings of power and intellectual elitism. I now like Campion and Francis much more than I did.
Nothing makes me happier than a perfectly pitched comic novel, and this year I chanced upon two. Kate Clanchy’s Meeting the English (Picador, £16.99) introduces a young Scottish Candide into upper-middle-class arty north London, where his goodness and common sense are buffeted by the blinding self-absorption of the other characters. This is social comedy so warming and nutritious, so fresh and elegantly executed, it comes as rather a surprise to learn that this is Clanchy’s first novel. It’s probably not compulsory to live in north London to enjoy it, although I have to admit I have given it as a present to several friends who are inclined to regard Hampstead Heath as the centre of the universe.
Antoine Laurain’s The President’s Hat (Gallic, £8.99) is more whimsical but still an exercise in precise judgement. In the mid-1980s, President Mitterrand eats lunch in a Paris brasserie with a couple of associates and then leaves his hat behind. A man picks it up, puts it on and his luck begins to change for the better. Then he loses it, but someone else picks it up and puts it on, and so on and so forth. It’s a fantasy, but a delightful one, edged with satire, avoiding cutesiness, with a Jeevesian eyebrow raised throughout.
William Waldegrave’s A Different Kind of Weather: A Memoir (Constable, £20). By contrast with most political autobiographies, this is refreshingly and engagingly candid. Waldegrave explores the nature of political ambition — the narcotic of being at the centre of the storm and the creeping self-doubt that undermines the confidence you need to reach the very top. I found it perceptive and original. Good on his old girlfriends too.
A.J. Balfour was another Tory intellectual in politics, but none of his biographers have ever quite managed to crack his combination of ruthlessness with a charm that contemporaries found irresistible. The American academic Nancy W. Ellenberger is a cultural historian and the author of a couple of groundbreaking articles dissecting the social anthropology and the interior landscapes of Balfour’s clique, the Souls. So I eagerly picked up her Balfour’s World (Boydell Press, £30). It’s full of interest and new material. But somehow cultural history doesn’t quite work as biography. The definitive life of Balfour remains to be written.
My Book of the Year is Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, a grammar memoir by Mary Norris, a copy editor at the New Yorker for 30 years (Norton, £15.99). Anyone who loves language will wallow in this book. Working with the greats (Roth to McPhee) and digressing on the foibles of the serial comma, Norris infects every line with wit and wisdom.
In the travel department I commend Elephant Complex: Travels in Sri Lanka by John Gimlette (Quercus, £25), a gripping account of an under-reported island.
As for fiction, I pick John Banville’s The Blue Guitar (Viking, £14.99) — perhaps for the tone of elegiac melancholy as the protagonist faces the sorrows and indignities of late middle-age.
You remember those aircraft carriers in the Eagle with a section cut away so you could see the innards? Antony Sher’s insider journal Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries (Nick Hern Books, £16.99) is a brilliant exploded view of a great actor at work — modest and gifted, self-centred and selfless — a genius capable of transporting us backstage, where the cast take their weapons from the sword rack while the stage- manager is knitting and the faces of the stage crew are underlit by their iPhones.
Single, Carefree, Mellow is a unified collection of short stories by Katherine Heiny (Fourth Estate, £12.99) — hilarious and true, hilarious because true. It takes nerve, these days, to imply that adultery isn’t an exclusively male activity. Here is a typical opening sentence: ‘You always think of him as Mr Eagleton, even after you start to sleep with him.’ The next sentence of this story (about a 17-year-old sleeping with her teacher) unloads its comic surprise: ‘You always call him that, too.’ A terrific debut.
Robert Seethaler’s bestselling novel, Ein ganzes Leben, translated by Charlotte Collins as A Whole Life (Picador, £12.99) is the unaccountably gripping story of a half-crippled, simple-minded orphan in the Austrian Alps scraping a living from a stony field and slaving for a cable-car construction firm. It takes barely two hours to read it but would take a lifetime to forget.
Some biographies are worth reading however slight one’s prior interest in the subject. I particularly enjoyed Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s sensitive, canny and erudite biography of Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell, The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland (Harvill Secker, £25). John Aubrey: My Own Life (Chatto & Windus, £25) is Ruth Scurr’s bold and imaginative recreation of the diary of the 17th-century antiquary. It shows how close a scrupulous and unselfregarding biographer can come to the savour of a life.
Michael Jacobs’s Everything is Happening (Granta £15.99) — a mixture of autobiography, travel narrative and reflections on a Velazquez masterpiece, ‘Las Meninas’ — is a work of charm and quirky originality. The author died leaving the project only half completed, which makes it both tantalising and poignant. His friend Ed Vulliamy rounds out the text with a memoir.
You are also liable to feel a pang while turning the handsomely illustrated pages of Damascus Tiles by Arthur Millner (Prestel, £60). It is full of images — flowers and fruit in turquoise and blue (below) — fit for a paradise garden. But some of these ceramics, and the buildings they decorated in Aleppo and elsewhere, no longer exist.
No one is in a better position to write Frank Auerbach: Speaking and Painting (Thames & Hudson, £19.95) than Catherine Lampert, since she has been posing for the subject once a week since the late 1970s. This is a subtle and intimate portrait of the artist.
Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers (Faber, £10) was one of the most surprising books this year, full of vitality and freshness — which are odd merits perhaps for a story involving a dead spouse and a pastiche of Ted Hughes’s Crow. Part prose and part verse, the drama of a father and sons coping with loss and an outsize corvid in the house is comic, moving and ultimately uplifting.
The blind-deaf poet Jack Clemo — who died in 1994 — also received a literary resurrection this year with the publication of his Selected Poems (Enitharmon Press, £9.99). Growing up in Cornwall’s weird white-china-clay country, his verse transformed the experience of his failing senses into a savage and devastating vision of our post-industrial world.
With his fourth book about topography and the imagination, Landmarks (Hamish Hamilton, £20), Robert Macfarlane again piles on the pleasure, sending us reaching for muddy coats and boots with the layered beauty of his prose, the diligence of his research and the glittering clarity of his ideas.
My first choice is Rachel Billington’s Glory: A Story of Gallipoli (Orion Books, £19.99), following three young survivors (and their families at home) through what became the first great British defeat of the first world war. Grim and gripping, difficult to put down. My second is an old favourite reissued this year in paperback, Anthony Powell’s uproarious From a View to a Death (Arrow Books, £8.99), a novel about dysfunctional marriage, still as relevant and funny as the day it came out over 70 years ago. An extraordinary book for a young man in his mid-twenties to write about the marital problems of middle-aged people, ending with the outing of the retired major up at the big house, who likes to relax while smoking his pipe behind locked doors in a flowery Ascot hat and lady’s evening gown.
The books I have most enjoyed this year are Sophie De Schaepdrijver’s Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War (Bloomsbury, £19.99), Thomas Harding’s The House by the Lake: A Story of Germany (Heinemann, £20) and Saul David’s Operation Thunderbolt: Flight 139 and the Raid on Entebbe Airport (Hodder & Stoughton, £20).
Joseph Roth’s The Hotel Years (Granta, £16.99), seamlessly translated by Michael Hofmann, is a sentimental yet trenchant journey through places and events in Europe’s interwar neiges d’antin. Even the map of the cities Roth roamed gives one goosebumps of nostalgia. And bang in its middle there’s Berlin, from where much of Thomas Harding’s haunting The House by the Lake sends out its ill-auguring arteries. This is as vivid an evocation of Germany in that period as Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy is of the previous century.
Outside that then-poison-fuelled capital is Potsdam, where the founding father of Prussian autocracy built the prettiest of palaces and picked the loftiest of guardsmen, freshly and fascinatingly described by Tim Blanning in Frederick the Great (Allen Lane, £30).
Loyd Grossman’s Benjamin West and the Struggle to be Modern (Merrell, £35) is a flawlessly written, illustrated and produced study of that mercurial American painter. I’ve so far only dipped into The Maisky Diaries, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky (Yale, £25). As that popular Soviet envoy’s revelations are on everyone’s lips now, they will be the choice of historians much worthier than me to comment on.
Francis King more than once suggested in his Spectator books of the year contribution that it was time Andreï Makine was given the Nobel Prize. This still hasn’t happened. His latest novel A Woman Loved (MacLehose, £16.99), beautifully translated by Geoffrey Strachan, reminds us that Francis was right. This novel about a film-maker writing, and trying to make, a film about Catherine the Great, first under the supervision of Soviet censors and then in the mad days of the Yeltsin presidency when the oligarchs ran wild and became precariously rich, is one of his best. And that’s very high praise.
In Dictator Robert Harris brings his trilogy on Cicero to a triumphant end (Hutchinson, £20). As one who has himself written novels set in the last years of the Roman republic and the first century of empire, I am happy to say that Harris reigns supreme. His Cicero is magnificent: couldn’t conceivably be done better.
For anyone still enthused by rugby I would recommend Tom English’s marvellous No Borders (Arena Sport, £19.99), an oral history of Irish rugby. It is — Ireland being Ireland — admirably about more than rugby too, the sport being one of the few things that unites the Republic and Ulster, transcending partition, though not without tensions and danger.
Karl Lagerfeld, creative director of Chanel, has a reasonable claim to be one of the strangest people alive. He is also a noted bibliophile and architecture amateur. Now he has published a book called Casa Malaparte (Steidl, £28), about the house the mad fascist novelist-adventurer Curzio Malaparte built for himself on Capri. Malaparte was a pseudonym and a play on Bonaparte, suggestive of both wickedness and grandeur. His house is dramatic, uncompromised, inaccessible and shockingly beautiful. Godard used it in Le Mépris. For those unwilling to hike over mountainous scrub, this is an alternative.
There’s no gainsaying Le Corbusier’s humane genius in my view, but it is amusing to find a provocative, revisionist take-down. This is Xavier de Jarcy’s Le Corbusier: Un fascisme français (Albin Michel, £12.75). No one ever doubted Corb’s inclination to tyranny — architects are always a bit that way — but in the year of the 50th anniversary of his death, when the Centre Pompidou exhibition refuses even to discuss it, de Jarcy’s journalistic muckraking will require future historians to reconsider uncomfortable truths.
Osbert Lancaster is now forgotten or ignored as most architectural commentary adopts noisy radical ‘positions’. Three facsimile volumes of his gentle, witty, erudite illustrated commentaries have been re-issued in a slip-case as Cartoons, Columns and Curlicues (Pimpernel Press, £40). Pillar to Post (1938), Homes Sweet Homes (1939), and Drayneflete Revealed (1948) reveal an engaged, eclectic, humorous mind a world away from the tantrums of Zaha or the annoying angles of Koolhaas. Delicious.
A year late — but it’s a great slab of a book — and I’ve only recently caught up with Robert Tombs’s terrific The English and their History (Penguin, £14.99). There’s not a page that doesn’t throw up something interesting and often surprising, though it does leave one with one small nagging worry: if we — the English — are so patently a good thing, why did the whole planet take such huge pleasure in seeing us knocked out of the Rugby World Cup?
One partial clue might lie in Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field (William Collins, £18.99), a brilliant tale of an Indian family caught up in the chaos of the second world war. It’s a work of great generosity and imaginative power, but it does again leave one with the uneasy thought that our finest hour was not quite so fine if you happened to be part of our disintegrating empire in the east.
I’m very much looking forward to the third volume of Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy, Dictator.
Oliver Sacks’s autobiography On the Move (Picador, £20) is full of surprising details —for example, the eminent neurologist was a weightlifting champion in his youth who hung out with Hells Angels. Sacks — who died in August — was an inspiring person with an extraordinary breadth of interests and enthusiasms. I also enjoyed Anne Tyler’s family portrait A Spool of Blue Thread (Vintage, £7.99). People have criticised Tyler for being too gentle, but actually she has the rapier wit of a true satirist. You know exactly how awful one character is because she has soft shoes and insists on calling her mother-in-law Mother Whitshank.
Monsters by Emerald Fennell (Hot Key Books, £7.99) is absolutely great. It’s about two appalling children, a sinister seaside holiday and a spate of murders. It’s gripping and astonishingly, gleefully dark.
This year everyone seems to be mad about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. I disliked the narrator and her unlikely emotions, but worse still, the author sets up a mystery at the beginning and then never bothers to give a satisfactory explanation: totally unacceptable.
Elena Ferrante, of course. Were there any other books this year? Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels, whose fourth and final instalment, The Story of the Lost Child translated by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, £11.99), appeared in September, have achieved the seemingly impossible: a cool-handed dissection of the dynamics of female friendship. No other writer has described so well the feral nature of the bond, how the best friend is a figure of both fascination and fear, and the strongest friendships are the most dangerous, being built on what Ferrante calls ‘dissolving boundaries’. Her flat, affectless prose and rolling narrative have a hypnotic quality: reading the Neopolitan novels is not like reading at all. Compared to Ferrante’s effortless magic, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s still unfolding ‘autofictional’ epic My Struggle (Book 4, translated by Don Bartlett, was published by Archipelago books this April) feel overwrought and boastful, the hype around them amounting to much ado about nothing.
Vanessa Nicolson’s Have You Been Good? (Granta, £16.99) turns a personal archive — tickets, receipts and cigarette ends, as well as the usual diaries and letters — into a collage of painful experience. Her homosexual father Ben and impossible-to-please mother Luisa parted when Vanessa was small. ‘We have got to resign ourselves to the necessity of damaging her,’ said Ben, and this memoir is a testament to that damage. Interwoven with vivid scenes from her lonely childhood and wild adolescence is the story of her own daughter, Rosa, who drowned aged 19. I’ve rarely read anything more agonising than the description of Rosa’s last hours, but the book is also full of vigorous humour and sharp social comment.
Jane Hervey’s Vain Shadow (Persephone, £14) written in the early 1950s, lay in a drawer for ten years. Eventually published in 1963, it received little attention. Now this funny, tightly constructed novel of a landed family on the brink of implosion after the funeral of their patriarch has been rescued by Persephone, and should be gratefully received by every book group in the land.
The best non-fiction of the year covered the political spectrum. Owen Hatherley’s Landscapes of Communism (Allen Lane, £25) hit my soft spot for East European townscapes, and sent me off on a charming holiday, going from the Stalinallee in Berlin. An architectural historian with an excellent eye and ludicrous politics. Michael Bloch’s life of Jeremy Thorpe (Little, Brown, £25) could hardly fail. The second volume of Charles Moore’s life of Thatcher (Everything She Wants, Allen Lane, £30) had less of the sweep of national history than the first; its mastery of the detail of the 1983–1987 administration was just as compelling.
Other than that, I strongly recommend Philip Glass’s hardbitten memoirs, Words Without Music (Faber, £22.50), even if — perhaps especially if — like me you can’t bear his awful music. Probably the best written composer’s autobiography since Berlioz. Grevel Lindop’s life of the mystical writer — a bad, bad writer, but such an interesting one — Charles Williams: The Third Inkling (OUP, £25) was exemplary, and very thought-provoking about literary fashion. (I don’t know if it realised how funny it was, though.)
As for novels, I liked Justin Cartwright’s relaxed and compelling Up Against the Night (Bloomsbury, £18.99) — the masterly Cartwright confidently on home territory. Tessa Hadley is a colleague of mine at Bath Spa University, but anyone would see the penetrating quality of The Past (Cape, £16.99) — probably the best novel of the year. Philip Pullman put me onto the mysteriously overlooked novelist MacDonald Harris, whom the Galileo Press have started to reissue. He’s a writer of extraordinary quality and inventiveness, magic, fantasy and insanely specific historical investigations into opera, ballooning, early cinema and the whole caboodle. Best of all, he wrote 17 novels, so you’ll be in heaven for some time.
I enjoyed, for review, Dogs of Courage by Clare Campbell (Corsair, £14.95) about dogs fighting in both world wars; and Deep South by Paul Theroux (Hamish Hamilton, £20), in which the master of travel books drives through the US south.
I also re-read Daniel Deronda for the third time and found it as good as George Eliot’s others. It is the first English novel with a positive Jewish hero.
Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins (Doubleday, £20) doesn’t seem have made remotely the same splash as her previous novel Life after Life — and, given the comparative lack of literary pyrotechnics, it’s not hard to see why. Yet, in its much quieter way, it might be an even more impressive book, as Atkinson turns the largely unspectacular life of a decent, unambitious man into something almost mythical. And all that before one of most devastating final twists in recent fiction.
Still, if it’s wildness you want, there’s always Kevin Maher’s Last Night on Earth (Little, Brown, £14.99), where the adrenaline-fuelled Irish prose shifts constantly between the funny and the heartbreaking, the ferocious and the tender — often in the same paragraph — without ever undermining the emotional impact of the central couple’s tangled love story. At times, in fact, the result is not unlike a winningly unhinged version of David Nicholls’s One Day.
It is no surprise that writers love to write about writing — not that I’m suggesting writers are narcissistic — but books about writing tend to present it as a slightly impolite habit, like eating with your mouth open. My two books of the year are portraits of how books get written. In the fourth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: Dancing in the Dark (Harvill Secker, £17.99) the young Karl Ove is 18 and embarrassingly serious about his plan to become a writer. He has the black beret and the cigarette habit but is distracted by whisky and girls; he ends up writing the masterpiece in which he himself stars.
In James Shapiro’s 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear (Faber, £20) we meet a middle-aged Shakespeare who is stranded in something of a dry patch, until the political firestorms of early Jacobean England push him into producing his greatest play, King Lear. In both these books, we meet writers who are prolific, brilliant and — the best bit — hard at work.
It’s only now, nominating Michael Bloch’s Jeremy Thorpe (Little, Brown, £25) and Andrew Lownie’s Stalin’s Englishman: The Lives of Guy Burgess (Hodder & Stoughton, £25), that I notice how much Thorpe and Burgess had in common: insidious Etonian charm, sexual promiscuity, the conflicting urges to belong and betray, and the addiction to mad risks, taken in plain sight.
Their biographies have things in common too: exhaustive research, elegant construction, psychological acuity, wit and the necessary sympathy. Bloch is fascinating about the details of Thorpe’s early life, such as the influence on him of his parents’ friends Max Beerbohm and David Lloyd George, and his first steps in blackmail and sexual assault, while Lownie shows that Burgess’s treason was far more significant than had been thought.
I’ve just begun The Poems of T.S. Eliot (Faber, 2 vols, £80) — which I suspect will be my book of the decade.
Simon Bradley’s compendious yet rattling The Railways: Nation, Network and People (Profile Books, £25) achieves magnificently a difficult double. Learned and deeply researched, it will not only impress railway buffs but tell even them a great deal they didn’t know; yet this is also popular history, which will engage and entertain any lay reader remotely curious about train travel in Britain.
We start (‘Seating, Lighting, Heating, Eating’) in the first-class compartment of a mid-Victorian railway carriage, move on to the horrors of third-class travel (this is not least a social history of railways) and end our journey at London’s modernised Liverpool Street station (‘The old railway ambience may have gone, but cappuccino and croissants smell better than diesel fumes’). I like train travel but know little about railway history. My partner, on the other hand, is something of a trainspotter. To him, then, the last word: ‘I got to about page 240 before I spotted a single mistake.’