David Blackburn

A.N. Wilson’s and Anne Chisholm’s books of the year

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A.N. Wilson: Stuart Kelly’s Scott-land: The Man Who Invented a Nation is a very engaging, highly intelligent conversation with its readers about what we owe to Walter Scott. His heritage is found not only in literature, but also in tourism, in the banking crisis (Kelly has some good things to say about The Letters of Malachi Malagrowther and their relevance to the crisis of 2008) and much more. The author is interested in everything, from Balmoral to the Wild West, from films to Hiawatha. I loved this book and heartily recommend it.

To coincide with the anniversary of Tolstoy’s death, Rosamund Bartlett has written Tolstoy: A Russian Life. The extraordinary character of the giant is captured better by Bartlett than by any previous biographer, and this is partly because she knows Russia so well. Her description, for example, of the ‘Green Yuletide’ — Trinity Sunday — when Russians believed that the Holy Spirit descended on nature itself is unforgettable. She evokes the smell of cut grass and fragrant thyme at Yasnaya Polyana on that particular feast in 1877, when Tolstoy, still fervently Orthodox, was just on the point of lurching off on one of his religious adventures of total rebellion against the church. She is very good at expounding the novels and completely fair to all parties when the marriage turns into a battleground. Superbly well written.

Thirdly, is there room to say hoorah for Debo? Wait for Me! by Deborah Devonshire is actually the one book this year that everyone will want in their Christmas stocking.

Anne Chisholm: One of the best biographies I have read for a long time was Wendy Moffat’s study of E.M. Forster, A New Life, in which she reconsiders the man and his writing in the light of newly available material about his sexuality. Neither reductionist nor prurient, her book is revelatory in the right way, illuminating both about his fiction and the two enduring British hang-ups, sex and class.

Michael Frayn’s memoir My Father’s Fortune celebrates his modest suburban background and his unbookish salesman father with loving precision. Sad, but not miserable despite his mother’s shockingly early death, his book is a model of restraint but full of feeling.