Our colleagues at the magazine have kindly allowed us to republish the books of the year columns. Here's the first installment.
Society is composed of two classes: the patrons and the patronised, and a change of status, the migration of the one to the other, is a subject well worth studying. Michel Houellebecq, misanthropist, Islamophobe, and rank outsider, performed this feat by winning the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary award. Houellebecq is famous for his preoccupations, which are largely rancorous, yet his novel La carte et le territoire is mild, strangely addictive, but not without its subversive elements: Houellebecq himself features in it, ultimately as a headless corpse. Much of this is beyond parody. It is as if the author of Plateforme, by being favoured by the literary establishment, has reached new depths of anomie, yet there is a serious writer in there somewhere who has yet to do himself justice.
Far more engaging is Patrick Modiano’s L’Horizon. It deals with the impact of the past on the present, and the inescapable weight of memory. Two friends, who met originally in Berlin, come together again in Paris. They are now much older, yet time has done nothing to alter their strange alliance, which becomes increasingly more evanescent the more the author describes it, as if only the act of writing is stronger than the life it evokes. One is left with a strange anxiety, embedded in a style which is almost Parnassian in its calm.
I wanted to admire Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom but failed to do so — too many words, too many plots (not all of them credible) and inferior to The Corrections, which was a real tour de force. The effort involved in writing fiction can be onerous to the reader as well as to the author, and is all too palpable here.
The best book of the year was The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, a memoir of the Ephrussi family of which the author is a descendent. Its subject, which is a collection of netsuke, sounds unpromising, but is in fact engrossing, and the extraordinary history of these tiny objects encompasses many changes of habitat. This is a memorable account, written with exemplary modesty.
It has been a poor year for fiction, though I enjoyed The Misogynist by Piers Paul Read, again marked by a welcome understatement. Less really is more, as all these titles demonstrate in one way or another. Having said that, I return to Proust, a unique example of more being more, and never to be repeated.
I loved David Mitchell’s new book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The boy is frighteningly talented. I also loved Nicholas Shakespeare’s Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin. It is a masterpiece of sympathetic and diligent editing, absolutely fascinating and larded with acerbic comments from Shakespeare’s joint editor, Elizabeth Chatwin. And I think that for those of us who worship Saul Bellow, The Letters, edited by Benjamin Taylor, are a treat, demonstrating how closely his novels followed the twists and turns of his life.
J.R. Maddicott’s The Origins of the English Parliament 924–1327 is not one for the bedside, but its wide and profound scholarship has much to teach us about the roots and functions of an institution now subjected to so much unhistorical criticism.
Nicholas Phillipson’s Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life is an absorbing and elegant account of Smith’s mind and of the Scottish context, social and intellectual, that produced it. D. R. Thorpe’s Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan gives a wonderful sense of Macmillan’s complexity and stature and of the place of personality in the fortunes of power and the making of policy.