The Spectator

Books of the Year II

A further selection of the best and worst books of the year, chosen by some of our regular contributors

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Philip Hensher

The two books I enjoyed most this year were both out of the usual run. Who was the last person to publish a book of aphorisms? No idea, but Don Paterson’s splendid The Book of Shadows (Picador, £12.99) will probably discourage anyone from entering into rivalry for a good time to come. Startlingly insightful, funny, exotic and, of course, from the finest poet of his generation, irreducibly well-put, this was a book everyone should read. Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries (Granta, £12.99) was difficult to categorise; a ragbag of stories and reminiscences, it must be one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

The best biography of the year was Peter Parker’s exemplary and constantly absorbing Isherwood (Picador, £25), one of the few biographies of such length which really deserved and justified its amplitude. The best novels were V. S. Naipaul’s extraordinary Magic Seeds (Picador, £16.99), David Mitchell’s highly original and dreamily satisfying Cloud Atlas (Sceptre, £16.99), José Saramago’s The Double (Harvill, £15.99) — a Borgesian fable with a marvellous flavour all its own — and, from Germany, Christoph Hein’s Landnahme (Suhrkamp Verlag). Hein is the DDR novelist who seems to be surviving best, and Landnahme had a magisterial force; I hope it gets translated.

David Pryce-Jones

Anyone who wonders how and why public taste in the art world has become so de- graded will get a surge of reassurance and pleasure from Roger Kimball’s The Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art (Encounter Books, $25.95). He takes a handful of eminent panjandrums of art history commenting on a handful of famous pictures, and rubs their noses in their psycho-politico-babble. Oh, how liberating to laugh at the professors.

The Great Deception (Continuum, £20) is a carefully researched history by Christ- opher Booker and Richard North of the way that the European Union has emerged like Aladdin’s genie out of the bottle. They put the argument that no good will come of it. Everyone claims that there has to be a great debate about the EU, but this solid book has gone unanswered.

Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness (Chatto & Windus, £17.99) is an autobiography and also a work of art. Its language is fresh and imaginative (the translator is the masterful Nicholas de Lange). Oz grew up in Jerusalem in a distinguished family of intellectuals, chased out of Europe. He captures the emotions of nostalgia, exile and disappointment which are at the core of Israel. If Oz came from any other country, he’d be up for the Nobel Prize.

Bevis Hillier

In 1958, aged 18, I sat a history entrance exam at Balliol College, Oxford, and got through to interview. The Balliol dons, including the then Master, Sir David Lindsay Keir, were in aggressive mood. One of them began grilling me.

I see you’ve answered a question on

Napoleon. What have you read on him?

Well, I’ve read the Butterfield, sir.

Butterfield? Which Butterfield?

Sir Herbert Butterfield of Cambridge, sir.

Yes, yes, of course I know who Butterfield is.

I meant, which book by Butterfield?

It’s called Napoleon, sir.

I can see this may have seemed not so dumb insolence; but I was only trying innocently to answer the questions. Not only did I not win a scholarship at Balliol; Lindsay Keir wrote a vitriolic letter to my head- master saying I had been rude to the dons. The next year I sat the Magdalen entrance exam, answered the dons’ questions with a Jeeves-like deference, and got in.

On my first full day at Oxford I attended the Freshers’ Fair. The stall of the university newspaper Cherwell was manned by the paper’s features editor. I brazenly asked if Cherwell had an art critic. ‘No.’ ‘Would you consider giving me a trial?’ ‘Yes.’ I asked his name. ‘Robin Butterfield.’ ‘You’re not related to Herbert Butterfield, are you?’ ‘I’m his son.’

I was, and am, a besotted admirer of Herbert Butterfield’s historical prose. I do not share his particular religious views, but they did not warp his historical assessments. His style was a mildly orotund counterpoise to the racier, more colloquial books of A. J. P. Taylor which I was enjoying at the same date. I suppose I could have met my hero through Robin who became a friend, but I didn’t. So I was fascinated to learn, from a recent review, that a biography of him had been published this year, Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter by C. T. McIntire (Yale, £30).

It is not a conventional, school-followed-by-university biography; more an intellectual odyssey, taking off from the influential book Butterfield wrote at 31, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). McIntire’s writing has much of the subtlety and exhilaration of his subject’s. Again like Butter- field, McIntire ‘is continuously engaged … with the contemplation of the larger questions of human history’.

For me, however, the book of the year is Peter Parker’s Isherwood (Picador, £25). Two contrasting difficulties can assail biographers: a subject who has said too little about himself (Shakespeare), or one who has said too much (Compton Mackenzie). The former leaves you snuffling and truffling around for the facts; the latter bombards you with too many. With the second category, there is often the suspicion of a smokescreen: how far can what he or she says and writes be taken as gospel? Isherwood is decidedly in that group. Parker’s skill lies in bodying him forth without parroting Isherwood on Isher- wood (save in judicious quotations), and in exposing, gently but firmly, Isherwood’s novelistic attempts to bamboozle us with his palimpsests of recollection. Isherwood was a great novelist and fully deserves the expansive canvas Parker allots him.

My award for omega (as opposed to alpha) book of the year goes to A. N. Wilson’s My Name is Legion (Hutchinson, £16.99). Fresh from the ‘triumph’ of his book on the Victorians, in which he managed to miss out Brunel, not regarded by most of us as a Victorian slouch, Wilson has returned to fiction, but I’m afraid this flabbily plotted novel soon lost me.

David Hughes

My books this year are strong meat, two tales which say more of the way we live than all the big three (D. Lodge et al) based on H. James that will each get a prize for their deep wit and wealth of long words. First Lee Child (The Enemy, Bantam, £12.99) whose lead guy is tight of lip and swift of draw and fit to gun down (though not here) the likes of Blair and Bush for their sins, in a great plot that kicks up all sorts of corpse. Then Henning Mankell (Before the Frost, Harvill, £14.99) whose Swede is a dick who digs out a gang which burns swans and cows and girls, a bit like the mad war of faiths in the East as run too by Bush and Blair. Apt and of their time, both books are rich and bite back long words and run at speed and leave you in a sweat. For anyone preferring poly- syllables The Penguin Dictionary of Classical Music (£30), entirely written by Paul Griffiths, is the very opposite of supererogatory: it is great.

Jane Ridley

The Fox in the Cupboard (Viking, £16.99) is Jane Shilling’s memoir of how she learned to ride horses and go hunting in her forties. Funny and moving and true, it describes beautifully what will soon be an illegal activity. If any book demonstrates the absurdity of the hunting ban this one does. Like all the best memoirs, Anthony Blond’s Jew Made in England (Timewell Press, £20) is full of gossip, good stories and often indiscreet. This is an important slice of social history &#821 2; the London publishing world since the 1960s. The book I intend giving everyone for Christmas is Miranda Seymour’s The Bugatti Queen (Simon & Schuster, £15.99), the biography of the forgotten racing driver Hélène Delangle. It’s been a bad year for biography, but I would like to mention Lives for Sale: Biographers’ Tales edited by Mark Bostridge (Continuum, £16.99). It is an entertaining ragbag of very brief and light essays by biographers, but as I’m a contributor this may be against the rules.

Anthony Daniels

Alexander the Corrector by Julia Keay (HarperCollins, £16.99) is a moving and beautifully written account of the Scot who produced the most famous Concordance to the Bible, and who was several times locked up as a lunatic. The author has the rare gift of causing us to sympathise deeply with a man whose beliefs are completely alien to us.

Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop by Emma Latham (John Murray, £15.99) is an elegant travelogue through Burma, using Orwell’s sojourn and experiences there as a template. It captures with great precision the unique charm and the tragedy of that country.

Sam Leith

Being greedy, and stuck with a family full of vegetarians, I found Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s monumental River Cottage Meat Book (Hodder, £25) very exciting. My ambition is one day to have enough friends, and a big enough oven, to cook his Shoulder of Pork Donnie Brasco. For now, I must dribble over the picture. I immensely enjoyed, in non-fiction, Richard Overy’s The Dictators (Allen Lane, £25); and in criticism (however infuriating he can be) James Wood’s collection of essays on the comic novel, The Irresponsible Self (Cape, £16.99). I was disappointed by David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Oblivion (Abacus, £12), but only because I read it while still open-mouthed with admiration for his Infinite Jest and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. This year also saw, shamefully unheralded, the publication of the first, beautiful, hardback volume of The Complete Peanuts (Fantagraphics, $28.95): a mammoth publishing project, a vital piece of cartoon history and a labour of love. Here’s to you, Charlie Brown.

Matthew Parris

I address at most five per cent of Spectator readers: people who might spend £10,000 on a painting, a holiday or a Chinese vase. Here is a work which will give better value and more lasting pleasure than any of these. I am serious. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 60 volumes, £7,500), edited by the late H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, chronicles the lives and achievements of noteworthy people from the British Isles from the earliest times until 2000, and comprehensively updates the first DNB, published a century ago. The set will take up about five yards of bookshelf, where (incidentally) it looks magnificent. Mine has just arrived. Its possession fills me with pride.

You will find 50,113 stories: an Arabian Nights of biography illustrated with 10,057 likenesses. Related in good, spare, modern English, never pompous, tedious or dry, every story fascinates. Pull out any volume and let it fall open where it may. You will find it (do not laugh) hard to put down. Concision being the watchword, these pen-portraits have (again, do not laugh) terrific pace. The new ODNB will enrich your life, and the national life.

Douglas Johnson

Commemorations do not dictate our reading, but they can present us with a wide choice of books. This year has offered us one bicentenary and one centenary.

The first concerns Napoleon and the series of measures that he took in the course of 1804 to make himself emperor. As always with Napoleon, this produced a welter of books. But I found one that was outstanding and gave me great pleasure: The Legend of Napoleon by Sudir Hazareesingh (Granta, £20). This is not at all concerned with Bonaparte becoming the Emperor Napoleon but is an account of the fascination that he has exercised over France, especially since the escape from Elba and the Hundred Days. Based on original documents, it analyses the political, social and nationalistic nature of this phenomenon.

The entente cordiale between England and France was signed on 8 April 1904. Amongst the many books and articles this inspired, I liked Edward VII and the Entente Cordiale by Ian Dunlop (Constable & Robinson, £25).

And this summer I made a discovery in Les Refugiés de Batavia by Simon Leys (Paris, Editions du Seuil). This Belgian-born essayist and novelist has written abundantly. I have much to read.

Andro Linklater

At the urging of a progressive-minded nephew, I have gone back to existentialist writers who were old when I was young. The dazzling discovery has been The Blind Owl by the Iranian exile, Sadegh Hedayat (Canongate, £6.99), superbly translated by D. P. Costello. This stream of sensual paranoia, as detailed and beguiling as a Persian miniature, is the artistic proof that existentialism grows from physical sensation, and that Parisian intellectuals denatured it. Hadegh killed himself in 1951, a loss that symbolises the destruction to come of an entire talented generation in the Shah-cum-Khomeini cultural holocaust.

The best modern novel I read was The Book of Salt by Monique Truong (Vintage, £6.99). It is beautifully written, a cooking up of love and self to feed the devouring appetites of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas that is nothing less than a masterpiece of delicate and — naturally — existentialist hedonism.

The sharpest disappointment was a return to James Joyce’s Ulysses (Penguin, £6.99). It sprang not from any want of wit, or subtlety, or invention, but from what escaped me first time, the banality of its structure, the tedious, maddening archness that requires Leopold Bloom’s day to reflect each detail of its classical model. Would I read it again? No, I said. No, I won’t. No.

Byron Rogers

The Hanged Man by Robert Bartlett (Princeton, £16.95). An account, compiled from Vatican archives, of a hanging in Wales around 1290, it is as close to time travel as you will ever get, for here, across eight centuries men and women long dead (and in one case resurrected) walk and talk. It is so vivid you are startled to find distance described in terms of so many crossbow shots, and time in terms of distance, but most of all by the fact that nobody, grandee or peasant, knows how old he is.

The Last of the Celts by Marcus Tanner (Yale, £25). The melancholy, long, withdrawing murmur of the Celtic peoples and languages of Britain. It should be required reading for all English historians.

Alan Judd

Nikolai Tolstoy’s biography of his step- father, Patrick O’Brian: The Making of a Novelist (Century, £20), began as a personal memoir and is set to become a full-blown, two-volume biography. This is the first, ending in the early 1950s and crammed with family detail about O’Brian’s two marriages, his change of name and his expunging of his earlier identity. Don’t be daunted by detail: Tolstoy writes with that passion to understand that characterises the best biographies.

Geoffrey Pocock’s One Hundred Years of the Legion of Frontiersmen (Phillimore, £25) commemorates the centenary of this curious organisation of romantic soldiers and roguish patriots founded as a volunteer ‘army of observation, a unit of field intelligence in peace and war’. They were the first British troops in action in 1914 (serving with the Belgian army) and later influenced the raising of the Home Guard. An interesting sub-set of military and imperial sociology.

Anyone condemned to Christmas on the road and wishing to avoid motorway catering needs Hugh Cantlie’s Breaks near the Motorways (Cheviot Books, £9.95). It may spare y ou the sins of rage and despair when confronting your fellow-travellers en masse.

<jonathan Keates

This has been a bumper year for biography, which, for reasons I won’t bore you with, the British do better than anybody. Pick of the crop has been Miranda Seymour’s The Bugatti Queen (Simon & Schuster, £15.99), a heady mix of glamour and tragedy in the life of a French cabaret dancer who became a world-class racing champion. Anne Sebba’s The Exiled Collector (John Murray, £22.50), the story of an outlaw aesthete in the age of Byron, is the stuff of which novels are made, and so too is Linda Kelly’s small but perfectly formed Susannah, the Captain and the Castrato (Starhaven, £9). My Cinderella prize for the year’s most underrated book goes to David Wallace, whose Pre-Modern Places (Blackwell, £55) mixes romance and bizarrerie in a study of mediaeval and Renaissance ideas about geography and locality.

Jane Gardam

Ronald Blythe The Assassin (Black Dog Books, £16.95). A wonderful novel about the 17th-century murderer of the Duke of Buckingham. A Little History of British Gardening by Jenny Uglow (Chatto, £15.99). Curious and lively scholarship for all unpompous gardeners. Lost Gardens of England by Kathryn Bradley-Hole (Aurum £35). Haunting photographs, though the book weighs about ten pounds and needs a table to support it. Amos Oz’s A Tale of Love and Darkness (Chatto, £17.99) and the delightful, frank and warming memoir, Accidents of Fortune by Andrew Devon- shire (Michael Russell, £13.95). There will be no other duke like him.

Roger Lewis

Am I to blame for the proliferation of funny footnotes? In my Hawtrey and Burgess biographies I undermined the main text with mock-scholarly digressions and unnecessary annotations and now everybody is doing it. In Like a Fiery Elephant, Jonathan Coe’s masterful book on the cranky B. S. Johnson (Picador, £20), a footnote tells us of Coe’s own conception and birth, ‘in the parish of Lickey on the outskirts of Birmingham’. And in Gyles Brandreth’s premature obituary of the Duke of Edinburgh, Philip and Elizabeth: Portrait of a Marriage (Century, £20), the author has a footnote thanking ‘Mrs Thompson, the Brandreth family’s lone cleaning lady,’ for not running off to the tabloids with the household’s secrets, Paul Burrell-fashion. A footnote also vouchsafes the information that according to Barbara Cartland the Wales’s marriage collapsed because Diana wouldn’t have a go at oral sex.

I do love this eccentricity, but where will it end? Best of all are Michael Bloch’s scrupulous genealogical footnotes to the James Lees-Milne diaries. We are now up to Volume XI, Ceaseless Turmoil: 1988-1992 (Murray, £25). It is hard to believe that these names existed outside the Goons — the Fruitys, Babas, Billas, Cootes and Hore-Ruthvens. Here are peers, squires and upper-class twits by the hundredweight. Everybody who matters is linked by marriage and the establishment (according to Lees-Milne) is totally, unrepentantly queer. Brooks’s club is full of old men staring into space and thinking of the lost Golden Age when they were seduced in a punt at Eton.

But in fact these diaries are beyond parody. At first I thought this volume would be overfull of funerals, death announcements and illness, but the elegiac tone, the wintriness, gets to be very moving. The diary sequence has now gone from being a minor classic about collapsing country houses and the eccentricities of nobs to a major work of literature, like Kilvert. I am addicted.