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.
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.
I see you’ve answered a question on
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.