David Blackburn

Cressida Connolly’s and Bevis Hillier’s books of the year

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Cressida Connolly: Polly Samson’s new collection of short stories, Perfect Lives is terrific. Funny, beautifully observed and often poignant, they’re the best thing Samson has produced yet. Whether she’s recording the minutiae of modern marriage or the flora and fauna of a riverbank, this is a writer who misses nothing.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis was a revelation. The stories sound ghastly: some of them are less than a page long, few characters are given names and Davis approaches her subjects sideways and in sudden scuttles, crablike. But the effect is quite brilliant — wry, original and wholly unsettling. I can’t think of a book it would be more of a pleasure to be given.

Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes might have ended my marriage if my husband were not so infinitely long-suffering. There was no supper during the week I could not stop reading it, then for weeks afterwards I could talk of nothing else. It is simply enchanting.

Bevis Hillier: ‘I hate full-frontal flattery’, Candia McWilliam writes in What to Look For in Winter. Well, sorry love, it’s my book of the year; and it’s not just a good book, but a great one. It is an autobiography interwoven with the  miseries of suffering blepharospasm — a condition in which the eyes can still see, but the brain forbids the eyelids to open.

I remember feeling a bit envious of McWilliam. She was beautiful and brilliant, and in 1981 married the heir to an earldom (an option not open to me). I read her first novel, A Case of Knives, and thought it formidable, in the good sense. Some critics accused her of using too many long words — ‘she has swallowed the dictionary’ is a slur that still gets her goat. But for me the English language — like the library and the concubines of the younger Gordian in Gibbon — is there to be used. And if you don’t understand a word, you can jolly well look it up in the dictionary, which is also there to be used. I sympathise with her, as an over-zealous copyeditor cut out the words ‘flensing’ and ‘reddle’ (a dye) from my last book. We are treated to some rarities in her new book: ‘kenspeckle’, ‘scrobbling’, ‘epilimnion’ (the top surface of a large body of water).

The moment you begin reading this book, you are in communion with a starry -intellect. And Candia McWilliam has the two essential attributes of a memoirist: ruthless honesty (for example about the alcoholism which nearly killed her, but is over now) and mastery of the language. Humour, too. Of the headmistress of her girls’ public school: ‘She would have made a wonderful-looking wife for a dictator.’ Of red tulips at Cortona: They preferred to be on flatter tilth [than black irises], as though they knew they were a motif on a million Turkish carpets’. The book ends in unqualified triumph: after an operation McWilliam can see.

I also enjoyed Adam Sisman’s Hugh Trevor-Roper. The rivalry between the Regius Professor of History and A. J. P. Taylor is entertainingly detailed. In a television debate, Trevor-Roper addressed his adversary as ‘Taylor’; AJP called him ‘Hughie’. Sisman is level-headed about the searing debacle over the Hitler diaries. When Trevor-Roper was Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, the dons who disliked him hissed, as he swept up to High Table, ‘Diariesssss!’. And the book yields one of the best puns ever: commenting on Tevor-Roper’s fondness for fox-hunting, the philosopher Gilbert Ryle said he was suffering from ‘Tallyhosis’.