David Blackburn

Ferdinand Mount’s and Philip Hensher’s books of the year

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Ferdinand Mount: Mark Girouard’s Elizabethan Architecture is a prodigy book devoted to the Prodigy Houses, those fantastical mega-palaces which reared up out of the placid landscape in the brief, dazzling period of Elizabeth’s ending and James’s beginning: Longleat, Hardwick, Burghley, Castle Ashby, Wollaton and Montacute. The English built nothing so breathtaking before or after. The illustrations are lovely, and so is the text: crisp, authoritative, with a touch of mischief. This is a ripe example of the Girouardesque, a glorious slab of a book. Si monumentum requiris, perlege.

Going to very cold places is the idealist’s last resort. David Vann’s losers escape into the snow and solitude without, of course, escaping themselves. In Legend of a Suicide, he strings together half-a-dozen stories of self-destruction (springing, partly at least, from the suicide of his own father). Vann brings the landscape of Alaska alive with a chilly glitter and accompanies the characters downhill with a sardonic attention to detail which makes you alternately want to weep and bark like a demented husky. Look out also for his forthcoming Caribou Island which carries on the grim work.

Philip Hensher: The English novel I liked best this year was Martin Amis’s The Pregnant Widow — humane, rueful and wonderfully resourceful in its wit. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was simply a marvel of technique, observation and sympathy. At the other end of the artistic spectrum, Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories were a must for anyone seriously interested in the means of fiction. All three were, among other things, masterpieces of comedy.

The memoir of suffering now has its own section in bookshops. Few of them deserve one’s attention, but Candia McWilliam’s magnificent What To Look For In Winter transcends its apparent category through the beauty and freshness of its language, and the stoic nobility of its spirit. That, and Edmund de Waal’s gripping The Hare With Amber Eyes showed that what counts in a memoir is not experience alone, but intelligence and an ability to write.

The best biography of the year was Philip Ziegler’s rather straight-faced life of Edward Heath. Simon Winder’s Germania was a wonderfully entertaining voyage into terra incognita — the German nation, its history and geography, hardly mentioning the Nazis. I love Germany, and Winder’s untidy, idiosyncratic but always interesting book both confirmed old interests and sparked off new ones. The German nation should award him the Verdienstkreuz without delay.