A selection of this year’s picks.
One of the events of the past year was the appearance in English of Poison, Shadow, and Farewell, the final volume of Javier Marías’s trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, again translated from Spanish by the amazing Margaret Jull Costa (Vintage). In a previous TLS Books of the Year, Margaret Drabble wrote, “We wait uneasily for volume three”. Both attentiveness and foreboding were, it turns out, superbly justified.
Susan Bernofsky continues her traversal of Robert Walser with translations from his hitherto undecipherable Microscripts (New Directions), written with a pencil in tiny characters on bits of scrap paper. As Walter Benjamin noted in a 1929 essay included in this volume, “Walser begins where the fairy tales stop. ‘And if they have not died, they live there still.’ Walser shows how they live”.
Ever since getting happily tripped up by The Waste Land, I tend to skip the end notes of a book of poetry. But those for Timothy Donnelly’s The Cloud Corporation (Wave) aren’t easy to ignore. They refer, among other sources, to Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, H. L. Mencken, Schopenhauer, Bruce Springsteen, Gibbon, Flaubert’s Diary of a Madman, and, in one case, to Osama bin Laden and the theme song to The Beverly Hillbillies. None of this would matter, of course, if the broad range of references weren’t matched by the vaulting agility of the author’s mind. This is an extraordinary collection – the poetry of the future, here, today.
Barry Hannah’s death at the start of the year passed with little notice in this country, where his work has long been unavailable. The short story was his best form, and Airships (Grove), an ear-perfect array of voices from the American South, was his best book, worth searching the internet for. Harry Mulisch died recently to slightly more notice: The Assault (Pantheon) remains one of the key novels about the Second World War. The death of Henriette Binger (b.1893) happened back in 1977. She was no writer but the mother to one, Roland Barthes, whose Mourning Diary (Hill and Wang) has just emerged into print. Precise and touching memories intersect with spare and at times desperate notes on time, death and grief, written despite “the fear of making literature out of it”. The play I most enjoyed reading this year was Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park (Nick Hern).
Exhibition catalogues can be a wonderful storehouse of good writing, clever ideas and stunning images. Yet we often overlook them, as if they were as ephemeral as the shows they commemorate. This year the catalogue produced to accompany the first of a series of five exhibitions planned for the Capitoline Museum in Rome, I giorni di Roma (The heyday of Rome), stands out. Entitled L’età della conquista (The age of conquest; Skirà) it includes excellent essays on Roman culture in the last two centuries bc, and marvellous photographs of the art of the period, familiar and unfamiliar (including some extraordinary terracotta sculpture, discovered in the 1950s in a villa in the Abruzzo, quite unknown to me).
Equally impressive is Chaos and Classicism, the catalogue of an exhibition at the Guggenheim, New York, focusing on ancient themes in the art of the 1920s and 30s. It brilliantly disposes of the common misconception that Modernism turned its back on Greece and Rome.
A. S. BYATT
I very much enjoyed and admired Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes (Chatto), gripping and surprising. I also very much enjoyed Rowan Williams’s Dostoevsky: Language, faith and fiction (Continuum), both because he is an excellent literary critic, and because understanding Dostoevsky’s Christianity is essential to understanding the form of the novels. My choices in fiction are Neel Mukherjee’s sharp, disturbing and precisely written novel, A Life Apart (Constable and Robinson), about a twentieth-century Indian in England and a nineteenth-century Englishwoman in India, and Yiyun Li’s new stories, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl (Fourth Estate). And I am reading and rereading Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain (Faber), in which every word is at once a surprise and exactly the right word.
I enjoyed two remarkable books on Ottoman lands this year. Eland, consistently Britain’s most interesting small independent publisher, has just published a long overdue translation of the work of the greatest world-traveller of his day, Evilya Chelebi. Chelebi was the widest-eyed, most intensely curious, inquisitive and prolific travel writer the Ottoman world ever produced, and The Ottoman Traveller records and preserves an entire world otherwise lost to history. A proper edition of his massive work has long been needed, and Robert Dankoff magnificently translates the highlights.
James Mather’s Pashas is the first full-length study since 1935 of the Levant Company, the organization which oversaw both England’s trade and diplomacy with the Ottoman world, and which supervised the remarkably successful relationship between the two worlds. It was the first non-Christian environment in which Englishmen ever established a major presence, and an important but largely forgotten precursor to the centuries of empire ahead. It is a fascinating subject, and Mather’s work is a major contribution, as well as a vital corrective to the wrong-headed readings of intellectual Islamophobia such as V. S. Naipaul, Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, all of whom have manufactured entirely negative images of one of the most varied of empires, and misrepresented Europe’s relationship to it.
I don’t share Christopher Hitchens’s politics, or his views on Islam, but I loved his funny and moving memoir, Hitch-22 (Atlantic), which had me laughing out loud at a rate of once every other page.
I have been living through the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, led by the ceramicist Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes (Chatto). This memoir takes us through the rise and fall of the once powerful Ephrussi banking family, from the Ukraine to Vienna to Paris to Tunbridge Wells, an extraordinary and touching journey with a backdrop glittering with images from Proust and Zola and Klimt. This is the history of two world wars told through the unlikely fate of a small collection of netsuke which astonishingly survived the Holocaust. This chronicle prompted the reading of Joseph Roth’s Radetsky March (translated by Michael Hofmann; Granta), which in turn led on to Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (translated by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike; Picador), unfinished by him and as yet by me. These are remarkable works of fiction which portray from different angles the world the Ephrussis knew. A satisfying trilogy.
The great realist novelists from Stendhal to Proust knew that individual lives are shaped by historical forces, and that those forces show up in the texture of the intimately personal. This vision, which entered into crisis with the emergence of Modernism, migrated later in the twentieth century from the heartlands of literary Europe to the non-European and post-colonial worlds. The Israeli author David Grossman’s magnificent To the End of the Land (Cape) reinvents this high realist lineage from outside the West, which today seems the only place where it can flourish. In his astonishing protagonist Ora, he gives us a figure fit to tread in the footsteps of Brecht’s Mother Courage.
I read several works this year by the Argentine novelist César Aira who follows a curious writing procedure: what he composes one day cannot be changed the next. “La fuga hacia adelante” he calls it – the escape forward: the story must move ahead, never backward, forcing him to come up with ever-new ideas and plot twists. The results are apt to be mixed – hit-or-miss confections that rely heavily on chance occurrences and the author’s raw imagination. But the procedure has produced at least one masterpiece: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (New Directions), a short, unpredictable confection that manages to be both a roaring adventure story and a rumination on the chasm between reality and the reconstruction of reality in a work of art.
Saul Bellow, as one might have expected from his novels, was a wonderful letter writer. That his Letters (Penguin) do not quite come into the Van Gogh or Samuel Beckett category may only be due to the fact that so many of his early letters, especially to his childhood friend and fellow writer, Isaac Rosenfeld, have been lost, and the best letters are invariably those an artist writes before he has found fame and fortune. But he could not put pen to paper without a hilarious yet apt image appearing on the page: “Will I read your book?” he asks John Cheever. “Would I accept a free trip to Xanadu with Helen of Troy as my valet?”. “Havel and I chatted for about three minutes”, he writes of an official visit by the Czech President to New York, “and then were separated as if we were tomato seeds in the digestive tract.”
“If the twentieth century was the century of Proust, then the twenty-first may well turn out to be the century of Queneau”, declared the Director of the French Institute on the occasion of a conference in honour of the great translator of Raymond Queneau and Robert Pinget, Barbara Wright, who died in 2009. Ever keen to keep up with the zeitgeist, I decided to read all the Queneau novels I had not yet read, and very soon I was thinking: You know, she might just be right.
Henry Ford’s vast project of building a city in the Amazonian jungle to provide his car factories with a reliable supply of rubber was greeted as a heroic civilizing mission when it started and damned as catastrophic Western hubris when it failed. The saga remains an irresistible parable, both tragic and comic. I cannot stop thinking of Ford’s homesick managers staring glumly at the vultures overhead and dreaming of the pigeons back in Detroit. Greg Grandin’s wonderful Fordlandia (Icon) is alive to every nuance of the story but is sparing with the condescension of posterity, reminding us that Brazil’s own loggers and soy farmers are ploughing the same cruel furrows today.
Roberto Calasso upset some professional academics, not for the first time, with his Tiepolo Pink (Bodley Head). His bravura can look like an eccentric, even self-indulgent substitute for painstaking scholarship. Yet his iconographic riffs, here no less than in his celebrated essays on Kafka and classical mythology, pick up much that has gone unnoticed. In his own unique fashion, he takes us into unsuspected depths and brings us closer to understanding why Tiepolo is our last Old Master.
Among the books which have found a particular place in my mind, and heart, this year are several by dear colleagues at Princeton. These include The Honor Code: How moral revolutions happen (Norton) by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Appiah is a beautiful stylist, who ranges over an extraordinary array of topics in which the notion of “honour” may be relevant either to an individual or a society. He muses on the shift of support for Chinese foot-binding, less because of the infliction of pain on women but a sense of national pride and the breakdown of the Chinese elite. The demise of the duel also coincides with the abandonment of the idea of the “gentlemanly creed of equality-within-superiority”. The honour described as “quaint” by Andrew Marvell in “To His Coy Mistress” is of a slightly different stripe, referring to “chastity” or “purity”. Nigel Smith’s Andrew Marvell: The chameleon (Yale) is a brilliant account of the life of this slippery poetpolitician who so adroitly dealt with shifting political realities during and after the English Civil War. The Irish Civil War is the backdrop for Michael Wood’s truly exhilarating Yeats and Violence (Oxford) which has, at its core, a close reading of “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” and its confrontation of the fact that “We, who seven years ago / Talked of honour and of truth, / Shriek with pleasure if we show / The weasel’s twist, the weasel’s tooth”. In “Songs for Senility” from his new collection, By the Numbers (Copper Canyon), James Richardson presents us with a rewriting of another Yeats poem, “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”. Like so many of Richardson’s poems it’s funny, fragile, fierce, fastidious, flighty, frank.
The novels that most impressed me this year were both brilliant re-imaginings of classic texts. Blake Morrison’s The Last Weekend (Chatto) is an updating of Othello, set in contemporary England, and told from the viewpoint of Iago, renamed Ian Goade. Ian’s long rivalry with his more successful friend Olly comes to a terrifying crisis on a country-house weekend. Philip Roth’s Nemesis (Cape) is an account of a polio epidemic in Newark in the summer of 1944, and a profound dialogue with Camus’s The Plague, which makes a cholera epidemic in Oran in the early 1940s an existential fable about the struggle for meaning in an absurd universe. A few reviewers picked up on the Othello parallels, but virtually all ignored Roth’s debt to Camus. It must be frustrating to pay literary homage to a great work when nobody notices you have done it.
Some of the best writing this year was in the theatre. Certain witty plays were standalone readable after (or instead of) the event, including D. C. Jackson’s My Romantic History (Faber), Nina Raine’s Tribes (Nick Hern) and my friend Liz Lochhead’s new version of Molière’s L’École des femmes, Educating Agnes (Nick Hern). Words into Action: Finding the life of the play (Nick Hern), by august theatre director William Gaskill, is a fastidiously lucid and frank set of essays packed with practical advice (“As I say to my actors ten times a day: ‘Anger is the easiest emotion to express. Find something else’”), useful observations (“Most plays can be done perfectly adequately without scenery, though not without costume or props”), and acute close readings of particular speeches (“He even says ‘From whose bourn no traveller returns’, which he of all people knows to be untrue”). There are particularly interesting thoughts here too on Chekhov, Brecht and Beckett.
Amy Sackville’s The Still Point (Portobello), a story of turn-of-the-century arctic pioneering and contemporary emotional frozen states, has an Eliotic calm that seems almost uncanny in a debut writer, and a narrative voice that’s subtle and original. Ciaran Carson’s originality in the novel form is often overlooked, presumably because he’s primarily known as a poet; The Pen Friend (Blackstaff), with its unlikely fusion of pens, perfumes and politics, is one of his most arresting fictional cocktails. I also loved Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies (Hamish Hamilton), three novels fused into one ignited tragicomic tour de force. Finally, who knew the weight of history and the foulness of the slave trade could be transformed into, of all things, a hot-air balloon ride? Like a liberating piece of jazz, and with astonishing, near-heroic buoyancy in its communal voice, Nii Ayikwei Parkes’s poetry sequence, Ballast: A remix (Tall-Lighthouse), literally does the impossible.
This has been a banner year. Graham Farmelo’s The Strangest Man (Faber), a biography of Paul Dirac, is masterly. Some of the most complex but decisive concepts in modern physics and mathematics are set out with lucidity and concise elegance. An almost miraculous period in the history of science is brought to life against its human and political background.
Penguin’s reissue of Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin, brilliantly translated by Michael Hofmann, makes available one of the great novels of the past century. An almost unbearably intense challenge to its readers.
The two-volume Texts of Early Greek Philosophy (Cambridge), edited and presented by Daniel W. Graham, are a monumental but accessible feat. Here, in a finely printed and bilingual version, are the hours of morning in Western thought. Once Parmenides equated thought and being, the long journey had begun. (But why banish Heidegger from the generous bibliographies?)
My history book of the year is Neil MacGregor’s A History of the World in 100 Objects (Allen Lane). MacGregor takes as his emblem Dürer’s “Rhinoceros” – the picture is entirely convincing and yet hopelessly wrong, for Dürer had never seen a rhinoceros. MacGregor recognizes that historians of lost worlds can hope to do no better; but they can aspire to do as well. Like Dürer, MacGregor succeeds far beyond all reasonable expectations. I also loved Andrew Graham-Dixon’s Caravaggio (Allen Lane). The evidence for Caravaggio’s life is fragmentary – primarily a series of court cases involving sex and violence – but Graham-Dixon turns the very recalcitrance of the material into an enthralling read, and he makes the paintings speak with astonishing eloquence. Graham-Dixon is first-rate on Counter-Reformation spirituality, but, surprisingly, he doesn’t seem to have read enough about the history of sex – there’s no reference to Michael Rocke’s Forbidden Friendships or Tessa Storey’s Carnal Commerce. Was Caravaggio really a pious pimp, as Graham-Dixon suggests? Read the book, and decide for yourself.