Books of the Year 2017
This year’s contributors:
Terri Apter, Mary Beard, Lucy Beckett, Jonathan Benthall, Beverley Bie Brahic, Paul Binding, William Boyd, David Bromwich, Stephen Brown, Clare Carlisle, Jonathan Clark, Diana Darke, Lydia Davis, Richard Davenport-Hines, Margaret Drabble, Katherine Duncan-Jones
Terry Eagleton, Mark Ford, Roy Foster, Peter Green, Paul Griffiths, Rachel Hadas, James Hall, Claire Harman, Sudhir Hazareesingh, Michael Hofmann
Robert Irwin, Gabriel Josipovici, John Kerrigan, Michael LaPointe, David Lodge, Claire Lowdon, Elizabeth Lowry
Hilary Mantel, Keith Miller, Paul Muldoon, Jeremy Noel-Tod, Peter Parker, Marjorie Perloff, Rachel Polonsky
Theodore K. Rabb, Craig Raine, Frederic Raphael, Denise Riley, Gwendoline Riley, Ritchie Robertson, Hirsh Sawhney, Anna Katharine Schaffner, Ruth Scurr, Tom Shippey, Elaine Showalter, Clive Sinclair, Wesley Stace, George Steiner, Tom Stoppard, Raymond Tallis, D. J. Taylor, Adam Thirlwell, Peter Thonemann, Adam Thorpe
Marina Warner, Edmund White, A. N. Wilson, Bee Wilson, Emily Wilson, Frances Wilson, Zinovy Zinik
I have reviewed many interesting books for the TLS this year, but the most moving is Roxane Gay’s Hunger: A memoir of (my) body (Corsair). Gay depicts the terrifying banality of a gang rape that marked her physical and emotional life from the age of twelve. Her survivor’s story is both understated and inspiring. Another, very different highlight of 2017 is Peter Clarke’s The Locomotive of War (Bloomsbury). Clarke reveals the subtle interplay between personalities and history. We see how the key figures – David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and John Maynard Keynes – had very different experiences of war and how these shaped our political, social and economic histories. Clarke also provides an original, intriguing and sometimes disturbing account of the role liberal guilt has played in triggering and justifying war.
Three “picture books” of very different kinds. The wonderful catalogue of Damien Hirst’s Venice exhibition Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable (Other Criteria) captures the excitement of underwater archaeology, with a series of lustrous images of the newly made “finds” from Hirst’s fantasy ancient shipwreck. They’re craggy, decayed and breathtaking, in a way that outdoes even the treasures that come from real underwater archaeology. Those who like their antiquities more or less genuine, would probably prefer Jennifer and Arthur Stephens’s Pompeii: a different perspective (Lockwood), a complete colour record, house by house, step by step, of the remains of the ancient town’s main street, the Via dell’ Abbondanza. It offers a beautifully detailed, complete state view, minus the tourist. For literary laughs I have seen nothing funnier than Tom Gauld’s Baking with Kafka (Canongate), cartoons on a literary theme. Kafka’s special lemon drizzle cake, anyone?
Elizabeth Buettner’s Europe after Empire: Decolonization, society, and culture (Cambridge) is a comparative study of the loss of empire and its consequences in Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Portugal. In particular it is a study of the different but parallel ways in which memories of these empires and their endings – messy, more or less protracted, more or less bloody, and resulting in major movements of people into and out of ex-imperial countries – have been blurred, distorted and manipulated, with many destructive consequences. This remembering and forgetting, overlaid by the Second World War and the EU, and reflected in both high and everyday culture, needs the intelligent dissection which this book, deeply researched but also engagingly written, richly provides. It deserves a wide readership.
John le Carré at eighty-five demonstrates in A Legacy of Spies (Penguin) his undiminished mastery of plot, tension and above all, dialogue.
I caught up with the paperback edition of Elias Khoury’s latest novel The Broken Mirrors: Sinalcol (MacLehose), superbly translated from the Arabic by Humphrey Davies with a useful glossary. The original was published in Beirut in 2012 but its treatment of dislocation during the Lebanese civil war was premonitory of the region’s future. Khoury’s spiralling text, richly peopled and enigmatic, projects a distinctive and compelling world of perpetual trauma relieved intermittently by love.
China and Islam: The Prophet, the party, and law (Cambridge) is an outstanding ethnography by Matthew S. Erie, a lawyer-anthropologist fluent in Arabic and Chinese. He focuses on the Hui, one of China’s largest Muslim minorities, and on the tensions that arise between their sharia-based traditions and the party-state’s determination to maintain ideological control while accepting that religion cannot be fully co-opted, let alone extirpated, as it develops trade links with Muslims elsewhere.
BEVERLEY BIE BRAHIC
The Moon Is Almost Full by Chana Bloch (Autumn House). I have pored over this death-tricking collection filled with poems like “Pentimento” with its lament for “how many wrong moves it took / to make a life”. How does Bloch winkle out simple truths with such humour and pointedness? Like Amichai, whom she translated, her deceptively “small” poems discover and celebrate what passes for “ordinary” with sly (sometimes caustic) wit and intelligence.
Christopher Reid’s A Scattering, which is for me an indispensable book, is just out in the US with a new sequence, Anniversary (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). And cruising the internet’s labyrinthine paths I lit on the discreet Douglas Dunn, whose New Selected Poems I read cover to cover before ordering The Noise of a Fly (Faber). Such scrupulous poems, whether they be essaying thoughts or keeping the bloom on a Chardinesque bowl of “Ripe Bananas”.
David Harsent’s remarkable Salt (Faber) is a “series, not a sequence” of short poems united by a “ricochet of echoes”, a magic-lantern show for the psyche: “Wind-driven salt in the crevice of a rock is how / memory works: image, invention, regret”.
Gisli Palsson’s The Man Who Stole Himself (Chicago; translated from the Icelandic by Anna Yates) inspiringly recreates the life journey of Hans Jonathan, born in 1784 to an enslaved black woman in the Danish Virgin Isles, and the victim of legal ambivalence in Denmark itself, who escapes by ship to Iceland where he now has 600 descendants.
Two distinguished novels: Gravel Heart (Bloomsbury) by Abdulrazak Gurnah, which pits its sympathetic Zanzibari narrator/protagonist against the complexities and dishonesties of his turbulent times, and John Lucas’s moving, enthralling Summer Nineteen Forty-five (Greenwich Exchange), where two boys confront the disappearance of an evacuee girl in a Midlands village, understanding it only decades later.
When I was at university trying to earn a bit of extra cash one of the strangest jobs I had was to read Joseph Conrad’s Victory out loud to a blind Italian boy. Two hours a day, five days a week. He would frequently stop me reading so he could type notes into his braille typewriter. Consequently we managed about three pages of the novel a day and it took about six weeks to read the whole thing. This surreal, enervating experience put me off Conrad for years, though I’ve slowly been reassimilating myself, particularly enjoying The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes, perhaps the first true spy novels. This process has been hugely encouraged by Maya Jasanoff’s The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a global world (William Collins). Lucid, revelatory and wonderfully concise, The Dawn Watch celebrates Conrad’s uncanny prescience and shows his continued relevance now in the twenty-first century.
Mort Sahl was among the most astute and ingenious commentators of the Eisenhower-Kennedy-Nixon era. He disguised his political criticism as stand-up comedy, but threw away the string-of-jokes format of the Borscht Belt. Instead, he offered the rhythms of a continuous non-confessional first-person monologue, a way of talking that Lenny Bruce, Shelley Berman, Woody Allen and others would inherit. “Right-wing social democracy” was his name for the spirit of truckling he loathed, the bargain that drove liberals to expand the welfare state even as they supported the Vietnam war. James Curtis’s biography The Last Man Standing: Mort Sahl and the birth of modern comedy (Mississippi) makes a vivid reminder of Sahl’s originality, including jokes and those one-liners, issued in medias res, that carried an unmistakable sting and signature. “The Cold War – we’re fighting fire with fire. When the Russians put an American in jail, we put an American in jail.”
Two Spanish novels, one set just prior to Franco, one in the waning days of his regime: Eduardo Mendoza’s An Englishman in Madrid (Quercus; translated by Nick Caistor) is the best sort of escapist fiction, a Buchanish plot against the backdrop of a country coming apart at the seams, insights on art and politics littered along the way. In his short and bittersweet María Bonita (Anagrama), Ignacio Martínez de Pisón somehow occupies the voice of a woman who in turn voices her younger self, innocent, then losing innocence. It was a little like a David Mamet play in that it all seemed utterly artless while I was reading it, and only in retrospect did the artfulness of its construction come clear. The novel has been translated into Italian but not, as far as I can tell, into English. It deserves to be.
Each year yields a fresh crop of Guides, Handbooks and Reassuringly Short Introductions to philosophical thinkers and topics. The best of these cheerful paperbacks are the unsung heroes of academic life: they are read widely, and as profitably by professors as by undergraduates. This year I learned a lot from Simon Oliver’s Creation: A guide for the perplexed (Bloomsbury), which begins with Genesis and ends with the contemporary environmental crisis – but its heart is an account of Thomas Aquinas’s profound theological vision that is almost dazzling in its lucidity. In a different genre, yet equally adept in combining depth and accessibility, is Francis Spufford’s True Stories and Other Essays (Yale), a delightfully intelligent collection of writings on polar exploration, Soviet Russia, literature and Christianity. Most of these essays have appeared elsewhere, but reading them together felt both stimulating and luxurious, and left me with renewed admiration for Spufford’s agility, range and insight.
Like it or not, religion is still determinative. In the West, the interpretation and reception of secular works of vernacular literature largely depend on interpretative traditions evolved over millennia within Christianity. Yet today’s readers are at an unnoticed disadvantage, for the prevalent religious modes have been largely captured by ones of social activism, self-parodied in BBC Radio 4’s “Thought For the Day” slot. Almost lost are the traditions of response and theory embodied in the contemplative tradition, once at home in monasticism. With one notable exception: since 1970 Harold Palmer, initially an Anglican Franciscan, has established a hermitage on a remote hilltop in Northumberland, strangely timeless, “countercultural” and reinstating the undivided religiosity of Cuthbert and Bede. Stephen Platten (ed.), Oneness: The dynamics of monasticism (SCM) explores that unique achievement. Nothing could be further from the mental world of most TLS readers. That is why they should read it.
Women Who Blow on Knots by Ece Temelkuran (Parthian; translated from the Turkish by Alexander Dawe) is a colossal sweep of a book, bursting with suspense, humour and sharp observations on societal tensions between men and women, Arabs and Turks. Ideal material for a highly colourful film, it documents a fast-moving road trip that begins in Tunisia after the Arab Spring, crosses Libya and Egypt, then reaches its climax in Lebanon. Three young women are thrown together by chance – a Tunisian dancer, an Egyptian academic and Ece herself, a Turkish journalist/author – and are persuaded by the elderly and enigmatic Madam Lilla to join her on her mission to kill a man. They are the “Women Who Blow on Knots”, a Qur’anic reference warning men to beware of them as witches, for the story is a spirited defiance of female stereotypes and male patriarchy in the Middle East.
Climate Changed: A personal journey through the science, by Philippe Squarzoni (Abrams ComicArts; translated by Ivanka Hahnenberger), was on the reading list of a local library series here about how to help prepare our communities for the imminent future. I don’t know what to call it – graphic non-fiction? – but it turned out to be the perfect way to present pages upon pages of hard (and hard-to-face) numbers that I would have had trouble absorbing in a denser, text-only format. The science, and the data, are clearly explained and backed up with sources. Counter-arguments by climate change doubters, and by proponents of less than radical solutions, are intelligently anticipated. The approach of the book, via a personal narrative, helps to humanize, and illuminate, the difficulty of the choices we are now faced with as individuals, living in strange times for which we have not been prepared.
Odd Arne Westad’s daring ambition, supra-nationalist intellect, polyglot sources, masterly scholarship and trenchant analysis make The Cold War: A world history (Allen Lane) a book of resounding importance for appraising our global future as well as understanding our past. Westad’s historical truth-telling is a godsend at a time when the organization Historians for Britain suggests that the UK is historically and politically privileged, and embroiders fantasies of English-speaking exceptionalism. The polymathic verve and spry wit of William Whyte’s Unlocking the Church: The lost secrets of Victorian space (Oxford) is an exemplary model of a short, comprehensible history covering diverse, delicate and complex themes. Whyte proves himself the Otto von Simson of Anglicanism as he explains the Victorian interaction of theology and aesthetics, new visual perceptions and expressions of spiritual ideas in stones, church fittings and space, and the design of buildings to arouse emotions. His index contains delightful mischief.
Margherita Giacobino’s Portrait of a Family with a Fat Daughter (Dedalus; translated by Judith Landry) tells the story of a Piedmontese family from a village in the foothills of the Alps, 30 kilometres from Turin. Part memoir and part fiction, it covers the twentieth century, and evokes lives emerging from rural poverty to the affluence of the 1950s, from a diet of polenta and maggoty chestnuts where bread is a luxury to canned vegetables and refrigerators, from goatherding and wool carding to factory work and shopkeeping. Giacobino, now an academic specializing in gender studies, pieces together her ancestry from dourly posed photographs and anecdotes and shipping registers, with a focus on her hardworking great-aunt, the strong woman of the tribe. It’s like a rural version of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan saga: this family, like Ferrante’s, spoke dialect, not Italian. It’s a powerful and atmospheric record of largely unexplored terrain.
Almost miraculously, but I suppose in great measure thanks to the skilful ministrations of Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, Clive James still lives. Injury Time (Picador) heads the latest/last collection of his poems, which are rightly heralded as “a major literary event”. Though the title’s sporting metaphor is characteristic, it has very little to do with “sport”. The poems are as widely ranging and inventive as ever, both in their form and their content. They range daringly from a splendidly substantial celebration of the deaf Beethoven to various self-revealing meditations on his own carcinoma. The latter can be admired at full strength in “Night-Walkers Song”, but his playful wit and imagination are as ever wonderfully varied. They include playing games with “Splinters from Shakespeare”, here performing Master Shallow: “He sucked up his great sack-butt and moved on, / And left me here alone to nurse my pride. / I, too, have lived: a small life, but not mean. / Jesu, Jesu, the days that I have seen”. Though he now dances with death, James seems still to rejoice wittily in what is left of his life: “. . . . of this be sure: I loved it here”. This exit line is almost sentimental – but not quite.
After a distinguished career as a literary theorist and philosopher of science, the polymathic Christopher Norris has now launched out on another life as the author of what he calls “philosophical verse-essays” (though he admits the title sounds a mite pretentious). What he has done in The Winnowing Fan (Bloomsbury) is to reinvent the poetry of ideas, in a post-Romantic, post-Symbolist culture for which the poetic and the conceptual are generally viewed as antagonists. Poetry is supposed to deal with sensuous particulars, not with general speculations, a distinction that no doubt would have come as a mighty surprise to Pope, Johnson, or Wordsworth. Dismissing this prejudice, Norris has some elegant, superbly crafted verses here on Wittgenstein and Walter Benjamin, Mallarmé, Roland Barthes and a host of other theoretical luminaries.
It all seems a far cry from Philip Larkin. No doubt many readers will expect these pieces to be ponderous and obscure. In fact, however, the volume is full of wit, playfulness and intellectual agility. A number of the poems are written in that most exacting of forms, terza rima, and Norris has to bend and twist his language to meet its imperious demands, yet there’s hardly a clunky rhyme in the whole book. It’s a hugely ambitious, arrestingly original work, which turns criticism into poetry and poetry into critique.
The Astroplanets (Pressed Wafer) is a slim pamphlet that collects the handful of lyrics the American poet Douglas Crase has deemed fit for publication in the three-and-a-half decades since his astonishing debut, The Revisionist of 1981. Although it runs to only eighteen pages, it packs a powerful punch. Crase is the master of complex, sinuous sentences that twist and loop and unfurl in the most unpredictable of ways – indeed navigating his poetic idiom can feel a bit like riding the rapids. The title poem in particular succeeds in conjugating the mysteries of our planetary existence with an eloquence and sweep I found at once dizzying and uplifting.
Daniel Beer’s The House of the Dead: Siberian exile under the Tsars (Allen Lane) is both a gripping read and an extraordinary feat of scholarly analysis, delivered with the scope and empathy of a novelist – appositely, as both Dostoevsky and Chekhov are part of Siberia’s story. The microhistories as well as the grand narrative illuminate a terrible swathe of Russian (and Polish) history. The lower depths of London today are brilliantly eviscerated in Ben Judah’s This Is London (Picador), an Orwell for our grim times. Urban incomers also feature in Clair Wills’s riveting Lovers and Strangers: An immigrant history of post-war Britain (Allen Lane); Wills mines sociology, community newspapers, demotic poetry and oral histories from Irish, Cypriot, Polish, Pakistani and other cultures to show people making new identities as well as sustaining old ones, and helping rebuild a war-shattered country. The Little Englander fantasists currently in their pomp would do well to take note.
Le Carré fans are in for an unexpected treat. Characters from the old Circus – not only George Smiley but Alec Leamas, and Smiley’s lieutenant Peter Guillam – are back in A Legacy of Spies (Penguin), narrated by Guillam, in which ageing survivors from the days of the Berlin Wall face a moral, and legal, confrontation with a new unsympathetic generation. Guillam is summoned back from Breton retirement to be grilled by new, very different, Circus operatives and demanding defence lawyers. Past and present meet and clash in sharply written interrogations and reminiscences. We learn, in passing, the fates of both Hans-Dieter Mundt and Karla. What we thought was the full truth of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold gets an extra unexpected twist. And the suspenseful exfiltration of an agent from enemy territory is the vehicle for something rare in Le Carré – a brief and heartbreaking love story.
Our current condition of displacement, says László Krasznahorkai in The World Goes On (New Directions), cannot be told; only with great difficulty can language be budged out of endless spirallings of frustration. But then the collection goes on to offer stories of journeys that, whether undertaken or thwarted, arrive at transcendence. At the end there is only one way to go, in what has to be the most powerful page written so far this century.
For imagery that unsprings the magic of the old Welsh tales, through the coloured patterns of its stanzas, Matthew Francis’s The Mabinogi (Faber) is a wonder.
Many of the books I enjoyed this past year were published well before 2017 and dealt with periods much more remote – Caroline Alexander’s 2010 The War That Killed Achilles, or the delicious and very different mystery series set in ancient Rome by Ruth Downie, Lindsey Davis and Steven Saylor.
Two excellent books published this year also reach back in time: Albert Goldbarth’s essay collection The Adventures of Form and Content (Graywolf) and Lydia Davis’s translation of Proust’s recently discovered Letters to the Lady Upstairs (Fourth Estate). Goldbarth’s collection is about literary and historical doubleness of all kinds. A keen observer, a voracious reader, and an obsessive collector, Goldbarth shares his bounty: “Could any of this be of use to my friends? Out of all this, is there a gift I could give them, a clarity?” And the gifts and clarity Davis delivers to us, from Proust’s patient, polite and pained letters to his neighbour, hardly need praise from me. Dig in. It’s all much fresher than many books published last week.
I enjoyed Francesco Dal Co’s compact, copiously illustrated introduction to the most loved and loathed museum building, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York (1943–59; The Guggenheim: Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconoclastic masterpiece; Yale). Seventeen years, 859 drawings, and even more arguments in the making, it became the byword for trophy architecture that threatens to upstage the contents. Dal Co discusses the modern vogue for spiral structures; the mystical leanings of those involved in the project (the ascent is very purgatorial); Wright’s loathing of modern art and skyscrapers; his perilous adoption of the cement gun; the structural complexities. Wright’s astonishing chutzpah is everywhere in evidence: in 1946, he claimed it would survive an atom bomb, flying into the air before bouncing. One small point: doesn’t his contentious wish for the pictures to be hung against the outward leaning walls suggest he saw it as a library for art, with the spiral as lectern?
Thomas Dilworth’s elegant and deeply sympathetic biography David Jones: Engraver, soldier, painter, poet (Cape) is the best book yet on the artist and writer whose outstanding prints and paintings and difficult, dense poetry have not yet been assimilated into the mainstream, and, one imagines, never will be, even with advocacy as good as this. Jones spent much of his life in “a fog of depression”, as he described it himself, shell-shocked from his years in the trenches, celibate, spiritual, never quite at home. But his art was startlingly beautiful and his impulse to make it unstoppable. Dilworth shows us this driven, unworldly man without pathos; Jones was a loner with plenty of true friends, a damaged soldier who missed many things about the war. And part of the brilliance of the portrait is that Dilworth does it in brief, powerful sketches; Jones stares back challengingly for a moment, and then retreats.
Emmanuel de Las Cases’s Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène is the most influential Napoleonic memoir of all time. First published in 1823, two years after the Emperor’s death, it records Napoleon’s reminiscences during the first year of his final exile on St Helena. With its appeal to the republican imagination, its denunciation of British perfidiousness, and its vivid rhetoric, the text played a crucial role in the emergence of the Napoleonic legend. Historians have long suspected Las Cases of embellishing many of the more colourful utterances attributed to the Emperor. Yet, up to now, no archival verification was possible: the manuscript’s original draft, confiscated by the British authorities in 1816, and returned to Las Cases five years later, was believed to be lost. However, a copy of this text (transcribed by the Colonial Office) has been miraculously discovered in the British Library. Meticulously annotated by a group of historians (Peter Hicks, Thierry Lentz, François Houdecek and Chantal Prévot), this original version of the Mémorial has just been published by Éditions Perrin and the Napoleon Foundation. Tellingly, this draft is considerably shorter than Las Cases’s 1823 edition, and does not contain many of the most celebrated Napoleonic aphorisms (“quel roman que ma vie!”, “j’étais le Messie de la Révolution”, “j’ai voulu être le régénérateur de l’Europe”). Are we to infer that Las Cases invented them, or that he remembered them subsequently? We will never know for sure, but thanks to this felicitous publication, the debate can now happily rage among Napoleonic enthusiasts for centuries to come.
It’s a time for magical reading: the Annals of Tacitus, the year of four emperors, and crossed fingers and toes . . . . And if not Gaius Cornelius himself, then someone of comparable wit and irony and imagination and breadth. Ivan Krastev’s little book, After Europe (Pennsylvania) is satisfyingly intelligent on our predicament or predicaments: Brexit voters correlated with death penalty supporters; Brexit itself – or is it Trump or Drumpf or Trumpulus Minimus – compared to the picture of a dog smuggled into a fountaining pack of cats, and all we see is cats; the desperate trust our typical alienated nationalist electorates place in – of all people – generals. Otherwise, full-bottomed headphones, Ray-Bans and the mumbled litany: this isn’t happening, this isn’t happening. . . .
Mathias Énard’s Boussole was published in France in 2015 where it won the Prix Goncourt. Compass, the excellent English translation by Charlotte Mandell, was published earlier this year (Fitzcarraldo). An insomniac Austrian musicologist spends a long night feverishly looking back on his researches into orientalist music conducted in Vienna, Damascus and Tehran and on his frustrated passion for Laura, like him a freelance academic, whose research topics are even more recherché than his. As a novel Compass perhaps leaves something to be desired, but as a disorderly and intensely romantic encyclopedia of Orientalism it is mesmeric and marvellous. The tirades of Edward Said here give way to a celebration of the achievements of academics and adventurers, though most honour is given to Mozart’s Turkish Rondo, Henri Rabaud’s Mârouf, Félicien David’s Le Désert and similar works. The fumes of alcohol and opium suffuse a passionately melancholy narrative in which the recent ruination of Aleppo and Palmyra is lamented.
Translation has been much on my mind this year. And quite by chance I have had the good fortune to come by three books, all by women, about their lives in translation. First, L’Angoisse d’Abraham by Rosie Pinhas-Delpuech (Actes Sud), the Israeli-born French translator of the great Israeli novelist Yaakov Shabtai; then Translation as Transhumance by Mireille Gansel (Les Fugitives), born into a German family decimated by the Holocaust, and translator of both East German and Vietnamese poetry into French, translated by Ros Schwarz; and finally This Little Art by Kate Briggs (Fitzarraldo), the translator of Barthes’s lecture and seminar notes. Each author in her different way enhances our sense of what makes good literature such a wonderful thing, not so much by talking about it (they do that very well) as by demonstrating it in action, since each has devoted her life to translating it and found the reward was in the practice.
Since Brexit might not happen, I’ve not yet bothered to apply for an Irish passport. Cultural reconnection has, nonetheless, begun, with the help of some outstanding books. Declan Kiberd’s After Ireland (Head of Zeus) gives a perceptive, capacious account of life and letters since 1945. It looks back with wit and regret from the disappointments of austerity. Michael Pierse’s edited collection, A History of Irish Working-Class Writing (Cambridge), filled me in on the reading habits of the cattle drovers and dockers who entitle me to a passport with a harp. Emilie Morin’s Beckett’s Political Imagination (Cambridge) breaks new ground in reconstructing left-wing commitments in Ireland and France. A deeply-researched, durable tribute. Finally, those who think that Brexit is worth a hard border should read Remembering the Troubles (Notre Dame), edited by Jim Smyth. Remembering those years is one thing – or rather, several incompatible things, as this remarkable book shows – but you really don’t want them back.
No novel enchanted me more this year than Mathias Énard’s Compass (Fitzcarraldo; translated by Charlotte Mandell). In this dense, hypnotic work, a Viennese musicologist lies in bed on a sleepless night, musing on the Orient – his field of obsessive study – and his troubled friendships. This isn’t usually the stuff of high drama, but in Énard’s ornate scheme, the narrator’s psychic journey takes in the vast scope of East–West relations – a subject of dire importance on the world stage. The word “erudite” often comes up in discussions of Compass; the narrator’s mind is full to bursting with all manner of artists, writers, explorers and musicians, whose obscure, intersecting stories comprise this often non-fictional novel. Many authors have struggled fruitlessly under the influence of W. G. Sebald, but Compass strikes me as an authentic extension and intensification of the late German’s style. Truly Énard is one of the strangest and most dazzling writers working today.
Matthew Walker is a British scientist based in the USA. His aim in Why We Sleep (Allen Lane) is to explain its vital importance, drawing on his own experiments and a huge body of research by others. The development of the MRI scanner allows scientists to observe the brain working while we sleep and dream, moving and storing information in different areas, making new connections between disparate items and flushing out unwanted ones, Sleep is the single most effective way to maintain mental and physical health. We need eight hours of it per day, and making do with six or less will increase your chances of succumbing to Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, depression, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. (Where daylight saving operates there is a spike in the number of heart attacks in the day after the clocks are turned forward.) This is brilliant popular science writing: accessible, compelling and enlightening.
Brendan King’s absorbing biography of Beryl Bainbridge, Love by All Sorts of Means (Bloomsbury Continuum), was an excellent gateway to her under-read corpus: Sweet William (1975) is a short, sharp, shock of a book that will make you laugh and gasp and wonder why your shelves are so short on Bainbridge. And as they say on the Internet, if you enjoyed this . . . then Sally Rooney’s debut, Conversations With Friends (Faber), is almost as tart and just as swift. Sweet William was Bainbridge’s sixth (of twenty); if Rooney, currently only twenty-six, is heading in the same direction, we’re all in for a treat.
For something completely different: A Natural (Cape), Ross Raisin’s book about a gay footballer, demands about 200 pages of patience, but you won’t regret it. In the vertiginous second half of this rich, wise study of masculinity, Raisin demonstrates with extraordinary sensitivity how difficult it can be to attain E. M. Forster’s dictum, “Only connect!”
Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible (Viking), her follow-up to My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016), is the fictional memoir of a woman who escapes her abusive small-town American childhood to become a writer. This time Lucy is a character in a wider cast, her tale just one of several. This, too, is a book about ordinary people who undergo extraordinary hardship and, in some cases, manage to survive. And it’s just as understated and as full of horrifying elisions and surprising epiphanies as its predecessor. What makes these anguished, lean, short pieces so distinctive is their finely expressed sense of what one of the characters calls “this confusing contest between good and evil” – the communality of human guilt and suffering.
The book world has only once made me cry: in 1992 I felt bewilderment when Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton failed to make the Booker shortlist. If that wasn’t good enough, what was? Thorpe continues industrious, ingenious and quietly wonderful, still ignored by prize panels. This year’s Missing Fay (Cape) presents entwined provincial lives with illuminating precision, its prose textured, its structure intricate. Though (and perhaps because) Thorpe lives in France, he is alert to every English linguistic twitch, every slippery folk-meme. He’s a writer’s writer, and I wish he were a reader’s writer too.
Poet Sinéad Morrissey gains power with each collection: On Balance (Carcanet) won the Forward Prize this year. She’s one of those generous writers whose images and structures open so invitingly that your response is to grab a pen and write back to her: in other words, an inspiration.
The long-lost manuscript of William Empson’s The Face of the Buddha has been found, ably edited by the lantern-jawed Rupert Richard Arrowsmith and published by the OUP. I knew it would be an eccentric book, to put it no higher; but I was impatient to see what happened when the irresistible force of Empson’s intellect met the inscrutable object under consideration. It’s not without its flaws: the pictures are mostly cheap postcards Empson bought on the sites he visited across Asia in the 1930s; most are not of printable quality. The book is also pretty weak qua art history: many of the several types of asymmetry Empson notes in images of the Enlightened One derive fairly obviously from conventions of perspective rather than any deeper expression of mystical duality (for which Empson anyway gamely concedes there’s no documentary evidence, though his theories are accepted by at least one local expert). However, it’s an absolutely exemplary piece of writing-about-thinking, taut and alert; it’s also wryly critical of the racist assumptions about inscrutability and much else that bedevil much European scholarship on the subject.
As the Dalio Family Professor in Mood Disorders at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Kay Redfield Jamison is uniquely positioned to take on the subject of the poet whose name is a byword for the bipolar. In Robert Lowell, Setting the River on Fire: A study of genius, mania, and character (Knopf), Professor Jamison combines her psychiatric insight into Lowell’s sad life with a beautifully spare yet spirited style. Staying within the realm of biography, there were studies of two star poets we lost this past year. Karin Roffman’s scintillating The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery’s early life (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), includes illuminating excerpts from diaries Ashbery kept between the ages of thirteen and sixteen, while Let Us Watch Richard Wilbur: A biographical study by Robert Bagg and Mary Bagg (Massachusetts), is a thorough, thoughtful portrait of the supreme US stylist of the past sixty years.
My books of the year were books of the year: sustained poetic observations of the seasons. Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13 (Fourth Estate) is an extraordinary addition to English fiction, a shepherd’s calendar set in a modern Peak District village that weaves the precisely reported speech of the local people into the life of the pastoral landscape in wide paragraphs that pass subtly between the realist and the metaphorical.
Extracts from Tom Pickard’s journal of living bankrupt over a café at the highest point of the Pennines appeared in Winter Migrants (Carcanet), one of last year’s finest poetry collections. They were a taster, it turns out, of a masterpiece of poet’s prose in the tradition of Bashō and Coleridge. Fiends Fell (Flood Editions) is as fresh, various, quick and restless as the daily weather it notates: “When the earth tilted and the sun rose, mist thickened and I lit a fire”.
It has been a good year for Gluck, with exhibitions of her work in both London and Brighton, a witty documentary about her on BBC4, and her imperious 1942 self-portrait adorning the posters and catalogue-jacket of Tate Britain’s Queer British Art. Gluck’s stylized and severely masculine appearance always attracted as much attention as her similarly elegant paintings and is rightly given equal weight in a superbly illustrated collection of essays, Gluck: Art and identity (Yale). The Ceylonese photographer Lionel Wendt (1900–44) was influenced by both modernism and surrealism, and sometimes employed solarization or double-exposure to create his beautiful images. His principal subject was the island’s young men, but he also photographed women, landscapes, flowers and other aspects of Ceylonese life and culture. Lionel Wendt. Ceylon (Fw:Books) reproduces some 150 of his photographs, most never before published, alongside three articles about his short life and extraordinary work.
“Everything,” John Ashbery quipped in an early poem, “has a schedule, if you can find out what it is.” We may never find out, but it seems a happy circumstance that the Library of America’s comprehensive second volume of Ashbery’s Collected Poems, 1991–2000, edited by Mark Ford (with a superb chronology by Ford and David Kermani), appeared within a month of the poet’s much lamented death on September 3. This volume takes us from the amazing Flow Chart to the more colloquial mode of Your Name Here, poem after poem spinning delicious variants on what Ashbery called, with reference to Gertrude Stein, “hymns to possibility”. That term also applies to a second brilliant poetry collection published this season, Susan Howe’s Debths (Norton), which, like Ashbery’s so seemingly different lyric, finds “threads of Divinity” in the most unexpected of “Whispering red herrings”. As Ashbery puts it in “Laughing Gravy”, “The crisis has just passed. / Uh oh, here it comes again”.
This year, as I am living in Moscow, I have cherished a remarkable new book on this ancient and ethnically diverse city: The Histories of Moscow Houses Told by their Inhabitants (Istorii moskovskikh domov rasskazanye ikh zhitelyami) (Eksmo). It is the fruit of a collaboration between the scholar and curator Dmitry Oparin and the photographer Anton Akimov, whose visual record of contemporary life in old Moscow interiors evokes in moving detail the cracks and layers of time. I have learned that the friendly shoe repairman whose tiny atelier I pass every day as I walk down our street is from an Assyrian family, the Lazars, who have worked at the same trade since they arrived as refugees from the massacres of 1915. With great admiration, I have just finished The Fall of the Ottomans (Penguin), Eugene Rogan’s account of the Great War in the Middle East from 1914 to 1920.
THEODORE K. RABB
History favours survivors, but it is worth remembering the alternatives that were cut short. One such, which might have transformed England’s past (if not as decisively as William I losing the Battle of Hastings) was the death of Henry, oldest son of James I. Had Henry (1594–1612) lived, he would likely have been far more successful as king than his ill-starred brother, Charles I. Though admired by leading artists of the day, Henry almost vanished from sight until recently. A wonderful National Portrait Gallery exhibition in 2012 brought him vividly to life, and now we have an excellent biography by Sarah Fraser, The Prince Who Would Be King (William Collins). Though not intended as a scholarly work, it is a well-written account that reminds us, through vignettes of Thomas Coryate, Inigo Jones, and many others, how lively and promising the period was – thanks in no small part to the patronage and inspiration of Henry, Prince of Wales.
Philip Larkin used to arrange his collections like a variety bill – a comic turn, a song, a conjuror. Most poets haven’t his range, reach, versatility, or his (crucial) gift for humour. Simon Armitage, though, is fully equipped: he can be eloquent in his muted way and he can make you laugh out loud. Nothing fazes him, nothing is excluded: neither Poundland (with its pastiche Ezra: “Came we then to the place abovementioned”) nor the irritable comedy of boarding an aircraft (“Thank You for Waiting”). The Unaccompanied (Faber).
Matthew Francis is another terrific Faber poet. The Mabinogi is his radical and beautifully economical version of the Welsh epic. It deploys marginal commentary with cunning, dispensing with prosaic narrative requirements, and leaving this gifted writer all the room in the world for his strikingly original additions: “the gleaming slug of a river”, “His wife’s in her room stretching a tawny thread / through the embroidered neck of a horse”. The real thing. And none of it, I would guess, in the Welsh source.
Hugo Charteris MC (1922–70) was elbowed into obscurity, if never the dustbin, by his contemporary Kingsley Amis. Charteris’s first novel, A Share of the World (1953, now reissued by Michael Walmer) is a masterpiece of compression and unblinking honesty about the war (and after). A genuine if never proud toff, Charteris had none of the protracted strut of Evelyn Waugh’s military trilogy in his work. Régis Debray’s Carnet de route (Gallimard) is a vivid compendium of reportage and fiction which proceeds from precocious endorsement by Louis Althusser to revolutionary South America and back on the way to becoming an elderly Parisian intello still somewhat enragé. Jules Stewart’s Gotham Rising (I. B. Tauris) took me back to my uprooted American childhood. The only marked omission in its lively reproduction of 1930s New York is that Guy Lombardo, my parents’ favourite listening on Sunday afternoons, right before naughty Eddie Cantor, fails to be listed among the bandleaders.
The American poet Alice Notley’s Certain Magical Acts (Penguin) appeared last year but seems barely noticed by reviewers in Britain, although it’s unsurpassed in her long output – it’s a magisterial work of invocation and driving incantation. Scrupulous as a modern Dante, proudly generous as Whitman, her poet-voice, winding intently among its buzz of speakers, acts as a channel for the dead and a gatherer of the living. A choric mouthpiece, it’s possessed yet confident in its sibylline calling: “I like this story, but I like my voice better / deep as it comes from within. I’ll follow it to hell, as the wrens say”. Her unsparing contemporary epic is darkly humorous, bruised, ethically taut, solitary but many-tongued, stubborn. Its grandeur’s not archaic – rather, it’s unaffectedly remote from our familiar poetries of domestic whimsy, scholastic cuteness, and the variously cultish. “I have never been words; but words have never been words”, she writes.
The most absorbing book I’ve read this year was non-fiction, although one of the things which makes The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine (Princeton) so compelling a history of Bolshevism, the Russian Revolution and the Soviet project is its penetrating analysis of, and extensive quotation from, contemporary fiction and poetry. It’s a confounding work, with a dizzying scope, a precipitous sweep, and an acute eye for the absurd and the pitiful. The title refers to a huge residential complex in Moscow, built on the banks of the Moskva, opposite the Kremlin, in an area known as “the swamp”. It was built for the Soviet elite and their families, and these residents become the focus of this book, with Slezkine an astringent guide to their lives and fates, drawing on diaries and letters as well as official documents and reports. Soon enough, the lights start to go out in the house on the embankment.
“Comparative literature” as an academic discipline is now being subsumed into “world literature”. That adds extra timeliness to Walter Cohen’s A History of European Literature: The West and the World from Antiquity to the present (Oxford). Cohen, with extraordinary erudition, places European literature from the Romans onwards alongside extra-European literatures. His book bulges with fascinating detail. The local provenance of Roman authors; the interplay among medieval vernaculars that shaped the lyric and the romance; the constant presence of the Mediterranean in Shakespeare; fiction on the European peripheries (Dostoevsky, Melville, Machado de Assis); the transformative Jewish presence in modernism – these are just a few of the high spots. A bird’s-eye view of genres alternates with illuminating close readings: Horace’s “Nunc est bibendum”, Hamlet, Moby-Dick, Pale Fire. This amazing book is a counterpart to Auerbach’s Mimesis for the globalized present.
Radio and television have provided me with my favourite stories from 2017. I’m referring to Brian Reed’s S-Town podcast, a fascinating non-fiction investigation into the life of the horologist John B. McLemore and his struggling Alabama township. In an age defined by simplistic political binaries, this podcast reminded me of the ideological murkiness of most lives and places. I’m also hooked on HBO’s drama The Deuce, by the creators of The Wire. Literary readers and writers should watch the episodes crafted by the novelist George Pelecanos, whose gripping plotlines burn slowly, and seamlessly coalesce with complex social realities and dynamic characters. Arundhati Roy’s Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton) was fantastic. The novel is unflinchingly critical of power, and yet she empowers her underdog characters to persevere, leaving readers with a few droplets of much-needed hope. It’s heartening when writers live up to the hyperbole that surrounds them.
ANNA KATHARINA SCHAFFNER
My books of the year are two novels: Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling (Fourth Estate) and Nicole Krauss’s Forest Dark (Bloomsbury). The former, a stylistically ambitious page-turner, captures brilliantly the manner in which a victim of incestuous sexual abuse vacillates between feelings of guilt, shame and anger. Yet it also empowers its remarkable female protagonist, the novel culminating in a dramatic showdown during which she has to deploy all of the survival skills that she has learned from her abuser. Forest Dark – partly autobiographical, partly fictional – is an elegant metaphysical reflection on the breakdown of a marriage, writer’s block, Kafka, Israel, and the fate of a once powerful man who falls under the spell of the death drive and gives away everything, both literally and metaphorically. The relentless undoing of a lifetime’s achievements under the shadowy influence of Jewish mysticism makes for profoundly unsettling reading.
Christopher de Bellaigue’s The Islamic Enlightenment (Bodley Head) begins in 1798 with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. After the Battle of the Pyramids, which lasted barely an hour, Napoleon established the Institute of Egypt in Cairo: “a pop-up brains trust in the wilderness”. Here prominent Egyptian scholars were invited to encounter the savants Napoleon had brought with him from France. After this first exchange, De Bellaigue traces the progress of an Islamic Enlightenment that took place under the influence of the West, but found its own form. Geographically focused – moving from Cairo to Istanbul to Tehran – De Bellaigue’s erudite and elegant narrative culminates in chapters on the rise of the modern state and Counter-Enlightenment challenges after the First World War. Mathias Énard’s Compass (Fitzcarraldo; translated by Charlotte Mandell) dramatizes the exchange between East and West through a musicologist’s dark night of the soul, reminding the anglophone world of what it owes to Islam.
Vikings, for all the popular fascination with them, have become rather stereotyped, both as regards the old horned-helmet image of the comic books, and the new peaceful trader one favoured by academics. Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough’s Beyond the Northlands: Viking voyages and the Old Norse sagas (Oxford) splendidly reminds us what a lot else there is to know about them, and also how strange they were. Sagas about a family which continually interbred with trolls. Archaeological discoveries which look like sex-change magic. Sorcerous use of what the author decorously calls “necropants”. Ms Barraclough has also personally retraced their voyages, west to Greenland, north to Hammerfest, where she was knighted with the penis-bone of a walrus, and if not south to Baghdad, then east as far as the runestone by the ladies’ restroom at Stockholm airport, which commemorates a failed expedition much further away. Adventurous scholarship indeed.
“I wonder if I had called Portnoy’s Complaint ‘The Orgasm Under Rapacious Capitalism’”, Philip Roth sardonically responds to a question from the Svenska Dagbladet in 2014, whether “I would thereby have earned the favour of the Swedish Academy.” Why Write? Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013 (Library of America) includes interviews and essays from the three acts of Roth’s career. First, the early books that began to explore his most outrageous, hilarious, and profound themes, and brought down charges of anti-Semitism and misogyny; the middle phase, when he connected to the Jewish writers of Eastern Europe, the Holocaust, Israel and Yiddish; and the great tragicomic novels of late, later and final Roth. “Alexander Portnoy, R.I.P.”, he declares in a farewell. But the book shows how profoundly he was shaped by the narcissistic wounds, critical controversies and political attacks of the early years, and how magnificently he transcended them.
My book of the year was published in 2016 (by Faber), but I hope I’ll be allowed some margin for error, since it was actually written over two thousand years ago. I first encountered Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid circa 1962, when it was the set text for Latin O Level. Blind to the poem’s artistic merit and emotional punch I simply learned the required 493 lines by heart. Of course the translation was supposed to be my own, but was likely cribbed from a primer as dead as Palinurus. It took two score years for me to see what I was missing, and a decade more to fully feel the poem’s power. That occurred when I heard mellifluous Ian McKellen read Book VI in its entirety on BBC Radio 4 in Seamus Heaney’s marvellous translation. Already moving, the encounter between Aeneas and his father, Anchises, in Hades, is given extra resonance by the fact that this was Heaney’s swansong.
I have a shelf bulging with Leariana: biographies; endless gathered travel diaries (Greece! The Levant! Italy!); selected letters; criticism (including Thomas Byrom’s delirious, brilliant Nonsense and Wonder); a concordance (as entertaining as the biographies: you won’t believe the entry for “man”), and ephemera ranging from colouring books to picture-book sequels to “The Owl and the Pussycat”. Previous biographies have been, fair to say, inappropriately dull: Lear himself – traveller, animal-painter, landscape artist, diarist, limericist, nonsense writer – gets lost in, and the reader exhausted by, his endless compulsive ramblings. This unique subject needed a modern, sympathetic, first-person touch and Jenny Uglow’s Mr Lear: A life of art and nonsense (Faber) replaces everything before it, showing Lear’s life through the lens of the nonsense that remains our greatest interest: a moving and fascinating biography. What’s more, the book itself is an object of great beauty in its own right.
Gershom Scholem was one of the few great scholars to have defined, to have mapped in its modern form the field of their mastery. He revived and inspired the study of the Kabbalah and of the mystical currents in Judaism. George Prochnik’s portrayal (Other Press) contains valuable material and locates Scholem in the Jerusalem context. It does not penetrate what I take (erroneously perhaps) to be the enigma of Scholem’s sardonic agnosticism. He remains a Stranger in a Strange Land. And a virtuoso of German scholarly prose.
One might think that there’s not much more to be written about the Great Terror, yet this year there appeared a doorstop of a book, Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government (Princeton), 980 pages titled for the enormous Moscow apartment complex opened in 1931 to accommodate Party top brass and their families. Here came the dreaded phone call and the knock at the door; from here hundreds were taken away to prison, torture and execution. Slezkine, Professor of History at Berkeley, takes his time, tracking individual stories from before the Revolution and allowing himself essay-length reflections on the millenarian faith that was Bolshevism and on the literature inspired by it. A third of the book goes by before the first tenants move in, but the author’s command of the narrative, woven together with innumerable testimonies, is compelling. The effect is like Solzhenitsyn with photographs.
The vote for Brexit was a triumph of simple lies over complex truths, of mean-spiritedness even over self-interest. Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev’s beautifully lucid After Europe (Pennsylvania) packs an enormous amount of wisdom into a very short space. He helps us to understand the hostility to the European ideal in the UK and across the channel and to think about the challenges facing the EU in the near future.
Mark O’Connell’s To Be a Machine (Doubleday) is a compelling, often hilarious account of encounters with the Silicon Valley prophets of “transhumanism” and eternal life. They dream of preventing ageing, of merging perishable flesh with imperishable machinery, of freezing brain and body at death to await the science that will make recovery possible, or of “uploading” the human mind on to non-degradable substrates. Their science and philosophy are nonsense but O’Connell’s parade of dreamers is wonderful.
D. J. TAYLOR
Hyped-up, multinational book prize culture seems to have ever less space for unassuming homegrown fiction. The best example of the latter I read this year was A Natural (Cape), Ross Raisin’s quiet but richly evocative account of a professional footballer’s struggles with both his sexuality and the deeply unpromising terrain of a moribund League Two outfit hovering on the brink of relegation.
Elsewhere, Helen Smith’s The Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett (Cape) was a lavish treatment of the man who has strong claims to be considered the first proper publishers’ editor. And rarely have I come across a more engaging personality than Ida John, whose The Good Bohemian: The letters of Ida John (Bloomsbury), scrupulously edited by the subject’s grand-daughter, Rebecca John, and Ida’s husband’s biographer, Michael Holroyd, brought the Edwardian art world into sharp and sometimes highly unappetising focus.
Every era needs better criticism. In 1871, writing to George Sand, Flaubert offered a theory of recent Parisian catastrophe: “We had lost all notion of good and evil, of the beautiful and the ugly. Remember what criticism has been these last few years. Could it tell the difference between the Sublime and the Ridiculous?” And so it’s been a relief to read The Collected Essays of Elizabeth Hardwick (New York Review Books) – edited with a lovely introduction by Darryl Pinckney – so poised and lethal, with their commitment to “the unusual, the difficult, the lengthy, the intransigent, and above all, the interesting”; Joan Didion’s South and West (Fourth Estate), investigating the South and its “vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style”; and the hypnotic essay-portraits of Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives (New Directions), small studies in astringency and malicious historical imagination.
Between the second and sixth centuries AD, the Roman Empire was hit by a series of devastating smallpox, filovirus and plague pandemics. Simultaneously, the late Roman world experienced dramatic climate change, as the warm and wet Roman Climate Optimum gave way to a sustained period of colder and drier weather. The challenge for historians has been how to incorporate these cataclysmic ecological shocks into a narrative of the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Islam without lapsing into environmental determinism. Kyle Harper is the first historian to meet this challenge head on, and his The Fate of Rome: Climate, disease, and the end of an Empire (Princeton) is my book of the year. It is the real thing: beautifully written, intellectually rigorous and underpinned by the most exquisitely nuanced understanding of the reciprocal influence between humans and their environment. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Michael Longley’s Angel Hill (Cape) includes the account of a cataract operation, in which the named surgeon “restores the world’s colours. / He has discovered them / In my own dark kaleidoscope”. Typically generous (most poets would concentrate on themselves), this might serve as a description of the effect of Longley’s exquisite poems on a world-blurred reader. His eleventh volume ushers us briefly away from his beloved Carrigskeewaun to his daughter’s soul-place, Lochalsh in the Western Highlands, with its otters and pine martens, “seaweedy breakwaters” and “bracken-rusty” hills. The precisely laid bucolic makes the continuing homages to the victims of the Troubles all the more powerful.
Judging the Cheltenham Festival’s retro-Booker Prize (1937 this year), introduced me to Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God, a late scintilla of the Harlem Renaissance and set in rural Florida. Written in what Zadie Smith calls “black-inflected dialect”, the novel is utterly compelling. Naturally, it won.
The Mabinogi in Matthew Francis’s poetic retelling (Faber) blazes with fresh and exciting strangeness. Jenny Erpenbeck’s Berlin refugee novel, Go Went Gone (Portobello; translated by Susan Bernofsky), takes us – with immense storytelling skills and quiet, effective restraint – into the depths of the lives of others. Aventuriers des Mers, VIIe–XVIIe siècle: De Sindbad à Marco Polo Méditerranée-Océan Indien reproduces gorgeous rare material, maps and fantastic illuminations from the exhibition in Paris and then Marseille (Hazan). Finally, an eloquent and learned farewell, in the classicist Paul Veyne’s heartfelt Palmyra: An irreplaceable treasure, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan (Chicago).
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (Random House), a memoir by Yiyun Li, made the deepest impression on me this year. Strangely discreet about certain aspects of her life, it is rawly confiding about her struggles between life and death (she has been hospitalized several times for suicidal depression) and between Chinese and English (though she came to the States only in her twenties, she has resolved to write – and think! – in English alone). Eloquent, original, drenched in emotion, her pages are searingly honest and unforgettable.
A. N. WILSON
Thomas Dilworth, David Jones: Engraver, soldier, painter, poet (Cape). Those of us who love the work of David Jones have been waiting for years for this book. Dilworth has done magnificent work. He has an instinctive feel for Jones’s haunting paintings, and above all the symbolic watercolours. He rightly insists on the greatness of the two long poems, In Parenthesis and The Anathemata. And he tells the story of the heartbreaking life with neither prurience nor condescension, evoking Jones’s ability to make art out of heartbreak. As well as being a richly enjoyable biography, this book will remain the essential work of reference for those who return frequently to the poems, to the lettering-arrangements (whatever one calls them!) and the paintings. It is a portrait of a wholly lovable human being. One feels ennobled to have read it.
“Bulgar is coral but lentils are pearls.” This is one of many pieces of Syrian food folk wisdom in Syria: Recipes from home by Itab Azzam and Dina Mousawi (Trapeze). This book is full of the Middle Eastern flavours that – thanks to Yotam Ottolenghi – have started to taste like home to many of us in Britain: tahini and cumin, pomegranates and parsley. Azzam and Mousawi’s version of smoked aubergine dip is one of the best and simplest I’ve ever tasted. But what makes this book unusual is the stories it tells of modern Syria: of people exiled, bereaved or under siege, for whom the comforts of food mean more than ever. My other cookbook of the year – in an exceptionally strong year – is Kaukasis: A culinary journey through Georgia, Azerbaijan and beyond by Olia Hercules, a superb and evocative follow-up to her debut Mamushka. Try the village breakfast on page 164: a nourishing fry-up of eggs with tomatoes, cured fatty pork, dill and fried bread which Hercules calls “one of the best meals in the world”. She’s right.
Seneca wrote that the mind can rise above the pinprick of the present, by looking to places distant in time or space – a necessary move in the era of Nero or Trump. I loved Emily Katz Anhalt’s Enraged (Yale), which invites us to juxtapose modern machismo with the ancient, equally aggressive and male-dominated, but perhaps more thoughtful political climate of ancient Greece. I was gripped by Neil Gaiman’s vivid, playful retellings of Norse Mythology (Bloomsbury), evoking another distant culture shadowed by violence, lies and awareness of the end of days. I was moved by the collection of poetry by Chinese migrant workers, Iron Moon (White Pine), beautifully translated by Eleanor Goodman, which hints at the minds and creative talent of those who make our clothes and our smartphones. My favourite fun book this year was An Elephant and Piggie Biggie by Mo Willems (Disney-Hyperion), which my six-year-old read aloud to me many times.
Two remarkable books on modernism appeared this year. The Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett (Cape) is a rich and affectionate portrait of literature’s greatest talent spotter. Publishers’ readers do not necessarily lead heroic lives, but Garnett did. He championed Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence while advising countless other writers on the direction their sentences should take. His wife Constance Garnett, meanwhile, translated the whole of Russian literature into Edwardian English. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a global world (William Collins) is a startlingly original take of the state we’re in. Conrad, Maya Jasanoff argues, prophesied globalization, terrorism and the dangers of nationalism. “No one has known”, as Henry James told Conrad, “the things you know, and you have, as the artist of the whole matter, an authority that no one has approached.” And without Edward Garnett’s instinct for genius, we would still not know what Conrad knew.
The state borders of Russia have always been treated as having a sacred status – a move abroad would be regarded as somewhat sinful even in pre-Revolutionary times. No wonder some Russians, such as the rocket inventor and mystic Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857–1935), dreamt about jumping into outer space. During the Soviet epoch it was easier to become a Soviet cosmonaut than to travel abroad. Those disillusioned European dreamers who used to regard the Soviet Union as the embodiment of their social ideals have now turned their hopeful eye to those pre-Revolutionary Russian socialist philosophers who preached anarchic communism and cosmic mysticism. Cosmic Shift: Russian contemporary art writing (Zed) is a fascinating neo-Marxist response to such aspirations by Russian contemporary artists and art critics who have always been alert to ideas aired in the West. Packed with original essays, projects and even conceptual fiction, it rehabilitates such eccentric thinkers as Tsiolkovsky as well as a Christian socialist mystic, Nikolai Fedorov, who believed that by a collective mental effort we can resurrect our dead forefathers. Not Lenin and Stalin, I hope.
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