December 21, 2009
It’s that time of year again, and as usual there are several titles I’d like to have included but didn’t have room for. Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke thrilled me with its boldly selective account of the approach to the Second World War; Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener provided a keystone for much of my reading that I didn’t realise I’d been missing; Kafka’s Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor ditto, but I left it out since it wasn’t so much a book as a story fragment in dandy packaging. Probably David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide would have made the cut too, if it hadn’t been a late victim of my inability to blog and be a parent at the same time. The following titles are listed alphabetically by author.
César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
A strange book which, despite its brisk length, I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of. That it nonetheless stuck in my mind for most of the year must be a measure of its force. It’s about art, life and more. ”We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind.” Resolution #1 for 2010: read more Aira.
Ronald Blythe: Voices of Akenfield
A bit of a cheat, as this is an extract from the full book (Akenfield), published in the Penguin English Journeys series, but thrilled me so much I had to include it. It is an exceptional recreation of a world proceeding from one age to another, a magical oral history of time and place. “People believed in religion then,” says Leonard Thompson, a farm worker, “which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution. Nobody would have stuck it.”
J.M. Coetzee: Summertime
One of those books which first makes you realise that you are in the hands of a master, and then forces you to accept, with a willing sigh, that you are going to have to read everything he has written. ”He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life – including his love life, I might say – and channel them into his writing, which as a consequence was going to become a sort of unending cathartic exercise.” The best new novel I read this year.
Simon Crump: Neverland
A book which at first seems ridiculous and laughable – and then seems ridiculous and laughable, but also clever and mesmerising. Neverland is effective and affecting on the modern subject of celebrity, and its timing, published a few months after Michael Jackson’s death, was spookily apt. ”For a while there was gold, lots of it, and there were cartoons and songs and dance and lunar walking and Motown and I want you back. We fixed him though. Then we fucked him. And we took it all.”
L.J. Davis: A Meaningful Life
Here is the perfect example of the art of the reissue. A fine, miserable comic novel (a sort of funny Richard Yates) which died a death when first (and last) published in 1971, is given new life by NYRB Classics. Its misanthropy and set pieces make it a sort of comfort read for me: the tale of a man who realises that his life is not going to get any better. ”He’d found his level, and here he was, on it.”
Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone
Another ‘lost classic’, and for once the hype was justified. Fallada’s forgotten novel about a personal crusade against the Nazis, written in six weeks, was rough around the edges but compelling and real. “Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where. We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it. And then it’ll be too late.” The only mystery remaining about its publication is why the US and UK publishers gave us different titles; but to balance that we have the prospect of more Fallada reissues to come. Goody.
Susan McKay: Bear in Mind These Dead
OK, I have to admit that this is probably not a better book than the titles I left off my list (see intro), but it had a particular revelatory quality for me. In previous years I would have shunned a book about Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ (too close to home), but this tragic, infuriating account of the victims and their loved ones has a power I couldn’t get over. “I find it terrible hard to live without him. It is like my own right arm is off me.”
Guy de Maupassant: The Horla
Versions of this short story are available in most selections of Maupassant’s work, but this Melville House Art of the Novella edition is the only one you should read. It takes three distinct but linked forms of the story and creates a new work of art from them. The material is compelling, the translation by Charlotte Mandell is perfect, and the impact remains – as you can see – for a long time. ”After mankind, the Horla!”
Dag Solstad: Novel 11, Book 18
The best way of pulling the rug from under the reader is to approach the turning point in an entirely deadpan manner. In fact, make the entire book as flat and uninflected as possible, then they really won’t see what’s coming. This book stayed with me longer perhaps than any other this year, not for its ‘twist’ but for its solid refusal to pander to the reader. ”He wanted a novel that showed life to be impossible, but without a trace of humour, black or otherwise.”
Fred Wander: The Seventh Well
The second Michael Hofmann translation in my top twelve, showing that my admiration for his choice of material shows no sign of diminishing. A new translation of a 40-year-old book which brings a fresh eye, and an elegant prose, to the much-written-about subject of the Holocaust. ”He lost his mind when he saw them killing his mother. A heart like a glass bell, a light crack, and it doesn’t ring anymore.”
Hugo Wilcken: Colony
A scandalously overlooked novel from 2007 provided my greatest surprise of the year. A multilayered novel which teases as much as it satisfies, Colony should be a huge hit, but isn’t. The most admirable pleasure in this box of delights is Wilcken’s refusal to try to impress the reader: he creates a complex and memorable work from the most lucid prose. ”Only the past remains obscure. It hasn’t happened and perhaps it never will.”
John Williams: Stoner
A traditional novel in a traditional mode – the story of an ordinary man’s life – Stoner succeeds through the respect it pays to its characters and in particular, the honest and affecting portrayal of its hero (the word is appropriate). It tells of a man who learns that the love of literature and work can be the match of any other kind of love. ”It was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study … it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”
Please add your own best – or worst – reads of the year, or a link to your own list, below. Happy Christmas, and see you again in 2010.
June 13, 2009
After reading three books in a row that I had mixed feelings about (and one or two more that I didn’t even finish), I needed a palate cleanser. Melville House came to the rescue with their ‘Art of the Novella’ reissue of Guy de Maupassant’s astonishing The Horla: a wonder in a few dozen pages.
This volume contains three stories: two versions of ‘The Horla’ from 1886 and 1887, and ‘Letter from a Madman’, first published in 1885. The two earlier stories work at the themes but only in the final version of ‘The Horla’ – presented here first – does Maupassant achieve a thoroughly satisfying telling.
Our unnamed narrator begins with unexplained mood swings: “Where do these mysterious influences come from that change our happiness into despondency and our confidence into distress?”
I wake up full of joy, with songs welling up in my throat. Why? I go down to the water; and suddenly, after a short walk, I come back disheartened, as if some misfortune were awaiting me at home. Why?
It is his desire to find an explanation – for what we might otherwise call the affliction of being human – that drives him to further anxiety and despair. He begins to believe that another being is accompanying him and influencing his existence (“My nights are eating up my days … Last night, I felt someone squatting over me, who, with his mouth over mine, was drinking in my life through my lips”). He sees sinister occurrences in displays of hypnotism, and even in nothing at all: when he arrives home, filled with premonitions of horror, “there was nothing there, yet I was more surprised and anxious than if I had had another fantastic vision.”
It is a perfect exploration of human irrationality. Lack of evidence makes the narrator more fearful still: knowing the limitations of our senses, he wonders what else is happening which could only be judged by senses we do not have. He imagines otherworldly beings:
What do the sentient beings in those distant universes know, more than we do? What more are they capable of doing than we? What do they see that we have not the least knowledge of? Some day or other, won’t one of them, crossing space, appear on our earth to conquer it, just as long ago the Normans crossed the seas to subjugate people who were weaker?
We are so infirm, so helpless, so ignorant, so small, we others, on this spinning grain of mud mixed with a drop of water.
(This passage, particularly with its ending on “a drop of water,” seems such a proto-H.G. Wells idea – so close in spirit to the opening of The War of the Worlds, published a dozen years later, that it cannot be coincidence. Did Wells read ‘The Horla’?) The whole story is a perfectly judged crescendo of fear’s cannibalism. “After mankind, the Horla”:
Oh my God! My God! Is there a God? If there is, set me free, save me! Help me! Forgive me! Have pity on me! Mercy! Save me! Save me from this suffering – this torture – this horror!
Charlotte Mandell, whose translation reads faultlessly, suggests that Maupassant was “haunted by his own dementia” and reminds us that he died in a private asylum a few years after completing ‘The Horla’. If it is true that Maupassant took his own suffering and made art from it, then what greater gift can a writer leave us?