December 18, 2013

My Books of 2013

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , at 8:18 am by John Self

(some of) my books of 2013

It’s not ‘Twelve from the Shelves’ this year as I didn’t read enough books I really loved this year to hit those heights. Or rather: I didn’t read enough that I reviewed. For example, if I’d reviewed them, I would have included:

  • Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring, a gripping report on writers and alcohol (with special attention to Tennessee Williams and John Cheever);
  • Joe Moran’s Armchair Nation, which recounted the birth and growth of television in the UK with the same spark that he brought to our roads; or
  • Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know, a powerful essay which combines biography, politics and a response to George Orwell’s Why I Write.

Interesting – perhaps – that those are all non-fiction, where my reviewed choices below are all-but-one fiction. Do I find it easier to review novels? The books below were all read, or re-read, by me this year, and are listed alphabetically by author.

Martin Amis: Money
No surprise that I rate the book which gave me my online identity. This is the book which proved that Amis was not just a writer of short comic novels: he was also a writer of long comic novels. The voice he developed for John Self is a miracle of sustained attention to detail. Money is one of those books where it’s clear the author sweated over every single word. And it was worth it.

J.M. Coetzee: The Childhood of Jesus
I expected this book to be all over the prize shortlists and end-of-year roundups, but it seemed to slip quickly from view after publication early in the year. Perhaps it was the conscious elusiveness of the story, screaming allegory from every page but never quite being nailed down. That was one of the reasons I liked it so much.

Andrew Crumey: The Secret Knowledge
New work from Crumey is always a delight, though he makes us wait – 5 years since Sputnik Caledonia. Once again he has evaded expectations with a novel which is less immediately lighthearted than most of his previous books, but just as provocative, containing parallel worlds, ideas on art and mass culture, and guest appearances from Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno.

William Golding: Pincher Martin
This is a book with an unforgettable twist or two, one in the very last sentence, but which only gains in power when re-read. It is full of strange wonders, not least how so much is packed into so few pages, and how a book so ultimately unknowable can at the same time be as clear as the water its ‘hero’ lives in. If the only Golding you have read is Lord of the Flies, try this.

Stephen Grosz: The Examined Life
One of two debuts on my list, and the only non-fiction title. The conceit is simple: a psychoanalyst tells us the stories of some of his patients. The results are simple and – to me – enormously affecting accounts of what can go wrong, particularly between parents and children, and how it can be possible to begin to put it right.

Chloe Hooper: The Engagement
Another book that I expected to conquer all this year, and which seems to have sunk without trace. Hooper’s second novel is not just a page-turning psychological thriller – though it certainly is that – but also an inquiry into sexuality, male-female relations, and the power of stories. I read it twice and it stood up brilliantly.

J. Robert Lennon: Familiar
Lennon, like Hooper, has the gift of telling stories so seductively that it’s easy to overlook how much he makes you think at the same time. Here we get a story of a woman who finds herself living a new life, everything suddenly and unexplainably changed. Perhaps, as with The Examined Life, it was the acute understanding of parenthood that so floored me here.

Eimear McBride: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing
Much-vaunted by critics and at least one prize jury, McBride’s amazing debut is worthy of all the praise. It is the sort of story you simultaneously want to read and to look away from, and the brittle poetry of the language is a perfect vehicle for the familiarly dark events in this Irish family’s life.

Muriel Spark: The Driver’s Seat
A short Spark shock which, like Pincher Martin, loses none of its impact when you already know its unforgettable ending. A comedy, like much of Spark’s work, but undeniably grim and odd even by her odd standards.

December 31, 2012

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2012

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 9:53 am by John Self

In a year when I reviewed only 21 books (and one short story), you might think that I have a cheek in bothering to whittle them down to the dozen that I liked best. You might think I have even more cheek in still not managing to get it down to twelve. I suppose if it proves anything, it’s that when time is tight, it’s the chaff that gets discarded. I regret having no room for Evan S. Connell’s Mr Bridge. I excluded it only because it depends on its companion volume, Mrs Bridge, for full effect, and the latter has had plenty of attention this year since its reissue by Penguin (and was in my books of the year list in 2010). Mr Bridgewill be reissued in February 2013: go get it.

This list is in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

Nicola Barker: The Yips
“That’s the thing about Barker: nothing can prepare you for her.” Well, sort of. Either this book is less demanding than Barker’s previous ‘big novel’ Darkmans, or I am more attuned to her style now. In either event, I loved this baggy, funny and discomfiting report on a certain thread of modern English life.

Greg Baxter: The Apartment
“A book with a careful – but welcome – distrust of significance.” I raved about Baxter’s previous book, a spiky and shouty series of essays masquerading as a memoir. The Apartment, his first novel, is quieter but no less accomplished. It also contains postmodern elements such as infodumps from websites, secreted within the narrator’s thoughts. Baxter says, “I didn’t want to write a book that was clever. I wanted to write a book that was intense.”

Maeve Brennan: The Springs of Affection
One of the best short story collections I’ve read, though to limit it by that description is wrong. It is in three sections, each section describing a family’s life in Dublin, and it is not a laugh riot. “They have the ring of truth, and they hurt.” Depressingly, if unsurprisingly, this book is currently out of print in the UK.

Simon Crump: My Elvis Blackout
Certainly the strangest book of the year, and one of the few on this list (see also Baxter and Ridgway) that I read twice to appreciate better. It has to be read backwards, in the sense that it is only when it is over that its depths and subtleties are absolutely clear. It is “a mirrorball made of highly polished razor blades.” It is sick, stupid, silly and very sad.

Helen DeWitt: Lightning Rods
This is, perhaps more than any other on the list, an entirely unforgettable book. Voice and subject – a sort of bizarre cliché-driven management-speak, and workplace sex, respectively – are so perfectly attuned that it is entirely sui generis. Like Barker and Crump’s books, it is extremely funny and also utterly serious. It is “sneaky, tendentious and deceptive” – in all the best ways.

A.M. Homes: May We Be Forgiven
This is a great – or almost great – American novel which doesn’t beat its own chest but just gets on with it. Riddled with bizarre and amusing details, and pretty straight beneath its colourful surface, it is “a twisted but loving portrait of a time and a country.”

Joseph Heller: Something Happened
I read this book for the fourth time this year to check if its status as one of my favourite books is still justified. It is. What a bold step to take – and to take a dozen years over – after the success of Catch-22Something Happened is long, brutal, horribly funny (the humour only ever comes from sadness) and surely one of the most remarkable novels published in English in the second half of the twentieth century.

Bruno Jasienski: I Burn Paris
With its hypnotic cover design and obscure (to most of us) author, this screams cult classic. But it should have broader appeal: its tale of a man who poisons the Paris water system seems bang up to date with its satire on cultural division. It is “a mad, hyperbolic performance” and deserves your attention.

Keith Ridgway: Hawthorn & Child
I feel almost embarrassed to include this book. What more can I say about it that I haven’t already? Take the word, then, of the dozens of authors, bloggers and other bookish people who have listed it as one of the books of the year also. These include, intriguingly, Peter Stothard, who was chair of the Man Booker Prize this year (he also listed The Apartment). How close, I now wonder, did Ridgway get to the Booker longlist?

Zadie Smith: NW
Imagine my surprise when Smith’s new novel, problematic in places but enormously impressive, was not received with universal hosannas. This is a novel which “unfolds, like an origami water-lily, and contains multitudes.” I think it is Smith’s best novel by some distance, and it makes me excited to see what such a young writer (i.e. younger than me) does in future.

Enrique Vila-Matas: Dublinesque
A very bookish book, the sort of book I would expect to love, this novel met my expectations and more. As well as being a bran tub of literary inspiration (note to self: reread Ulysses, and finish it this time), it is a work of originality and imagination in its own right. “One of the most pleasurable and joyous novels of the year.”

Robert Walser: Selected Stories
The version of this book that I reviewed is out of print (I bought it years ago), but has been reissued by another publisher. Walser is charming, knowing, naive and mischievous. Everyone who reads him seems to love him. He is also very hard to describe accurately, so do try him for yourself. “The impression is of a writer with nothing to hide, guileless and at once hyperconscious and unaffected.”

Chris Ware: Building Stories
To include this book – this box – in an end-of-year list feels like a rote nod rather than a full-throated roar – who hasn’t? – but its ubiquity has good cause. It’s fantastically rich, seriously beautiful, and, if the books on this list seem to fall into ‘sad’, ‘funny’ and ‘both’, it’s firmly in the former category. “Its subject is, more or less, everything it means to be human.”

December 14, 2011

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2011

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 8:00 am by John Self

As the toad work squats on my life, and infant Self number two squats on my lap, shoulder, and every other free space, this blog has been updated less frequently in 2011 than before. I can’t promise better for the immediate future, but let’s distract ourselves in the meantime with a best-of-the-year selection which I think is as strong as any I’ve posted. One of the advantages of having less time to read and write is that I’m better at choosing which books are likely to delight me most. This list includes only titles I’ve reviewed, so apologetic nods go to fascinating books I never got around to writing about, such as Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work, Julia Leigh’s The Hunter, and James Kelman’s A Disaffection. Sadface too for the absence of books like Adam Mars-Jones’s Cedilla and Edward St Aubyn’s At Last. (No, I didn’t have a no aristos rule.) Oh, another note relating to the squeezing of time this year: more than half of these books have fewer than 160 pages. And yes, I’ve gone over the twelve. I always do.

Richard Beard: Lazarus is Dead
This list is alphabetical by author, but if I had to choose my favourite new book of the year, it would be this one; this one would be it. (Mirroring; that’s a clue, you see.) It ticked all my hard-to-reach boxes, with its straight face, twinkly eye, but untongued cheek. It’s a novel, it’s a biography, it’s a study in fiction and storytelling, and it’s got Jesus. It deserves to be massively popular.

John Burnside: A Summer of Drowning
I had lost my way with John Burnside’s early fiction (in truth, he says that he lost his way with it), but the clamour of praise for his latest novel became impossible to ignore. I read the book just to shut it up. It’s a whispering, creepy, insistent horror story, set in darkest northest Norway, which plays with what artists do and whether it is right or not that “to refuse oneself is exemplary.”

Italo Calvino: Mr Palomar
This was a book I never finished on my first love affair with Calvino 15 or 20 years ago. I now see why: it’s a tricky little thing, the oddest of character studies told in philosophical musings, with beautiful prose (thank you, translator William Weaver) that is not just decorative. It is also as intricate structurally as a Chinese puzzle ball. An Italian puzzle book, then.

Anne Enright: The Forgotten Waltz
I was told this year, with apparent relish, that Enright’s The Gathering was the lowest-selling Booker winner of the last decade. This meaningless factoid (is it even true?) made me want to reread that book, which I know will give up more with every visit. Meanwhile, her new novel is immediately impressive and subversive, with its sly take on a grand universal – adultery – and a pin-sharp portrait of right now: the Irish property crash and financial crisis. This is how good ‘literary fiction’ can be.

Marlen Haushofer: The Loft
Straight from nowhere, drawn to my attention by the translator’s trusted name, comes the quiet, seething story of an Austrian housewife who discovers her old diaries. It is one of those looping, unified narratives that draws the reader in from seemingly innocuous beginnings: “From our bedroom window we can see a tree that we can never seem to agree about…” In a loft in central Europe in the mid-20th century, all human life is here.

Lars Iyer: Spurious
A blog I never got around to reading became a book I couldn’t stop. I’m glad it went that way, in the spirit of Geoff Dyer, who doesn’t read journalism by his favourite writers as it appears, so that he can read it all at once in book form. Spurious is the funniest book I read all year, and follows two frenemies (yep) as they fail entirely to make progress on anything, or even to agree on what form progress might take. “‘Go on, tell me,’ says W., getting excited. ‘How fat are you now?’”

Denis Johnson: Jesus’ Son
This book of stories, due for reissue in the UK by Granta Books in autumn 2012, is linked by its drifting narrator: hyperbleary, all edges, semiconscious through illicit medication. But the writing is as tight as our man is louche, and the book provides a porthole I couldn’t tear myself away from, into a way of life I’d never want to go near. Like Spurious, it’s surprisingly funny – which is the only kind of funny that I like. Listen to Tobias Wolff read the best story, ‘Emergency’, here.

Georges Perec: W or The Memory of Childhood
Perec to me was the arch-trickster of European postmodernism, the homme who put the ‘Ooh!’ into Oulipo. His lipogrammatic novel La Disparition; his jigsaw-puzzle epic Life: A User’s Manual. But Perec reportedly wanted to write one of everything, and when Wikipedia describes this book as “a semi-autobiographical work that is hard to classify,” well, you can say that again. Don’t classify it: read it, with its jocular-sinister parallel world where Olympic ideals reign, and its dual title with one meaning. W is the sort of book which makes you (made me) rush off and buy all the author’s other books that you didn’t have.

Jack Robinson: Days and Nights in W12
Another unclassifiable wonder, written under a pseudonym (what a childish conceit). Above all it’s that rarest of things: a self-published book that is not just readable but essential. (Go on: I challenge you.) Robinson, aka Charles Boyle, brings a magpie eye and a big imagination to scenes of daily life in the streets that surround him, inventing, questioning, enlightening and confusing. It’s plotless, semi-fictional, fragmented, and touched with the brilliance of a man who, if he does know how to write a bad sentence, is keeping it to himself.

Nicholas Royle: Quilt
This novel is a not-quite-seamless blend of an affecting study of grief (a man deals with his father’s death) and an aggressive literary experiment. It, or its narrator, devolves into a sort of madness by the end, obsessed by rays (the flatfish). Then, after the end, there is an thrilling afterword which acts as an attack on complacent literary culture and as a manifesto for books like this. Can I join your club, Professor Royle?

Sjón: From the Mouth of the Whale
Here is a book in a field of its own for sheer eccentricity and oddness – perhaps challenged by Blake Butler’s There Is No Year, which narrowly missed my list. Sjon’s book wins by sheer force of charm and character. I struggled to capture it in my review, when I’d just read it, so the chances of my doing better now are slim. It’s full of enquiry, discovery and intellectual jeux d’esprit in 17th century Iceland. (I know!) Just read it.

Alberto Barrera Tyszka: The Sickness
If there’s a stereotype for the sort of book that appeals to me instinctively, it would be a slim, unflinching novel in translation about an ostensibly gloomy subject matter. How kind, then, of Alberto Barrera Tyszka to write me one. It’s about a doctor who cannot bear to share his father’s cancer diagnosis with him. (So, fathers and sons too: another guaranteed tickler for me these days.) Perhaps as I get even older, I will no longer care to be reminded that life is chaos which ends randomly; but for now, this is just the ticket.

Jiří Weil: Life with a Star
An addition to the great canon of Holocaust literature may not seem urgent, but as this book is 60 years old, I was already rather late to it. (When I wrote my review, it was out of print in the UK, but it will be reissued by Daunt Books in April 2012.) Life with a Star is brimming with irony and pathos, and the blackest humour that helps address the greatest enormities. Fearing extermination by the unnamed oppressor, one man points out, desperately, that the whole population of Earth is going to die anyway, so what does it matter? “That won’t help us,” replies another. “Even if everyone dies, we will be the first.”

Jeanette Winterson: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
It was a joy to return this year to one of my favourite writers, whose invention and boldness even in the well-trodden genre of childhood memoir make every page sparkle and glow. A mature companion piece to Oranges are not the only fruit – and looking likely to match it in popularity – it is a love story, a family story, a comedy, and a call to arms for those who still give a damn about literature. That’s you.

December 22, 2010

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2010

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 9:00 am by John Self

This year’s blogger’s dozen comes from a shorter longlist than usual, since I read fewer books this year than in recent memory, owing to ongoing symptoms of parenthood. My main regret this time is that there are books which could have made it but for the fact that I haven’t reviewed them here (yet), such as Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, which was for its first half at least, the best debut collection of stories I’ve read in years. Or Tim Parks’ Teach Us to Sit Still, a boon and a hazard for the practising hypochondriac. Or Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?, a book of essays which was simultaneously enlightening and reassuring.

The list is in alphabetical order by author. As usual, I have exercised my right to include one more than is strictly proper, because frankly, who gives a damn?

Greg Baxter: A Preparation for Death
I like to think this book would have impressed and delighted me just as much even if I hadn’t approached it with no expectations. I believe it probably would have, not least because it understands and articulates that in the world “it is more agreeable to be in bondage to the superficial [...] than to become imcomprehensible,” and is also aware of its own – of every piece of writing’s – fatal limitations. “A man who wishes to transfer his experience to the page might as well try to throw a typewriter at the moon.”

Thomas Bernhard: Old Masters
For years I had intended to read Thomas Bernhard, and had been fearful of doing so. All the frightening things – the paragraphless pages, the famous ‘rants’ – turned out to be both true and misleading. Old Masters may be entry-level Bernhard, but it could hardly have been a more addictive or joyful experience. I reiterate my recommendation of it here despite the protests of my own sense of ‘art selfishness’.

Karel Čapek: War with the Newts
Another one I’d heard great things about, without ever believing that a 75-year-old book could be so funny, relevant and modern as this one. It’s so nimble that it manages not to fall over its own feet despite the breakneck pace of the satire – satire of capitalist society that covers many bases in many forms, from newspaper journalese to academic discourse.

Daniel Clowes: Wilson
A perfect marriage of content and form, Wilson is as funny as its six-panel cartoon form might suggest, but with exceptional timing and emotional weight added in. Clowes both respects and disrupts the comic strip format, giving us a character who is misanthropic but pathetic, and a book which is like a stiletto hammered into the reader’s heart.

Evan S. Connell: Mrs Bridge
Mrs Bridge has the appearance of a gentle character study, but has ambition in its structure – one hundred brief scenes showing aspects of our heroine in a way that is as quietly devastating as anything Richard Yates wrote. Perhaps there is time, yet, for Connell to become belatedly famous without having to die in penury as Yates did, though someone had better put him back in print in the UK first. “They had started off together to explore something that promised to be wonderful, and, of course, there had been wonderful times. And yet, thought Mrs Bridge, why is that we haven’t — that nothing has — that whatever we — ?”

Christopher Isherwood: A Single Man
A rare re-read for me these days, and this book – widely and rightly regarded as Isherwood’s finest novel – has only improved in the decade or two since I first encountered it. It is a study of one day in the life of one man – and also of how the firings of our consciousness come together in the form of an identity. Who am I? It is also a painful account of 1960s homophobia. “Even when they are geniuses in spite of it, their masterpieces are invariably warped.” I’d rate it warp factor ten.

Tom McCarthy: C
A book which was surrounded by the sort of buzz and static which it contained and described, C was an unusual, teasing, beautifully written novel, difficult to sum up but impossible to get out of your head. Its themes of technology and communication, and their symbiotic relationship with humanity, make it a novel for our blogging, tweeting times, and its literary qualities make it one good reason to mark down the Booker Prize as not yet a complete dead loss.

Bernard Malamud: The Magic Barrel
The Magic Barrel is one of those little masterpieces which has been knocking around for fifty years or so just waiting to be read. It is a sympathetic, harrowing and comic portrayal of the Jewish immigrant experience in America in the 1950s; a world in 150 pages.

Joe Moran: On Roads
Whether or not he’s responsible for the irksome coinage ‘everydayology’, Moran is brilliant at extracting the juice from our daily grind with wit and aplomb. The roads which circle our lives but are unregarded in themselves are a perfect subject matter for him, seasoned with tasty cultural references from Patrick Hamilton to Black Box Recorder. This book untangles a spaghetti junction of social history into a funny and illuminating narrative, a page-by-page pleasure.

Andrew Rawnsley: The End of the Party
This is the only story of New Labour (well, its second and third terms anyway) that anyone could wish for – unless you’re a real glutton for punishment. It gives believable and depressing accounts of all the major crises (if there were any periods of calm between the crises, history has already forgotten them) and provides either a reminder of how difficult government is, or an affirmation of how power corrupts, etc. My review is so detailed that you may not need to read the book afterwards anyway.

Keith Ridgway: The Long Falling
A timely reminder of one of the most talented but least appreciated novelists now working in English, The Long Falling, Ridgway’s debut novel, is less ambitious than his later work, but just as fully achieved. It’s a straight story about a straight society struggling to accommodate challenges to its orthodoxy, and of one woman at a time of crisis. Also read his blog, where he writes about books like Alone in Berlin much better than I do.

Judith Schalansky: Atlas of Remote Islands
A perfect jewel, a work of art, and a work of literature all at once. Atlas of Remote Islands is a high concept, a simple idea, and a frightening challenge to our expectations of atlases as books which connect countries and make the world a smaller place. This atlas defamiliarises and isolates, in the most bracing and stimulating manner. When I wrote my blog post, Schalansky’s book had had no coverage in the mainstream press; now expert reviews like this one show my own effort as sadly surface-literalist. So read it instead, but more importantly, read the book.

Bruno Schulz: The Street of Crocodiles
My thirteenth choice tips the balance of this list in favour of old books rather than new ones. And this is the oldest of them all (just about) and the strangest (for sure). Schulz’s florid, flighty prose feels like a new way of looking at the world, and expands in imaginative fancy even as its subject matter closes in on streets and rooms and members of a family. Sorry to make this a theme, but once again the mainstream press proves much better than I am at explaining why Schulz is so good. So start here.

December 21, 2009

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2009

Posted in Aira César, Coetzee J.M., Crump Simon, Davis L.J., Fallada Hans, Maupassant Guy de, McKay Susan, Solstad Dag, Uncategorized, Wander Fred, Wilcken Hugo, Williams John tagged at 8:35 am by John Self

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.

October 29, 2009

“Enough of that. And of this.”

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:00 am by John Self

The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and the heart showing themselves in the minute, strange and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print – the love which had to be hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, at first tentatively, and then boldly, and then proudly.

- John Williams, Stoner

Asylum is taking a break.  My sincere thanks to everyone who has read and commented over the last three years.

Seeking asylum

January 16, 2009

Planned Engineering Works

Posted in Uncategorized at 3:19 pm by John Self

We interrupt this blog to bring you a personal announcement

Due to circumstances not entirely beyond my control, Asylum will be operating a reduced service for the foreseeable future.  This is because I expect to become a father in the next couple of weeks.  While some bloggers have been able to maintain a healthy posting schedule with a new baby on hand, I am not so confident, and tend to heed those who greet the news of impending fatherhood with phrases such as “no more reading for you, then,” “say goodbye to your old life,” and “ha ha ha ha”.

books do furnish a room

Presently I don’t know how adjustment to my new life will affect this blog.  It may continue as normal, with less frequent posts, or shorter posts (if I have time to make them shorter).  It may stop altogether.  In the meantime, I am planning ahead and have scheduled some content for the coming months, including early (or at least punctual) reviews of new novels from Geoff Dyer and Colm Tóibín, reissues from Penguin Modern Classics of books by John Christopher and Eric Ambler, and one or two interviews with authors I’ve praised here recently.

Thank you for listening.  I now have to go and laminate my paperbacks.

December 28, 2008

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2008

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 8:00 am by John Self

A slightly different approach to this space-filler essential roundup this year. My aim is to try to shine a pencil torch of attention on books that might otherwise be overlooked, whether old books deserving new attention, new books which lost out to undeserving rivals in prize lists, or titles that might be left to languish in genre hell. So I’ll be leaving out the bigger names: no Philip Roth (even though his Patrimony and The Prague Orgy would easily have qualified) or James Kelman (whose extraordinary How Late It Was, How Late hardly needs my imprimatur, fourteen years and a Booker Prize later). My guiding principle has been to pick the books which have stayed with me most strongly this year, even if they weren’t the ones I immediately loved at the time. I’m also detecting in myself a growing taste for books which aren’t quite as neat and clear as the ones I typically favour, so no Patrick McGrath (Trauma) or David Park (The Truth Commissioner), even though I loved both. It seems with this introduction that I am gradually working my list up into the twenties, so I’ll say no more. The list below is in alphabetical order by author and is not ranked. And yes, there are thirteen. Sorry, couldn’t cut it any further.

Andrew Crumey, Sputnik Caledonia : “gives a new dimension to Crumey’s writing: this master of making our heads spin has found out how to hit the heart.”

Geoff Dyer, The Missing of the Somme : “a substantial book despite its page count … the ‘narrative’ looks meandering or random but in fact is highly wrought and tightly structured.”

Damon Galgut, The Impostor : “a magnificent achievement … feel free to picture me sighing and smiling in pleasure at the mere memory of it as I type this.”

Patrick Hamilton, Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky : “all the mystery, beauty, grotesquerie, humour, sadness and terror you could wish for, all in a perfect minor key.”

W.F. Hermans, Beyond Sleep : “a rich and strange book … both funny and deeply serious: it has that odd combination of weighty themes and borderline slapstick humour that we (or I) only see in fiction in translation.”

Imre Kertesz, The Pathseeker : “both nebulous and forceful, obstructive and direct, which leaves room for the reader’s own responses while directing them artfully along Kertész’s chosen path.”

Emanuel Litvinoff, Journey Through a Small Planet : “the very essence of what publishers of ‘modern classics’ should be doing … gives me hope for mainstream publishing.”

Bernard Malamud, The Assistant : “He writes … with an agility that gives pleasure akin to humour even when it isn’t actually funny. And it isn’t funny: what happens to these people is mostly terrible. But oh my, it’s thrilling to read it.”

Adam Mars-Jones, Pilcrow : “an odd book, an extraordinary one in many ways [with] peaks of brilliant wit.”

Patrik Ourednik, Europeana : “hypnotic, dizzying, funny and disturbing … a book which should appeal to – and surprise – almost anyone who goes near it.”

Cynthia Ozick, The Shawl : “pitched perfectly from start to finish … [proves] that a great writer can mine new things from the most heavily-subscribed of topics.” (See also The Puttermesser Papers)

Richard Price, Lush Life : “seems entirely miraculous … I fell for the reviewerly cliché of really wanting the book to last much longer than it did, so I could remain in this immaculately created and fully imagined world for as long as possible.”

Tobias Wolff, Our Story Begins : “there really is more brains, heart and soul in one story by Tobias Wolff – in one page – than some of this year’s Booker longlisters manage in their entire length.”

Please share your own favourites of the year below.

October 29, 2008

Hjalmar Söderberg: Doctor Glas

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:00 am by John Self

I saw Hjalmar Söderberg’s novel Doctor Glas on display as a staff recommendation in a provincial bookstore – the sort of shop where otherwise it’s wall-to-wall 3-for-2s – and I was so surprised that I bought it, just to encourage them. Here in the UK, it remains available only in hardback, which seems a shame; then again, as it’s been reprinted five times in five years in this pricey format, the publishers (the redoubtable Harvill) must know what they’re doing. The cover suggests an imminent screen adaptation starring Kirsten Dunst.

Doctor Glas is over a century old – published in Sweden in 1905 – but shows no signs of its age. What it does show is perfect attention to detail and judgement by its author, beginning with the structure: the story spans a long summer into autumn, opening with oppressive sun (“A sultry heat-wave since mid-May. All day a thick cloud of dust hangs unmoving over streets and market-places”) and closing with the relief of imminent snow (“It will be welcome. Let it come. Let it fall”).

In between, our eponymous narrator, a Stockholm physician, creates a stifling atmosphere from the outpourings of his feverish mind. It demands release. The object of his passion is the wife of the local clergyman, Gregorius; but what, we wonder, does he really know about such things?

I feel as if at this moment no one in the world is lonelier than I – I, Tyko Gabriel Glas, doctor of medicine, who at times help others, but have never been able to help myself, and who, at past thirty years of age, have never been near a woman.

The problem is that “not till late did my senses awaken and by then my will was already a man’s,” suggesting a developmental disturbance in Glas’s emotional maturity. This passion born of ignorance becomes an obsession with Glas, so that as early as page 5, he is declaring that “if, by pressing a button in the wall, I could kill that clergyman, I do believe I should do it.” Even so, he has enough self-awareness to see that what really drives him (and, he believes, almost everything else in the world) “isn’t love. It’s the dream of love.”

As he struggles with his own desires, Glas is exercising a godly power over his patients (“human life, it swarms around us on every hand”), such as when refusing a local woman an abortion. In fact Doctor Glas was initially controversial on publication one hundred years ago, viewed as promoting abortion and euthanasia, probably through passages like this:

The day will come, must come, when the right to die is recognised as far more important and inalienable a human right than the right to drop a voting ticket into a ballot box. And when that time is ripe, every incurably sick person – and every “criminal” also – shall have the right to the doctor’s help, if he wishes to be set free.

In fact it seems to me that here, Glas is both expressing his own interest in that right, and indulging in a little projection in order to justify his murderous feelings toward Gregorius. The clergyman’s wife has secured Dr Glas’s complicity in telling her husband that he must not exercise his conjugal rights (he diagnoses separate bedrooms for at least six months), but Glas is horrified and envious to discover that she has a young lover. “Life, I do not understand you,” is his refrain.

Glas is a tremendous creation, primed full of angst and misanthropy, and then set running by his torrid feelings of hatred, envy and lust. Just as he struggles to distinguish duty from desire, his moral responses are so muddled that he revels in any heightened emotion, not distinguishing good from bad. When he carries out a terrible act,

I feel light, empty, like a blown egg. … And I had to ask myself: What you’ve done today – is that all there has been inside you, is nothing left? … I felt no guilt. There is no guilt. The shiver I felt was the same as I sometimes feel from great and serious music, or very solitary and elevated thoughts.

Thoughts are what drive Dr Glas, for good or ill. “Thought is an acid, eating us away,” he observes, as his long summer nears its end. Then again, if there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so, we must wonder why all Dr Glas’s thoughts turn in one direction, and to what extent he is in control of his thoughts and desires, and to what extent they control him. If all thought is corrosive, just as all heightened sensation justifies itself, then there is a pattern of absolutism in Dr Glas’s thinking, which leads only to tragedy for him and those whose trust he holds.

We want to be loved; failing that, admired; failing that, feared; failing that, hated and despised. At all costs we want to stir up some sort of feeling in others. Our soul abhors a vacuum. At all costs it longs for contact.

Doctor Glas, regarded as Söderberg’s masterpiece, has inspired two other novels that I know of. Bengt Ohlsson’s novel Gregorius (2004) was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award and tells the ‘backstory’ of Glas’s rival. Dannie Abse’s novel The Strange Case of Dr Simmonds and Dr Glas (longlisted for the Booker Prize, 2002) has a protagonist in a similar situation to Dr Glas, who is inspired by Söderberg’s book. I hope to read the latter soon.

December 11, 2007

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2007

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 2:10 pm by John Self

This seems like a good time to recap on the first year of this blog, and give a few pointers to anyone wading through it looking for something interesting to read.

Please feel free to share your own read(s) of the year in the comment box below.

Light Years

1. James Salter: Light Years. “So relentlessly seductive … that each time I returned to it I felt like a teenage suitor: giggling, nervous, hot-faced with intimidation.”

2. Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown. “A typically dense multicultural circus, written with verve and vivacity. … Like an eight hundred page book squeezed to half the size.”

3. Indra Sinha, Animal’s People. “A meaty, joyful, feast of a novel, filled with violence, energy and humour.”

4. Brian Moore, The Emperor of Ice Cream. “A perfect amalgam of multi-faceted subject and unfussy form, keeping numerous plates spinning at once. … Elevates Moore into the twentieth century greats.”

5. Warwick Collins, Gents. “Brings a Fetherlite touch to thoughts of sin, racism, prejudice, family, society and sex. Punches so far above its weight that it will effortlessly knock you out.”

6. Patrick Hamilton, The Slaves of Solitude. “Pretty much flawless … Simultaneously horrible, very funny and eventually highly involving.”

7. Peter Ho Davies, The Welsh Girl. “A slow burn triumph … has all the qualities necessary to make it a sure fire modern classic.”

8. Philip Roth, Exit Ghost. “A filling and mature book … elegiac and moving.”

9. Jill Dawson, Watch Me Disappear. “A quite fascinating and subtly horrifying story of girlhood and sex … makes thrusting three-dimensional life from the black-and-white page.”

10. Gore Vidal, Point to Point Navigation. “If it doesn’t move you to weeping then you should have your tear ducts checked by a qualified professional. … A perfect valediction for Vidal.”

11. Stefan Zweig, Twilight/Moonbeam Alley. “Bleak and ironic … one of the finest stories I have ever read.”

12. Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods. “Fits so much into 200 pages that I kept checking back to make sure the book was numbered properly.”

Which leaves no room for Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, Gerard Woodward’s I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer, Charlotte Mendelson’s When We Were Bad, or J.R. Ackerley’s We Think the World of You

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