Click here to read my review in the Irish Times of Yuko Tsushima’s novel Territory of Light, translated by Geraldine Harcourt and published by Penguin Classics.
Click here to read my review in the Irish Times of Yuko Tsushima’s novel Territory of Light, translated by Geraldine Harcourt and published by Penguin Classics.
Now here is a book cover to arrest the browser’s fickle gaze, with an elegant and beautiful balance of text, image and abstract colour. And it’s not a one-off, but part of a series design – Penguin European Writers – with titles by Cesare Pavese and Violette Leduc coming later this year. For the paper-fetishists among us, it’s a fine book-handling experience too, with flapped covers, slim format and printed on untreated card. And – I almost forgot – it’s one of the strangest and best books I’ve read this year.
If I had to sum up Death in Spring (1986; tr. 2009 by Martha Tennent) with one line from the book, it would be the sentence that opens a chapter midway through: “When they pulled the boy from the river, he was dead; they returned him to the river.” This is a book full of reverses, balances and contradictions, that is entirely unexpected and repeatedly surprising. It tells of man against nature, where nature always wins because man is an interloper, a corrupted part of nature. The first page has the narrator, an unnamed fourteen-year-old boy, bathing in a river, and immediately the language pinpoints where the power lies. “…the mass of water descending from the mountains … All the waters joined together in the delirium of joining and flowed endlessly…” If the river doesn’t kill, it can leave a man with his face “ripped away when the desperate water hurled him against the rocks that supported the village.” And it’s not just the water: when young men try to collect powder to make paint for the village houses, the wind blows, “telling us that ours was a senseless job, something that was better left undone.” Even plants are in on it: “the strong wisteria vines, the wisteria that over the years upwrenched houses.”
We don’t know where the book is set, and although Rodoreda was Catalan, the setting has a more far-flung feel to it. Indeed, this is not a novel of the world we know at all, as we learn a few chapters in when the narrator’s father opens up a tree by carving a cross into it, then closes himself into the tree to die (though his death has a further stage to go, more grotesque still). It is fully loaded with sensory detail and often has the feel, cruelty and horror of a good fairy tale. “The village was born from the earth’s terrible unrest.” Bees, plants and worms are all malevolent, though they can suffer too in ironic flourishes: “In the fountain little worms curled and uncurled, rapidly. If they entered a person’s body, they burrowed through bones, veins and skin in order to escape. As soon as they broke the surface, they died, because they could not live without water.”
Death in Spring is not – it may go without saying at this stage – a book with a straightforward plot. There are recurring characters – the narrator’s stepmother, a blacksmith and his child, a prisoner, a village elder known as Senyor – and episodes of vivid action, but it is episodic and the book’s effect is not of a line following a path, but of a mood cloud. Colm Tóibín in his introduction does not attempt to explain the book in a traditional sense, and one Amazon reviewer notes that the happy reader must “curb any tendency to gain dominion over the narrative.” That is one way of putting it. In a sense the book doesn’t even have a beginning or ending, as the clear implication is that the narrator will end up as his father did, and that the cycle of life and death with continue. “Things don’t die. They continue. They pass from one to another.” Speaking out against the propagation of life late in the book is Senyor, in an extraordinary monologue:
That’s what kept me alive, never stopping, never stopping, one woman after another, always preferring the other one. I didn’t know then what was inside a man, and when I discovered, I wanted to die. […] Spring is sad, in spring all the world is ill, plants and flowers are the earth’s plague, rotten. The earth would be calmer if it were green-less, without this fury, this blind will that consumes everything but craves more, the affliction of the green, so much greenness and poisonous colour.
It is a book full of anger, horror and disgust but also of beauty in the vivid language and imaginative energy that explodes on every page. It is a bold choice to open the Penguin European Writers series and entirely unlike the nostalgic tale of love in sunny piazzas suggested by the cover image. It was published three years after Rodoreda’s death but in no sense does Death in Spring read like scraps from the writer’s drawer. It is clearly a fully realised work of art, an expression of vision, and entirely sui generis. It is, as the narrator describes a mountain spring, “something alive that I couldn’t understand”, and which is impossible to forget.
Three years ago, Penguin hit paydirt with its Little Black Classics range: short, pocket-sized slices of work from the authors in its Classics imprint, at 80p a pop, to celebrate 80 years of Penguin Books. It wasn’t a new idea: they did it before in 1995 (with the Penguin 60s, with both contemporary and classic authors), in 2005 (with the Pocket Penguin 70s – no, not those Pocket Penguins – containing old and new writing by Penguin authors) and in 2011, to celebrate 60 years of Penguin Modern Classics (with the Mini Modern Classics). And here is another set, 50 slim selections from the Modern Classics range, branded laconically as Penguin Modern.
It seems that Penguin has learned from the sales for Little Black Classics (more than two million in the first year) to put the books at an irresistible price point. The Mini Modern Classics were overpriced at £3 each: these are a pound. As with the previous sets, the list is well-curated in that almost every volume contains self-contained work: one or two stories or essays, typically. To me that matters because I can hold in my hand a slim volume and say “this is Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’!” and because there’s something dingy and disrespectful about abridging longer pieces to fit this length (they’re all around 64 pages). That’s why I had no interest in last year’s Vintage Minis, which got it horribly wrong by mostly being samplers of larger books (Heller’s masterpiece Something Happened reduced to 100 pages!), except when they got it horribly wronger by using complete texts but renaming them (so Huxley’s The Doors of Perception became Psychedelics, and Styron’s Darkness Visible became Depression).
So what’s the purpose of the new Penguin Modern list? Well, it ties in with the new eau-de-nil look for Penguin Modern Classics (readers of an age with me will remember this as the signature colour for Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics in the 1990s, the list from which I first read the likes of Fitzgerald, Greene, Woolf and Waugh). If there’s an anniversary to mark this time around, I’m unaware of it. But the press for the series says it’s about capturing the “pioneering spirit” of Penguin Modern Classics. Certainly if you compare this list to the 2011 Mini Modern Classics, it’s less mainstream – and even those authors whose names are more familiar than your own toothbrush are at the radical end of the literary establishment (Borges, Kafka, Beckett). The sources are a little more diverse too: last time we had 11 women out of 50, this time it’s 17; then there were 3 books by non-white authors, now there are 7; and the number of books in translation has risen from 11 to 19.
The other purpose, for the reader, is to try authors you might otherwise not have wanted to shell out a tenner on, or would never have had the stamina to tackle at full length. The latter is certainly my experience: like the much-missed KevinfromCanada, I prefer to read books, not parts of books, so whereas I’ve had Sontag’s Against Interpretation on my shelves for years, awaiting retirement or empty nest syndrome or some other factor that will give me the time and intellectual room to tackle it, I can read ‘Notes on “Camp”‘ in this new series in one gulp. For me, some of the titles here were a chance to revisit authors I’d read in my youth but never since, so I was reminded how playful and approachable Borges’s stories are, even through their intellectual rigour: the outward simplicity of ‘The Book of Sand’ and its “monstrous” infinite volume, or the spy story structure of ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’ and its exploration of time and futures: “The author of an atrocious undertaking ought to imagine that he has already accomplished it, ought to impose upon himself a future as irrevocable as the past.”
For some of the familiar authors here, the material is ‘new’; for example I was pleased that James Baldwin’s Dark Days contains three short, late essays not available in the current Penguin collections, Notes of a Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name. Baldwin is always good value, and his writing often has the cadences of oratory, a consequence of his time as a child preacher, with all the repetition that that entails:
Not one of us – black or white – knows how to walk when we get here. Not one of us knows how to open a window, unlock a door. Not one of us can master a staircase. We are absolutely ignorant of the almost certain results of falling out of a five-storey window. Not one of us comes here knowing enough not to play with fire. Nor can one of us drive a tank, fly a jet, hurl a bomb, or plant a tree.
We must be taught all that. We have to learn all that. The irreducible price of learning is realising that you do not know. One may go further and point out – as any scientist, or artist, will tell you – that the more you learn, the less you know; but that means you have begun to accept, and are even able to rejoice in, the relentless conundrum of your life.
In these essays it’s easy to see Baldwin’s influence on Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose We Were Eight Years in Power was one of the best books I read last year. Here’s Baldwin in the final essay, ‘The White Man’s Guilt’:
I have known many black men and women and black boys and girls who really believed it was better to be white than black, whose lives were ruined or ended by this belief; and I, myself, carried the seeds of this destruction within me for a long time.
What about the authors I didn’t already know? I liked Yuko Tsushima’s stories in Of Dogs and Walls (the title story taking its inspiration from Marcel Aymé’s The Man Who Walked Through Walls). Both are hybrid pieces, which start in one way – gentle, familial, pastoral even – and become much sharper and tougher. Tsushima is one of the writers here who isn’t actually in Penguin Modern Classics yet: her novel Territory of Light is published in English for the first time in April, and this is the first translation of these stories too. Something to look forward to.
Also new to Penguin is prolific Nigerian Igbo writer Cyprian Ekwensi. “Five decades or more of writing have brought me world fame but not fortune,” he said in 1999. “If I were an American living in America or Europe, I would be floating in a foam bath in my own private yacht off the coast of Florida.” Penguin will reissue his most popular novel Jagua Nana later this year, and his contribution to this series is a standalone story first published in 1966. ‘Glittering City’ shows us the life and times – and women – of Fussy Joe, a musician and chancer in Lagos, a “bed-bug of a man” according to one of those women, who “didn’t seem to have one serious thought in his life,” and whose “interest in any girl became more intense if he knew that she was engaged to a good friend of his.” Of course such luck cannot last long. Even when the ending turns sober, though, Ekwensi’s telling never loses its liveliness, and that lack of fortune he bemoaned seems truly unjust.
One of the most interesting of the titles I read is Wendell Berry’s Why I am Not Going to Buy a Computer, which starts with the very short title piece from Harper’s Magazine where the farmer and prolific novelist, ecological essayist and poet explains why he doesn’t want a word processor. Not having a computer in 1987 was a less notable stance than it is now, and the piece would hardly be worth mentioning if it wasn’t for the way Berry gets his dander up in response to readers’ letters to Harper’s after the piece appeared. Most of the readers are good-humoured in their letters, whereas Berry’s response is frankly, as Marge Gunderson would put it, snippy. Even worse, the other essay here, ‘Feminism, the Body and the Machine’, from two years later, begins: “Some time ago, Harper’s reprinted a short essay of mine in which I gave some of my reasons for refusing to buy a computer…”
Oh Wendell! Let it go! But he’s back, with more points to make after stewing on it for a couple of years. In fact this piece is much more interesting and wider-ranging than the first, though sets standards for others no less unrealistic (“I do not believe that ’employment outside the home’ is as valuable or important or satisfying as employment at home, for either men or women”, which is easy for you to say if you’ve got your own farmland and a hotline to Harper’s). He does admit that “one cannot construct an adequate public defence of a private life” and, as the essay moves from thought to thought, his anti-consumerist rhetoric and warnings about technology “replac[ing] ourselves” sound more timely now than ever. He acknowledges that even he cannot live as he recommends, and when he writes “I still fly on aeroplanes” despite them being “inconvenient, uncomfortable, undependable, ugly, stinky and scary,” it’s hard not to wonder if, writing a year after even Margaret Thatcher was warning of the perils of climate change, he isn’t overlooking a more obvious problem with air travel. He does write very engagingly, however, and I was driven to find an interview with Berry from 2012, where – for what this is worth in a writer – he comes across as much more human than he does here, and with greater understanding of how his lifestyle won’t work for most (“Don’t do it”). Oh, and these days “I do have a bit of commerce with a computer that belongs to a friend of mine, who does a lot of my typing for me.”
Similarly uncompromising is Audre Lorde, who has a handful of short pieces, mostly originating as lectures, collected in The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House. (All are taken from Silver Press’s recent publication Your Silence Will Not Protect You, ahead of the Penguin reissue of her ‘biomythography’ Zami later this year.) Lorde, who described herself as a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” makes it clear from the start that she is speaking to us from outside the establishment, with her self-definition of poetry as
the revelation of distillation of experience, not the sterile word-play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean – in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.
As a white father myself, I’d say sterility is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s no more fruitful to attack – who did she mean? – Eliot, say, than it is to denigrate the poetry of Rupi Kaur to those who love it. But she packs a punch on the value of poetry, however you define it. “Poetry is the way we give name to the nameless so it can be thought.” Or, later: “Right now, I could name at least ten ideas I would have found intolerable or incomprehensible or frightening, except as they came after dreams and poems.” Elsewhere, in the title essay, she is an early proponent of intersectionality. “It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences, and without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians.” She ends with Simone de Beauvoir: “It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.”
This Penguin Modern series overall gives Penguin an opportunity to recast the character of its Modern Classics range. It’s a list which has traditionally been dominated by early-20C English language writers – the Woolfs and Fitzgeralds, Greenes and Waughs I mentioned earlier – and even now, when you search the list by ‘Relevance’ on Penguin’s website, top hits are the likes of George Orwell, James Joyce and Kingsley Amis. But in recent years it has expanded into more crime, more SF and more diverse voices, which has worked only because the quality of the writing has always been paramount. (And then there’s John Christopher.) These 50 mini-books strongly foreground the newer stuff, with only a few traditional Modern Classics authors: Steinbeck, Nabokov, Bellow … and Orwell.
A word about the cover designs for this series. The typeface is Avant Garde, named after the New York magazine for which it was created, and it comes with numerous bespoke and playful ligatures to join certain letter combinations, which the Penguin design team has made full use of – adding, I suppose, to the air of radicalism the series seeks to project. When I first saw these designs in the Penguin catalogue last year, I hated them. Now I love them. And that is why I will never be a designer.
Click on the link below to read my review in the Irish Times of Zadie Smith’s second collection of essays, Feel Free. My review was edited for length, so I’ve included the original opening paragraph below:
A few years ago, Zadie Smith reviewed a collection of Geoff Dyer’s essays for Harper’s magazine, and praised his “tone. Its simplicity, its classlessness, its accessibility and yet its erudition – the combination is a trick few British writers ever pull off.” Whether Smith was hoping that one day someone would say the same of her, who knows – but here it is. These are exactly the qualities that make her second collection of essays, Feel Free, so valuable. She even, like Dyer, manages to make travel writing not boring.
Here is a book whose fearsome reputation precedes it – or should I say (spoiler alert) exceeds it? Berlin Alexanderplatz is a monument of modern German literature and, more prominently to me, a byword for fat unreadability. It’s not clear whether this is because of intrinsic qualities in the book itself, or the widely disliked first English translation by Eugene Jolas. The book is a running joke in Ned Beauman’s novel The Teleportation Accident, where the ‘hero’ Egon Loeser has been trying to read it for 30 years:
About a year earlier, he had taken a slow train to Cologne to visit his great aunt, and on the journey he had deliberately brought nothing to read but Berlin Alexanderplatz, on the basis that after six hours either he would have finished the book or the book would have finished him. He lasted one stop before turning to the other man in the carriage and saying, ‘I will give you fifty-seven marks, which is everything I have in my wallet, for that novel you’re reading.’
‘Don’t you care what it is?’
‘Is it by any chance Berlin Alexanderplatz?’ said Loeser.
‘Then I don’t care what it is.’
Six hours was an optimistic estimate by Loeser – it took me over a week to complete it – but otherwise he was unnecessarily gloomy. In this new translation by Michael Hofmann, Berlin Alexanderplatz is not at all difficult and rarely daunting, except in its length.
Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929) was originally subtitled The Story of Franz Biberkopf, at the insistence of Döblin’s publisher Samuel Fischer, for whom (writes Hofmann in an excellent afterword) “‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’ was the name of a railway stop, not the title of a book.” The subtitle is dropped in this new edition, but if another were to be added, I suggest The City. Just as Melville called his most famous novel Moby-Dick, or, The Whale, because it sought to reduce the entire concept of the whale to writing (though ‘reduce’ is probably not the word), so Döblin does the same not just for Berlin, but the modern city in general. Berlin Alexanderplatz is Europe’s Moby-Dick, a work of unified force whose story is intercut with advertising slogans, court reports, and all manner of found materials whose inclusion has the intended effect: it makes for a book as busy as the city.
The story of Franz Biberkopf (‘beaverhead’) is simple enough. At the start of the book, it’s the beginning of 1928 and Franz has just been released from prison, and immediately we see Döblin’s casual, reflexive style: “The awful moment was at hand (awful, why so awful, Franz?), his four years were up.” It’s awful because freedom is its own punishment, away from the routine and certainties of prison: now, terrifyingly, Franz is once again responsible for his own fate. He does try to go straight, initially through working in trade, selling laces door to door but with ambitions for more (“why not be the man to introduce garden statuary into small towns?”), but we are high in the Weimar republic, and the economic outlook is not favourable (“one and a half million unemployed, up by 226,000 in a fortnight”). It’s inevitable, then, that Franz finds himself falling in with a gang of crooks (“do I run, do I not run, what do I do”), whose company defines him for the rest of the book, through a car accident with dramatic consequences, to his involvement with a string of women – Lena, Eva, Cilly, Sonia (or is it Mitzi?) – none of whom he treats well, to say the least. But here he has – literally – form, as his prison sentence in the first place was for the manslaughter of his girlfriend Ida, to whose killing we get a flashback, in a depersonalising style that George Saunders might have been inspired by:
It only remains to list the further consequences of the process thus initiated: loss of verticality on the part of Ida, reversion to the horizontal, in the form of colossal impact, at the same time as breathing difficulties, intense pain, shock and psychological loss of balance.
Not that anyone else gets off lightly either. Part of the aim of Berlin Alexanderplatz seems to be to show how a great city can be terrible for so many of the people who live in it. To illustrate this, Döblin’s focus, apart from an ironic expression of concern for the impact that inflation is having on the middle classes, is on the down-at-heel and the down-and-out, the occupants of seedy bars and apartment blocks. The story at times threads through the floors of a building, passes from one consciousness to another, reading correspondence, eavesdropping in a pile-up of chaotic set pieces.
Yes, all human life is here, and not just human, as the glamourless locations include the local slaughterhouse (“courts of justice for the beasts”), which is portrayed in a loving four-page description. If Döblin gives the animals here as much attention as he does his humans elsewhere, it’s only to emphasise that the mass of the people in this economically stratified, still war-wrecked country are no better off than the “dear piggies” on their way to market. The ironic and amused tone Döblin adopts here (“We have come to the end of physiology and theology, this is where physics begins”) is common throughout the book, as he peeks out from behind the curtain – look! I am writing a novel! – and this is never better expressed than in the sub-chapter headings:
Markets opening directionless, gradually drifting lower, Hamburg out of bed the wrong side, London continuing weak
Victory all along the line! Franz Biberkopf buys a veal escalope
Keep your eyes on Karl the plumber: something’s going on with him
Reinhold’s Black Wednesday – but this section can be skipped
All in all, Hofmann’s casual style suits the looseness of the narrative (“the book contains a great deal that is simply there for its own sake” he writes in the afterword) pretty well. One of the difficulties for the translator of Berlin Alexanderplatz is the supposedly untranslatable idiomatic language of working-class Berlin, for which Hofmann says he has chosen what fellow German translator Anthea Bell calls “the regional unspecific,” though to me it seemed more directed than that, usually toward British speech (bunch a flars, nothink, facking, even leave it aht), though I suppose if you’re going to settle on a vernacular rendering, European English makes more sense than American. (In the second English translation, by Anne Thompson, northern English dialect was used.)
Berlin Alexanderplatz was a bestseller in its time, so much so that Döblin regretted the shadow it cast over his other work, but for years has been only patchily available in English. This Penguin Classics edition (the same translation is being released in the US by NYRB Classics) is part of a new look reserved for, I think, first publications and significant new translations, presumably to be followed in due course with a standard black Classics or Modern Classics paperback. The covers are colour-coded to indicate the original language, as with the Pocket Penguins series (olive here for German). The rough card covers and spartan design seem to communicate seriousness and significance, like a brown road sign that directs drivers to a destination that’s good for you. That gives it more the daunting quality of black Penguin Classics than the approachable coolness (to me, anyway) of Penguin Modern Classics. Probably either look would be suitable, for a book that is at heart both seriously significant and a great deal of fun.
A few years ago, I had a discussion with someone who said they never re-read books. This seemed to me a wild claim. Re-reading is, to me, an essential component of reading: I might even say that the first reading of a book is only ever a provisional act, a test to determine whether it is fit to be retained for a future revisit, when I’ll take my time over it and give it the reading it deserves. In practice, because I am fully engaged in this first-level sifting, the re-reading almost never happens, an effect enhanced by the usual drains on reading time (see blog posts passim).
Re-reading might be done for comfort reasons: I know people who read an old favourite each year, particularly favourites from adolescence or early adulthood. For me I’m more likely to re-read if, despite having read the book before, perhaps multiple times, it’s one that I’ve never got to the bottom of. Examples – books I’ve read at least three times each – would include Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry, with its classic Wintersonian ‘spiral’ narrative, and Patrick McGrath’s Dr Haggard’s Disease, with its impeccable narrative mysteries.
This month I read another book for a third time. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (1963, tr. Elizabeth Rokkan 1993) was previously published by Peter Owen, one of the first and finest internationalist independent publishers in the UK, which I wrote about here. Now, in a
raid on deal for its backlist, Penguin has reissued some Peter Owen titles in its Modern Classics range. (That, of course, is another common trigger for me to re-read a book: Penguin has given it a handsome new look.) That cover image, by the way – a perfect complement both to the book and to Penguin’s new eau de nil look for its Modern Classics – is by Taiwanese artist Hsiao-Ron Cheng.
The Ice Palace is about two young women – children, in fact, at 11 years old, though this is easily forgotten – who have a strange connection and who are brought together, and separated, by a mysterious crystalline ice structure in the Norwegian fjords. There is no sentimentality or neat resolution, no happy ending: it is the anti-Frozen. A close comparison might be made with Adalbert Stifter’s Rock Crystal, which shares with The Ice Palace its brevity, a sense of inchoate threat, and a fairytale atmosphere, though The Ice Palace remains much more uncompromising and bold. The two girls are Siss and Unn, opposing monosyllables, who have come to know one another in school, and at the beginning of the book are going to spend the afternoon together for the first time. Siss, in whose head we remain for most of the book, feels both excitement and fear, is “quivering with expectancy.” There’s an uncomfortable, nascent sexual feel to their history of becoming aware of one another at school. “They were both playing some game of enticement.” Siss, aware of Unn’s eyes on her in class, feels “a peculiar tingling in her body. She liked it so much she scarcely bothered to hide it.”
When Siss reaches Unn’s house the atmosphere is turned up to eleven, and the scene where they sit together in Unn’s bedroom is so highly charged that the pages crackle. Everything is suggested and implied, but nothing stated, even in their elliptical dialogue. (“There’s something I want to tell you. I’ve never said it to anyone.” “Would you have said it to your mother?” “No.” “Will you say it now?” “No.”) Eventually the evening, the encounter, ends, Siss runs home and the girls are separated. We are still less than 30 pages into the book but already I feel constrained from discussing more of the plot – even in re-reading, there are many surprises and turns here that it would be unfair to disclose.
There is one chapter from Unn’s point of view, which is central to the book. Partly this is because it introduces us to the ice palace of the title, with a heady line in singing, ringing prose:
From here the ice walls seemed to touch the sky; they grew as she thought about them. She was intoxicated. The place was full of wings and turrets, how many it was impossible to say. The water had made it swell in all directions, and the main waterfall plunged down in the middle, keeping a space clear for itself.
But it is also key because it’s so hard to tell the difference between this chapter, featuring Unn, and the previous ones featuring Siss. The two are represented like two halves of one body, with all the questions that arise from that: how do they depend on one another? What happens if they are separated?
What follows Unn’s visit to the ice palace is a narrative that in some ways is traditional – a mystery, a quest, suspense – but doesn’t follow any pattern we are familiar with. There is plenty about the close-knit community of village life in Norway, with all the balance of support and oppression that that implies, and one of the beauties of the book is the rural warmth even in chapter titles – “Snow covered bridges”, “woodwind players” – which provide a haiku-ish quality (“like the water drop and the twig”) and a reassuring warmth amid a coolly threatening story. There is real force in the sober beauty of lines like these, when Unn’s aunt and Siss say goodbye for the last time:
They were floating, almost at one with the darkness, reflecting no light. Their footsteps could not be heard. But their breathing could, and perhaps the heart. They mingled with other almost nocturnal stirrings, like a small vibration in long wires.
The language in The Ice Palace is perfectly clear, but it resists straightforward interpretation. I’ll resist the obvious iceberg comparisons, but the style is ice-like in being simultaneously translucent and opaque. Sadly there is no introduction or other supplementary material in this new edition, which is exactly what a troubling text like this needs. We can turn, though, to Doris Lessing’s review when the book was first published in English, which is valuable particularly for its discussion of the community in which Versaas lived his whole life, and how the book must be seen in this context. Robert Macfarlane is a fan too (“it dazzled me with its discretion, precision and angular icy beauties” – typically summing the book up better in half a dozen words more effectively than I can in a thousand), as is Max Porter, who is “surprised it isn’t the most famous book in the world.” Well, I can see why it’s not, but it would be nice if this reissue gives more deserved attention to this entirely mysterious, entirely satisfying story.
This year, the tenth anniversary year of my blog, which I celebrated by not adding any new content to it, I nonetheless kept a note of books I read that thrilled or tickled or astonished me. And here it is, with links to added commentary on Twitter where applicable (which usually follows in a thread from the first tweet I’ve linked to).
Trends are: (1) brevity continues to win the day; (2) most of these books are, in style if not in subject matter, straightforward to read—they slip down easily; and (3) there is more non-fiction than in previous years. All three features point in the same direction: an ever-increasing scarcity of time and attention as the twin calls of career and parenthood crowd out quiet time. The first two speak for themselves, and for the third, I think non-fiction generally accepts a different, more attenuated, form of attention than fiction, or at least the kinds of fiction and non-fiction I read do.
I haven’t attempted to cut this list down, in order to make up for the lack of recommendations on my blog for the rest of this year. But nor have I softened my gaze (as if!): all of the books here delighted me and are recommended, for the reasons given. The list is alphabetical by the author’s last name.
Giorgio Bassani: The Heron
For the last few years, Penguin has been putting out new translations, by Jamie McKendrick, of Giorgio Bassani’s series of romanzo di Ferrara. I’ve enjoyed those I’ve read enough that I decided not to wait for the final volume, The Heron, due next year, but to buy the existing edition in the Quartet Encounters series. (A reliable imprint in itself.) This one is translated by William Weaver, whose work I first came to more than 20 years ago via his translations of Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino. I’ll be interested to see whether McKendrick can live up to Weaver’s smooth, engaging version. The Heron, in subject, is quite unlike the other Ferrara books: it is a very gloomy account of a middle-aged man who leaves his family early one morning to go hunting. In a sense, it is an apt farewell to the novel for Bassani, who lived another 30-odd years after its publication in 1968, and in that time wrote a few short pieces and made revisions to his earlier work, but published nothing new of substance.
Anne Brontë: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
It took a long-haul flight to get me to knuckle down to this 500-page classic, which turns out to be as good as its longevity would suggest. It even managed to win me over despite digressing into a character’s backstory for most of its length, a technique I normally hate. Like many classics, it’s both surprising and reassuring. Brief Twitter thoughts, and affirmations from fellow admirers, here.
Ta-Nehisi Coates: We Were Eight Years in Power – An American Tragedy
Having been aware of Coates through praise of his books Between the World and Me and The Beautiful Struggle, I read an article by him this year in The Atlantic, ‘The First White President’, and knew I needed to read his new book as soon as it came out. As it happens, that article is the final piece in We Were Eight Years in Power, which collects Coates’s essays about American politics through the context of race, one for each year of Barack Obama’s presidency. It is a fascinating book partly because Coates writes so seductively, partly because you can see his confidence grow with each year (and the confidence The Atlantic‘s editors have in him, as his word count swells), and partly because he is so relentlessly pessimistic about the institutional embedding of racism in American society. I tweeted about it, and from it, regularly while reading.
Joan Didion: Play It As It Lays
The only Didion I’ve read, years ago, is The Year of Magical Thinking, but recently people were recommending her novels on Twitter and I thought I’d start with the first, published in 1970. I read most of it in an airport while awaiting a delayed flight, which seems apt for its air of suffocation and stasis. Above all else, it’s only now clear to me who Bret Easton Ellis was
ripping off inspired by particularly in his early fiction. By that I mean that this is a satirical story of deadened wealthy people, very dry and funny and fairly horrifying too. One early Penguin edition described it as “the truth about women as objects.” Twitter thoughts here.
Paul Fournel: Antequil, Alone
I pre-ordered this book after seeing someone (who turned out to be the publisher) praising it on Twitter, then forgot all about it until it arrived. It was a lovely surprise: an elliptical biography, translated by Nick Caistor, of one of the world’s greatest cyclists, not that I’d heard of him before. Perhaps that is the best sort of biography to read, unencumbered by foreknowledge. The extracts I’ve posted on Twitter will tell you whether or not it’s for you, but I was interested to note after I finished it that I have another book by Fournel on my shelves: his playful novella Dear Reader, which I really must get around to now, and realising that he is a writer of the Oulipo school made his particulate approach to Jacques Anquetil’s life make more sense.
Martin Gayford: Man with a Blue Scarf
Another example of the pleasure in a book that’s about something you know nothing of. Here it’s not just Lucian Freud, the ostensible subject of the book, but art generally. This of course means that those who do have a little knowledge may not find it as satisfying. But this account, by an art critic and friend of Freud’s, of sitting for a portrait over a period of months, is fascinating, and one of the very best books I read this year, as I hope my extracts in tweets show.
Chrissie Gittins: Between Here and Knitwear
It was a sad day for all of us who like buying books and eventually, sometimes, reading them when Nicholas Lezard’s Paperback of the Week column in the Guardian ended in June after 25 years. But he did offer this recommendation on Twitter earlier in the year, saying that if he had read the book at the time it was published (2015), he would have included it in his column. He would have been right to: this is a sort of life story in short pieces from childhood to maturity. It has a very light touch but is frequently funny and sometimes very moving, particularly in the later sections. I can’t find any Twitter thoughts on this one, which is odd, but it’s a book that stayed with me throughout the year.
Sarah Hall: Madame Zero
I read, or started, Hall’s most recent novel The Wolf Border a few years ago, but didn’t get far. It made me wonder what all the fuss was about. Now I know: it’s in the stories, which are strong and original. This collection starts and ends with two somehow similar and equally brilliant stories of physicality – carnality, even – ‘Mrs Fox’ and ‘Evie’. Little wonder that ‘Mrs Fox’ won the BBC National Short Story Award (you can read it here) and ‘Evie’ was shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award (you can read it here; non-subscribers can register and read it for free). The remaining stories are good but inevitably don’t quite match those powerful bookends. Nonetheless this collection was a revelation to me.
Hiromi Kawakami: Record of a Night Too Brief
This year Pushkin Press issued a series of books of short Japanese fiction. This was the first of the four I read and my firm favourite. It consists of three stories, translated by Lucy North, all of them odd, surreal even, but budding with comedy and poignancy. In particular the story ‘A Snake Stepped On’ is sinister, moving and surprising – and entirely sui generis. If you liked Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (and who didn’t!), try this one. I was pleased to get some context from the translator on Twitter, who told me that “in Japanese medieval Buddhist literature, snakes, women and desire often feature as a sort of set. Fear of sexual desire projected onto women’s bodies…” You can read my thoughts on the book upthread of that link.
Yiyun Li: Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life
I haven’t read much of Yiyun Li’s fiction, and she hasn’t produced much recently. This memoir helps explain her silence: it reports on her experience of catastrophic, suicidal depression. It is brave and bleak, but also full of life as she finds a way forward in part with reference to the writers she has loved, from Katherine Mansfield (who provides the book’s title) to John McGahern and most of all William Trevor. When I read this book, at the tail end of last year (it’s in this year’s list because it was published in 2017), Trevor had just died and I felt more than a twinge of empathy for how his death must have affected Li. As well as being an emotional wringer, like all good books about writers, this one leaves the reader with many more books on the TBR pile. I tweeted some extracts from it.
Mike McCormack: Solar Bones
I was a bit late to this novel, which was general all over Ireland last year and won the Goldsmiths Prize, but it was worth the wait. I’d only read a few of McCormack’s stories before (including one about a man being investigated by the police as he is the only person in Ireland not to have written a memoir) but this shows beyond doubt that the acclaim is justified. The conceit, of it being written in one long sentence, is neither as tiresome nor as false as it sounds. It is still in paragraphs, but the lack of punctuation drives McCormack to build a rhythm into the structure of the sections and their links that is very seductive. The book builds to a brilliant ending, too. Tweets here.
Ross Raisin: A Natural
I liked Raisin’s debut novel God’s Own Country, and didn’t get on at all with his second, Waterline. I approached his third therefore with some trepidation, but fears fled very quickly. This was the best new novel I read this year. This time there is no obvious ventriloquism in the voice, which instead offered a low-key, unhurried telling of the story of a lower-league footballer. For those who were let down by people who said Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch was the book that even football agnostics could like, this is the one for you. Aside from the emotional heft, Raisin’s sinuous sentences take the reader in constantly surprising directions. It’s a cliche to put it like this, but: why wasn’t this book all over the prize shortlists? My tweets are here.
Claudia Rankine: Don’t Let Me Be Lonely
After the great acclaim for Rankine’s Citizen a couple of years ago, Penguin reissued her earlier book Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, which takes the same form of political poetry, often on race in America. Although it came out in 2004, it feels decades older: back then, Bush and Iraq were the greatest political issues for US liberals, with no sign of either Obama or Trump. In that sense it feels at times quaint, though that is largely a reflection of our own love of feeling that we live in the worst of all possible times, and that everyone else had it easier. I will pass over my literary ignorance as to why the book is classified as poetry at all when it is almost exclusively written in prose, and simply recommend it for its eye-opening force and elegance of form. Not much more said in my tweets but here they are.
Gwendoline Riley: First Love
I’d been meaning to read Riley for ages – slim novels about miserable people? Sounds like just my bag – but it wasn’t until her new novel was published that I did. It’s a first person account of a woman’s relationship with her lover and her mother, and has some brilliantly horrible dialogue. It was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize and Goldsmiths Prize this year and seems to have been so ubiquitous in recommendations that I had to check just now that it really did come out only in 2017. I liked it enough, in fact, that I read it twice (it is very short). My only worry now is that those who were in the ground floor with her have assured me that First Love is her best book, so now I don’t know if I should bother to try her others. Tweets here.
Katie Roiphe: The Violet Hour
This was another Nicholas Lezard recommendation, an account of the deaths of six writers: Susan Sontag, John Updike, Sigmund Freud, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter (though Salter is not much more than a postscript). Perhaps in keeping with my inability to concentrate on anything very long these days, the short, piecemeal approach to biography – a short period covered, a concentration of time and subject – works very well and I finished the book feeling overwhelmed in curious ways. For some reason I can’t find any tweets about it (probably down to my habit of starting a book-thread with an image of the cover and no mention of the author or title), but here is Lezard’s review than inspired me to read it.
Stav Sherez: The Intrusions
I don’t read much crime fiction, largely through ignorance which leads to an inability to find the sort of thing I might like (Highsmith, Price, Harris, that sort of thing). But I was sent this novel by the publisher and it was, I think, the first book I read in 2017 and it remains one of the ones I enjoyed most. Sherez is a recommended presence on Twitter, who is a great reader and proponent of interesting fiction, and now I see that he’s a very good writer too. This is the third in a series of crime novels, but I am living evidence that you don’t need to have read the others. It’s bang up to date about social media trolling and other issues, and entirely gripping.
I loved Sjón’s novel From the Mouth of a Whale several years ago, but didn’t read more of him until now. In honesty, this story of a boy growing up, cinema, homosexuality and more, was not one I felt deep love for throughout – but it is one of those rare books that goes up into a new register in the last couple of pages, and by that I was very moved and impressed. In any event it’s short and it won’t take you long to get to those final pages…
Denton Welch: A Voice Through a Cloud
Another author I’ve been meaning to read for years – for seven years, in fact, since he was mentioned here in conjunction with Jocelyn Brooke. Finally this year I did, and wasn’t disappointed. Welch’s unfinished novel, an account of a period in hospital recovering from a serious cycling accident, is simple, vivid, painful and beautiful. His early death, at the age of 33, was a huge loss. Immediately I read this, I went and bought his collected short prose. He deserves to be republished with a bit of love. A few tweets here, which remind me that in fact I had read him before, though just last year, and one short story’s worth.