Month: December 2009

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2009

It’s that time of year again, and as usual there are several titles I’d like to have included but didn’t have room for.  Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke thrilled me with its boldly selective account of the approach to the Second World War; Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener provided a keystone for much of my reading that I didn’t realise I’d been missing; Kafka’s Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor ditto, but I left it out since it wasn’t so much a book as a story fragment in dandy packaging.  Probably David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide would have made the cut too, if it hadn’t been a late victim of my inability to blog and be a parent at the same time.  The following titles are listed alphabetically by author.

César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
A strange book which, despite its brisk length, I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of. That it nonetheless stuck in my mind for most of the year must be a measure of its force.  It’s about art, life and more.  “We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind.”  Resolution #1 for 2010: read more Aira.

Ronald Blythe: Voices of Akenfield
A bit of a cheat, as this is an extract from the full book (Akenfield), published in the Penguin English Journeys series, but thrilled me so much I had to include it.  It is an exceptional recreation of a world proceeding from one age to another, a magical oral history of time and place.  “People believed in religion then,” says Leonard Thompson, a farm worker, “which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution. Nobody would have stuck it.”

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime
One of those books which first makes you realise that you are in the hands of a master, and then forces you to accept, with a willing sigh, that you are going to have to read everything he has written.  “He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life – including his love life, I might say – and channel them into his writing, which as a consequence was going to become a sort of unending cathartic exercise.”  The best new novel I read this year.

Simon Crump: Neverland
A book which at first seems ridiculous and laughable – and then seems ridiculous and laughable, but also clever and mesmerising.  Neverland is effective and affecting on the modern subject of celebrity, and its timing, published a few months after Michael Jackson’s death, was spookily apt.  “For a while there was gold, lots of it, and there were cartoons and songs and dance and lunar walking and Motown and I want you back. We fixed him though. Then we fucked him. And we took it all.”

L.J. Davis: A Meaningful Life
Here is the perfect example of the art of the reissue.  A fine, miserable comic novel (a sort of funny Richard Yates) which died a death when first (and last) published in 1971, is given new life by NYRB Classics.  Its misanthropy and set pieces make it a sort of comfort read for me: the tale of a man who realises that his life is not going to get any better.  “He’d found his level, and here he was, on it.”

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone
Another ‘lost classic’, and for once the hype was justified.   Fallada’s forgotten novel about a personal crusade against the Nazis, written in six weeks, was rough around the edges but compelling and real.  “Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where. We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it. And then it’ll be too late.” The only mystery remaining about its publication is why the US and UK publishers gave us different titles; but to balance that we have the prospect of more Fallada reissues to come.  Goody.

Susan McKay: Bear in Mind These Dead
OK, I have to admit that this is probably not a better book than the titles I left off my list (see intro), but it had a particular revelatory quality for me.  In previous years I would have shunned a book about Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ (too close to home), but this tragic, infuriating account of the victims and their loved ones has a power I couldn’t get over.  “I find it terrible hard to live without him. It is like my own right arm is off me.”

Guy de Maupassant: The Horla
Versions of this short story are available in most selections of Maupassant’s work, but this Melville House Art of the Novella edition is the only one you should read.  It takes three distinct but linked forms of the story and creates a new work of art from them.  The material is compelling, the translation by Charlotte Mandell is perfect, and the impact remains – as you can see – for a long time.  “After mankind, the Horla!”

Dag Solstad: Novel 11, Book 18
The best way of pulling the rug from under the reader is to approach the turning point in an entirely deadpan manner.  In fact, make the entire book as flat and uninflected as possible, then they really won’t see what’s coming.  This book stayed with me longer perhaps than any other this year, not for its ‘twist’ but for its solid refusal to pander to the reader.  “He wanted a novel that showed life to be impossible, but without a trace of humour, black or otherwise.”

Fred Wander: The Seventh Well
The second Michael Hofmann translation in my top twelve, showing that my admiration for his choice of material shows no sign of diminishing.   A new translation of a 40-year-old book which brings a fresh eye, and an elegant prose, to the much-written-about subject of the Holocaust.  “He lost his mind when he saw them killing his mother. A heart like a glass bell, a light crack, and it doesn’t ring anymore.”

Hugo Wilcken: Colony
A scandalously overlooked novel from 2007 provided my greatest surprise of the year. A multilayered novel which teases as much as it satisfies, Colony should be a huge hit, but isn’t. The most admirable pleasure in this box of delights is Wilcken’s refusal to try to impress the reader: he creates a complex and memorable work from the most lucid prose.  “Only the past remains obscure. It hasn’t happened and perhaps it never will.”

John Williams: Stoner
A traditional novel in a traditional mode – the story of an ordinary man’s life – Stoner succeeds through the respect it pays to its characters and in particular, the honest and affecting portrayal of its hero (the word is appropriate).  It tells of a man who learns that the love of literature and work can be the match of any other kind of love.  ”It was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study … it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”

Please add your own best – or worst – reads of the year, or a link to your own list, below.  Happy Christmas, and see you again in 2010.

Tove Jansson: The True Deceiver

It’s always heartening to see a publisher get behind an overlooked writer, particularly when they’re helping us (re)discover writers outside our usual English language limits.  Pushkin Press, for example, have done admirable work in resuscitating the literary corpse of Stefan Zweig. In the UK, Sort Of Books have been reissuing – or in some cases commissioning first translations – of the adult fiction of Tove Jansson, best known for the Finn Family Moomintroll series of children’s books.  Two of the titles have also been picked up in the US by NYRB Classics, who use Jansson’s original cover illustrations.

The True Deceiver
(1982, tr. by Thomas Teal, 2009) drops the reader in the middle of a Finnish winter, where in the village of Västerby, “it had been snowing along the coast for a month … never stopping for even an hour.  … The continuous snowfall carried with it an imprecise darkness that was neither dusk nor dawn.”  Ideal conditions, then, to introduce the character of Katri Kling, a young woman who lives with her brother.  Katri is trusted by all in the village (largely for her numerical skills), but is cold and unclubbable.  When she offers to take the mail up to the home of reclusive writer Anna Aemelin, her exchange with the village postman is illuminating:

“Don’t you trust me?” she said.  “I can take the mail up to Miss Aemelin.  It’s important to me.”

“Are you trying to help?”

“You know I’m not,” Katri said.  “I’m doing it entirely for my own sake.  Do you trust me or don’t you?”

Katri’s purpose, stated in the opening pages of the book, is to work her way into Miss Aemelin’s life, and for her and her brother Mats ultimately to live in her home, a lighthouse known as “the rabbit house” after Miss Aemelin’s celebrated books for children.  (She “could render the ground in a forest so faithfully and in such minute detail that she missed not the tiniest needle.”)

The trouble with Katri is that she doesn’t seem to know when to rein in her ‘honesty’.  When once she brokered a deal between feuding families, she “helped both save face, but she also articulated their hostility and so fixed it in place for all time.”  As one villager puts it to another, “Why do you go to her?  Yes, she puts your business to rights, but you no longer trust anyone when you come back.”  Miss Aemelin objects to Katri pointing out how the storekeeper has ripped her off for a few pennies: and anyway, Katri has a grudge against the storekeeper, which may be clouding her judgement.

The beauty of The True Deceiver is how it fits so much into 180 pages, without making any of the elements seem discordant.  Katri is paired with her brother Mats: he is as “undisturbed in his clean, simplified world” as she is troubled by her mistrust of others.  He reads boys’ adventure stories, while she urges him to read what she considers to be literature: “I read them, I do,” he tells her, “but I don’t get anything out of them.  Nothing much happens.  I understand they’re very good, but they just make me sad.  They’re almost always about people with problems.”

For this Mats has an ally in Anna Aemelin, whose children’s books are considered charming by some, and ‘”stereotyped” by others.  She shares his love of escapist books, seafaring adventures mainly, and Jansson sets her in opposition to Katri in a power struggle for control of Anna’s house, trust in the villagers, even the loyalty of Katri’s dog.  The assistance which Katri offers Anna, such as with her finances, is primarily for her own benefit, or at least satisfaction (“Every time she wrote a captured sum of money into her notebook, she felt the collector’s deep satisfaction at finally owning a rare and expensive specimen”).

It’s not difficult to see Anna Aemelin and Katri Kling as representations of the warring instincts in Jansson (who lived in solitude): a successful children’s writer who nonetheless spent the last thirty years of her life writing darker adult books (like this one); the two characters’ respective approaches to the fan letters Anna receives from her readers are illuminating and even amusing (“Politeness can almost be a kind of deceit”).  What unites Anna and Katri is that they are both isolated, one by her fame and success, and the other by her distrust of people.

The True Deceiver is as oxymoronic as its title: calm and clear in its prose, but turbulent in the emotions depicted; a seemingly simple story which resists bashing the reader over the head with obvious conclusions.  It is a perfectly brittle, crystalline tale for the cold winter months ahead.