Wilcken Hugo

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.

Released from Captivity: Hugo Wilcken’s Colony

Two weeks ago I wrote about Hugo Wilcken’s second novel Colony, and was surprised and delighted by it. It’s a book of high literary ambition – fully achieved – but also with a compelling story. To me that meant it should appeal to a wide audience, rather than the audience of hardly anyone that it actually reached on publication in August 2007. I was delighted to see so many people buying copies after my review went up (and slightly alarmed that for once my recommendations will be held to account). If you’re one of those people, look away now, because I’ve just snaffled a handful of copies of Colony to give away.


If you would like a copy of Colony, say so in the comments box below by Monday 15 June. The offer is open to readers anywhere in the world, and as usual all you have to do is read it and say what you thought: here, on your own blog, on Amazon, in the pub or anywhere else. If you don’t, you will be sent to a penal colony in French Guiana without supper.

Hugo Wilcken: Colony

Hugo Wilcken’s second novel Colony was published in the UK straight into paperback in 2007. Saddled by a hopeless cover, lost in the sea of novels published each year, it sank, so far as I can tell, without trace. Or almost without trace. I caught mention of it on Steve Mitchelmore’s blog (“a compelling flight into the unknown … a terrific read”); if one – impossible – way of differentiating the novels in that sea is to read them all, another is to rely on trusted sources. So I picked up a copy about 18 months ago, and left it to languish (that hopeless cover!). It took a couple of days of planes and hotels, without the distractions of other books, to make me read it at last. I was amazed.

Hugo Wilcken: Colony 

Colony was described by Wilcken before publication as “sort of Papillon meets Heart of Darkness.” Steve Mitchelmore saw Cormac McCarthy and Beckett. To those, let me add Damon Galgut, whose seductive combination of dry plotting and unreality are everywhere here. The book’s sometimes elusive nature seems to be reflected in the references to Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. But what impresses most is Wilcken’s unwillingness to try to impress the reader: the prose is unfussy, the scenes uncluttered. There is no ‘fine writing’. Instead, there is very fine writing indeed.

The theme of Colony is escape: from captivity to freedom, and vice versa; from reality into dreams and memories; from one identity to another; from life to elsewhere. It is apt that this is explored in a book which on the face of it has the escapist qualities of a thriller. Wilcken takes us to a penal colony in French Guiana in 1928, where “everyone’s got a scam.” Sabir is a new arrival, just off the boat where, after days of seasick rocking, the “absolute stillness feels as though something that had once been faintly alive has finally died.” The story follows Sabir’s progress in the colony, where the challenges are not just heat, exhaustion and violence, but relentless existence: “the past is dead, the future stolen away, the present an endless desert.” There is the struggle too with “imagination and memory. Which are always wrong. Always telling you what you want to hear.”

All this suggests a book which plays with the reality of its world, as in Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation. But to limit Colony to a genre or type would do it a disservice, as this is a book – as evidenced by the references it suggested to different people above – which unpacks in several different ways. It would also do a disservice to the book and its future readers – I hope there will be many – to outline the plot in any great detail, though I can say that there is a fundamental shift halfway through, and that we are helpfully told that one character “found he could consider two opposing notions and then accept both, without fundamentally believing in either”.

In some ways the characters seem stock types: the hardened criminal; the camp’s fixer; the idealistic commandant and his bored wife. Yet Wilcken’s no-nonsense style enables him to create scenes of great wonder and emotional heft, from death scenes to the tiniest – and therefore most potent – hints of a character’s previously unrevealed childhood. Past, present and future, and how they interconnect, are central to the book.

In any case, the various futures have already been lived out, played out, and all one can do is wearily continue along these set paths. Only the past remains obscure. It hasn’t happened and perhaps it never will.

Colony is an exceptional achievement whose overlooked status is little short of scandalous. If blogs can do one thing, it is to give deserving books like this life beyond their few weeks on the 3-for-2 tables. Having taken up Steve Mitchelmore’s endorsement of it, I can only urge others to do the same, and accept my inchoate view as a recommendation as strong as any I’ve given this year. If you read it and like it, spread the word yourself, by blog or word of mouth. This is a book I was sorry to leave, but simultaneously read through impatiently, keen to see where it would go. Where I will go next is to Wilcken’s first novel, The Execution. “Always a sense of anguish with every departure, however desired.”

Buy Colony from the Book Depository, Amazon (UK or US) or Waterstone’s