Dorthe Nors: Karate Chop / Minna Needs Rehearsal Space

Here is my review in the Guardian of Dorthe Nors’ first books to be translated into English, the back-to-back volume containing the excellent short story collection Karate Chop and the brilliant novella (or, as the author has it, “novel in headlines”) Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. This edition is published in the UK by Pushkin Press. In the US, Graywolf Press published Karate Chop last year and will issue Minna next year.

Dorthe Nors: Karate Chop / Minna Needs Rehearsal Space


Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant

This book comes freighted with more expectations than many – Ishiguro may, after all, be the only novelist of his lauded generation who has never produced a bad or even mediocre novel. But there are fears, too – his last two books (Never Let Me Go, and the story cycle Nocturnes) are my least favourites. Is he on the slide?

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant

My first response to The Buried Giant was to realise how rudderless we feel in the teeth of a new book which is really new, sui generis, and how much we rely on – or at least use as a springboard – existing and received opinion about strange classics. I first read it a couple of months before publication, and came away buzzing with admiration but otherwise not knowing precisely what to think. (It was, I think, my desire for precision that was the problem.) I spoke to several others who had read it early, and a theme recurred – “befuddled”, “scratching my head”, “scrambled” – which reassured me at least that I had not missed something blindingly obvious.

So how can a book which, on many levels, baffles the reader be a rewarding experience? Easy: because that is not the reader’s only response. There is a huge amount in this book – it contains multitudes – and its half-life after reading is long. Part of my problem with it was not a problem with it at all: that afterwards, I couldn’t settle for a time into anything else as I kept wanting to return to The Buried Giant. Also it emphasises that a book like this is not a mystery to be solved, but a reflection and representation of life which is – let’s say – a mystery we all take part in.

What does it contain? It has some familiar themes for readers of Ishiguro’s previous novels, though mainly from the trickier of his books such as The Unconsoled and When We Were Orphans: a dreamlike logic which telescopes locations and fuzzes the facts, and narrative detours on a quest the protagonists don’t really understand themselves. It also holds some firsts for Ishiguro, like a portrait of a marriage, and switches in narrators, though most of the story is told in the third person (another first). This is interesting because until now, Ishiguro has relied to some extent on his narrators’ ignorance of reality for his effects. Here, he brings it into the open by setting his story in a land where people’s memories are failing them.

In terms of setting, The Buried Giant follows Never Let Me Go in using an alternative historic England: this time, around the fifth or sixth century AD, when the Britons are being pushed west by the incoming Saxons, and people share their space with ogres, pixies and dragons. The inclusion of these creatures means the novel will inevitably be referred to as fantasy, and if the simple presence of supernatural creatures makes it fantasy, then so it is. But this would be to overlook the fact that these elements are not a primary purpose of the book, any more than the science fictional nature of Kathy and her colleagues’ existence in Never Let Me Go was the centre of that book. Wikipedia defines fantasy literature as “written works that utilise the motifs, themes and stylistic approaches expected in the fantasy genre.” This is pretty circular, but it’s clear that The Buried Giant does not conform to any expectations, genre-based or otherwise. When devilish creatures are encountered, they’re despatched almost as an aside, or turn out to be weak and elderly and hardly worth battling. This deliberate diminution of effect goes all the way through the book from the title down: the buried giant referred to is a mound on the land that the protagonists worry about crossing, so they decide to circumnavigate it. We expect difficulties, but the next time we encounter them, they have passed it without incident.

‘They’ are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple of Britons who live in a village where a council makes edicts that are unexplained (such as that Axl and Beatrice are not permitted a candle in their chamber), and people quickly forget those who disappear, even when they return. “The mist” is how Axl and Beatrice refer to the clouding of memory which affects everything and everyone: they cannot even remember if they have a son, though they quickly decide that they have and that they must go to his village, though they are not quite sure where it is. (“Already these recollections were growing confused, in much the way a dream does in the seconds after waking.”) So the story proceeds by ellipsis and omission, and most of the characters’ questions, like the reader’s, will never be answered. Axl and Beatrice’s nonexistent memories of their son are representative of a wider phenomenon: people alight on ideas which then become solid, the mind grasping at any detail, however vague, to build a strong conviction from nothing but air. Simultaneously, in the absence of knowledge, superstition runs amok. There is much discussion between Axl and Beatrice of the benefits of memory: they know they love one another (they are almost comically devoted) but have no evidence how or why. They want to retrieve their memories, but worry that these might dredge up experiences best forgotten. Like the buried giant, memories may best be left undisturbed. Yet what do we have but our memories, and what are our character and relationships based on but what we have known so far?

This paradox of memory is applied more broadly in the book. Our Britons encounter a Saxon warrior, Wistan, and we might expect conflict, but he is respectful and recalls that he was trained by a Briton. Yet distrust is not far away, and it is not difficult to see modern parallels in the theme of two peoples warring for reasons based only on memory and not on personal experience: future generations inheriting grievances like genetic mutations. We also learn, later in the book, of another purpose for the imagery of the buried giant: once a feared creature is killed, Wistan predicts that

the giant, once well buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will prove as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers. Men will burn their neighbours’ houses by night. Hang children from trees at dawn. The rivers will stink with corpses bloated from their days of voyaging.

At this point The Buried Giant seemed like another first for Ishiguro: a political book, reminding us of post-war regimes like Iraq.

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant

Along their journey, Axl and Beatrice encounter many other people, some of whom, as in The Unconsoled, seem to represent aspect of their own characters and lives – a woman abandoned without her husband by a boatman expresses Beatrice’s own anxieties about being left by Axl, and Edwin, a boy they take with them after he is forced to flee his village, acts as a surrogate for their putative son – as does, more confusingly still, a soldier they meet while with Edwin. They also meet Sir Gawain, still pottering about in his old age and not quite getting around to fulfilling King Arthur’s demands of him, and getting pretty shirty when reminded of his failure. Many of these encounters are enlightening (or at least cast interesting shadows), but sometimes the diversions on the quest and the new characters are duller than must have been intended. In particular, a long stretch of the novel set in a monastery and immediately after the characters leave, sags dangerously and had me hoping for a magic spell to get to the other side.

It’s possible to see how the entire book might have that effect on some readers. Ishiguro repeatedly frustrates any hopes for a usual narrative trajectory, muffles noise, and hints at things which are never explicitly revealed. It is because of this that, despite the language being simple, despite every action and event being clearly described, we end up with such a thoroughly enigmatic novel – a magical mystery tour. The narrative voice is seamlessly executed, with no authorial trace – Ishiguro never hammers things home for the reader, or even taps them lightly – and this makes it immersive and engaging. The other aspect of The Buried Giant that pushed it higher in my estimation was the relationship between Axl and Beatrice. The uncertainty and imbalance of their love moves through the book from almost nauseatingly uxorious (“Still here, princess”) to horribly upsetting (if I mention pixies at this point, those who have read the book will nod solemnly). Their dialogue is more often crosstalk than coherence, as they constantly disagree over memories, and they exhibit a combination of blithe reassurance and anxious caution that looks very like much familial love. As the book progressed, I started to think more and more of how their lack of memories were a kind of death, and as with Never Let Me Go, death and how we approach it and live with it looms large in this book.

I have written 1,500 words on The Buried Giant without really doing much more than summarising what I see as the main points. It is too big for me to do more than kick its tyres and nod appreciatively. It is frustrating and as far from perfect as we might expect a great novel to be, and part of my appreciation may well be an awestruck belief that what I don’t fully grasp must be better than me. It is a book that will be discussed and that will endure, and it has the rare feel of a publishing event which is also a literary event. It will not supplant The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go in popular affection, but for those readers who love a book that asks more than it answers: there’s a journey you must go on, and no more delay.

Miranda July: The First Bad Man

My first encounter with Miranda July’s fiction was in the Zadie Smith-edited anthology The Book of Other People, where her story ‘Roy Spivey’ was one of the best on offer. Then I read her collection No-one Belongs Here More Than You, which impressed me with its ability to turn between funny and sad on a sixpence. Now we have July’s debut novel, which turns out to be more multifaceted still, and already seems as likely to be one of my favourite books of the year as Dept. of Speculation did last year, or May We Be Forgiven a couple of years earlier.

Miranda July: The First Bad Man

The First Bad Man comes plainly packaged: black and white, block text only, no illustration, and no blurb. There are some quotes of praise which touch on the content, and my hardback came with a yellow belly band adding praise from A.M. Homes. It seems to me that praise from other writers on the cover of a book is often read, intentionally or otherwise, as shorthand: “If you enjoy my books, you’ll like this.” On this occasion, the inference would be spot on, and my reference to Homes’ novel above wasn’t coincidental. Like May We Be Forgiven, this is a family story which continually surprises and subverts expectations.

My experience of reading it was roughly in thirds: first funny, sometimes silly; then strange, even unsettling; and finally an emotional going-over. But the borders bled – it mixed things up – and overall the effect was of being wrung out on a rollercoaster. Our guide is Cheryl Glickman, who is over forty and single, and working for Open Palm, a company that makes self-defence fitness DVDs (“It’s a catch-twenty-two,” says one of the presenters. “With your new ripped bod, you may actually get attacked more often!”). Cheryl is taken advantage of by her employers but can’t see it, so blinded is she by love for her colleague Phillip, twenty years her senior and a bit of a heel. The opening scenes peel open Cheryl’s discomfort with exquisite phrasing and timing: when she makes a feeble gambit to keep a phone conversation with Phillip going, “What silence. Giant domed cathedrals never held so much emptiness.” She sees children and imagines them hers (“Not mine biologically, just … familiar”), and all her distress over everything manifests itself as a constriction, literally a lump, in her throat she calls globus hystericus. She seeks treatment for this from a doubtful therapist, while in place of true closeness with Philip, she accepts a position as his confidante over his sex life (“With all my throw pillows around me, poised at the lip of intimacy – I felt like a king”), which leads to a bleak running joke. She also allows Clee, the daughter of her employers, to stay with her, and this is where the book shifts its first gear.

When you live alone people are always thinking they can stay with you, when the opposite is true: who they should stay with is a person whose situation is already messed up by other people and so one more won’t matter.

Clee is twenty and the sort of young woman whom “women looked up and down and then looked away.” But – and unlike with Cheryl – “men did not look away. Some men even said hi, as if they knew her, or as if knowing her was about to begin right now.” Cheryl’s own relationship with Clee is much more complicated than that. She feels that the two of them are so different that they can’t both fit the simple description of “woman”. A woman, Cheryl feels, “talks, too much – and worries, too much – and gives and gives in.” Clee does none of these things. Mindful of that blurbless cover, I won’t say much about Cheryl and Clee’s relationship, except that it brings forward all the subtext in the book about power and abuse and bullying and dependence, and that it’s definitely not what you think.

“I’m not … you know. I’m into dick.”

“We’re in the same boat, as far as that goes,” I said. I saw us in a little dinghy together, liking dick on the big dark sea.

With Cheryl we have a heroine who is so deprived of the things we take for granted that when someone wounds her, she reflects that “no one had ever talked to me like this before, so cruelly. And yet so attentively. […] Some real thought had gone into this little speech – it wasn’t just careless hostility.” Driven by these factors, the book, centred on Cheryl and her therapist and Phillip and Clee, gets more and more odd and disturbing. It asks us to consider who its characters really are, and who they pretend to be: the title comes from a fictional character in a fitness DVD being played on a further fictional level by Clee. What is ‘real’ in a story, and in how we present ourselves to others? When and with whom are we at our most real? “Real comes and goes and isn’t very interesting,” Clee says, and during these sections and beyond The First Bad Man becomes big enough to make us question whole social assumptions around love, families, sex and relationships. It grows both hysterical and dark, exemplified by the scene halfway through where Cheryl feels herself crack as a waiter flirts with Clee. “He thought I was her mother.” It’s a measure of the way the book held me in its power that the final nine words of the following passage – you won’t believe it, not yet – made me feel more moved than I have by a book in months, perhaps years. To put it another way, it is perfect evidence of Babel’s dictum that “no iron can pierce the human heart with the force of a full stop put just at the right place.”

He didn’t have enough experience to guess I might be stiff and shaking with violence. How shocked he would be when I bent her over the dinner table, pushed up her dress, and jimmied my member into her tight pucker. I’d thrust with both hands high in the air, showing everyone in the restaurant, including the chefs and sous-chefs and busboys and waiters, showing all of them I was not her mother.

It’s hard to follow that. In this review, I’m not sure I can, but in the book July does, by shifting the focus again, this time to an emotional story so nakedly told that in less skilled hands it would be sentimental. There are still silly jokes, of course (“Do you know what persona non grata means? It’s Latin for person not great“), but the way July has set up the reader through the rest of the book means that the hairpins and switchbacks in the story feel like just part of the ride, another unexpected angle seen from the rollercoaster. Not incidentally, the last 60 pages feature some of the best writing on parenthood I have seen, and made me shake with vertiginous recognition more than once. “If you were wise enough to know that this life would consist mostly of letting go of things you wanted, then why not get good at the letting go, rather than the trying to have?” It was when I read lines like that, and felt wounded and winded, that I realised The First Bad Man had somehow rewired my brain in the process of reading it. Long may it last.

Gabriel Josipovici: Hotel Andromeda

I haven’t written about Gabriel Josipovici before on this blog but I have read him and felt his influence: he is a champion of Agota Kristof’s work and he himself is championed by critics like Steve Mitchelmore and Mark Thwaite – readers in whose opinions I have faith. More than that, I read Josipovici’s book What Ever Happened to Modernism? and found it impressive: one the one hand, revelatory, but also reassuring (that I wasn’t mad, or stubborn, to like some kinds of books more than others).

Gabriel Josipovici: Hotel Andromeda

Hotel Andromeda is Josipovici’s newest novel and came at just the right time for me. I had recently finished another new book – not yet published so no names – and had been unable to get my head clear of it. I started and abandoned two or three books, which just seemed thin or silly in its shadow. Then I tried Hotel Andromeda and it worked: sharp and bright, like a newly struck currency, it has bags of energy and weight in fewer than 140 pages.

It is also magically light. Most of the novel is in brisk, peppery dialogue with not much distracting detail outside it. “He stands. He looks very tired.” “They walk.” “He shrugs.” “She stops.” Each dialogue is between Helena and another. Helena is a woman living in London, the object of unwanted attentions from her neighbour Tom (“Come and sit on my lap”), and a failing writer. That is her own view: on the one hand she writes to her sister, Alice, who is doing humanitarian work in Chechnya, but Alice doesn’t reply (“Even in my dreams she never replies”). Also, her books, though “much respected”, don’t sell, though she can still be a writer and nothing else, as “our parents left us both enough to get by. You could say I’m cursed with a small private income.” At the beginning of the story, she is trying and failing to write a book about the American artist Joseph Cornell, when her domestic routine is interrupted by the arrival of a Czech journalist and photographer, Ed; he claims that Alice told him that Helena would put him up.

Joseph Cornell: Andromeda: Grand Hotel de l'Observatoire

Every few chapters, the dialogue gives way and we get extracts from Helena’s work-in-progress on Cornell. She dislikes much of his work, its “sweetness” and “tweeness”, but is moved by his boxed assemblages – glass-fronted boxes of found objects and scraps of Victoriana – and in particular his Hotel Andromeda series. She thinks them “as true to our time and as resonant as The Waste Land and Duchamp’s Large Glass.” (The latter is the subject of a thrilling analysis by Josipovici in What Ever Happened to Modernism?) It is the conflict and ambiguity of the boxes that appeals to her: the “seediness of the [hotel] notepaper,” “the wonder evoked by the name Andromeda” and “the beautiful bisexual body of the trapeze artist.” Most of all it leads her to the realisation that

I grew up thinking about art as ‘the beautiful’, but I have come to understand that that is not what art is at all. Art is what manages to express that which lies buried so deep inside us that we can never find the sounds or images or words for it and so could never have access to it were it not for others, artists.

This ties in with her sense of the impossibility of writing: of making writing do what she wants it to, which is to evoke what is inside us. Her house guest Ed, the photographer, finds a similar impossibility in reporting on the conflict in Chechnya. “It’s my job to show the world. But I cannot do it. Not really. […] I was there a long time and I understand nothing.” Not the least of Helena’s problems in writing about Cornell is that to make him the centre of a book “would be to distort him. […] He was never at the centre. Always at the side.” Always at the side: that is one way of putting it. Although Helena makes a distinction between Cornell and true “outsider artists” like Adolf Wölfli and Henry Darger (“people in asylums. Or who should have been in asylums”), it’s fair to say that he was outsider enough. He had “no idea of how to live in the world” and developed obsessions with, among others, Lauren Bacall. His “typical diet for one day in 1946 included caramel pudding, a few doughnuts, cocoa, white bread, peanut butter, peach jam, a Milky Way, some chocolate eclairs, a half-dozen sweet buns, a peach pie, a cake with icing, a prune twist.” One contemporary said of him: “I always had the feeling that if I shook him he would pulverize into dust, like old paper.”

Joseph Cornell: Hotel Andromeda (1954)

Cornell himself struggled, as Helena struggles – as every artist ever has struggled – to achieve the alchemy that transforms life into art. “How,” Helena writes as she quotes from his notebooks, “to hold on to ‘the ceaseless flow and interlacing of original experience’? How to hold on to it and not kill it in the process?” Josipovici himself appears to have managed it, making a fluid, playful and serious book full of delights, from the “demented silence” of a Hans Namuth portrait of Cornell, through Wallace Stevens’ poetry (“Those that are left are the unaccomplished, / The finally human, / Natives of a dwindled sphere”), to Wittgenstein’s reported final, ambiguous words (“Please tell them I’ve had a wonderful life”). It’s all evidence of a mind full of both life and art, and a book that “preaches no sermon, yet, like music, it resonates within us, setting free a whole range of possibilities.”

Han Kang: The Vegetarian

The first thing that struck me about this book was the beautiful cover image, of oriental lilies, so perfect they almost looked computer-generated. Then I noticed something, and each time I looked back at it, it surprised me again by offering something new. The image is by Tom Darracott, who also designed the first cover for Hawthorn & Child. So you might expect something unusual and sinister, and you’d be right. The British Council literature site describes The Vegetarian, accurately, as a “frightening beauty” and, less clearly, as a book which “combines human violence and the possibility of innocence as the thematic material with a vegetablesque imagination.”

Han Kang: The Vegetarian

The Vegetarian (2007, tr. 2015 by Deborah Smith) declares itself on the cover to be ‘A Novel’, which is a practice more often seen in US editions. It’s worth noting because, like Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, The Vegetarian was originally published as three separate stories, and then compiled into a novel. A novel it surely is, but the forewarned reader can spot the origins: each part of the book includes some recapping (“previously on The Vegetarian…”) and could stand handsomely alone. Together they are extra-intense: triply singular, strangeness cubed.

Each part is also reported from a different viewpoint, but never – or almost never – that of the central character, Yeong-hye. She is a young woman whose husband Cheong, narrating the first section, thinks her “completely unremarkable in every way.” He married her because “[no] particular drawbacks present[ed] themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to.” He takes little notice of her, and their work means they don’t spend much time together. He really only pays attention to her when he gets up one morning to find her throwing out all the meat in the fridge and announcing that she will never allow it in the house again. Cheong is appalled, as are her family (“What do you think you’re playing at, hey? Acting like this at your age”). What is clear is that no one sees Yeong-hye as her own person, and her Bartleby-esque withdrawal from their society seems more and more reasonable, as she refuses, disengages, and passively resists. She takes charge of her own body as the only thing, in such a restrictive environment, which is within her control.

Yeong-hye does explain her refusal, as justified by a recurring dream which prevents her from sleeping (“I never enquired as to the nature of this dream,” says Cheong), and we get italicised sections from within her head. “Dreams of murder. … Intolerable loathing, so long suppressed.” Without eating meat, and without replacing it, she grows thinner: “Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening – what am I going to gouge?” In a sense, these insights disappointed me: I would rather not know what Yeong-hye is thinking, leave the options open (though her thoughts are allusive rather than instructive). Similarly, making Cheong (“It was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done”) and Yeong-hye’s family (“Don’t you understand what your father’s telling you? If he tells you to eat, eat!”) such unreconstructed horrors sets up an obvious one-sided empathy in the reader. But this first part is strong meat nonetheless, particularly as it moves to a dark conclusion, with disturbing violence and sexuality on the way.

In fact, what’s most surprising is that the book can carry on so successfully after this potent ending. In part two, Yeong-hye’s sister’s husband, an artist, takes charge. He has always been sexually attracted to Yeong-hye, and following the events of part one, he takes his opportunity to get closer to her. In particular he is fascinated by a birthmark – the ‘Mongolian mark’ – above her buttocks, which normally fades after childhood. He visits her and they talk: her voice is “the quiet tone of a person who didn’t belong anywhere, someone who had passed into a border area between two states of being”. In addition, her body has grown less thin as she has begun to eat more (“her breasts had now rounded out into softness”). Given that in part three, Yeong-hye will become even more dangerously thin, this temporary reversal – or semi-recovery – is odd, and looks more like the author’s convenience than the story’s necessity. However, realism is hardly the point of a book like this, and we get more strangeness as her brother-in-law paints plants on Yeong-hye’s body and films himself doing so. This is just the beginning of an exchange which is “more vegetal than sexual,” as her body is “an object of desire from which all desire had been eliminated.” This – disengagement, passivity, refusal – is what binds the parts together, and unifies the novel.

In part 3, time has moved on again, and Yeong-hye is in hospital, her only visitor being our new narrator, her sister In-hye. Yeong-hye’s condition has deteriorated, and she is coughing blood as her body consumes itself. She is “retreating from herself, becoming as distant to herself as she was to her sister.” Again I was reminded of the literature of disappearance and refusal: of John Burnside’s A Summer of Drowning (“To refuse oneself is exemplary. To become nothing, to remove yourself from the frame – that is the highest form of art”); of Larkin’s ‘Poetry of Departures’ (“this audacious, purifying, elemental move”); of Kafka’s ‘A Hunger Artist’ (“I always wanted you to admire my fasting”); of Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co and Montano’s Malady; of Bartleby the scrivener himself. In saying that I hope not to reduce The Vegetarian to a list of derivations but to emphasise its force: it hangs in the mind like these others, it puts down roots. In any event, a reader’s interpretation is not the author’s: Han herself describes Yeong-hye’s aim as “to vomit out the darkness and violence of flesh/humanity and become a perfectly pure being.” In this final part of the book, In-hye is forced to choose between keeping Yeong-hye in the hospital, where she is miserably unhappy, and allowing her to leave, where she will doubtless allow herself to starve to death. The idea of dreams returns, from In-hye this time, who, failing to understand, urges Yeong-hye to forget her troubling dreams. “Surely the dream isn’t all there is? We have to wake up at some point, don’t we? Because … because then …” But there is nothing more to come.

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2014

This year, with fewer (I think) reviews published here than ever before, I’m going to include a couple of books I read but didn’t review, but which have left a good impression at the year end. What better recommendation could there be than that, anyway? Titles are in alphabetical order by author’s name.

(Some of) my favourite books of 2014

Martin Amis: The Zone of Interest
Who’d have thought the old enfant terrible had it in him? The Zone of Interest is, I think, the best novel Amis has written in fifteen years – which may not be saying that much when you consider the other novels he’s written in that period. It is grotesque and horrible, relatively austere in tone (more House of Meetings than Yellow Dog), inventive but faithful, and riddled with bitter wit. It is – I can put it no higher than this – the first Amis novel I’ve looked forward to rereading since Night Train.

Kate Chopin: The Awakening
This novel, first published in 1899, is a widely taught classic in the USA, but seems little read here, despite being readily available. A handsome reissue from Canongate this summer gave it a push, and how grateful I am for that. Chopin’s novel is thoroughly modern and exciting, telling the story of a woman who dares to break society’s taboos with an extra-marital affair. It’s all thrillingly downhill from there.

Mavis Gallant: Across the Bridge
Gallant is one of those names that I had heard of for decades as a virtuoso of the short story, and finally I discovered that they were right. Her work is traditional in form, but so distinctly detailed and beautifully put that her tales of families in Paris, down at heel and on their uppers, are delightful to read. She can challenge, too, with density: the reader daren’t take their mind off the page.

Jonathan Gibbs: Randall
What a surprise and a charm it was to discover that Gibbs, a terrific critic, was just as good a poacher as gamekeeper. Randall (subtitle The Painted Grape: wait! come back!) was full of sentences that pleased me with their combination of elegance and necessity, like Alan Hollinghurst’s before he bloated. The book is also a fascinating analysis of the not-always-bumpy relationship between art and commerce.

Cynan Jones: The Dig
A slight thing from the other end of the year, The Dig has stuck with me throughout. It’s nasty, brutish and short, with an uncanniness which steers it away from the lip of the pit marked Cormac McCarthy that it veers so close to at times. In the end Jones is his own man, making authentically British – Welsh – myths with plenty of horror and muted emotion.

Agota Kristof: The Notebook
When I first read that the trusty CB Editions was reissuing this title, I read about it and immediately knew it was my sort of thing. I practically ran towards it. In the end it was not in my comfort zone at all, and all the better for that. It is very stark and entirely new, and I can finally put it no better than Steve Mitchelmore, who described it as a novel that “runs through the streets screaming.”

Nella Larsen: Quicksand and Passing
Tricky to include a book so recently read, but I think Larsen’s two novellas – pretty much her life’s output of fiction – would have stood up in any event. They are books which tell us about the experiences of mixed-race women in America, but their strength is in the compact telling, which is efficient, affecting and unmistakably blunt.

Elizabeth McCracken: Thunderstruck and other stories
If only more feted short story collections – *cough*LorrieMoore*cough* – were as good as this. Brought together with an undercurrent – an overcurrent – of loss, these stories mccrackle with off-kilter life. They are full of character and charm but never wacky or winsome. Lines and people from them are still bouncing about in my head, months later.

Bernard Malamud: The Fixer
I had high hopes for this, often cited as Malamud’s greatest novel. I was surprised by it: whereas I’ve previously found him a writer who needs to be read slowly to take in his just-so details, I found The Fixer to be a page-turner, practically a thriller. It reports on a man who suffers more than anyone might expect to in antisemitic Tsarist Russia, and it feels like a bomb under your chair.

Ben Marcus: Leaving the Sea
God knows how many times I’ve begun Marcus’s first collection of stories, The Age of Wire and String. I managed to finish this, his second. In part that is because he has undoubtedly moved toward the mainstream with some of his recent fiction, but he retains an edge and a strangeness that sets him apart. The older stories in the collection, closer in spirit to his debut, are frequently baffling but surprisingly moreish.

Jona Oberski: A Childhood
This reissue from Pushkin Press – a little surprise – is simple and beautiful. A very controlled authorial viewpoint drops the reader into the life of a young boy in a certain place at a certain time. That gives it a power and directness that more substantial works on the same subject lack. I tease, and the setting is really no surprise, but this book deserves to be read fresh.

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation
This is probably my favourite new book this year. Aphoristic, dazzling and inventive, Dept. of Speculation has more jokes in it than any other book I read this year, but doesn’t sacrifice resonance. Its approach – discrete paragraphs with no straightforward narrative flow – makes it sound a challenge, but purest pleasure is what I remember about it.

Nella Larsen: Quicksand / Passing

It’s interesting to see a book reclaimed as a classic when you’ve never heard of the author. ‘Classic’ – here it’s in the Serpent’s Tail Classics range – is as much a marketing term as anything else, but I still have a weakness for such series. Like translated literature, ‘classics’ series indicate that at least two sets of editorial eyes, separated by decades, have thought the book worthwhile, and all in the absence of realistic hope of review coverage or a “highly promotable” young author. (Seeing those words in a press release always makes me think that “promote” must be a very new euphemism for a very old act.) Anyway, here we have two short novels – novellas, really, at 130 and 100 pages respectively – from an author who was entirely new to me. Yet when I mentioned the book on Twitter, there was much praise: I’m behind the curve again, this time by 80 or so years.

Nella Larsen: Quicksand and Passing (Serpent's Tail Classics)

Quicksand (1928) tells of some years in the life of Helga Crane, an American woman of mixed race (“mulatto”, as the book casually has it), who at the beginning has just jacked in her job at Naxos, a school in the South, and ended her engagement to a colleague there. “She could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity.” Immediately we get the sharpness of a character who is not presented as entirely selfless or humble: she had become engaged to this man partly because his family were “people of consequence”, and breaking it off will be “social suicide”. She despises Naxos and its setting, and sure enough  (“trains leave here for civilisation every day”) soon sets off for Chicago. There she looks for work but struggles, finding herself overqualified for what’s on offer to ‘people like her’ (“Domestic, mostly”): for the first time she feels “the smallness of her commercial value.” But then – sudden changes become habitual in this novel – she is offered some temporary work with a travelling lecturer: “someone who can get her speeches in order on the train.” This involves travel to New York, and Helga immediately determines to stay there. She feels lit up by the prospect – “The world had changed to silver, and life had ceased to be a struggle and become a gay adventure” – but when all these downs and ups have taken place by page 35, we can be sure that fate is not finished with her yet.

What’s impressive about Quicksand is the way it packs so much into its short extent. It does this by careful elision: at the end of one chapter, for example, the employment agency is about to give Helga some background about the lecturer, Mrs Hayes-Rore, but as we turn to the next page, all that has passed by. A few pages later, the story jumps on by a year – a year “thick with various adventures”, it teasingly tells, without sharing details. But this is enough, because it is Helga’s interior world that the book wants to illuminate. She snobbishly loves New York, both for the people – “their sophisticated cynical talk, their elaborate parties, the unobtrusive correctness of their clothes and homes, all appealed to her craving for smartness, for enjoyment” – and for the things in their homes (“brass-bound Chinese tea-chests, luxurious deep chairs and davenports, tiny tables of gay colour”), indicators to her of history, but a quality of history that distances it from Naxos and her past. Then, again, the author twitches the strings, time skips, and the next chapter opens with “But it didn’t last, this happiness of Helga Crane’s.”

These rolls continue – a delving into Helga’s fear “of herself”, a sudden financial windfall – and soon we see that her misfortune is that she feels herself to be neither one thing nor the other, not black and not white, distant from one race and looking down on the other. When, still less than halfway through her story, we read that she “let herself drop into the blissful sensation of visualising herself in different, strange places, among approving and admiring people, where she would be appreciated, and understood,” we sense that it is a promise not to be kept. Indeed, her most successful time, in some sense, comes when she travels to Denmark and lives there: far from being understood, she is “a decoration. A curio. A peacock”, but it  is happiness of a sort. Even then the story doesn’t rest, and when she reflects toward the end of the book on the names of the people who have passed through her life, I was surprised at how vividly I remembered each of them: so many characters delivered so efficiently! Helga’s final fate is apt and sobering, when she seizes “a chance at stability, at permanent happiness,” and gets exactly what she wished for – and we all know the trouble with that. It’s then that I thought back to the title of the book, and how telling it was all the way through: right from the start, really.

Passing (1929) is, if anything, even better than Quicksand. It is one of those rare books which gives a new – to me – meaning to an everyday word. Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry are sometime friends who are both light-skinned black women, capable of “passing” as white in wider society. The book is full of piercing, brutal dialogue between them and their friends which doesn’t so much as address the issue and punch a hole through it. One, Gertrude, holds forth when Irene visits Clare’s home:

“It’s awful the way it skips generations and then pops out. Why, he actually said he didn’t care what colour it turned out, if I would only stop worrying about it. But, of course, nobody wants a dark child.”

More surprisingly still – and it’s unclear to me if this was novelist’s attention-grabbing, or if it reflected Larsen’s experiences, as apparently Quicksand did – we discover that Clare has married an out-and-out racist, who believes her to be white, but because of her colouring refers to her affectionately as “Nig”. This development gradually meets with the other main plot strand – of Irene’s disdain for Clare as they grow together and apart over the years – to a fairly melodramatic but indelible conclusion. (An aside: is such an ending inevitable for stories of attempted emancipation, whether by race or sex – or, here, both? Other classics I read this year, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s La Femme de Gilles, seem to agree.)

Quicksand was Larsen’s debut, and Passing was published a year later. She lived for another 35 years, but published only a few stories and no further novels, reportedly because of a false accusation of plagiarism in one of the stories. She was the first black woman to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing, but for the last 20 years of her life she worked as a nurse. This was, to put it gently, a loss to literature; it’s small comfort to have this short book – substantially her life’s work – available again.