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.

Simon Crump: Neverland (introduction)

Below is an introduction I’ve written for a new e-book edition of Simon Crump’s Neverland, a novel I found bewildering when I first read it, but quickly came to love. The new edition has been issued by Galley Beggar – of Eimear McBride and Jonathan Gibbs fame – and also contains a new afterword by the author. You can buy it here.

Simon Crump: Neverland

“If I were born with a name like Simon Crump, I would spend the rest of my life trying to get all that anger and resentment out of me by being very rude about other people.”

– Chris de Burgh

*

At around 9:00pm on the evening of 25 June 2009, Simon Crump finished writing Neverland, his book – this book – about a fictional Michael Jackson. It had taken him three years. A few hours later, the real Jackson’s death was reported on gossip website TMZ.com. The internet went mad. Twitter crashed. CNN struggled. Crump’s publisher brought forward publication of the book.

The real Michael Jackson was – what? Funny. Eccentric. Pitiable. Exploited. So Crump’s Michael is a pixel-perfect replacement. He has “Disney music comin out of the fibreglass rocks in the rose bed.” He has an unpredictable relationship with his wife Lisa. “You’re going to put together a 1/32 scale model of Mac & Mike’s water forts whether you want to or not! Don’t fight me, baby, I’ve got a wicked temper and you are liable to get hurt.” He has long circular conversations with best friend Uri (“His eyes grew a shade darker”), which are funny, then not funny, then funny again. Most of all, he is forever seeking, forever lost, forever trying to fill a hole: right from birth, really.

Michael was born with gold in his mouth.

He left his mom without too much trouble. He shimmied out. The midwife held him in her white-gloved grip. She struck his face and a shining nugget plopped onto the soiled sheets of the birthing table. He sang and he danced. He bit off his cord. He slipped on a white glove of his own and signed a few autographs.

‘We love you Michael,’ they all said.

‘I love you more,’ he said back.

They called a priest. After all, a minute-old baby isn’t supposed to act that way.

‘Where is the gold?’ he cried. ‘Where is the gold??’

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.

That is the entirety of the second story in the book, ‘Gold’. Crump, in editing Neverland, cut out 60% of the material: “get the stuff down on the page and then make it less worse.” This ruthlessness shows. Neverland is a short book but each story, or chapter, unfolds inside the reader’s head like an origami flower. Its lean and hungry look is welcome in a world where novels seem to be growing ever longer. Some stories recur or develop – Michael and Uri, Michael’s quest for gold – while others stand alone, isolated and seemingly unconnected to Michael except by a brotherly strangeness, such as a series of portraits of men which give just enough information to drive the reader into a flurry of imaginative empathy. Here is ‘Andrew’ (again, in its entirety):

I’ve been on six twelve-hour night shifts and sad as this may seem your party has been the end of my tunnel. Not everyone lives his or her life alone and for a little while it seems my whole world is all right.

He’s special and he doesn’t speak. Every day for sixteen years he leaves the flat and he gets a paper. One day he gets a paper and he also points at some mints.

The woman behind the counter finally cracks.

‘If you could talk, Andrew, what would you say?’

Unique, and uniquely odd, as Neverland is, it is not without precedent. Indeed, it is a natural(ish) progression from Crump’s first book, My Elvis Blackout, which drew the responses that top and tail this introduction. They are books of what Gordon Burn called the psychopathology of fame, or as Crump puts it, how “we all love our stars, but we much prefer them broken.” They are the cold shower after Heat-world. The bridge between the two books is Lamar, former Elvis lackey and “still 250lbs of fine-lookin hombre.” He is our guide to Michael’s world, having been “out cold” for sixteen years after Elvis’s death, and now gaining employment in Neverland. When they meet, Michael tells him, “I made love to Lisa in my Mickey Mouse pyjamas. And then I asked her to marry me. One day she’s going to give me a little boy of my own.” This nudge-nudge stuff is as close as Crump gets to mocking Michael: elsewhere, the vision is of sad-eyed sympathy, perhaps with an occasional shake of the head.

Neverland is a book of contrasts. It is both absurdly silly and a work of serious artistry. It is a product of frightening imagination and originality, which turns whole pages over to extracts from Wikipedia. Its subject is all-American but it is full of quintessentially English cultural reference points, from Pulp’s ‘Common People’ to Cannon and Ball. Its author refers to it as a collection of stories, yet it is clearly much more coherent and unified than that. But it is the beautiful clashing sound made by silly jokes overlaid on a sadness that pervades every page that makes the reader marvel at Neverland’s starkest polarity, and ask: was there ever a book simultaneously so dark, and light?

*

“We do not know who is this Simon Crump but he is not welcome in our town.”

– German Elvis fansite

Madeleine Bourdhouxhe: La Femme de Gilles

Daunt Books, best known as a bookshop chain in affluent parts of London, is also a publisher. As well as issuing contemporary fiction such as Philip Langeskov’s story Barcelona, Daunt has been quietly – perhaps too quietly – reissuing some very interesting 20th century authors, including Jiří Weil and Sybille Bedford. When I saw praise for this reissue, accompanied by an image of its striking cover (by AKA Alice), I was sold.

Madeleine Bourdouxhe: La Femme de Gilles (Daunt Books)

La Femme de Gilles (1937, tr. 1992 by Faith Evans) was Bourdouxhe’s first novel. It opens in unignorable style, with the title character, Elisa, making soup as she awaits her husband’s arrival home from work. The thought of him arriving “paralyses her completely,” but not because she fears him. She is “giddy with tenderness … stock still, panting for breath.” Indeed, “overcome by the thought of his return … her body loses all its strength.” When he actually arrives, we are lost:

When she speaks his name, it comes out as brief and wet as a whisper: saliva fills her mouth, moistening her curved lips and escaping at the corners in two tiny bubbles.

My response to all this was cooler than Elisa’s, somewhere between wondering whether there’s a female-on-male equivalent for the word uxorious (there is, though it never really caught on), and thinking Get a room! But it turns out that this overblown responsiveness – ultradevoted, hypererotic – is an important foundation for the story to come. After all, if Elisa didn’t adore her husband so much, it wouldn’t matter as much when he starts to have an affair with her younger sister, Victorine. “Desire takes hold suddenly, out of nowhere.” It happens in a short scene, made appropriately turbulent but also somewhat weakened by the flickering shifts from one viewpoint to another – from Gilles to Victorine and back again. The rest of the story is told exclusively through Elisa’s eyes, and it’s easy to see why Bourdouxhe chose to show the birth of Gilles’ and Victorine’s affair this way – efficiency, for one – but it dilutes the unity of the narrative. I also wondered how the book might have worked if we had continued to be limited to Elisa’s viewpoint, and if our discovery of the affair had not taken place until her own, partway through the book.

But it is what it is, and is not less interesting because of it. Indeed, it’s an intense blizzard of a journey through Elisa’s head as she struggles to come to terms not only with the affair, but with her own knowledge of it. Subjugated, housetrained – and still deeply in love – she rationalises it, turns the situation around by thinking of what she still has rather than what she has lost. “At least nothing is irrevocably broken: he is living with her, after all, he is sleeping by her side… As long as he is still there, he’s still hers.” It gets worse, when Elisa does confront her husband, and finds herself taking the role of agony aunt for his relationship issues; no indignity is too low if it means that he still needs her. “She kept saying to herself, ‘It’s like an illness, a terrible illness gnawing away at him…'”

All of this, of course, cannot come to any good (“Elisa is advancing through happiness to annihilation”), though the mechanism of Elisa’s downfall is surprising and satisfying, even if the outcome itself is only one of those. I read this book fairly soon after Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, another reissue of a book little-read in the UK, and the two books have much in common: the modern air, the inevitable ending, the account of a woman hemmed in by expectations: society’s, or her own. This edition of La Femme de Gilles comes with an afterword by its translator, Faith Evans, which provides much context and insight into the book and its author. Take the title, which is untranslated because it is untranslatable without losing its subtlety. Femme means both wife and woman, and the ambiguity is essential to reflect the balance of Elisa’s status. Attention to detail like this help us see why Bourdouxhe late in life said of this, her debut novel, ‘Every now and again I think about it, and I think – “That’s not so bad”.’

Jona Oberski: A Childhood

Pushkin Press, two years into new ownership and going from strong to stronger, is one of the few publishers I buy books from on reputation alone (see also: NYRB Classics, CB Editions, Penguin Modern Classics). Their untouchably handsome Pushkin Collection titles, designed by Clare Skeats and David Pearson, are usually new translations of overlooked 20th century world fiction. This is a slight variation: a reissue of a book already translated: the first English edition was published thirty years ago. Fortunately, Pushkin’s eye has not dimmed: this tiny novel, which Alan Sillitoe called “the book of this damned century,” was worth reissuing.

Jona Oberski: A Childhood (Pushkin Press)

A Childhood (Kinderjaren, 1978; tr. 1983 by Ralph Manheim) is a short book – on normal sized pages it would be below 100 pages; in the Pushkin Collection it stretches to 127 – and this will be a short review. What to say about it other than to admit that it approaches perfection? So engaged was I while reading it that I didn’t even mark any notable passages as I went, so this review will be light on quotes.

But there might be another reason why I didn’t. The key to the book’s success is its absolute submission to the viewpoint of its narrator, a boy who is seven years old at the book’s end. So the language is plain, unaffected, with not many memorable sentences or shiny turns of phrase. We are completely within the boy’s head, and we take from the events only what he takes. When the book opens with his mother saying, “Don’t be afraid. Everything’s all right. I’m right here,” we might suspect otherwise, but there is no authorial irony overlaid: the narrative is entirely unadulterated (pun intended) by grown-up insights. In the opening scenes, the boy is first in darkness and then has his eyes closed, and the trust he must put in his mother to guide him fairly represents the reader’s dependence his words.

This is a rare achievement and a delight, because my experience is that very few narratives do restrict themselves completely to their character’s viewpoint, and they lose plausibility and connection as a result. A third person narrative is typically told through one character’s eyes at a time, yet how often I find myself howling in horror when a narrator starts describing or contemplating things that no real person ever would in that situation. Often this is background detail or ‘helpful’ colour: a character reflecting on their job or home life in a way that nobody really would, except that it saves having to convey the information to the reader more subtly. Take this story by thriller writer Matthew Reilly, where a character looks out a tower block window in Manhattan and notes the buildings he can see, and then devolves into guidebook gabble with: “In the concrete jungle in between the river and the Empire State, the keen tourist would find Grand Central Station, fashionable Fifth Avenue, and on the banks of the river itself, the UN building.” That is an extreme example, but it’s remarkable how few writers really do control the viewpoint properly. William Golding is one: in The Inheritors, Pincher Martin and The Spire he gives the reader only what his characters might be thinking. It makes for harder work, but the benefits – involvement, plausibility, intensity and force of narrative – are multiple.

Oberski balances the information carefully. There are a few details which direct the reader on what might be happening: references to a country the family wants to travel to, a decoration the boy’s mother sews on his coat. Only later do we get specifics, as the information might reasonably have seeped into the boy’s consciousness. What we see is clear but concealed. In writing about it this way, I am withholding details artificially, and anyway it is not a surprising or unique setting, but I do think it worth reading cold, without much advance knowledge. Where the technique is most effective is when the boy is viewing adult emotions without experiencing them himself: the reader can feel them strongly, with the boy as a symptomless carrier, but without seeming to be manipulated. (The manipulation is there, but it feels as though the reader is doing some work along with the author, so it slips smoothly by.) And there is a powerful swell of direct emotion as the book ends, and a pleasingly ambiguous future is suggested. We are left only with a beautifully judged epigraph facing the final page, which seems to bolster the idea, never far off, that this was as much memoir as novel.

For my foster parents
who had quite a time
with me.

A word in conclusion about the cover image. The delicate illustration is by Eleanor Crow, and is based on the cover image for the Dutch edition. However it seems very likely that the original drawing was based on this photograph of Franz Kafka at four years old (as pointed out by Steve Mitchelmore, when I tweeted the cover). An odd connection: anyone with any understanding of this should make free in the comments section below.

Oberski and Kafka