What with one thing and another I haven’t been able to write about as many of the books I’ve been reading as I would have liked: so, by way of a corrective, I thought I’d talk about a few of the books I’ve enjoyed and, occasionally, been slightly baffled by over the last few months – with no pretence of adherence to chronological order, I should add. The full list of this year’s reading is to be found by clicking on ‘Books Read 2013’ somewhere above here.
One of my resolutions for this year was to read more American and translated fiction. Much to my surprise this actually seems to have gone fairly well. Indeed, one of my favourite novels this year is Gerbrand Bakker’s The Detour, which won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize a few months ago and makes more references to Escape to the Country than one might have expected. So quiet and full of life, my overriding impression of The Detour was of a vibrating air surrounding the Dutch woman mysteriously arrived in Wales, of a thickness to the medium which was not cloying, for the language is transparency itself, but somehow, like water, able to propagate feeling and mystery all the more effectively for its density.
Whereas The Detour vibrated due to some uneasy tension, All Dogs are Blue, the latest translation from And Other Stories, derives its energy from a riotous and rebellious challenge to narrative and the mental institutions of Brazil. In her introduction, Deborah Levy calls Rodrigo De Souza Leão’s work ‘a comic modernist novel about being messed up – and then being messed up even more by numbing doses of pharmaceuticals.’ The sheer momentum generated by Souza Leão powers one through the book. A first reading just has to take in the manifold ramifying threads of a stream of consciousness the balance of which is as undermined by the society in which it finds itself as much as it is by any illness or ensuing medication to which it is subject. ‘I swallowed a chip yesterday. It forced myself to talk about the system that surrounds me. There was an electrode on my forehead. I don’t know if I swallowed the electrode with the chip. The horses were galloping. Except for the seahorse, who was swimming around in the aquarium.’ Quite an opening paragraph.
Speaking of opening paragraphs, James Salter is known for them, and his most famous is that which begins Light Years.
We dash the black river, its flats smooth as stone. Not a ship, not a dinghy, not one cry of white. The water lies broken, cracked from the wind. This great estuary is wide, endless. The river is brackish, blue with cold. It passes beneath us blurring. The sea birds hang above it, they wheel, disappear. We flash the wide river, a dream of the past. The deeps fall behind, the bottom is paling the surface, we rush by the shallows, boats beached for winter, desolate piers. And on wings like the gulls, soar up, turn, look back.
Which, in its current of refracted nostalgia, fractured distances, and coldly receding life, captures the intuition of the entire novel. A work of dissolution and awing concision of character, not to mention the scattering of stunning paragraphs, Light Years is remarkable. Salter likes water: the opening sentence of his latest novel All That Is runs: All night in darkness the water sped past. Despite this – and some Twitter murmurings about a thirsty horse – I haven’t quite got around to reading All That Is yet. I have a habit of eagerly awaiting novels and then suddenly finding myself unable to pick them up.
Glorying in a different kind of linguistic bravado one finds Sam Byer’s Idiopathy, described as ‘A novel of love, narcissism and ailing cattle’. Each of Byers’ three central characters is mired in a different kind of self-involvement and self-pity, symbolised by those ailing cattle standing ‘at the edges of fields staring blank and unblinking into the middle distance, starving and dehydrating to death.’ The prose matches and vindicates the rationale. Byers’ sentences twist and turn, moving back and forth, in and out, becoming increasing self-involved before, rather unlike the thoughts of his subjects, resolving beautifully. Likewise, each sentence forms part of a paragraph whose guiding thought is clear, but whose meandering yet controlled course mirrors both the contours of introspection and the ‘self-caused cause’ that is its impetus. Byers consistently finds the humour that underlies the nonsense we manage to twist our thoughts and lives in to.
Gabriel Roth’s The Unknowns also addresses the challenges of interpersonal communication and love. (No cattle). Through the nice premise of an expert in user interfaces who is nonetheless bad with people until he develops a theoretical framework with which to approach them, Roth questions the relationship between people and the facts about them, between knowing someone and understanding them. The Unknowns reminded me of the debates in the philosophy of mind which ask how it is that we predict or understand the behaviour and thought of others given the inaccessibility of their mental lives. This is often called ‘folk psychology’. One view, ‘Theory-theory’, holds that we understand the behaviour and thoughts of others (‘mindreading’) by accessing a theory of human behaviour we all hold in our minds: we reason somehow about others and come to conclusions about their lives. Roth’s novel is rather snappier and an awful lot funnier than the texts one finds in the philosophy of mind, but it covers the same ground and highlights that same gulf in knowledge and understanding which we have to find some way to bridge if we are ever to relate to anybody.
The development of knowledge and understanding that attends immersion in literature is the satirical substance of the most straightforwardly joyous book I’ve read recently: Alan Bennett’s The Uncommon Reader. A small book which manages to contain more insight about the value of reading and the fear it engenders in others. One of my favourite passages finds the increasingly literate Queen reciting Larkin’s The Trees during what would otherwise be a rather run-of-the-mill planting. (This is one of my favourite poems, which helps). Everyone should read Bennett’s very short, but lovely book.
‘See a town stucco-pink, fishbelly white…’ To return to the Americas, Donald Antrim’s reissued Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World was one of the more disconcerting novels I’ve read this year, which is probably why I didn’t review it at the time. I was baffled. I had lots of words I could use: surreal, macabre, fantastical, satirical, bloody odd, and so on; but I couldn’t make them cohere into the substance of a review. And perhaps this is the point. Antrim’s novel defies the kind of approach I often take to reviewing. It’s defiantly violent and refuses to allow that violence to signify in the way that literary novels so often do; its language is so at odds with its subject which is magnified and twisted as a result; its amorality challenges the narrative one wants to place on it. It’s not easy.
I might also have been quite tired when I read it.
This might also be true of Jim Crace’s Booker longlisted Harvest, but given my lack of response to his earlier Quarantine, I think I may simply have a Crace blind spot. Crace is one of those whose technical ability, whose sentence-making, I recognise in an abstract way, but whose writing simply fails to move me. ‘This land has always been much older than ourselves’. Its insistently measured pace, its careful probing of a thought, a place, a person, a name, or possibility enlarges the space of Crace’s prose, makes its spaces rich and sacred, but in the same way renders it detached, dreamlike, everywhere and nowhere: so richly detailed, so freely of the earthy and sky, yet none that we may find.
To continue in the vein of books about which I am ambivalent, Matt Suddain’s enormous Theatre of the Gods challenges merely by its length. This tale of transuniversal exploration is as big and brash and ambitious as any science fiction/fantasy one might name. It’s full of wit and intelligence and might be somewhat too aware of the fact. In short, it might be shorter. The sprawling character of the narrative as we follow M. Francisco Fabrigas (explorer, philosopher, heretical physicist) across the universes as he battles, amongst others, the Pope of the universe, myriad assassins, and the flora of one very dangerous moon, is part of the essential character of the work. However, certain passages descend into something of a display, which might, of course, be evidence of the supposed narrator of Fabrigas’ tale. If you feel like taking on a big book with big ideas and definite talent behind it, then Theatre of the Gods is worth considering.
Finally, and in contrast, I read Magda by Meike Ziervogel, which follows Magda Goebbels from her abusive childhood to Hitler’s bunker beneath Berlin. Ziervogel’s writing is at its most remarkable when probing the spiritual starvation Magda feels and her satiation in the person and project of her Fuhrer: ‘This man believes in meaning, this man delivers meaning, this man is meaning. He is mind without body and Magda is inspired; the spirit has entered her, the Holy Spirit has come to her and taken her, planting a seed in her as he did with the Virgin Mary.’ One of the challenges of writing about historical figures is to resist the inevitability of their fate; it is even more challenging when those figures have such a hand in that determination. Ziervogel’s painful portrayal of Magda and the fear and confusion of her children as the steel doors close on them is chillingly good. The interpenetration of prostration before the cross, before an abuser, before National Socialism; of bodily and national resurrection, of abuse and purity and the manner in which the victim comes to feel unclean and seek forgiveness; of the bitter irony of one people believing itself chosen and thus seeking to exterminate another: all is brought to bear in Magda.
And that’s some of the books I’ve read recently. One book I’ve not written about is Javier Marías’ The Man of Feeling. I’m going to need a while to get my head around that one. It’s brilliant, but I think I need to reread it at least once before I can say much about it. The same goes for Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, which is remarkable and full of wisdom and humanity. My next post should be a few thoughts on Dracula.
Titles with a star were review copies.
- *Harvest (Picador)
- The Uncommon Reader (Faber/Profile)
- The Detour (Vintage)
- Light Years (Harvill Press)
- *Elect Mr Robinson for a Better World (Granta)
- *Idiopathy (Fourth Estate)
- All Dogs are Blue (And Other Stories)
- *Magda (Salt)
- *The Unknowns (Picador/Waywiser Press)
- *Theatre of the Gods (Jonathan Cape)