Books of the Year 2007 symposium
It's Books of the Year time again! I've asked a number of friends and contributors to ReadySteadyBook to tell me which books impressed and moved them most this year, regardless of whether the books concerned were published this year or not.
The RSB Books of the Year 2007 symposium contributors are: Derek Attridge, Edward Champion, Richard Crary, Jonathan Derbyshire, Max Dunbar, Scott Esposito, Gavin Everall, Rebecca Ford, Lars Iyer, Gabriel Josipovici, Robert Kelly, William Large, Charlotte Mandell, Stephen Mitchelmore, Nicholas Murray, Scott Pack, Rodney Pybus, Lee Rourke, Anthony Rudolf, Leora Skolkin-Smith, Dan Visel, Eliot Weinberger and Ken Worpole. Oh, and also me! Thanks to everyone who contributed.
Derek Attridge is an academic and critic. He is the author of many books including J.M. Coetzee and the Ethics of Reading
I spent a good chunk of 2007 reading slowly through Marlene van Niekerk's Agaat in the superb translation from the Afrikaans by Michiel Heyns (Little, Brown have recently published Heyns's under the rather unfortunate title The Way of the Women). In a completely different vein from her equally remarkable Triomf (though just as long), van Niekerk's novel tracks the internal turmoil of an Afrikaner woman on a South African farm who is dying of a neurodegenerative disease that gradually paralyses her entire body while it leaves her mind active. It sounds grim, but it has its comic edge: there is a dark humour to the power struggle between the white mistress Milla and her coloured servant Agaat, adopted when she was a helpless child but now fully in command. Memories, diary entries, and poetic interludes allow the story of the relationship to emerge gradually, and the result is a powerful exploration of the significance of race in South Africa's recent history.
I'm now part way through another impressive, and impressively long, Afrikaans novel, this time in a translation by André Brink: Dan Sleigh's Islands. (Also unavailable in the UK, but there are second-hand copies out there.) It's a historical fiction about the first fifty years of the Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope, told in meticulous, convincing detail. Another of South Africa's best novelists, Ivan Vladislavic, who writes in English, has turned to historical reality, but in this case the reality of post-apartheid Johannesburg. I enjoyed his Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked immensely. This one's easy to get hold of.
In considering 2007's tepid tomes, it would be difficult for me to find a book more diseased and paralogic in its thinking than Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur, which garnered more attention than I suspected it would. Perhaps all the newspaper column inches were devoted to Keen's glorified chapbook because so many pundits were fascinated by a man hell-bent on committing career suicide. Or maybe they harbored a desire to lodge their hatchets into the medium that they quietly perceived as a minatory competitor. Whatever the motivations, it was clear even from the reception that Keen wasn't so much a writer, as he was a cranky quack and a two-bit promoter, using the very medium he condemned to keep his facile argument alive so long as anyone would listen. But if anybody even remembers Keen next year, I'll certainly be surprised. Maybe Keen's book is the first wave for a more thoughtful polemical volume from someone else on the subject. But for now, we must contend with a book that contains arguments more inept than a fundamentalist church picnic organizer who lacks the humility to apologize for the overfried chicken.
More than any other writer, my reading year was consumed with Gabriel Josipovici. There was his marvelous novel, Goldberg: Variations, of course, but his beautiful works of criticism, The Book of God and On Trust, have meant more to me than any other literary books I've read this year. I returned to them numerous times throughout the year and expect I will continue to return to them in the months and years to come. Now if I could only find an affordable copy of The Singer on the Shore.
The most beautiful work of fiction I read this year was V.S. Naipaul's The Enigma of Arrival. I read with great pleasure Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy (The Sportswriter, Independence Day and Lay of the Land). I was happy to finally read Muriel Spark (Memento Mori; The Ballad of Peckham Rye) and Marguerite Duras (The Lover), and to re-read Philip Roth (the books comprising Zuckerman Bound). I enjoyed reading some in the shallow end of Beckett (e.g. Watt); I'm excited to dive into the Trilogy next.
I spent much of the year dipping into Fernando Pessoa's remarkable volume, The Book of Disquiet. I also loved Rebecca Goldstein's Betraying Spinoza.
For political writing, two books stood out for me: Empire of Capital by Ellen Meiksins Wood and Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War, 1973-1992 from the Midnight Notes Collective. Wood makes clear the importance states have for capitalism; the Midnight Notes writers remind us, with extremely lucid and specific essays dating from the beginnings of the ongoing neo-liberal effort to roll back decades of working class advances, on through to the reasons behind the first Gulf War, that above all capitalism is, and must be, class war. Far from out of date, this book, combined with Wood's, helps render our recent history more comprehensible and helps us understand where we must focus our resistance.
Charles Taylor‚ A Secular Age is a staggeringly comprehensive philosophical history of secularization. The noisy pamphleteering of the 'New Atheists' (Dawkins et al) is pretty thin gruel in comparison.
The Curtain by Milan Kundera was the finest critical book of the year: thoroughly idiosyncratic, gently but insistently provocative and the best incentive anyone could need to go off and read the great Mittel-european modernists - Gombrowicz, Kafka and Musil.
Robert Macfarlane may well have reinvented nature-writing in his The Wild Places - at least he has shown that the pastoral isn't the only mode in which to write about landscape.
In Diary of a Bad Year J.M. Coetzee refined his art to a kind of chilly perfection. And in Men In Space Tom McCarthy offered further evidence of an unusual talent.
My fiction choice of the year has to be Christopher Brookmyre’s Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks. Brookmyre’s latest and best novel sees the scribbling protagonist Jack Parlabane up against a fraudulent psychic and an unhealthy alliance of neocons and spiritualists. With this funny, empathetic and chilling book, Brookmyre has proved himself the true master of misdirection.
In her third novel Joshua Spassky Gwendoline Riley leaves the Manchester of Cold Water and Sick Notes to take us through the last disintegrating stages of a transatlantic relationship. Riley’s is the most beautiful, economical prose to come out of Manchester in a generation.
Christopher Hitchens is always, literally, a joy to read on almost any subject. On religion he’s exceptionally fine – he says of God is Not Great: The Case Against Religion that ‘I have been writing this book all my life, and intend to keep on writing it.’ Read it with alcohol and cigarettes to hand, as Hitchens would. And then wonder why we entertained faith’s sinister fairytales for so long.
Another essential non-fiction book is Nick Cohen’s What’s Left? a fascinating look at the reactionary and small-minded nature of modern liberal thought. If you feel there should be more to the Left than waving placards saying ‘We are all Hezbollah now,’ then this is the place to start.
This year I discovered Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis books a wonderful story of an Iranian woman’s childhood, voyage and return. Told in stark graphic, these books have been out for a while and I recommend them unreservedly.
That’s it: a great New Year to RSB, The Book Depository and all its contributors and readers.
I'm a big advocate of the test of time—often I've favorably impressed by a book right when I finish, but in the ensuing weeks and months, when I have a chance to look back through a book and see how it ages in my mind, many books that I once thought were good begin to lose their luster. So, in order that you can attach the proper grains of salt to each pick, I'm going to do my favorites for 2007 in the order in which I read them.
Chris Adrian's The Children's Hospital, the third book I read, reads like a grand old mannered novel that got stuck with a 21st-century premise: there's a new Biblical Flood, and all that survives is a children's hospital. The story unfolds as the staff and the tiny patients figure out what God has in store for them. If this sounds overly religious and fantastic, it isn't — Adrian builds amazingly realistic characters while telling a tale that, although it certainly includes elements of fantasy, should satisfy any devoted realist. Adrian's an amazing talent, and for more info read my review of this book at the Quarterly Conversation.
A couple books later I read what might be my very favorite novel of the past few years: Life a User's Manual by Georges Perec. This novel simply describes the rooms in a Paris apartment building, but in these descriptions Perec ranges all over the world, telling all kinds of amazing, intricately crafted stories. The whole book it too complex and well-built to ever do justice to in a small paragraph like this—so, please, just read it.
At number 15 is The Savage Detectives, another book composed of discreet, story-type units. This book is generally agreed to be Roberto Bolaño's masterpiece (either that or the never-completed 2666), and in it Bolaño simply traces the lives of two poet-youths as they and their forgotten generation age. Though the book is innovative and stylistically challenging, it still delivers realistic characters and deep emotion.
About ten down we come to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and the first book of Proust, both of which I won't bother to write about as readers probably know about them already, and then at 28 Raymond Queneau's Witch Grass, a wonderful, playful book that one might legitimately say is about "nothing." Some have said that this is Queneau's gloss, in novel form, of Descartes' "I think, therefore I am," but regardless of how you interpret it, this is a plain old joyful read, as Queneau's prose is continually fresh and entertaining.
At 36 is Austen's Sense and Sensibility, which made me wish I had read her earlier; Edith Wharton's Age of Innocence follows at 37. Then we get onto some works of criticism: Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, in which he lays out his famous theory of myths in which he tries to pin down the basic kinds of stories people tell. Though this book is sometimes dense, there's a lot here, and it certainly changed the way I looked at narratives. A little after that I read Wayne Booth's The Rhetoric of Fiction, in which he looks at how works of fiction are built. As erudite as this book is, it's highly readable; Booth meant this as the definitive book on rhetoric in fiction, and though he tried to bite off more than he (or probably anyone) could chew this is about as good an attempt as you're going to get.
After that I dipped into a little Spanish, reading Cesar Aira's How I Became a Nun and Enrique Vila-Matas's Bartleby & Co. The Aira is a subversively funny work about a little boy (or is it girl?) who has an completely crazy experience when his father takes him out for his first taste of ice cream; the Vila-Matas is an un-novel that is composed entirely of footnotes to a book never written about writers who stopped writing. It's a very clever book that transcends mere cleverness, and for more about Via-Matas, whom I think is an amazing writer, have a look at my essay on him at the Quarterly Conversation.
After that there was Iris Murdoch's masterful The Sea, the Sea. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin, the unforgettable Tristram Shandy, Alex Ross's fine overview of 20th-century classical music, The Rest Is Noise, George Eliot's Middlemarch (which I can't recommend highly enough), and, most recently, the Renaissance work of 100 stories, The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio.
Though the last was written in the 14th century and may seem a little old and musty, I hope people give it a look. These stories are clinics in how to compose a short work of fiction, and reading them compared to something written by a more contemporary author is as refreshing as listing to a Bach sonata after taking in a symphony by Shostakovich. Moreover, these are just plain fun — Boccaccio's swipes at the church make you realize that people always have, and always will, have axes to grind with politicians and those in power, and his stories are bawdy enough to make you laugh out loud at his boldness.
Gavin Everall works for Book Works and is one of the editors of Make Everything New - A Project On Communism. He is currently working with Stewart Home on Semina, a new series of experimental fiction
During a year spent returning to the beat and existential, I feel indebted to the friend who recommended Death in Rome by Wolfgang Koeppen. His unrelenting prose with its cruel and bitter phrases manifests a devastating critique of post-war Germany. Hopefully there will be a Koeppen for our own disgraceful times. Other moments of joy included the belated reading of Cain's Book by Alexander Trocchi, Alain Badiou's Polemics, and a collection of artists' short stories The Alpine Fantasy of Victor B, in particular the contributions by Brighid Lowe, Janice Kerbel and Paul Rooney.
Sorry for not picking something more obscure but I had to go with my gut instinct. I have been telling everyone I know to read The Savage Detectives. I convinced my father to read it at the same time as me, so we could talk about it. Not long after my father called to ask if I was aware of just how much sexual content there was in the opening chapters? He was already 100 pages ahead of me.
While the overall hurtling story and immersion into the world of Mexican poets was enough to make me love this book, it was the small narratives from a variety of voices that stuck with me as the most enjoyable aspect of the novel. Auxilio stuck in a university bathroom while the Mexican police raided the university, a night in the midst of Civil War in Liberia where one of the main characters, Belano, disappears, a duel with a literary critic on the beach (how many authors have dreamed of such a showdown?),
At the end you are left with a strong feeling that art cannot be separated from the realities of life, and that perhaps, life itself, with all the mishaps and serendipity, is itself, art.
What am I reading now? What Hath God Wrought.
Books of the year? In fiction, Vila-Matas' Montano began wondrously, but was vastly overlong; his Bartleby & Co seemed sketchy by comparison. Handke's Crossing the Sierra de Gredos was a major disappointment; I reread Slow Homecoming to be reminded of what I sought from his work in the first place.
Like everyone else, I was impressed with McCarthy's The Road, though I'm currently struggling with Blood Meridian. I finished the Richard Ford trilogy, the first of which, The Sportswriter is very much the best; I am in mourning for Frank Bascombe's narrative voice. Echenoz's Ravel was brief and elegant, growing nicely in the memory. As usual, the fiction I read was entirely directed by Steve Mitchelmore's This Space.
In biography, I found Anne Atik's memoir How It Was, which recalls the friendship between her family and Samuel Beckett wholly admirable - it gives a full account of aspects of his personality and his artistic tastes, but remains admirably clear of gossip. In philosophy, Stephane Moses' System and Revelation is peerless as a guide to Rosenzweig, whose Star of Redemption I have been trying to understand for many years. Jean-Luc Nancy's Listening was intriguing but hermetic; read alongside Ian James's lucid overview of his thought, it became clearer. The essay collection, Foucault and His Interlocutors collects Paul Veyne's superlative Foucault Revolutionises History; I've also been going through Deleuze's immensely rich Foucault.
I think Thomas Carl Wall's Radical Passivity remains the best book on Blanchot, whose A Voice From Elsewhere was a treat, beautifully rendered by Charlotte Mandell. I've kept Laure: The Collected Writings by my bed all year; the excerpts from Bataille's diary are particularly moving. Alexander Irwin's Saints of the Impossible reminds me that I should read more Simone Weil. Klossowski's Such A Deathly Desire, which must have been difficult to translate, has just arrived by post; that and an advance copy of Peter Szendy's Listen: A History of Our Ears are the two books I'm most eager to begin.
Kafka's fasting showman or Hunger-artist tells the circus owner who employed him that he is dying because he could not find food that would nourish him. One knows what Kafka means. Very little of the book-food on offer these days nourishes, and you can tell that from the first page. The exceptions are to be treasured. They are the books that give you that most precious thing, the sense of the utter otherness of the world. And it is only through the actual writing that that can be conveyed. Rosalind Belben does this in her remarkable novel, Our Horses in Egypt. Some of it is very funny in a strange at-an-angle-to-the-world sort of way. Some of it I found hard going, as I find some of James or Conrad hard going - i.e. rewarding in the end. But this is the real thing, what the fasting showman lacked: food that nourishes. At a different level I also enjoyed Enrique Vila-Matas's Montano's Malady. It's a little too knowing and literary for my liking, but often very funny and manages to keep going for a surprisingly long time. Otherwise all the new food I was offered was fast food, artfully packaged and bad for the system.
Two splendid pieces of non-fiction came my way. Tony Nuttall was a friend for forty-four years and a colleague for twenty-five. He was an inspiring teacher and friend. He died this year, at seventy, having just read the proofs of his last book, Shakespeare The Thinker. Tony lived and breathed Shakespeare and he was fascinated by the processes of thought. Though he wrote a great deal, this is probably his best book and possibly the best single book on Shakespeare. Philip Davis's Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life reminds one that its subject was a very great writer, in a different league from the Roths and Updikes and all those other American authors eager to claim our attention, and reveals what a driven and tormented man he was. Davis charts brilliantly the way in which a natural writer comes into his own, determined to do what he has to do, whatever the consequences. I loved the fact that there are more photographs of manuscript pages, worked and reworked by someone determined to get every word right, than there are of wives and lovers. A brilliant and moving book.
The Forest of Hours Kerstin Ekman. A mainstream Swedish novelist writes an incredible story – a troll from the northern forests is drawn into human life, love, alchemy, war – his centuries-long life stays fresh with the most intimate presence of ‘natural’ fact. Magic Realism with somber gravity. As beautiful a book as I’ve read in a long time.
On The Integration of Nature Richard Grossinger. He’s become our Thoreau, the inspector of connections, the non-theoretical observer of our sad and beautiful struggles to free ourselves into personal lives that do not wreck other people. In a vivid, episodic array of dense but discontinuous passages, he makes me think about all the details of daily culture in and against the strivings of art and science. Nobody writes the way he does, and nobody I know (except weird dissimilars like David Jones, Guy Davenport, Iain Sinclair) reaches so far, misses so few tricks.
Darwinia Robert Charles Wilson. This Canadian science-fiction writer seems to know what the essence of our need is: to reconstitute the planet, move to the alternate address. In Darwinia he unpeoples Europe and remakes its biology, and lets it become a virgin wilderness for the rest of the world to exploit. Postcolonialism Squared.
Valis Philip K. Dick. I finally got around to reading Philip K. Dick, and this even stranger late work is impressive, not at all the paranoid runaround I was expecting. His madness can be gentle too, perceptive, embracing.
Les Bienveillantes Jonathan Littell. A huge novel, written in French by an American ex-pat. It won the Prix Goncourt and became a bestseller in France last year. Huge scope of the War, told from inside, a sensitive, alert, detestable SS officer carries us from Stalingrad to the ruins of Berlin. Along the way are raptures of beauty and destruction. Two astonishing passages: an old Jew makes the German officer help him find his destined grave and, quite late in the book, we hear a thirty page solo aria for autoerotic fantasist in the empty woods of Pomerania. The story is always about him, and the reader keeps strange company – I remembered Malaparte’s Kaputt, Tournier’s The Ogre, Dostoevsky’s Stavrogin – but Max Aue is himself, and very strange.
Lingos I-IX Ulf Stolterfoht (brilliant translation by Rosmarie Waldrop). Stolterfoht’s books in German seem to form a sequence called Fachsprache - technical language or specialist vocabulary – lingo is a grand equivalent. I love these pieces, rapt densities that toy with meaning the way a busy man might fiddle with a piece of string. How can I not fall for a line like “old man in runic rapture laid down his arms”?
Margaret Barker, The Great High Priest and The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God. Christopher Bamford put me onto this private scholar’s radical and transforming vision of primal Judaism as it shimmers faithfully if strangely in early Christian worship – taking us back towards an ancient goddess of Wisdom, no, who is Wisdom, restored to her Temple. You will not read the Bible the same way ever after. These two books are solidly reasoned, evidently based on sound research in – but fiercely innovative. She has lots of papers easy to find on the Web, too.
Every year I fall in love with Thomas Bernhard again –- this year it was Old Masters that did it. And Michael Ives and Mary Caponegro gave me three more TB’s for my birthday...
And Bernhard’s searing The Loser led me in turn to two books of/about Glenn Gould, Conversations with Glenn Gould and The Glenn Gould Reader.
The Atlantis Manifesto Peter Lamborn Wilson. A pithy summoning of all we really know and hope about Atlantis. (Full disclosure moment: the second edition will append my commentary/review of the first edition...)
Descents of Memory: A Life of John Cowper Powys Morine Krissdottir. Sympathetic, detailed, a psychoanalyst’s understanding of a complex and troubling genius.
The Brazen Head John Cowper Powys. The last of his major novels, and one I hadn’t read till just now, great as my enthusiasm for him has been since I first read A Glastonbury Romance twenty years ago. Powys is that rare thing, like Dostoevsky or Broch or Hardy himself, a great writer who is not an especially ‘good’ writer.
A Voice from Elsewhere Maurice Blanchot. From the profound sweetness of a critic who restores to that art a precise observation void of prejudice. Astonishing that this saint of French theory is himself chary of “theory” in his readings. I cherish his delicate kinship with René Char, and his strange, chaste readings of Celan’s poems, some of which he reorganizes into French.
William Large is a philosopher and author of Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot: Ethics and the Ambiguity of Writing
Having just finished writing a book on Heidegger's Being and Time, I spent most of the year reading every commentary on the damn thing. Of course, the book itself is one of the most important philosophy books of the twentieth century, if not western philosophy, but I can't really recommend any of the books written about it (not even my own, I might add). Perhaps only real philosophers (and others) respond well to the writing of another philosopher, so that is to be expected. As usual read the same authors, Kafka and Blanchot. The best new writer for me is Laszlo Krasznahorkai.
RSB interviewee Charlotte Mandell is a skilled translator of poetry and philosophy - most notably of the work of Maurice Blanchot, most recently Blanchot's A Voice From Elsewhere.
Novels in Three Lines by Félix Fénéon, translated from the French by Luc Sante. An unclassifiable book if ever there was one -- surreal and absurd and very funny in a macabre sort of way.
Shamrock Tea by Ciaran Carson -- van Eyck's Arnolfini Portrait literally comes to life.
Goldberg: Variations by Gabriel Josipovici -- a beautifully written book about the mysterious process of the creative art -- the "mystery in literature" so dear to Blanchot.
The Forest of Hours by Kerstin Ekman, translated from the Swedish by Anna Paterson -- one of the most beautiful translations I've ever read. The history of Sweden as told by someone who lives a very long time.
Pastiches et Mélanges by Proust -- I translated the Pastiches for Melville House; it will soon appear as The Lemoine Affair. The same story (about a man who claims he can manufacture diamonds, but is exposed and tried by De Beers) told in the style of different authors, including Flaubert, Balzac, and Saint-Simon.
Finally, Bram Stoker's The Jewel of Seven Stars. A bizarre tale involving a deathless Egyptian queen, a lot like H. Rider Haggard's She.
How does one distinguish between so many books? Perhaps I have such warm feelings toward five of my choices this year because they came as complete surprises. I had read Enrique Vila-Matas's Bartleby & Co, but it didn't prepare me for the deeper joys of Montano's Malady. And I came to Tao Lin's Eeeee Eee Eeee and Hugo Wilcken's Colony without having heard of either author let alone read their books. Now I look forward to books sent to me by publishers with extra enthusiasm! Perhaps it's best I don't say any more about each so as not to spoil your own discovery.
Of course I'd heard of Cormac McCarthy and Roberto Bolaño before I read them but The Road is darker and more relentless than anything one might expect from mainstream US fiction, while Last Evenings on Earth reveals a compelling voice even if the quality of the stories is uneven.
My sixth choice is a writer I've long admired and who can't really improve on Elizabeth Costello, but I choose J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year because, rather than dispense opinions behind a fictional veil, as people seem to demand of fêted writers, it addresses the solitary life of the writer and his books in a plural universe. Only a genuine artist like Coetzee has the nerve for such a formal adventure as this and only genuine artists are capable of lasting surprises.
Two non-fiction books I'd like to mention are the new translation of Maurice Blanchot's The Voice from Elsewhere and Philip Davis' biography Bernard Malamud: A Writer's Life. The focus in the latter on reworked manuscripts as much as on family and lovers is fascinating, very moving and rewarding.
Nicholas Murray is the author of literary biographies of Bruce Chatwin, Andrew Marvell, Matthew Arnold and Franz Kafka. He is also a poet.
I began the year with a dog-eared Penguin classic, Dorothy L Sayers highly readable (after all these years) translation of The Song of Roland. I am a sucker for these mediaeval poems and I also managed during the year Simon Armitage's new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (whose gritty northern language I loved) and the anonymous (old Penguins again, don't knock 'em) Quest of the Holy Grail.
Coming back to the 21st Century the Holy Grail of a perfectly satisfying new novel remained elusive but J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year impressed me more than it seems to have impressed others and Pavel Huelle's Castorp, a contemporary Polish novel, sent me off to order his earlier Mercedes-Benz which I am going to start next.
John Haynes deserved his Costa award for his long poem Letter to Patience and I am having my usual complex reaction to Geoffrey Hill's A Treatise of Civil Power. A poet of masterly craftsmanship his oracular manner and grand opacities still hold me back from total adulation but I keep getting drawn in by his unique poetic style.
I am ending the year with the most satisfying novel I have read in 2007, Stéphane Audeguy's Fils Unique (Gallimard) which imagines the scabrous career of Rousseau's lost elder brother, a scallywag or "polisson"in French, in a brilliantly imagined 18th Century France, poking fun at the excesses of the Enlightenment and told with superb narrative skill.
The best book I have read this year is Thirteen by Sebastian Beaumont. Imagine Haruki Murakami and David Lynch getting together for a night-time taxi ride round the streets of Brighton. A breathtaking read at times, it has few peers.
Surprise of the year was Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn which was rich with sharp wit and a deceptively dark plot.
Page-tuner of 2007 was Dark Hearts of Chicago from William Horwood and Helen Rappaport. A rip-roaring Victorian adventure.
My favourite short story collection was Leading The Dance by Sarah Salway - all killers no fillers.
And my guilty pleasure was Peter Falk's memoir Just One More Thing. Full of ego and bluster but endlessly entertaining.
My disappointments of 2007 were Cormac McCarthy's The Road, which was nowhere near as good as everyone else on the planet appeared to be telling me, and The Box Man by Kobo Abe which I have been saving up for years and couldn't make head nor tail of when I finally sat down to read it.
And a quick word from the youngsters, my children Ethan and Martha loved being read Barkbelly by Cat Weatherill and Andy Stanton's wonderful You're A Bad Man Mr Gum, a worthy successor to Roald Dahl.
Writing in The Guardian last month, John Banville said 'What I want is Sebald's next novel, and the fact that I cannot have it makes the wanting no less keen.' I too want this impossible novel, and another one is the 'missing' novel by J.G. Farrell (author of Booker-winning The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip, who was drowned in Bantry Bay, Ireland, in 1979). He was a wonderful anatomist of the decline of Britain's colonial powers, and I wish he could have moved on to South Africa, and tackled Cecil Rhodes and the great African land-grab that led to the Boer Wars. I did, however, this year finally catch up with Troubles, his breakthrough novel of 1970, in which Major Brendan Archer goes in 1919 to Co. Wicklow to find the woman he believes he is engaged to, and finds himself snared by the decrepit charms of the Majestic Hotel. This ranks with his best novels, and proves that Farrell was very aware that inside every comedy, and comic character, is a tragedy waiting to get out, and vice versa. A masterpiece.
Top of my poetry list was Ashes for Breakfast by Durs Grünbein, a German voice of striking originality who met (in the best sense) his match in the brilliant translations of Michael Hofmann. While I didn't think Paul Muldoon was quite on his best form with his collection Horse Latitudes, his Oxford Poetry Lectures, The End of the Poem, was the most engaging, irritating, challenging, witty, daft and absorbing discussion of the language of poetry I've read in years. Serendipity rules.
Two unconventional autobiographical works: The Arithmetic of Memory, Anthony Rudolf's dazzlingly constructed and totally absorbing picture of a Jewish boy growing up in London after the Second World War. And Portrait with Keys, in which Ivan Vladislavic explores Johannesburg by roaming through its streets and characters and the workings of memory: a great addition to the literature of self-exploration, and of place. Every page is a valuable observation on humanity, by a writer with the literary equivalent of perfect pitch.
I have been re-reading Beckett, especially his later, pared down short fictions originally written in French. But the ‘trilogy’ has continued to dazzle me. Molloy still left me completely breathless second time around. I also enjoyed The Vertigo of Late Modernity by Jock Young – a really exciting book about the ‘banality of evil’ and our fear of falling; of losing our collective/individual grip in the world and the violence this creates. Men in Space by Tom McCarthy is proof that the book of ideas is seeing a renaissance as is Travis Jeppesen’s Wolf at the Door; both books left me very happy.
Maurice Blanchot still seems to irk me somewhat, but I keep returning to his work knowing how important he is, The Space of Literature and Awaiting Oblivion two highlights of the year for me. Apart from Enrique Vila-Matas my epiphany of the year lies in the work/writing of Gabriel Josipovici – just really incredible stuff. Everything Passes is beyond anything written today. And I am annoyed at myself that I have only just started to read his fiction. I could have done with his insight about ten years ago.
I would like to use this opportunity to draw attention to an essential reference work, John Taylor's two splendid volumes, Paths to Contemporary French Literature volumes 1 and 2. I first came across him when he wrote a five page review in Poetry Chicago of a Menard Press book, Hans Cohn’s With All Five Senses, translated by his brother Frederick Cohn. Five pages of praise! This was the fullest and perhaps best review any of my authors has received during my forty years as a publisher.
In these well written, consistently instructive and often illuminating pages, Taylor discusses well over a hundred French writers, including many of my favourites: Sarraute, Des Forets, Duras, Antelme, Perec, Jabès, Marcel Cohen, Roland Barthes, Bonnefoy, Ponge, Deguy, Quignard, Paulhan, Rawicz, Beckett, Emmanuel Bove. The long essays on Pascal Quignard and Michel Deguy are particularly insightful, and essential reading for the sympathetic newcomer seeking an introduction to these major writers. One day, perhaps, Taylor will write essays on André Frénaud and Claude Vigée, two fine poets who have slipped through his net so far.
Taylor has also published a fine meditative sequence composed in discrete paragraphs: Some Sort of Joy is about his small provincial French town. “Solvitur ambulando”, says a Latin proverb I quote too often. This urban Philippe Jaccottet, however, drives as well as walks. Compagnons de route, we are fortunate to be in on this classic quest for self-knowledge.
2007 has seen three deeply affecting books written in English after the death of a spouse: two intense books of poetry: Elaine Feinstein’s Talking to the Dead and Joan Michelson’s Toward the Heliopause, and Dannie Abse’s diary, The Presence. All strongly recommended.
Liquidation is the fourth and shortest novel in a tetrology by the Hungarian master, Imre Kertesz, a writer with an apparently effortless command of late and post modernist techniques, in the service of a compelling story. Although he deserves nothing less, he is fortunate in his translator, Tim Wilkinson.
Finally, a strange and wonderful book of Gothic, if not actually a Gothic book: Gavin Selerie's Le Fanu's Ghost. Selerie is a poet who works on a large scale, integrating poems and prose and quotations (and Alan Halsey's graphics). In another life, he must have been a symphonist or a playwright. The test of such a book of course is whether it holds the attention of a reader who has no previous (or future) interest in Le Fanu. The book passes the test.
For me, my list of "books of the year" has very little to do with the year per se, and much to do with my discovery of voices who have buoyed me, and given me personal elation. Perhaps this isn't right. I should be lauding just published books and join in the omnipresent hype, but already calling it "hype" marks me out as someone who is upset and suspicous about what's happening in our world of "literature". I ask for everyone's forgiveness for not joining the bandwagon on the year's works which I have increasingly seen as having very little to do with me and my sensibilities. And of course a recognition that I'm weird, odd, out of sync.
But, to list the books which changed my world and reinstated my passion for the novelist's art, or just for words, or just made me feel less estranged. I want to list:
1. Marguerite Duras's Yann Andrea Steiner, an outstanding publication by Archipelago Books, translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti.
2. The extraordinary novel The Hour of the Star, by Clarice Lispector (a master work in my not too humble opinion that made me very angry I hadn't read a word of Lispector before because I never even heard of her).
3. My overall discvovery of the brilliant Ann Quin who Dalkey Archive has reissued in luminous editions.
On a less obscure level, I really believe Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives deserves all the praise it has garnered. I loved hs work. Visceral, sexual, alive with the author's personality.
I have also rediscovered Doris Lessing and am even more convinced of her modest "greatness", her uncompromising truth-telling and self- exploration, her courage.
I do think Cormac McCarthy is wonderful and was so glad to see him recognized.
My favourite novel this year was Rosalind Belben's Our Horses in Egypt. It has a unique voice; Belben is a strikingly original writer. As soon I began reading I thought, "this is the real thing." And, with regard to modern novels, the "real thing" seems very thin on the ground these days.
The only other fiction I really rated (Vila-Matas, such a favourite with contributors to the Books of the Year symposium, has yet to be read!) was Antonio Tabucchi's Pereira Declares and Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year. David Peace's Tokyo Year Zero also deserves mention: with a singular style, which admittedly sometimes masks a lack of substance, he tells a haunting story of a policeman investigating some dreadful murders in post-war Japan. Or perhaps we are simply hearing the ravings of a mad man?
Charlotte Mandell's translation of A Voice From Elsewhere was a treat. We'd seen some of these essays before but a second translation as limpid as these was certainly to be welcomed.
The thesis of Peter Brooks' Henry James Goes To Paris was countered by some critics, but I was convinced. James went to Paris in the mid-1870s, moved amongst the Modernists but didn't, at the time, quite understand just exactly what it was that they were trying to do. Nonetheless he knew what he had seen and read and heard was vitally important. Slowly, it -- early Modernism and its new techniques, its new ways of looking at the world -- worked its way into his writing and the novel would never be quite the same again.
The Emergence of Memory edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz brought together some thoughful essays on Sebald and some illuminating interviews with the man. I consumed it in one or two sittings reminded again of what a loss to literature his untimely death was.
Ironically, my fear for How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read is that people won't actually read the damn thing! They'll assume from the title that this is a bluffer's guide to getting away with it at dinner parties. But Pierre Bayard's psychoanalytically-inspired book is both funny and very insightful. The author does two things: he subverts the supposed presence of reading by reminding us how much we forget and misremember; and he reminds us that the small island of books we have read will always be surrounded by a great wide ocean of unread titles. This non-reading, this absence, structures our reading and needs our awareness and investigation. His tongue is often in his cheek, but don't let his comedy blind you to what an important and useful essay this is.
Currently, I'm reading Tim Parks' The Fighter. When you read Josipovici's literary essays you learn how to think differently, how to read differently, as you walk with him through the texts he is discusssing. Not so with Parks: his insights are more mundane, his synopses over long, his range narrower, but he is a passionate and clever critic nonetheless and I'm thoroughly enjoying what he has to say about Beckett, Bernhard, Cioran and Dostoyevesky et al.
I spent a lot of time this year reading old things - primarily the collected works of Gertrude Stein & Paul Metcalf, both of which are fantastic but don't really fit into a year-end roundup. Lately I've been engrossed in Ugly Duckling Presse's reissue of Bernadette Mayer & Vito Acconci's magazine 0 to 9, though it looks like that came out in 2006. Best recent old discovery has been Lucy R. Lippard's I See/You Mean, a solitary novel by the art critic from 1972; to use the words of Ted Berrigan, it's "feminine, marvelous, and tough" as well as being experimental in a way that just doesn't happen any more. Somebody should reissue it...
Honestly, I'd say the two new works of fiction that affected me most this year were all over your list last year - Gabriel Josipovici's Everything Passes & Tom McCarthy's Remainder, though I'm American & maybe those can squeak by?
What came out this year: I liked Bolaño, but everyone did; I liked Edmund White's Hotel de Dream, which seemed to be similarly lauded. Samuel R. Delany's Dark Reflections, which bears a certain resemblance to the Edmund White book, didn't seem to get much press, perhaps because it's "literary fiction" and not sci-fi. Someone else who doesn't get much critical attention is Eric Kraft; On the Wing the latest volume of his fictitious memoir, appeared this year. Kraft's work is a mixture of Nabokov & Proust, all the weirder for being decidedly sentimental in tone; there's no small amount of Sterne in there. Wayne Koestenbaum's Hotel Theory, an Oulipian mixture of Walter Benjamin, Liberace, and Lana Turner was also a treat. And Sven Birkerts gets a lot of shit on the Internet, but Reading Life was a lovely examination of the pleasures of re-reading.
Reissues & compilations: John Ashbery's Notes from the Air is an unalloyed pleasure, as is Flying to America, the final(?) compilation of Donald Barthelme short stories.
To my mind, the most interesting publishing project of the year is The Grand Piano, a history of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and poetics in San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s, four of the ten volumes which have appeared thus far. The work is interesting not only in content but also in form - ten writers trying to reconstruct the past & to square it with each others' memory.
And finally, I think my favorite book of the year was the Bernofsky translation of Robert Walser's The Assistant, which revealed (to the English-speaking world) yet another side of the Walser we thought we knew, a beautiful meditation on work & love for a broken world.
Poetry and prose on poetry tend – big surprise – not to appear on "best of the year" lists, so here are my Top Ten:
Gennady Aygi, Field-Russia, trans. by Peter France.
Ivan Blatny, The Drug of Art: Selected Poems, ed. Veronika Tuckerova (many translators).
Kamau Brathwaite, DS (2): dreamstories.
Peter Cole, The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492.
Haroldo de Campos, Novas: Selected Writings, ed. Antonio Sergio Bessa and Odile Cisneros.
Susan Howe, Souls of the Labadie Tract. [Also My Emily Dickinson, back in print this year.]
Jaime Saenz, The Night, trans. by Forrest Gander & Kent Johnson.
Nathaniel Tarn, The Embattled Lyric: Essays and Conversations in Poetics and Anthropology.
Cesar Vallejo, The Complete Poetry, trans. by Clayton Eshleman.
C.D. Wright, One Big Self.
Ken Worpole is a writer and critic and author of, amongst many other works, Last Landscapes: Death and the Architecture of the Cemetery in the West
My favourite book of the year, because it was related to the exhibition and author's talk of the year, was Domestic Landscapes: A portrait of Europeans at Home, by the Dutch photographer, Bert Teunissen. Teunissen gave a moving account at The Photographer's Gallery in London in January 2007 of his decade-long project to photograph the elderly - and often poor - of Europe in their domestic interiors, in houses and dwellings built before the arrival of gas or electric lighting. Here 'the man with the black cloak' as some of his sitters described him, catches the same kind of richness of colour and sympathetic point of view as the great Dutch painters of the Golden Age.
A similar affection for of the tastes and textures of European life are evident in John Berger's The Red Tenda of Bologna, with drawings by Paul Davis. Here Berger continues to use the device of meeting up with a dead familiar, to walk round the arcades of Bologna, to sip a limoncello in a bar, to reflect on the powerful photographic memorial to anti-fascist partisans of World War Two in the Piazza Maggiore (by far the most moving commmorative construction I've ever seen), and to dwell on colour, material culture, human martyrdom and history. A small book that says much more than a dozen of the usual travel stories.