Books of the Year 2006 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 2006 symposium contributors are: David Auerbach, Peter Davidson, Jonathan Derbyshire, Max Dunbar, Martin Empson, Anne Fernald, Paul Griffiths, Edmund Hardy, Stewart Home, Lars Iyer, Gabriel Josipovici, Robert Kelly, Tom McCarthy, Charlotte Mandell, Stephen Mitchelmore, Chris Paling, Julián Ríos, Michael Rosen, Anthony Rudolf, Leora Skolkin-Smith, Eliot Weinberger and Ken Worpole. And I've put in my two-penneth too. Thanks to everyone who contributed.
The greatest book I read in 2006, and indeed, the best new book I've read in the last few years, was Laszlo Krasznahorkai's War and War. It's gotten enough good press from RSB and elsewhere, but Krasznahorkai's achievement is to draw from the deepest, thorniest tradition of European novels, that of Musil, Bachmann, and Bernhard, and give it contemporary political relevance. It's one thing to read Musil and observe his relation to the Great War, and quite another to feel Krasznahorkai sounding a tocsin for the catastrophe around us. He is one of the greatest living writers.
Also entirely worthy were poetry collections by Anne Stevenson and Rosmarie Waldrop, and a new translation of Antal Szerb's The Pendragon Legend. I continue to draw sustenance from the poetry and prose of Laura Riding.
RSB interviewee Peter Davidson is the Professor of Renaissance Studies at Aberdeen, where he is also writing the history of the university's collections. His most recent book was The Idea of North and forthcoming is The Universal Baroque.
A great discovery of this year has been a re-discovery: a critical book of the 1930s, Lo Barroco by the Spanish aesthetician Eugenio D’Ors, which considers the internationalism and the strangeness of the arts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with a breadth and concision which read as contemporary, even advanced. The book seems to be available only in French and Spanish (I’ll try to do something about a translation next year) and there are usually plenty of copies on ABE.
Another discovery has been Arnaud Maillet’s Le Miroir Noir an extraordinary study of the convex black mirror or “Claude Glass” beloved of eighteenth century painters and travellers. An English translation (The Claude Glass: Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western Art) is published by Zone in the US.
Simon Armitage’s new collection Tyrannosaurus Rex versus the Corduroy Kid is extraordinary, full of transformations of daily speech and experience, evocations of place, beautiful lists and even (baroque!) a poem in mirror-writing.
And finally a quiet triumph of translation and recovery: Ralph O’Connor’s finely-judged and compellingly readable versions of the minor sagas of the Icelanders, Icelandic Histories and Romances. Seek this out, it’s richly worth it.
Stefan Collini's Absent Minds is a reminder that there's nothing new about the complaint that intellectuals have abandoned their vocation or that the only real intellectuals are to be found across the Channel. Absent Minds is intellectual history on a grand scale, couched in elegant and often maliciously funny prose.
The Singer on the Shore confirms Gabriel Josipovici's place in the pantheon of great writer-critics that stretches back through Edmund Wilson to Coleridge and the first German Romantics.
Jonathan Littell's Les Bienveillantes is an extravagant provocation: an attempt to inhabit the mind of an SS officer on the Eastern front.
As Mark has said, it’s round-up time again. This year I’ve decided to break with the broadsheets’ example and recommend books that have not been written by my friends, family, partner or colleagues.
Fiction choice of the year has to be Irvine Welsh, back after a too-long absence with his blistering gothic novel, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. This exploration of hate and its consequences is another triumph for the master of urban storytelling. I’d also like to recommend Joe Meno’s The Boy Detective Fails. One of the joys of this site is that you discover classic books published by small presses that you would never normally come across. Meno’s tender, surreal look at the differences between childhood and adulthood made even my cynical heart break a little.
This year has brought an explosion of secular thought. Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Stephen Law have all published engaging arguments concerning the poverty of religious faith. However, the non-fiction choice of 2006 has to go to Richard Dawkins for his devastating study of the harm that dogma causes. The popular image of Dawkins is that of a ranting demagogue, yet The God Delusion is told in a thoughtful, persuasive voice. As Douglas Adams said, ‘We are used to not challenging religious ideas but it’s very interesting how much of a furore Richard Dawkins creates when he does it!’ Yep: Dawkins pisses off all the right people, and he pisses them off because they know they’re losing the argument.
Honourable mentions go to Martin Amis for House of Meetings and Alan Warner for The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven. A happy Christmas and New Year to everybody, and long days, pleasant nights.
2006 was the year that Climate Change moved from being something that concerned a few campaigners to being part of mainstream political discourse. Bookstores are groaning under the weight of books about the environment and what we can do to halt man-made climate change. By far the best of these is George Monbiot's meticulously researched Heat which examined in great detail what changes are needed to reduce emissions from the UK by 90% by the year 2030. His ideas are innovating, challenging and serious.
Too often government answers to Climate Change centre on finding the right technological fix rather than trying to change society's obsession with inefficient methods of transport, power generation and usage. In part, this explains the British government's renewed interest in Nuclear Power, and long term campaigner Helen Caldicott's new book Nuclear Power is Not the Answer challenges the myths of the nuclear industry, particularly nailing the idea that Nuclear is a green, carbon neutral option.
The impact of climate change on people and society was writ large in New Orleans and historically too it has had a huge impact on how people have lived their lives. In The Long Summer, how Climate Changed Civilisation, Brian Fagan looks at how the climate has been responsible for both the rise of some civilisations and the fall of others. The lives of our ancestors seem so remote, yet there is a wealth of detail about how they lived their lives. We know a surprising amount about those who hunted, gathered and farmed tens of thousands of years ago.
Stephen Mithin's monumental work After the Ice - A Global Human History 20,000 - 5,000 BC is one of the best introductions to this period of human history and similarly he shows how it was often changes in the climate that drove changes in human behavior, the switch from predominantly nomadic lives to farming in some parts of the world for instance.
Saving the planet will take more than government rhetoric. And the ability of ordinary people to make politicians move from rhetoric to action is a central question for society. Donny Gluckstein's book The Paris Commune - A Revolution in Democracy looks at how one city rose up to challenge an uncaring, unaccountable government. For an all too brief period, the Communards built a political system which in many ways, was far more democratic than those of today. Tony Blair should take heed, or risk learning the lessons of history the hard way.
Michelle Herman, The Middle of Everything. This is a collection of long autobiographical essays about being middle-aged in the Midwest (well, Ohio). The author is a novelist and professor of creative writing who pines for her native Brooklyn. But the essays, especially the one on friendship and best friends, are moving, thoughtful, and intense. She goes through all the "best friends" she's had in her life, naming the first one A, the second B, and carrying on up through Z. While cataloging how best friendship changes from kindergarten through early adulthood, she used her young daughters own discovery of friendship as a trigger for her memories. It's a lovely and fresh approach to a topic that's as old as the essay itself.
Gina Ochsner, People I Wanted to Be. This is a book from 2005 that didn't get nearly the attention it deserved. Maybe it did better in England than in the US — a London friend recommended it—but Ochsner should be on everyone's watchlist. Her haunting and haunted stories of ordinary people struggling for joy are beautifully and carefully crafted, full of both magic and resonant emotion.
William Dean Howells, A Hazard of New Fortunes. Periodically, someone comes along to try to revive interest in William Dean Howells. I think it's a losing battle. Nonetheless, I think it worth a try, particularly in the case of his 1890 novel of literary New York, A Hazard of New Fortunes. The novel stages a conflict between capital and charity but the setting makes it of particular interest to those of us who are passionate readers and writers: it's full of scenes set in the offices of a literary magazine. Here's what I said about the scenes on my blog back in September:
The editorial meetings at Every Other Week, especially those just before the launch are so deliciously familiar and exhilarating. I have never worked on a glossy magazine, but I have worked for all kinds of ill-fated little periodicals and Howells (who was editor of The Atlantic after all) captures the mix of ambition, vision, and pragmatism of the early days. Everyone wants it to be totally new and different and no one can really think of much that's all that different from what's gone before. All the most thrilling and strange innovations turn, upon closer inspection, to be totally impractical and, in the end, the magazine is a really good version of what already exists.
I think anyone who enjoys literary journalism—from the inside, the margins, or the outside—would take great pleasure in this wonderful novel about work, about the complexities and complicities of work, art, and politics. And New York City really shines here, too, adding another pleasure to the considerable ones of the novel.
Paul Griffiths is a regular contributor to RSB, a celebrated critic and one of the most incisive writers writing in English today on modern classical music. His publications include A Concise History of Western Music , The Penguin Companion to Classical Music , The Substance of Things Heard: Writings About Music and his astonishing study of the serialist composer Jean Barraqué The Sea on Fire .
Novel: Joe Ashby Porter’s The Near Future, for the gentle glow of its sentences, of its setting (in Florida some years downhill from here), of its pleasure in things trivially human and of its Shakespearian reconciliation.
Poetry: Geoffrey Hill’s Without Title, for language scowling and snarling at itself, and for radiant resilience.
Non-fiction: Peter Williams’s J.S. Bach: A Life in Music (actually out this coming January), for its sense of the strangeness of the past, and for illuminating the composer and his music by shining a light into so much that is unknowable.
Prix d’étranger: Jean Echenoz’s Ravel, for its calm, clear exposition of a life clandestinely tense, and perplexingly mirror-smooth to the one living it.
Music: György Ligeti: Clear or Cloudy, for providing, at bargain price, four hours of bewitching fantasy, intricacy, generosity and alarm, and for marking one of the year’s greatest losses.
I particularly liked Peter Larkin's Leaves of Field which is a book of prose-poetry always amid the "roofish decorum" of woodland. Tree, forest, canopy, branch, root, this is an absorbing work of found philosophy, an unwoven field, a heterophenomenology of forest. David Tod Roy's third instalment in his fully annotated translation of the anonymous sixteenth century Chinese novel Chin P'ing Mei, The Plum in the Golden Vase: volume 3 -- The Aphrodisiac proved to be a poignant elucidation of erotic rhetoric and the politics of corruption. A volume of Leibniz translations by Lloyd Strickland, The Shorter Leibniz Texts was very welcome. Strickland can render Leibniz clearly in a prose which enables, rather than steadies, the dizzying effects of Leibniz's different concepts as they encompass infinity. Many of the pieces – On The Death Penalty, On The Happy Life, to choose two – have not appeared in English before. Check out Strickland's peerless website for many other short translations published online.
RSB interviewee Stewart Home is the author of numerous books, including Down and Out in Shoreditch and Hoxton , 69 Things to Do with a Dead Princess and, most recently, Tainted Love .
American Genius by Lynne Tillman for using brilliantly controlled repetition for comic and aesthetic effect, the neurotic narrator of this novel has a slippery and subversive grip on what passes for reality, Tillman is a real “realist’ because she’s happy leaving parts of what she does ambiguous (just like in real life). Meat Puppet Cabaret by Steve Beard for riffing on sci-fi, conspiracy theory and a whole slew of my favourite tropes and doing it better than all those that preceded him. This is a super slick experimental novel disguised as genre fiction and all the better for this. And finally, Remainder by Tom McCarthy for being republished super fast from last year (2006) to this - giving us tomorrow today (and giving it back to us again in 2006).
Standouts for me this year include Caught by Henry Green, which I read for the first time; I reread several other books by him, and right now he's my favourite prose writer. I was impressed by Yes by Thomas Bernhard and thought The Loser by him was the funniest thing I've read. I've only one or two novels by the Appelfeld to read before I finish the lot; The Healer, For Every Sin and The Iron Rails were all very fine. I'd been awaiting the publication of Josipovici's Everything Passes for some time; it didn't disappoint. I also liked his collection of essays, The Singer on the Shore.
I decided to read my way through Bellow, Herzog amazed me, and I'm halfway through Humboldt's Gift which seems just as good. I read everything I could get by Coetzee; The Master of Petersburg was my favourite, I think, but I also liked Foe and the two autobiographical books: marvellous prose.
I loved The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark, sending out copies to my friends. I read and enjoyed Gombrowicz for the first time - puzzling, fascinating, and devoured an excellent collection of essays and interviews by Genet, The Declared Enemy. Stach's biography of Kafka was good; I wasn't able to finish the whole of Garff's biography of Kierkegaard, but the parts I read were tremendous.
What else? Judt's Postwar was impressive. Richard Middleton's Voicing the Popular has some extraordinary passages. I admired Nicholas Dawidoff's In The Country of Country, and found Richard Cook and Brian Morton's The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD was invaluable. I also enjoyed Ben Watson's book, Derek Bailey and the History of Free Improvisation.
As always, most of the books I read this year I did so because they were recommended by particular weblogs. Here, Stephen Mitchelmore's This Space was particular useful, and Sinthome's Larval Subjects, which has been helping me with my understanding of Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Bruce Fink's A Clinical Introduction to Lacan was a useful recommendation. Zizek's For They Know Not What They Do was bracing, Mladen Dolar's A Voice and Nothing More elegant; Jodi Dean's Zizek's Politics a useful overview. Keith Crome and James Williams' edition of writings by Lyotard reminded me what a fine essayist he was; William Large's Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Blanchot remains the best book on either author.
Of course many of the authors I've mentioned here have been championed at ReadySteadyBook -- congratulations on an excellent year.
I seem to have spent the year re-reading old books -- especially Don Quixote in Edith Grossman's excellent new translation with invaluable notes (Secker & Warburg, 2004), and Afanasiev's great collection of Russian Fairy Tales, translated by Norbert Guterman and with a commentary by Roman Jakobson (Random House, 1973).
Of the new books I read I greatly enjoyed two French novels: Jean Echenoz' Ravel is by far the best book by probably the best novelist in France at the moment; Insoupconnable, by Tanguy Viel, a writer new to me, is a kind of Postman Always Rings Twice for the twenty-first century: short, brilliant, gripping. Both are published by Minuit. Reiner Stach's Kafka: The Decisive Years, the second of a projected 3-volume biography, but the first to be published is the first biography of Kafka to enhance rather than reduce our understanding of this strange, lovable, impossible man. Julia Smith's Europe After Rome is a study of Europe in the early Middle Ages which breaks new ground both in its range (South-East Europe gets as much coverage as the West) and in its methodology. Strange as it may sound, it is also extremely topical, dealing as it does with Europe before the rise of nation states just as we are having to come to terms with a new Europe in which the notion of nation states is beginning to seem old-fashioned. The havoc wrought by this notion is brought out in what is one of the most unusual books of the year, Carmen Callil's extraordinary Bad Faith, which is at the same time the paying of a debt to her psychoanalyst, Anne Darquier, a biography of her father, the loathsome Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, the Commissioner for Jewish Affairs in the Vichy government who was one of the men responsible for sending thousands of French Jews to their deaths in the camps, most of them children (I might have been one of them), and of her mother, the equally ghastly Tasmanian Myrtle Jones, an alcoholic and possibly drug addict. I have never read a book which gave one such a strong sense of what it was like to live in France (and England, for Anne was brought up by a kind of soter-mother, desperately poor, in Tew and Kidlington outside Oxford) in the twenties and thirties.
Finally, two very different kinds of book: Shaun Gallagher's How the Body Shapes the Mind the best book by a neurologist I have ever read, and Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson (Bloomsbury). Temple Grandin, known to readers of Oliver Sacks as the autistic academic who works tirelessly to better the lives of animals doomed to end up in abattoirs, takes one into the afffective lives and the minds of animals, and so provides a welcome antidote to the 'world heritage' view of them which fills our television screens. I bought six to give to friends.
RSB interviewee Robert Kelly is a poet and a prolific author, most recently with Threads and May Day .
A few that wowed me in ’06:
Vasily Grossman, Forever Flowing, an exile back from 30 years in Siberia tries to rediscover his lost life. And discovers all the lost lives of those who made Stalin’s Russia what it was. Ends with a fantastic analysis of a thousand years of Russia ’s psyche, and a shocking love-hate decoding of Lenin himself. Here’s one paragraph that struck me, when the poor exile goes to the museum: "He went through the Hermitage -- to find that it left him cold and indifferent. It was unbearable to think that those paintings had remained as beautiful as ever during the years in camp which had transformed him into a prematurely old man. Why hadn't the faces of the madonnas grown old too, and why hadn't their eyes been blinded with tears? Was not their immortality their failure rather than their strength? Did not their changelessness reveal a betrayal by art of the humanity which had created it?"
Thomas McEvilley’s The Shape of Ancient Thought. I’m still working with this, one of the truly fresh, masterly and profound works of a single scholar, as great as Onians’ Origins of European Thought. Greece and India: their interdependent philosophical traditions, the lost (or hidden) substrate of psychological and moral practice beneath the categoricals.
Jean-Luc Nancy, A l’écoute. (Soon to be published in Charlotte Mandell's translation as Listening.) The phenomenological leap into the gap we still need to explore between hearing and listening, attention and what summons or stifles it.
Ernst Bloch’s Literary Essays, especially his extraordinary insistence on studying cultures and cultural production in the ground and context of actual place, like his wild essay on the geological facts of Berlin. Translated by the poet Andrew Joron.
RSB interviewee Tom McCarthy is the author of Remainder .
Joyland by Emily Schultz. I met this author on the fringes of the International Festival of Authors in Toronto and she gave me this book about growing up among the beeps and flashes of Pac Man and Defender consoles. It's tender without being sentimental, and I'm really enjoying it. I'm also 100 pages into Pynchon's new book (Against the Day) and I think it's a real 'return to form', or at least a beyond-caring-about form or anything else apart from taking pleasure in writing whatever he wants to. He's got these balloonists called The Chums of Chance floating around cack-handedly rescuing negroes from lynch-mobs and anarchists from the law, and a dead hero called Webb Traverse, and a villain called Scarsdale Vibe who's basically Mr. Burns -- in fact the whole book is like a Victorian episode of The Simpsons. Oh, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand goes slumming it in a black bar in 1880s Chicago and says ''tlos?'', i.e. ''sup?' in mock Germano-American C20th patois. It's all very funny.
RSB interviewee Charlotte Mandell is a skilled translator of poetry and philosophy - most notably of the work of Maurice Blanchot.
Two great new books by Robert Kelly: Threads, a long poem published by First Intensity, in which each section is one long sentence -- which makes for a breathless kind of reading, a little like reading a written version of The Russian Ark.
May Day, just out from Parsifal Press -- a book of recent poems, the first one in many years not to be published by Black Sparrow Press. Some wonderfully moving poems in it, including Walking to Auschwitz and A Theory of Leaf Management and The Slates of La Borne.
Rikki Ducornet's Gazelle -- a beautiful, Proustian novel narrated by a girl who notices everything -- she is Henry James's ideal narrator, "one upon whom nothing is lost."
Gabriel Josipovici's Everything Passes: The novel is made new again -- part prose poem, part récit, with shades of Blanchot and Bataille. And even a little Stein.
Finally, two old novels that I've just finished re-reading: Tristram Shandy, one of the most hilarious books I've ever read, and Bram Stoker's The Mystery of the Sea, complete with appendices of discourses on Francis Bacon's bilateral cipher and coded messages to use it on. Add to that the Scottish coast, a lost treasure, visions of the dead, and a witch named Gormala that speaks Gaelic, and you have a child's dream novel.
Fiction: Gabriel Josipovici's Everything Passes and Thomas Bernhard's Frost. Non-fiction: Gabriel Josipovici's The Singer on the Shore.
Although it was pleasurable reading every book I've read this year, it wasn't difficult choosing those favourites. They gave something more than pleasure. I'll let one of the books themselves explain. In the last of the three breathtaking essays on the Bible which open The Singer on the Shore, Josipovici quotes Nahum Sarna's book on the Psalms in which he distinguishes between pleasure and happiness. Pleasure is "an instinctive response to a particular stimulus that gratifies the senses; and it may be frivolous and illusory. By contrast, happiness is deep-rooted; it penetrates the very depths of one's being, and it is serious and enduring." That'll do.
RSB interviewee Chris Paling is the author of numerous novels including The Repentant Morning and A Town by the Sea .
I found Jean Echenoz this year, beginning with I'm Off and then Piano, both of which are now available in paperback. I've already seen a couple of reviewers commending his new one - "Ravel" - but I'm not convinced it's available in translation yet. His stories are sly, amusing, and compelling and he's a great one for playing with the conventions of the novel. A book that has really stayed with me this year is Tom Reynolds' Blood Sweat and Tea - a collection of the blogs written by an inner London paramedic. It's resolutely non-literary in the way Down and Out in Paris and London was non-literary when it was first written.
Many of the entries are quotable. Picking two at random: His assertion that over half of the "Whiplash" injuries reported after an RTA are an attempt to gain insurance money. "In the ambulance trade we call this the "payment point", referring to the point in the neck that is painful and pays out the money." And check out the "Oh Bollocks" entry - the great fear of every healthcare worker. A drunk vomits, some of it flies into Tom's mouth. It's then discovered the patient is HIV positive. A useful corrective for those of us currently moaning about the day job.
RSB interviewee Julián Ríos is the author of Loves That Bind and Larva.
My books of the year are two novels written in a very creative language, two old favourites I have revisited recently: All About H. Hatterr (1948) by the Indian G.V. Desani and Grande Sertâo: Veredas (1956) by the Brazilian Joâo Guimarâes Rosa. The English translation of Rosa's novel, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, published in the States in 1963, is out of print. This translation was a pale copy of the original, a very demanding work, arguably the greatest verbal invention from America. Let's hope a better translation will do the miracle some day. Desani's novel appeared originally in postwar London and was instantly acclaimed as a comic masterpiece. I first read it in 1972 or 1973, in the Penguin Modern Classic edition introduced by Anthony Burgess. Desani's only novel has been in and out of print periodically. It seems it's unavailable again. What a shame! All About H. Hatter is a fiction of many facets and facetiae. A real diamond in the crowd of carbon copies…
All I can say is that I've set myself the job of reading all the 'great' literature that I haven't ever got round to reading. So this year I've read Jekyll and Hyde, Jude the Obscure and I've just finished The Odyssey and about to embark on Bleak House and Auto Da Fe. See how I'm revealing my gaps! I thought J and H was an amazingly modern book and found myself immersed in it in some kind of self-indulgent fin-de-siecle sort of a way. It felt as if it was some kind of dream sequence even when at its most naturalistic. Jude the Obscure I thought was a seriously great piece of literature, ambitious in its scope, a true tragedy of circumstance (as Hardy liked to put it) and, inevitably, I found myself caught up in the fact that this was his last novel and got interested in speculating as to why. The Odyssey is stunning. Every page is full of the philosophy of behaviour and feeling. Utterly gripping and totally modern in its narration and switching of points of view. I had no idea that it's Odysseus himself who narrates the Circe story!
Gérard Genette's Bardadrac is an alphabet book that has been “harvested" rather than "made" (as the preface says). The remark alerts us to an off-duty work that is lighter in tone than the brilliant volumes by this author on rhetoric, diction and poetics. Bardadrac includes, he tells us, the following objects: "contingent epiphanies, good or bad ideas, true and false memories, aesthetic points of view, geographical reveries, clandestine or apocryphal quotations, maxims..." etc. Alphabet books, like other compilations, are suspiciously easy to confect, but when the quality of mind subscending the writing is that of a Genette, all doubts and unease melt into air.
Everything Passes by Gabriel Josipovici is a prose fiction that bears comparison with the best works of Marguerite Duras, and that’s the highest praise I can offer. Maybe it could have been translated into a radio play, but if it could have been it would have been. It is what it is: a consummate work of art by one of our finest writers.
I have finally caught up with an extraordinary book published in 2001, one which has some affinity with Everything Passes, for a version of it was performed by an actor and there are passages so densely compacted that the prose rhythms almost break into meter. This is the powerful erotic fable Achilles by Elizabeth Cook. There is no way of knowing and nor does it matter why the author felt the need to incarnate the great warrior. As well ask why Emily Bronte created Heathcliff or Charlotte Bronte Mr Rochester. Androgynous empathy is a key quality of the imagination. Within her parameters of love and sex, death and war, friendship and rivalry, Elizabeth Cook has told a story that must have warmed the hearts of the best Gods on Mount Olympus.
Thrillingly, Elizabeth Cook’s first book of poems Bowl has arrived just in time to be mentioned here. Reading this wondrous collection, I understand better what is going on in the prose of Achilles. But never mind the width, feel the quality.
This year will be indelibly marked in my memory as the year Violette's Leduc's work became as alive to me as my own heart-pulse. I am sure many excellent writers were published this year, but there was something urgent about my need to read what wasn't be lauded as the next BIG book. It seems, as the years pass, I have grown more suspicious of best book lists based on only one spread of months and, undoubtedly based on interests which are less than literary. Either I have less become less intolerant and more narrow-minded or I have just grown to embrace my own impulses without that need to "belong" -- whichever, I found myself checking shelves for what I hadn't read yet and but had remained through time to still seduce me. Passionate, sexual, and personal (embarrassingly so) I needed Leduc's work to remind me of the work fiction can do and can still do as well. Neither polemical nor secure in one absolute point of view, Leduc showed me the magic of chaos in the soul again, of vulnerability, of purely emotionally-wrought language. Of how writing could be about finding voice and sensibility, a small personal voice, perhaps, but one calling out nonetheless to be heard -- genuine, immediate, without pretense.
So, my reading revolved around three of her principle works: Mad in Pursuit, In the Prison of Her Skin and Ravages. All record her struggling life amidst a post-war Paris backdrop, chronicling a time of philosophical, literary and artistic explosions which I was nostalgic for, too, and yearned to read about. Camus had published her first work, In the Prison of Her Skin and it was the post-war malaise around her that impelled her to write and find a voice, as much as her own personal demons.
From Leduc, I wandered back and reread Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and early Sartre. In all, a bounty of riches and pleasures unearthed itself.
As ever, the year is dominated by books not read as well as those finally banished from the TBR-pile. I'm looking forward to my Xmas holiday so that I can read Reiner Stach's Kafka: The Decisive Years and Thomas Bernhard's Frost. Stach's is not the only biography I didn't get around to (Garff's Kierkegaard is another), but it is the most pressing. Last year, I promised myself that this year I would read Woolf -- and I did. I read Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves, and I'll read the rest of her work over the next year -- hopefully, including the diaries. I'm thrilled to have finally come to her astonishing writing. Next year, I'll hopefully do Thomas Bernhard from top to bottom too.
Gabriel Josipovici's new novel/recit Everything Passes and his collection of essays The Singer on the Shore were both eagerly anticipated by me. Gabriel is peerless; both these titles show why in their different ways. Both take equal first place as my Book of the Year.
More modest in their achivement, but excellent reads nonetheless, were Dag Solstad's Shyness and Dignity, Cesar Aira's brief, shocking An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, and Philip Roth's hugely flawed, but somehow still very powerful Everyman. The Mystery Guest by Gregoire Bouillier had me fully entertained -- I read it over one long Sunday afternoon tooked up in bed.
I was gladdened to have read a fair amount of poetry this year. A special mention goes to Jim Reidel's translations of Thomas Bernhard's In Hora Mortis / Under the Iron of the Moon. In Time of Need by Reiner Kunze is not a book of verse, but rather a study of the decisions of Peter Huchel. I found it profound and moving. Jeffery Wainwright's book on Geoffrey Hill, Acceptable Words, was both entertaining and informative. I read a lot of Hill this year. I made Sean O'Brien's rendering of Dante's "Inferno" a Book of the Week. That was a mistake. Its a terrible version. Dante: A Brief History by Peter Hawkins reminds us, again, of how and why Dante is so wonderful and so relevant. After Brecht by Wolf Biermann and Darkness Spoken: The Collected Poems Ingeborg Bachmann both delighted.
Nathaniel Mackey's Splay Anthem is one of those exceedingly rare occasions where the National Book Award actually went to, in my opinion, the best book of American poetry of the year.
So What by the great Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, edited and translated by Peter Cole and others, is an expansion of Never Mind, published by the pioneering Ibis Editions in Jerusalem, and brings Ali, perhaps the most accessible and delightful poet alive today, to a wider audience.
Wang Wei is, with Li Po and Tu Fu, one of the Big Three of T'ang poetry, but, until David Hinton's Selected Poetry of Wang Wei all of the book-length translations were dreadful. Simplicity, as always, is the hardest to achieve, and Hinton proves again his genius.
There Are Words: Collected Poems by the late Gael Turnbull, brings together fifty years of work, much of it published in fugitive pamphlets, and is, at last, an opportunity to consider, or reconsider, this largely unrecognized poet.
The Danish poet Inger Christensen is finally appearing in English, thanks to a superb translator, Susanna Nied. After Alphabet and Butterfly Valley, we now have her 1969 anti-epic It. Inventing her own strict rules (and subverting them), Christensen is, among many other things, an antidote to the neo-con so-called neo-formalism.
The Library of America has published the definitive edition of Hart Crane's Complete Poetry and Selected Letters. It's the one to have.
RSB interviewee Ken Worpole most recent book, with photographer Jason Orton, is 350 miles: An Essex Journey ( ExDRA ; 2005).
The highlight of the year was Thomas Tranströmer's appearance at the South Bank Poetry International, to accompany a reading of Robin Robertson's admirable new versions of selected Tranströmer poems, published by Enitharmon as The Deleted World. This may encourage new readers to look out for his New Collected Poems, published several years ago.
Greatly enjoyed also were Jenny Uglow¹s biography of Thomas Bewick, Nature's Engraver, Rachel Cusk's Arlington Park, Sue Clifford's and Angela King's England in Particular, and the collected Guardian country diaries, A Gleaming Landscape, edited by Martin Wainwright.
More disturbing, though equally memorable, was Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach, an 1892 symbolist novel, complete with gloomy black and white photographs, newly translated by Mike Mitchell and Will Stone, and published by Dedalus. This reminded me why Rodenbach¹s tombstone in Père-Lachaise Cemetery seemed to be designed to give visitors nightmares for the rest of their lives.