Monday, December 23, 2013


Literary Review of 2013

Last year (2012) was my best writing year ever; and this year was my best reading year ever. I discovered more great authors unknown to me this year than in the previous five years combined. Admittedly, some of those authors have been sitting on my shelves (or tucked away in boxes) for a long time, decades in a few cases. But the point is that I finally got round to reading them and they generally exceeded my expectations.

I read some books that weren't so great, of course, but let's not concentrate on those. Every time I finish a fiction book I tend to add it to my Goodreads page with a brief comment; feel free to add me as a friend on that site, if you like. My page can be found here.

First novel I read in 2013 was The Miscreant by Jean Cocteau and it was excellent. A great way to start a reading year! I love Cocteau's epigrammatic prose style. It's heady and addictive and enthralling. This novel (his first, dating from 1921) is a masterpiece. The actual story is fairly slight, merely an account of a love affair that goes wrong among a couple of denizens (he more sensitive and less pragmatic than she) of a semi-Bohemian corner of Paris in the early years of the 20th Century; but the way the tale is told is truly exquisite. 

Even better was The File on H by Ismail Kadare, who is one of the authors that has been sitting unread on my shelves for too long. What a genius! I enjoyed this novel so much that I also read Kadare's Agamemnon's Daughter, a collection of shorter work. The File on H is a funny, ironic, absurdist, erotic, and just extremely well written novel. Agamemnon's Daughter contains a long novella, a shorter novella and a short story, and all three pieces are absolutely amazing. I was especially impressed with the middle piece, 'The Blinding Order', which is certainly one of the best novellas I have ever read. It's harrowing and awful but also sublime and a true revelation. Kadare is a genius.

Alan Garner was my next long overdue discovery. I borrowed The Stone Book Quartet from the library without any high expectations. I was just feeling in the mood for something non-fantastical, something more pastoral than my usual fare. Turns out I made an excellent choice! Garner's writing is superb: uncluttered but magical, and the characters come alive on the page almost instantly. Somehow Garner has tuned in to some 'universal consciousness'. The incidents he describes seem common to all of us but also unique to the particular characters. I felt an acute mixture of nostalgia, sadness and glee as I read these four linked novellas. I now have The Owl Service and Red Shift waiting for me.

A collection of stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa also impressed me very much. Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories is a retrospective of his entire life’s work (he died when he was only thirty five) and divided into four sections. The first section is devoted to his early stories, including the monumental ‘Hell Screen’, a dark and fiery classic, a disturbing horror story with a particular Japanese slant that is non-supernatural and supernatural at the same time. The second section features three historical stories, ‘Dr Ogata Ryosai: Memorandum’, ‘O-Gin’ and ‘Loyalty’. The third section contains three gems of tragicomedy, the brilliantly odd ‘The Story of a Head that Fell Off’, the offbeat romance ‘Green Onions’ and the absurdist comedy ‘Horse Legs’, which is possibly my favourite story in the entire collection, a lighter-hearted version of Kafka with a relentless logic of its own. The fourth section reveals Akutagawa in an entirely different light, as a tormented personality and depressive paranoid personality, struggling to keep a grip on his sanity. ‘Daidoji Shinsuke: The Early Years’, ‘The Life of a Stupid Man’ and ‘Spinning Gears’ chronicle a tormented psychology and a life in despair.

Jose Saramago was my next discovery. Why did I put off reading him for so long? He was an amazing writer. I read The Elephant's Journey and then Cain. Both are superb.The first is a novel based on the true story of an elephant that walked from Lisbon to Vienna in 1551. The writing flows with grace, elegance and irresistible momentum. It was very refreshing for me to read a novel almost entirely devoid of evil incidents. None of the main players, including the Archduke of Austria, are malign and the elephant himself is a magnificent character. Wise, witty and charming. The second is a Candide-like satire, as flippant and profound as anything by Voltaire, that follows the wanderings of Cain after he was cursed by God for murdering his brother Abel. It's an angry, political and deeply philosophical novel in many ways; and yet none of the driving intellectual energy behind its creation interferes with the simple but ingenious emotional delights of the story. Cain is a very sympathetic character. His adventures are in turns bitter, erotic, illuminating, melancholy and triumphant. The ending is surprising and astounding.

Bruce Chatwin was an author I discovered back in 2008 (I loved The Viceroy of Ouidah). I finally got round to reading another of his books this year, The Songlines. It's a marvellous book, a novel that is also non-fiction, the story of Chatwin's travels to Australia and his gradual understanding of a particular aspects of Aboriginal culture (not that the Aborigines were ever just 'one' people, as is made clear in the book itself) concerning the way the indigenous people regard the land. The 'songlines' of the title are similar to mnemonics in that they enable a traveller to navigate across vast tracts of open country, but they are much more than that: mythic, cultural, ancestral, part of the actual identity of the person who uses them. But fascinating as they are, this is only one aspect of this totally immersing book; and Chatwin's extracts from the journals he kept over many years create a plausible and enthralling 'alternative' hypothesis regarding our earliest hominid ancestors.

The Scorpion God by William Golding staggered me with the sheer quality of the story-telling. I have had several William Golding books sitting on my shelves unread for years. He's an author I always intended to get round to one day but somehow never did -- until 2013. And what can I say? I'm an instant convert! I now intend to read as many of his books as I can. The Scorpion God consists of three novellas. They aren't linked by characters, plot or even mood; but they do seem to be related in some deeper way. The first is set in Ancient Egypt, the second in an unspecified African region, the third in Imperial Rome. All are brilliant. All crackle with astounding prose, remarkable imagery and a feeling of momentous changes taking place at every point on the page. The density of action is incredible, even when that action is only the shifting of philosophical viewpoints. Three pages of this book feel like thirty pages by another author. Golding was clearly a talent of enormous significance and I am very glad I've finally got round to delving into his works!

Yet another author who has been on my 'to read' list for years is Milan Kundera. I chose Laughable Loves, a collection of short stories, to begin with and I can say that I found it excellent and engrossing and extremely well-written. Although I enjoyed these stories enormously, if I was a woman I would probably have been annoyed by the sexual politics of the writing. All the stories are fundamentally based on the objectification of females. Although I disapprove rationally of such an outlook, I like Kundera's honesty in this regard. He's utterly sincere about the cynicism of his own psychology, which, if we are going to be completely candid, is also the base psychology of most males... It's difficult to pick a favourite among these stories but the first and last, 'Nobody Will Laugh' and 'Eduard and God', are both superb.

Last year I rediscovered Kurt Vonnegut and this year I continued to make up for lost time by reading no fewer than five of his books: A Man Without a Country, While Mortals Sleep, Armageddon in Retrospect, Jailbird and Breakfast of Champions. The last one on this list was the best; in fact it might be my favourite Vonnegut book of all. It isn't crammed with ideas the same way that Cat's Cradle or The Sirens of Titan are. In fact, not much actually happens in the novel. But there's something about it that makes up for that, a poignancy, a dark and wistful charm, a mischievous cosmic resignation -- I am not quite sure what exactly -- that fully compensates for the diminished quantity of ideas and plot turns.

And yet despite all this excellence, there was another author waiting for me who I regard as my greatest discovery of the year. Andrei Platonov. I picked up Soul and Other Stories at random when I was in the library and I am glad I did! I liked it so much that I instantly ordered Happy Moscow and The Foundation Pit too. Platonov fills me with the same enthusiasm I used to have when I was young and literature was an unexplored world for me; an enthusiasm that gradually faded over the decades but now is back. I can't recommend the short novel 'Soul' highly enough.

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