Tuesday, December 13, 2016

 

End of Year Review 2016


This end of year review is concerned solely with books. For some reason 2016 turned out to be the year in which I read more fiction books than in any other year of my entire life. I also read a lot of non-fiction books, but I won't deal with those here. I have read a total of 63 fiction books so far and I will probably increase this total by two or three more titles before the year is finished. However, I feel ready to make a choice about my favourites.

My opinions on fiction have remained fairly stable over the course of my reading life. I have become much more open to non-European literature, however. I really don't understand why this didn't happen sooner. I have loved Latin American literature for a long time, of course, but it's only in the past decade that I have really begin to explore the literature of Africa and Asia in any depth. Anyway, here are my top fiction books of 2016...

* Dream Story -- Arthur Schnitzler
An almost perfect short novel. Having seen the Kubrick film that was based on this book (and thinking it good but hugely flawed) I foolishly assumed the book would also be flawed. But it isn't. It is a remarkable work in which the lines between dream and reality are blurred in a very affecting way, both occupying spaces of high clarity and reflecting the other, so it is never entirely certain what is real and what isn't. However this doesn't (as it might have done) lessen the impact of the powerful, sensual and grotesque events that occur. Schnitzler refuses to take the easy way or to allow his main protagonist, Fridolin, to use the "dream" excuse to escape the seriousness of what has resulted from his actions of one night. The prose of the story is powerful and sombre, yet charged with a rich atmosphere.

* If on a Winter's Night a Traveller -- Italo Calvino
Calvino has at least two other books among my all-time favourites, The Complete Cosmicomics and Our Ancestors. And Marcovaldo may even be a third. He is certainly my favourite fiction writer. There are almost too many things I want to say about If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. The odd aspect is that I have met a few people who dislike it intensely, and the main reason they dislike it is always based on a misunderstanding. They believe it is merely a showcase for Calvino to display how clever he is; that it's a book dedicated solely to the act of showing-off. But in fact this is absolutely not the case. In fact the process of the book involves Calvino's ego dissolving away and the authorial voice being taken over by a host of other (imaginary but brilliantly realised) authors. It may seem like an egocentric book on the surface but underneath it is profoundly involved with the real world, with the outer as well as the inner. It is about life, experience, ideas, style, culture, differences, similarities, and the connections between them. And it tries to capture a very elusive mood, a series of very elusive moods in fact, that concern the art of literature and the act of reading: the fact that when we start reading a novel the potentialities are almost endless and the novel has immense (if not infinite) possibilities in terms of development and evolution. But as we read onward, those potentialities diminish, the possibilities became less, as the novel actually congeals into what it is, namely a book that is being read. Calvino's masterwork, on the other hand, is a cycle of connected beginnings in which the potentials are never lost, and these beginnings together form a coherent work of progress through time, with a conclusion that satisfies the demands of literary convention and yet is highly original. And the whole of this amazing construction is held together within a metafictional frame that tells its own delightful and remarkable quest story.

* A River Called Time -- Mia Couto
Mia Couto writes in a unique style that is very powerful. In fact I find his prose style one of the finest of any writer I have read. It has affinities to magic realism but contrives to be original too. I also see in it some similarities with the mannerisms of Milorad Pavić, in the sense that the metaphorical aspects of the worlds they both create are so spectacularly unusual and yet feel precisely right, as if they are pinning down some aspects of existence that had remained elusive before, and doing so with language that only seems willfully odd until we have acclimatized to it. It is difficult to explain precisely what I mean. Inexplicable events take place in Couto's work: they are embodiment in the external world of internal feelings, even when those feelings are not really understood by the characters experiencing them. And yet it is not feelings alone that drive forward the plot or justify the magic. Couto's novels, mystical and mysterious, are also adventure stories in which Africa is a wounded soul attempting to heal itself, as well as the extraordinary stage for the protagonists to move on, dancing between dangers and ecstasies.

* Heart's Wings and Other Stories -- Gabriel Josipovici
Josipovici is one of my favourite short-story writers and this volume is a selection of his work over the majority of his career. His style is crisp, lucid and luminous, always slightly strange, cool, aloof, and yet capable of cutting deeply into the emotions of the reader. He reminds me of some of the avant garde 'New Worlds' writers of the late 60s and early 70s who attempted experimental prose that connected with the head and the heart simultaneously. But they mostly failed, and Josipovici mostly succeeds. 'Second Person Looking Out' is a maze tale in which the labyrinth is a relentless shift-of-perspective in the grounds and interior of a weird house. 'Mobius the Stripper' is a dark comedy and a magnificent exercise in topography. 'The Bird Cage' is an elegiac prose poem. 'Christmas' is a brilliant kitchen-sink twister. 'Exile' is a story of poignant irony about self-imprisonment. 'Steps' (perhaps my favourite) demonstrates the artistry with which the author can switch between past, present and future, turning a bizarre encounter with a stranger into something that is poised between daydream/nightmare and reality. 'Love Across the Borders' is a powerful and chilling revenge tale... There is a strong flavour of Borges as well as Kafka in many of these stories, and in the others, and all are highly accomplished. This is a wonderful book.

* The Star Diaries -- Stanislaw Lem
Stanislaw Lem is a writer I especially admire. This book is one of his best. In fact it is one of the best science-fiction books I have ever read. A collection of the improbable voyages of the space explorer Ijon Tichy, it is delightful, funny, thought provoking, original, clever, charming and absurd (in a good way). This is the kind of science-fiction I most enjoy -- similar to Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics -- picaresque, playful, highly imaginative and not limited by those pointless concerns for veracity that 'hard' SF always insists on. In many ways The Star Diaries is more akin to Gulliver's Travels than to traditional science-fiction; but it is the endlessly inventive ideas that really make Lem stand out. He was a genius.

* The Nightwatchman's Occurrence Book -- V.S. Naipaul
It is only this year (2016) that I have really started to read his books in earnest, but V.S. Naipaul has already become one of my favourite writers. I read Miguel Street, his first book, in the spring, and followed it with his second, The Mystic Masseur; then I knew I would have to seek out his third, and so on... So I bought the third, The Suffrage of Elvira, but it seemed sensible to buy it as part of this omnibus and thus secure two extra books in one volume... I am glad that I did. The Suffrage of Elvira is one of Naipaul's 'early' books. Set in Trinidad it is full of comical characters who move in a setting in which many different races mix and interact. It seems almost one of a piece with his two earlier books. There is considerable charm here, but it is far from being merely 'charming' or 'colourful'. There is also darkness, sadness and frustration amid the tropical props and island scenery. This style of writing was one Naipaul was to abandon shortly afterwards, moving on to a much more precise and profound voice and manner of approaching his material. The second part of this omnibus features Mr Stone and the Knights Companion, an oddity that Naipaul wrote while he was travelling through India, although it is set entirely in England and was Naipaul's attempt to write a wholly 'English' novel. It works very well. It is a social satire along the lines of some of H.G. Wells' novels (The History of Mr Polly for instance) and the writing is sublime, subdued, muted but deeply thoughtful too, quite different from the prose style of the early Trinidad novels, but equally impressive and affecting in an entirely different way. The third part of the omnibus contains a story collection, A Flag on the Island. To my delight, this collection featured stories that are in the style of Miguel Street (in fact, one of them, 'The Enemy' was originally intended for that book but left out), and also stories in which the more mature and richer manner prevails. It is the title story of this collection, the brilliant novella 'A Flag on the Island' that actually proved to be an important transition piece for Naipaul, leading him to experiment with, and develop, a new voice that became entirely his.

* Trout Fishing in America -- Richard Brautigan (Picador)
A work of genius! It falters slightly midway, in my view, but the remainder of the book more than makes up for what I perceived as a few weaker passages here and there. I say 'passages' rather than chapters because the individual chapters don't feel like real chapters. They are often connected to the other chapters but not always. They are fragments that feel they might be part of a stream that flows in unexpected directions, but maybe there isn't just one stream here, maybe there are many trickles of water seeking a stream to flow into. Some will succeed and some will miss. This is the 7th Brautigan book I have read and I can understand why it is his most famous and why it sold far more copies than any of his others. It became a key counterculture text in the late 1960s although it was written in the early 1960s and only circulated in manuscript form for most of that decade before ending up as a published book. The 'typewritten 'manuscript' format is preserved in the printed editions and it makes the reader feel that they too are privileged enough to share the secret, although in fact the secret has been so widely disseminated since that it is no longer a secret. The manuscript format changes the tone of the work slightly, maybe adding to its sense of wistfulness and even melancholy. For there is melancholy here, despite the brilliant absurdist comedy of the outrageous metaphors and fantastical situations that are embedded in the more down-to-earth situation of a man seeking a place to go trout fishing, with or without his girlfriend and daughter, in a variety of locations. Brautigan's metaphors are more than just metaphors. They are frequently pataphors, where the content of the comparison becomes more important than the original object in the process of being compared and influences the subsequent action. It strikes me that Brautigan's first two novels, Trout Fishing in America and A Confederate General from Big Sur are fundamentally different from all his later books. They are more chaotically constructed, more rambling, stranger in their use of language, but also richer. They may not be as beautifully neat as (for example) The Hawkline Monster or Sombrero Fallout but they will perhaps eventually prove to be more enduring. This is an important work of literature. Indeed I would say it is essential reading...

* The Fall -- Albert Camus (Penguin)
In my 20s I read Camus and thought he was an extraordinary writer, fully the equal of his mighty reputation. So why didn't I read him again during the entirety of my 30s and 40s until now? It is a mystery that I can't explain. I picked up The Fall on a whim and devoured it. An astounding short novel that has the fundamental question of how to live in this world as its theme. Camus is a philosophical writer with a precise use of language. His prose has unstoppable momentum and a reader can't help but hurry from the first page to the last in a delirium of receptive inspiration.

* A Malgudi Omnibus -- R.K. Narayan (Vintage)
R.K. Narayan is an author I have been aware of for a long time, but I only started reading his books this year. I read a short sample volume of his short stories back in February. This omnibus volume contains three of his earliest novels. Swami and Friends, the very first, I found to be charming, engrossing and fascinating. Narayan gives me a warm feeling that few other writers do. His style is perfect for my needs at this time; and in fact I now feel the same way I did when I was young and launching myself into the great universe of literature for the first time. He is able to do two contradictory things simultaneously, namely (1) show that we are all the same throughout the world, and (2) show how cultures and people around the world differ from each other. The 'warm' feeling that he conveys doesn't mean that his books make life seem easy. On the contrary, his work is absolutely committed to dealing with the travails of existence; but there is a deep humanity about his style that strongly appeals to my better nature. I love immersing myself in his world and I feel that no more genuine and sincere guide could ever be found to our common reality than this author. The Bachelor of Arts, the second novel in this omnibus, tells of Chandran, who graduates from college and falls in love with Malathi, a girl he sees on the sands of the river bank one evening. His yearnings for her lead to the most dramatic adventure of his youth, as he impulsively but bravely decides to reject the world when he is unable to have her as his wife. But that is only one extended incident among many. This novel is delightful and charming but also has elements of melancholy. It is humorous and yet serious. I fully understand why Graham Greene said that Narayan was his favourite writer in the English language. Greene said that Narayan had metaphorically offered him a second home in India; and that's exactly the way I feel too. The third novel in the omnibus, The English Teacher, is much more sombre than the other two. The plot concerns an English teacher who loses his wife to typhoid. Narayan lost his own wife to the same disease. The sadness and poignancy of certain scenes in this novel are intense; and yet the author never allows his narrator to become self-indulgent. The ending of this novel is truly beautiful and moving. I always feel with Narayan that he is befriending the reader as well as telling a story.


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