My literary review of the year is generally only concerned with my personal favourites of all the books I have read this year and doesn't have anything to do with my own writing. This is the way it should be. I can announce, however, that 2017 has turned out to be my most productive fiction writing year ever. Every year for the past two decades I have attempted to write a minimum of 100,000 words of fiction annually. Some years I have failed to do this, but generally I have met my target and exceeded it by a certain wordage. The first time I broke the 200,000 word mark, I was astonished. The following year I produced 240,000 words and that was a record I never expected to beat. That was in 2010.
Ironically, I decided to make last year the final year in which I worried about meeting my self-imposed target of one hundred thousand words. I just planned to write instead without counting and let the final total take care of itself. But for some reason, this year has been especially fruitful, maybe because I took the pressure off myself, I don't know. I have just reached a total wordage of 241,000 words of fiction, and this doesn't take into account that 2017 was the year I also decided to launch myself into writing non-fiction seriously.
However, I certainly don't intend to keep up this pace next year. There is no need. I am only 120 stories short of finishing my grand cycle of 1000 stories, and slowing the pace seems the right thing to do at this stage.
I am also thinking about detaching my novels from the cycle and having them as a separate set of works, and concentrating more on them in the future. I have several novels that are in various stages of completion, plus I have ideas for others, and I don't want the arbitrary task of writing short stories to obstruct their realization.
None of this is going to be of much interest to most of you out there, but keeping the numbers in mind helps me to determine where I am and how far there is left to go. And although I am prolific in comparison with many writers, I am not at all prolific compared with others. It's all relative! I ought to make a list of projects I intend to work on in the near future and then post the list on my blog. I will probably try to do this quite soon.
Now then! The best books I read in 2017 were as follows:
On Leave - Daniel Anselme
A truly remarkable novel about three soldiers on leave in Paris in the middle of the Algerian War. Written in 1957 it describes a sequence of disillusioned but intense experiences in a prose that is simultaneously hallucinatory and crisp. This is almost a perfect novel and one that will surely linger long in my memory. Each episode and every scene is absolutely correct in its place. Anselme's writing style is like a cross between the styles of Camus and Simenon, and the result isn't a mess, as a blending of two such incompatibles ought to be, but a melodic, philosophical and yet streetwise concoction that flows along at a heady pace. Too contained to be described as a picaresque, the novel nonetheless progresses from one rejected 'lesson' to another, as the three soldiers fail to readjust to the life they once knew. This is an angry, sensitive, enthralling, disturbing, political fantasia that never ceases to be brutally and beautifully real.
The Fugitive - Pramoedya Ananta Toer
A remarkable novel by a writer I only discovered a couple of months ago. This is the first Indonesian work of literature that I have read. I found it to be fascinating and compelling. The novel was Toer's first and is set at the end of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia. There are four long chapters that resemble acts in a play. The action proceeds fluidly despite the very formal structural arrangement of the work. There is a small cast of characters who interact, who ponder and present dilemmas of conscience and determination. The story is about loyalty, betrayal, redemption, liberation and tragedy. I am definitely planning to read more of Toer's work. In style and tone it is quite unlike the work of any other writer I have encountered.
The Collected Short Stories - Jean Rhys
One of the best short story collections I have ever read. This was also my introduction to the work of Jean Rhys and I will now certainly seek out her other books. There is a lot of variety here and the stories span a wide range of time, but they can be placed into four broad categories. (1) Stories set in the bohemian Paris of the interwar age, (2) Stories set in London before and during the Blitz, (3) Stories set in the West Indies, (4) Stories set in the countryside (of England or other European countries).
The stories set in Paris and London tend to be equally about impoverished narrators trying to survive in their environments, but those in Paris are far less bleak than those in London. The London stories really demonstrate the appallingly claustrophobic social prejudices prevalent at the time and they do this as devastatingly as the stories of Somerset Maugham. In the Parisian stories, on the other hand, there is always something uplifting happening even when there is little hope in general...
The West Indies stories are my favorites and the tropics are so deeply ingrained in the heart of this writer that they seem to be in the background even in the stories that aren't set there. There is always a yearning, a craving, for the light and brightness and intensity of the Caribbean, despite the fact that paradise isn't always paradise under the surface and Jean Rhys makes the reader acutely aware of this fact.
As for the stories set in the countryside, these include a remarkable story which is a semi-autobiographical account of a stay in a remote cottage with three other guests, including the composer Peter Warlock; and a magnificent story of escape to Prague in a motor car just after WWI in the company of a husband who is a crook. Jean Rhys tends to be better at longer lengths. These two pieces are picaresque, somewhat rambling in structure, rendered in a prose style that is unusual, highly rhythmic and simultaneously melancholic and invigorating, not at all like the standard writers in English of her time.
Fever - J.M.G. Le Clézio
One of those occasional books that changes what you believe is possible in fiction and thus one of the best short story collections I have ever read. Le Clézio's incandescent style is the first notable aspect of his work. It is immensely affecting, melodically and rhythmically, and has a powerful momentum. It is not dissimilar to that of J.G. Ballard in the sense that it seems geometric in itself even when not engaged in some literal or metaphorical geometric analysis of the material under consideration at any time, but it is more philosophical and looser too; ultimately there is a tight control on digressions and tangents but they are held at the end of a long leash.
Or perhaps we can say that the stories are one large remarkable digression and tangent. They are often picaresque or pseudo-picaresque accounts. The characters appear to ramble aimlessly from one situation to another, from one coordinate of spacetime to another, and only their confusion and curiosity remain unchanged along the way. There are four masterpieces among this collection of nines stories. None of them feature a conventional protagonist or anything in the way of orthodox characterization, plot or dialogue. None of them follow the standard patterns of story pacing or development. They are less like other fictions and more like chronicles of subjective experiences.
The title story 'Fever' is a novelette or novella in which the distorted perspectives of a delirium sufferer are shown to be keys to unlocking the distorted nature of reality itself. 'The Day Beaumont Became Acquainted with his Pain' is about the telescoping of awareness due to a terrible toothache. 'The Walking Man' is the story of a journey that is spatially insignificant but metaphysically tremendous. 'A Day of Old Age' is about death, life, individuality, the merging of the substances that give us temporary form back into the environment. The last of these contains a nice metafictional touch in which Le Clézio urges the reader to take a break from reading and breathe deeply while appreciating the fact we are still alive, a gesture that shows more consideration for the existence of the reader than most fictive texts.
Of the other five stories I would like to point out that 'The World is Alive' contains no human or animal characters at all. It is the story of a river from its source in the mountains all the way down to the sea. It is more like an essay than a story, an example of nature writing, and yet it is still a story, because this river is the character, a character as valid as any imaginary human being would be, and its journey is the most perfect of narratives because we already know and don't know at the same time what the progression and outcome will be. It is exactly the sort of story that confounds all the advice given by creative writing teachers on creative writing courses, the sort of story that shows there are no rules, there is only ingenuity.
A General Theory of Oblivion - José Eduardo Agualusa
One of the best novels I have encountered for ages. Magnificent in every way and exactly the kind of book that reminds me of how magical literature can be. So much of my favourite contemporary writing seems to be coming out of Africa. This is definitely in the top 10 of novels I have read in the past ten years. It is probably even in the top three... The tangled life-streams of the various characters interact beautifully and surprisingly with each other; the backdrop to the story is colourful, menacing and absolutely charged with history. José Eduardo Agualusa is clearly an extremely accomplished author indeed. I am awestruck and I certainly intend seeking out more of this writer's work.
The Journal of a Disappointed Man - W.N.P. Barbellion
One of the best books I have read this year and in fact one of the best books I have ever read. I believe that all readers who are interested in the human condition should read it. From the point of view of what it means to be a living person, it contains the spectrum of everything. Really amazing and I think it could be more than amazing: it could be an epiphany. It's one of the most quotable books I have ever read (as quotable as Cocteau; high praise indeed!) and also one of the most poignant. And it is totally relevant to everything that the philosophically-minded reader has probably been turning over in their own minds for years and years, our cosmic insignificance, the fact that life is terrible but worth living anyway, the nature of truth and falsity, etc, and because Barbellion goes through almost the whole range of possible feelings and views on every subject he raises, it feels like he has uploaded his soul onto the page and then we find that our own souls overlap with his at many points. It was a privilege to read this book, which I plucked at random from a library shelf, started reading with no special motivation but then with immense enthusiasm as I became completely captivated by the work.