Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by James Morrison, an Australian reader and editor (sadly, not of books) who tweets at @unwise_trousers and blogs (increasingly infrequently) at http://causticcovercritic.blogspot.com.
Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and into next. It’s a stellar lineup. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).
2021 was like much of the rest of my life: I didn’t accomplish much, but I did read a shitload of books. If you take as true the dubious proposition that literature makes us better people, then virtue must positively drip from my pores. Sadly, the behaviour of nearly every great writer shows instead that constant contact with great literature makes you absolutely repellent.
Reading a lot can mean that when you look back on what you’ve read over the course of a year there are a number of surprises. I read that this year? It feels like a lifetime ago. What book is that? I have no memory of it at all. I only gave that three stars on Goodreads? It’s really hung around in my brain, more so than some of the obvious winners.
Some people have reading plans they stick to. I have no plans, or at least none that last more than a day or two in the face of the constant deluge of new and old books that keep yelling out for attention. I’m also a sucker for pretty books—I will absolutely fall for a book with a clever or beautiful cover design, knowing nothing else about it. [Ed. – Hard same, I’ll often ignore a book with an ugly cover and then decide I have to have it if it’s released in a better design.] Despite this, I will pretend not to be shallow as I talk about some of the things I read last year, in loosely thematic clumps.
One of my favourite literary sources is Hungary. Little Hungarian writing gets translated compared to that from most other European countries, but the main reason I like it is that the general quality of what does get translated into English is astonishingly high. Three books from Hungary particularly struck me this year.
Progressive Transylvanian aristocrat Count Miklós Bánffy is best remembered for his massive They Were Counted/Divided/Found Wanting trilogy, but was also excellent on a small scale; and two collections of his short stories came out at roughly the same time from two different publishers, with some overlap. Probably the better of the two is The Enchanted Night, translated by Len Rix, full of elusive stories that range from brutal military realism to strange and spooky Transylvanian folktales.
The selected short stories of Tibor Déry, who was imprisoned for political reasons both before and during the Communist regime, are collected in Love, translated by George Szirtes. Life in Budapest under the Nazis and the Stalinists is beautifully, if bleakly, rendered.
László Krasznahorkai is easily the best-known Hungarian writer on the world stage today, and his novella-with-music (each chapter has a QR code you can scan to summon the accompanying track) Chasing Homer is a compressed marvel of paranoia, pursuit and weapons-grade bile. Surely one day they’ll run out of overrated Sixties singers and lovers of war criminals and give him the Nobel. [Ed. – Could be a while though; spoilt for choice there.]
Speaking of the Nobel, I finally read Louise Glück for the first time, and her Averno is genuinely wonderful, so I suppose they don’t only give the prize to the undeserving. Even more marvellous and long-neglected by me was Inger Christensen’s Alphabet, translated from the Danish by Susanna Nied, a book in which the poetry really does attain the qualities of music, pure and wise and breathtaking.
Homecoming by Magda Isanos, translated from Romanian by Christina Tudor-Sideri, was another small revelation, full of the fog and ghosts and forests of interwar Central Europe. And then there was Notes on the Sonnets by Luke Kennard: if you’re not intrigued by a collection of funny/sad prose poems, each set at the same deranged house party and each taking as its launching point one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, then I can’t help you.
Novels in verse are one of my many obsessions, and there were two that stood out. Fighting Is Like a Wife by Eloisa Amezcua (due out in April) uses as raw material the life and marriage of a historical boxing champion and his wife in formally clever and emotionally moving ways. And then there is Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles. How a major publishing house was persuaded to take a gamble on a hard science-fiction verse novel written in the Scottish-Norse hybrid Orkney dialect is a mystery to me, but that it happened shows this is not yet an entirely fallen world.
The host of this blog doesn’t give a shit about space [Ed. – correct], because he is Wrong [Ed. – possibly correct], but I’m going to talk about it a bit here anyway because Dorian made the mistake of giving me the microphone [Ed. – absolutely incorrect; no mistake was made]. Continuing the astro-poetry theme we have Ken Hunt’s The Lost Cosmonauts, a collection about the accidents and deaths of the Space Race, much of it constructed from the texts of official reports and radio transcripts. Then there’s Omon Ra by Victor Pelevin, a bleak black comedy about the Soviet space program.
Pushing further into the future was the story collection Terminal Boredom by Izumi Suzuki (multiple translators), a downbeat set of 1970s/1980s Japanese countercultural tales of sexual and pharmaceutical weirdness. Further still takes us to Olga Ravn’s The Employees, translated from Danish by Martin Aitken, a genuine little masterpiece of a “workplace novel” set on a Generation Starship.
Finally, the biggest thing I read in 2021 was XX by Rian Hughes, a 1000-page monster about first contact and artificial intelligence. It’s a beautifully designed book in which the spirit of the 19th Century talks in multi-typeface pamphlets and that of the 20th in Futurist broadsides, which includes an entire pulp SF novella serialised in magazines that never existed, and which is the first book I have ever seen with a reversible dustjacket designed to make it look like a shelf of the fictional publications contained within the text [Ed. — !].
World War Two
Dutch genius Willem Frederik Hermans is having something of a revival, and A Guardian Angel Recalls (translated by David Colmer) is a great book new to English: a public prosecutor, weak and lovelorn, races around Holland as the Nazis invade, wreaking inadvertent havoc as he tries to save himself, protected and frustrated in equal measure by his similarly flawed guardian angel.
The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (translated from German by Philip Boehm) is from 1938: perhaps too late to be called prescient, but even years later people were denying its truths. Otto Silbermann is a Jewish German who fought for his country in World War One, too slow to realise that what is happening to other Jews will happen to him too. Finally he has to go on the run, trying to find a way to escape across the border to safety.
Marga Minco’s The Glass Bridge (translated by Stacey Knecht) is another Dutch novel, a tangential look at the Holocaust in fragments from the life of Stella, a Jewish artist hiding out under a dead woman’s name, moving from safe house to safe house, fending off the advances of a sexually predatory ‘protector’.
David Piper’s Trial by Battle (originally published in 1959 as by Peter Towry) is a deeply anti-triumphalist novel about Britain in Asia during World War Two, outclassed and outfought, living on a faltering diet of nationalistic smugness. Frances Faviell’s A Chelsea Concerto is a fascinating memoir of the first few months of the Blitz in London. Finally, Donald Henderson’s 1943 novel Mister Bowling Buys a Newspaper, despite its religiose ending, is a fine black comedy about a polite serial killer for people who have read all of Patrick Hamilton and now have a sad void in their lives.
Marian Engel’s Bear has no greater champion than the management of this blog, so I shall say nothing other than that Dorian is absolutely right about it in every way, despite the ludicrousness of the premise. [Ed. – THANK YOU! Another satisfied customer! You can watch James admit this truth to me here.] Another weirdly charged masterpiece is Denton Welch’s In Youth is Pleasure, a strange and astonishing novel about a boy helpless in the grip of his aesthetic and sensual needs.
I don’t even like boxing, yet Michael Winkler’s Grimmish is the second boxing novel on this list: a wonderful and weird book about masculinity and physical pain, full of great jokes which I have stolen: There are two types of people: those who can extrapolate from incomplete data. [Ed. – But that’s only one… ohhh…] Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett, which is sort of about the disparity between literature and life but also about everything else, is a genuine marvel. Minae Mizumura’s An I-Novel (translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter) is the story of two Japanese sisters transplanted to New York, a deep and rich and perceptive work enriched by numerous photographs. It’s not quite the equal of her A True Novel, but then what is?
[DISTANT, MUFFLED NOISE]
The Surprise Party Complex by Ramona Stewart, criminally out of print for decades, is a beautiful and hilarious bit of work about a group of neglected and eccentric teenagers at a loose end in Hollywood. The deeply weird Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing by René Daumal (translated by Roger Shattuck) was never finished, but what we do have is a surrealist masterpiece. Flesh by Brigid Brophy is a near-as-damnit perfect novel about appetites, both sexual and gastronomic. And everybody who enjoys the atmosphere of a good grotty 1950s London boarding house needs to read Babel Itself by Sam Youd (better known as science-fiction writer John Christopher), another unjustly forgotten bit of comic brilliance about a group of lodgers running spiritualist experiments, having affairs and betraying each other.
[SOUND OF SECURITY FORCES BANGING ON DOOR, YELLS OF ‘YOUR TIME IS UP!’]
Then there’s the Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This, which really is as good as everyone says, and Jim Shepard’s Phase Six, an unfortunately timed global pandemic novel that’s also a splendidly moving look at female friendship, and Hilma Wolitzer’s career-summary story collection Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket, and…
[DOOR BREAKS DOWN]
..and Nathalie Sarraute’s Tropisms, which I finally read years after everybody else, and Giorgio Bassani’s The Heron, the only book of his I’d never read, and…
[MUFFLED SHOUTING, SOUNDS OF SOMEONE BEING DRAGGED AWAY]