Books I Read This Year
Ross Raisin, Taiye Selasi, Claire Vaye Watkins, Peter Stothard, Edmund White, Andrew Miller, Tan Twan Eng
From Robert Macfarlane’s journey through Britain’s old and forgotten footpaths, to Teju Cole’s illuminations of modern-day Lagos, 2012 has brought with it some books to read and reread. Yet the story of our reading life is rarely confined to what has been published in a given year. We make return journeys to old favourites and refresh those voices we miss hearing most. So we asked a selection of writers to offer their highlights of what they have read in 2012, both old and new.
Claire Vaye Watkins
Run River by Joan Didion
Joan Didion’s first novel is like one of Gatsby’s bashes swallowed by a kiln fire. It’s a brutal, boozy pity party thrown as what passes for aristocracy in the Central Valley flames out. It’s a torch song staged on the banks of the Sacramento River, a figure as indifferent to the end of California as the rest of Sacramento is oblivious, going ‘right along dedicating their grubby goddamn camellia trees in Capitol Park to the memory of their grubby goddamn settlers’.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt
I’ve heard a lot of folks make the inevitable comparison between Patrick DeWitt’s neo-Western and HBO’s Deadwood. For my part, I think The Sisters Brothers, with its wise and wicked sense of humour, is what Deadwood could have been if it hadn’t taken itself so seriously. (Timothy Olyphant scowled so much in the first season that I feared Seth Bullock had come down with lockjaw.) Never wading in that macho manure, DeWitt’s book is sly and even sweet. Its plot moves at such a gallop that as I came upon the ending my own tears surprised me.
A Heart So White by Javier Marías
Reading A Heart So White is like eavesdropping on a conversation between the living and the dead. The book opens with one of the most stunning passages I’ve ever read, and marches on until its final movement, when our narrator, a translator and interpreter, dispatches his wife to solve the irresistible mystery of a father. Marías’s meditative intensity makes this book not only a tantalizing mystery but a genuine enquiry, worrying the extent to which we can ever know another person. Secrets bloom – in apartments, via personal ads, on verandas – then die, and Marías seems to settle on the unsettling: there’s a little Lady Macbeth in all of us.
In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut
The book is a novel though perhaps only loosely. It reads – is intended to read – like three lengthy excerpts from a travel journal, Galgut’s own travel journal. The first section, ‘The Follower’, was for me the most perfectly done. Two young men meet and remeet on a trek. A subtle tension grows between them. Will they have sex? Will one murder the other? There are definite echoes of Galgut’s great compatriot, J.M. Coetzee. I shall certainly be picking up whatever he does next.
Amongst Women by John McGahern
McGahern is a wonderful writer. He is lyrical but never florid or quaintly Celtic. At the centre of the novel is Moran, one-time hero of the Irish Rebellion, now a widower and small-time farmer lording it over his children. He may be based on McGahern’s own very difficult father. He is a man charming one moment and brutal the next, a man who spectacularly indulges his own moods. But around the portrait of Moran there is a beautiful evocation of Irish rural life in the middle of the last century. One could rebuild the entire farmhouse from McGahern’s loving descriptions of it.
Light Years by James Salter
This novel was first published in the USA in 1975. It tells the story of a marriage between two arty, liberal-minded young Americans with the slightly odd names of Viri and Nedra. Stated that way the book sounds dull (the synopsis of a good book is always misleading) but Light Years is sensual, poetic, wise and as strong as anything you’re likely to find in Updike or even John Cheever. It’s a book that sings, takes endless risks with language and almost never puts a foot wrong.
Alice Kaplan’s Dreaming in French: The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis showed me how Americans abroad got such different things from the French capital. Jacqueline Bouvier boarded with aristocrats and learned the language and good manners. Susan Sontag abandoned her husband and son and worked out her lesbian identity. Angela Davis was immersed in radical politics. My favourite comic novel of the year was Ben Lerner’s Leaving Atocha Station, which portrays all the confusion and anomie of living in a foreign tongue one hasn’t yet mastered.
After reading 145 novels this year as Chair of the Man Booker Prize, I choose my books only from that pile. But not from the twelve long-listed or six shortlisted books. They have had praise enough already. So I want to offer three novels that did not make the Man Booker cut but stay very strong in my memory of an extraordinary year for fiction. First: The Apartment, by Greg Baxter, one of many novels that examined the connections and disconnections of modern urban life: a mysterious tale of bus travel, house-hunting, Iraq war guilt and and utilitarian sexual attraction, all set in the grey dark of an unnamed eastern European city. Second: Hawthorn & Child, by Keith Ridgway, a set of London street stories, contingency, cars and gay sex, a fresh philosophical chapter in the history of detective fiction. Third: Zoo Time, by Howard Jacobson, a comic assault on the current state of publishing, the international book tour and the travails of being the Man Booker winner in 2010.
Mrs Bridge by Evan S. Connell
There are very few books that I have reread – three, I think, although one doesn’t count because I didn’t have a choice – but my impulse upon finishing Mrs Bridge was that I needed to begin it again, immediately. Simply for the sentences. The language, always ironic, playful, humorous, is also wonderfully spare. The book manages, in just over a hundred short, chronological chapters, to suggest the empty existential nightmare at the heart of mid-twentieth-century America in a way that resonates now even more than does Revolutionary Road, or Mildred Pierce. Penguin published a new edition this year, and in February they are publishing Mr Bridge (which came out in 1969, ten years after Mrs Bridge). I am told that it is a darker, more unforgiving novel, and I can’t wait. I have not yet reread Mrs Bridge, I should point out, but that is more to do with my own failings than with the book’s.
The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane
This is a book of cracking sentences too. Here are a couple: ‘[The gannets] came back out of the sea like white flowers unfurling. Fold, tuck, dive, unfurl: avian origami.’ I picked up the book thinking and hoping that it would be a kind of guide to the ancient paths of Britain, but in fact it is much more than that: it is about the connection between people and place, the stories that those people share, and of paths not simply as physical routes, but routes into thought, culture and philosophy.
Tan Twan Eng
A Life in Writing by J.C. Kannemeyer
This six-hundred-page long-awaited biography of J.M. Coetzee was published this year in Afrikaans and English. Kannemeyer is one of South Africa’s eminent biographers. Coetzee gave him extensive access to his papers, allowed Kannemeyer to conduct a series of interviews with him, occasionally pointing him to friends and former colleagues and relatives he should speak to.
No pebble is left unturned. Kannemeyer traces Coetzee’s family tree all the way to the early days of the founding of the Cape colony in South Africa. Kannemeyer excavates Coetzee’s life through his literary output, comparing and contrasting aspects of it with the writer’s life. He explores and dispels how much of Coetzee’s writing is autobiographical, and in the process he corrects the misconceptions that have obscured this enigmatic, private writer, misconceptions that have affected how his novels were analysed. The endnotes are fascinating too, and in reading this book much time is spent flipping to the back pages, to follow digressions that are just as thought-provoking as the main body of the book.
Coetzee declined Kannemeyer’s offer to let him read and approve the biographer’s manuscript before it was published. Kannemeyer died shortly after he completed the biography and before it was published.
The Long Way Home by Dana Snyman
In a society where things are breaking down due to unrestrained corruption, incompetence and political warfare, can a community, a tribe, reclaim and honour only the best portions of its past? In attempting to answer this question, Snyman, an Afrikaner newspaper columnist, goes on a road trip that is not only geographical, but temporal too.
Snyman’s travels take him from the Cape in a northern-easterly direction, his eventual destination his father’s home 2,000 kilometres away; he travels through dusty Karoo small towns depleted of hope and young people, through communities devastated by regular murders of farmers and their families. And along the way he has regular quarrels – in his mind, and also on his cellphone – with his father, a dying man who cannot understand his son’s quest. ‘Come home, son,’ the old man says when Snyman decides to make a long detour to another dorp. ‘Come home. You belong here.’
Snyman’s writing in this slim volume is straightforward and understated, it is unsentimental but moving. The heartbreaking power of his prose lies in what he leaves unsaid. He accepts the wrongs that have been done in the past, but he also mourns for all the good that is now lost.
I can’t read fiction when I’m writing it, so 2012 broke a fast. In two years I’d written one novel and read none; in February I became a binge reader. The best three books of my yearlong jag have very little in common.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera is one of my favourite novels (God of Small Things and Moon Tiger the others). I return to these books again and again, savouring, marvelling, learning. New pleasures appear on each new read, and this time it was the motifs. Kundera deploys repetition like Dvoák and Mahler: lacing a theme throughout the symphony. It is an ironic gesture, given Kundera’s ideological rejection of Nietzsche, a case made beautifully both for and against recurrence.
Perhaps the backdrop of revolution in the Middle East made the Prague Spring more vivid this time around, and I found myself questioning how the novel can offer comment on sociopolitical dynamics without becoming polemic. In this, both The Round House by Louise Erdrich and Open City by Teju Cole succeed so brilliantly. I read the former in one breathless sitting, reminded of my high school favourites: To Kill a Mockingbird, yes, but also The Education of Little Tree, A Separate Peace (with glorious touches of The Goonies). Erdrich’s writing is so unabashedly straightforward that one almost doesn’t notice it. Swept along by plot, I was forty pages in before I found myself underlining phrases. Short phrases, knowing phrases. Nacre around hard truths. But at no point did Erdrich’s investigation of racial violence become didactic. The Round House is not the story of a Native American community brutalized by anti-Indian hatred: it is the story of Joe, voice clear as day, and the people he loves most in the world.
Open City makes its case as subtly. Like Kundera, Cole uses such gorgeous language that one can tend to lose the plot, drifting dream-like through the turns of phrase as through some Klimtian funhouse. But underneath that gentle tide (or floating just atop it) is a deeply insightful – acute, incisive – social comment. Julius is a keen observer of New York, both student and subject of its politics. Race exists as surely and vaguely for him as it does for most intellectuals of colour. In his glorious prose, Cole refuses to pin down what floats but never flies away. The most beautiful novel I read this year, Open City is also the most intelligent.
Photo by Ted Hodgkinson