Objects in the rearview mirror…

Back at the beginning of 2010 I wrote a post regarding my goals for the coming year. Here at the end of 2010 I thought I’d revisit that, and look back over what stands out for me from the year.

My main plans for the year were to read Proust and to read Russian superfluous man novels. I also wanted to read Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, due to its influence on Eugene Onegin.

Well, I read the Byron and I read the first of the Proust and that’s as far as I got. Proust it turns out is as brilliant as I expected, but dense reading and hard to fit in around other commitments. I suspect I read less Russian fiction than I would have had I not had a goal, since I wanted to read in a sort of vague order and therefore didn’t read books that didn’t fit that order.

So much for resolutions. I’m not making any for 2011, though I still hope to read more Proust and more Russian superfluous man novels.

Otherwise, it’s been a challenging year in terms of my reading. Not so much for content, though I have read some satisfyingly difficult books, but in terms of juggling my love of books with the demands of work and a house purchase. Put simply, I’ve not read as much as I’d have liked.

Still, enough with the negative. Here’s a dozen books that looking back really stood out to me:

Hearing Secret Harmonies, by Anthony Powell. Volume twelve to A Dance to the Music of Time and a powerful and melancholy end to the sequence. Brilliant and I’m glad I read them all. Shame I didn’t read Proust first, but there you go.

No Tomorrow, by Vivant Denon. A perfect slice of Ancien Régime amorality.

Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust. Does this need explanation?

The Pendragon Legend, by Antal Szerb. This is just dazzling. Funny, intelligent, daring, playful. It’s an absolute delight and a hugely satisfying novel on a number of levels.

A Way of Life, Like Any Other, by Darcy O’Brien. I wouldn’t have expected to like a novella about growing up in Hollywood at all, let alone so much. This though is simple and well written and surprisingly affectionate. It’s stayed in my memory where other books have faded, or remained for the wrong reasons (I’m looking at you, The Road).

I was Dora Suarez, by Derek Raymond. A novel which famously made Raymond’s publisher vomit across his own desk, and which made me feel genuinely queasy too. I don’t know that I recommend it, but it takes talent to make the reader actually feel nauseous. Still not as good for me though as the first of Raymond’s Factory novels, He Died with His Eyes Open.

Pig Earth, by John Berger. A Kevinfromcanada recommendation and a very good one. Poetry, prose, drawings and essays on Marxist theory all combine to create an extraordinary portrait of French peasant life. Superlative. His A Painter of Our Time was bloody good later in the year too.

Skylark, by Dezső Kosztolányi. I don’t use the word masterpiece lightly, but I use it here. A portrait of a dull elderly couple and their dull daughter. Like Ozu’s Tokyo Story, it sounds tedious beyond belief but in fact it’s as good as it gets.

The Canal, by Lee Rourke. Ballardian existentialism and reflections on boredom. A first novel and so not flawless, but interesting and launched me onto a wave of reading (Ann Quin, Gordon Burn, soon Anna Kavan) that I’m finding very rewarding.

Slaves of Solitude, by Patrick Hamilton. A master of the minor key as I think John Self once said. Nobody does bars and bullies better than Hamilton.

Berg, by Ann Quin. Challenging and strange, and able to keep my attention in the middle of a horrific deal closing and a house move. It’s not without its problems, but it merits much more attention than it receives.

Alma Cogan, by Gordon Burn. Dark and mesmerising and exceptionally well written. Thanks to John Self who’s well ahead of me on Burn and recommended this as the place to start with him.

All that and I’ve not mentioned Tales of Belkin, or The Jinx, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, or Butterball, or Stone in a Landslide (or Beside the Sea), or anything by the marvellous Jean Rhys, or… Well, ok, it’s not been that bad a year on reflection.

Looking back, one other thing that strikes me is that in terms of genre I’ve enjoyed the crime much more than the SF. Chester Himes and particularly Ross MacDonald both stand out in a way that none of the SF really has for me. In part that’s because the best SF I read, the Gibson, I’d read before but otherwise it may be that I’m choosing the wrong titles or it may be my taste is shifting. I’m not sure. I may not buy much more of it though until I’ve read the SF titles I already have at home just in case it’s not speaking to me as much as it used to.

Otherwise, 2010′s not done yet. I hope to finish my current David Peace. I may read Anna Kavan’s Ice or I may just read something fat to relax with while digesting excessive amounts of turkey. Thanks to everyone who’s commented on any of my posts over the last year and thanks to those who’ve read but not commented. It’s been good keeping the blog going, even if it is occasionally tricky to find the time to do so.

Happy Christmas to everybody.

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23 Comments

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23 responses to “Objects in the rearview mirror…

  1. I did love Skylark, and it missed getting on my list by only a hair. In fact, I suspect had I put my list together on another day, it would have made it. Glad to see it getting due representation here!

    As for your other books, I haven’t read any of them, though I’ve enjoyed your write-ups. I have Slaves of Solitude and The Canal, and I hope to get to them some day (notice I’ve decided I should no longer use “soon” there).

    Now, as for Jean Rhys, as part of a class I read Wide Sargasso Sea and I didn’t like it. I might now, but nevertheless I haven’t put much time into getting to know her other work. So, where should I begin to get to know her for a second time?

  2. Trevor, I’ve yet to print off your end of your end of year roundup (I’ve bought a few of them though looking at it, after reading your reviews). I’ll be over yours tomorrow most likely.

    Regarding Rhys, she wrote four novels about women in Paris, each quite similar. The last one is the best and that’s Good Morning, Midnight. That’s the one John recommended to me and I loved it. Problem is, it is the best. The first is Quartet and while not as good it is rewarding. I’ve yet to read the middle two, though I definitely plan to.

    So, it’s the old dilemma, do you start with the early work and follow the writer as they develop? Or do you start with the best and then circle back to the earlier ones if it speaks to you? I’d probably do the latter (I did do the latter in fact), but there’s a fair case to be made for reading the earliest first.

    If I had to pick out any others for you here it would be the O’Brien and the Szerb. Both in very different ways are very good and I think you’d enjoy them.

  3. Proust has been waiting for you for more than a century, so I think spreading him out over a few years is not really a problem. And he does require concentration, so complicated deals at work and buying a home are not excuses but explanations.
    Thanks for thoughts on Denon, Skylark and The Canal — all await my eventual attention.

  4. You’re not tempted by the O’Brien Kevin?

    Thanks again for the Berger recommendation. As you may recall, I hadn’t been attracted by him at all and hadn’t seen anything to tempt me to read him. He is however exceptional and exactly the sort of thing I adore.

  5. All right, I’ll add him too. The reason that I hadn’t before was that I have developed a rather large pile of novellas already — and it is a format that I like to be careful with because if I read too many one after the other they tend to all mix together. Plus, I am contemplating (I try to avoid resolutions as well) taking on a few Henry James and Edith Wharton short works in 2011. I love them both and both wrote a number of novellas that I haven’t read — since they have similar backgrounds and somewhat similar themes I like reading them in concert for compare and contrast opportunities, to use the old schoolroom exam phrase.

  6. I try to avoid making reading resolutions except to try to increase my reading output. I think I did that slightly last year. I can certainly understand your decision to not have goals this year.

    I’ve been reading people’s top reads and am finding it fascinating how small the crossover is. Does that augur well for the book industry do you think? I hope so but I suspect I’m being simplistic.

    And Kevin, I reckon you’re right about reading James and Wharton in concert. They are an interesting pair.

  7. I have huge faith that the novel is with us for some time to come yet WG. There’s so much good stuff out there, both old books waiting to be discovered and new ones just released. It doesn’t surprise me our lists don’t overlap too much, but I pay attention when (as with say Maile Meloy with both Kevin and Trevor) they do.

    So yes, I think it’s a good thing. There’s still more great books being published and available than any of us can read in any year.

    Kevin’s James and Wharton project will be fascinating. Both writers I could easily stand knowing more about.

  8. I also picked The Canal in my end of year round up. A fantastic book. I’m so glad you enjoyed Szerb so much too. The Pendragon Legend is such an enjoyable read, more so than his far better known (and possibly better) Journey By Moonlight. Pushkin Press have recently published a collection of his stories which I’m tempted by. I have long been tempted by Skylark and your unequivocal praise might be just the push I need. Thanks for all your thoughts through the last year Max, and all the best for the next twelve months…

  9. I suppose I should go back and look at the reading I intended to do in 2010.
    Glad you liked the O’Brien so much that it made the list. It’s a book that’s stuck with me too.

  10. Thanks for your response Max. I’m interested to read Meloy – I read a short story (actually, I think it might have been an excerpt) from her in the last year and it was one of those stories that grew on me.

  11. leroyhunter

    I was sure you’d have Olmi on the list Max, but like any selection the question is “who do you drop?” Not many weak links in that dozen.

    I’m really looking forward to Skylark (among numerous NYRB titles sitting on the shelf) and the Szerb, Quin and Burn all sound great. No Tomorrow was a nice little gem but in my mind is overshadowed by Maupassant’s Alien Hearts (thanks again, Guy). Derek Raymond has a scary kind of fascination but I’ve decided to give Jim Thompson a try, so one brutal, mad series of crime books at a time is probably enough. O’Brien and Hamilton: absolutely seconded.

    It’s been pure pleasure reading the reviews and discussions here Max, many thanks. Happy Christmas and looking forward to more good stuff in 2011.

  12. On another day no doubt I would have had Leroy, there’s always a slight element of whim to these things and it is quite exceptional. Butterball too should arguably have made the list. The Powell really had to go on though, and while making me feel sick is a dubious achievement in some respects the Raymond is notorious for good reason.

    For some reason a certain kind of novel has definitely dominated the latter half of the year for me. The Hamilton, Rourke, Quin and Burn all really stood out in that regard. In a couple of months it’s possible one of those would get demoted to the also mentioneds. Who can say?

    Jim Thompson is very good. I’ve not yet read The Killer Inside Me but I own it so you remind me to kick it up the pile. I’ve also just got Raymond’s fifth, and apparently not that great, factory novel. For some reason Serpent’s Tail don’t publish it so it’s out of print. Perhaps because it really isn’t up there with the others. We’ll see.

    Thanks as ever for the comments.

  13. The Darcy O’Brien is something I’ve picked up, put down, picked up…I will for sure read it now. And Ana Quin: who she? I will become acquainted in due course!

  14. I hope you’ll go back to Proust in 2011, I’d like to read your thoughts about the following volumes as I’m reading them too. It’s very selfish in fact…

    I loved Skylark, and I really thank you for the discovery. It’s in my top ten too. According to Guy’s review, Ana Edes is tempting too.

    I have the Denon and the Szerb on my shelves, so maybe in 2011. I can’t plan what I’m going to read, it’s the only area where I can afford to be whimsical, so I understand why you make no precise project either.

    I hope you’ll be able to keep you blog going despite work as I really enjoy reading it. Merry Christmas.

  15. Max,

    You add to my book budget woes and the burden of my crying shelves. Thanks.

    Thanks to your and Trevor’s praise, I have a Christmas copy ofSkylark in hand. I am looking forward to it.

    I want to read Proust, but I can already say that he has almost no chance this year. Alma Cogan by Gordon Burn is the other on the list that practically begs me to take a plunge. The list is quite interesting, so I will be dipping in again later. (Also, I plan to read Gibson’s trilogy in 2011 because of your blogging about him.)

    Thanks for a great year in blogging. I am looking forward to your resolutionless 2011!

    Happy Reading!

  16. A fascinating round-up. Its interesting to read these lists to spot the commonality among the huge variety. The Powell completion was quite and achievement – not many contemporary readers will have done the same. My discovery of Gordon Burn was Born Yesterday which was excellent. I read another by Szerb, the name of which escapes me. I am intrigued by the Alma Cogan – a fascinating character I’m sure. Perhaps the Keith Richard book would be a complementary read for 2011?

  17. Kerry,

    Skylark and Alma Cogan are both tremendous, I’ll be particularly interested in your take on Skylark actually.

    Tom, Born Yesterday is certainly one I plan to get to. The Keith Richards though I may leave for others. I’ve never had quite the same love for the Stones since they brought out a branded credit card. They seem at times more a conglomerate than a band these days sadly…

  18. sshaver

    I had a similar reaction to Proust: there’s something about reading Proust, though, that causes his unique sensibility to start permeating your daily life.
    Here I’ll go off-topic if I may to alert folks that if you google Al Franken/Huffington Post there are two good stories about the FCC making alarming rulings that would affect websites like this one regarding net neutrality. Corporate websites should be banned from “priority pricing” that lets them buy the fast lanes on the Internet, leaving us in the slow. We need a Paul Revere community of independent bloggers so we can alert each other to crucial upcoming FCC rulings and make our voices heard.

  19. He does permeate rather.

    I’m familiar with the FCC issue. They threw out net neutrality for mobile internet access, which within a decade will be almost all of it. Net neutrality is dead in the water unfortunately for all I do think it was important.

    That’s the issue you get when your regulators don’t understand what it is they’re regulating. See also: financial services.

  20. Sometimes I think my mother would die and go to heaven if I actually sat down to read Proust (she has only been trying to get me to read him for the past 35 years). She will have to settle for Henry James – I think he will be my year long project. Great list. Happy New Year.

  21. Am belatedly admiring your list of the year, although having in some respects anticipated it. Referred to the blogs of both you and Kerry, when choosing Christmas gifts for reading friends, and Skylark was my choice from here. (Had Berg appeared earlier I would have chosen that too.)

    And, of course, I chose The Canal for myself. Can’t help thinking this was a rather modest request and I might have asked also for the Szerb and Pig Earth, not to mention Berg

    Happy New Year Max.

  22. Pingback: Sunday Caught My Interest « Reflections from the Hinterland

  23. There’s nothing wrong with Henry James pburt. Good luck with him as a project. I’ve not read him since I was a teenager (not sure why I read him then, must have just liked him I guess).

    Sarah, Skylark is an excellent choice.

    Happy New Year to everyone.

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