Looking back on 2013

The fact I’m writing my best of 2013 post in late March 2014 shows how much I’ve struggled to find free time lately. That’s had an impact on my reading of course, with the result that 2013 was very much a mixed bag of a reading year for me.

On the one hand I read something in the order of about 32 or so books over the entire year, which seems distinctly on the not very many side (though looking back on my 2012 roundup I seem to have said much the same thing then, so perhaps that’s my new normal). On the other hand, I discovered Winterson, read some Joyce and Hamsun, and got to grips with Don Quixote so what the year lacked in quantity it at least made up for in quality.

Before I begin, it’s pretty much a given that blog posts should have at least one image to break up the text and to look pretty on iPads and similar devices. I didn’t have anything relevant, so here’s a Tamara de Lempicka picture of someone looking wistful.

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Right, without further ado, here’s my quite-a-long-time-after-the-end of year roundup of the best books I read in 2013, set out according to category of book. Please note that each category has been determined using the latest scientific and artistic principles, and not as might seem according to my own arbitrary whims.

Best German modernist novel: Berlin Alexanderplatz, by Alfred Döblin. 2013 was a year where modernist classics featured heavily in my reading. Berlin Alexanderplatz is a book more discussed than read, which is true for most modernist works, but the difference here is that it isn’t even discussed that much. It should be. It’s a blisteringly good book with definite Dos Passos-esque resonance (another writer who doesn’t get the press he should) and an absolutely incredible portrait of an age.

I won’t lie, Alexanderplatz is a challenging read. That’s partly for the sheer unpleasantness of some of the scenes (particularly the slaughterhouse section) and partly because Döblin uses cinematic montage techniques (very modern back then) to bring it all to life. Well worth the effort though.

I tend to dislike state of a nation novels. If you’re going to do one though this is how you go about it. Döblin captures the sheer messy vitality of Berlin, the potential and the waste and the progress in all spheres save the human. It’s an extraordinary book, and in most years would have been a top contender for book of the year.

I was going to have a best novel set in Berlin category, but that would also be Berlin Alexanderplatz. If I had a best novel set in Berlin that isn’t Berlin Alexanderplatz then it would of course be Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains, but good as that was it’s been too good a year in the end for it to get its own category so it makes it into the runner-up list rather than the finalists. On to the next category!

Best novel by an author with deeply disturbing political sympathies: Hunger, by Knut Hamsun. This is again an extremely challenging read, but here more for the relentless refusal by Hamsun to make his nameless protagonist remotely sympathetic. Hamsun gives no easy analysis to the reader, his protagonist slowly starves on the streets of 19th Century Oslo (then called Kristiana) but as becomes evident he doesn’t really need to, it’s his own pride and inability to compromise that takes him to such extremes.

This is an intensely psychological novel examining in unsparing forensic detail a single man’s consciousness at the level of every fleeting thought and emotion. In my review I described it as ” the collapse of 19th Century narrative fiction”. It’s also a superlative translation of a book that’s seen a fair few different translations.

That takes me onto the next hotly competed category:

Best novel that inspired a seriously odd computer game: The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. it’s getting fashionable at the moment not to like this one, perhaps because of its perma-presence on the US canon, perhaps because of the movie, perhaps because when everyone says something is a masterpiece there’s a natural contrarian desire to say “oh no it isn’t”. Well, I’d love to be contrarian, but unfortunately it is a masterpiece. Happily it’s not a daunting masterpiece, it’s not some experimentalist behemoth with shifting narratives and playful structures and whatnot. It’s just superbly well written.

Gatsby is also, like quite a few of the older books on my list this year, a novel that remains utterly current. When Alexanderplatz was written, or Hunger, or Gatsby, we didn’t of course have mobile phones, the internet, social media or any of the other tools by which our lives have been transformed.  I’m not one of those who say that none of these things have really changed anything because they plainly have, but people remain the same and part of the power of great literature is to speak to who we are across cultures and centuries even if the details of our lives have altered beyond recognition.

While I’m on the early greats, here’s an even earlier one:

Best unsurprisingly good novel: Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Perhaps the most commonly paraphrased opening sentence in the English language, and easily one of the best known stories of classic literature. Like Gatsby though it really is very good. The surprise of it is that it’s a much harder-headed novel than you might expect. Austen isn’t afraid to look directly at the centrality of money and power and on their impact on people’s, particularly women’s, lives. I wouldn’t call it gritty, as that would give the wrong impression, but it’s certainly not soft-focused.

Going back to the modernists we have:

Best short story collection about paralysis: Dubliners,  by James Joyce. Again it’s all about the writing, which is the common thread of this year’s best-of’s and probably of most years’. Dubliners is by and large a much easier read than you might think, although speaking English as a native language, having some sense of Catholic tradition and possibly some links to Ireland will all certainly help. Joyce marries the social to the psychological, and does a bloody good job of it.

Best poetry collection largely on the strength of one poem in the collection even though some of the others are pretty good: Prufrock and other Observations, by T.S. Eliot. What can I say? Prufrock is my favourite poem. I couldn’t read this during the year and not have it in my end of year list. It has an air of melancholy and regret  and some of the saddest lines ever written in English. Utterly beautiful.

Right, next category, drumroll please:

Best novel I never expected to like: Oranges are not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. I’ve long had something of a prejudice against Jeanette Winterson’s novels, not sure why. It’s a fortunate prejudice though because it means that now I’ve finally discovered her work I have a new author I can be genuinely excited about. I love Winterson’s work, what I’ve read of it so far, and she’s already become one of my go-to authors for when I need a reading lift.

Oranges is perhaps her best known, not least because of the very good TV adaptation. The book though is stranger and warmer than the adaptation, and perhaps more importantly is shot through with love not least for the Winterson character’s mother who it would be easy to paint as the villain of the piece. It’s beautifully written and has a fine observational wit and I absolutely loved it. Which takes me next to:

Best novel inspired by one of my favourite cities on Earth: The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson. Yup, this is the first time I’ve had the same author twice in my end of year list. I said I liked her. Winterson captures a truth of Venice (there’s more than one), explores the nature of history and story and mixes fable and romance in a way that overall I thought was a huge success. Does it all make sense? Actually, yes it always does, just not literally so. Winterson’s telling you stories, trust her.

Best novel I considered just handing to people and urging them to read it: Ask the Dust, by John Fante. If I believed in World Book Night, which I don’t, and if I could choose a book to be given out as part of it, which I can’t, this would be a strong candidate for the book I’d choose. Clean, graceful prose. Emma caught the links between this and Hunger which I’d missed, and wrote a damn good review of it which is linked to from mine. Incredible evocation too of Los Angeles.

Right, we’re into the home straight (I googled that, I always thought it was the home strait, no idea what it means). Here’s my final three categories before my book of the year.

Best novel about a terrible relationship that should never have happened: My Face for the World to See, by Alfred Hayes. This is just a little stunner of a novel. Well written, carefully observed and shockingly overlooked until the always excellent NYRB Classics brought it back to us. It’s a wonderfully disillusioned novel and is a particularly good choice if you need something short and punchy after a longer, flabbier read. Hayes doesn’t waste a word.

Best novel to shock your early twentieth Century bourgois Swedish friends with: Doctor Glas, by Hjalmar Söderberg. This one is here for the character of Doctor Glas himself, whose head we inhabit for the duration of the novel as he grapples with moral dilemmas while ignoring the sexual undercurrent of his own thoughts. It’s most Freudian. You wouldn’t think an early twentieth century novel about medical ethics would be such a gripping read, and yet it is. Definite thanks to Caroline for bringing this one to my attention, since I’m pretty sure that otherwise I’d never have read it.

Best much, much darker than you expect novel: The Bottle Factory Outing, by Beryl Bainbridge. This is an odd one. It starts out like a light naturalistic comedy, and then progressively turns into blackly surreal farce. It’s a cruel book, which should sound like a strike against it but Bainbridge’s acid wit makes the whole thing a delight not despite that but because of it. One to give those people who think books are somehow improving, they really aren’t.

That takes me to my final category, the best book I read in 2013. In fact, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in any year, up there with Madame Bovary and I have no higher praise than that.

Best novel: Don Quixote, volume two, by Miguel de Cervantes. In 2013 I read Joyce, Fitzgerald, Winterson, Austen, and all the others listed above each of them an exciting and important writer. Despite that roll-call of excellence I knew from the moment I sat down to write this post what the best book of the year would be. If I’d just read volume one it would have featured somewhere above (under the category, Best novel about brutalising a deluded old man) but it wouldn’t have been my book of the year.

The second volume of Don Quixote though is the masterpiece by which other masterpieces can be judged. It’s an extraordinary achievement, and one of the most modern novels I’ve ever read (a theme of this year’s reading as I discussed above). It’s funny, intelligent, tragic, and structurally incredibly clever without getting lost in its own cleverness. I know it’s daunting. I was daunted too. Counting both volumes together it’s a big part of why I didn’t read more books this year. It was worth it.

Ok, so that’s it. My best of 2013. I’m a little disappointed to have had to cut Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, but in a list which features Austen, Cervantes, Döblin, Eliot, Fitzgerald and Joyce I’d hope she’d forgive me.

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28 Comments

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28 responses to “Looking back on 2013

  1. I agree with the point on Cervantes the book as whole is so full of ideas styles that anything came after has to have been influenced in some small part by it

  2. Absolutely Stu.

    The nice thing about finally having done this post by the way is that I can now read everyone else’s end of year lists. I saved them unread so as not to let them influence me (plus as a reward for getting this one up).

    Edit: Did you do an end of year list Stu? I can’t see it in my saved lists which makes me wonder if I missed it somehow, or do you not do them?

  3. And the prize for best categories goes … Not kidding, you really avoided the mainstream this year: Best of in March – New categories – Books that don’t usually get a lot of attention. We both have Dr. Glass on our list.
    I’m still reading Dos Passos – so Berlin Alexanderplatz has to wait – but I’d like to get to it. Same with Cervantes. And I’m looking forward to the Bainbridge. She’s even draker that Muriel Spark.
    Not a shabby list at all. It certainly was a quality versus quantity year for you.

  4. I think I got the personalised categories idea from Emma. I haven’t read your list yet, but I have it saved to do so.

    Darker than Spark, that is bloody dark. Thanks to Guy for that one.

    There it is again – blogging as conversation. The Söderberg thanks to you. The Hayes and Bainbridge thanks to Guy. The Fante thanks to Kevin of Kevifromcanada. The Hamsun thanks to Emma. Half the list is stuff I read because other bloggers inspired me to do so.

  5. I feel your pain.
    There was a time in my life when I made a pact with myself to read 10 minutes a night.
    Now to the list…
    Glad you liked the Bainbridge. I saw the film version as a child and never forgot it. I was stunned, then, to find the title on the library book shelves. I knew it had to be the source material.
    The Hayes novel is superb. What a great pity he didn’t have a larger body of work. I still have one of his left to read.
    The film version of Oranges is excellent. Yes loses the language but captures the visuals of the petty small minded attitudes of the religious whackos.
    Bought Doctor Glas on your rec. Have a review copy of All the Birds Singing.
    Berlinalexanderplatz … one of these days. After all, my film icon turned his eye to it which must mean something…

  6. An excellent, thoughtful list, even if we did have to wait until the end of March to see it.

    Like you, I’ve resisted Winterson for reasons I don’t really know. This list convinces me to bury my prejudice and give her a try.

  7. Hi max I didn’t do one last year unfortunately just lost track of what I read last year hence keeping close track on what read and reviewed this year

  8. Col

    I like the categories and the fact that you’ve done this year end review in March – all slightly anarchic! Ive read several of these like Dubliners and Berlin A but am delighted to see you choose Don Quixote as book of year. I read it first many years ago and it’s stayed with me ever since. You describe it exactly as I remember it. I might just dig out my battered old copy and read it again! All hail La Mancha!

  9. What an enviable list – you make me want to reread the ones I’ve read and skip whatever I’m reading now to read the ones I haven’t (especially that Albert Hayes book). I agree: The Passion is a great little novel to read if you love Venice. I’m especially eager to read Don Quixote later this year following your posts about it.

  10. jacquiwine

    Great list, Max. I’m especially thrilled to see ‘My Face for the World to See’ in there. It’s got to be one of the best books I read last year, too…and I still have ‘In Love’ on the shelf.

    I keep meaning to read Isherwood; I’ve had ‘A Single Man’ in my hand in the bookshop but never got around to buying it. His Berlin novels sound great – maybe later this year.

    I thought ‘Fatale’ might make your list but I’m now wondering if you read it earlier this year…one for your ‘best of 2014′ list, perhaps?

  11. Fantastic list! I’ve got to get round to reading Dr.Glass – it just keeps slipping under everything else, and the Fante book is next up so it will have to wait again!

    Shame about All the Birds, Singing missing out, but it was against serious competition (books which have the added advantage of having stood the test of time, too!) and I’m glad you gave it an honourable mention.

    Mr Norris Changes Trains will always have a special place on my bookshelf… a really beautiful book.
    -Robbie

  12. I love the categories and that you took time to explain your choices. It was worth waiting for this post.

    Hunger was among my best books for 2013 too. It stayed with me, it’s hard to recover from it. I’ve been blown away twice: once at the theatre when I saw its theatre version written by Jon Fosse and when I read the novel.

    I’ve tried Berlin Alexanderplatz but couldn’t read it. I have to try again. Sometimes I wonder if there’s a problem with translations from the German into French.

    Ask the Dust is wonderful, I’d recommend it to anyone planning on visiting Los Angeles. There’s something about Fante I can’t explain. Thanks for mentioning my billet.

    I thought Dubliners difficult without a knowledge of Irish culture and history beyond beer, pubs, St Patrick, redheads, U2 and rugby.

    I’m really curious about Cervantes now, but not this year.

    I hope your 2014 reading year will be as good as 2014. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts about Proust and to discover new books through your reading.

  13. Great list, and I’m delighted in particular to see the Alfred Hayes on there: fantastic piece of work.

  14. Sorry for the slow replies folks.

    Guy, yes, thanks for the Bainbridge tip. I definitely plan to read more of her. There’s a film and tv series of Alexanderplatz, both are supposed to be good but I’ve seen neither.

    Kevin, she may be slightly less you than me since I suspect you have less tolerance for fablish diversions, but Oranges is a good place to start and has the merit of relative brevity. If you don’t like that I doubt you’ll like The Passion.

    Stu, glad to hear it. Given the breadth of your reading I suspect your end of year roundup would be very interesting.

    Col, absolutely, all hail La Mancha!

    All categories are ultimately a bit arbitrary, and blogs are intrinsically personal. Pretending to objectivity seems somehow pointless to me, though there are blogs that do that which I like so I’m not speaking to what others should do.

    Scott, the Hayes is a favourite for everyone (Kevin might find it interesting actually). Good luck with Quixote!

  15. Jacqui, the Isherwood’s a lot of fun. I’m looking forward to the other Berlin novel.

    I think Fatale was this year, though I’m not absolutely sure, but to be honest while I liked it I didn’t like it as much as those above so it wouldn’t be on the list either way. Sometimes a book is good, but if the others are better then it’s them that make the list. I did enjoy Fatale though and I do recommend it for those who like noir.

    Robbie, Doctor Glas is great, well worth reading. Let me know what you think of it and the Fante.

    I loved the Isherwood actually, it was just such a stiff year for competition. Like Birds that’s why I gave it an honorary mention still. Birds is a very good book. I’m actually not as a rule the best reader for that kind of closely controlled/highly structured but still traditional novel but I think Wyld shows real talent and pulls off what could easily have slipped over into gimmick (the forward/backward timelines).

    I have her After the Fire which is definitely on my TBR pile, and I expect to get her next unless the reviews are truly atrocious which I don’t expect them to be.

  16. Emma, I think I got the categories idea from you didn’t I? I thought you’d done something similar in the past (haven’t read your 2013 round-up yet).

    Hunger is amazing. Berlin must be a nightmare to translate, it’s slangy as anything. I think it would be particularly challenging to bring over well. The English translation I read has its detractors, it uses a lot of period US slang (it’s an old translation) which I think makes sense but for a modern non-US reader can be a little jarring.

    You may be right on Dubliners. It’s not the language that’s the issue so much as the cultural knowledge it assumes. A century from now much of it may be near unreadable for a casual reader wherever they’re from.

    Thanks for the wishes for this year. The Proust was a slog in places this time, but it paid off so still very much a rewarding exercise.

    Lee, the Hayes is a real favourite for a lot of people isn’t it? A definite discovery by NYRB.

  17. I wish the idea of creative categories were mine, because it’s a good one, but it’s not. In my 2013 best of the year post, I used the titles of the billets.

  18. Max – Just a quick note to offer thanks for the Alfred Hayes recommendation. I read it in a gulp last week, and fall in line with everyone else who’s thought it was terrific. I’m a sucker for Hollywood novels, and this is certainly one of the best I’ve read. Now I’m curious to read his other book restored by NYRB.

  19. Scott, glad to hear you liked it. I’ve not seen anyone yet who didn’t like that one. A definite winner.

  20. Slightly disappointing to see that I already know many of the books on your list, Max, so I can’t go and buy them (though I haven’t read In Love yet, though I do have it, so perhaps that’s next).

    Given your newfound liking for Winterson, I thought it might be useful for me to outline what I see as the trajectory of her career, particularly if you’re planning to read them in chronological order, as I more or less did.

    Oranges, The Passion and Sexing the Cherry represent, I think, an ascending scale of excellence, and show Winterson finding her voice and taking risks with it. Sexing the Cherry remains probably my favourite book of hers.

    Written on the Body is very interesting though I think a little less satisfying than her earlier novels. It comes from a period when she was getting a bit strange with her fame, doorstepping a critic, declaring her own work to be the best of the year etc. It has the rare feature of a narrator whose sex is undeclared, though that gets rather lost amid the rhapsodic prose.

    Art & Lies is a book which Winterson now describes (iirc) as “difficult and closed.” It’s certainly somewhat obscure, sometimes strident and clumsy, but often beautifully written. Curiously, she followed it with a great little series of essays called Art Objects which I loved (though the hubris was still there: she declared herself to be the ‘Shakespeare’s sister’ figure evoked by Woolf in A Room of One’s Own).

    Gut Symmetries, The World and other Places (stories) and The PowerBook for me are her weakest books. I will re-read them at some point to see if my view has changed, but they did little for me at the time and I think they are muddled and lack her capacity for charming the reader.

    Lighthousekeeping was her ‘comeback’ novel and I liked it more than the ones immediately preceding it. A return to the fairy-story-type narratives of some of The Passion and Sexing the Cherry, though like many of her recent novels, it meanders into a sort of fudged ending which declares love to be our greatest human achievement (she’s done this so often now I can’t even remember which ones are which).

    The Stone Gods was her most recent novel (excluding children’s and her Hammer Horror contribution). It was sort of SF, and I liked it a lot – I think it’s on my blog – though I can’t recall much about it now. I would like to revisit it.

    Her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? is very good, and a surprise after I thought it would be inessential. Helps to have read Oranges, I think, which of course you have.

  21. Sorry John, it’s been a year of classics by and large, so the odds on your not knowing them would be slight.

    Winterson does love love. It comes up even in the Hammer book, which I enjoyed but which I don’t think in years to come will be held up as among her best. Fun though.

    Sexing the Cherry will definitely be my next by her, and I have my eyes on the book of essays. Otherwise, I’m not sure where next. Perhaps straight into one of her less successful ones and abandon chronology. Thanks for the pointers in any event.

    I suspect I may be too fond of actual SF to enjoy sort-of-SF, but I’ll see in time. I do tend to think that literary writers when they write SF often think they’re being daring (and are often reviewed as if they were), but actually are just writing fairly mediocre SF using ideas that might seem novel to the literary world but that in SF circles are the hoariest cliches.

  22. Yes, I can see that (re sort-of-SF), though it probably depends on how you define it. Is Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go a work of SF, because it is set in an alternative “England, late 1990s”? It depends too on how you view the relative importance of ideas and what the author does with the ideas. One could, eg, present Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child as a Short Cuts-type book of linked stories, and say those have been done before, or Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation as a story about marriage and parenthood, and say that’s a cliche.

  23. Execution is everything. I loathe the very idea of novels about young men (always men for some reason) who dream of becoming great writers and how hard it is to be a young man who dreams of being a great writer, but it’s fair to say that there’s some bloody good books that fit that description. The Hamsun and the Fante above for example.

    Never Let Me Go I would classify as SF largely (not having read it) as it’s a novel of ideas and exploring situations. If it had another author I don’t think anyone would ever have seen it as anything but SF. From all accounts it’s fairly good SF though. Not sure why I’ve never been tempted to read it, given I have read other Ishiguro and enjoyed it.

    My current read, the Enright, is a tale of suburban infidelity. Couldn’t be less original in that sense. It’s very good though. Bravely unlikeable.

  24. leroyhunter

    AA high-quality list Max, and I also like your categories. I didn’t comment on them but I really enjoyed your Quixote pieces. I had to read it in first year college (under enormous time pressure) and much of what you highlight was glossed over – being honest, I don’t think I even read Book 2. I think of the book like a city I spent too short a time in, rushing around to see landmarks without ever stopping to savour and enjoy them. Windmills…chivalry…sidekick…ok, got it, NEXT.

    Soderberg and Hayes are on the shelf, I’m looking forward to them. Like John, I feel seriously short-changed by the absence of stunning, hitherto unknown gems that I can rush out and buy. To be fair though, you’ve convinced me that Doblin is well worth a look, albeit sometime in the distant future. I’m not buying any more central European modernist classics until I tackle some doorstops on my shelf – Bely, Ford Madox Ford, Aidan Higgins being the main candidates.

  25. What can I say? I’m a bad blogger. It’s been a year of classics rather than new stuff. This year is shaping up with more recent material, but at the same time I’m still not sure how much of it will be new to you and John as opposed to just new to me. Must try harder, as my old school reports always used to say.

    I’d hate to have to study Quixote as part of a college course. I think you’d lose so much, like you say, seeing the landmarks without getting to savour them.

    Higgins? Do tell.

    I should do a post on the whole #readwomen2014 thing, have you heard of that? I’m not strictly adhering to it, but it is influencing me this year and it’s worth discussing as its simultaneously worthwhile and problematic which is always interesting.

  26. leroyhunter

    I’d be very interested in a #readwomen2014 post. It does throw up a variety of angles. It very much influenced me initially, insofar as I read 6 women to start the year.

    LibraryThing tells me I own about 1300 books by roughly 650 writers, of whom only 12% are women. That shocks me, as I percieve myself as reading in a more balanced fashion (certainly nowadays compared to when I was younger).

  27. Oh dear, I’m trying to catch up with old posts! Love your categories, Max. And the fact that you identified Jane Austen’s hard-headedness. If only more would do so – rather than think she’s simply the first chicklit!

    Prufrock is one of my favourite poems too. And I did like Oranges are not the only fruit, but it’s still the only Winterson I’ve read. Must read more. Oh, and I’ve been thinking for some time that I need to read The Dubliners again, not having read it since school when I was bowled over. Must look at it again with my “experienced” eyes.

    Great post …

  28. WG, definitely hard headed. It’s part of what I liked about the book. Thanks for the comment.

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