2011: That was the year that was

2011 was in many senses a frustrating reading year. I didn’t make the progress with Proust that I had hoped, and more than once I had to abandon good books not because I didn’t like them but because I was too busy to do them justice. So it goes.

Despite that rather gloomy assessment when I look back some gems do stand out. As I write this 2012 looks like it will be equally challenging in terms of reading opportunities, but if at the end of it I’ve read some books as good as these I won’t be doing entirely badly.

From a personal perspective, one interesting aspect of writing this kind of retrospective is the books that I wouldn’t have expected to be on it. I read a fair bit of modernist fiction in 2011, and I’m not at all surprised to find that at the end of the year several modernist titles have made my list. There are books here though that deserve their place but that I almost didn’t read because I didn’t expect to love them. I hope 2012 has a few surprises like that too.

First of the surprises is Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn, which I came late to as I always do to Booker novels. In many ways Toibin’s the antithesis of much of what I look for in fiction. There’s no experimentalism here, no playing with perspective or deconstructing of authorial authority. Instead there’s a quiet excellence. Quiet’s in fact the key word here. Brooklyn is a novel about a rather passive young woman who is more acted upon than acting, and her story is ultimately fairly ordinary. Many readers found it a bit dull. I didn’t, I increasingly doubt I could find anything Toibin writes dull.

Another book which surprised me is Maile Meloy’s short story collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It. I shouldn’t have been surprised, it was in Kevinfromcanada’s best of 2010 list and Trevor of themookseandthegripes 2010 list as well. Still, I’m not generally in the market for small tales of emotional revelation. As with the Toibin it’s the quality of the writing here that takes subject matter I fundamentally don’t particularly care about and raises it to excellence.

Less surprising was Tom McCarthy’s first novel, Remainder. The imagery in this has stuck with me through the year, particularly the incredibly apposite and well judged ending. This was a difficult novel in many ways, lacking the storytelling hooks of Toibin and Meloy’s writing. Still, I found it challenging and exciting and I’m looking forward to reading his second novel, Men in Space, later this year.

McCarthy reinvigorated my interest in modernism, which led in June to my reading Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism?. That isn’t of itself on my end of the year list (though I do recommend it), but it led me to read Josipovici’s own fiction to see to what extent he lived up to his own theories.

Josipovici I suspect will be a writer that many will simply not enjoy, but his Everything Passes: A Novel was easily one of my books of the year. Here Josipovici pares back the form of the novel until almost nothing is left. It’s a minimalist read which requires close attention, and for me repaid it. That said, it’s not where I’d suggest starting with modernism if you’re tempted. There’s more accessible reads out there which are equally good.

Returning from the wilder shores of fiction, another Kevin and Trevor joint recommendation makes my end of year list – JL Carr’s superb A Month in the Country. Like the Toibin and the Meloy this is simply a marvel of prose excellence. It’s as fine an example of why novellas deserve much more attention than they tend to receive. It’s clever, absorbing and beautifully crafted. A masterpiece really, and if I were hacking this list back to a top five it would still be present. Trevor included it in his 2009 best of list, though Kevin deserves just as much thanks for alerting me to it with his review which is here.

The other great novella of 2011 was Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener. This is funny, disturbing, capable of a multitude of interpretations and is very short so there’s absolutely no reason not to read it. Preferring not to is not an option.

Another book that just leaps out as one of the stand out reads of the year is JG Farrell’s Troubles. First of a thematic trilogy (and I will definitely be reading the second and third) this is both bleak and hilarious. It’s a reviewing cliché to call a book savagely funny, and generally undeserved, but here it fits. This is laughter in the dark, laughter born of despair. Farrell writes an almost forensic examination of the loss of British Empire in Ireland (and by analogy elsewhere) and marries it to a narrative that is continually unexpected and rewarding. Brilliant, brilliant stuff and a great pairing with the Carr incidentally.

Right, we’re into the home stretch. It wouldn’t be an end of year list for me without some Pynchon. 2011’s was V. A delightful sprawl of a novel which it’s best just to give yourself up to. There’s no point trying to make sense of everything as you go along. This is novel as whitewater rafting. You throw yourself in and are swept along. The end result is exhilarating, even if some of the details perhaps remain a little blurry.

Best crime novel for me in 2011 is easily James Sallis’s Drive. Smooth and slick, but surprisingly sophisticated, it’s made me an instant Sallis fan. I have his The Killer is Dying which I now have very high hopes for.

Best book about Japanese toilets has to go to Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. It’s an excellent study of aesthetics,, and very short which is always a plus. Best non-fiction work of the year though is Shen Fu’s heartbreaking and lovely Six Records of a Floating Life. You’ve probably never wanted to read the autobiography of an unsuccessful turn of the 19th Century Chinese scholar. You should. This is one of the finest books I’ve read in a very long time, and extremely affecting. There’s a reason it’s a classic.

Finally, standing in a category of his own is Proust. In 2011 I only managed to read one volume, Within a Budding Grove. It is quite simply extraordinary. A genuine masterpiece (the second time I’ve used that word in this roundup I notice). Proust is more accessible than people imagine, and incredibly rewarding. The length and the need to concentrate make him daunting, but he is absolutely worth it.

And that’s it. A disappointing year overall as I said at the beginning, but with some tremenous reads all the same. I’m a bit sad not to have found space above for Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger, or Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, and there’s no SF at all this year (and very little crime). Still, any list has to leave some things out or it’s just my archive. Comments on the list are, as ever, welcome.


Filed under Personal posts

36 responses to “2011: That was the year that was

  1. Darn it, I went all year without reading a single book about Japanese toilets…

  2. It’s a common reading regret Tom. It’s an underappreciated genre.

  3. I’m sure this is the end year list that I read with the most attention and that for many reasons. It hasn’t been posted at the same time with everyone else’s – that’s the prosaic reason. Other than it’s a wonderful list and presented in a very engaging and appealing way. And it contains books that I bought after you’ve reviewed them (sometimes with, sometimes without comment). Meloy, Carr and Shen Fu. I’m glad you found such a nice cover for Meloy. The one I got looks like YA.
    I jsut read Drive and, it is a surprsngly well written book.
    I’m sorry to see that we do not agree when it comes to Josipovici. Your review made me buy a book, the one you liked wasn’t available and I got In a Hotel garden instead and found it awfully bad. I still will review it… some day.

  4. I think you have the same cover I do Caroline, I just couldn’t face using it given how terrible it is. A girl jumping up with joy?

    Sorry about the Josipovici, but it would be dull if we always liked the same books. The Carr, Meloy and Shen Fu are absolute joys. Did you read Brooklyn? I think I’m the only blogger I know who put it on an end of year list, though I could be wrong on that. Many readers find the main character’s passivity frustrating, or just find it a bit too quiet a book.

    Did you do an end of year list? I have a few of your recent blogposts marked to return to (I often do that with the blogs I follow) but I don’t recall an end of year roundup. Did I just miss it or did you not do one this year?

  5. Great list, no surprises there. I must’ve missed the Shen Fu review: I’ve ordered one.

    If I had been doing a book blog in 2009 Brooklyn may well’ve topped an end-of-year list. I agree: it’s the writing, that tone and clarity and emotive register. The Empty Family is even better.

    Meloy: great writer, simple as that. And wonderful to see Ruggles on there…

  6. Better? I’d wholly missed The Empty Family until you mentioned it. I’m about to order a copy.

    Ruggles? Remind me.

  7. I’m a bit (too) prolific these days, no wonder you didn’t see it.
    It was called Best and Worst Books 2011. And a very long one it was 32 titles.
    Have you read In a Hotel Garden? I’m really not sure you wouldn’t have a problem with it as well. the dialogue is not good – but as said – it needs are proper post with examples.
    I haven’t read Brooklyn but think it was on Danielle’s (A Work in Progress) 2010 list. I’d like to start with The Master first but will read this one eventually as well.

  8. I did read it, but I skimmed planning to come back later. Skimming is usually an error, as one can think one’s read something without really taking it in.

    In a Hotel Garden, no, I’ll check out your blog.

  9. Ruggles – the great Pynchon. Just seeing the cover of ‘V’ again brightens the day.

    I really thought it was. As much as I love The Blackwater Lightship and Brooklyn, I think it’s the best thing he’s done. I may be in a distinctly puny minority there…

  10. I was underwhelmed by Brooklyn, but loved Drive, A Month in the Country and Troubles. I read the last two some years ago, but they will be reread at some point as I think of them frequently.

    I think a retropective of the best-of is a good idea as the results can be surprising.

  11. leroyhunter

    I’m thinking I should get over my antipathy to McCarthy and at least try Remainder, it’s obviously got something going for it to have impressed you so much Max.

    Farrell and Carr are both really fine writers. I read different ones by both of them this year, in Farrell’s case The Singapore Grip which rounds out his trilogy. A slow starting book but excellent overall.

    It’s tough when circumstances interfere and/or dictate what you’re able to read. Still, there are a lot worse things one could worry about. Good reading in ’12….

  12. A thoughtful and varied list, which is a testimony to the breadth of your reading interests. I will be trying to broaden mine shortly — thanks to you and Guy, Drive arrived last week. And the inclusion of Remainder on your list is a “reminder” that I should pull it off the shelf — I quite liked C but have overlooked this one when it comes time to choose the next book.

  13. Guy, Brooklyn is one I’d recommend to people with a health warning, as a lot of readers were a bit underwhelmed by it.

    Leroy, I can’t promise you won’t still hate it, as Caroline did Josipovici (though a different Josipovici, still I suspect it’s a style issue).

    Which Carr did you read? I’m not sure where to go next with him.

    As problems go not being able to read everything one might wish definitely falls into the firstworldproblems niche.

  14. I have your list, and for that matter John’s, Trevor’s, Will’s and Guy’s, printed out Kevin. As you I think know, I often put several reviews aside and read them together at once when I have a free moment.

    Thanks again for Carr and Meloy, neither of which I would have read without prompting. If you do read Remainder I’ll be interested in your thoughts. C is of course on my radar, but I own Men in Space so that will definitely be my next McCarthy.

  15. Interesting that I remember your reviews of these books, just an evidence that you managed to write reviews as impressive as the books deserved.

    I need to read Drive, especially now that I’ve seen the film.
    I have Troubles, Brooklyn and Bartleby on the TBR. I wanted to read A Month in the Country but it’s not available in French; I’m afraid it’s too difficult for me and there is no kindle version.

    I’m looking forward to your 2012 reviews.
    I hope you’ll have time to get to Proust again this year, I enjoy reading your reviews about him.

  16. Three, by Ann Quin, already looks like it will be on the end of year list for this year, but it’s an extremely difficult novel. If it’s not in translation there’d be no hope at all, and even in translation I suspect it will be tough.

    I appear to be the only person who doesn’t like Zweig’s Chess.

    There’ll definitely be more Proust, and I’ve really enjoyed your coverage of those. The one I’m most nervous of that’s coming up is my next Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow. If I stop posting for around 18 months that will probably be why…

  17. No Ann Quin isn’t translated into French. When you find something “extremely difficult” I know I’d better not read it.

  18. leroyhunter

    I read The Harpole Report Max, which was charming and very funny. I read A Season In Sinji a couple of years ago, which I also liked. There’s no doubt A Month in the Country is his peak but certainly these two are worth a look.

  19. Leroy, I didn’t have a happy experience with Remainder, but its inclusion here is obviously reason to reconsider.

    Max, don’t be trepidatious about Gravity’s Rainbow – simply treat it exactly as you did V. You’ll love it dearly.

  20. This is a wonderful end-of-year round up Max … and as I read it I remembered reading many of the reviews through the year and thinking I must read that. At the top of this list of must-reads of course is the one on Japanese toilets which, as I recollect, I read (your blog that is, not Tanizaki’s book) just as I landed in Japan for our holiday.

    It’s a given that I want to read Brooklyn one day, but I guess the book that I most recollect from your year as being one I want to read is the Farrell.

    Finally, I do love your statement – “There’s no point trying to make sense of everything as you go along” – about Pynchon. I have learnt in recent years that for some books this is the only way to read them, otherwise you get too bogged down in the trees and miss the forest altogether.

    As I said, a great round-up and I can’t imagine why on earth you’d be frustrated.

  21. It’s not the ones I liked that are frustrating WG, it’s the ones I didn’t read and the ones I had to abandon.

    With Pynchon, I think the great mistake is the same as for Joyce. We’ve all heard of Ulysses, of Gravity’s Rainbow, but that doesn’t make them good places to start. It’s easy though to pick one up, get swallowed by it and never touch Pynchon/Joyce again.

    PIck up The Crying of Lot 49 though and while you (generic you) might not like it you’ll almost certainly finish it. Far from guaranteed for Gravity’s. Pick up Dubliners and again you (again generic you) might not like it, but again you won’t really struggle to finish it whereas Ulysses is I suspect very often abandoned part way.

    The Farrell is one I’d press into your hands crying “read this, read this!”. An extraordinary writer.

    Have you read Bartleby? I was strangely reluctant to, but it really is very good.

    Lee, Gravity’s will be later this year. Probably at some point when I have a reasonable review backlog so as to avoid utter blog silence while I’m reading it.

  22. Sadly, the Melville novella is the only book I read among the many listed here. In Praise of Shadows should be next, the slim book being one of the Tanizaki’s I remember lying around back in our family’s ancestral house. Would love to read Farrell too! 🙂

  23. Did you like it Karlo?

    If I had to press one on you beside Troubles it would be A Month in the Country. A wonderfully subtle novella.

  24. gaskella

    I’ve still not managed to read Brooklyn, partly because I managed to bury in behind a stack of other books and only yesterday rediscovered it, but I shall try to read it while I’m only reading from my TBR (until the end of March). Tom McCarthy is another author I must read soon too.
    Proust (well Swann’s Way anyway) is a book that my book group keep on talking ourselves out of choosing. Maybe I should campaign to make 2012 the year we start on it, or just get reading him by myself. A great list.

  25. Despite not having had the reading year you would have liked you don’t seem to have any shortage of candidates for an impressive best of list. Bartleby is one of only two of those which I have read, but it is outstanding.

    I have V on the shelf, ever hopeful, and I wish you joy of Gravity’s Rainbow. I got halfway through, and Pynchon and I are by no means on easy terms. I predict that you will sail through.

    If I get on with Josipovici’s Modernism (chosen on the strength of your review) I shall certainly undertake one of his novels.

    For the record, Zweig’s Chess did not meet with my unmitigated approval, and I am impatiently anticipating your review of Three. No pressure.

  26. Yes, I thought Bartleby was good. 🙂

  27. here is hoping that 2012 is a better year reading wise max ,I like some of your year end choices recently picked up the troubles my self ,all the best stu

  28. I’m perplexed by the enthusiasm for the Meloy. The one story of hers that I read (Travis B) left me unimpressed.
    It’s not so much that the subject was conventional; the techniques, movement, emotional beats were traced out to the point of deja vu.
    In a frame of reference delimited by the stories of, say, Munro, Gallant, Proulx, Carver and the minimalists (Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason etc.) that story feels entirely redundant, not an atom of surprise, a twist in the execution.
    If it is a good indicator of the collection as a whole giving it the preference over a brilliant and intriguing novel like Moon Tiger would be like giving a Music Award to a cover band.
    I’m intrigued by A Month in the Country, and I’ll probably tackle the Empire Trilogy this year.
    Sallis was originally a new wave science fiction writer: his early stories were published in New Worlds and Orbit. He credits his switch to crime fiction to the encounter with the novels of Chester Himes.
    Between crime novels and his hobby of traslations (Queneau, Majakovsky, Neruda…) he found the time to edit a collection of essays about Samuel Delany, and still reviews science fiction and fantasy semi-regularly for F & Sf Magazine.
    He was especially good friends with Thomas Disch, who dedicated the short story The Master of the Milford Altarpiece to him.
    In fact I’ve used the last part of his obituary of Disch to begin the first post of my blog, a collage of quotes about life and art:

  29. I’m sorry to say that I had never heard of Drive before the movie was released. As much as I loved the film… I’d like to read the book without the director’s interpretation in my mind.

  30. Gaskella,

    Remainder is a good entry point for McCarthy, or was for me anyway. Some find Brooklyn dull as I mention above, but it is extremely well written.

    Not sure about Proust as a book group project. I suspect not all would finish it. That said, Proust is tremendous, but very personal.

    Sarah, I was quite pleased to see your review of Chess. It meant I wasn’t a minority of one in not liking it. I’ll be interested to see how you find the Josipovici, particularly given you’ve read a couple of other books of lit crit recently as I recall.

    Karlo, hurrah! Stu, you’ll enjoy Troubles. Tremendous book.

    Lydia, that happens to me sometimes. I generally leave it a couple of years before reading the book when it does. It’ll still be on the shelf unchanged after all.

    Marco, I’m going to come back to your post as I have to run right now. There’s a lot there to engage with.

  31. Marco,

    Being bluntly honest the answer to your question about what I see in Meloy is that of Munro, Gallant, Proulx, Carver and the minimalists (Ann Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason) I’ve only read Carver. If therefore she’s derivative, I wouldn’t necessarily know.

    I’m much weaker on short stories. That said, assuming it’s not mere ignorance of her betters on my part (and if you think it is then suggestions for betters are always welcome, would you recommend each of the writers you listed?) then I’d say it was a tentative exploration of ambiguous and unspoken emotion which grabbed me. Writing it though I admit that does sound very creative writing class-y.

    Travis, B wasn’t my favourite story, but it is I think a good representation of the whole. If you don’t like that odds are you won’t like Meloy.

    A Month in the Country is subtle and dense for its size, and yet an easy read. I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts. The Farrell as time goes on stands out more and more from most of the rest of my 2011 reading.

    I didn’t know about Sallis and SF, but I’m not surprised he had an interest in Delaney who is also of course stylistically interesting. I should read more Delaney actually, though as I often say I should read more by so many people.

    Do you know what it was about Himes that made him switch? Himes is quite electric. A writer of insanities in some ways, but gripping ones. I do anticipate finishing his Harlem noir series and plan to read some of his stand alone stuff in time too.

    Thanks for the blog link. I’ll check it out. Disch, a much underrated writer.

  32. A couple of years ago I did explore various online US literary magazines/reviews (many of them tied to universities and writing programs).
    Stories in the mold of Travis B. were very frequent (as were stories in a “quirky” surreal/magical realist vein) .
    Some were better realized, but in the end they all kind of merged into each other, very few betrayed a distinctive voice.
    The names I’ve mentioned (could have thought of others) are more akin to signposts broadly delimiting an area than to direct inspirations.
    That said, I’ve mostly enjoyed what I’ve read of these authors, and recommend in particular Munro and Gallant.

    I don’t remember exactly about Sallis; I know he said it in a couple of interviews that might still be available online somewhere.
    I seem to remeber that he was hangin’ out in London with Disch, Zoline, Sladek when he found some used Himes paperbacks.

  33. Marco,
    Quirky I’ve come across certainly. The subject matters of the various Meloy stories are I admit pretty standard. The question then is one of quality of execution. I thought them well executed. Do you know kevinfromcanada’s blog? He’s a big Munro fan so it may be worth putting the same question to him. I’d be interested in his response.

    Sallis was hanging out with Disch and Sladek (don’t know Zoline, I suspect I should)? I should have such a life.

  34. Well, it comes down to the final part of the Sallis quote I linked:
    Style is not about word choice, cadence, sentence structure, point of view, momentum; finally, it’s not even about writing well.

    Style is, finally, the direct reflection of how the writer connects with his or her world, the way in which he or she lets us see our world anew, new perspectives, new visions, new glimmers of comprehension here in darkness.

    Munro and Gallant’s stories are often deceptively simple, yet resonate for a long time. I fear Meloy’s stories are merely well written.
    I know Kevin, and have commented often on his blog. There are certainly areas where our tastes intersect well, but also areas where they diverge.

    Pamela Zoline has written five short stories in all her life (though there were rumours of a forthcoming novel a couple of years ago). She wrote “avant-garde science-fiction” but really it’s called science-fiction only because of the company she kept.
    If you click my name, the beginning of her most famous story is fourth (will be fifth tomorrow) from the top, just under Pynchon. I think you’d like her.

  35. Of course Marco, I should have recognised you.

    I’ll check out the story at your blog.

    Munro in particular I’m long overdue to read, but I just ordered some Virginia Woolf short stories so she’s already behind that. So it goes.

  36. As it happens, Virginia Woolf will be my next entry, scheduled for Friday…

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