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.