Monthly Archives: December 2012

That Was The Year That Was: 2012

One of the nice things about doing an end of year roundup post is the opportunity to be reminded of great books that are slipping into memory. 2012 has been a difficult reading year. Great books have been disrupted by work more than once, which is fair enough but still unfortunate, and of course I had a slipped disc and an entire month in which I read nothing at all (and even now in late December I’m still not reading much).

As I started to write this post my impression was that in fact 2012 had been a bit of a dud, but the truth is it wasn’t at all. I had an easy shortlist of some 14 or 15 books to include in this post, and given that I only read around 30 or 40 this year (due to all the interruptions) that’s pretty good.

My “Hungarian literature month” was a huge success for me, with almost every book on it being considered for this post. I’m absolutely going to be reading more Hungarian fiction in the year ahead, and Laszlo Borza in the comments very kindly pointed me to a bunch more novels I’d never heard of.

I’ve read more Modernist fiction this year (and you know, I’m still never sure whether to capitalise that word or not), and the happy discovery there is that the more of it one reads the less difficult it becomes. Good modernist fiction (what do you think, lower or upper case?) always remains challenging, but in a good way because you have to reach towards it and actively engage with it.

The thing with modernist fiction is that it doesn’t take a default approach to how fiction should be written; there’s no assumption that naturalism is actually natural. That means that each book can be exactly what it needs to be, can take a concept and explore it in language without the manner of that exploration being in part pre-defined.

Anyway, there’s plenty of others better qualified to talk about modernism than I am, so I’ll get to the list. Here’s my top reads from 2012, this year sorted into essentially random categories:

Best crime novel: Despite reading and enjoying a new (to me) Chester Himes novel this year, the standout is easily Ross MacDonald’s brilliant The Way Some People Die. I’ve been reading MacDonald in order of publication, and this is clearly where he kicks solidly into gear and starts to merit the reputation he’d later have. If you don’t fancy the commitment of reading through his whole body of work, which would be fair enough really, this is a great place to start.

Best science fiction novel: This is a total cheat, because it’s not really science fiction, but Anna Kavan’s Ice just stands head and shoulders above most of the field. This is an exercise in what Christopher Priest calls slipstream fiction; novels that eschew strict narrative realism instead to explore impressions and the experience of a thing rather than the reality of it.

Ice makes little factual sense and intentionally lacks internal consistency, but it makes every sense on an emotional level. It features the obsessive cat and mouse pursuit by a man of the woman he perhaps loves and his rival for her, but motives, relationships and even identities are fluid and shifting and not to be trusted. All that and the book is steeped in frozen imagery of isolation and utter cold. If you do read it, read it before the spring.

Best comic novel: This is a surprisingly hard one. I loved Ben Lerner’s Leaving The Atocha Station and in any normal year it would easily have been top of my list, but then came my Hungarian literature month and Antal Szerb’s Oliver VII. This was in fact a good candidate for my overall best novel of the year entry (you can see what pipped it below), and it is utterly splendid. A book without shadows, an exercise in pure romance and love and a gentle but wry wit and it’s tremendously well written.

My only caveat with Oliver VII is that if you haven’t read Szerb before it may not be the best one to start with. It’s as far from difficult as a book can be, so that’s not the issue, rather it’s because it’s a culmination of his earlier books and it’s worth reading those first.

Best confusing novel: Confusing sounds like a bad thing, but some novels set out to confuse so as to force the reader to slow down, backtrack, weigh the sentences. Ice, discussed above, is a good example of what I mean. These are novels which the reader will absolutely bounce right off unless they’re prepared to become part of the work, to be as unsettled by the fiction as the characters are within it. Ann Quin’s Three is a masterclass in this sort of technique, while still married to a deeply British sensibility of sublimated sex and petty status disputes. I’ve two Quin’s yet left unread and I’m looking forward to both of them.

Best novel for generating blog hits: I never choose to read books in the hope they’ll generate hits actually, that would be distinctly depressing, but there was one book I reviewed this year that generated way more hits than any other. It is of course Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which continues to puzzle readers for reasons that frankly puzzle me as while I liked it I don’t think it’s a particularly difficult novel in any sense and its themes are far from obscure. Anyway, Barnes wrote a good book and it deserves the interest it receives, it’s just a shame so many other great books aren’t getting the same attention lavished on them.

Best classic work: Despite reading Hardy this year, I have to turn to China for this one and to Pu Songling’s wonderful Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. This collection, which is ideal incidentally for reading on kindle or even your phone, is just a delight and at some 600 pages frankly it’s far too short.

Best poetry: This has to be the Tom Beck translation of Eugene Onegin from Dedalus Press. This is one of my first attempts at reading a novel-length poem (I know, I’m a lightweight) and Beck’s sense of the ryhthm of the prose makes it a pleasure rather than a chore. I don’t know if it’s the best translation out there (really, I haven’t the foggiest), but it worked well for me and if you’ve ever been tempted by this classic of Russian literature but feared it might just be a little too capital I important to easily engage with I’d definitely recommend this.

It’s hard for anything to stand up to Eugene Onegin, but I do want also to give a small shout out to contemporary poet Angela Leighton whose Sea Level collection proved a joy (though given I wrote it up on 2 January 2012 I almost certainly read it in 2011, making it ineligible for this post anyway). Leighton doesn’t seem to get much attention, but should.

Best small novel on grand themes: Actually, this is a hotly contested field, but for me it has to be the marvellous, subtle and profoundly human novel Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson. I liked the book so much I made up this category just so I could wedge it into this post.

Best historical novel featuring a gay love story and a major French literary figure: The City, like many other industries, has its awards each year. A bunch of lawyers or bankers gather in a room, a famous comedian who despises them all trots out some well-worn jokes and then the awards are announced. The organisers of these events make their money by selling tables, and nobody buys a table without some prospect of an award.

The result is some of the most carefully tailored award categories you can imagine. Best Privately Financed Eastern European Road Deal. Best West African Port Financing. Best West European Satellite Refinancing. Odds are if you see that, there’s only been one West European satellite refinancing that year.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Phillippe Besson’s In the Absence of Men so it’s only fair that it gets included in my end of year roundup. I considered having a best historical fiction category, but I basically don’t read historical fiction so that would really have been just as artificial as the category I did put it in.

Since blogs are public I won’t say which deal it was, but I have worked on an award winning deal where the award pretty much was best historical novel featuring a gay love story and a major French literary figure, or rather where the category was clearly designed so that we won (and bought a table). I’ve got the tombstone sitting on a shelf behind me as I type this.


Just one category to go now, but the most important of all. It’s the novel which just absolutely blew me away this year, and which I’m privileged to have read. It’s the one that stands out from what actually was a really strong year full of great books, even if not as many of them as I’d have liked. I doubt the choice will be much of a surprise to any regular readers.

Best novel of 2012: This has to be Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai and skilfully translated by George Szirtes. Satantango is just an incredible work of fiction; an extraordinary exercise in technique (though never dry) which unleashes an apocalyptic and existentialist vision that remains with me long after reading it. Absolutely superlative.

So, there it is, my end of year list. It’s even more arbitrary than usual this year, but then why shouldn’t it be? Reading is intensely personal, and every book mentioned in this post is one that spoke to me and which reminded me both why I love literature and why I should want to do something so utterly odd as to go online and maintain a blog so I can chat to others about the books we each love.

Have a great Christmas and New Year.



Filed under Personal posts

a better, fairer future

Satantango, by László Krasznahorkai and translated by George Szirtes

Normally I hate writing reviews weeks after finishing a book. It tends to make the task much harder, as details start to blur and impressions fade. In the case of Satantango those concerns don’t really apply. Firstly, because the impression this book made will take a lot more than a few weeks to fade; and secondly because there was never any way that Satantango was going to be easy to write about however quickly I’d written my review.

Here’s the first sentence of the novel:

One morning near the end of October not long before the first drops of the mercilessly long autumn rains began to fall on the cracked and saline soil on the western side of the estate (later the stinking yellow sea of mud would render footpaths impassable and put the town too beyond reach) Futaki woke to hear bells.

I was going to quote the first paragraph, but the book has no paragraphs, just some 270 or so pages divided into twelve dense chapters. I suspect that makes it sound unapproachable, and I won’t lie, it’s not the most accessible book out there. It’s a book that requires effort on the part of the reader. It’s also though easily one of the best works of fiction I’ve read this year and one that more than repays the reader’s dedication.

The first six chapters describe a small Hungarian village. Once an industrial estate, the factory the village served is long since closed and now only a handful of inhabitants remain. They exist in a slum of mud, spiders and decay; in a landscape that psychologically as well as physically has a post- (or perhaps pre-) apocalyptic feel to it.

Rumour reaches the village of the return of two men long thought dead: Irimiás and Petrina. Irimiás is seen as a messianic figure, his arrival will mean a chance of escape, renewal, at the very least change. The first six chapters of the novel count up, I through VI, towards the arrival of Irimiás and Petrina and the remaining six count down, VI to I, from that arrival. Here Godot turns up, but it’s questionable whether he was worth waiting for.

The people of the estate live in a condition of mutual despair and loathing. The local teenage girls sell themselves in the disused factory, but have few customers. Futaki, whose perspective opens the book, is sleeping with another man’s wife. The local doctor is concerned only with his own ailments and with his relentless cataloguing and observing of the habits of the other villagers.  This is a place without purpose peopled by those who though technically neighbours are each fundamentally alone.

The book swiftly reveals Irimiás and Petrina as police informers, dubious adventurers and con-men. Their interest in the village is predatory; they bring no salvation. The flyleaf of the book suggests that Irimiás may be the devil, but though the book is shot through with religious imagery there’s no real evidence that he has any importance beyond that the villagers place on him.

Satantango is a mudslide of prose. Translator George Szirtes has spoken of Krasznahorkai’s language as a “slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type.” There is a hallucinatory sense to the text, with apparent realism turning to symbolism or dream without pause or comforting marker of where one state ends and another begins. On the second page Futaki has a vision of “himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin” as he looks at an acacia twig. Later a roomful of drunkards is covered in spider webs as they gradually fall asleep – a thing that makes no logical sense but yet which seems inevitable within the book’s insular context.

Here’s another quote, illustrating how Krasznahorkai makes use of language:

The table beside Halics made a creaking noise and the rotting wood of the bar gave a low sigh like the quiet easy movement of an old carriage wheel over the buzzing chorus of horseflies: it conjured the past but also spoke of perpetual decay. And as the wood creaked, the wind outside, like a helpless hand searching through a dusty book for some  vanished main clause, kept asking the same question time and again, hoping to give a “cheap imitation of a proper answer” to the banks of solid mud, to establish some common dynamic between tree, air and earth, and to seek through invisible cracks in the door and walls the first and original sound, of Halics belching.

Notice the use of quotes there. Characters frequently speak in what appear to be set phrases, folk-sayings or received wisdom. Sometimes the narrative itself does the same. Each time these phrases are placed in quotation marks, as if flagging their essentially phatic nature. I’m not of course familiar with common Hungarian sayings, but some of these phrases appear highly unlikely to be traditional or ever used outside of this novel. That makes the quotation marks unreliable, perhaps themselves meaningless, ironically underlining the impression already given of speech without thought.

Spoilers are essentially meaningless with a book like this, though I’ll avoid them anyway out of courtesy to those who’d prefer to discover that for themselves. The novel consists of a combination of black comedy, petty yet vicious cruelty, Beckettian existentialism and Kafkaesque farce. At times it feels near-medieval, with the villagers at one point forming a procession of fools on a pilgrimage to the empty shrine of the abandoned factory. It should be relentlessly depressing. The imagery is of mud, rain, death, mould and decay. The village is a slough of meaninglessness populated by fear, greed and stupidity, and the outside world seems little better.

What’s it ultimately about? It’s hard to say; it feels almost like the wrong question (or I’m the wrong person to answer it anyway). It doesn’t come with answers; it just is. Reading it I become as lost as the characters, sensing meanings and chasing after them but finding them slipping from my grasp just as I seem to reach them. In the end all I am left with is the language itself; Krasznahorkai’s sentences that seem to twist upon themselves continuing long after all sense should demand that they stop and yet still remaining no longer than they ought to be. Here’s just one sentence, by way of final quote:

The entire end of October night was beating with a single pulse, its own strange rhythm sounding through trees and rain and mud in a manner beyond words or vision: a vision present in the low light, in the slow passage of darkness, in the blurred shadows, in the working of tired muscles; in the silence, in its human subjects, in the undulating surface of the metaled road; in the hair moving to a different beat than do the dissolving fibers of the body; growth and decay on their divergent paths; all these thousands of echoing rhythms, this confusing clatter of night noises, all parts of an apparently common stream, that is the attempt to forget despair; though behind things other things appear as if by mischief, and once beyond the powers of the eye they no longer hang together.

This is a spectacular translation of a genuinely gifted writer. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing; mesmeric. It is the opposite of escapist, rather it is a book that addresses directly the problem of existence in a universe without meaning and without ultimate authority. Perhaps then it’s natural that it’s a book that has no answers, because the world has none.

Here are three other reviews of the book, each of which I thought particularly insightful: from the New Statesman, here; from the blogger Bookslut, here (some spoilers); and from an online magazine I’m unfamiliar with, here (the last paragraph of that last review explains how the book’s structure reflects the structure of the tango, something which not knowing the dance I couldn’t speak to myself). If you read this and you’ve reviewed it on your own blog please leave a link in the comments below as I’d be fascinated to know how others who’ve read it found it.


Filed under Hungarian fiction, Krasznahorkai, László, Modernist fiction, Szirtes, George (translator)