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.