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

26 responses to “That Was The Year That Was: 2012

  1. Well, I guess i can call it a shame that I will look up and read Oliver VII and Satantango based on the opinion of a foreigner 🙂

    Oliver VII was completely unknown to me. And, you know, Satantango is known in Hungary in the form of the movie that was made from it much more than the novel. The movie runs for 7 hours and it is more of a challange or an excuse for betting or drinking games for college students than a movie. So I’ve been pretty scared by it and the rest of Krasznahorkai’s work (who is by the way the father of one of my fiancé’s friends).

    Keep ut the good work, Merry Christmas and all the rest.

  2. I first heard about that movie in a review in the Guardian of Sex and the City 2, where the reviewer said something along the lines of “I’ve watched the seven hour hungarian arthouse film Satantango, and Sex and the City 2 felt longer”.

    I’ve got a review here of Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend so you may want to check that out also.

    Merry Christmas, and thanks for commenting.

  3. That’s about the fifth mention I’ve seen of Anna Kavan’s “Ice”, and, though I don’t really read science fiction any longer, I like the sound of it, so I’ll give it a try next year.

    I’ve been holding out on Satantango, but now I know there are likely to be two further Krasznahorkai next year I can read with the peace of mind I’ll start have more of his stunning work in my future.

    I tend not to capitalise modernism because I consider it an event or attitude, rather than a defined historical period, but I recognise that is a personal, and/or political, response.

  4. You probably won’t believe this, but the the vast majority of the hits I get on a daily basis (I average about 5-10 hits a day) are people who’ve clicked the link to my own ‘The Sense of an Ending’ review that you very kindly included at the end of your post.

    So, many thanks for the link – without which my blog would be a much less-visited place. 🙂
    So sorry to hear about your slipped disc – injury stuff is the worst. I dislocated my left knee cap about 10 years ago, and to this day any kind of “knee stuff” on T.V., in books, films etc. just freaks me out!

    For what it’s worth, at University I was also told *to* start Modernism with an upper-case ‘M’, just as I was told to for ‘Tragedy’, ‘Literature’ etc.

    Hope you have a good xmas/new years.
    Here’s to lots more reading in 2013. 🙂

  5. Max: I’m happy to say that I bought Oliver VII & Leaving the Atocha Station after reading your reviews and The MacDonald is on the get-to list. Sorry that the back problem threw a wrench in things (pun intended). Let’s hope for a better 2013 and thanks for all the great pointers

  6. Max: Thanks for another year of very rewarding thoughts — our tastes diverge enough that I can count on you to point me to books that I would otherwise miss. The first of which next year will be Satantango although I am tempted by your winner in the very broad next-to-last category (I just have too many that fit that description already lined up).

  7. vesna main

    Always grat to read you, Max. Hope your injury is getting better and that the New year will be completely free of such pain.

    Modernism: my suggestion would be to capitalise when referring to the twenties and Joyce, Woolf, et al, that is to the specific period, but to use lower case when implying modernism as a style that spans centuries from Sterne, if not from the Menippean satire. (I have always been told to do the same for romanticism/Romanticism.)

    Interesting to see your list, and instructive too. However, where is the great Josipovici? How can one talk of modernism without mentioning him? As for Barnes, your inclusion is a serious let down. To my mind, apart from Flaubert’s Parrot and maybe a few early stories, he is all default or what I call writing by numbers, and the latest novel is the worst of his output. Had it been submitted anonymously, I doubt it would get past an agent and never reach a publisher. The Booker – not much worth – was really a tribute to his name and career.

    Happy New Year, and the rest of the festivities.

  8. Hi Max,

    Great list, eclectic as always. I really hope your feel better now; back pains are long to heal and I wish you the best.

    I won’t take part in the Modernism or modernism question, you know I know nothing about these things.

    I’m glad that In the Absence of Men made your best of the year list in that funny category of yours. It will make my best books list too. It stayed with me after reading it, his prose is breathtaking. He swallowed me in words, I don’t know how to describe what I felt when I read the two Bessons I read.

    I’m going to explore more of Hungarian Lit myself. I wish someone translated The Golden Kite by Kosztolanyi into English, you’d probably love it. I think I’ll try Satantango, let’s hope the French translation is as good as the English one.
    I’ve read poetry by Kosztolanyi this year but I haven’t written about it. I reach the limits of my blog there: I’m reading poetry in French, adapted from the Hungarian (not translated, adapted, it’s written like this) and I should write a billet in English? Impossible. Anyway, if you can find an English copy of those poems, go for it. They’re beautiful, even flawed by adaptation.

    I wish you a Merry Christmas and for New Year wishes, well, you’ll have to wait because in France, we don’t wish Happy New Year before the D-Day.

    And please, keep on maintaining your blog, it’s a pleasure to follow your reading journal.

    PS: Laszlo: thanks for the recommendations you left on Max’s blog, I’m taking notes too.

  9. Thanks for the comments all, and sorry for the rather slow replies.

    Anthony, regarding the Kavan she fits in for me with authors such as JG Ballard and Christopher Priest; both of whom tend to be classified as SF but neither of whom fits entirely comfortably within that genre.

    I actually agree with your third para on modernism/Modernism, but I thought Vesna’s suggestion as to when to capitalise and when not actually to make a great deal of sense so I’ll be adopting that.

    Tomcat, a blog with a focus on weird fiction will never get as many hits as one on say eurocrime, but so it goes. Yours remains one of my favourite blogs, and I don’t say that just to be nice. Seriously, everyone, if you read nothing else read his Hungry Caterpillar review. Trust me.

    Guy, good choices and I hope that the Szerb works better for you than the last of his you read (was that The Pendragon Legend, the one you didn’t take to?).

    Kevin, I’ll be interested in your thoughts on Satantango, but with respect to the Keilson my comment would be that I do think you would like it and find it rewarding so I’d definitely suggest putting that on your (no doubt towering) to be read list. It’s a small masterpiece, and comes with heavy praise too (as you probably know) from John Self and Will at Just William’s Luck.

  10. Vesna, getting there, and thanks for the best wishes.

    Your suggestion on Modernism/modernism, as I just said to Anthony, makes a great deal of sense to me and I’ll be adopting that going forward. There is a sense in which modernism exists both as a historical movement emerging from a particular time and set of circumstances, and more fundamentally as an ongoing challenge and approach which quite literally spans centuries of literature.

    I don’t think I read any Josipovici in 2012, which is I admit a terrible oversight. I think I read him in 2011. If I’m wrong then you’re right and he should have been above. Anyway, I’ll get some more in because he really is an excellent writer. Regarding the Barnes, what can I say? I liked it and I thought it worked well, though it continues to mystify me the way people treat it as some kind of whodunnit. I’m largely indifferent to the Booker, but I don’t think it was an unworthy winner (bearing in mind I see the Booker as a prize predeominantly aimed at identifying the best mainstream Anglo-American or Anglo-American influenced fiction). He was unlucky in the year he won the posh bingo, but so it goes.

    In terms of Barnes’ output I actually think it’s one of his better, but then again I prefer his crime fiction written under a pseudoynm anyway. Barnes missed his true calling, though perhaps he said all he had to on crime.

    Barnes is also of course one of the authors Josipovici cited as being constrained and ultimately cold, along with Powell (and I’ve read the whole of Dance of course and blogged it here), Amis, McEwan and a few others. I know what Josipovici means, but for me the problem isn’t those authors but rather the predominance of a certain style (which is the fault of critics and readers, than the writers). I’d rather literature were more of a goulash, with the school of literature those authors pursue being just one flavour among many rather than a massive overdose of paprika overwhelming the whole dish.

    That last metaphor may have got away from me a bit.

    Emma, remind me of the second Besson you read? Has it been translated do you know? I’ll have to check your blog (I have a backlog of blog reading, among other kinds, which I’ll enjoy over the next few days though I won’t leave comments on everything – after over a month off there’s just too much to make that sensible).

    I can see why writing English language reviews of Hungarian poetry which has been translated into French might be a bit daunting. I’ll see if I can find an English language copy, and then you could perhaps comment on whatever I write about them which would be very welcome.

    Otherwise, thanks for the kind words and joyeux noel!

  11. It was Un homme accidentel. Sadly not available in English. It’s very rare that I read two books by the same writer in the same year.
    Joyeux Noël to you too.

  12. great selection Max ,satantango was highlight for me last year but so hard to write a review for it ,all the best stu

  13. I just placed an order for Satantango. The description made me think of a Tarkovsky movie. I had a bit of a dud year but that was my own fault. I started a lot of probably great books but couln’t finish them because I was too tired in the evenings so I read far more genre and have a majority of genre novels on my list. Yeah well.
    I wish you happy holidays and hopefully a great reading year in 2013.

  14. vesna main

    ‘The problem isn’t those authors but rather the predominance of a certain style (which is the fault of critics and readers, than the writers)’ – you are absolutely right. I would add agents and publishers: the former act as gatekeepers, claiming that the latter do not want anything without a traditional plot, social realist characters, etc and the latter do not want to touch a writer who is not agented; of course, the exception are the few, very few, still remaining independents.

    As for Josipovici, Infinity came out in May. I reviewed it for the London Magazine.

  15. Stu, hard indeed, I admit. Still, a book worth the effort. Glad you also liked it.

  16. Icahn see why Tarkovsky might spring to mind. Good company for Krasznahorkai to be in. My year certainly had its frustrations too, as with you I was often too tired in the evenings.

    So it goes. Lets hope we both have great 2013s.

  17. Vesna,

    Good point. Are you familiar with the story behind Tom McCarthy’s difficulties getting published? A definite failure by the gatekeepers.

    Which issue was it? The London Magazine only recently came on my radar. I hadn’t realised how interesting/good is.

    Which Josipovici’s do you most rate out of interest?

  18. vesna main

    My review was in August/September issue. As for the GJ’s novels, my favourite is Moo Pak, followed by Everything Passes and Contre-Jour.

    No, I am not familiar with McCarthy’s difficulties – where can I find out about them? – but know my own too well.

  19. Pingback: Best of 2012 : my choices among the books I read « Book Around The Corner

  20. As I recall, McCarthy couldn’t initially find a UK publisher for his first novel, Remainder (which I’ve reviewed here in fact). It was too strange, too experimental. Instead art book publishers in Paris picked it up, being art publishers they were more used to conceptual and challenging works, less hidebound. Wikipedia is reasonable on it though not detailed at all; I can’t find the original article I read on the topic unfortunately.

    It was a success, after which the UK publishers picked him up, but only once those Parisian art publishers had already promoted him. It’s as clear an example of a failure by the UK publishing industry as one could wish. That said, I am actually a supporter of the publishing industry and think it’s important that it survives. Obviously it does get things wrong at times, but that doesn’t mean we should simply do away with it as some in the self-publishing movement would advocate.

  21. Yes indeed: everyone should read Tomcat’s Hungry Caterpillar review. It’s exactly what the blogosphere is for, alongside great end-of-year lists such as this one.

    I went out and bought a few of these on your recoms so cheers: slightly off-topic – I had a quick further attempt at Szabo’s The Door. You were right of course. Dreadful. Trying to be both compulsive and arthouse it hits on atrocious.

  22. leroyhunter

    Great post Max, and I’m glad you seem to be on the road to recovery from health misfortune.

    I’d agree with you on Satantango, it’s one of my favourites from this year as well. And The Pendragon Legend was one of my favourites in the comic category. Throw in Sindbad and Skylark and there’s no doubt that Hungary is my Favourite Reading Nation of 2012. Look forward to lots more this year.

    I read 2 MacDonalds – an Archer and a standalone that I mistook for an Archer – both excellent. Crime-wise I couldn’t recommend the fastidious short stories of Ferdinand von Shirach highly enough – I tried to keep the second volume for 2013 but couldn’t hold out. At least I have his first novel on the shelf – it has a lot to live up to.

    I’d like to read the Lerner, and will once it’s available in something other then a scandalously-priced hardback. Likewise Kavan and Quin have been on my radar for a while, more so since you reviewed them. I bought a Lispector recently so I guess I’ll track them down in time. Emma picked the Besson for me in her Humbook challenge so looking forward to that.

    My Rediscovered Clasic Author of the year is Maugham, I read two of his and was very taken with him. My American Male Giant of the year sees Woolf’s This Boy’s Life edge out Roth’s Nemesis, as it equals the latter’s craft but is just so bloody funny in places as well.

    My Strange Children’s Adventure of the year is A High Wind in Jamaica. Extraordinary, a total one-off. My m/Modernist Works of the year would be A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford and Langrishe, Go Down by Aidan Higgins. Again, thankfully the shelf is well stocked with more from both these superb authors. Lastly for the good stuff I’ll mention the unclassifiable The Peregrine (you’ve seen Trevor’s review), a reread of Sebald’s Austerlitz and the magnificent Pale Fire, which I’ve owned for years but foolishly only just read over Christmas.

    My only real disappointments were New Finnish Grammar (I slogged through it, it wasn’t worth it) and Skippy Dies (abandoned after 27 pages – appalling stuff).

    Now, after that lengthy ramble maybe I should think about not squatting in comments and start putting my febrile thoughts up on their own blog.

    Happy reading in 2013!

  23. Lee, let me know how you find the ones you got!

    Leroy, firstly it would be great if you had your own blog.

    Sindbad is definitely on my to read list. Ferdinand von Shirach I don’t know, haven’t even heard of before your post. Where would you suggest starting?

    “A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford and Langrishe, Go Down by Aidan Higgins” – I’ll check these out. I have The Peregrine on a shelf waiting to be read, hopefully before too long.

    Happy 2013 all!

  24. leroyhunter

    Max, von Schirach has written two collections based on the extraordinary material in his case files (he’s a prominent defence lawyer in Germany). What makes them of interest is that he’s a superb writer, with fine judgement and a dry, curiously involving tone.
    Caroline has reviewed both the books I mentioned:
    Crime –
    Guilt –

  25. Brilliant, thanks for the links.

    On an unrelated note, anyone who has a kindle might want to note that the Amazon 12 days of Christmas sale includes The Sisters Brothers, Leaving the Atocha Station, Train Dreams and Jesus’ Son each by Denis Johnson, a Janice Galloway biography, the recent translation of Marcel Ayme’s The Man who Walked through Walls (reviewed at The Asylum), Hawthorn & Child, Mary Beard’s book on Pompeii, and The Polish Boxer among some other interesting books and naturally a ton of stuff that isn’t aimed at the literary crowd (which is fair enough, it would be odd if it all were). Pricing is between 99p and £1.59 in the UK and is probably much the same in US$.

    The sale lasts a couple more days and every one of those books is potentially worth picking up if you don’t mind contributing to the downfall of the printed word, the death of traditional publishing, the drowning of literature in a sea of self-published supernatural romance fiction, the collapse of the British economy through corporate tax avoidance and having a mere licence rather than ownership of the books. I picked up all the above titles plus a history of council estates I’ve had my eye on for a while (I have the Lerner in hardcopy, but there is some advantage to having a virtual version and at that price it seemed worthwhile).


  26. Pingback: Looking back on 2013 | Pechorin's Journal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s