As way of encouraging my students to read more I display the books I have read during the year. So I’ve managed to reconstruct 2014 from a photo I took at the end of the year!
I began with Speak, Memory by Nabokov. His, and Alice Munro’s short stories were about all I could read after the operation in 2013: one short story and I was fast asleep. This is a beautifully written autobiography about his privileged upbringing and less fortunate exile.
I’d been bowled over by Lucy Ellmann’s Mimi so I decided to read Varying Degrees Of Hopelessness. This wasn’t quite at the same level but was still an excellent and original book.
I then moved on to the first part of what I think is the best fictional work of this century: A Death In The Family by Knausgaard seems to be a sort of Proust for 70s kids like me. It’s a profound exploration of death, fathers, family. Strange how I can have so many similar experiences with someone from Norway!
I then moved on to Benjamin Britten: A Life In The 20th Century by Paul Kildea. This had many interesting facts but it left a nasty taste in my mouth: the accusations against his father, the calling his sister ugly, the sensationalism of the author’s claims about Britten’s death, since denied by his surgeon – all nasty and unnecessary.
Alan Rusbridger’s Play It Again is a great book for motivating you to do some serious piano practice. I can identify with many of the problems he describes, although not the life of privilege being the editor of the Guardian seems to bring.
More privilege in the next two books: Mother’s Milk and At Last by Edward St. Aubyn, although in this case privilege did nothing to protect him. These more or less autobiographical accounts of abuse, neglect and drugs, followed some sort of return to normal life are beautifully written and, however grim the subject matter, full of joy and humour.
Part 2 of the Knausgaard saga came next. A Man In Love starts with some 60 or 70 pages about being a parent at a children’s party and then moves back to falling in love and becoming a writer. Wonderful!
Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness is an autobiographical account of a child being sent to Auschwitz. I always prefer to read of actual experiences, if prefer is the right word. Fictionalised accounts, such as The Book Thief or The Boy With Striped Pyjamas seem to belittle the experience of the Holocaust, or use it to add a layer of seriousness which the book itself does not merit. The remarkable thing about this book is that the central character has little idea of what is happening around him. One of those books it should be compulsory to read.
I’ve always loved Dostoyevsky for his ability to have you saying to yourself “you just can’t do that” as you simultaneously realise that you can. Notes From Underground seems to be every bit as original and biting in its realism as when it was first published.
I’d enjoyed The Magus by John Fowles but his much shorter The Collector, about a man kidnapping the object of his obsession seemed nasty without any particular reason.
I seem to have this habit of reading other works by the same author after being impressed. I loved Andreï Makine’s La Vie d’un Homme Inconnu but La Musique d’une Vie was less convincing.
A student I taught loved Hardy and recommended The Return Of The Native. He was right – classic Hardy.
A strangely similar ending to my next book – The Mill On The Floss by George Eliot – superbly fresh writing on childhood.
I read my first Lawrence with Sons And Lovers. This is remarkable for its descriptions of a mining village, nature, frankness about relationships and, sadly for me, terribly prophetic in describing the uncomplaining death of a mother.
Another Auschwitz memoir came from Borowski in This Way For The Gas, Ladies And Gentlemen, a collection of unbearably raw short stories. This is a book you’ll never forget.
Stefan Zweig seems to be having a bit of a comeback. I loved Beware Of Pity and The Post Office Girl for their combination of almost Russian storytelling and modernism. But I’m afraid his autobiography, The World Of Yesterday disappointed me a little.
I’m not sure why Woolf’s To The Lighthouse should seem appropriate following the death of my mother. On the surface there are no similarities. But… A beautiful novel.
You can always rely on Laxness for life-affirmation against the odds and The Fish Can Sing almost managed it but I was a little disappointed, unfairly comparing it to Independent People perhaps.
Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning had some early promise but he tends to throw figures of speech at every sentence in the vain hope of creating poetry. And it just seemed like a bragging session to me.
Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist exceeded all expectations. What an amazing description of the trials of working life! How remarkably relevant it still is. Should be read by all schoolchildren before they embark on job-finding.
In the legendary Scarthin Books, in Cromford, there was a selection of books by Ivan Klíma. I chose Judge On Trial as it was hardback, clean and with a large font. A fantastic book, along the lines of early Kundera but more mature, wiser.
I’ve given up on every Jane Austen book I’ve ever started but I thought I’d better behave and try again. Northanger Abbey was delightfully witty and I particularly loved its Gothic genre switch. Maybe I should leave it at that?!
I fancied some Dutch literature and a quick search led me to Herman Koch. I read The Dinner and Summer House With Swimming Pool. They were ok – witty, cynical, dealing with issues of today but I found them overly nasty. Bye Herman.
I will break my Holocaust rule for someone with the intelligence and meticulous research of Martin Amis. Time’s Arrow should be much better known. The Zone Of Interest is his latest novel. He is certainly back on top form here and manages to create something that is faithful to the seriousness of the subject matter.
I liked the look of Belle De Seigneur by Albert Cohen. So I bought it, though I knew nothing about it. This is such an amazing work that I’m going to get it in French and read it again. No offence to the translator (for once!), the translation is incredible, capturing all the modernisms and puns. This has comedy, romance, streams of consciousness, utter, bleak tragedy. I so often read something like “One of the greatest novels of the 20th century, comparable to Joyce, Proust…” in blurbs. In this case, such a statement would be true.
On to my next Knausgaard, Boyhood Island. The evocation of boyhood is so true, so intense. Yet another remarkable book.
Ford Madox Ford’s Parades End deserves to be called the English War And Peace, it’s that good, although there is little peace for the main character, even in peacetime.
I’m not sure I should have read Christopher Hitchen’s Mortality, detailing his cancer and decline but I did and I’m glad. Classic courageous raging against the dying of the light.
On a whim I bought Will Self’s Umbrella when it was going cheap on my Kindle. I was obviously saving it for a rainy day. It’s actually very good. Very modernist but still easy enough to read and understand, with a fascinating subject matter, rather similar to Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings.
My lat book of the year was perhaps the most disappointing: More Fool Me by Stephen Fry. I love this man but there was rather a lot of recap at the beginning and not much to follow.