Monday, December 19, 2011

Some books of the year

A far from definitive list, but rather a selection of the better stuff I read this year, minus the more canonical works (I could regale you with my Panglossian enthusiasm for some guy called Shakespeare but maybe I shouldn't). Eagle-eyed readers will notice most the books here were not published this year - not to worry, there's plenty of time to get round to 2011's batch of publications.

Long Time, No See - Dermot Healy, Faber, £12.99

Healy’s first novel in over a decade confirms him as the unlikely experimental stylist first glimpsed in Sudden Times. The novel is narrated by one Mr Psyche (not exactly a Sligo name, but anyway) who has recently left school and who spends much of his time administering to his older neighbours Uncle JoeJoe and the Blackbird in a small coastal village in the north-west of Ireland. There is a hint of McGahern’s That They May Face the Rising Sun in the gentle pace of the rural setting but Healy divulges most of the tale through dialogue, much of it phatic and repetitive. It can hamper the mechanics of the plot at times but there’s a justness to the flow of niceties, making it almost a lexicon of small-town etiquette; its social interactions are convincingly spare but endowed with the sometimes ruinous reticence of the rural Irishman.

The drama is provided by the older gentlemen, eccentric Malibu-drinkers armed with tales of surprising social exuberance from the prehistory of Celtic Tiger Ireland. Mr Psyche is a sage anchor for the proceedings, a sensible foil for an entertaining, generous novel that goes about its business with everyday grace and quiet confidence. Irish writers are notoriously non-prolific, knocking out novels at their own pace and on their own terms. You can’t begrudge Dermot Healy that if the result is as pleasing as Long Time, No See. Still, you hope there won’t be as long a wait for the next one.

If it is your life - James Kelman, Penguin £8.99 (2010)

Cantankerous old Jimmy Kelman is one of the few genuine originals in British fiction and one who, his 1994 Booker for How Late It Was, How Late notwithstanding, is rarely afforded the respect he deserves. He is also a rare novelist whose short stories are every bit as vital as his longer work and his eighth collection, published last year, is as sparky and belligerently eloquent as ever.

The collection opens with ‘Tricky times ahead pal’, a tale of an unexpected amputation and the task of tailoring a pair of trousers to cope with it, delivered in a comically matter-of-fact way. Kelman shifts tone and voice effortlessly, encompassing wounded pride (‘talking about my wife’), genial solicitude (‘The Gate’, the story of a man trying to carry a second-hand children’s bike home after buying it) and paternal indignation (‘The Third Man, or else the Fourth’). Long pieces are interspersed with micro-stories, only a page or two long, as gnomic as they are evocative. The long title story is a painfully poignant account of a young working-class Glaswegian negotiating his own gentrification at college with a mixture of industrious pride and guilt at what he is leaving behind. It is a beautiful, magnanimous piece, the crowning achievement of a diverse, absurdist and bleakly funny book.

I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan - Alan Partridge, with Rob Gibbons, Neil Gibbons, Armando Iannucci and Steve Coogan, Harper Collins, £9.99

I normally steer clear of audio books, partly because I consider books to be sacred objects but also because far too often you are at the mercy of the person entrusted with reading them and the risk of an annoyingly-voiced narrator is too high to part with cash. (Last I looked, printed books are also cheaper). But there are times when recourse to the spoken word is warranted and the much awaited 'second' autobiography of Norfolk’s favourite light entertainer is one of them. It is, as Partridge himself might say, textbook narration.

I, Partridge takes us from Alan’s birth (‘my father held me aloft like a fleshy World Cup’), through his miserable childhood and schooldays, to his meteoric rise to - and fall from - fame, and his uneasy reconciliation with provincial obscurity. Partridge is already one of the finest comic creations of the last thirty years, a precisely calibrated avatar of Middle English rightness and petit-bourgeois indignation. What is surprising is how the gag rarely flags over 300 pages - or almost seven hours, if you are listening. It’s a catalogue of cringe, a bathysphere of bathos, a symphony of squaredom. It’s also one of the finest badly-written books of this or any year (it is useful to listen to it periodically as a negative yardstick while writing) and one whose author would be only too proud to accept a Bad Sex award for.

The Music Instinct - Philip Ball, Vintage £8.99 (2010)

Philip Ball’s book won’t teach you how to read music because its premise is that you already know how. The title suggests a lineage from Steven Pinker but the inspiration is not the one you’d think, but rather a passage in How the Mind Works, where Pinker dismissed music as ‘auditory cheesecake’, and which provoked a minor kerfuffle in musicological circles. A science writer by trade who also has an impressively broad knowledge of music, Ball promptly takes Pinker to task before positing that we are all innately endowed with an ability to parse and interpret the sonic, tonal and rhythmic properties of the music we hear. Music leads the book but it is always underpinned by recourse to scientific studies - that might prove too technical for some it does make you look at and listen to the music afresh.

Ball is also an enlightened listener, he refuses blanket dismissals on grounds of taste of even the most wretched popular music and he is impatient with musical absolutes, allowing himself to admire and decry Schoenberg in equal measure. And neither is it all Western music that informs his theory - Indian, African, Native American music are all considered, while Javanese and Balinese gamelan is a crucial counterpoint to Western tonality. An online repository of recordings (albeit pretty insipid computer-generated ones) accompanies the book, which demystifies much of the heavier technical stuff. The author would no doubt be uncomfortable with suggestions The Music Instinct should have an ameliorative purpose but the book does make you a better listener. And it’s enjoyable in the process too.

Tentative d’épuisement d’un lieu parisien - Georges Perec, Christian Bourgois (1975) €5

(Available in English as An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, translated by Marc Lowenthal, Wakefield Press $12.95)

Perec had a Joycean impatience with form, rarely attempting anything more than once. If he ran out of literary archetypes, he would invent more. Among those inventions were tracts on how to ask your boss for a raise, a list of everything he ate and drank throughout 1974 and, in this short piece, a description of everything he saw over three days sitting in Café de la Mairie on Paris’ Place Saint-Sulpice in October of that year.

The title of the piece suggests Perec wanted to bleed the place of life, to record it for posterity, much as one might pin a butterfly lifeless to a display-case mount. It’s an idea that seems remarkably prescient today in the age of Google’s omnivorous thirst for documentation. And Perec was himself an able archivist, in both a professional and literary sense (he worked as a scientific archivist). One of his posthumous works was a collection of short essays entitled Penser/Classer (Think/Classify) but, like the lexicographer in Life - A User’s Manual whose job is to retire obviated words from the dictionary, Perec also knew that classification demanded selectiveness.

Tentative d’épuisement… purports to describe everything that passes into his view as he sits looking out into the square but Perec is chopping and excluding just as any other narrator would. And he is constantly questioning his observations, wondering if a tour bus is full of Germans or Japanese; if the plat du jour, which he can no longer see listed from a different table, has changed since yesterday. The only constants in his observations are the buses, the 63, the 70, the 86, the 87, the 96, which punctuate his text with familiar irregularity. What Perec seems to rather be doing is trying to exhaust the possibilities of non-literary description. That his Place Saint-Sulpice springs to life so readily from his seemingly obsessive list is testimony to an abject but brilliant failure on the part of the laureate of literary taxonomy.

X’ed Out - Charles Burns, Pantheon $19.95 (2010)

Burns’ first new comic book series since the hugely successful Black Hole is an intriguing account of a nightmare experienced by a patient recovering after what seems to be a traumatic accident or assault. In this first installment of a projected six, there’s no clear indication as to how art student Doug got into such a state, nor is it clear what his dreams, in which he appears as a Tintin surrogate, might mean. Burns’ gradual and discrete unfolding of the narrative is irresistible though and his use of darkened intertitles and blank panels impart an eery Lynchian menace. The book, with its bedridden hero trying to muster up clues from his past to elucidate his dreams, reads like a grotesque Proust, articulated in a clean, almost academic style that throws the disturbing vision into sharp relief.

Seeing - José Saramago (translated by Margaret Jull-Costa) Vintage £8.99 (2006)

The late Saramago’s 2004 novel is a parable on the tolerable limits of democratic mandates, which gained added resonance with events in the past year. A majority of voters in a general election return blank ballots, prompting the government to rerun the election a week later. An even bigger number of blanks - 85% - is returned and the government declares a state of emergency and vows to crush the unseen forces that threaten the fabric of democracy.

Seeing is written with Saramago’s characteristic faux-naive laconic drollness, and reintroduces - though not entirely convincingly - characters from Blindness, the novel of his most people are familiar with. And the scenario - where a plurality of political opinion is considered incommensurate with the totem of the ballot box - is one that is borne out with all too frequent familiarity these days. The blackmailing of the Irish electorate in the two Lisbon referendums and the similar stance taken by the Euro elites at the time of the earlier plebiscites in France and the Netherlands indicate exercising one’s suffrage a bit too seriously is not be encouraged. Now we see the Hobson’s Choice faced by voters in Spain and Portugal - and not even that in Italy and Greece - in response to the mismanagement of the economy. There is also the assumption in western countries that the chief goal of the Arab revolutions is to win the right to vote - a partial aim that becomes increasingly questionable when the ‘wrong’, ie. Islamist, parties are the beneficiaries of the polls.

Saramago deftly crafts a bleakly funny - but ultimately bleak - narrative that so precisely delineates the infantilising rhetoric of the political class, it is probably the finest fictional paradigm of a political reality since Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and one that will likely gain further currency in years to come.

Knowledge of Hell - António Lobo Antunes (translated by Clifford E. Landers) Dalkey Archive $13.95 (2008)

There was a ‘new’ Antunes published in English this year - a new translation of his 1979 novel Os Cus de Judas, previously available as South of Nowhere and now as The Land at the End of the World - but the novel that followed that in 1980, Knowledge of Hell, is a fuller, more even work. Like the earlier novel, it draws on Antunes’ own experience as a medic for three years at the end of Portugal’s bloody colonial war in Angola. A veteran of the war, now practising as a psychiatrist at a mental institution in Lisbon (as Antunes was early in his literary career) recounts his experiences in an imaginary conversation with his daughter.

Knowledge of Hell is very much an apprentice novelist’s work, with self-doubt and bravado at turns bubbling below the surface of the text. But it is nonetheless hugely impressive. Antunes’ stunningly acute eye for visual metaphor is here already highly developed and his dense Faulknerian prose is the right vehicle for the confused nightmarish morass of memory conjured by wartime service. If, as Tom McCarthy remarked last year, prose is the chassis of fiction but poetry the engine, Antunes’ novels are seriously high-performance. Antunes has written a further sixteen novels, almost all of which document the at times harrowing reflux of Portuguese decolonisation, but only about half are available in English. Even more puzzling is how relatively unknown he remains. Though he has his high-profile champions - George Steiner, James Wood and Harold Bloom are fans - he has yet to be published in the UK. Maybe his novels are considered a bit prohibitively ‘difficult’ by a publishing industry that increasingly lauds the ‘readability’ of literary works, but you can help but think many people are missing out on one of the finest writers alive, writing in any language.

New Finnish Grammar - Diego Marani (translated by Judith Landry), Dedalus £9.99

Italian linguist Diego Marani’s 2000 novel, celebrated across Europe, finally gets an English-language publication. New Finnish Grammar charts the anatomy of language-learning, through the device of an amnesiac soldier in the Second World War who is convinced by his Finnish doctor that he too is Finnish. Repatriated to Helsinki, in the throes of war with the Soviet Union, the patient sets to learning the notoriously difficult language and tries to piece together his memories of the city that is supposedly his own.

He gathers his impressions in a diary and correspondence with a nurse who takes a shine to him before she rushes back off to the doomed front in Keralia. The novel perfectly captures the twists and turns of learning a foreign language, the dead ends, the frustrations, the breakthroughs, the wounded impatience with the target culture and the occasional quixotic identification with it. It is also a touching tribute to a unique country and culture, which seldom attracts the attention of anyone abroad. The success of New Finnish Grammar makes one hopeful translations of Marani’s five other novels will soon follow.

The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov, Allen Lane £14.99

The fact that Morozov’s book, published just after the New Year, was very quickly dated by the Arab revolutions, only underlines its timeliness. The Net Delusion, developed from Morozov’s Net Effect blog for Foreign Policy, takes aim at those ‘cyber utopians’ and ‘internet centrists’, who believe in the unfailing potential of the internet and technology to enable a passage to democracy and to defeat totalitarian regimes and old-school dictatorships. The popular belief that access to knowledge online was the exposure that would consign such regimes to history took a battering during the clampdown on the so-called Green revolution in Iran in 2009, in which protestors were easily picked off thanks to the online trail they had left. Morozov shows how every benefit of technology conceals a danger and these dangers are posed, not simply by the usual bogeymen in Beijing, Moscow and Tehran but also by governments in western democracies.

It soon emerged that there was a troubling interaction between some of the high priests of cyber-utopianism and unsavoury regimes - Clay Shirky had visited Libya in an IT consultant capacity back in 2007. And while people in the west enthusiastically added twibbons to their profiles for revolutions in the Middle East and decried the hounding of bloggers and activists there, later in the year we were being encouraged to post pictures on Facebook of rioters in Vancouver and London to name and shame them. It never seemed to cross anyone’s mind that such a habit quickly acquired might later be applied to political protestors. Morozov knows better than most the dangers that lurk in online activism for citizens of certain countries, having grown up in Belarus. A new foreword came with a paperback edition towards the end of the year; he does not deny that social media played an important role in the Arab revolutions, and continues to do so, but his warning that technology is a double-edged sword should be heeded by anyone with a blind faith in its progressive properties.

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