Annual Summary: Classic Reads

This year I felt the need to find comfort in the classics, some of them new, some of them rereads, and some classics I had previously attempted and abandoned. My definition of classics is quite broad, so you will find both 19th and 20th century books in here, and from all countries. 28 of my 127 books were classics of some description (29 if you count The Karamazov Brothers, which I’m currently reading and hope to finish by the start of January), and 17 of those will be mentioned below – which just goes to show that the ‘success rate’ is much higher with the classics.

Ueda Akinari: Ugetsu Monogatari – it’s been a pleasure reacquainting myself with these very Japanese ghost stories, even though some of them made me furious at the classist and sexist assumptions of the time.

Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost – utterly heartbreaking and very thoughtful story of parenthood but also a moving portrait of post-war France, one of my favourite Persephones so far

Thomas Bernhard: Woodcutters – I sometimes find Bernhard a bit much to take in, too grumpy, but this book is so good at poking holes in the Viennese literary and artistic pretentiousness, that I laughed nearly all the way through

Henry James: The American – one of the few James that I’d never read, an earlier one, and much lighter, frothier and funnier than I remembered him

Machado de Assis: Dom Casmurro – another grumpy old man reminiscing about his life, like Bernhard, and another tragicomic masterpiece

Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon – another portrait of a post-war European city, and a strange little love story, full of subtle, skilled observations

Elizabeth von Arnim: The Caravaners – if ever there was a book to distract you from lockdown, this is the one. Hilarious, sarcastic, and reminding you that a bad holiday is worse than no holiday at all!

Dorothy Canfield Fisher: The Home-Maker – an ingenious role reversal story from Persephone, thought-provoking and surprisingly modern

Barbellion: Journal of a Disappointed Man – courtesy of Backlisted Podcast, I reacquainted myself with this diary of a complex character, struggling to be courageous, often self-pitying, and usually ferociously funny

Marlen Haushofer: The Wall – simply blew me away – again, perfect novel about and for solitary confinement

Teffi: Subtly Worded – ranging from the sublime to the absurd, from angry to sarcastic to lyrical, tackling all subjects and different cultures, a great collection of journalistic and fictional pieces

Defoe: Journal of the Plague Year – such frightening parallels to the present-day – a great work of what one might call creative non-fiction

Romain Gary: Les Racines du ciel – not just for those passionate about elephants or conservationism, this is the story of delusions and idealism, colonialism and crushed dreams, appropriation of stories and people for your own purposes

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Gate of Angels – both very funny and yet with an underlying sense of seriousness, of wonder – and of course set in my beloved Cambridge

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front – even more heartbreaking when you reread it at this age

Liviu Rebreanu: The Forest of the Hanged – Dostoevsky meets Remarque meets Wilfred Owen, a book which never fails to send shivers down my spine

Anton Chekhov: Sakhalin Island – possibly the greatest revelation of the year, alongside Defoe. Stunning, engaged writing, and so much compassion.

What strikes me looking at all of the above is how many of these books that I naturally gravitated towards this year are all about showing compassion and helping others, about the bond with the natural world, about not allowing yourself to despair at the horrors that human beings bring upon themselves. I’ve been thinking about that mysterious gate in the wall of the college, and how it opened at just the right time – and that’s what all these books have allowed me to do. They’ve provided me with the perfect escape and encouragement whenever I needed them most. If you’ve missed my crime fiction round-up, it is here. I will also do a contemporary fiction round-up after Boxing Day.

I wish all of you who celebrate Christmas as happy a time as possible under the circumstances. I’ll be back before the start of the New Year with some further reading and film summaries, but until then, stay safe and healthy, all my love from me to you!

14 thoughts on “Annual Summary: Classic Reads”

  1. Quite a nice and diverse bunch of books. I haven’t read any of them, though I did read Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, perhaps prompted by you. I’m also very tempted to read Sakhalin Island next year on the basis of your tweets and review as it sounded fascinating.
    I wanted to ask you how you define “the classics”, but I see you’ve already given a (very broad) definition.
    Joyeux Noël! Crăciun Fericit! Boldog Karácsonyt!

    1. Yes, basically anything of literary merit published before 2000 or so… I think you might find Fitzgerald’s book about Novalis The Blue Flower the most appealing, but yes, you never quite know what to expect with her. And I’m busy recommending Sakhalin Island to everybody!

  2. I really like that theme you’ve found in your reading, Marina Sofia. Showing compassion and staying positive are such a tonic in times like these. I love it when books remind us of what we can be, and I’m glad your reading has taken you in that direction. Have a lovely Christmas, and may 2021 be a good year for you.

  3. I am buying some classics I read when I was 11-12 years old, not as lofty as your list, but I have fond memories of reading Nancy Mitford’s books. So to soften the blow of tier 4 lockdown at the start of 2021, I’m going to delve into one of her novels. I hope you manage to have a lovely time around the festive season and let’s hope 2021 is eventually a brighter year for all x

  4. I’ve already ordered the Chekhov from the library, but several others will make my TBR list. I’m ashamed to say that from your list, I’ve only so far read All Quiet on the Western Front. So much to read … Best wishes for the Christmas season – I hope you’ll be in a position to make the best of a bad job.

  5. Wishing you a very Merry Christmas, Marina, and all the very best for 2021. Let’s hope it’s less gruelling than the year we’ve just had…

    In the meantime, it’s lovely to see Teffi in your list of classics. As you say, her tonal range is quite something, from the sly and satirical to the poignant and melancholy. A wonderful rediscovery on the part of Pushkin Press (and NYRB in the US). Plus, both the Laski and the Fitzgerald are sitting in my TBR – a couple of things for me to look forward to, all being well.

  6. Merry Christmas to you, Marina! What a wonderful selection of books. Like you, I was blown away by The Wall. I have the Hazzard and Bernhard sitting on my shelves, so looking forward to those. The only Bernhard I read years ago was Old Masters, which was brilliant and funny and I really need to read more of him.

  7. I’m sure I would enjoy all of these. I’ve only read The Wall of the bunch.
    Both Persephone appeal and I might choose The Forest of the Hanged for a Lit and War readalong, should I do it again next year. I’m not decided yet.

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