I just can’t seem to stop reading this year – more than 160 books this year! So obviously, a simple Top Ten List won’t do for me. This is yet another of my posts by categories, this time of authors that I have enjoyed in the past and finally got a chance to read more.
Not just the daughter of my favourite Japanese writer, but an astounding writer in her own right. It’s a puzzle to me why she is not better known in the English-speaking world, even though she had been translated in the 1980s, but wondered if it was…
… perhaps she did not fit in well with the narrative of the Japanese economic miracle and boom years. She was not ‘exotic’ enough, not ‘other’ enough. She was not writing about cherry blossoms and chrysanthemums (although she does write about a chrysanthemum beetle). Her protagonists were usually single mothers, struggling to bring up children in a society that was often belittling and marginalising them. Perhaps too relatable the world over… although with additional pressures in Japan.
I was very moved to read her rather personal stories (or are they really all that autobiographical?) about her own family, which are especially poignant in the two stories Of Dogs and Walls.
A mother who hated and feared the outside world as she held her children tight, and who faced that world with disdain, adamant that no one was going to look down on her: that’s who raised me. I grew up tutored in what happened if you trusted outsiders, taught that solitude was the only weapon of defence.
Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman
One of my absolute favourite writers. I have all her books on my bedside table, but there are still one or two of her novels that I haven’t read (because they were out of print for a long while). Now, thanks to the Penguin Classic reprint, I had the opportunity to read this tale of claustrophobia and manipulation, of growing up and trying to fit in.
I remain constantly stunned by how much Shirley Jackson was ‘of her time’, describing the claustrophobic environment for housewives and the limited possibilities for women in the 1950s, and yet how utterly contemporary she still feels in style, at once sly and sinister, detached yet capable of getting fully under your skin and never quite letting you go.
Marlen Haushofer: We Kill Stella
Despite my love of Austrian literature, I only discovered Haushofer last year, when The Wall seemed the perfect companion piece to a pandemic. I have since made an effort to acquire most of her work in German and this novella bears all the hallmarks of her disquieting style, a quietly simmering surface hiding real horrors beneath.
It is incredible how much the author manages to fit into very few pages, how complex the thought processes are, and how much there is to read between the lines. Every word counts with Marlen Haushofer. This is tightrope walking on the very edge of the precipice (or the verge of a mental breakdown) and you keep reading to see just how the narrator can pull it off.
Javier Marias: The Infatuations, transl. Margaret Jull Costa
Another author whose books I instantly acquired upon first discovering him, but never quite got around to reading more. This year I finally cracked open the less intimidating standalone The Infatuations and once more allowed myself to be lulled by that apparently meandering, baroque style.
Marias is a master at playing with the readers, misleading them and then pulling the rug from under their feet. Yet, underneath all that mischief and apparently aimlessly meandering style, there are some very serious questions being asked (and no clear answers being given) about what sort of world we live in – where the strongest and most ruthless seem destined to win – and whether the truth will indeed set us free.
David Peace: Tokyo Redux
The final part in the Tokyo trilogy has been a long time coming, so I simply had to get hold of it as soon as it came out this year. David Peace is a bit of a marmite author – and I have to admit that his style can get occasionally grating at times, with its excessive use of repetitions and oral effects. However, this book is a triumph, striking just the right balance of mystery and self-unravelling, of conspiracy and societal transformation.
You can see how easy it is to mock this style or the solemnity of the author. But he manages to convey a sense of the melancholy complexity and unresolvedness of life which always grips and fascinates me. This is Tokyo in black-and-white film setting, a Kurosawa film with a jazz improv soundtrack, a world-weary Cowboy Bebop space cowboy vibe (it’s hard to believe that David Peace won’t have been influenced by that classic anime), and I have to admit I rather love it and admire his willingness to experiment and go his own path.
Bohumil Hrabal: Too Loud a Solitude, transl. Michael Henry Heim
A slim volume, but containing so many layers, so many ideas that I will no doubt have to reread it many times to fully grasp it. Quite unforgettable, this story of a humble paper-compactor who has learnt so much from the books he is pulping, and whose work is about to become automated.
Much of the action takes place in cellars, underground, there is a lot of dirt and danger, there is even sacrifice, for example the small mice that regularly get compacted together with the paper. But there is also indifference to that sacrifice. The author repeatedly refers to the sewers of Prague, the scene of a senseless war between two armies of rats. He often shows university-educated men who are doing back-breaking manual labour, even refers to them as ‘Prague’s fallen angels… who have lost a battle they never fought’
Now that I see all my favourites in this category listed together, I realise they all have the common theme of the solitary protagonist, often an outsider, a person who is a little uncomfortable with society as it is, who questions things, who is often crushed, but very, very occasionally might rise – maybe not triumphant, but at least surviving.