Best of the Year Books (Classics and Non-Fiction)

Perhaps it says something that many of my most memorable classics were read as part of my ‘geographical exploration’ challenges: either the #EU27Project or the One Country per Month option. The non-fiction books appeared as additional reading for many of my fictional interests this past year, although Deborah Levy’s Cost of Living was recommended by somebody on Twitter.

Two of the books (Montaigne and Travellers in the Third Reich) were library loans, but the rest are here.

Classics:

Ramuz: Beauty on Earth, transl. Michelle Bailat-Jones – reads like a long prose-poem, with all the looming menace of a devastating storm about to break out

Strugatsky Brothers – started off with the story Monday Starts on Saturday, transl. Andrew Bromfield, dripping with sarcasm and surrealism, then the book Roadside Picnic, transl. Olena Bormashenko, which formed the basis for that strange Tarkovsky film Stalker

Miklos Banffy, transl. Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Banffy-Jelen – I started the first in the Transylvanian trilogy back in 2018 and then couldn’t wait to get back to that lost world, recreated with all its magic but also its flaws

Mihail Sebastian: For Two Thousand Years – memorable fictionalised account of living as a Jew in Romania in the period between the two world wars

Eileen Chang: Lust, Caution – a book of stories with several translators; the title story a particular standout tale of love, politics, self-interest and betrayal

Dorothy Whipple: Someone at a Distance – my first Persephone and a truly heartbreaking story of a dying marriage

Elizabeth Jenkins: The Tortoise and the Hare – highly recommended by everyone who had read it. I thought that this additional story of betrayal and loss in a marriage would kill me off completely, but it was exquisitely written, so well observed

Non-Fiction:

Sarah Bakewell: How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and 20 Attempts at an Answer – really made Montaigne come to life for me and ignited my interest in his essays and philosophy

Deborah Levy: The Cost of Living – rediscovering your self and your creativity after marital breakdown, the right book at the right time

Julia Boyd: Travellers in the Third Reich – wonderful collection of contemporary narratives from those travelling in the Weimar Republic and early years of Nazi power, demonstrating how easy it is to believe in propaganda

Mihail Sebastian: Journal – even more heartbreaking than his novel, his diary describes life just before and during WW2 in Bucharest, and the compromises and excuses his friends make in order to survive

Rupert Christiansen: Paris Babylon – very readable account of the lead-up to the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune, in which the city of Paris becomes a main character in all its infuriating, incomprehensible beauty and chaos

The Tortoise and the Hare

A quick break from Brazilians in August. Several of my bookish friends had recommended the delightful Backlisted Podcast episode on The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, with special guest Carmen Callil of Virago fame. I listened, was instantly smitten and spent some time searching for the book online, although I had no intention of reading it soon. The subject matter, I thought, might be a bit too painful.

However, when I saw it arrive in the post, I told myself that I had recently read Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance, after all, which tells a very similar story. So I plunged in and just couldn’t stop reading.

Elizabeth Jenkins has that wonderful and all too rare quality of being able to write the perfect sentence or turn of phrase. That economical yet very densely packed style, that you need to read several times in order to fully appreciate. Her wry observational skills remind me of Jane Austen: this is what Jane Austen might have been writing if she had lived in the 1950s. (It’s not surprising to find out that Elizabeth Jenkins wrote a biography of Austen.)

It is an all too familiar story of the unravelling of a seemingly content marriage as the husband is attracted to someone else. For most of the book we might think of the conventionally pretty, extremely feminine people-pleaser Imogen as the hare, while the older, eccentric-looking, badly dressed and rather masculine Blanche is the tortoise who wins the race (i.e. the man) in the end. However, given that the man is the appallingly self-centred, self-satisfied and endlessly self-justificatory Evelyn Gresham, you may decide that Imogen is well rid of him and that Blanche is no winner after all.

Evelyn is that class of Englishman that you can still encounter at Oxbridge, active in politics or law or medicine, convinced that they are always right and that the world should be their oyster. Imogen at first glance may appear annoying in her passivity. I thought I would not get along with her at all, she is so very different to me: brought up to rely on her looks and social skills, no preoccupations other than being a wife and mother, so very keen to be of service to others, a bit dreamy, a bit too romantic. Yet somehow, the author manages to make you care desperately about her, although avoiding melodrama. Imogen has quite good psychological insights into other people, can sense when they are hurting or indifferent, but seems blind to the dangers in her own marriage. I could relate though to her avoidance of conflict, of being thought a nag, in her relationship with both her husband and her son.

The inevitable descent into divorce is so gradual and so unflinchingly described, it makes for some very painful reading. But what really broke me was Imogen’s realisation that her son Gavin is a mini-version of his father and that she has completely lost him a long while ago. Yet even there, the author gives us a hint that Gavin will not remain unmarked by his parents’ marriage breakdown.

Such a subtle, emotionally wrenching novel! It has given me an appetite to read more of the English classics of the 1930s-1950s. I might do a month of that when I do my geographical tours. After all, ‘the past is a different country’, isn’t it?

Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – the Classics

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I inherited some of these classics in cheap editions from my parents, who felt they had to provide me with a good selection of English-language classics, but couldn’t afford to spend too much money on them. They hadn’t necessarily read them themselves (hence the faux pas in allowing me to read Tom Jones and Moll Flanders at the tender age of 11 or so). I steadily added to them, and not just because I studied English literature. They are still books where I can find solace and fun again and again. Most of them are very well known, no obscurities here, so I shall instead highlight three of my favourites, and it was hard to keep it to just three. I also wanted to include Daphne du Maurier, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford, Oscar Wilde…

Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays

Marlowe is a fascinating and mysterious character in his own right, and this has led to a renewed interest in his plays. But he was also a very talented writer, a real poet, and who knows how he might have developed if he had not been killed at such an early age. Tamburlaine should be performed nowadays, because it offers an alternative discourse to the Christian tradition. For all of Tamburlaine’s failings as a human, for all of his tyrannical tendencies, he is also presented as a figure to inspire admiration. He becomes wiser and more inspirational in death than he ever was in life. Meanwhile, Doctor Faustus is full of compassion for a man’s self-delusion and flaws: in his pursuit of absolute beauty and knowledge, Faustus hurts himself above all. Talk about unlikeable characters, and yet making the audience empathise with them!

Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy

The most eccentric, wildly experimental, iconoclastic novel of all times, it just breaks all the rules and gets away with it with humour and brilliant characterisation. Who can resist the bumbling good-hearted charm of Uncle Toby? Or the pedantic and stubborn Mr Shandy who picks up an opinion as a man might pick up an apple, it becomes his own, and he would rather lose his life than give it up? Who can forget the scene when Tristram’s mother reminds her husband to wind up the clock at a crucial moment? It is not a book for everyone. Parts of it are frustrating, repetitive and dull. Some are an absolute riot. It’s not a book to read all in one sitting. It’s made for dipping in and out, for going off on a tangent, for experiencing the sheer joy and exuberance of language and storytelling. Let me try and reproduce one of my favourite parts, the beginning of Chapter XL, in which the narrator describes his storytelling style.

The Portable Dorothy Parker

Although she is much quoted for her mordant wit (and this Viking Portable edition of her works has never been out of print), I can’t help feeling that Dorothy Parker is underestimated. She is not just facile poetry and satire, just like Jane Austen is not proto-chick lit. Her life and her circle of rather second-rate but very sociable writers have overshadowed her literary accomplishments. Her poetry is minx-like and acerbic, and can feel a little dated nowadays, although it’s what she is best remembered for (and her dismissive, corrosive reviews of plays and books). But in her short stories she can take off her plastic mask and display real emotions, all the fragility of life and love. Her frantic soliloquies like The Telephone Call  or The Little Hours will be instantly recognisable to those who have waited for a lover to call or struggled with insomnia. They sound wholly natural, like the unfiltered blog posts of today, but are in fact much harder to do than it looks. Not a word is out of place. And then there is the heartbreaking, unsentimental drama of The Lovely Leave or Big Blonde. She takes the smallest of canvases, and paints all our fears of mortality and of being alone and unloved.