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

Too Close for Comfort: Three Quick Reviews

All three of these recently read books were a little too close to home for me: on a personal, social or political level. Absolutely compelling reading, although each one required some coffee and cake or deep breathing breaks.

Rodrigo de Souza Leao: All Dogs are Blue (transl. Zoe Perry and Stefan Tobler)

This was part of my Brazilians in August personal challenge, the only man who sneaked onto my list of Brazilian authors in translation. Much like Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, it gives you an insight into what it must feel like to be deeply depressed, paranoid and schizophrenic. Regardless of diagnostic, the morbidly obese narrator finds himself in an asylum in Rio. He believes he has swallowed a chip that makes him behave out of character and do things he doesn’t want to do. His descriptions of life both inside and outside the asylum, in all its madcap noise and grossness, are hilarious. Knowing that the author himself suffered from mental health problems and died at a young age, soon after the publication of this book, gives a bitter edge to the comedy. It is the black humour of despair, and it’s not surprising that his chosen fantasy chums are Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

To read this book is to abandon yourself to its rhythm and let its waves overpower you. It’s not a pleasant experience, it tosses you about and can feel like drowning at times.

I swallowed a chip. I swallowed a cricket. What else is left to devour in this world? Carnival only wears the colours of short-lived happiness. Dealing with lunatics or with normal people: what’s the difference? What is reality? How many pieces of wood do you need to make that canoe? How many mortars do you need to sink that boat?

But Souza Leao is very clever and also has a poet’s felicity of expression: he tosses a throwaway line into the mix that you simply have to stop and wonder over.

I left the hotel and went to the bus station. I was possessed by a fertile spirit of modern madness, one that had helped twentieth-century poetry many times and had put contemporary literature in its rightful place. My persecution complex had reached the pinnacle of its glory.

Deborah Levy: The Cost of Living

At the age of fifty, Levy leaves her marriage and makes a new life for herself and her children. This slim volume is the story of her reinvention, a sort of ‘swimming home’, finding herself and her purpose, while also dealing with the irritating, intractable, unforgiving day to day. As a woman, mother and writer who is struggling with many of the same things, it has simply meant so much to me. It’s a book I’ve filled up with post-its and shall be returning to again and again. It is also very insightful into gender relations and often feels like she has been inhabiting my head and heart. Here are just a few favourite quotes:

At first I wasn’t sure I’d make it back to the boat and then I realized I didn’t want to make it back to the boat. Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want. If we don’t believe in the future we are planning, the house we are mortgaged to, the person who sleeps by our side, it is possible that a tempest (long lurking in the clouds) might bring us closer to how we want to be in the world.

I will never stop grieving for my long-held wish for enduring love that does not reduce its major players to something less than they are. I am not sure I have often witnessed love that achieves all of these things, so perhaps this ideal is fated to be phantom.

To strip the wallpaper off the fairy tale of The Family House in which the comfort and happiness of men and children have been the priority is to find behind it an unthanked, unloved, neglected, exhausted woman.

Did I mock the dreamer in my mother and then mock her for having no dreams? As the vintage story goes, it is the father who is the hero and the dreamer. He detaches himself from the pitiful needs of his women and children and strides out into the world to do his thing. He is expected to be himself. When he returns to the home that our mothers have made for us… he tells us some of what he has seen in his world. We give him an edited version of the living we do every day. Our mothers live with us in this living and we blame her for everything because she is near by.

Sinclair Lewis: It Can’t Happen Here

A late entry to my Americans in June challenge. Moving from the personal and gendered to the more purely political, this book is just as painful as the other two. It was written in 1935 as a satire and a warning against the rise of populists and tyrants like Hitler and Stalin in what must have seemed very frightening end of world times. (Hence the rise of dystopian fiction during that period, so similar to our own.)

A narcissistic, rude, almost illiterate, anti-immigrant, fear-mongering demagogue Buzz Windrip promises to make America proud and prosperous once more and wins the presidential election. The results are predictable but even more dire than the peace-loving newspaper editor Doremus Jessup had feared. His original ‘wait and see’ policy, the complacency of the ‘it can’t happen here’ type of those around him soon leads to the regime slipping ever more deeply into disturbing authoritarianism.

At first, Doremus and his family seem comfortable and protected, nobody seems to share his discomfort at the election of Buzz as president, and he has a bit of tantrum-ridden stomping off ‘fine then, don’t listen to me’ attitude that I can understand all too well.

All right. Hell with this country, if it’s like that. All these years I’ve worked – and I never did want to be on all these committees and boards and charity drives! – and don’t they look silly now! What I always wanted to do was to sneak off to an ivory tower – or anyway, celluloid, imitation ivory – and read everything I’ve been too busy to read.

But soon things go beyond a joke and beyond mere discomfort. There is no more sitting on the fence or ignoring the way the country is heading. It’s no longer about compromise and self-censorship, very soon it turns into attempting to escape, being tortured and even killed.

Interestingly enough, Buzz is a Democrat and originally runs on a socialist platform, showing that any ideology can be taken to extremes and abused. An absolutely chilling novel, sadly possibly more topical now than at any other time since the Second World War.