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?