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!

Six in Six 2020

I saw this on FictionFan’s blog, but it’s a meme started by Jo at The Book Jotter. It’s a pause for reflection at the half year mark:  you select select six categories from the selection Jo provides or create your own categories, and then find six books you’ve read between January and June to fit each category. A great way to procrastinate from either reading, reviewing, writing, translating or working!

 

Six books I have read but not reviewed

Although I loved each of the books below, I somehow didn’t get round to reviewing them – either because I was planning to write something longer and more elaborate, or else because I just lost my reviewing super-power during lockdown.

Francesca Wade: Square Haunting 

Debbie Harry: Face It

Rosamund Lupton: Three Hours

Julian Symons: The Colour of Murder

John Dickson Carr: Castle Skull

 

Six authors I am looking forward to reading more of

Graeme Macrae Burnet – after reading The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, I want to read more of his books, whether set in France or in Scotland.

Ron Rash – although I had mixed feelings about Serena, I certainly want to read more by him and have bought another two of his books

Machado de Assis – a rediscovery

Maggie O’Farrell – I really enjoyed Hamnet but have been told there is much more and better from where that came from

Elizabeth von Arnim – I’ve read her two most famous books a while back, but this year I discovered The Caravaners (which could easily fit into at least two other categories) and I think there’s a lot more there to explore

Marghanita Laski – Little Boy Lost was so captivating and nuanced and sad that I certainly want to read more (I’ve read The Victorian Chaise Longue as well)

 

Six books that I had one or two problems with but am still glad I tried

Carlos Ruis Zafon: Shadow of the Wind – I got about halfway through and didn’t finish it, which makes me feel guilty, since I was reading this as a tribute to him following the news of his death. I think I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I’d read it in my teens, and I seem to remember quite liking Marina, the only other book of his that I’d read. But at least I know now that I haven’t missed anything by not reading more by this author.

Harriet Tyce: Blood Orange – I’d probably not have read it if it hadn’t been the May book for the Virtual Crime Book Club, as the subject matter was quite troubling and the descriptions a little too grotty for my taste. However, it was undeniably a powerful story and led to some good discussions at the book club.

Lily King: Writers and Lovers – I do like books about writers and about entitled male egos, so it was both fun and quite revealing, but just not quite as good as I wanted it to be

Nino Haratischwili: The Eighth Life – I struggled because of the sheer length of it and because family sagas are not really my thing, but it is undeniably ambitious, fascinating and entertaining

Kate Briggs: This Little Art – the only reservation I had about this is that it requires great concentration to read, you need to stop and reflect after every few pages, but I was completely captivated. Masterful!

Yokomizu Seishi: The Inugami Curse – very bizarre and somewhat crazy murders in this country manor mystery set in Japan – but lovely to see And Then There Were None transposed to a Japanese setting. Certainly enjoyed it much more than Shimada’s Murder in the Crooked House

 

Six books that took me on extraordinary journeys

Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man – India (Calcutta) – and the start of a series I really want to explore

Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon – Naples, Italy

Carol Carnac: Crossed Skis – my favourite sport and one of my favourite countries

Ludovic Bruckstein: The Trap – town nestled amidst the Carpathians in Maramures, Romania

Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting – the French Alps

Ueda Akinari: Ugetsu Monogatari – Japan (and ghosts of the past)

 

Six books to read to avoid politics

Nick Bradley: The Cat and the City

Mary Stewart: Airs Above the Ground

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust

David Foenkinos: The Mystery of Henri Pick

Alan Melville: Weekend at Thrackley

Beth Ann Fennelly: Heating & Cooling

 

Six books purchased during lockdown but not yet started

All of the below have been purchased following tweets or reading reviews by fellow book bloggers:

Helon Habila: Travellers

Tshushima Yuko: The Shooting Gallery and other Stories (transl. Geraldine Harcourt)

Luke Brown: Theft

Sylvia Townsend Warner: The Corner That Held Them

Michele Roberts: Negative Capability

Antal Szerb: Journey by Moonlight (transl. Peter V. Czipott)

 

#20BooksofSummer: No.1 – Machado de Assis (transl. John Gledson)

If he had been European, Machado de Assis would undoubtedly be far better known. This 19th century Brazilian writer is completely original: the mixed-race grandson of former slaves, largely self-educated, who ended up receiving honours from the Brazilian Emperor. Yet has something of Balzac and Laurence Sterne, Charles Dickens and Stendhal about him too. He is a keen observer of society and its pretences but is fond of digressing and prevaricating. He creates memorable secondary characters that are almost caricatures, but also proves capable of great psychological insight into his main characters, and his narrators always end up revealing far more than they intend to the reader.

Dom Casmurro (Lord Grumpy might be an approximate translation of the title – and refers to the nickname of the narrator) is often classed as a realist novel, but to me it most resembles Tristram Shandy in its meandering structure and way of addressing the reader directly. Yet, despite the humour, the lasting feeling after finishing the book is melancholy and the sense of a life wasted. Written in the 1890s, the book goes back in time to the 1850s, when Brazil was still dominated by land-owning aristocracy only a step or so removed from Portuguese royalty, with the Catholic Church and senior clergy still supremely influential and all cultural fashions were imported from Europe.

Bento Santiago is the lonely, embittered old man of the title. He has meticulously recreated his childhood home in the centre of Rio somewhere out in the suburbs and in this book he is trying to make sense of the past, although he admits himself that he has a bad memory. But this is precisely what the author intends: to leave gaps for the readers to insert their own experience and make up their own minds.

For everything can be found outside a book with gaps in it, dear reader. Thus I fill in others’ lacunae; in this way too you can fill in mine.

This makes the book feel very fresh and modern. The witty chapter titles and self-deprecating style provide quite a contrast to what we might expect of this narrator who seems quite the old fuddy-duddy at first, seeking answers in his books, and expounding at length on various theories, most notably the famous analogy that life is like an opera, with God writing the libretto, and Satan as the composer.

… there are places where the words go one way, and the music another. There are people who maintain that that is precisely where the beauty of the composition lies, in its avoidance of monotony… Not infrequently, the same situations occur more than once, without sufficient justificiation. Certain motifs, indeed, weary the listener by overmuch repetition. Also, there are passages that are obscure; the composer uses the massed choruses too much, causing confusion and concealing the true meaning. The orchestral parts, however, are treated with great skill. Such is the opinion of impartial observers.

Yet, despite his pedantic, self-important style at times, Bento is also extremely candid with the reader, sharing his worst thoughts and impulses, almost committing public self-flagellation. He also cannot resist drawing our attention to the fact that he is being so honest, as if demanding the readers’ applause. The result can be very funny indeed, as in the chapter entitled Let’s Postpone Virtue:

Few would have the courage to confess that thought I had in the Rua de Matacavalos. I will confess everything of importance to my story… there is only one way of putting one’s essence onto paper, and that is by telling it all, the good and the bad. That is what I am doing, as I remember it and as it fits into the construction or reconstruction of my self. For example, now that I have recounted a sin, I would happily tell the story of some good deed done at that time, if I could remember one, but I can’t; it can wait for a better opportunity.

What I loved most of all about the book is how experimental and unpredictable it is, both in terms of style and of plot. Initially you believe it will be a Romeo and Juliet story, when Bento falls in love with the neighbours’ daughter Capitu, but they are forced apart because Bento’s mother has made a pact with God to make her son a priest if he is born healthy. Despite the young people’s scheming and co-opting of allies, Bento does end up going to the seminary but is saved from priesthood. He gets to marry the love of his life, but ruins his happiness through jealousy. You expect adultery or murder or a messy divorce – something dramatic. But in actual fact it’s Bento’s inner doubts and conflicts that prevent him from living his life to the full.

Dom Casmurro has also been interpreted as an allegory of life during the Brazilian Empire in the mid-nineteenth century, with patriarchal traditions and the dead through the church inculcating its citizens so powerfully that their thoughts remain stuck in the past, although their country is trying desperately to modernise. Bento is an empty vessel, to be filled by the thoughts and wants and desires of others. He has little autonomy, even when he believes he is acting independently.

There is so much more I could say about this book, but above all this: it defies expectations and is a great introduction to his work. It is a classic yet highly experimental, it is wistful, but also highly entertaining and readable, it is unmistakably Brazilian yet miles away from the lush exoticisim and tropicalia we see in Jorge Amado, for examploe. I read John Gledson’s translation published by the Oxford University Press.

Machado de Assis was always subtly subversive but seldom openly political in his writing. I’ve previously read a couple of his short story collections. A new translation of another of his books The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Flora Thomson-Deveaux has just been launched and I don’t know if I’ll be able to resist it.