I have read over 150 books this year, and there is no way I am going to be able to select just ten for a ‘Best Of’ list, especially since I enjoy so many different genres of books. So I will break my list down into categories (some might call it cheating, but I call it ‘very organised’). The first category is one that I haven’t had much track with over the past few years. I have been too busy reading newly discovered authors or recently published books, and have sighed sentimentally about how much I would love to reread old favourites… but then done very little about it.
This year, however, I fell down a bit of a rabbit hole with rereading for January in Japan… and that tendency has continued throughout the year.It has convinced me that I should do a lot more rereading every year, because they are amongst the best, most memorable reads. I reread some other works this year (Arthur Schnitzler plays and novellas, Horvath’s and Noel Coward’s plays, Gogol’s short stories) and they were all very much worth the while. However, the five below were the ones that gave me the most joy.
Dazai Osamu: No Longer Human
I fell in love with Dazai Osamu’s prose ever since I read my first short story by him as a student of Japanese, painfully having to translate every third word with a dictionary or trying to figure out some obscure kanji. I started out the month by rereading his final, possibly greatest novel in a new translation, but then couldn’t resist continuing with a reread of several of his ‘first person stories‘ – often described as memoirs, but that is a slippery concept with this author. This also tempted me to reread another of my favourites when I was a student, a book that fits in well with Dazai Osamu’s outsiders: Yukio Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
How can actual, real-life beauty ever live up to the beauty in our imaginations? Are the creation and destruction of beauty our only possible responses to an indifferent, cruel world? Does the artist have to sacrifice everything for the sake of beauty – is that the only thing that gives art authenticity? Can we ever really understand and fully appreciate beauty until we feel its loss? And doesn’t darkness or ugliness make the beauty stand out all the more?
Virginia Woolf: To the Lighthouse
While I have always been a Virginia Woolf fan, in my youth I had never completely warmed to her most famous novel To the Lighthouse. Perhaps you need to be of a certain age to appreciate the passing of time more? This time I learnt to appreciate its subtlety in characterisation and its wonderful lyricism – it really is a masterpiece!
Liviu Rebreanu: Ciuleandra
This novella about murderous jealousy, social privilege, class difference, guilt and psychological breakdown is now available in English thanks to the work of Gabi Reigh. This time I was much less interested in the ‘love story’ and far more observant of the social critique.
Ionel Teodoreanu: La Medeleni
This was pure self-indulgent nostalgia, rereading a family saga that had been a childhood favourite, after I had finished the Cazalet Chronicles.
It is almost impossible to overstate how much of an influence the Medeleni trilogy had on our childhood in 1980s Romania, although it was a book published in the early 1920s, depicting a period just before and just after the First World War (without actually talking much about that war at all). Maybe we were starved of nostalgic, escapist types of literature and depictions of children who could be lively, naughty, rebellious. Maybe we were just at that blushingly adolescent stage of writing bad poetry and falling in love with the wrong people. For me, as for many others of my age, it must have been the casual acceptance of travelling, living and studying abroad presented in the book, and the openness to foreign languages, literature and music, at a time when we were forcibly cut off from the rest of the world.
However, I was far more critical of the author’s stylistic shortcomings this time round, as I make clear in the second post devoted to the saga.
The problem is that the book tries to be too many things at once. It is a family saga as well as a Bildungsroman, it is also an opportunity for the author to air his opinions about literature, art and music, or the shortcomings of politics and the justice system. There are far too many tangential topics thrown in, which have little bearing on the main story or even in conferring depth upon certain characters, such as the first case Dan has to defend as a lawyer (a controversial case of incest). It might be interesting (if uncomfortable from a contemporary woman’s perspective), but it just goes on for far too long. Same with the endless excerpts of ‘prose poetry’ from Dan’s notebooks. Stop, we get it, no need to insist…