Books: My Reading Year

woolf

No reading year that begins with Virginia Woolf (as did 2016) and ends with Katherine Mansfield can be construed as bad. Nor was it, though I found myself – and this, as I’ve suggested before, may be a function of ageing – spending more time with and deriving more pleasure from books from earlier days than those published during the year.

Having started the year with Lawrence and ‘Sons and Lovers’, I moved on to Woolf and, accompanied by the first volume of her diaries and Julia Brigg’s excellent survey of her life and work, reread, with much pleasure and admiration, ‘Mrs Dalloway’, ‘To The Lighthouse’, ‘The Waves’ and ‘The Years’ together with, for the first time, ‘Night and Day’. Looking for something, to my mind, equally good but different, I moved on to Hemingway. Well, I was about to start writing a novel and in need of something bracing that moved to a different set of rhythms, one more suitable for my purposes. So, before setting out, I reread for the umpteenth time a generous selection of the short stories, followed by ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. And as I was hovering over chapter one, and thinking to prosper from his excellent example, I read again Peter Temple’s ‘The Broken Shore’ and ‘Truth’, in order to remind myself of the tautness, tension and sense of purpose that can be found in the very best of crime fiction.

Once safely ensconced in front of my computer in the mornings, my novel on course and moving along at a not unreasonble rate, I turned to Graham Greene for the sheer pleasure of good stories well told. ‘The Human Factor’ (under-rated), ‘The Heart of the Matter’ (a tad over-rated?), ‘The Comedians’ and, best of all, ‘The Quiet American’. Later in the year, I read, for the first time – what had I been doing? – Elizabeth Bowen (loved ‘The House in Paris’) and some Willa Cather I’d not yet got around to, ‘Alexander’s Bridge’, ‘The Professor’s House’ and ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop’. And yes, okay, in between all of this harking back I was reading newer things, trying and, all too often, finding them lacking. Tired and obvious in some cases, trying too hard in others. I had been knocked sideways by much of Eimar McBride’s first novel, ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’, scenes from which are vivid to me still, but didn’t finish ‘The Lesser Bohemians’, in which she managed to make the sexual dalliances and excessive drinking of a young drama student living in Camden about as repetitive and uninteresting (to others) as, looking back, they probably were at the time. As for George Saunder’s much-touted and prize winning ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ – even for a writer, one of whose fortes is being experimental and clever (and who, especially when he forgets to be both of those things, has written some of the best short stories of the past decade or two) – it was too tricksy and clever by half. Unreadable.

I must have liked something. Well, yes. Woody Haut’s novel, ‘Days of Smoke’, was fascinating in the detailed and knowledgeable way it recreated the cultural and politcial turbulence of San Francisco and L.A. in the late 60s, and Henning Mankel’s ‘After the Fire’ dealt tellingly with issues of ageing and mortality that, to some of us, are becoming increasingly relevant. Jane Harper’s CWA Gold Dagger winning, ‘The Dry’, was compelling and believable until she felt the need to pull a plot twist out of nowhere towards the end, which lost my sympathies but clearly not that of the judges.

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Almost more than any other, I enjoyed and admired Ann Patchett’s ‘Commonwealth’, a skilfully crafted and in some ways old-fashioned novel, which follows the connections and disconnections of two American families from the 60s to the present, and which I found totally absorbing. I also very much liked two of the novels that were short listed for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize: Sarah Baume’s ‘A Line Made By Walking’, which traces a young woman’s deliberate retreat into solitude in prose that is clear and direct yet evocative and moving; and Jon McGregor’s ‘Reservoir 13’, which is set in a Derbyshire village where a teenage girl has gone missing.

Res 13

McGregor is one of my favourite contemporary writers and three of his books – ’So Many Ways to Begin’, ‘Even the Dogs’ & ‘This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You’ – are amongst my favourites of the past twenty or so years. I read ‘Reservoir 13’ the moment I got my hands on a copy and then, almost without a break, read it again, the second time to remind myself of what I’d liked, but also because I was hoping to find whatever it was I’d been missing – not the facts about whatever happened to the missing girl, I didn’t need that, nor did I read with an expectation the mystery would be solved; what I’d missed was more about her family, more about the people of the village – in exchange for which I would quite happily have settled for less about the cyclical life of bats, birds and the bloody foxes.

Much of what I wanted is there in the fifteen short stories of ‘The Reservoir Tapes’ that are currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and are available both as a download and, now, a book. If, instead of being issued as a companion piece, all – or most – of that material had been included in the original novel, I think it would have been a more complete and satisfying work. But even as I write this, I know (or think I know) that kind of completeness is not what McGregor is after in ‘Reservoir 13’, what he’s setting out to achieve; this is more a narrative that darts its way in and out, giving us a moment here, a moment there; a voice raised, a sudden sharpened glance; a mosaic from which we build our portrait of these lives. And the writing, the prose is so skillfully handled; like Sarah Baume’s in some regards, it is delicate but strong. Push it and it may bend but not break.

And next year, once I’ve finished rereading Katherine Mansfield’s excellent short stories for the fourth or fifth time … ? Well, with the gorgeous new Vintage Classics editions to hand, all with beautiful covers created by Aino-Maija Metsola, it may be the third year in succession I turn to Virginia Woolf to begin …

Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

Dalloway

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Pond

As I’ve recounted elsewhere (a tweet, I think) the first thing that made me think I should read Claire-Louise Bennett’s short story collection, Pond, was the strong recommendation it received from a barista in the Rathbone Place branch of TAP Coffee, where I’d take refuge so as to fill in time before the first day of auditions for the Nottingham Playhouse production of Darkness, Darkness, which I’d adapted from my own novel, and which were to take place in the basement of the American Free Church nearby. There I was, sitting patiently waiting for my flat white (think New Zealand time) and reading Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, when the barista interrupted herself from her task long enough to call across, “That was the best book I read the whole of last year.” After which, while I was still waiting for my flat white, she further said, “If you like that, you should read Pond.” And I thought she said Pound and was about to say I didn’t think so (my good friend Tom had recommended Pound to me when we were both at Goldsmiths, many years ago – the ABC of Reading, if I remember correctly – and I hadn’t really got on with it, though of course I would never have admitted it at the time) but then I realised she had said Pond and not Pound, at least that’s what I now thought, so,  to be sure, I asked her again and wrote the correct title down in the back of my notebook before leaving.

The book, when I came across it a few days later, face out on the shelf in Foyles (the Charing Cross Road branch) made me want to pick it up immediately, and I would, in all probability, have done so even without the earlier recommendation, it looked so perfect. White text on a strong and plain blue background, just the title and the author’s name and the name of the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions. Great job, Fitzcarraldo! Just to be sure, I checked with the guy who works in the fiction section who’d previously recommended Lucia Berlin, and whose judgement could therefore be trusted, and when he gave it the thumbs up, without further hesitation, I bought it.

You know how sometimes you start on something you’ve been really looking forward to, the spaghetti vongole your partner has been labouring over in the kitchen, for instance, or an old and lovingly remembered episode of Homicide or Hill St.Blues, and almost immediately doubts appear? Well, I have to say, that happened here. After three weighty quotes in the frontispiece, one from Nietzsche, the first story, “Voyage in the Dark”,  just over half a page long, seemed worryingly precious and rather transparently ‘meaningful’, and I had the kind of feeling I used to get stepping into the rooms at Tate Britain showing the work of that year’s Turner Prize nominees, namely, Oh shit I ought to like this or, at the very least, I ought to defend the right of others to like it, but then, mercifully, and before that thought could be fully formed or acted upon, I turned the page to the second story, “Morning, Noon and Night”, which begins …

Sometime a banana with coffee is nice. It ought not to be too ripe – in fact there should be a definite remainder of green along the stalk, and if there isn’t, forget about it. Though admittedly that is easier said than done. Apples can be forgotten about, but not bananas, not really. They don’t in fact take all that well to being forgotten about. They wizen and stink of putrid and go almost black.

Oatcakes along with it can be nice, the rough sort.

And so it goes for eighteen pages, expanding its focus outwards and inwards from bowls strategically placed on the window sill to display aubergines and squash, and some more discussion of the possibilities of breakfast, to the place where she now lives, the place where she used to live, her interest in and aversion to gardening of various kinds,  baths, the language of love and her relationship, hinted at, with a man who may (or may not) live close by, finally settling for a detailed description of the stone cottage, in the kitchen of which she’s standing, chopping walnuts. All in prose that could seem long-winded and unnecessarily tortuous if it weren’t for the fact that you can read it aloud almost at first sight without ever stumbling, so well-judged is it in its balance, its distinctive rhythms and repetitions.

As the man from Foyles said, it doesn’t always work but when it does …

The stories centre around the narrator living on her own in a fairly remote stone cottage which I venture to guess from the weather is somewhere on the west coast of Ireland. She’s on her own, but not quite on her own; there seems to be at least one gentleman caller, though sometimes she calls on him (them?) and returns with her knickers worn inside out over her tights. As the blurb writer puts it nicely on the back jacket, she is “captivated by the stellar charms of seclusion but restless with desire.”

I’m tempted to say Bennett’s  method in these stories and, to a lesser extent, the style, remind me of Virginia Woolf (or Katherine Mansfield?) filtered through a contemporary sensibility, the internal thought – contradiction on contradiction – held steady by a precise description of the everyday that is so detailed and yet, somehow, shifting, that it verges on the surreal.

As the barista might say, it’s the best book I’ve read so far the year.

Pond