Best Books of 2020 Part 1

Rather than focusing only on what’s new, I thought I would begin my books of 2020 with those older volumes which had stood out for me this year. (As I haven’t yet decided the winner of the missing Independent Foreign Fiction Prize of 1996, I have excluded the long-listed books from this category).

My one year sprint through all of Muriel Spark’s novels has turned into a three year marathon, but, in further vindication of continuing, I found it difficult to select which of her later novels I had most enjoyed. In the end I decided on Symposium, her dinner party novel, where an exquisite layer of social satire lies above robbery and murder, which, in turn, rests on madness and hints of satanic influence – Jane Austen via Dennis Wheatley. Its best line is perhaps the suggestion that the vows of marriage, made under the influence of love, are “like confessions obtained under torture.”

Of contrasting tone, Agota Kristof’s Yesterday (translated by David Watson) is a bleak vision of grinding poverty, both in childhood and adulthood. “The full horror of my present life stares me in the face,” is a fair summary of much of it. The narrator works in a factory, the kind of occupation which so rarely features in literature. Focusing particularly on the immigrant community, it briefly suggests the possibility of redemption before dashing the narrator’s, and the reader’s, hopes. Not for the faint-heated, but unforgettable.

My great discovery, in terms of older writers, this year has been Marguerite Yourcenar. A Coin in Nine Hands uses the composition classic (‘imagine a day in the life of a penny’) to paint a portrait of fascist Italy. The plot revolves around a failed assassination attempt but the real joy is in the extensive cast of characters who flit in and out of each other’s stories. Each one is like a disparate note which together play an increasingly melancholy tune.

Another unexpected surprise was Antonio de Benedetto’s Zama, translated by Esther Allen; unexpected not because it isn’t widely regarded as a classic of Latin American literature, but because I hadn’t expected it to be so entertaining. The catalyst for its energy and verve is the unlikeable narrator – arrogant, short-tempered, unfeeling – who somehow wins the reader’s sympathy by the final pages of what turns out to be his tragic life. As with many tragic figures, he owns his faults regardless of his circumstances, winning our reluctant admiration.

Finally (and not yet reviewed) Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes proved to be all that others had claimed, superficially charming but with a dark interior. Full of wonderfully quotable lines (“Wherever she strayed the hills folded themselves about her like the fingers of a hand”), the novel is both the flower and the serpent under it. Its author may well become the Muriel Spark of 2021.

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15 Responses to “Best Books of 2020 Part 1”

  1. lauratfrey Says:

    Ive also had Lolly Willows recommended so many times, I really must get to it! These all sound great and I love the idea of posting about old books.

    • 1streading Says:

      When I casually tweeted that Penguin Classics were publishing lots of Townsend Warner’s books the response I got rather astonished me – she is clearly much loved.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s so wonderful to see Lolly Willowes getting a mention here – undoubtedly one of my favourite reads in recent years. The manner in which Lolly breaks free of the constraints of her family is a joy to observe. Plus, I admit to being rather tempted by the Yourcenar. It could be an a good fit for Women in Translation month, if we’re all still here next year…

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Oh, and I love your description of the Spark! “Her dinner party novel, where an exquisite layer of social satire lies above robbery and murder, which, in turn, rests on madness and hints of satanic influence – Jane Austen via Dennis Wheatley.” That’s inspired! It’s a novella that has really stayed with me, more so than others I experienced around the same time.

  4. Radz Pandit Says:

    Great list of books! I read Lolly Willowes too earlier this year and really liked it. I loved how it started off as a seemingly gentle novel only to become something very different around the midway mark. I am slowly making my way through the Spark novels and plan to read Symposium next. It does look rather good. Looking forward to Part 2.

  5. heavenali Says:

    Symposium is one of my favourite Spark novels, it’s so brilliantly layered. Delighted you enjoyed Lolly Willowes so much I loved it both times I read it.

  6. Cathy746books Says:

    Very keen to read Symposium. Have been catching up with quite a few Sparks over the last few years and have really enjoyed them all

  7. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Interesting choices! Glad to see the Sparl there – it’s one I haven’t read yet and it sounds delicious!

  8. banff1972 Says:

    Terrific post, Grant. I’m most curious about Yourcenar. Have you read her memoir?

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