Archive for the ‘Books of the Year’ Category

Books of the Year 2021 Part 3

December 30, 2021

Finally, here are some newer books in translation which impressed me this year.

Dog Island by Philippe Claudel

Philippe Claudel is no stranger to either the crime genre (see Broderick’s Report) or the issue of immigration (Monsieur Linh and his Child), and in Dog Island (translated by Euan Cameron) he combines genre and theme in a tale which also has the same fable-like qualities of his work in general. The novel begins when three bodies are washed up onto Dog Island. The Mayor’s immediate instinct is to cover up the discovery, particularly as the publicity will not aid his attempts to increase tourism on the island, and the bodies are placed in cold storage. When a stranger arrives on the island, however, it is immediately assumed he is a policeman sent to investigate the deaths.  In this way, the novel cleverly explores Europe’s attitudes to immigration: at best, an inconvenience, at worst, a threat.

The Employees by Olga Ravn

Olga Ravn’s The Employees (translated by Martin Aitken) was a surprise (and surprisingly popular) inclusion on the International Booker long list. Set on a spaceship which has left Earth in search of new planets to colonise, it takes the form of a series of witness statements. The investigation is the result of a crisis on board precipitated by the arrival of alien objects which are never fully described. This has somehow unsettled the crew, some of whom are human while others are ‘humanoid’ – and so we very quickly find ourselves questioning what it is to be human. Ravn joins the ranks of those writers who have used the science fiction genre to its fullest extent, both in form and content.

Elena Knows by Claudia Pineiro

As usual, Charco Press delivered many fine books in 2021, but my favourite (at least, at this particular moment) was Claudia Pineiro’s Elena Knows (translated by Frances Riddle). It provides another example of a writer using genre fiction to do something remarkable. In it, the elderly – and rather bad-tempered – narrator, Elena, investigates the death of her daughter, Rita, which she refuses to believe was suicide. In order to do so she must overcome the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, timing her intake of medicine to allow her to function sufficiently to make the visit she believes will help her. As the novel progresses, we begin to suspect a crime of a different sort has taken place.

Winter Flowers by Angelique Villeneuve

Peirene Press is another publisher with an excellent track record, and in 2021 they published the moving Winter Flowers by Angelique Villeneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter). Unexpectedly, it adds something new to the genre of First World War fiction by focusing on both the fate of those soldiers who were badly disfigured and on those women on the home front in France. At its heart, however, it is a love story, as Jeanne and Toussaint attempt to find each other again after years apart. That Toussaint has been changed by the war is obvious from his badly damaged face, but Jeanne, too, has been altered by the struggle to survive alone with her young daughter. As we wonder whether they can love again, we confront society’s reaction to those it sent to war.

Winter Stories by Ingvild Rishoi

Ingvild Rishoi’s only book to have been translated into English (by Diane Oatley), Winter Stories is a collection of three breath-taking stories. Each one features a character at breaking point. In the first, a mother’s poverty causes her shame in the face of the innocence and goodness of her five-year-old daughter. In the second a man, newly released from prison, hopes he can develop a relationship with his son. And, in the third, a sister, threatened with the loss of her siblings, goes on the run. Each story captures perfectly the experience of those who don’t feel they are good enough, but each one also offers up an act of kindness, a glimmer of hope in a cold season.

Books of the Year 2021 Part 2

December 28, 2021

For the second part of my ‘Books of the Year’, here are some older books I discovered for the first time:

The Ruined Map by Kobo Abe

I have always had a soft spot for novels which take the crime genre as a starting point but soon divert to somewhere similar but different – an uncanny valley, if you like, of genre expectations. No surprise, then, that Kobo Abe’s The Ruined Map (translated by E Dale Saunders) was one of my favourite novels of the year. It begins like a traditional noir with our narrator hired to find a missing husband; however even his client is an unreliable informant in a novel where every character is difficult to pin down and so-called ‘clues’ only introduce further ambiguity. That our detective is undergoing his own existential crisis adds to the uncertainty, and the unreliability of the maps suggests a more profound difficulty in fixing reality. Highly recommended.

The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen

Another Penguin Modern Classic reissue, Tove Ditlevsen’s The Faces (translated by Tiina Nunnally) was originally published in 1968 (only a year after The Ruined Map). Presumably at least partly autobiographical, it tells the story of a writer, Lise, whose success leads to a breakdown where she comes to distrust all those around her. Ditlevsen’s skill lies in the initial plausibility of Lise’s fears, and the convincing perspective she presents throughout, particularly when she is eventually hospitalised. Rather than the fragmentation or incoherence sometimes adopted by writers to show madness, Ditlevsen presents a frighteningly rational irrationality.

Garden by The Sea by Merces Rodereda

Like Ditlevesen, Merce Rodoreda is a writer who really should have had more recognition in English. Garden by the Sea (originally published in 1967) is gentler than some of her other novels thanks, in part, to the character of its narrator, a gardener at a summer villa belonging to a wealthy couple. Rather than search for a story to tell he allows the story to come to him, and in this way Rodoreda explores the lives of the rich. From this distance we see that the ways in which they indulge themselves – including the drunken parties which damage the garden – are often a distraction from unhappiness and compare poorly to the joy the narrator finds in his garden.

Forty Lost Years by Rosa Maria Aquimbau

A second Catalan novel which impressed me this year was Rosa Maria Aquimbau’s Forty Lost Years (translated by Peter Bush), originally published in 1971 but beginning with the declaration of the Catalan Republic in 1931. The central character is Laura Vidal, a seamstress from a poor family, who is fourteen years old at this point. In the course of the novel, she becomes a successful businesswoman, the novel’s title suggesting (or at least asking the question) whether she has lost out on love in order to achieve this. The skill with which Aquimbau covers forty years of history as well as Laura’s own personal journey, in only 140 pages is remarkable.

Pigeons on the Grass by Wolfgang Koeppen

Although I had already read Wolfgang Koeppen’s first novel, A Sad Affair, I wasn’t prepared for the brilliance of his third (the second has never been translated into English) published 17 years later, Pigeons on the Grass (which benefitted from a new translation from Michael Hofmann in 2020). In the tradition of Ulysses or Berlin Alexanderplatz (but shorter) it provides us with a portrait of Munich shortly after the end of the Second World War. What makes it particularly daring is the lack of any central character for the reader to identify with, but the complexities of its structure are over-ridden by the vibrancy of its prose.

Books of the Year 2021 Part 1

December 26, 2021

Although I mainly read translated fiction, this doesn’t mean I entirely avoid contemporary novels in English (though it would be fair to say I haven’t read a wide selection). Here are five of the best I read this year:

Real Estate by Deborah Levy

The third volume in Deborah Levy’s autobiographical trilogy is not only another valuable meditation on what it means to be a (female) writer, but also a though-provoking examination of growing older, a moment of reassessment. Levy uses her biographical ‘character’ as a metaphor for her own ‘character’ development: in writing herself she considers the self she wants to write. Similarly, she uses the practicalities of life – here focusing on the simple question, where is home? – to look more deeply into the choices we have and the decisions we make. Her rebirth as a writer since Swimming Home has been a pleasure to see.

Panenka by Ronan Hession

Leonard and Hungry Paul was such a runaway word-of-mouth success that I greeted Panenka with a little trepidation. Yet, few writers can write about ordinary life as well as Ronan Hession. Here, retired footballer Joseph is at something of a crossroads in his life, but does he have the courage to both face up to his mortality and to love again? Hession’s novels are filled with sly humour, yet the laughter is never directed downwards at his characters. Not only do we find ourselves on Joseph’s side, but on that of his daughter, and even of the regulars at Vincent’s pub. Every adjective we apply to Hession’s fiction – likeable, heart-felt, hopeful – may seem like faint praise but the sincerity of his work makes the reader equally sincere.

Tokyo Redux by David Peace

The much delayed third (and best) volume in David Peace’s Tokyo trilogy confirms that he is one of England’s most important writers. In a novel which ranges over fifty years, Peace weaves together numerous strands of (possibly) the one story beginning with the death of Shimoyama Sadanori, the head of Japan’s national railway, in 1949 during the American occupation. The other two years which feature are 1964, when the Olympics were held in Tokyo, and 1989, when Emperor Showa, perhaps the last remnant of Japan’s World War Two past, died. Each section has its own voice, with Peace perhaps in less danger of verging into parody than he has been in some previous novels. Neglected as usual by all prize juries, it will be exciting to see what Peace does next.

Luckenbooth By Jenni Fagan

Jenni Fagan’s third novel proves, beyond all doubt, that her emotionally raw debut and her dystopian follow-up only scratched the surface of her talent. Featuring the same marginal characters (including William Burroughs), it presents us with almost one hundred years in the life of a building. The historical recreation is vivid, but also laced with the spirit of fairy tale and myth. Characters are fully formed within pages and the loss the reader feels as we leave one behind is only alleviated by the introduction of another, equally fascinating. Another novel which should have won prizes.

Subdivision by J Robert Lennon

American writer J Robert Lennon’s ninth novel has, sadly, not yet been published in the UK but is still well worth seeking out (it’s published by Graywolf Press in the US). It begins with the narrator checking into a guest house in the Subdivision run by Clara and the Judge – she’s not sure which is which, especially as Clara was a judge and the Judge is called Clara. Such Alice in Wonderland strangeness will only accelerate, from her electronic companion, Cylvia, an Alexa which gives her life advice, to the bakemono, able to appear in different forms but always intensely desirable and equally dangerous. And why does a small boy keep turning up? Behind it all we sense a puzzle to be solved, either by the narrator or the reader – or perhaps both.

Best Books of 2020 Part 3

December 29, 2020

Finally, here are my favourite books from 2020:

Firstly, this was the year I finally got round to reading Bae Suh. Untold Night and Day (translated by Deborah Smith) is a beguiling and disconcerting reading experience which is difficult to summarise. Over its four parts, it tells numerous stories that may also be one story, a text of incessant echoes from characters with uncanny similarities to the repetition of specific lines. What begins as a quest for identity ends up questioning whether certainty is possible

Identity is also important in Gabriela Cabezon Camara’s The Adventures of China Iron (translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona McIntyre). Everything from Argentinian national identity to sexual discovery, colonialism to class, is covered in the guise of a rip-roaring adventure. The novel wins its place on energy alone, and is another reminder of the excellence of Charco Press. It is also the only Booker International long-listed book among my favourites, which suggests I think it should have won

Next is a book I freely admit is unlikely to feature in anyone else’s best of the year – Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World (translated by Michael Hofmann). As a long-time admirer of Stamm, I found this one of his best yet. As is often the case with his work, it begins with a single decision, when our narrator, Christoph, breaks up with his girlfriend, Magdalena. On this occasion, however, Christoph later discovers another couple whose lives seem to exactly replicate his and Magdalena’s. How he reacts to these doppelgangers makes for a fascinating exploration of how we tell the stories of our lives

Another writer I particularly admire is Annie Ernaux, whose work, thanks to Fitzcarraldo Editions, is now reaching a wider audience in the UK. This year saw the translation, by Alison L Strayer, of A Girl’s Story. Here she tells of her early sexual experiences at a summer camp, but, as Ernaux explains, she does not regard the story she tells as ‘hers’ in the sense we would normally understand with biographical writing: “I am not trying to remember; I am trying to be inside this cubicle in the girls’ dorm, taking a photo.” What I love about Ernaux’s work is how she forensically captures the details of the time alongside truths of human experience which remain as insightful today as ever

Finally, Vigdis Hjoth’s Long Live the Post Horn! (translated by Charlotte Barslund) stood out for me this year as much as Will and Testament did last year. I was transfixed by the way a story of mid-life crisis became one of transformation and hope via the fight to preserve the postal service. It was a reminder that regarding ‘mental health’ as something entirely abstract, existing only in our heads, is a dangerous mistake. Interestingly, it joined the other four books in offering a version of hope in a year which needed it more than most.

Best Books of 2020 Part 2

December 27, 2020

For part two of my favourite books of 2020 I’m going to focus on those books which bridge the gap between the past and the present – that is, those books which, often after many years of waiting, have finally made it into English this year

The first of these, originally published in 1948 and translated by Joyce Zonana, is Henri Bosco’s Malicroix in which the narrator, Martial, must live in the solitary residence of his newly deceased great uncle for three months in order to inherit. The house is on a remote island in a wild part of the country, complete with a looming, silent servant and an obsequious lawyer who seems less than keen that Martial should be successful. This is a novel of mood and atmosphere, from its strong sense of place to its unremitting tension – a novel the reader lives in alongside the narrator

Another French writer whose work resurfaced this year was Jean Giono, in the shape of his Occupation Journal, originally published in France in 1995 though written between 1943 and 1944, and now translated by Jody Gladding. It was particularly interesting reading this during lockdown as Giono was experiencing much the same at the time – unable to travel and faced with an uncertain level of risk: “More and more I am immersed in a very great solitude,” he tells us. By its very nature, there is no great structure to the journal, but it is full of insights into both the occupation and Giono’s life as a writer

Also set during wartime – in this case the Spanish Civil War – Ana Maria Matute’s The Island appeared in a new translation from Laura Lonsdale. Narrated by fourteen-year-old Matia, who is staying with her grandmother as her mother is dead and her father is fighting, it is a coming-of-age story steeped in the oppressive sunlight of the island. Matute uses the setting to show the civil war in microcosm as it becomes an excuse for age-old prejudices to resurface. Matia’s attempts to understand and negotiate these make for a gripping picture of growing up

In Magda Szabo’s Abigail, originally published in 1970 and now translated by Len Rix, we also find a young girl, Gina, caught up in a conflict she does not understand. Set in Hungary during the Second World War, Gina finds herself sent away by her father, a General, to a boarding school where he cannot visit her and only rarely makes contact. Instead she must rely on the mysterious ‘Abigail’ to protect her – a statue to which pupils traditionally confide their problems. What begins as a typical boarding school novel soon becomes a thrilling story of wartime resistance

Finally, set in Germany in the 1930s and also featuring a child narrator, Gert Hofmann’s Veilchenfeld, originally published in 1986, was translated this year by Eric Mace-Tessler. Here the title character is an elderly Jewish philosopher who is increasingly persecuted in the course of the novel, much to the bewilderment of the young narrator. Hofmann brilliantly demonstrates the small cruelties which will ultimately lead to genocide by keeping a tight focus on one small town. A moving individual story, as well as a warning.

Best Books of 2020 Part 1

December 21, 2020

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.

Books of the Year 2019

December 20, 2019

After another year of failed projects – re-reading Doris Lessing during her centenary (got as far as three books); continuing re-reading all of Muriel Spark’s novels from her centenary last year (still have four to go) – and one which saw me taking a month off reviewing entirely before more than halving my output, there still remains the annual disappointment that is my Books of the Year. I say ‘disappointment’ as, rather than finding it impossible to choose from the hundred or so contenders, I increasingly find it difficult to select twelve books which have made an indelible, or at least a water-resistant, impression on me – a commentary on my deterioration as a reader rather than on the quality of the literature before me I fear. Anyway, without further delay, in only the particular order in which I read them, my Books of the Year (2019 edition).

Vladimir Sorokin’s The Blizzard (translated by Jamey Gambrell) was an icy breath of fresh air. The Russian Novel on steroids, I loved the way it flitted between realism and surrealism, with a side helping of science fiction. I also read The Day of the Oprichnik this year and will be tackling The Queue early in 2020.

The Accompanist (translated by Marian Schwarz) wasn’t my first experience of Nina Berberova but the novella form suits her ability to distil intense emotion perfectly, as I was to find again in The Revolt.

I’d already read my favourite of the Man Booker International long list (Annie Ernaux’s The Years) last year, but, of those that were new to me, I was most impressed by Sara Stridsberg’s The Faculty of Dreams (translated by Deborah Bragen-Turner). Repetitive and circuitous in the way dreams are, it also felt wild and untamed like its subject, Valerie Solanas. (Both Ernaux and Stridsberg appeared at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year, bizarrely at the same time, but as I couldn’t go anyway, that difficult choice was not thrust upon me).

Two well-deserved republications of German writers come next. The Artificial Silk Girl (translated by Kathie von Ankum) marked the passing into my reading past of Irmgard Keun’s four most famous novels. Not only important for its evocation of 1930s Germany, it has a more universal appeal as a young woman’s coming-of-age story.

Set only a few years later, Heinrich Boll’s The Train Was on Time (translated by Leila Vennewitz) is another masterly novella, where the atmosphere of impending fatality becomes almost unbearable at points.

I’ve yet to read even a mediocre novel from Edinburgh’s Charco Press, but the best this year was Selva Almada’s The Wind Lays Waste (translated by Chris Andrews). Perhaps more of a ‘traditional’ novel than most of Charco’s output, it was a beautifully weighted observation of character and relationship, with a thoughtful, but never intrusive, philosophical background. Luckily more of Almada’s work will be with us next with the publication of Dead Girls in September.

Another new South American voice to me was Mario Levero. Empty Words (translated by Annie McDermott) managed to make normally irritating attributes such as having a writer as the main character, and even including writing exercises as a secondary text spliced into the main narrative, quite charming. I now long for his much lengthier The Luminous Novel to be translated.

Then saddest book I read this year was Emmanuel Bove’s My Friends (translated by Janet Louth). Even sadder, it is often quite funny. A number of Bove’s books have been translated into English but most are out of print and expensive to come by, so please buy this and encourage NYRB to continue the Bove revival! (Coincidentally, this novel is much mentioned in Brenda Lozano’s Loop which I read this month).

Having made that claim for My Friends, I must admit that Jacqueline Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men (translated by Ros Schwarz) is probably bleaker. Set in some future time on an uncertain planet, it’s refusal to answer the questions it asks makes it feel very like reality.

Emiliano Monge’s brutal epic Among the Lost (translated by Frank Wynne) places the reader among Mexico’s people traffickers in a story in which everyone is a victim. Viscerally immersive, this is a powerful, yet at times surprisingly poignant, novel.

Verso’s new translated fiction imprint began promisingly with Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament (translated by Charlotte Barslund). Though you are fairly certain where this novel is heading, that doesn’t stop it being an addictive examination of a family in denial.

Finally, the novel which explained Brexit to me: Heinz Rein’s Berlin Finale (translated by Shaun Whiteside). In the final days of the war, with Berlin in ruins, we still find many who believe Hitler has a plan to ensure Germany’s victory.