Tag Archives: Vintage

My books of the year 2016 – favourites from a year of reading

Just like its predecessor, 2016 turned out to be another year of great reading for me. I read around 80 books this year (mostly older/backlisted titles) with only a handful of disappointments. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve whittled it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of favourites, plus a few honourable mentions along the way. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each winner in this post, but in each case you can read the full review by clicking on the appropriate link.

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A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor

It was a close call between this book and the other Taylor I read this year, At Mrs Lippincote’s – both are excellent. A Game of Hide and Seek is a very poignant story of life’s disappointments, compromises and lost loves, all set against the backdrop of the years preceding and following the Second World War. It is perhaps a more subtle novel than Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (a book that made my 2015 highlights), but every bit as carefully observed. Just thinking about it now leaves me eager to back to this author as soon as possible.

The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

Every bit as dark and disturbing as its wonderful cover suggests (I read the NYRB edition), The Widow is a tense and unsettling noir from one of the masters of psychological fiction, Georges Simenon. Right from the start, there is a palpable sense of foreboding as a young drifter just released from prison washes up at a farmhouse in the Bourbonnais region of France. The Widow is one of the few books by Simenon to feature a strong woman at the heart of the narrative, the tough-as-old-boots widow Tati. This would appeal to fans of James M. Cain’s fiction.

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

I’m glad to say that my first encounter with Barbara Pym did not disappoint. The novel focuses on Mildred Lathbury, a rather sensible, diplomatic and accommodating woman in her early thirties. In short, Mildred is one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea whenever others are in need of support. In many ways, she finds herself getting drawn into other people’s business, particularly as it is assumed that her status a spinster automatically means she has few commitments of her own. This is a wonderful novel, much more than just a comedy of manners, full of small but significant reflections on life as an unmarried woman in the 1950s. (On another day, I might have picked Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori or Brigid Brophy’s The King of a Rainy Country for this slot, both are highly recommended.)

Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood

I really loved Isherwood’s Mr Norris, a warm and engaging story which charts the somewhat peculiar friendship that develops between two men following a chance encounter on a train. Even though it’s abundantly clear that the rather eccentric Mr Norris is something of a swindler, he is hugely likeable with it. I couldn’t help but feel somewhat protective towards him, a little like William Bradshaw does when he meets him on the train. A hugely enjoyable novel and a wonderful evocation of life in Berlin during the early ‘30s.

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

Voyage is narrated by an eighteen- year-old girl, Anna Morgan, brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna to survive on her own following the death of the girl’s father. What follows is Anna’s unravelling as she drifts around in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, slipping unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort and warmth. A brilliant and devastating book.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

A book that charts Didion’s attempts to make sense of the weeks and months that followed the sudden death of her husband and hospitalisation of her adopted daughter, Quintana – a period that swept away any previous beliefs she had held about illness, death and grief, about probability and luck, about marriage, children and memory, about life itself. It is a deeply personal exploration of these concepts, all written in Didion’s signature style, that of the cool, perceptive, surgically-precise chronicler of our times. She is relentless in her questioning of herself and of others, constantly seeking to understand what was said, what was felt, what might have been. A truly remarkable piece of writing.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson

Set in London in the 1930s, Watson’s book captures an extraordinary day in the life of Miss Guinevere Pettigrew, a rather timid, down-at-heel spinster who has fallen on hard times. It’s an utterly enchanting take on the Cinderella story as Miss Pettigrew finds herself drawn into a new world, a place of adventure, excitement and new experiences. This is a charming novel, full of warmth, wit and a certain joie de vivre. One to read or revisit if you’re in need of a treat.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

When both her parents die in fairly quick succession, sixteen-year-old Portia is sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna, neither of whom want her there. Left to her own devices for most of the time, Portia falls in with Eddie is a selfish, uncaring young man with no real sense of integrity or responsibility. What follows is a very subtle exploration of the pain and confusion of adolescence, of how easy it is for an adult to toy with the emotions of a teenager, especially someone as vulnerable and as trusting as Portia. A novel I would love to re-read one day.

The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

An ideal summer read, The Go-Between is a compelling story of secrets, betrayals and the power of persuasion, all set against the heady backdrop of the English countryside in July. Leo Colston (now in his sixties) recalls a fateful summer he spent at a school friend’s house in Norfolk some fifty years earlier, a trip that marked his life forever. The novel captures the pain of a young boy’s initiation into the workings of the adult world as Leo is caught between the innocence and subservience of childhood and the complexities of life as a grown-up. Fully deserving of its status as a modern classic.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

Another quintessential summer read, the Sagan is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions – only in this case the backdrop is the French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another player arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father. An utterly compelling novel, I’d like to read this again in the Irene Ash translation.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel in the 1920s. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum skilfully weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these people as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. A delightful gem.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

A superb noir which excels in the creation of atmosphere and mood. As a reader you really feel as though you are walking the streets of the city at night, moving through the fog with only the dim and distant lights of LA to guide you. The focus is on the mindset of the central character, the washed -up ex-pilot Dix Steele, a deeply damaged and vulnerable man who finds himself tormented by events from his past. The storyline is too complex to summarise here, but Hughes maintains the suspense throughout. This novel was a HUGE hit with my book group.

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

Larkin’s second novel, A Girl in Winter, concerns itself with the confusing mix of emotions which characterise a critical period in a young girl’s life: her coming of age. It also captures the deep sense of loneliness and isolation that marks its central character, a woman named Katherine Lind. It’s a quiet, contemplative novel, one that explores the difficulties we face in understanding and interpreting the behaviour of others, especially when we are young and inexperienced and eager to be loved. Larkin’s prose is sublime, equally impressive in its portrayal of the nostalgic atmosphere of an English summer and its evocation of the bitterness of an unforgiving winter. An understated gem. (It was a toss-up between this and Natsume Söseki’s The Gate, another quiet, thoughtful novel I enjoyed this year.)

So there we are. Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!

Bartleby & Co. by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. Jonathan Dunne)

Taking advantage of the extension of Spanish Lit Month into August, I turned to Bartleby & Co., a clever and engaging piece of metafiction from esteemed Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas. First published in Spanish in 2000, with an English translation following in 2004, Bartleby & Co. is a celebration of ‘the writers of the No’. Or, to put it another way, those authors who succumb to Bartleby’s syndrome by entering an extended, often permanent, period of literary silence. The name of this condition references Bartleby, the clerk in Herman Melville’s novella, Bartleby, the Scrivener, who when asked to do something or to reveal anything about himself, responds by saying “I would prefer not to.”

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Bartleby & Co. is narrated by Marcelo, a solitary office worker and stalled writer who is struggling to write a follow-up to his first book published some twenty-five years earlier, a novel on the impossibility of love. (The narrator appears to be a thinly-veiled version of Vila-Matas himself. In his 2003 novel, Never Any End to Paris, the author refers to his quest to complete one of his first books, The Lettered Assassin, a story featuring a novel that will kill the reader seconds after he or she finishes reading it.)

Pretending to be suffering from depression, Marcelo, the narrator of Bartleby & Co, takes extended sick leave with the intention of working his way through ‘the labyrinth of the No’. By doing so, Marcelo believes he can find a way forward by opening up a path to authentic literary creation.

Only from the negative impulse, from the labyrinth of the No, can the writing of the future appear. (pg. 3)

Marcelo sets about compiling a set of footnotes to a text that does not exist. Each footnote contains details about one of many literary Bartlebys, their reasons for silence and snippets about their lives. Here’s an excerpt from the footnote on Mexican writer, Juan Ruflo; when asked why he no longer wrote, Ruflo would say:

“Well, my Uncle Celerino died and it was he who told me the stories.”

His Uncle Celerino was no fabrication. He existed in real life. He was a drunk who made a living confirming children. Ruflo frequently accompanied him and listened to the fabricated stories he related about his life, most of which were invented. The stories of El llano en llamas almost had the title Los cuentos del tío Celerino (Tales of Uncle Celerino). Ruflo stopped writing shortly before his uncle’s death. The excuse of his Uncle Celerino is one of the most original I know among all those concocted by the writers of the No to justify their abandonment of literature. (pg. 7)

The footnotes present a wide variety of reasons for not writing. These range from the commonplace and understandable (illness; writer’s block; drug addiction) to the downright bizarre – one writer remains convinced that José Saramago has stolen all his ideas by way of some strange telepathic powers.

Lack of inspiration is a familiar reason for not writing anything, even the great French writer Stendhal experienced it as he notes in his autobiography:

“Had I mentioned to someone around 1795 that I planned to write, anyone with any sense would have told me to write for two hours every day, with or without inspiration. Their advice would have enabled me to benefit from the ten years of my life I totally wasted waiting for inspiration.” (pg. 31)

Thinking about Stendhal’s situation reminds the narrator of another case, that of the ‘strange and disturbing’ poet, Pedro Garfias, friend of the Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel. Here was a man who spent many months not writing a single line simply because he couldn’t find the right adjective. Whenever Buñuel met the poet, he would ask him:

“Have you found that adjective yet?”

“No, I’m still searching,” Pedro Garfias would reply before moving off pensively. (pg 32)

There are references to several famous writers through the ages: Guy de Maupassant, Rimbaud, Andre Gidé, Robert Walser, John Keats, and Julien Gracq, to name but a few. Other cultural figures also feature: Marcel Duchamp, the great artist who shunned painting for over fifty years because he chose to play chess instead; and Michelangelo Antonioni, who wanted to make a film, L’Eclisse (The Eclipse) about a couple’s feelings drying up, in effect they become eclipsed as their relationship dissolves.

In presenting these literary vignettes, Vila-Matas adopts an ironic tone. There is a dry, self-deprecating humour running through Bartleby & Co., a tone not unlike the one he uses in Never Any End to Paris. Perhaps the best example of this wit is encapsulated in the footnote on the notoriously reclusive author J.D Salinger, a hilarious anecdote in which the narrator is convinced he has spotted Salinger on a New York bus. It’s too long to cover here, but its inclusion alone makes Bartleby & Co. worth reading.

Overcome by the plethora of literary eclipses he has discovered, Marcelo takes a moment to reflect on the tension between yes and no, to focus the mind on a reason to write. He ends up seeking solace in the first thing that comes to mind, a snippet from the Argentinian writer, Fogwill:

“I write so as not to be written. For many years I was written in my life. I acted out a story. I suppose I write in order to write others, to operate on the imagination, the revelation, the knowledge of others. Possibly on the literary behaviour of others.” (pg. 98)

By assembling this series of footnotes on writers of the No, there is a sense that Marcelo (a stalled author himself) is holding on to Fogwill’s words. In effect, the narrator is commenting on the literary silences of others ‘so as to be able to write and not be written’.

And does Marcelo achieve his aim of finding the centre of this labyrinth of the No, the source of all the negative impulses that prompt so many talented writers to abandon literature? I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself should you decide to read this book. Either way, by collecting these vignettes, the author has in fact written his next novel, one that is fresh, inventive and very enjoyable indeed.

I’ll finish with one final example, that of the esteemed Catalan poet J.V. Foix, whom Marcelo used to see standing behind the counter of his patisserie in Barcelona. A long-time admirer of Foix’s lyrical poetry, the narrator is curious to learn what prompted the poet to declare that his work was finished. It saddens him to think that Foix may have decided to wait for death. The answer comes by way of an article by the Spanish poet and novelist, Pere Gimferrer – writing on the cessation of Foix’s work, Gimferrer comments:

“But the same glint sparkles in his eyes, more serenely; a visionary glow, now secret in its hidden lava […] In the distance is heard the dull murmur of oceans and abysses: Foix continues to dream poems at night, even though he does not write them down.”

Poetry unwritten, but lived in the mind: a beautiful ending for someone who ceases to write. (pg 110)

For other reviews of Bartleby & Co, click here for posts by Richard and Seamus.

Bartleby & Co. is published in the UK by Vintage. Source: personal copy. Book 8/20, #TBR20 round 2.