Wednesday, 2 January 2019

My Year in Books

As usual, my last year's reading included nothing published in that year (by contrast with that great reader Patrick Kurp, who found ten 2018 titles to recommend, though with little fiction in the list and that in translation). So my year was one of rereadings and of first readings of books from the (mostly 20th-century) past, and as usual these included far more fiction than non. Here are some highlights...
  The year began (in New Zealand) with my greatest discovery – Skylark by Dezso Kosztolanyi  – an altogether extraordinary novel that seems to me to be a true classic. Later in the year I made another foray into Hungarian literature, reading two novels by Antal Szerb, each of them distinctive and bracingly original, one of them, Journey by Moonlight, the kind of book that lingers hauntingly in the memory.
  Closer to home, I indulged my Ivy Compton-Burnett addiction with one more, The Mighty and Their Fall, and read two more Barbara Pyms, I think two of her very best – No Fond Return of Love and A Glass of Blessings. I also braved one more Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris. Male novelists got a look in, with my exploration of the all but forgotten novels of Angus Wilson continuing (Late Call), a long overdue reading of Arnold Bennett's Anna of the Five Towns and an equally overdue rereading of Edmund Gosse's Father and Son. A chance find of Modern Baptists introduced me to an American writer quite new to me, James Wilcox, of whom I intend to read more.
  I finally tackled a book I'd been resisting for years – Martin Amis's autobiographical Experience – and was reminded both of why I once admired him so much and why I went so completely off him. Fired by rereading Auberon Waugh's Four Crowded Years: Diaries 1972-76, I decided to read (technically reread) his first two novels, The Foxglove Saga and Path of Dalliance, both of which are fine, if flawed, comic novels, genuinely funny and surely not deserving of their current oblivion.
  I seem to have read quite a lot of Peter Ackroyd this year – The Lambs of London, Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination and, most recently, his short and serviceable biography of Wilkie Collins. Which brings us into the realm of non-fiction. Here my most memorable and enjoyable reads (apart from Albion) were J.R. Ackerley's hair-raising My Dog Tulip, Jan Morris's beautiful Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, and Julia: A Portrait of Julia Strachey by Herself and Frances Partridge, an extraordinary feat of (auto)biography that throws sharp and unexpected light not only on Julia but on those around her.
  Looking back, this seems a good, rewarding year's reading. I'm starting the next with The Prank, a collection of Chekhov's early short stories – and at least four more promising volumes are queuing up on the shelf, jostling to be read next.

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