Writers look back on the highlights of 1993
Saturday 04 December 1993
Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street Years (HarperCollins) is certainly the most significant political book of 1993 but for sheer wicked enjoyment I have to choose Alan Clark's Diaries (Weidenfeld) ahead of that. It ranks nearly with Chips Channon, lesser only because Clark's pen describes less dramatic days. But it will last. Outside politics, Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy (Phoenix) was my novel of the year: not Tolstoy or George Eliot, but rich, pungent, funny and moving. Most disturbing read of the year was Nigel Williams's They Came from SW19 (Faber), which features, derides, then brutally kills, a wimpy UFO-spotter called Andrew Marr. Bastard] I hope little green men come down and turn his brains to polenta.
I've been having a naval year, and the work that gave me most pleasure was undoubtedly the on-going Conway's History of the Ship (Conway Maritime Press), by an international variety of authors - six volumes so far; six to come, and intoxicating to the likes of me. The novel I most enjoyed was T Coraghessan Boyle's gloriously escapist The Road to Wellville (Granta). Like everyone else I romped through Alan Clark's awful diaries (Weidenfeld), and after a false start (too many toffs and eccentric aunts, I thought) I greatly admired Alistair Horne's A Bundle from Britain (Macmillan), a wonderfully entertaining memoir and a genuinely valuable historical document.
Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America by Robert Hughes (OUP): vituperative essays against the cult of victimhood, theory-mad academia and all who turn egalitarianism into a vice. Hughes' powers of observation lacerate not just the monstrous regiments of thin-lipped, euphemism-spouting PC puritans, but also the gung-ho brigade. This kick-in-the-pants leaves neither the left nor right of the American centre unscathed. Next, Lost Illusions by Honore de Balzac (Penguin Classics). Rigged book reviews; spiteful hacks; the gutter press faking intellectual orgasms; once in that world you have to be as twistingly vigilant as a sentinel-monkey to avoid contamination and Lucien Chardon is weak. Reading Lost Illusions again helped me to regain mine: 'Vive Balzac.' Fima by Amos Oz (Chatto), who is one of Israel's finest writers, with unexpected lightness of touch. A man bumbles about in his apartment like Gulliver under his bands: it is humane, humorous and trapped in the paradoxes of Israel.
Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism by Michael Ignatieff (BBC Books) is perceptive and provoking. 'Nationalism is a form of speech which shouts, not merely so that it will be heard, but so that it will believe itself.' Includes sections on Croatia and Serbia and also Northern Ireland and Quebec. Next, The Client by John Grisham (Century). All four of his books are page turners but this one has convincingly etched portrait of a young boy as the client. Alan Clark's Diaries (Weidenfeld). Delicious gossip, but more than that, a lover's view of Mrs Thatcher without which no history of the Eighties will be complete.
I thought William Boyd's The Blue Afternoon (Sinclair-Stevenson) a terrific piece of work. The story of a young woman's search for her history in the Philippines, it effortlessly mixes period detail with a sensual quality which reminded me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Another highly atmospheric novel was Tim Pears' In The Place of Fallen Leaves (Hamish Hamilton), set in a secluded Devon valley during the sweltering summer of 1984. It had an intoxicating, magical quality which completely beguiled me. A friend sent me a copy of The Wisden Book of Cricket Records, expecting me, I think, to find it completely useless. Instead, I have found it obsessive. If you've ever wanted to know the furthest distance travelled by a bail after the batsman was bowled, this is the one for you. (The answer is 67 yards, 6 inches, the bowler was Burroughs of Worcestershire. The year was 1911.)
The Letters of Charles Dickens Volume VII (Oxford) is a book of brilliant things, covering three years in a life that was comically crowded and insanely busy. Dickens's voluminous correspondence impresses because it retains what is great about the novels and largely omits the sentimental gloop. The editors have done a superb job, as ever. I offer this recommendation, however, in a spirit of apology: it costs 85 quid, so don't expect it in the Christmas stocking. I thought Cormac McCarthy's novel All the Pretty Horses (Picador) was amazing. Set in Texas in 1949, it begins as a coltish picaresque before its boy-hero winds up on the wrong side of the law in Mexico. McCarthy's prose has a kind of gnarled biblical grandeur which suits exactly this elegy for the vanishing west. On the domestic front, William Boyd's thriller in Manila, The Blue Afternoon (Sinclair-Stevenson), and Patrick McGrath's Blitz-era gothic, Dr Haggard's Disease (Viking), both forged a link between surgery and romantic obsession: the former was a compact epic of love and loss, the latter a magnificently morbid study in derangement.
I was suitably enlightened by Paul Gilroy's collection of essays, Small Acts (Serpent's Tail). Gilroy forced me to confront many issues of my identity that I have hitherto swept under the carpet. Much of what Gilroy has to say about race and culture is equally relevant to the enterprise of science, as Sandra Harding's magnificent anthology The Racial Economy of Science (Indiana University Press) illustrates so well. It is the book many culturally aware philosophers and sociologists of science have longed for. Altaf Fatima's The One Who Did Not Ask (Heinemann) shows how difficult it is to confront one's own prejudices and fear of otherness. Despite a translation determined to turn an oasis into a desert, Fatima's narrative, set in pre-partition India and Pakistan, shakes the soul and leaves a lasting impression on the mind.
D J TAYLOR
I liked Tim Parks's novel Shear (Heinemann), a tense psycho-drama of the kind in which Parks specialises, spoilt only a little by the obtrusive geological metaphors. Radio Activity (Sunk Island), the third novel by the Cumbrian writer John Murray, was a hilarious and wounding satire on the nuclear industry in the North-west. Moving beyond the gloomy palisade of fiction, I also enjoyed Deborah A Thomas' Thackeray and Slavery (University of Ohio Press) and David Newsome's excellent study of Manning and Newman, The Convert Cardinals (John Murray). With this project out of the way Dr Newsome should now settle down to his true end in life and edit some more selections from A C Benson's diaries.
I enjoyed Gordon Bowker's monumental biography of the doomed novelist Malcolm Lowry. Pursued by Furies (HarperCollins) claims Lowry as the least-known British literary genius of the 20th century. Yet Lowry is no extinct volcano (the late Anthony Burgess admitted a debt to him), and his ferocious self-destruction could hardly fail to fascinate. Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader (Carcanet) collects everything Greene ever wrote on the cinema. Who but Greene could talk about the 'gangster's technique' of Jean Harlowe ('she toted her breast like a man totes a gun')? I was amazed and delighted by Italo Calvino's The Road to San Giovanni (Jonathan Cape). A slender volume of five 'memory exercises', these monkish little essays range from a lapidary tribute to Calvino's father to an analysis of American films of the Thirties. There is no stink of sociological jargon here; Calvino wrote like an angel, urbane and always elegant.
Two novels this year were worth not just reading, but re-reading. Frank Moorhouse's Grand Days (Picador) was a properly rich, tapestried novel about a young woman at work and in love in Geneva in the Twenties: ambitious in its scope, but pinned down to the tiny quirks that make historical fiction live. And Siri Hustvedt's The Blindfold (Hodder) was an oddly enchanting novel. It could have been disastrously self-indulgent, as a young girl strives to find herself in contemporary New York, but Hustvedt's prose is as freezingly pared and cold as a latter-day Jean Rhys. The biography of the year for me was the immensely sensitive life of Marguerite Yourcenar, by Josyane Savigneau (University of Chicago).
DONALD CAMERON WATT
First, the superb biography of Franco by Paul Preston (HarperCollins), a masterly account of how a most evil dictator tried to save Spain from European democracy, but finally failed. Second, Callum Macdonald's The Lost Battle; Crete 1941 (Macmillan), a most readable account of Germany's Pyrrhic victory in what could have been Britain's first defeat of the Wehrmacht in the field. Third, John Keegan's A History of Warfare (Hutchinson), a thought-provoking attempt to divine and affect the future of international armed conflict by examining the past. Lastly, for light relief and intellectual stimulation too, Terry Pratchett's entertaining fable Johnny and the Dead (Doubleday). Not for those members of the chattering classes marooned in yesterday's world.
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby (Gollancz) presented a new anthropological discovery: the Arsenal supporter as human being. A spanking 7-0 away win of a football book - inventive, honest, funny, heroic, charming. The opposite of a Saturday afternoon at Highbury, in fact. John Updike's Memories of the Ford Administration (Hamish Hamilton) centred on a philandering academic researching the life of President James Buchanan who discovers that his own Seventies era of drift and moral decay could not contrast more with the stiff probity of his subject. Not that he does much about it - Updike's coruscating prose enjoys the filth too much. My Story by Ron Kray (Sidgwick & Jackson) was the undiscovered comic masterpiece of the year. Ron Kray repositioned as a jovial community policeman who loved his mum, gave bundles to charity and kept the streets of the East End clear of villains. Fred Dineage, the television presenter, was there to record and faithfully reproduce Kray gems like this: 'I didn't do George Cornell because he called me a fat poof, that's a load of nonsense. I'd 've done him anyway.'
Maybe it's just that Northern Ireland has been so newsworthy in recent weeks, but my favourites concerned the troubles, or the struggle, or whatever we're supposed to call it. A Wreath Upon the Dead was a lovely (first) novel by Briege Duffaud (Poolbeg), which spanned two centuries but still couldn't fathom the gap between two communities. And Tony Parker's patient microphone found some heart- shaking monologues for May the Lord in His Mercy be Kind to Belfast (Cape). Hard to know how to applaud Mating by Norman Rush (Vintage) without sounding soft in the head. A woman and a man search for an ideal world in the Kalahari, and stalk each other through prose of supreme weight and wit. Gorgeous.
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