Who enjoyed what in 1995? Independent reviewers and contributors choose their favourite titles, and on pages 8-11 we suggest books for the Christmas stocking
Saturday 25 November 1995
This year I found myself, gratifyingly, out of step with the literary establishment. I much enjoyed Umberto Eco's The Island of the Day Before (Secker), a scintillatingly written (or rather, employing a musical analogy, scintillatingly scored) narrative of whimsical erudition; as also Kazuo Ishiguro's magnificent, misunderstood The Unconsoled (Faber). My book of the year, though, is Milan Kundera's Testaments Betrayed (Faber), a collection of nine masterly essays on the condition and vocation of the artist. To revive a whiskery old chestnut of the Christmas books pages, "Not a day passes but I dip into it". Corny but true.
Alan Isler's The Prince of West End Avenue (Cape) pictured a Jewish retirement home in Manhattan as a veritable Elsinore of back-stabbing and remorse, and was wonderfully funny with it. Richard Ford's Independence Day (Harvill) was a check-list of middle-aged doubts and fears, but avoided either indulging or patronising its characters. Norman Mailer in Oswald's Tale (Little, Brown) reconstructed the short life of JFK's probable assassin with an insight that made the usual conspiracy theories look like so much cerebral Meccano.
The book trade has been miserable this year; the books have been good. I'm grateful to have had two major novels, Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh (Cape) and Martin Amis's The Information (HarperCollins). The first is an especial pleasure, since here is a great and persecuted writer back to the top of his form; the second marks the transition of one of our most vivid creators of atmosphere into the fiction of middle-age. Kazuo Ishiguro took a risk in breaking free of the reticence and minimalism of his previous work. The Unconsoled (Faber) is a true act of writerly courage, as well as an important experimental novel.
Almost everything I've read this year has had to do - sometimes unconsciously, often tangentially - with the events at 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester. House by Rachel Whiteread (Phaidon) contains five essays, principally a typical tyro piece by Iain Sinclair. The Body in Pain by Elaine Scarry (Oxford) is a brilliant meditation on the vulnerability of the human body to physical and psychic assault. Andrew O'Hagan's strange, reveried The Missing (Picador), part autobiography, part old-fashioned pavement-pounding, marks the most auspicious debut by a British writer for some time. The fiction I've enjoyed most is The Destiny of Nathalie X (Sinclair-Stevenson), William Boyd's second collection of short stories, and Sabbath's Theater (Cape), Philip Roth's filthy masterpiece. My novel of the year is Independence Day (Harvill) by Richard Ford, the unexpectedly symphonic sequel to The Sportswriter (1984), which is coming to be seen as the landmark American novel of its decade.
Donald Cameron Watt
1995 brought a crop of books from 50th anniveraries, VE Day and VJ Day. The best were Richard Overy's succinct Why the Allies Won the War (Cape), David Reynolds's masterful and moving Rich Relations: the American Occupation of Britain 1942-1945 (HarperCollins) and a brilliantly original study by Nicholas Cull, Selling War: the British Campaign against American ''Neutrality'' in World War II (Oxford). Best of all, however, was Noel Annan's marvellously readable marriage of memoirs with research, Changing Enemies.(HarperCollins). For light relief I turned to Terry Pratchett's latest Disc-world fantasy Maskerade (Gollancz). I am saving this year's Booker winner, by a former student in my department, for Christmas.
The first choice for my favourite book is by our brilliant historian, Christopher Hibbert. It is entitled Nelson: A Personal History (Penguin) and will be a source of inspiration for any student of history. Another famous hero, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, in his wonderful book, A Hell of a War (Robson), has written a fascinating account of his experiences in the last war, when he served alongside Lord Mountbatten in the US Navy. Lastly, John Pearson's book on J. Paul Getty and his heirs, Painfully Rich (Macmillan), is a compelling book and eminently readable.
Gore Vidal's life has been spent leading up to Palimpsest: A Memoir (Deutsch). Pompous but a raconteur of genius. William Burroughs's My Education: A Book of Dreams (Picador) is a treasure-trove. Photographer Larry Clark's The Perfect Childhood (Scalo/ Thames and Hudson) is familiar territory: grunge and teenagers (he directed Kids). Paul Auster's essays on creativity The Red Notebooks (Faber) are aetherial in comparison. David Peat's quirky Blackfoot Physics (Fourth Estate) and Peter James's The Sunken Kingdom (Cape) are about magic science and a Turkish Atlantis respectively.
Provocative, complex, just the right side of pretentious, pianist-critic Charles Rosen's The Romantic Generation (HarperCollins) sets new standards for thinking and writing on Schumann, Lizst and Chopin. Maynard Solomon's psychobiography of Mozart (Hutchinson) has much about "Plumpi-Strumpi", less about music, but reads like a detective story. Ever wondered why audiences are silent? James H. Johnson's Listening in Paris (University of California Press) gives the definitive socio-cultural answer, with narrative and analysis inspiringly mixed. Finally, the francophile's dream: where do you find the freshest chevre in Toulouse? Which charcutier is Cahors's finest? Coffe 1995 (Guides Balland), available in supermarkets across France, changed my life for a summer.
I'm still amazed at the detective writer Minette Walters. The Dark Room (Macmillan), her fourth novel, hooked me from the word go. She has the supreme gift of being a storyteller - for me, this is everything. Walter Moseley, whose RL's Dream (Serpent's Tail) came out this autumn, is emerging as the best of the contemporary American crime novelists - he's heading for great things in the Chandler mode. But the really big book I read this year, I got last Christmas: Juliet Barker's massive, lovingly researched and perceptive biography of the Brontes (Phoenix).
What an undisappointing year it was! The two books I was most looking forward to were the ones I most enjoyed: Albert Camus's The First Man (Hamish Hamilton) and Thomas Bernhard's Extinction (Quartet). Both were magnificent, both were their authors' final testaments - beyond that they could not have been more different. Jay Winter's Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning (Cambridge) was a sustained, scholarly investigation of the cultural aftermath of the Great War. Winter's title also sums up Erich Hartmann's haunting, unforgettable In the Camps (Norton), a collection of photographs of the concentration camps as they exist today. I cannot remember having seen photographs which explore so powerfully the relationship between place and memory.
In Green Imperialism, Richard Grove's creative scholarship traces environmentalism to the world of Gauguin, where troubled expatriates struggled with the fragility of paradise. Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe Vol. I by RW Southern (Blackwell) displays the mind of our most sensitive historian grasping a vast medieval project to restore knowledge forfeit in Eden. In The Later Tudors (Oxford), Penry Williams enlivens the traditional formula of an Oxford history without sacrifice of authority. John Keegan's Warpaths (Hodder) is a beguiling example of the trend for fusing history and travel. Adam Thorpe's Still (Secker) and Francisco Rebolledo's Rasero (Weidenfeld) are novels fired by historical imaginations which historians should envy.
In a cruel century, we read cruel books. "They intended us to die along with them," Michael Collins says of the 1916 Dublin martyrs. "They didn't explain that to me. Was it explained to you?" A fictional but mightily realistic Collins in The End of the Hunt (Sinclair-Stevenson), the last of Thomas Flanagan's Irish trilogy, ending in 1922; as good a book as any to clarify history while peace still trickles through the Belfast streets. Tim Pat Coogan's The Troubles (Hutchinson) took me up to 1995. Amid the snows of Russia, Ryszard Kapuscinski, the greatest living foreign correspondent, guided me across the Imperium (Granta) - the collapsing Soviet Union - with the cold eye of a Pole who understands cruelty.
Margaret Forster's Hidden Lives (Viking). Forster found mysteries and secrets, not all of which she could solve, in her story of three generations, ending with her own tough struggle to get the education, the career and the marriage she wanted. Not golden memories, exactly, but something more interesting. Richard Ingrams's Muggeridge: The Biography (HarperCollins). With calm authority - the only way to do it - Ingrams has managed to contain wonderfully well the outrageously unquiet spirit of a great journalist. Posy Simmonds's F-Freezing Alphabet (Cape). An enormous success with 3- year-olds who are themselves nice and warm under the duvet.
For those like myself absorbed in the Yeats world, three books managed to shed light in 1995. William Murphy's Family Secrets: William Butler Yeats and his Relatives (Gill and Macmillan) is a treasure-trove of letters and anecdotes, richly textured and spiced with sympathetic irony. Gifford Lewis's beautifully produced The Yeats Sisters and the Cuala (Irish Academic Press) at last does justice to the printing and design of the Yeats sisters' arts-and-crafts enterprise. And Lucy McDiarmid's and Maureen Waters's edition of Lady Gregory's Selected Writings (Penguin) supplies plays, folk-tales and autobiography with a perceptive introduction that genuinely reassesses this complex and endlessly resourceful woman.
Enjoying is different from admiring, especially where books are concerned. I enjoyed Nick Hornby's High Fidelity (Gollancz) without admiring it; I admired The Year's Midnight by Alex Benzie (Viking) for what it tried to do, but I was glad when I'd finished it. But when enjoying and admiring come together that is something: this year this happened most satisfactoraily of all with an autobiography, The Railway Man by Eric Lomax (Cape). I've always been drawn to accounts of any kind of imprisonment, and this is the most admirable I have ever read, but it was how the author describes his lust for revenge, and how he finally dealt with it, which impressed me most. A rare book - exciting, moving and written with a clear and definite purpose.
During the summer I found myself reading the collected works of Joanna Trollope, by accident I like to think, and was captivated by her mild subversion of traditional British values. A Village Affair and The Rector's Wife (Black Swan) were the best. But my favourite book this year must be Tsuguhito Takeuchi's enthralling study of early cross-cultural social and trading links, Old Tibetan Contracts from Central Asia (Daizou Shuppan Publishing).
Henrietta Leyser's Medieval Women (Weidenfeld) is the best history book I've read for years, full of stories and surprises and written with gentle elegance from enormous knowledge. The appendix suggests a receipt to cure every female ailment: it includes, among its 37 ingredients, purified peonies, Macedonian pellitory and fleawort. More recent history comes from the BBC's superb team of exiled reporters, distilled into From Our Own Correspondent, The First Forty Years (BBC/Pan), which would make a good Christmas present. And once again Hilary Mantel produced my favourite novel of the year: An Experiment in Love (Viking) is written with subtle perceptiveness, sharp wit and canny wisdom.
Mark Bostridge has made a distinguished debut with his life of Vera Brittain co-authored with Paul Berry (Chatto): a full-scale biography that leaves behind the standard plod of pedigree to grave. This thoughtful portrait of a dauntless feminist and pacifist combines the readability of a novel with the authenticity of fact. Joan Smith's Full Stop (Chatto), the fifth of her intelligent crime novels, opens up the disturbing but little-discussed subject of sexual fear - an experience most women would find absorbingly familiar. Finally, John Hollander's field-changing collection, American Poetry of the 19th Century (Library of America, 2 vols).
Fanny Trollope's Widow Barnaby (Alan Sutton), first published in 1839 and reprinted this year to accompany Teresa Ransom's excellent biography of the author, is Jane Austen with the gloves off. Mother of the more famous Anthony but just as good a storyteller, Fanny spins a compulsively readable and very funny yarn of debt, double-dealing and the seamier side of Bath society. Too close to the bone for the prudish Victorians, today Fanny deserves to come back into her own. Ann Wroe's A Fool and his Money: Life in a Partitioned Medieval Town (Cape) is history as quest, told with such vivid turns of phrase that it reads like watching a film. Alice K. Turner's History of Hell (Robert Hale) traces the idea of the Great Below from Ancient Mesopotamia through medieval harrowings to modern times (hell is other people, said Sartre; hell is oneself, said T.S. Eliot). It's full of unforgettable characters and themes which jump time and place to recur with uncanny similarities: ferrymen and fearful hounds, divine queens and dread lords, visitors on hopeless quests for lost loved ones.
The best biography of the year was Peter Ackroyd's Blake (Sinclair-Stevenson), an exciting evocation of the poet's life and times, a revelation for people who think of him as simply the author of "Jerusalem".Roy Jenkins's magisterial life of Gladstone (Macmillan) - written only as one politician can write about another - was a close runner-up. For once, the Booker judges got it right, with Pat Barker's The Ghost Road (Viking). The most over-rated book of the year was Bill Bryson's Notes From a Small Island (Doubleday) - the usual repetition of how the author was cheated and insulted by surly locals whom he later punished by writing unfunny stories about them.
The problem is that I've enjoyed practically everything I've read this year, but three books stand out. The first is a debut novel by an Indian writer of exceptional gifts, Vikram Chandra's Red Earth And Pouring Rain (Faber), a fusion of magic realism with bravura historical set-pieces. I never read enough poetry, but Mark Doty's My Alexandria (Cape) announced that rarest of birds, an American poet who is neither preening, portentous nor self-absorbed. His technical assurance lends a marmoreal beauty to poems about dying, danger and memory in the time of Aids. Art history comes my way too seldom as a reviewer, but I've relished the shrewd reappraisals in James Christen Steward's The New Child (Washington), a lavishly detailed account of the way English 18th-century artists changed the way we look at our beloved little monsters.
Pat Barker's The Ghost Road (Viking) was the best book I read this year, 'nuff said. I also greatly enjoyed Margaret Forster's Hidden Lives (Viking), a memoir of three generations of her own family in Carlisle which throbbed with authenticity and painful discoveries. Charles Blackmore's quite different journey of discovery took him to the Taklamakan Desert in China, from which his brilliant book takes its title: The Worst Desert on Earth (Murray). Finally, Jane Rogers's remarkably inventive novel Promised Lands (Faber) introduced me to this author, all of whose books I have now read and hugely admired.
Shrewd, sad and funny, D.J. Enright's Interplay (Oxford) is a nimble combination of commonplace book and autobiography. He has some harsh word to say about literary biographies (and quite right too), but even he might be moved and entertained by Selina Hastings's elegant life of Evelyn Waugh (Sinclair-Stevenson). Those anxious to linger in that particular patch of English literary life should turn to the second volume of Betjeman's Letters (Methuen), edited by Candida Lycett Green. The comic mispellings and strained jocularity are, mercifully, less in evidence than in Volume I: both books add up to a marvellous self-portrait of a man who, like his poetry, was a good deal more melancholy than he appeared on the surface.
Richard Davenport-Hines's Auden (Faber), more a collection of biographical essays than a linear biography, powerfully evokes the fertility and brilliance of England's greatest 20th-century poet. Auden once proposed marriage to Hannah Arendt, whose bleak account of the event is in the gossipy and gripping Between Friends: the Correspondence of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy 1949-1975 (Secker). Seamus Heaney's The Redress of Poetry (Faber) was the most exciting critical book this year, a major statement by a great poet coming into his own. Michael Hofmann's translation of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's The Lord Chandos Letter (Penguin Syrens) is invaluable.
Among the books I enjoyed this year was Kicking and Screaming (Robson Books), an oral history of football, with wide-ranging testimony from players and watchers; and a reissue of The Adventures of Gurudeva (Heinemann), by Seepersad Naipaul, father of Sir Vidia and in some measure the original of his Mr Biswas - it's the comedy of a Trinidad bad-John who turns into a Hindu pundit. Also: a new life of Robert Burns by Ian McIntyre, and the early life of Andrew O'Hagan, as told by O'Hagan, among other stories, in his book The Missing (Picador).
Anyone who, like me, has been working on the Brontes must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when Margaret Smith published her definitive edition of The Letters of Charlotte Bronte (Oxford) - after 150 years, all this marvellously biting and passionate correspondence has finally been pulled together in a text you can trust. Margaret Forster's Hidden Lives, (Viking) an intimate account of three female generations of her own family, was more illuminating than any social history. As a complete illiterate when it comes to Physics and Chemistry, I was amazed to find myself absorbed in John Carey's Faber Book of Science. And Peter Conrad's literary critical study To Be Continued: Four Stories and their Survival (Oxford) had moments of such disarming cleverness that I had to admire it despite its flaws.
In an exceptionally good year of reading and reviewing, five books gave me particular pleasure in different ways. I greatly admired Lawrence James's tremendous The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (Little, Brown). I loved Penelope Fitzgerald's hauntingly peculiar novel, The Blue Flower (Flamingo). I shall never forget Theo Richmond's elegiac but hearteningly entertaining Konin (Cape), about the fate of a Jewish shtetl in Poland. I was exhilarated by Patrick French's rip-roaring biography Younghusband (HarperCollins). But most of all, I have to say, I enjoyed Ivan Turgenev's A Huntsman's Sketches (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow) - and in translation at that.
Eric Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes (Abacus) came none too soon with its sane perspective on the century's implosion. Gillian Rose, writing like a poet in Love's Work (Chatto), helps us to live in circumstances which are never likely to be what we want. Iain Sinclair in Radon Daughters (Vintage) and Cormack McCarthy in The Crossing (Picador) both demonstrated that prose continues to be a vehicle for visionary invention, while Maggie O'Sullivan's In the House of the Shaman (Reality Street) spun wild panoramic verse that rescues poetry from all fears concerning its moribund state in the era of so-called post-modernism.
When the dust of history settles, future generations will wonder at our present fascination with in-your-face macho scribblings which threaten to drown out the quiet, dignified writings of our most consistently undervalued novelist, Anita Brookner. As I read her latest, Incidents in the rue Laugier (Cape), I once again marvelled at the quiet elegance of her prose. Another favourite novel: David McLaurin's Mortal Sins (Duckworth) - a Banana Republic setting for the battle between good and evil. Best biography: Clive Fisher's A Nostalgic Life, a haunting portrait of Cyril Connolly (Macmillan).
Pace George Walden, two novels on historical themes: Pat Barker's The Ghost Road (Viking), in which she manages to pull together, in a deeply moving conclusion, the many rich strands of her haunting First World War trilogy; and Mark Merlis's American Studies (Fourth Estate), a funny, troubling and beautifully written book about love, lust and betrayal in the McCarthy era. Two books about poets: the alternately hilarious and harrowing second volume of Betjeman's Letters 1951-1984 (Methuen), edited without affectation or piety by his daughter; and Richard Davenport-Hines's hugely intelligent and illuminating account of what it was like to be Auden (Heinemann).
It was pure literary pleasure to read The Siren (Harvill), selected works of Giuseppe di Lampedusa: haunting childhood memories of Sicily, one or two lyrical pieces of fiction, but best of all his passionate and humorous literary criticism. My historical novel of the year is the wildly ambitious Rasero (Weidenfeld) by the new Mexican writer Francisco Rebolledo, a full immersion in the Enlightenment, rank with politics, sex, philosophy and death. Finally, the 16th edition of the great Story of Art (Phaidon) must qualify, with new additions on the 20th century: 45 years on, Ernst Gombrich is still as delightful as ever.
Two books have given me unexpected delight this year: The Red Queen's Dream: Or, Lewis Carroll in Wonderland. by Jo Elwyn Jones and J. Francis Gladstone (Cape), which charmingly unlocks the enigmas of Alice; and Steven Lukes's The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat (Verso), a witty up-dating of Voltaire's Candide. Three works have done the essential job of exposing the corruption of public life and government in this country begun by the crazed Mrs Thatcher and continued by the creep who succeeded her: Will Hutton's The State We're In (Cape); Simon Jenkins's Accountable to None: The Tory Nationalization of Britain (Hamish Hamilton); and Peter Hennessy's The Hidden Wiring: Unearthing the British Constitution (Gollancz). Copies of each make essential gifts for any relative still be contemplating voting Conservative.
I absolutely loved The Young Disraeli (Sinclair-Stevenson). Jane Ridley paints a marvellously spirited and intelligent portrait of Dizzy in his dissolute years as an inveterate gambler who paid his debts by writing the lush novels which caused Lady Salisbury loftily to dismiss him as "very clever, but superlatively vulgar". Journey to the Ants (Harvard) is by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson. You don't need to be a myrmecologist to be enthralled by stories of the equivalent of building the Great Wall of China. The photographs are breathtaking. Jane Rogers's Promised Lands (Faber) is a novel which deserved to be on the Booker shortlist for its powerful and mesmerising account of conflict in the first Botany Bay settlement.
John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Chatto) had me most on the edge of my chair - but if I had been listening to the Radio 4 reading of John Betjeman's Letters (Methuen) at the time I might happily have relaxed.I giggled through Colin Clarke's The Prince, the Showgirl and Me (HarperCollins) and await further exposures. Gore Vidal's Palimpsest (Deutsch) was not ruined by his two television appearances and I'm sorry that he is still not speaking to me. I dare say we shall both live long enough. I do hope he does. Keith Waterhouse's City Lights (Hodder) is required reading, as is Michael Parkinson's Sporting Profiles (Pavilion) - he's the best sports interviewer.
John le Carre was on top form with Our Games (Hodder), a wonderfully sour book in which he displayed remarkable prescience about developments in Chechnya. Barry Unsworth's Morality Play (Hamish Hamilton) was that rare book which left me wanting it to be longer. Justin Cartwright's In Every Face I Meet (Sceptre) defied George Walden's animadversions against the sins of nostalgia by being chillingly up to the minute. And, for pure entertainment, wit and elegance, I must pick out Julian Barnes's Letters from London (Picador). Mrs Thatcher will never seem the same again.
For anyone even remotely interested in 19th-century literature, Edgar F. Harden's magisterial The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray (2 vols, Garland), a supplement to Gordon N. Ray's equally magisterial four volume edition of 1945-6, is an extraordinary piece of scholarship - 1,600 pages of new and refined material on what is already one of the better documented mid-Victorian lives. In a completely different arena, I liked Ivor Crewe's and Anthony King's thoroughly exhaustive chronicle SDP: The Life, Birth and Death of the Social Democratic Party (Oxford). Two novels I enjoyed were Hilary Mantel's An Experiment in Love (Viking) and Timothy Mo's Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard (Paddleless).
This year I enjoyed Robertson Davies's The Cunning Man (Viking), a febrile mix of high Anglicanism and high drama. Also Michael Dibdin's brainy thriller, Dark Spectre (Faber), read heart-in-mouth all the way. Catching up with last year in paperback, I loved John Berendt's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (Chatto) and Louis de Bernieres's Captain Corelli's Mandolin (Minerva). Best pre-publication treat was Angels and Men by Catherine Fox (Hamish Hamilton), a first novel to watch for in January.
I was very impressed by Barry Unsworth's Morality Play (Secker). Cynics suggested the book was just Rosemary Sutcliffe medievalism, but it was much more than that. Unsworth's feat is to dramatise a shift in sensibility, from Dark Ages to Enlightenment, through the plight of six am-dram strollers, and to evoke with conviction a time when a reasonable man could imagine he was watching the Antichrist riding through the trees to steal his unshriven soul away. Martin Amis's The Information (HarperCollins) was a calm, domesticated trot through old themes of envy, glamour, success and betrayal, but none the worse for that. And High Fidelity (Gollancz), Nick Hornby's tale of mid-life crisis among the record racks, deployed a few hundred casually acute perceptions about would-be sensitive malehood.
Tony Harrison's The Shadow of Hiroshima (Faber) confirmed his mastery of both easy idioms and epic themes. He once referred to himself as the Yorkshire poet who came to read the metre; but here the clap-your-hands rhythm and rhymes, stirred by an icy, sorrowful anger, made a fierce ballad out of the blast. Bryan Magee and the late Martin Milligan put together a remarkable philosophical correspondence in On Blindness (Oxford). The latter's own blindness allowed them to argue, with at times revealing defensiveness, about the nature of knowledge. And even those not enchanted by Gore Vidal's novels will find it hard to resist the lordly condescension and avid witticisms in his memoir, Palimpsest (Deutsch).
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