The political writing that has engaged me most this year is the memoir The Return (Penguin). Hisham Matar is a loving and angry son in search of his father – an activist abducted by Egyptian agents in 1990 and turned over to Libya. It doesn’t have a happy ending, but it’s a resonant commemoration of courage. For those dreaming of summer, Jon Hotten’s memoir The Meaning of Cricket (Yellow Jersey) is accessible, fun and elegantly written. Ian McGuire’s whaling novel The North Water (Scribner) is exuberant, occasionally emetic, but always gripping.
The best political book of the year was undoubtedly Tim Shipman’s masterly All Out War (William Collins), an exhaustive but pacy account of the EU referendum. I don’t see how it could have been done better. But after Donald Trump’s election, Gary Younge’s latest book elbows its way to the top of the pile: Another Day in the Death of America (Guardian Faber) is sad, beautifully written and absolutely of the moment. Finally, for a perky, slantwise meditation on who we are now, try Ali Smith’s Autumn (Hamish Hamilton). She is simply incapable of writing a dull paragraph.
Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls (Serpent’s Tail) offers poetry, sex, Catholicism, drugs, class and sexuality. This new reprint of Myles’s hard-talking, lyrical autobiographical novel, about a female writer figuring things out in the 1960s, is the missing data for anyone who has read only the male American beat writers. Autumn by Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton) is transcendental writing about art, death, political lies, trees and all the dimensions of love. It’s a case not so much of reading between the lines as of being blinded by the light between the lines – in a good way.
Alexander McCall Smith
I like large and beautiful books. Two recent offerings fit that description. David Hockney and Martin Gayford have written A History of Pictures (Thames & Hudson). It is based on a very long conversation about art, illustrated throughout with examples, and it’s a sheer pleasure to read – and to look at. Like many, I can’t get enough of Hockney. Then there is Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts (Allen Lane), a lovely reflection on medieval manuscripts, their beauty, their history and their significance. It’s a fascinating intellectual treat.
It’s a rare and wondrous event when a novel changes the way you look at the world around you; and this was the case with David Szalay’s All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape). It is made up of nine linked stories, all featuring men – of all ages, different nationalities, all classes – moving across various European countries. It’s very relevant in the light of the Brexit vote, but what is most haunting about it is its deadpan, gimlet-eyed view of men (and women) and the current human predicament. Written in a coolly precise and strangely beguiling prose, All That Man Is was a worthy winner of the Gordon Burn Prize this year. Gordon Burn would have loved it. Say no more.
A N Wilson
Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet (Bodley Head) is a superb evocation of Luther’s Germany, in all its torment and strife; of the intellectual climate of the early-modern period; and of Luther himself, the monster genius of the Reformation. It is too subtle a study to be described as a demolition job, but no one, having read it, could ever quite admire Luther unreservedly. Roper captures so well his coarseness and cruelty, as well as his intellectual/spiritual originality and literary finesse. The book is deeply satisfying but also profoundly upsetting. It is hard not to finish it without thinking that Luther’s legacy – of anti-Semitism, discord, muddled thinking and anti-intellectualism – was a disaster.
Choosing is always hard but my favourite book of this year is The Noise of Time (Jonathan Cape) by Julian Barnes. He goes where we historians dare not go – into the innermost thoughts, fears and hopes of a real figure from the past. His Dmitri Shostakovich is completely believable and the composer’s tortured relationship with what he calls power illuminates the human costs of totalitarianism. Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing (Granta Books), published last year, is equally gripping and dark. An old Junker family waits listlessly in its isolated manor house as the Soviet army draws ever closer from the east. I read both books with huge admiration and, yes, a bit of envy for the authors’ skill, imagination and daring.
When you’ve spent most of your life teaching Shakespeare’s plays, you don’t expect to stumble upon a book that makes you feel you’ve failed to understand something essential about them. John Kerrigan’s Shakespeare’s Binding Language (Oxford University Press) is just such a book, one that helps us recover what most Elizabethan playgoers would have grasped about the stream of oaths, curses, promises and vows that fills Shakespeare’s plays. Though not an easy read, it is a profoundly rewarding book. It will prove indispensable, not only for those who enjoy reading the plays, but also for those who direct and act in them.
Kerrie O’Brien, a young Irish poet, this year published a book of beauty and subtlety called Illuminate (Salmon Poetry). It is so clear, so bright and in no way self-regarding in its potent and hopeful painting of the self. By dark contrast, I have been scanning the permanent poems of John Burnside, the laureate of Late-Middle-Aged Man. There are lines in All One Breath (Jonathan Cape), for instance, that brand themselves into your brain with the fire of painful recognition. And yet it is also part of his genius to be ever alert to beauty, too.
Should anyone be in the mood for a long, festive walk through the countryside, two recent books will serve as ideal accompaniments. The Making of the British Landscape (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) by Nicholas Crane does exactly what it says on the tin, providing a panoramic account of the past 12,000 years that is simultaneously scholarly, lyrical and moving. Mary-Ann Ochota’s Hidden Histories: a Spotter’s Guide to the British Landscape (Frances Lincoln) is a field guide that will open your eyes to the countryside in a way that very few books can rival.
A Country Road, a Tree (Doubleday) by Jo Baker is a fascinating fictional account of Samuel Beckett’s wartime years in occupied France. You don’t have to be a fan of the artist, but you will come to a deeper appreciation of the man. Catriona McPherson’s The Child Garden (Constable) is a gripping thriller about a mystery at a New Age school and the murder of ex-pupils. It’s tense, engaging and atmospheric, with a humane and believable central character.
Morning, Paramin (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) is a “call and response” of poems and paintings by Derek Walcott and Peter Doig that does what every collaboration should. The book goes beyond the sum of its parts. Part dreamscape, part landscape writing and part a portrait of lost friends, it is unshowily thoughtful as it evokes the blunt emotional truths of later life. It seems that they do this sort of thing better on the far side of the Atlantic. The year’s other serious exploration of the poetry book form comes from the Canadian Anne Carson. Float (Jonathan Cape), her boxed set of pamphlets “whose order is unfixed”, is a brilliant and provocative take on domestic life.
This was a good year for books on capitalism. Robert J Gordon’s The Rise and Fall of American Growth (Princeton University Press) explains why the years of improving living standards that ended in the 1970s may never return. If you are fed up with economics, two books from the front line of capitalism’s crisis, Greece, offer superbly up-to-date literary perspectives. Christos Ikonomou’s short stories of the backstreets of Piraeus, collected in Something Will Happen, You’ll See (Archipelago; in a fine translation by Karen Emmerich), have been compared to Faulkner. Equally indispensable is an anthology edited by Karen Van Dyck, Austerity Measures: the New Greek Poetry (Penguin). New voices for new times.
David Grossman’s novel A Horse Walks Into a Bar (Jonathan Cape) is at once a stand-up comedian’s spiel and a meditation on the agony of being a bullied kid, of losing a parent, of being Israeli, of being alone and ageing and wondering what your life amounts to. It’s a writerly tour de force that would be unbearably painful, were it not also so generously humane.
Meanwhile, Julie Myerson’s novel The Stopped Heart (Jonathan Cape) plaits together two tales of child murder: one historical and one contemporary, both charged with pathos and queasy eroticism. It is sophisticated in its emotional insights and its ingenious construction, vividly written and compelling enough to keep one hooked.
Ian McGuire’s The North Water (Scribner), longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, was a brilliant, terrifying historical fiction – sort of Herman Melville meets Hannibal Lecter, with a little of the young Conan Doyle’s 1880 whaling voyage thrown in – all set within a trade that brutalised its participants as much as it butchered its prey. Calmer yet equally sensational was Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City (Canongate), a beautiful evocation of a state of mind through artists from Hopper and Warhol to Wojnarowicz. Its solace seemed apt in the year that we lost our greatest living artist, David Bowie, who spoke so much to our alienated souls.
Annie Dillard’s The Abundance (Canongate) is a tour of highlights from her non-fiction canon. It summarises her fiercely independent views on nature, religion, art, and so on. Yet what stays longest with the reader is the magnesium-flare intensity of her prose and her invincible joy at being alive. I am a latecomer to The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy (Everyman) but no novel sequence has given me greater pleasure. Each story is set in an archly masculine shadow zone where Texan cattle range meets the badlands of Mexico. McCarthy mixes tales of shocking violence with wildly comic dialogue, but behind them all are the landscapes of the American West, which he conjures in an extravagant and unequalled poetry.
Rabih Alameddine’s The Angel of History (Corsair) is a profoundly beautiful novel that infolds the political with the personal in unexpected and new ways. The story is of a Yemeni-born gay man in San Francisco looking back on the Aids crisis and contemplating the bombing of Yemen by US drones in the present. An extraordinary book.
Jana Prikryl’s first volume of poetry, The After Party (Tim Duggan Books), announces a wholly original talent. The voice is labile – at once witty, wry, astringent, funny, wise and unfathomable. This collection is full of surprises. In her hands, form is an endlessly malleable thing. I felt pure exhilaration reading it.
Faber & Faber has been announcing/promising the definitive critical edition of Basil Bunting’s poetry for at least five years: and, sumo-sized, it has finally appeared – The Poems of Basil Bunting (edited by Don Share). Bunting, an epigone of Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky, a confrère of Ford Madox Ford, would have disappeared without trace, had his late, long poem Briggflatts not been lauded by Cyril Connolly in the Sunday Times, a single review that saved him from oblivion. His status – famous for one poem –
is almost unique. The only comparable figure is Gray, with his “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”. Bunting’s autobiographical, elegiac, indisputably major poem has heft, ambition and an austere mastery of line.
Diane Williams’s Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (C B Editions) . . . have I got the correct the number of “Fines” there? Whether there are four or five might be significant. Then again, it might not. Reading this collection of short, short stories is, for anyone interested in literary form, like waking up in Wonderland. These micro-tales are made up of what seem, at first glance, to be series of awkwardly truncated sentences welded to a randomly selected collection of non sequiturs. Yet, on closer inspection, that rarely proves to be the case and cumulatively each story somehow manages to encapsulate both the clarity and peculiarity of perspective. I “get it” and I don’t, simultaneously, and the book is all the more pleasurable for that.
Richard J Evans
The Letters of a Dead Man, by Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau, first published in 1831-32 in a heavily expurgated edition, records the travels of this minor German nobleman through England and Wales, and is full of acute and entertaining observations of English society and mores. Now it has been issued in a new translation by the Germanist Linda Parshall (in the Dumbarton Oaks Library series from Harvard University Press), with the cuts restored and the author’s own illustrations – including many that testify to his interest in parks and gardens – all reproduced in a sumptuous, large-format single volume: a treat and a treasure.
One of the thrills of 2016 was discovering the Austrian artist Maria Lassnig when I wandered into a retrospective at Tate Liverpool. The show’s catalogue is certainly the most beautiful book I bought this year, and maybe the most penetrating: decade after decade of witty, expressionistic and uncompromising self-portraits, sometimes in the guise of aliens or alarmingly vivacious household appliances. A word, too, for Mountains of the Moon (Vintage) by I J Kay, a debut novel about a damaged and indefatigable woman that I’ve thought about in stray moments since it was first published in 2012. Original, fierce and ravishing, it deserves to be far more widely known.
The book that has haunted me all year is Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (Canongate), a spare memoir of an exiled Orcadian’s return after a broken life of addiction in London. This is not the increasingly modish parable of healing through nature. Liptrot’s path to a salvation of sorts is often as bleak, tough and exhilarating as the Orkneys themselves.
Though I haven’t quite become the kind of man who will only read accounts of the siege of Stalingrad, novels have recently underwhelmed me in comparison to non-fiction. Underground Airlines by Ben H Winters (Century), with a foot in both camps, gripped me for days. Set in a counterfactual United States where slavery still exists in the “hard four” states of the South, it is brutal and convincing, and manages to be both polemical and morally nuanced.
My most exciting reads of 2016 have been books that cross: Rob Doyle’s This Is the Ritual (Bloomsbury) and Lynne Tillman’s The Complete Madame Realism (Semiotext(e)), are ostensibly short-story collections but playfully defy genre, mixing essay with fiction, the satirical with the heartfelt. They are also both very funny. Crossing in another way, Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse (Chatto & Windus) and Lara Pawson’s This Is the Place to Be (C B Editions) are subtly explorative quasi-memoirs that insist on women’s right to free movement in the public sphere, and that personal experience is fundamental to rigorous thought.
Susannah Clapp’s A Card from Angela Carter (Bloomsbury), first published in 2012, has been reissued in a bright, light and utterly charming edition. Framed around the postcards that Clapp received from Carter during the many years of their friendship (which include pictures of Charles and Di, armadillos, sun-baked buttocks and trucks shaped as chickens), the book catches its subject on the wing and nails her “gift for a story in a word”. A master of precision in her own right, Clapp takes eulogy in a new direction and provides a masterclass in the art of criticism.
My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking), a short novel by Elizabeth Strout about an aspiring author stuck in a New York hospital with a severe but unspecified illness, does not sound uplifting – yet this is a rich account of a relationship between mother and daughter, the frailty of memory and the power of healing. The prose style is sparse, but melodious. Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata (Chatto & Windus), set in Switzerland, gets its narrative force from an act of bureaucratic courage by a local police official whose decision to rescue German Jews infuriates his wife. The portrait of her and of the relationship between his hypersensitive son and his Jewish boyhood friend twists and turns but leaves you feeling uplifted.
Rachel Cusk’s novel Transit (Jonathan Cape) is as exquisitely self-withholding as its predecessor Outline, but with a form emerging from the long arabesque of stories the narrator listens to: listening without overt shaping being the key to a project of dark-comic delicacy in which the traces of epiphany, or even fate, are picked out of the minor flows of bourgeois dinner parties and puddled candle wax. Likeable, it isn’t – but why should marvels have to be likeable?
Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (Melville House) is not a comfortable read, but I was gripped by it. In jagged fashion, Nelson tells the story of her own love affair and marriage to the charismatic transgender artist Harry Dodge, charting Dodge’s journey through sex reassignment while Nelson embarks on motherhood. Both memoir and anti-memoir, this is a cut-and-paste high-literary work, a sentimental education for the 21st century told through a patchwork of precisely observed slivers of prose on everything from the limitations of language to the possibilities of queer theory and the pleasures of anal eroticism (I’m keeping it polite here) to the miracle of loving adoption. A lyrical and ultimately very moving insight into some of the ways that sexual desire, motherhood, feminism and, indeed, family are being remade by some bold and inspired pioneers.
We’ve been spoilt for choice for things to get depressed about in 2016, but one book that provided solace was the exquisite Divine Pleasures: Paintings from India’s Rajput Courts by Navina Najat Haidar and Terence McInerney (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Rajput miniature ateliers took the stately portrait style of the Mughals and supercharged it with narrative vigour, sensuality and colour. Painted at a time of instability and violence in India, these works show a world seemingly lost in bucolic pleasure-seeking: a world where women are eternally playing on swings, lovers meet in forest groves and princesses gaze over palace balconies, as monsoon clouds mass over the Himalayas. In the absence of Bowie, Prince and Leonard Cohen, this is just the thing to disappear into when the Age of Trump and Putin gets too much to bear.
The first time I encountered a real, live illuminated manuscript was in 1960, when the Book of Kells was on loan to the British Museum from Dublin. There was no darkened room then, just the book on a stand, one man turning a page every so often, one security guard and a mile-long queue. The sight of that work of art and history changed me and my view of the world for ever – no exaggeration. Now comes a book that has almost the same impact. Christopher de Hamel’s Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts (Allen Lane) is a stunning volume. The learning is worn lightly but the erudition is mighty, the illustrations glorious; the whole enterprise is breathtaking.
I had never come across Diane Williams’s writing before I read her collection of very short stories Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (C B Editions). They are like nothing else I know: puzzles from ordinary life, made strange by the teasing sentences. Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake (Jonathan Cape) is, in one way, a collection of English nature poems, but often filtered through classical myth. There is no punctuation, just the line endings and spaces to guide the voice for which they are obviously intended. And it is her voice; it would be great to hear Oswald perform it.
Frances Wilson’s Guilty Thing: a Life of Thomas De Quincey (Bloomsbury) is a superb literary biography. The essayist and opium-eater – “Romantic acolyte, professional doppelgänger, transcendental hack”, as Wilson calls him – repulses and fascinates in equal measure. She brings out the paradoxes in De Quincey’s character: insecure and obsequious at one moment, dripping in self-worth the next.
In Search of Kings and Conquerors: Gertrude Bell and the Archaeology of the Middle East by Lisa Cooper (I B Tauris) begins with a journey in 1909 to Aleppo. Bell’s photographs, diaries and reports are striking records of a vanishing world. Cooper rescues this fiercely intelligent archaeologist from critics who have dismissed her as a petticoat with a camera.
Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (Granta Books) takes us straight into bandit country – the badlands that lie between our species and every other species on the planet. It’s a place where certainties erode and romantic notions of human uniqueness turn to dust. De Waal, a Dutch primatologist and thinker, looks at the big questions: intelligence, problem-solving, planning, language, emotion, empathy, social skill, theory of mind, self-recognition, understanding. He shows us that what “makes us human” is our own desperate need to separate ourselves from our fellow animals. The difference is never of kind, always of degree.
Books of the year: politicians
Books of the year: the New Statesman team
This article appears in the 16 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world