Here is, as promised, a list of the books I read in 2020, with a brief comment about each. Judgments I make are, of course, subjective.
(1) The Divers’ Game by Jesse Ball. A sinister dystopian tale, seemingly innocuous at first, but it has a real punch. The velvet glove disguises the iron fist. The impact is heightened because, for the most part, the dysfunctional future is seen through the eyes of young children. Good stuff. I read it twice. Enjoyed it even more the second time. I’ll be reading more of Jesse Ball.
(2) Damascus by Christos Tsiolkas. A take on the biblical Paul of Tarsus. St Paul. A turgid and unenlightening read. A revelation for Paul perhaps on the road to Damascus, but no epiphany here for me I’m afraid. Just boredom. A much over-hyped novel.
(3) The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. This is the first time I’ve read this, the one and only novel of Wilde. But everybody knows the story. It’s a tale for all seasons, a tale that screams out to be told and re-told. A tale that I sometimes think has been lurking in our subconscious since birth. A good read. Full of Wilde’s renouned epigrams. ‘Youth is wasted on the young.’ The social norms and mores of the 19th century seem quite quaint when viewed from the 21st.
(4) Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino translated from the Italian. Calvino, in the 20th century, likes to write about bygone ages. Here he spins three wonderful yarns, each a fantasy and each arguably a moral tale. A viscount is split down the middle in battle, the halves then becoming the bad viscount and the good viscount. A young baron who, dissatisfied with his life on terra firma, takes to living in the treetops. A empty suit of armour goes into battle and wins renown. Each story captivates. Every word captivates. Calvino could never be boring. How ever did he miss out on a Nobel?
(5) An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews. Non fiction. Biography of Richard Sorge, master spy for the former Soviet Union, arguably the greatest spy that ever lived. It may readily be contended that he changed the course of WWII, and particularly of Nazi Germany’s abortive Operation Barbarossa. This account of his life is very readable, even literary I would say, and seems to be meticulously researched.
(6) Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector translated from the Portuguese. A stunning short novel by this Brazilian writer. This woman can write. Her style is unique. Maybe this is an illusion, but she seems to invent the language she is using as she goes along. The sparse plot involves a young woman, Macabea, from the impoverished north-east of Brazil who arrives in Rio, hopeful of a brand new life, but expecting little. From his standpoint as narrator, Rodrigo S.M. attempts to micromanage her life, but without success. The ending brought me to tears. This is the best thing I read in 2020. It sits on my bedside table ready for a re-read. I can’t wait.
(7) Persuasion by Jane Austen. A re-read. The stilted manners and social stratifications of Georgian society in England are something else again. No other novel of Austen’s deals with these issues to such devastating (and comic) effect. Persuasion is interesting because its author is of two minds about how to end the novel, two different endings being offered to the reader. To my way of thinking, neither really works. I did enjoy re-reading it, but I think I liked it better when I read it the first time. There are overtones lurking here, perhaps unintended, of empire and colonialism. Captain Wentworth, the hero, wins his lady only after adventure on the high seas in which he makes his fortune. Doing what? Nothing very pretty, I suspect.
(8) Richard II by William Shakespeare. The first time I read this was when I was forced to do so at age 13. It was my first exposure to Shakespeare, and my impression at the time could best be described as bewilderment. About 15 years later, I saw it performed at (of all places) Stratford-on-Avon. You can understand that I just had to revisit it in my (presumed) maturity. I was impressed. It says a lot about the exercise of power and entitlement in all ages. Wonderful wonderful language. ‘I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.’ How good is that?
(9) Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie. A brave (or perhaps foolhardy) attempt at an epic tale embracing several generations and multiple countries. Starts in Japan (1945), moves to Delhi (1947), then on to Pakistan in the 1980s, then on to Afghanistan and the USA early in the 21st century. For me, this novel fails. The plot is too convoluted and contrived. Worse, the characters, stereotypes largely, fail to inspire interest.
(10) Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk translated from the Polish. A who-dun-it for the thinking person. A most convincing portrayal of small village life in Poland. Interestingly, animal liberationists get a nod in the course of events. I really enjoyed reading it. There’s an unusual twist at the end, which sets it apart from your standard who-dun-it. But sorry, no spoilers here from me. Read it for yourself. It’s good.
(11) The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning. A very good read from the Australian-born writer you’ve never heard of. The time: WWI. The place: the front-line in France. Manning has a first hand grasp of the culture of the trenches. In between deadly episodes of conflict, the over-riding experience is one of boredom, of being shuffled back and forth pointlessly by those purportedly in charge. The author captures brilliantly the unique, timeless, and stubbornly traditional ways of military organization, often (deservedly) with humour. He is no slouch either when it comes to realizing in fiction the repartee among soldiers, and between soldiers and the local (French) civilians. Wonderful stuff.
(12) The Periodic Table by Primo Levi translated from the Italian. A superb collection of vignettes based sometimes on Levi’s life experiences and sometimes purely on his wild imagination, each such vignette bearing the name of one of the chemical elements. Mercury and Phosphorus are perhaps the two I am least likely to forget, but other readers shall doubtless find their own personal favourites, because there’s really something here for everyone.
(13) Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump. I must make a resolution to resist the temptation in future to read best-sellers cashing in on current events. They are invariably rushed, full of mistakes, and never remotely literary. What’s more, in this case, I learnt little I hadn’t already gleaned from (fake?) news sources.
(14) The Family Moskat by Isaac Bashevis Singer translated from the Yiddish. Singer is better on short novels such as the wonderful Enemies: A Love Story. Coming from him, long novels like this one with a broad sweep embracing several generations seem to me to not work as well. There’s only about one character, Adele Landau, that’s remotely lovable. But the novel certainly depicts with poignancy the paralysis that afflicted the Jewish population of Warsaw on the eve of Hitler’s invasion, a paralysis that prevented any meaningful action being taken for the purposes of self preservation.
(15) The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende translated from the Spanish. This, I understand, is Isabel Allende’s defining novel. As befits much literature from and about South America, it is spiced with liberal amounts of magic realism and/or fabulism. But its account of a military coup and its unintended consequences, seems very real and quite horrifying, as I guess it would be coming from the niece of the late Salvador Allende. This wonderful novel is very readable and very competently written. My suggestion would be for everybody to read it sooner or (as I have) later.
(16) When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut translated from the Spanish. This book has been described cryptically as fictional biography. It has a basis in fact, but it has speculative embellishments. It is about the way science purportedly operates, with its main focus on those scientists, principally Werner Heisenberg and Erwin Schrodinger, who let quantum mechanics loose on the world. I believe the science is mostly right, but I don’t believe the book’s main premises are. It strives to perpetuate the myth that important scientific discoveries happen through genius and epiphany rather than through hard yakka building on earlier science. Moreover it would want you to believe these epiphanies are often driven by intense sexual fantasies. Pull the other one, Mr Labatut.