Thursday, January 06, 2011

Top of the pops

Bob from Brockley has tagged me and it would be churlish not to respond, especially as I can't think of anything else to write about on a wet afternoon the day before I return to the UK. So here are my top ten books from 2010.

I was lucky to read two great, and I mean great, novels last year. Both are translations and have been rendered into beautifully poetic English by their respective translators. These are the first two of my choices.

1. Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin is wonderful. I commented on it here and George Szirtes gave it a fine review here.

2. Vasily Grossman's Everything Flows is astonishing. It tackles the same theme as Fallada, the persistence of humanity in the face of unimaginable cruelty. It also deals with complicity in tyranny and is strangely redemptive. Here the similarities end. The book was unfinished at Grossman's death and, as a novel, it is incomplete with a limited narrative and undeveloped characters. As a result each chapter stands less as part of a narrative but as an intense prose poem. The book begins as a scream of rage and anguish at the brutalities of the Stalin era and then falls into a meditation on Russian history, Bolshevism, guilt and innocence, and a continuing faith in human freedom.
...there is no higher happiness than to leave the camp, even blind and legless, to creep out of the camp on one's stomach and die - even only ten yards from that accursed barbed wire.
And this is his theme; "There is no end in the world for the sake of which it is permissible to sacrifice human freedom". Crushing freedom means destroying humanity itself.

3. As if that historical and political intensity was not enough I was gripped by Nicholas Gage's Eleni, an investigation into the execution of his mother in the Greek Civil War. This dramatic personal history was conceived as an act of catharsis and of justice and it is also a superb piece of social history of village life and death in the mountains of Northern Greece.

4. And the theme continues with Sandy Tolan's The Lemon Tree, an account of a curious Israeli/Palestinian friendship mediated through the family home of both. One family lost the house in the expulsions of 1948, the other gained it after leaving Bulgaria, having narrowly avoided the Holocaust.

Phew! Time for something different.

5. Bluebird by Vesna Maric is light, slight and a delight. It is a memoir of a Bosnian refugee. I liked it because she ended up in Hull. And, as all of us do who find ourselves there, loved the place.

6. Why do so many of these lists not contain poetry? I am lucky that through blogging I got to know George Szirtes. His poetry is personal, complex, and is haunted by the shadows of the Europe of the 20th century. I bought his collection, The Burning of the Books, in 2009, but read it in 2010. Brilliant.

7. The reason why I put off reading the poetry is that it refers to a classic novel that I had not read. I have now. Elias Cannetti's Auto Da Fe is a darkly comic picture of almost autistic non-communication.

8. George is also a translator and through him I discovered the work of Sandor Marai. Esther's Inheritance is a dazzling novella that subverts the genre of the lost lover.

9. Now to more prosaic matters. Andrew Rawnsley's The End of the Party is an entertaining narrative of the final two terms of the New Labour Government. It is court politics, doesn't really engage in important issues of policy or political economy, but it is fun.

10. Finally, what can I say about this? By far the worst written book I have read for many years; verbose and cliché-ridden, full of startlingly inappropriate metaphors, surprising judgements and frequent lapses into purple prose. Tony Blair's A Journey is a book in urgent need of an editor and a ghost writer. But if it had been better written would it have the same gruesome fascination? It can occasionally be disarming and charming, sometimes incisive (such as the chapter on Northern Ireland) and often very strange. An absolute turkey - best consumed at Christmas and it seems to last for ever.

As for tagging others? No, not now but join in if you like.


mikeovswinton said...

Best book of 2010 for me had to be Reginald Hill's The Woodcutter. Yet more evidence from the master that on its day 'genre' fiction can outpunch 'literary' fiction. In fact more evidence that the distinction is meaningless.

bob said...

What a fantastic list Peter. You have made me really, really want to read all of them. Well nos.1-8 anyway! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Tony Judt certainly impressed me this year, and I was very sad to learn of his passing.