150+ essays on literary topics
My first discovery in a year of reading was Charles Dickens revealing himself as a grumpy old man. In my diary entry for 1st January, I quoted this from The Uncommercial Traveller.
I take the liberty to believe that if the Ruffian besets my life, a professional Ruffian at large in the open streets of a great city, notoriously having no other calling than that of Ruffian, and of disquieting and despoiling me as I go peacefully about my lawful business, interfering with no one, then the Government under which I have the great constitutional privilege, supreme honour and happiness, and all the rest of it, to exist, breaks down in the discharge of any Government’s most simple elementary duty.
Perhaps that was no great discovery. Rising anger against the world and its inconveniences is a familiar feeling to most of us when we reach a certain age. More interesting, I think, was my observation that Dickens’s habit as a writer (and perhaps as a man) was to turn real people into characters in his own made-up world. But is that too something that we all do?
John Clare was the second discovery. I wrote about the immediacy of his observations of animals and plants in his native Northamptonshire in my entry for 29th January and compared it to the familiar voice of David Attenborough when he writes with breathless excitement about a nightingale’s nest, in the poem of that name.
Hark! there she is as usual – let’s be hush –
For in this blackthorn-clump, if rightly guessed,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
These hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs…
Each generation takes from writers of the past the things that fit most easily with the present. It is a lazy way of reading which makes ‘I am – yet what I am none cares or knows’ the only line of Clare’s that most of us remember. He wrote far more about woods and fields than he did about himself and his descriptions have the same quality as the engravings of another self-taught artist, Thomas Bewick, or even, come to that, of Dürer.
Peirene Press is a small independent publisher of novellas by contemporary European writers. Each book, of which there are three a year, is a discovery. This year’s trio were The Dead Lake by Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov, The Blue Room by Norwegian Hanne Ørstavik and Under the Tripoli Sky written in French by Moroccan author Kamal Ben Hameda. No publisher can resist quoting favourable reviews even when, as in the case of at least one review of The Dead Lake, they present a completely false picture of the book in question. ‘Like a market trader cascading one colourful rug after another at us, Hamid Ismailov unrolls his chapters vivid with exuberant detail and exotic colour.’ That was nothing like the book I read.
If I remember 2014 for nothing else, I will remember it as the year in which I discovered Ronald Fraser. Starting with The Flying Draper, I went on to read Rose Anstey, Surprising Results and Bell from a Distant Temple. Fraser’s writing career began in the 1920s and ended in 1974 when he died at the age of eighty. Reading four a year, it will take me another six years to read his complete works, all of which are out-of-print. I included in my diary for 9th April what one of his contemporaries, Humbert Wolfe, said of him: ‘His imagination is as nearly disembodied as it is possible for imagination to be without losing meaning.’ Who could resist? Why has he been forgotten?
The year’s other discoveries included F.L.Green, Mark Rutherford and Aharon Appelfeld. Odd Man Out by F.L.Green was published in 1945, made into a film by Carol Reed in the 1950s and is now out-of-print. The film is remembered as classic British film-noir and the book should be remembered as classic British realist fiction on the subject of the troubles in Northern Ireland before they became the subject of daily news in England.
Mark Rutherford was the nom de plume of a middle-ranking civil servant called William Hale White. The book that caught my eye in a second-hand bookshop was The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane. It was written at the end of the nineteenth century but is set in the early years of that century in the period of conflict between working class Radicals and an establishment fearful of revolution. As such, it invites comparison with Felix Holt the Radical by George Eliot, with whom Mark Rutherford shared an office at the Admiralty when she was Marian Evans and he was William Hale White. Rutherford however is not a writer of the Eliot kind, but rather a predecessor of Robert Tressell, Walter Greenwood and other plain-speaking, working class, English realists of the twentieth century.
Badenheim 1939 is a short novel by Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld whose story of the rounding-up of Jews by the Nazis in a fictional spa town presents the victims as holocaust deniers avant la lettre. I described it in my diary for 5 November as ‘a story-book treatment which makes the reality all the more vivid and horrifying’.
Most of the year’s disappointments have been confined to the theatre, where directors have tried to improve on a playwright’s work instead of showing what is already there to its best advantage. London’s Young Vic and Mold’s Theatr Cymru disappointed with A Streetcar Named Desire and Under Milk Wood respectively. Theatr Cymru was guilty not of trying to improve on Dylan Thomas but of doing nothing to stop me closing my eyes and pretending I was listening to it on the radio. My suggestion, in my diary for 2nd July, was to make it into a puppet play or to do what The Royal Ballet did brilliantly this year with A Winter’s Tale and re-interpret it as a ballet.
Patrick Modiano, French winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, was the subject of my diary entry for 22nd October. I had read one of his books, Le café de la jeunesse perdue, given to me by a friend earlier in the year and thus had an advantage over most English readers who, if they don’t know French, have very few of his books to choose from. With only one book and one film to go on (he wrote the screenplay for Louis Malle’s great war-time film, Lacombe Lucien) I was in no position to say whether or not he deserved the award more than Philip Roth, who many people expected to win it, only to comment on the lack of attention paid in the British press to this year’s winner compared to last year’s, who just happened to write in English.
New Year’s Resolutions are a hostage to fortune and reading lists too likely to be predictable and worthy. Unexpected discoveries are what make reading, like old-fashioned sea-journeys, exciting and memorable. Even so, you can’t set out on a journey without some idea of the places you want to visit. My itinerary for 2015 will, I hope, take in more books by Ronald Fraser and the other writers I discovered in 2014, three more European novellas from Peirene Press and a tour of America to fill in some gaps in my reading, especially Walt Whitman, who is probably the biggest and least excusable gap, but also more of Melville and Faulkner of whom I have read some but not enough.
Is it my imagination or were the women writers of late nineteenth and early twentieth century America edged out by the men? My hypothesis, based so far on very flimsy evidence, is that American fiction, whether written by men or women, started out with a feminine voice but now has a masculine one. I want to test my hypothesis, but I won’t object if some chance discovery means that it has to wait for another year.
The New Year on Neil Rathmell’s Literary Blog starts on 7 January with a piece about The Deserted Village by Oliver Goldsmith.
The first entry in my Reader’s Diary for 2015 will appear on 14 January.