Books of the Year
What were your favourite books of the year? I ask because a few weeks ago I spent half an hour pulling together a list of my books of the year for the December issue of Australian Book Review, which hit the shops this week. Writing these sorts of lists is always a slightly odd process, not least because it’s often difficult by November or December to remember what you read in January (though I’ve been using Facebook’s Virtual Bookshelf app to track my reading lately, which has helped a bit with that part of the process). But it also throws up other problems. Does a book count if it was published last year but you didn’t read it until this year? What happens if you had a dud year, and nothing much lit your fire? And, much as I hate to admit it, there’s always the need to look like I’m a slightly more serious person than I actually am.
Unfortunately ABR’s lists aren’t online, but if you all promise to run out and buy a copy I don’t think they’ll mind if I reveal my picks, which were (in no particular order) Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime and Marilynne Robinson’s Home.
Looking at the list I’m painfully aware of how conservative it looks. But I’m also reminded that about two minutes after I sent it off, I realised I’d left off the two books which should, by rights, have headed the list, Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and Jonathan Littell’s opus, The Kindly Ones.
What interests me about both is that they’re both immense, and immensely flawed, yet simultaneously both are works that test the limits of what the novel can do. The Littell – ostensibly the more conventional of the two, and not dissimilar in its way from William Vollman’s similarly immense and semi-factional Europe Central – is, in a formal sense, a failure, unable to resolve the tension between the stories of the Oresteia which are invoked by its title, and the historical material in which it is grounded. Yet despite that it is a powerful and deeply disturbing work, not just because of its many graphic and oddly numbed scenes of violence and degradation, but because the textures of its narrator, Aue’s, consciousness are so repulsive, and, more importantly, because it demands, both by virtue of its extraordinary synthesis of historical and documentary sources, and its curiously uninflected observation of the monstrosities it depicts, that the reader look at the Holocaust anew.
At a formal level, 2666 is even more problematic than The Kindly Ones. Unfinished at the time of Bolano’s death in 1999, it has been translated with great fluidity and care by Natasha Wimmer. As Musil’s Man Without Qualities demonstrates, a novel does not need to be complete to be great, but 2666 is incomplete in a deeply indeterminate way. Pieced together from several manuscripts after Bolano’s death, its current incarnation was supposed, at least at the time of publication, to be a good approximation of Bolano’s intentions. But in the year or so since it was published more sections have appeared, suggesting that judgement might be premature.
Exactly where these new sections fit isn’t clear. Certainly the book as it stands seems complete, and it’s difficult to imagine how new sections could be incorporated into the whole. Yet like Bolano’s similarly dazzling The Savage Detectives, the novel celebrates a particular form of uncertainty and fascination with the outer limits of meaning by incorporating them into its fabric, qualities that suggest its form is mutable in a way the form of most novels most definitely is not.
What’s remarkable about both is that they question the very idea of the novel, in the case of The Kindly Ones by eliding the boundary between the novel and history, in the case of 2666 by creating a book which through its textual game-playing and multiplicity deliberately (or presumably deliberately) denies the reader the satisfactions of resolution and closure we normally associate with fiction.
I’m not sure how I managed to forget two books which so infuriated and delighted me when I was doing my list for ABR, but I think the fact I did should be a reminder of how provisional any list of the best books is. Because when I think about it, there are easily half a dozen more I could have included. Richard Holmes’ joyous The Age of Wonder, for instance, or Esther Woolfson’s wonderful Corvus. Or Robert Charles Wilson’s Spin. Or David Malouf’s Ransom. Or James Lasdun’s It’s Beginning to Hurt. The list goes on and one.
Which brings me back to the question I asked at the outset. What are the best things you’ve read this year? Are there books I should have read I haven’t? Any remarkable and unexpected discoveries? Can you confine yourself to just three, or five, or do you need to list more? Either way, I’d love to know.