End of year review 2019

As the world seems to get worse and worse, reading books seems increasingly to be the best escape. It has been helped (for me) this year by the fact that I have read more longer, often very long books. I do enjoy a really long, good book not least because you can really get immersed in another world (or worlds). This year, I have really enjoyed (in no particular order) Lucy Ellmann‘s Ducks, Newburyport, Oğuz Atay ‘s Tutunamayanlar (The Disconnected), Nino Haratischwili‘s Das achte Leben (The Eighth Life), several novels by Mircea Cărtărescu, Christophe Bernard‘s La Bête Creuse [The Hollow Beast], Miloš Crnjanski‘s Roman o Londonu (Novel of London), Vasily Grossman‘s За правое дело (Stalingrad) and Valeria Luiselli‘s El archivo de los niños perdidos; Desierto Sonoro (Lost Children Archive). Only two were originally written in English (the Ellmann and the Luiselli) and several are not available in English, though the Crnjanski should be out in 2020.

Of course, it has not all been long books. I have continued ploughing through the ever-growing work of César Aira, most of which are short but still enjoyable. It is my view that he should get the Nobel Prize but he did not.

Which leads me on to the prizes this year. I was a bit surprised that the Nobel Prize for Literature this year went to two Central European writers. What happened to the African and Asian writers? What happened to César Aira and Haruki Murakami? Maybe next year…

I thought Olga Tokarczuk was an excellent choice. I am slowly wending my way through her books. There are a few not available in English but available in other Western European languages. I thought Peter Handke was an excellent choice from the literary point of view. I have read eleven of his novels and now plan to read some more. Not all of his works, of course, have been translated into English. However, the concern about him was his views on Serbian nationalism and his support for Milosevic. PEN International issued a a strongly worded criticism of the award. I have been following the issue in the German and Austrian press and, while it has been divided, there has been a lot of criticism of Handke and the Nobel Prize Committee. His publisher, Suhrkamp, even issued a long defence of Handke (in English).

I have mixed views on this. I deplore Handke’s views on Serbian nationalism, though having read a couple of books this year by the Serbian author Miloš Crnjanski, I am much more aware that the Serbs have not had a particularly happy history.

If we are to decide not to read books by people whose views we do not like we will be reducing our reading a lot. Many authors, for example, supported the Nazis, including, famously, Céline, Henry Williamson, Knut Hamsun, Ezra Pound, Francis Stuart, Unity and Diana Mitford and doubtless many authors I cannot recall. Writers, of course, also supported Stalin, Mao and other unsavoury characters and, of course, there have been writers who have justified colonialism, been sexist, racist, homophobic, beaten up their wives, and so on. It is even possible that some writers voted for Donald Trump or Brexit. Do we stop reading them? The answer, of course, is that each person must make the decision for themselves but I shall certainly continue to read Handke.

While we are on the Nobel Prize, I do hope that they broaden their scope next year and I have three candidates for them. I have already mentioned César Aira and would add Ismail Kadare, a man who was also somewhat politically compromised but a brilliant writer, and a somewhat unexpected choice, the Uzbek writer Hamid Ismailov. I have read two of his books this year and thought they were brilliant. I had the opportunity to see him a couple of months ago when he was a participant at a discussion on immigration. He was asked whether he would be likely to get the Nobel Prize and he responded, as we might expect, with a story. When he was at school, he was expecting to win a medal but it went to someone else more politically connected. He added that that has been the story of his life and probably would be with the Nobel Prize. I hope he is wrong because he deserves it and it would be interesting for a Central Asian to win it. I would point out that no Argentinian, no Albanian and no Uzbek has yet won it.

The controversy over the Booker Prize seems minor in comparison. Contrary to their rules, they decided on a joint winner. I have not read Girl, Woman, Other but I did enjoy The Testaments. However, I would have given the award to Ducks, Newburyport, which I thought was a brilliant book.

Earlier this year, there were a couple of articles about book blogs. The first was Top 25 Book Blogs 2019. To my surprise. I had heard of very few of them and, to be quite honest, when I looked at them, I could see why. The article was from a Danish site whose articles, apart from this one, seem to be mainly in Danish. How you can have a list of the 25 best book blogs and not include The Literary Saloon, , The Untranslated , Lizok’s Bookshelf, ArabLit, Tony’s Reading List, The Neglected Books Page, ANZ LitLovers LitBlog and many others (apologies to those omitted) is beyond me.

The other article was The Millions Will Live on, But the Indie Book Blog Is Dead. The article seems to think the only worthwhile book blog is The Millions. While I do look at it now and then, I have never been overly impressed. The only other book blogs it mentions are both defunct – The Elegant Variation and Bookslut. Both were worthwhile blogs but, as I said, both are defunct, so how can the article claim that indie book blog is dead, without actually looking at other blogs? To use a technical English term – Bollocks. The article comes from a site calling itself Vulture with such original articles as The 100 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now and Daisy Ridley Pledges Loyalty to Baby Yoda, Confirms Porgs Are Trash whatever that may mean.

Talking of defunct blogs, the sad news this year is that the wonderful blog The Untranslated has been discontinued. I learned a huge amount from it and if you do not know it, the old posts are still online and well worth reading. I hope that Andrei, author of the blog, will re-emerge with another venture.

It seems that I have not been able to really keep away from politics and, indeed, I must confess to reading two Brexit novels: Ali Smith‘s Spring and Ian McEwan‘s The Cockroach. I have not read a Trump book but he does briefly pop up in Ducks, Newburyport. However, it is not just Brexit and Trump. I read twenty-one Turkish novels this year and most of them had political overtones or undertones. From racism in Sweden in Johannes Anyuru‘s De kommer att drunkna i sina mödrars tårar (They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears) to Trump’s immigration policies (though he is not mentioned by name) in Valeria Luiselli‘s superb El archivo de los niños perdidos; Desierto Sonoro (Lost Children Archive), from US interference in Guatemala in Mario Vargas Llosa‘s Tiempos recios [Hard Times] to John Lanchester‘s Trumpian British Wall in The Wall, I seem to have read a lot of political books this year.

And now to the figures. I have read 138 books this year (surprisingly, exactly the same as last year). As my country of the year, Turkey was clear top, with twenty-one books. There were forty-three different nationalities, with twelve books from Argentinian writers, nine French, eight Russian, six Spanish and five English and five Italian as well as five books by the Romanian writerMircea Cărtărescu. Nothing else above four. Less well represented countries read this year include Afghanistan, Albania, Angola, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ecuador, Georgia, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Mongolia, Montenegro, Niger, Palestine, Serbia, Sweden, Uruguay and Uzbekistan.

I read only thirty-six books by women (26%), down from last year’s forty-three. However, I must say there were some really first-class books by women writers this year. I have already mentioned above three long books by women I really enjoyed: Lucy Ellmann‘s Ducks, Newburyport, Nino Haratischwili‘s Das achte Leben (The Eighth Life) and
Valeria Luiselli‘s El archivo de los niños perdidos; Desierto Sonoro (Lost Children Archive). I have also enjoyed other books by women writers. Esther Kinsky‘s Am Fluss (River) was a gem. This year I read another gem by her: Hain (Grove). I read it in German but it will be out in English in 2020 from Fitzcarraldo

One of the several Argentinian writers I read this year was Pola Oloixarac. Her Las constelaciones oscuras (Dark Constellations) was one of the most intelligent novels I have read with a scientific theme. Ibtisam Azem‘s وسفر الاختفاء (The Book of Disappearance) was a very original novel on the Palestinian situation, which is well worth reading, whatever your views on the conflict. Finally, I must mention Olga Tokarczuk. I read the four of her books available in English and, as mentioned above, I hope to get round next year to those of her works translated in French but not English. As also mentioned above, she is a superb writer and fully deserving of her prize.

While I enjoyed everything I read this year, I do not think the men were of quite the same level. Apart from Tokarczuk, there were four other writers of whose work I read four or more books: Patrick Modiano, Eduardo Mendoza, César Aira and Mircea Cărtărescu. Modiano and Mendoza are excellent writers but not, in my view, great writers. Aira is sui generis, unique and brilliant. I have read twenty-nine of his works and will continue to plough through his oeuvre, though some are difficult to obtain. None of the five Cărtărescu works I read this year has been translated into English, which is a great pity, as he is a brilliant writer and he should be better known.

I note that I have read twenty-six books that have not (yet) been translated into English, which must be a high. The sad reason for this is simply that far too many worthwhile books are not being translated into English. The most recent book I read and reviewed was Mircea Cărtărescu‘s Travesti [Travesty], which has been translated into ten different languages (at least) but not English. My apologies for this, if you do not read these languages but some of them will come out in English anyway and I have a vain hope that, just occasionally, some enterprising publisher will decide to publish them in English – eventually. Another book I read and reviewed recently – Magda Szabó‘s Abigél (Abigail) – will be published in January 2020, fifty years after it was first published in Hungarian. A French version appeared in 2017, a German one 1978, an Italian one in 2007, a Latvian one in 1996, a Polish one in 1977 and a Romanian one in 2003. At least we got there eventually.

Last year I mentioned several books that were to appear this year. Elfriede Jelinek‘s Die Kinder der Toten (The Children of the Dead) (in English translation), Eleanor CattonBirnam Wood and Zadie Smith‘s Fraud were all due to appear this year. All three have disappeared, though I have contacted the Yale University Press re the Jelinek, and they tell me it should be out in a couple of years. Vikram Seth‘s A Suitable Girl has not disappeared but nor has it appeared. Given my forecasts clearly put a curse on forthcoming books, I shall not predict any forthcoming books, except for three – César Aira’s Artforum, which will be out in English and I shall be reviewing it, as I already have a copy, I have already mentioned Esther Kinsky‘s Hain (Grove) and, finally, there is a distinct possibility that Hilary Mantel‘s The Mirror and the Light, the third in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, will appear, but I would not bet on it.

I am normally extraordinarily lazy at looking who is looking where on my website but I have done it for this year and, to me, it is somewhat surprising. The most viewed page after the homepage was the page on Ifeoma Okoye‘s Behind the Clouds. The next two were also both African, with, less surprisingly, Sérotonine (Serotonin) in fourth place. Middle England was the only British novel in the top fifty, which had no novels from the US and Spain, only Sérotonine (Serotonin) from France and only one from Italy. Perhaps I should stop reading Western European and North American novels.

As next year brings Brexit and the US presidential elections, it would seem to be a time to escape more and more into books, so I wish you all good reading in 2020.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Daniel

    Thanks for this useful and entertaining survey. I would like, however, to correct an error in your sixth paragraph. P. G. Wodehouse did not support the Nazis.

    The page-view statistics are probably due to the fact that novels that aren’t written by Western Europeans and North Americans receive less commentary than those that are, so anyone who searches for information about the first kind of novel has a higher chance of ending up on your website than if he or she had taken an interest in a novel of the second kind.

    1. tmn

      I agree that Wodehouse did not support the Nazis but he did make propaganda broadcasts for them, which were highly criticised back home, though he was probably more of a dupe than a supporter. Anyway, in the light of your comments and because I am a big Wodehouse fan, I have removed him. He certainly does not deserve to be compared to Céline, Hamsun and the Mitfords.

  2. Scott W.

    What a terrific (and voluminous) year of reading you’ve had. I’ve marked down a lot of your recommendations here for follow-up, especially Haratischwili, Tokarczuk, Handke and Oloixarac. Many of the names and titles you mention are completely new to me.

    I just read an Ismail Kadare novel a few weeks ago, my first by him, and loved it, so I have another I’m about to start. Aira is a favorite from way back; I’m amazed that you’ve read 29 of his works. Back when only 3 or 4 titles were available in English, I discovered 14 (at the time) translated into French. I suppose 3 or 4 was an improvement over the English translation 3% problem, but still.

    And yes, if no one read any Italian writers who’d expressed early support for Fascism, for example, one would be missing out on a lot of really great writers (though some, like Italo Calvino, understood its threat right away).

    I think all of us in the literary blogosphere mourn the cessation of The Untranslated and hope that Andrei will resurrect it at a later date.

    Happy reading in 2020!

    1. tmn

      Thanks for your kind and detailed comments and sorry not for mentioning your blog which I regularly read and enjoy.

  3. Lisa Hill

    Hello, I’m late coming to this because we are all #Understatement a bit discombobulated by the bushfire catastrophe here…
    Firsty, thank you for the mention, it made my day:)
    Secondly, I agree about The Untranslated. I miss it too.
    Of the books you mention that I have read, the standout was The Eighth Life (for Brilka) which was published in English by an Aussie publisher. To me it sets the standard for the historical novel, I found it revelatory.
    I hear what you say about the frustration of tardy translations into English. I am working hard at my French and beginning to be able to read short novels that are not too difficult, working my way through a small pile of books recommended to me by Emma from Book Around the Corner. Once I’m a bit more competent at that I’m going to resurrect my rusty Indonesian… books from SE Asia are like the minor European languages, sadly neglected though at least there are some Chinese authors of modern novels finding their way to us.
    All the best for 2020, happy reading!

    1. tmn

      Lisa, Thanks for your comments. I continue to enjoy your blog and I hope the fires are not causing you too many problems.

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