It’s been a fantastic year for fiction in which I feel I’ve read some great classic novels. Here’s a list of my top reads of 2006 (in no particular order) :
Sybille Bedford – A Favourite of the Gods. Not many people read Bedford these days, although she was shortlisted for the Booker with her novel, Jigsaw, a decade or so ago. She had a fascinating life, brought up as part of what remained of a cultured, European aristocracy in the first half of the twentieth century, and she writes a tantalising kind of autobiographical fiction. This novel follows the fortunes of three generations of women for whom love, marriage and chance takes them to the Italian and French Riviera, where they become caught up in the politics of their day. I just adore this kind of book – the best form of social history, as lived through vibrant, engaging characters.
Jonathon Coe –The Closed Circle. This is actually a sequel to The Rotter’s Club, which followed the fortunes of a group of school friends from a mildly prestigious school through the 70s, the decade that style forgot. In The Closed Circle we meet up with them all again, but this time over the course of the 90s, a decade that had pretentions to ethics, but which championed the cult of the individual in the most excessive and alarming ways. Lots of politics again, lots of intrigue, and brilliant writing. This man can describe the actuality of history with such insight and panache, it’s stunning.
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby. You don’t need a summary of this novel, do you? Many classic novels provide reliably good reading, but only a few retain their ability to overwhelm the reader. The beauty of Fitzgerald’s prose made my heart ache, and the plot was a real shocker.
Jane Smiley – A Thousand Acres. The American classics challenge I undertook over the summer was a source of some cracking novels, this Pulitzer Prize winner from Smiley among them. A tangled family drama, played out between farming families in the midwest tackled the ugly theme of child abuse with extraordinary grace, the echoes of King Lear adding an unexpected but poignant dimension.
Richard Russo – Straight Man. I think I’ve now bought this book for two people and recommended it to many others. Another superb read from the American classics, this one is set in the most dysfunctional university English department I’ve have ever had the joy to read about. Worth reading for its witty one-liners alone, it’s still a touching tale of father-son relations, mid-life crises, and the possibility of finding your real self, despite teaching for a profession.
Tobias Wolff – Old School. An entirely different take on intellectual snobbery from another master stylist. The setting here is a boys’ public school with an annual writing competition. When it transpires that the winner will have an audience with the great Hemingway himself, rules, morals and friendships crumble under the strain of intense competition. What I particularly loved about this book is the ongoing exploration of what it is to be a writer. I’ve rarely come across it so tenderly and accurately described.
A. N. Wilson – A Jealous Ghost. A cunning rewrite of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, transposed to modern day, up to date in its psychological depiction and using literary theory with the most creativity I’ve seen since Julian Barnes published Flaubert’s Parrot. I began this novel with great scepticism; I didn’t think The Turn of the Screw could be successfully re-written in this way, and I ended it having to run through a roadside check list of my own mental functions to make sure the madness of the story hadn’t contaminated me. The essence of Hitchcock, transferred to the written word.
Tom Wolfe – I Am Charlotte Simmons. A great big aggressive beast of a novel; disturbing, revolting, and completely gripping. Wolfe eschews all nice reassuring philosophies of humanity as fundamentally good and presents us instead with human bestiality running rampant in what is supposed to be one of the great intellectual institutions in the USA. Probably the most provocative, and ideas-rich novel I read this year, but not for the faint-hearted.
William Boyd – Restless. A deceptively simple spy story that manages, in its twists and turns, to incorporate any number of levels of meaning into its ostensibly straightforward history of the work of the secret services in misinformation mongering during WWII. An intriguing portrait of a mother and a daughter, a fascinating revelation of what spies really do, and a brilliantly drawn representation of troubled political times.
Mary McCarthy – The Group. It’s a special treat when books you’ve heard about, and searched for fruitlessly, and finally found, turn out to be every bit as good as you’d hoped they might. A shocker from the 60s, this novel follows the fortunes of a group of Vassar friends in the years leading up to WWII as they struggle with the early years of marriage, motherhood, and careers. An intricate and intimate portrait of women’s social history, written with a pithy, witty elegance. I didn’t want it to end.
Those are my top novels of the year. I should also make a brief mention of my best non-fiction title, which has to be David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day, the funniest collection of essays ever to be compulsively read aloud in annoying fragments to those who happen to be sitting nearby. I’ve also read a lot of French novels, a few of which I find are available in English translation and therefore worth a mention. You may remember my love affair with Michel Tournier’s Three Kings (Gaspard, Melchior & Balthazar), the rewriting of the nativity that justifiably placed him at the head of French writers in the 1980s, and I also loved the more recent My Phantom Husband (Naissance des fantomes), the uncanny tale of a woman trying to come to terms with her husband’s unexplained disappearance. I also really enjoyed Jean-Christophe Rufin’s dystopia novel, Globalia, which has been translated into Spanish, oddly enough, but not yet into English.
What a great year it’s been! And great credit must go to all my blogging friends whose recommendations have ended up as many of the books on this list. Later on in the week I’ll be summing up the year’s blogging and looking ahead to the books I’ll be reading in 2007.