2021 in Books

R.S. Thomas on hearing that he is about to embark upon a long car journey with only me for company

I’ve sometimes made an attempt on this blog to write-up a few books I read and enjoyed in the preceding year. Since I read more than ever before in 2021, it made sense to set down five of my favourites in nothing like an order of preference. Even as I brought this list together, I was aware that many more books have been forgotten here, and perhaps some were better. But these ones were chosen because they continue to boil and braise my brain, even after many months.

The Man Who Went Into The West – Byron Rogers

I was a late convert to the poetry of R.S. Thomas, but I’ve recently begun to think of him as something of an indispensable spirit-guide. His work runs across an enormity of themes and textures, and much of his early poetry overlies my own points of interest in the grip of a collapsing rural landscape. His Welsh hill-farming communities are a direct proxy for my own Galloway farm, and his 1963 poem “Movement” beamed into my brain like a laser when I read it last year. But the poet who wrote these extraordinary verses was famously elusive and obscure. The Man Who Went Into The West is an attempt to present a biography of R.S. Thomas, recognising the many confused and jarring complexities of a man who claimed to hate publicity but also curated a public image of himself with tremendous care and detail. An Anglican priest, his expressions of Faith are both acute and obscure. I wrote an article for an American magazine in which I explained that some of Thomas’ agricultural poetry is secular in tone. Reading this book, I realise that I was wrong; those poems are deeply religious insofar as they identify a sense of divinity in absentia. That’s a fair starting-point to think about a man who often drew attention himself and his ideas by withholding or concealing them. Thomas emerges as a dense contradiction, both hilariously eccentric and icily inscrutable. I love his work with an urgent intensity, and the stakes of my enthusiasm are raised by the fact that I’m sure he would have thought I was little more than a noisy baby.

Gaudete – Ted Hughes

Until I read Gaudete, my experience of Ted Hughes’ writing was confined to the grit and passion of his early poetry and the deafening scream of Crow. I loved it all, but Gaudete was a question mark to me, not least because it appears to have fallen off the radar when critics come to discuss the Hughes canon. Biographers seem to agree that it was a near-miss; an imperfectly rendered idea which failed to follow the enormity of Crow. But Gaudete is no blunder or fumble – it’s harrowingly vivid. Like a silent movie or a series of high contrast stills, the lurid story unfolds in a pattern of killing and ritualised fucking (that word used advisedly) that’s impossible to ignore. Fighting his wife, a man breaks from their argument to kill their labrador which bounds around them energetically. He beats it to death with a chair. Screaming, seamless heads emerge from the mud to be trampled by cattle. Staggering outrages are played against the serenity of the English countryside; the pub garden and the recreational angler; starlings squalling in the buttercups. And as the poem closes on a shocking and hallucinatory anticipation of The Wickerman, it’s clear that this is the language of the cosy rural idyll deployed for the cult, the nightmare and the dark rite. Gaudete is not fun in any idle sense of the word, but it’s undeniably enormous.

Táin bó Cúailinge – translated by Thomas Kinsella

It’s extraordinary that British and Irish mythology hardly features in our national curriculum. We busily import the mythologies of other cultures instead, and I spent years traipsing through the Aeneid and Iliad at school. I though that’s what mythology was, and even if I’d missed my own native tales, I assumed the omission was a calculated decision based on the fact that classical stories were just better. After reading a series of books on Celtic culture which began with the extraordinary Dream Time by John Moriarty, I found my way to the Táin in May. The story of Cú Chulain thrilled me, and I even went to Ulster in August to follow that scent because here was a story that I could pursue without any need for a long-haul flight. And in truth, having stumbled upon Celtic mythology, I’m astonished by the elastic wonder of stories which deny the existence of imaginative boundaries. The Táin is electrifying, but a caveat stands that it’s only included on this list because I cannot also include a bundle of other books which turned my world upside down in 2021, including The Mabinogion, Y Gododdin and The Book of Taliesin. Reading these stories at the age of thirty six is hardly enough. I wish I had been brought up breathing them, and I now that I’m the one selecting stories for a little boy’s bed time, I’ve got a score to settle.

The Magic Toyshop – Angela Carter

I read The Magic Toyshop as a student in Glasgow in the days when all I had to do was read. Now that my life is crowded with work and worries, I’d give anything to back to that time – and it irritates me to recall that with the entirety of world literature at my feet for four years, I hardly read a word. My memory of this novel is vague, but a chance encounter with Angela Carter on the radio set me thinking. I recovered my copy from a box and immediately plunged into an extraordinary story so lightly spun that it might have been a dream. Balanced between the powerful threat of enormous horror and the quotidian realities of adulthood, the book slips along through a maze of perfectly observed detail. There’s enough here to touch a nerve with any reader who ever battled with a sense of discordance throughout their teenage years, and all the while, the tale shimmers as if it’s being read through a shard of slightly distorted glass. Fifteen years after my first encounter with this book, I loved it – but no more than a number of other pieces of Angela Carter’s writing I read during 2021. I found her collection of short stories entitled The Bloody Chamber hair-raising, and I was delighted by her retelling of Puss-in-Boots which appears in that book. Her essays on folklore and fairy tales were utterly pitch-perfect, and Black Venus tickled me across a number of funny-bones, not least in the links to Baudelaire and Edgar Alan Poe. Angela Carter has become a cascading theme in my reading; I can’t stop until I’ve read her entire back catalogue.

The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day might be Ishiguro’s most famous work, owing at least in part to a Merchant Ivory film adaptation of the story from 1993 which starred Anthony Hopkins. That film is successful in itself, but reading the book confirms the certain truth that some stories are best told on the printed page. Through the cramped, emotionally stunted eyes of Stevens the butler, we see the grand enormity of a complete way of life; a social code of manners and class which defined England and Englishness for centuries. There’s no way a film could reach that level of subjectivity and internal monologue, particularly as the story explores a code of conduct that is famously tricky to define – in fact it’s possible to break the code simply by trying to define it. If this mesh of manners can be expressed at all, it’s almost in a feeling and a sense of order; diaphanous language for a system that is both silkily light and heavy as iron. The Remains of the Day came as close to its subject as anything I’ve ever read on class and manners, although I must also say that Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard nearly bumped it off this list altogether. Ishiguro is extraordinarily acute in his examination of blame, memory and generational shifts in a changing world. In some ways, The Remains of the Day is an enhanced re-run of his beautifully delicate novel An Artist of the Floating World. Both examine similar themes, and both carry the Ishiguro trademark of writing that is approachable, vivid and flowing. I read The Remains of the Day in two sittings and hardly knew I’d done it. I know from bitter experience that “easy reading is damn hard writing”. In that context, the man’s a class act.

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