Books of 2020

It seems premature to publish my favourite five books of 2020, particularly since I’m currently up to my neck in all manner of fantastic latecomers which might easily be added to the list. But if I don’t throw down a marker now, the moment will inevitably pass. And I share this list in the knowledge that everybody in the world wants to write a blog about books – I have nothing new or unusual to add, and I make no apology for indulging myself.

Wodwo – Ted Hughes

I was slightly astonished that so much of my life had passed before I came across this collection of prose, drama and poetry by Ted Hughes. It was recommended to me by a friend, and I slipped into the book as if it were a warm bath. I often found that I was gliding through the pages as if I’d read them before; as if the stories and images rose up and coiled around me like simple fun. And I was desperately gratified to discover such a strong engagement with shooting and rural life, which helped me to feel less like a literary leper. Think of Grooby, who, in shooting a hare that is driven out of a standing crop by a combine harvester, wounds himself in a manner both ambiguous and graphic. And Billy Red, who catches and kills rats with his teeth like a terrier. I was so enraptured with Billy Red’s story (Sunday) that I wasted an entire night making a print of him in action (above). If I could build my home inside a book, I would choose Wodwo.

North – Seamus Heaney

Heaney has become a recurrent theme for me, and there is so much in his work that I find startling and direct. North was his first real departure from a period of early work which critics have called “the anonymous” – the sequence I have always liked best. I read this collection of poetry in a single inhalation, then pulled it into a thousand pieces over successive weeks. Because here is a vast overview of deep time and the mass movement of human beings, killed and dying with the relentlessness of the tide. Leathery bog bodies are woven into strange relics of Norse and Scandinavian culture, then folded back into modern concerns around nationhood and identity. And if North didn’t have enough to commend it, Heaney also tries his hand at translating Skeletons Digging by Charles Baudelaire. And it’s blisteringly creepy.

Le Gloire de mon père – Marcel Pagnol

I’ve read that “the French are proud of Proust, but they love Pagnol”. Unashamedly nostalgic and concertedly rose-tinted, Pagnol’s autobiography is just beautiful. And it makes my top list because in truth it’s a powerfully evocative description of rural Provence in the years leading up to the First World War. The thrust of the book follows a day’s walked up partridge shooting in the mountains above Aubagne, and the young Marcel’s experience of following the guns through the rocks is a cast-iron testament to that almost religious devotion small boys can feel for their fathers. Pagnol’s novel Jean de Florette featured on last year’s (unpublished) top five, but there’s more than mere loyalty at play to see him placed again. And in the meantime, I’m rediscovering a growing obsession with France – I’ll make the nerdy confession that I set aside a fair amount of extra time to read this in the original French. It was a total joy.

Poor Fellow My Country – Xavier Herbert

Herbert is a literary giant in his native Australia, but he is almost unheard of in Britain. I happened to find this extremely scarce novel by sheer fluke, and it felled me. At 1,500 pages long, it took almost two months to read from beginning to end, but nothing will ever look the same again. I don’t know much about Australia and I’ve never really bothered to look – so I was staggered by this epic post-colonial monster which drew together numberless characters, cultures and landscapes and rendered them in a vast, breathless collage which actively rolled and moved around the page. Herbert was a master of shifting focus; his characters flit and dance with the busyness of termites, but we never lose track of the bigger picture – his ability to examine the smallest human detail and then pose it against the enormity of aboriginal deities actually made me laugh out loud with admiration. And if I get another dog, I’ll gonna call it Prindy, the ‘goanna.

Starve Acre – Andrew Michael Hurley

I’ve written before on this blog about Starve Acre. To say I “enjoyed” the book is an overstatement, but I can honestly say that I’ve thought about this story every day for the last six weeks. And for all I’m a little hesitant about praising a novel that I would love to amend and rehash, I am grateful that my eyes were opened to an entirely new genre. All I’d add is that if you intend to read Starve Acre, make sure you have time to cover the whole book in a single sitting. It has a strange and compelling momentum that will not survive a pause. And I also have to say there’s no reason why Hurley should occupy this spot above Sarah Moss or Daisy Johnson, but I read him first and went to them later for better. Maybe number five should be split three ways. To be continued.

And The Worst Howler of the Year goes to:

The Other House – Henry James

I gather that there are many good reasons why this book is so terrible. For a start, it was originally written for the stage and then adapted into a novel. That process of adaptation seems to have stripped away even the merest muttering of fire or passion, replacing tension with screeds of staid and wordy convolution. I have enjoyed Henry James in other guises and I was glad to learn of his friendship with Robert Louis Stevenson – but this was the first book I’ve encountered in many years which I would describe as genuinely unreadable.

Tangents

Having recently read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, I listened to a radio interview with the writer and actor Mark Gatiss, who has adapted the book for television. I remember Gatiss from The League of Gentlemen, but he has since become the go-to pundit for ideas around horror and the macabre. In a wide ranging conversation with Nihal Arthanayake, he talked of his interest in ammonite fossils; and as we enter December, he pressed on the idea that ghost stories are an integral part of his Christmas tradition. That’s never been my experience, but as he discussed the festive connection, I began to see how candlelight and a weight of breathless expectation could allow something ghoulish to coalesce on Christmas Eve. Gatiss praised the writer MR James, who, as a schoolmaster in the 1920s, used to read ghost stories to his students on Christmas Eve. I was curious enough to find out more.

I’d love to say that “Selected Ghost Stories by MR James” dropped through my letterbox a few days later. In reality, the postman is so scared of the bull I keep in my front field that he flings the post towards the house from the window of his van. So I gathered the parcel from where it lay in the frost and brought it back indoors while the bull slept peacefully under a tree, enjoying his placid dreams. The kettle was boiling, and I soon found myself halfway through Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book, the first of sixteen short stories in the collection.

Set in Southern France, the story is grotesque in its portrayal of a demon that is magically linked to a set of religious manuscripts. The drama unfolds around the cathedral of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges in the Haute-Garonne. By an odd twist, I visited Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges almost twenty five years ago when I was studying at a school near Auch. The name has stuck with me ever since; it’s one of many things which I’ve replayed backwards and forwards in my head for so long that it’s lost all meaning; it’s just become a sound – “sanber-trander-commange”. But having been nudged by MR James, I searched for images of the cathedral on the internet and found that it was beautiful; a heavy old building which stands high up on a hill like some Transylvanian keep. I pitied the school teacher who had driven my fellow students and I to visit that place in a minibus when we were twelve years old. He was casting pearls before swine, particularly since I went on to forget every single detail of the day.

As I searched around for more information on the cathedral, I realised that it is also famous as the home of a large nile crocodile which hangs on the wall beside the choir. Stuffed and dried to the texture of a raisin, the precise origin of this ominous reptile is obscure. It’s likely that it was brought back from North Africa by medieval merchants or crusaders, but nobody knows for sure. In the days before museums or natural history collections, strange curiosities would’ve been placed on display in the church, so perhaps it’s inevitable that as centuries passed, it became a relic. The crocodile is said to be the baby-eating monster killed by St. Bertrand to ensure his beatification, and that’s as good a tale as any. But I found other articles which added more layers of interest to the story of the crocodile at St Bertrand de Comminges. Some medieval bestiaries describe crocodiles as the avatars of Satan himself; the living embodiment of pure evil. So a dead crocodile suspended upside down in a position of deliberate indignity is a nice statement of intent in a house of God.

Pondering the idea of a crocodile in a cathedral, I clicked through to the next randomly generated post on a blog about the history and folklore of southern France (Lieux Secrets de Pays Cathare). It was a description of an annual carnival in Limoux, near Carcassone; a festival which places a specific emphasis on clowns and pork sausages. But I was most interested in the idea of the Goudils of Limoux – characters in symbolic costumes which accompany the main carnival, causing mischief and mayhem.

The concept of a stylised “mischief-maker” is fairly widespread in folklore and tradition, but the role is usually taken by young, cheeky ne’er-do-well characters. By contrast, Goudils are specifically old and cantankerous – their costumes are wrinkled and overtly conservative; the men wear berets and sweeping moustaches, the women carry rolling pins. The article gave a little more detail; “cassé par la vie, le Goudil représente souvent un homme chenu ou, mieux, une vielle dame indigne” (broken by life, the Goudil is represented by a stubborn old man, or better, an irritable old woman). Elsewhere, we’re told that “the Goudil is the heroic representation of the poor, the marginalised and the “opprimés” (the downtrodden)”; a kind of latter-day Diogenes, reminding us that modern ways are extravagant and wasteful; that simplicity and frugality are virtues in their own right. And if the Goudils of Limoux have become a lighthearted representation of socially conservative values, I wonder if their original inspiration was some “Madame Goudil” who heard the carnival passing by her house one afternoon and said “I’m sick of those damn noisy kids – I’m going to give them a piece of my mind”. And grimacing with ill-temper, she picked up her rolling pin and stepped into the street, becoming a permanent fixture in the culture and tradition of the town.

Tickled by this idea and others like it, I realised that my coffee had gone cold. It was lunchtime, and I had squandered half a day pursuing ghost stories, crocodiles and carnivals. I write all this partly as a test of my own memory, but chiefly to warn against following your nose through books and ideas. One thing leads to another, and days can simply vanish.

Louis

Robert Louis Stevenson, by John Singer Sargent

I am obsessed with Robert Louis Stevenson. He has become a habit, and it’s costing me a fortune in books.

Like many famous authors, Stevenson is surrounded by a fog of mythology and legend. It seems unfair that he should be remembered for children’s stories like Treasure Island and Kidnapped when his work sprawled across all kinds of varied and challenging terrain. Most people know that he suffered from recurring illness throughout his life; it’s a curious piece of pub trivia that he dropped dead unexpectedly in Samoa. But beyond those scanty impressions, the man himself is oddly obscure.

During a cold weekend in October, I buried myself in Richard Woodhead’s 2001 book The Strange Case of RL Stevenson. It’s a biography in the loosest sense of the word because the book is only partially true. In a bid to shed light upon the precise nature of Stevenson’s life-long illness, Woodhead imagines a series of interviews with several doctors who cared for the author during the course of twenty years. The narrative is based on medical notes, diaries and extensive research, but the gaps are patched with fabrication and guesswork.

And it’s entirely fitting that the real Stevenson should shine like a furnace in this odd hotch-potch of fact and imagination. His personality is revealed with such warmth and excitement that I could’ve leaped into the pages and hugged him. Forget that dry, establishment figure who recently passed his 170th birthday; here is a giddy, passionate boy, wracked by illness and burning with extraordinary love for the world around him. He’s mercurial, rapturous and desperately vulnerable; torn by Presbyterian guilt and yet simultaneously driven forward by a wild and desperate rebellion against authority. I simply warmed to him with every passing page.

We’ve all stumbled over the name “Robert Louis Stevenson” for so long that it was a joy to realise that he was merely “Louis” to his friends (pronounced Lewis). Stripped away from his novels and the cult which emerged to consume his work after he died in 1894, I was able to see Louis fidgeting with excitement in a haze of his own cigarette smoke; giggling and bright-eyed with some fresh adventure or dream. After this glimpse of the man himself, I am desperate to revisit everything I know of his work, including many books and writings which I have never seen before. It’s a kind of pilgrimage, and it delights me more with every passing day.

The Strange Case of RL Stevenson is printed and circulated by a small publishing house in Edinburgh. It’s a marginal text for a niche audience, and I doubt we’ll see it on any bestseller lists. But as a frame to capture and express a personality, I don’t think I’ve ever read such a compelling “biography”.

I’d like to write an awful lot more about Stevenson over the next few months on this blog, but it’s worth throwing down a marker now that, for me, it all began with this strange biography.