2023 – the year in books

Next in my reviews of the cultural year past is reading. It was, as ever, a diverse year, in which I invariably had three or four books on the go at the same time (smaller books to be carried with me, weightier ones to be consumed at home). Given the number of them, I am following what I have done in some previous yearly reviews and listing just twelve of particular interest, one per the month in which I read them (or started reading them).

January. I kicked off the year with a corker. Conspiracy on Cato Street tells the remarkable story of the attempt in 1820 by a group of desperate London craftsmen to assassinate the whole of the British cabinet. The plot was a naive muddle from the start, the radicals being led on by a fake newspaper report, placed by the Home Office, stating that the cabinet would be meeting for dinner, which was pointed out to the group by a police spy in their midst. It ended with the group surprised by the police before they had left their Cato Street meeting room, the death of one policeman, and the hanging and decapitation of five of the conspirators. The story is told all the more grippingly because the author is so in sympathy with his idealistic and deluded heroes, raging against the oppressive government of the time (it feared French revolutionary ideas). You can sense that he wishes he were there too. Well written, well researched, and filled with character (helped by excellent use of spy reports and trial interrogations).

February. If I am asked what my favourite book might be – not that anyone does ask, but I can at least rehearse my answer – then the titles change over the years, but three tend to stay at the top. Flann O’Brien’s At-Swim-Two-Birds I re-read and re-loved this year; Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier will be get re-read in 2024. But top is usually Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which made such a powerful impact when I first encountered it, aged eighteen. It is a story without a story, a cock snooked at all of the conventions of the still emerging form of the novel, and by extension the idea that our lives are ordered and our purposes rational. It is ostensibly the life of its subject, Tristram Shandy, and begins with the very moment of his conception, but it soon abandons any idea of a biographical life, with much of the action – such as it is – taking place before Tristram was born. Its deconstruction of narrative form has influenced all those who have played with the idea of the novel ever since (Flann O’Brien among them). It is filled with scenes of high wit, low humour and outrageous imagination – the chapter devoted to Tristram’s father trying to take something out of the pocket on the wrong side of his jacket, the blank page in memory of the death of one of the characters, the chapter the author removes from the book because it was so good that it upset the balance of the rest. Some of it is a little bit too pleased with itself. But as the crazy journey through which we may explore the workings of the distracted mind, it has no parallel.

March. In March I wrote a post on the poetry of the Czech immunologist Miroslav Holub, but that month I was also absorbed in his prose. The Dimension of the Present Moment, published in 1990, is an extraordinary, unsettling view of the world from someone with a cold scientific eye and a poetic sensibility. Of the several short essays in the volume, ‘Shedding Life’ is perhaps the most startling. Holub starts by his discovery of the dead body of a muskrat in a swimming pool, shot by a neighbour who thought it was a giant rat. What looks like the muskrat’s end for Holub is only its beginning. Holub identifies the actions and afterlives of the blood cells, as what appears to be a dead being is in fact filled with microscopic elements that continue to fight on in defence of their host for as long as they could. “What is known as the death of an individual … is not, however, the death of the system that guards its individuality”. So what are our lives? Holub concludes, bleakly: “if any tiny bit of a soul can be found there, there is not one tiny bit of salvation’. A book to make you think, and shiver.

April. I came across Christopher Hilliard’s To Exercise Our Talents, published in 2006, when I was researching the life of Christabel Lowndes-Yates, a very minor figure in British 1920s film but a figure of somewhat greater interest for the history of amateur writing. Subtitled ‘The Democratization of Writing in Britain’, Hilliard’s book documents the rise of amateur writers over the twentieth-century, through writers’ clubs, correspondence courses and self-help magazines. It’s a history of self-expression as a democratic right, where identity mattered more than quality. Naturally enough it’s an area that has been almost totally ignored by academics, an all the more shameful state of things given the rich seam of evidence that Hilliard has uncovered. It’s a ‘literary history from below’, as his introduction has it, the ideal complement to Jonathan Rose’s modern classic, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (2001).

May. For my birthday I splashed out and bought the rare first volume of Jonathan Sumption’s history of the Hundred Years War, entitled Trial by Battle, having already got volumes two to four. By the end of the year he had published volume five, so I now have the full set and at the present rate will take around three years to read it all. It is grand history without any grandness of style. Instead he lays out his story methodically, a little dryly, a little arch at times, with a preference for political and economic background over battle scenes – though we learn enough of the fighting to understand what a brutal, heartless and futile exercise it all was. Gradually you see the design emerge, as he shapes the narrative in all complementary manifestations. Previously I had been too impatient with him, wanting action instead of seemingly endless preliminaries, but patience is rewarded. Volume one ends with disaster for the French at Crécy and Calais. But it is only the end of the first movement of an epic depiction of vanity and folly.

June. A good travel writer takes you on a journey through the past as much as through the present. Jens Mühling is a good travel writer. Troubled Water, published in English in 2021, documents a journey around the perimeter of the Black Sea, starting in Russia (after the annexation of the Crimea but before the invasion of Ukraine), then Georgia, Abkhazia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Crimea. It’s a journey through history, legend (Jason and the Argonauts passed through these waters), politics and commerce. He finds bigotry, ignorance, resignation, good and bad humour, and some wisdom along the way. Few would be brave enough, or quick-witted enough to undertake such a journey through lands riven with hatred and disappointments going back centuries, but somehow he survives. It’s a well-written book which has something useful to say about why the world is what it is. His A Journey Through Russia (2014) heads my reading list for 2024.

July. Until now I had read Tom Paulin more for his essays on literature and language than for his poetry. But The Invasion Book, published in 2002, stopped me in my tracks. I’ve never read anything quite like it. It’s a history, through poems, of how the Second World War came about. It starts with Versailles and ends with the Battle of Britain, more or less. It ranges over political events, personalities, news stories, private and public traumas, in a form that is not always clear unless you are well up on your modern European history and the idiosyncrasies of its leaders. It is facetious at times, contentious quite regularly. But mostly it is rather brilliant, as with this unnerving portrait of a Stalin not yet come to power:

he places a juniper berry on his lips
sucks then rolls it on his tongue
a tiny bit of gunge
it tastes quite deliciously bitter
now with one
one as yet undreaded hand
he scratches his head for a long long
time like a patient tiger
though in his best and worst dreams
this drunken shoemaker’s son
is Caesar inside a nutmeg or an almond
the king of infinite space
with the power to bring the world to an end
though all these long for years
he knows he has pitched his tent
upon a grain of sand

I have never thought that poets would be any good as legislators, but they can tell histories like no other.

August. This year I turned to things Roman. I made my way through a guide to Roman Britain, watched the TV series I Claudius that so thrilled and shocked us back in 1976, started reading the Annals of Tacitus, and read Richard F. Thomas’s Why Dylan Matters (2017). Yes, that’s right. Thomas is a professor of classics at Harvard University, and he has taught classes on Bob Dylan. Dylan in recent years has revealed himself to be quite a classicist, with allusions clear and hidden to Roman history, myth and literature peppered throughout such songs as ‘Early Roman Kings’, ‘Lonesome Day Blues’ and ‘Crossing the Rubicon’. Thomas unpicks references that only a Roman expert would be likely to spot, making you astonished at the breadth of Dylan’s sympathies, tracing the singer’s interest back to his school days when he was a member of the Latin club and liked watching Roman-themed movies. Thomas makes much of the ‘intertexuality’ of Dylan’s writing – that is allusion and borrowings – particularly in his later works, bringing academic justification to a method that many have dismissed as plagiarism. Thomas gets Dylan, and has thrilled many fans with his analyses. Unfortunately, Thomas too is a fan, and at times the book descends into gushing worship, notably his account of Dylan being awarded the Nobel prize. We’re too close to the man, who is after all still with us, and still making music. It may take a generation or two before we get books on Dylan that are dispassionately worthy of his achievements.

September. An Unfinished Journey is the truest and the saddest of book titles. It is a posthumous set of essays written by Shiva Naipaul, younger brother of the famous V.S., published a year after his death by heart attack in 1985, when aged just forty. He had already proven himself to be a great writer, with his novels Fireflies and The Chip-Chip Gatherers, and especially his chilling journalistic report on the Jonestown Massacre, Black & White. He was planning a travel book on Australia (where I purchased my copy) when he died, and those essays ithe book that touch on Australia show that it would have been a sharply-observed and controversial work (his views on the claims of Aborigines are pitiless). As with his brother, he writes astutely and fearlessly, more able to find adversaries than make friends. You learn something from every line, which is the mark of the best of writers.

October. My new book of the year is David Vincent’s The Fatal Breath. It’s a history of the COVID-19 pandemic in Britain, written by social historian known for employing working-class testimony and who makes exemplary use of personal accounts here, particularly from Mass-Observation diaries. It is the pandemic as experienced, though there is plenty on the the pharmacology, the economics and the politics (Vincent lays into all of the familiar names). Though it is a weighty work with lessons for those politicians and social policy in general, its greatest effect is one of nostalgia. Reading it you spot time and again those strange aspects of our lives in 2020-21 – clapping in the street, haircuts at home, the unexpected obedience of the public. Vincent skilfully maps his history to that of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of a Plague Year, making that 1722 book seem so contemporary and confirming Defoe’s genius as an observer. There is nothing like a crisis for understanding our past and present selves.

November. Italo Calvino, the great Italian essayist and fiction writer, never got round to writing his autobiography. The nearest we get to it is this 1993 collection of five autobiographical essays, written between 1962 and 1977, selected by his widow. The Road to San Giovanni is a gem. The eponymous opening essay is as good an evocation of the rites of childhood and the relationship with a father as you will find. The second, ‘A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography’ I would put among the finest pieces of writing on cinema that we have, so ably is it balanced between the experience of picturegoing and ideas on film form (especially Fellini). ‘Memories of a Battle’ is a vivid account of one nerve-wracking experience of World War Two presented as an exercise in understanding memory, while ‘La Poubelle Agréée’ is a tour de force disquisition on the nature of rubbish. Only the peculiar ‘From the Opaque’, more abstract than autobiographical, failed to move me. A small book, good for carrying around and keeping close to you.

December. It’s December, and as per usual I have four books on the go. I’m working my way through Jonathan Sumption volume two, ploughing at a steady pace through Tacitus’s Annals (it’s nearly time for Caligula), and reading William Trevor’s sublime short story collection A Bit on the Side. But the book of the month is C.L.R. James, Minty Alley. James has been a hero of mine since I first saw a television profile of him in the early 1980s, where his thoughts on cricket, politics and society, and just his wise and steady manner, made a huge impression. His book on cricket as an aspect of West Indian and British society, Beyond a Boundary, became an absolute favourite, while Black Jacobins, on Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution, is as fine and fierce a history as you will find. But he also wrote one novel, Minty Alley, published in 1936. It’s a tale of life in Port of Spain, Trinidad, where observation matters more than plot. It is written in such a gentle, acute manner, with never a word wasted. Its focus is on the lives of the poor, but without any didacticism. James set aside his literary ambitions for his political ones thereafter. One sighs for what might have been, given the seeing eye he shows here.


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2 thoughts on “2023 – the year in books

  1. If only my year in books were as impressive as yours Luke!
    Amongst the fluff I’m only prepared to share three titles that reflect a bit better on me…
    1. The English Teacher by R K Narayan (I’ve come late to this idiosyncratic Indian writer so I’m now in catch-up mode).
    2. Beatles ’66 by Steve Turner (OK, a guilty pleasure but engagingly written, capturing well the otherwise ephemeral details of a pivotal year in the life of The Fabs).
    3. Edward Bawden War Artist & His Letters Home edited by Ruari McLean (a valuable insight in to how war artists went about their work and jam packed with illustrations).
    Have a lovely Christmas – I hope you get time to walk on the Kent marshes again!

    1. I am sure that there are more than those three (and all reading must be good reading). I have dipped into Narayan but haven’t quite got hooked as yet. The other two sound tempting, Bawden especially.

      I do hope to return to the marshes soon. In the meantime, have a fine Christmas and New Year.

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