Here they go, as they went.
Selected English Essays – Jonathan Swift, William Hazlitt, Thomas de Quincey, Thomas Carlyle and others
Vague blurb. I didn’t have any specific reading goals for this year other than meanderingly aim to try more for authors I’ve been meaning to read but haven’ yet, rather than exploring further those I’ve already read. This being the case, job done son. Hesse, Bulgakov, Bolano, Raymond Chandler, – two words – superb and delightful.
I was perhaps just slightly surprised about how much I loved The Big Sleep, seeing as how I usually have no interest at all in detective fiction – is this an example of “transcending the genre” or should I perhaps tread further in the shoes of gumshoes in the future? We shall see. Angela Carter was a queer old fish, though I did find The Passion of New Eve dementedly, absurdly enjoyable (not so Bluebeard however, the re-telling of fairytales very dull by comparison.)
With political reading I tried to branch out a bit further, and go back a bit further – to the 18th century to be precise. Tom Paine’s Rights of Man is one of the books I’d often read bits of but never as a whole. It remains a vital statement of liberty, demolishing reaction, fresh, fulsome and invigorating. William Cobbett (the man who rescued Paine’s body from obscurity only to lose it – no – literally) was a rambunctious and contradictory old sod, but his Rural Rides are just as vital in their way, and more enjoyable, a cry of Old England against exploitation, and proof that natural “conservatives” can sometimes make the most effective rebels (see also the sweet sight of Alan Bennett visiting the Occupy protests this year.) Speaking of that rare species, (the worthwhile conservative) I thoroughly enjoyed John Gray’s Black Mass an attack on the utopian mentality from the only modern Tory thinker worth reading.
I’d been meaning to read one of the old Greek philosophers since, well, for decades probably, and was pleased to find Plato’s Republic witty and engaging, not all the trudge I had been feared, and an illuminating foundation stone of our reality. M J Akbar’s life of Nehru was also illuminating, a great look at a genuinely great man. I was highly wary of reading anything by a friend of Peter Mandeslon, but Tristram Hunt’s life of Engels was excellent too.
And finally, up to a couple of big name recent modern novels, relatively recent anyway. Franzen’s Freedom. I sometimes feel almost apologetic for liking Franzen so much, advocate as he is of both naturalistic realism and the ‘state of the nation’ novel, supposedly tired genres. There is no one piece of writing in any of his work which makes the soul soar. Further, I don’t think this did quite live up to The Corrections. That said – I still loved it. Loved it. No-one does characterisation, subtly bringing the players to life quite so perfectly as Franzen in recent years, or if they have, I haven’t read them. And despite my previous that last line, with the whole novel as its preamble….how beautiful. So Freedom; not great perhaps, but very good.
Finally finally, the question of The Finkler Question. This, I did not enjoy so much as Freedom, not nearly so much in fact. I think there was a weight of expectation tied up with its Booker status, and for a comic novel it often isn’t, well, funny enough. To say it’s satirical portrait of the anti-Zionist movement is broad-brush is to be somewhat over generous. That said, I sense that a lot of the backlash against this book has been more on political than aesthetic grounds. And the fact is, there are still enough insights into lust, loss and love to touch this reader anyway, and it does often amuse too. Over-rated maybe, put probably over-backlashed against too. The Finkler Question – not even very good perhaps, but nonetheless still good.
And so on we sail into another dark year. There’s no proof that reading makes you a better person, but it certainly makes a dark world more bearable. Keep at it.