Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Middle Stage's Best Books of 2008 – Fiction

The Middle Stage – forgive these sniffles; I have a bad cold – wishes all its readers a merry Christmas. A similar list for non-fiction follows next weekend. A link at the end of some paragraphs leads to a longer essay on the book. A minor but nevertheless important aspect of writing fiction is the work of finding a title that brings out in three or four words the themes and the tone of the entire work (no other phrase one composes is repeated as often in the world) and while putting this list together I was struck by how many of these works – particularly those by Saramago, Morrison, Nemirovsky, Lahiri, and Adiga – have titles that are both apt and memorable.
Joseph O'Neill’s pitch-perfect Netherland (Knopf in America; Fourth Estate in the UK) beautifully dredged the agitation beneath the placid and unprepossessing exterior of Hans van den Broek, a Dutch banker in New York. Hans – that is how we always think of him, by his first name, because of his vulnerability – is going through a marital crisis, and while it seems to the reader that his wife is at fault, it is Hans who takes the blame for it. Miserable, Hans finds an unlikely redemption in a motley band of cricketers – of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and Jamaican extraction – who meet and play every weekend, and who evoke the multiracial and multicultural medley that is the future of our world. The marvel of O’Neill’s narration is rooted in the voice – rich with regret and yearning, shot through with doubts and qualifications – he finds for Hans, and his painstakingly laid links between self, family, sport, and life. Writing about Netherland in an essay called "Two Paths For The Novel", the novelist Zadie Smith offered the criticism: “It seems perfectly done – in a sense that's the problem.” Longer piece here.
The life of the Russo-French (and Jewish) novelist Irène Némirovsky was tragically terminated at Auschwitz in 1942, and it took the publication of her undiscovered novel Suite Française in the late nineties to restore her to the attention of the world. I haven't read Suite Française, but All Our Worldly Goods (Chatto & Windus), at once intimate and detached, slow and swift, telling through dramatic close-ups and long shots the story of a couple, Pierre and Agnes, and their family across the two World Wars, seemed to me to thrillingly deploy a range of sophisticated fictional techniques towards both the revelation of highly particularised emotional states and the architecture of an entire social order. Némirovsky's brilliant one- and two-page portraits of her minor characters are worth studying as much as anything else in her work. I thought this book one of the moving and beautiful depictions of a marriage that I have ever come across in literature.
I didn’t much care for Jhumpa Lahiri’s previous book of stories The Interpreter of Maladies, but I found the work in her new collection, Unaccustomed Earth (Random House in India; Knopf in America; Bloomsbury in the UK) extraordinarily good. Lahiri is like an GP who only examines and ministers to one set of patients – Bengalis in America – but that doesn’t matter, as the world she finds within them is a very large place. These slow-burning stories, discreetly and patiently accumulating details, observations, and epiphanies, lead the reader to that state of heightened feeling and sensitivity that all great art does. Longer essay here.
The Portuguese novelist José Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1998, is an absolute original whose work – with its spiralling sentences punctuated only by full stops and a rash of commas (the relationship between Saramago's syntax and his meanings is worth an essay on its own) and enormous and minatory paragraphs, leavened by a wizened and gnomic narrative sensibility like that of a very clever grandmother – resembles that of none other. His novels always start from some intriguing and disquieting premise, and Death At Intervals (Harvill Secker in the UK; Harcourt in America) considers what it might be like if death suddenly abandoned humanity, and every person could contemplate eternal life. Would we be happy, depressed, bored, weary, gloomy? What would happen to human institutions? Would we still believe in God? Surprisingly, the most affecting character in Saramago’s book is Death herself (whom Saramago imagines as “a skeleton wrapped in a sheet”, so old and hoary that she “can no longer remember from whom she received the instructions to carry out the job she was charged with”), struggling, after thousands of years on the job, to cope with the burden of humanity.
Some people consider Philip Roth the greatest living American novelist today, but my vote would go to Toni Morrison, whose ninth novel A Mercy (Knopf in America; Chatto & Windus in the UK) was a small masterpiece. Morrison is one of those rare writers who attempt sophisticated experiments with voice and narrative structure while also attracting a mass readership because of her compelling characters and situations. A Mercy gives us, in a language of sculpted cadences and great emotional force, the stories of five individuals – white, black, and Native American – battling against society, the elements, and their private griefs on a farm in Virginia in 1690, at the dawn of American history. "The structure is the argument" – this remark by Morrison (in an interview, naturally, not in a novel) is to my mind a highly germinal and revelatory observation about what novels are about and how they communicate their meanings differently from other forms of discursive prose.
The Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany scored a hit last year with his novel The Yacoubian Building, a portrait of Cairo society as seen through one building, and his follow-up, Chicago (HarperCollins in America; Fourth Estate in the UK), was just as good. Some readers find Aswany, with his love of sex and seediness, his gossipy narrators, and his lush language, too coarse, but these criticisms cannot obscure the fact that he is an extraordinarily deft writer, able to work dozens of characters around while seeming absolutely interested in the interior life of each. Set in a university department with many expatriate Egyptian students and teachers, Chicago daringly turns a great American city into a little Egypt. Longer essay here.
For a long way through David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk (Bloomsbury UK and Bloomsbury USA), a fictional retelling of the Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan’s years in England, I remained skeptical about Leavitt’s project. But the book – which is narrated from the point of view of several British characters, including Ramanujan’s associate and mentor GH Hardy, but leaves Ramanujan inscrutable, a cipher – finally won me over with its majestic orchestration of voice and period detail. Its second half, with its superb recreation of Britain in crisis during the First World War, provided some of my best reading days this year. Longer essay here.
Books, friendship, and memory are perhaps three of the most reliable consolations of life. One of the most beautiful evocations of friendship in literature – the way it makes the simplest things seem poignant or funny, the dialectical manner in which it arrives at the meanings of things, the gestures by which it dissolves gloom and heals grief, or by sharing joy doubles it – is to be found in José Maria Eça de Queirós marvellously sweet and sublime The City and the Mountains (New Directions in the US; Dedalus in the UK), first published in the original Portuguese in 1901 and republished this year in a striking new translation by Margaret Jull Costa. Jacinto, the wealthy, pleasure-loving protagonist of the story, is utterly worn out by the sensual surfeit and moral squalor of Civilization, and can only be rescued if he can be led away from Paris to the ruder world of the mountains by his country-bred friend Ze Fernandes (who is the narrator of the story). Eça's story combines a satire on materialism and urban sophistication, the comedy of dashed expectations, and swooning descriptions of the wonders of air, light, trees, and skies – of “the briefest beauties, be they of air or earth".
The careful detailing, corrosive rage, and violent juxtapositions of Aravind Adiga's Between The Assassinations (Picador India) made, I thought, for a much more original and insightful study of the ugly binaries of Indian life than his Booker-Prize winning novel The White Tiger. The diseased, broken, or marginal figures seething at themselves and the world in the small town of Kittur in the mid-eighties made for an uncommonly vivid and striking catalogue of India's disabling hierarchies and rationalisations. Longer essay here.
Anuradha Roy's An Atlas of Impossible Longing (Picador in India; Quercus in the UK) was, at the level of language and of structure, a clear head above most Indian novels, and its rapturous descriptions of houses and landscapes were especially memorable. One of the signs of how much care has gone into this work arrives two-thirds of the way into the novel, when we are jolted out of the omniscient third-person narration on which we have been sailing thus far, and thrown into the first-person viewpoint of Mukunda, who is a kind of late protagonist. Longer essay here.
Some of the stories in Kunal Basu’s The Japanese Wife (HarperCollins India) were marvels of fictional roving compressed into small narrative spaces, especially the title story, which records the yearning of a schoolteacher in a village in Bengal for a spouse he has never set his eyes on (longer essay here).
The Adventures of Amir Hamza (Random House in India; Knopf in America), Musharraf Ali Farooqui's English translation of Ghalib Lakhnavi's nineteenth-century rendition of a popular Mughal epic, was a winning combination of humming language and swashbuckling storytelling. Farooqui's vivid translation thrusts glittering lists and catalogues of the world's delights at us, and the book's syntax is similarly ornate and pleasure-giving, as if drawing the reader into the folds of an enchanted cloak. Books like Farooqui's, drunken on the glories of the world and of language, provide a neccesary counterpoint to modern conventions of narrative prose and the self-made walls and corridors of realism.
Another story from Indian antiquity, the Buddhist monk's Ashvaghosha's Saundarananda or Handsome Nanda (Clay Sanskrit Library/New York University Press) is, on the surface, the story of a stubborn young man's initiation into the truth and power of Buddhist mindfulness and spiritual discipline, but it also delightfully evokes all the giddy pleasures of sensual life even as it decries them. Ashvaghosha's highly metaphorical language and expansive manner seem to be continually in tension with his message. Longer essay here.
Lastly, I immensely enjoyed the brilliant opening section – but only the opening section– of Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence (Alfred Knopf in the US, Jonathan Cape in the UK) , which shows us an Italian traveller arriving in the court of King Akbar. Many characteristically Rushdean tropes are woven into this account of Akbar, his family and court, and the stranger – for example the idea that “witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough”, or the inversion of the hierarchy between reality and fantasy in Akbar's opinion, regarding his imagined lover Jodha, that "it was the real queens who were the phantoms and the non-existent beloved who was real”. The rest of the book I thought a disappointment.
Previous lists of the best books of 2006 and 2007 are here and here.


Anonymous said...

Netherland is a quiet masterpiece, and despite the trouble I sometimes had with its narrative drive, is still my book of the year. But the other book in Zadie's essay 'Remainder' deserves a place in the list (I read it last year though.) While Unaccustomed Earth marks a triumphant return for the short story form itself, The Japanese Wife is a real letdown. I wonder why the latter figures in a list that has no place for The Sea of Poppies. The White Tiger - yes, I hear those shouting from their Toyota Corollas and Hondo Civics - remains one my best reads of the year. And I suspect The Wasted Vigil - unless we've officially snapped all literary ties with Pakistan - is good too.

sumana001 said...

"the relationship between Saramago's syntax and his meanings is worth an essay on its own": And YOU must write that essay, please!

Winnowed said...

Your cold is contagious. I've caught it after reading this superb list.

ak said...

Talking of Saramago's long sentences, you may be interested in Edmond Caldwell's essay:

Also, since you mention Nemirovsky, Tadzio Koelb's (less interesting) essay 'Irène Némirovsky and the Death of the Critic':

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this wonderful list. I recently read Saramago's book, which in the US is called "Death With Interruptions." I am amazed how Saramago can sustain a narrative with no developed characters. Brilliant.

Marcia Calhoun Forecki
Better Than Magic

Hari said...

Thanks, Hash - as has become the pattern, there are some books here that I will seek out and read a year later than you have. My favorites this year - my list has nothing to do with books released in 2008 - are The Brothers Karamazov and The Yacoubian Building. I do think, like Saikat above, that Nadeem Aslam's The Wasted Vigil might be good book.

And since I write this comment from southern Mexico, I shall say Feliz Navidad instead of Merry Christmas.

Chandrahas said...

Sumana, Anirudh, and Marcia – I am pleased that there is so much interest on your part in Saramago. Marcia, I think you're quite correct: Saramago is one of the few contemporary novelists who cooly works with flat characters and yet works up their predicaments into beguiling fictions.

Sumana, part of what I wanted to say about Saramago's syntax I can say right away - I feel that his antic rhythms, although we hear them in translation, carry out a revelatory expansion of the neat comma-fullstop-semicolon-colon pattern (which also encodes an idea of cause and effect) of most English prose. We might usefully compare one of Saramago's magnificent perorations, for example, with an equally skilled and majestic paragraph from VS Naipaul. When I read Saramago I feel he has enlarged the field of formal possibilities of contemporary narrative prose; he tills a corner patch of it all on his own.

Chandrahas said...

Saikat and Hari – I didn't manage to read either Sea of Poppies or The Wasted Vigil, so this list is not a rejection of those two books. As you can see, it's a struggle to keep abreast of all these worldly goods.

Hannah - Thanks very much for your note. I have just been on the Museum of Jewish Heritage website and had a great time browsing through the manuscript of Suite Francaise. What tiny handwriting! I also enjoyed listening to Ivy Barsky's commentary. (You won't believe it, but I told myself a dozen times while reading All Our Worldly Goods, "I wish I could take a look at this writer's notebooks!").

I am sure some of the readers of The Middle Stage who live in New York will take up your offer and come visit your exhibition. I am also looking forward to reading the English translation next July of the biography of Nemirovsky by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt.