In 2012 I read far more contemporary novels this year than I have done in recent years but there were still plenty of good classics and older works of fiction to enjoy too. When I started making my list of notable fiction books I realised it was long enough to split into contemporary and older works, here’s the second part of the list focusing on books first published before the 2000s, links will take you to my full reviews:
My favourite is probably not a surprise to anyone who regularly stops by this blog: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. I re-read this 1930s written/1960s published Russian classic in the summer and despite loving it in my late teens, I got far, far more out of this re-read. It subverts just about every ‘rule’ of the novel (the protagonist and his love interest show up halfway through, neither are ‘good’ people, no one really saves the day, the Devil’s actually a really funny guy etc) and is incredibly intricate in its detailed plot and dense description. Well worth the attention it demands from the reader. A rare 10/10 and the best classic novel I read in 2012.
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov is the story of the hapless Professor Timofey Pnin, a Russian working in the US and not quite fitting in. It’s not quite a novel and yet it is clever, funny and touching in equal measure and had me giggling repeatedly. It gave me one of my favourite quotes of the year too:
‘He had a passionate intrigue with Joan’s washing machine. Although forbidden to come near it, he would be caught trespassing again and again. Casting aside all decorum and caution, he would feed it anything that happened to be at hand, his handkerchief, kitchen towels, a heap of shorts and shirts smuggled down from his room, just for the joy of watching through that porthole what looked like an endless tumble of dolphins with the staggers. One Sunday, after checking the solitude, he could not resist, out of sheer scientific curiosity, giving the mighty machine a pair of rubber-soled canvas shoes stained with clay and chlorophyll to play with; the shoes tramped away with a dreadful arhythmic sound, like an army going over a bridge, and came back without their soles, and Joan appeared from her little sitting-room behind the pantry and said in sadness, ‘Again, Timofey?’
A Month in the Country by J L Carr was written in 1980 but also comments on WWI, in this case the narrator is a man who has survived the war and taken a job of restoring a medieval painting in a village church. In this incredibly moving novella we follow him as he tries to recover from the war, pieces together the meaning of the destroyed painting and falls in love.
Brightness by Elizabeth Jenkins focused on two families in the 1960s, one bringing up their son to work hard and value those around him and one whose son is spoilt and arrogant. You know from early on the families are on a collision course but the whole community is considered as having a hand in the final confrontation. I’ve yet to read anything else by Jenkins but this bodes well for her other books.
Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner deserves a mention too as a novel that delighted me. Not flawless but very lovely, Laura Willowes is a wonderfully unconventional female protagonist who doesn’t marry, doesn’t obsess over love and happily becomes a witch to safeguard her emotional and intellectual freedom. It’s as unusual in style as it is in premise and rather memorable as a result.
I did try a couple of J B Priestley’s novels but my favourite so far remains the first I read, Bright Day. Set in seaside hotel, a screenwriter hides himself away to complete a job but finds a chance encounter with a couple he knew in his youth forces him to reconsider his past. I loved the portrait of Yorkshire before WWI and there’s real warmth throughout the tale.
Finally, the only book of poetry I read this year was dazzlingly good if a little niche – The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto offered each poem in the treasury in the original Anglo-Saxon and then in English translation. Each translation came from a modern poet or translator and they varied widely in style, some sticking to the complex rhythms of the original Anglo-Saxon scheme, some keeping the rhyme, some dropping it. The end result was a fascinating showcase of source material and creativity.