Thursday, December 31, 2009

This Space's books of the year 2009

Why should one novel be my favourite of the year rather than any other? When I read this list in a comment on John Self's Asylum, I found an answer. If reading a book prompts only Publisherspeak – disturbing, intriguing, insightful – then it can be discounted. Each summary there is like a bullet in the neck of each book. 

I choose Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones as my favourite novel of the year because it was a shock to the literary system; a shock in three ways. First, the intense, almost overpowering gravitational pull of the narrative. It affects not only the reader but the novel itself. It is the furious axe for its own frozen sea. Second, the reception in the mainstream of literary USA was a shock not so much for its cluelessness – such books are necessarily misunderstood – but for the imbecilic, self-blinding character of the reviews.  Michiko Kakutani's contempt probably emerges out of America's repressed awareness of its pressing need for denazification, with Ed Champions' video offering the best argument ever made against literary blogging.

The third shock was to recognise how a contemporary work of such length and about such a subject can also be as intimate as Proust's. My habit-formed assumption that only brief novels engineered like tiny, intricate timepieces could achieve this was shattered. Still, my next two favourite novels were like that: Dag Solstad's Novel 11, Book 18 and Jean Echenoz's Ravel. Distance as intimacy.

Of course, my non-fiction choice has to be The Letters of Samuel Beckett, but I'd also like to mention Kevin Hart's The Dark Gaze: Maurice Blanchot and the Sacred. It was published five years ago but I re-read it this year and was surprised by how much we had changed. Looking forward rather than back, Hart has edited the forthcoming collection of Blanchot's Political Writings. It's scheduled for April, so take Gary Barlow's advice and have a little patience.


  1. Anonymous2:15 am

    Thanks for this...I have to admit to having been swayed by the contemptuous reviews of this book, but your assessment reminds me that professional reviewers of any worth have a responsibility to 'judge well' i.e. to know something about literary theory (see or if that link breaks). I'm now inspired to give the book a go.
    I hadn't seen that video, and the link to the review is broken on his blog, but whether the book is any good or not, I was appalled by the video. Some comments applaud it as honest and brave, but I think it's inane, and cruel.
    Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers, Australia

  2. Thanks Lisa. Good to learn about your site.

    Champion also reacted with brute incomprehension to Daniel Mendelsohn's magnificent review of TKO at the NYRB. Something pathological going on there perhaps.

  3. Anonymous12:20 am

    Publicity seeker perhaps?

  4. "Kindly Ones" seems like such an odd case. I admit, firstly, that have not yet read it; but I have read much about it both in dead tree and digital form. The book's reception -- violent on each end of love and hate -- is fascinating.

    It seems that the book poses as a "realist" sort of novel in a familiar vein, but is really, stealthily, something else entirely. Yes? I've asked whether some part of the commoner response has to do with its being about the Shoah -- had it been about some less pre-packaged, less socio-historically meaningful event, what difference would that have made to the book's reception? I'm always extremely wary of writers who use the Holocaust; it is the modern deus ex machine of disgust and horror and moral suasion.

  5. Anonymous12:22 pm

    Knowing that you enjoyed Beckett's letters, you may well want to read Van Gogh's in 2010, which, at a little under 400 quid, might encourage all of us to try and get a, er, review copy. Ah, but they sound damn fine and very inspiring. My other half wanted to buy them for me, but apart from the fact we don't have that kind of money, he feared it might make him resign from the day job, which wouldn't matter if we had a trust fund. But, alas...

  6. My favourite play of 2009 was Beckett's "Warten auf Godot" at Vienna's Burg. There's a review on my blog (at least I hope there is!). And so I'm naturally pleased you've chosen Beckett's letters. I may find a copy later today.

    There's a reading of Thomas Bernhard's letters to/from Suhrkamp coming up soon. I shall have but a humble restricted-view ticket.

    All the bardic best for 2010,

  7. Anonymous1:00 am

    I think I would have a hard time reading The Kindly Ones. But Dante gets to me too.

    I'm not sure about the generalization here concerning America's response to this work. Note to self however: um, video "responses" are not such a good idea I don't think. Just write the damned review. And it seems like reviews like Kakutani's conveniently ignore the major issue of point of view how it works here, how Littell uses it. I guess this is a simplistic point to make, but I always appreciate an analysis at the level of craft.

    I checked out Van Gogh's letters to Theo once upon a time. They were thoroughly engrossing. But the recent collection would require taking out a second mortgage. It looks lovely, though.

    Thanks for your insights.

    Happy New Year.


  8. Van Gogh's letters are online should anyone not know:

    I'd like a paperback selection.



Please email me at steve dot mitchelmore at gmail dot com.

Blog Archive

Contact steve dot mitchelmore at Powered by Blogger.