1. George Orwell — Burmese Days
George’s fictionalised account of his time in Burma with our brave old lads in the Indian Imperial Police. Flory is our antihero, desperately striving for decency and brotherhood and love in a moral backwater populated by the drunk whore-mongering Old Guard English and corrupt local blackmailers, rapists and tyrants (rolled into one here as U Po Kyin). Caught in the middle are the unfortunate Burmese and Indians trapped in an easily manipulated honour system, ruled over with contempt by the institutionally racist English masters. An unflinching depiction of yet another bleak chapter in Britain’s history of world-conquering adventures in repression and brutality. Since all the “bad” archetypes are bundled into the book (i.e. the characters whose attitudes George has to blast) the novel’s credibility is occasionally stretched. But there’s no denying these warped human dung beetles existed and befouled the planet with their pestilence for far too long. As Wayne Coyne and his Lips know well, with loving hands, evil will prevail.
2. George Orwell — Coming Up for Air
Released in 1939, Coming Up for Air is perhaps the final kiss-of-death to pre-war life in miserable old England, and the first ready-for-war book to soberly embrace the next six agonising years. The protagonist George is a First World War veteran whose life has settled into the predetermined routine of people of his class and age—a travelling insurance position, a nagging harridan of a missus, and two kids too many. After kvetching about his sorry lot in Part One, he recalls his childhood in Part Two, nostalgic for the privations of his working-class boyhood—somehow they’re better than the privations of his lower-middle-class adulthood—and takes a trip to his youth in the later parts, where everything has slowly modernised and the fishing pond has been tarmacked to make way for an asylum. The novel is written in the first-person, making it hard to discern Orwell’s intentions—is he satirising this look-back bore, or sympathising with the lack of free-will in his life? Probably both. A darkly funny if mainly miserable book about the people who lived lives of quiet despair so we could access Goodreads on our iPhones.
3. Charles Webb — The Graduate
Charles Webb is a possible candidate for the BURIED book club, if this book wasn’t still popular, and it isn’t really—the film and stage show and tea towel and thong range are popular, who reads the book nowadays? The novel is written so sparsely and simply it functions pretty much as a blueprint for Mike Nichols’s script—90% of the action is told in dialogue with occasional flat descriptive passages for the frantic parts. A neurotic boy wonder returns to the suburbs to deliberate on the predetermined future laid out before him, and sets about breaking every taboo imaginable under the sun, but mostly sleeping with an older woman and trying to marry her daughter simply because grown-ups told him not too. As a comedic novel, the dialogue does all the work—Webb’s prose lacks any especial humour—and most of the famous movie lines are here with the added bonus of having Dustin Hoffman’s voice in our heads as we read them. As to Webb’s credentials as a novelist, apart from a Graduate sequel and another book that was turned into a horrible movie (Hope Springs), the rest seems out of print and unloved.
4. Evan S. Connell — Mrs Bridge
A quietly devastating portrayal of a housewife shorn of all personality or free will, raising her typical kids in a typical Midwestern breadbasket under the aegis of her all-powerful husband (who has a sequel in which to express his own typicality). The effect is similar to the poetic melodrama of The Book of Disquiet, but with a more lightly mocking and tender-heartedly sympathetic tone, and less insufferable moaning posing as philosophical profundity. In under 200 canny pages this novel slowly disassembles the American Dream and blasts the capitalist utopia into smithereens with achingly lovely paragraphs of emptiness, loneliness and trivial domestic matters. At times unbearably sad and poignant. As friend Grace Barron ably sums up: “Have you ever felt like those people in the Grimm fairytale—the ones who were all hollowed out in the back?” (p176)
5. Alexander Theroux—Laura Warholic or, The Sexual Intellectual
Having read the spellbinding Darconville’s Cat á coups de dictionnaire, I anticipated similar dizzying feats of sesquipedalianism from this outrageously funny follow-up. But unlike the stylishly ad unguem prose in that 1980s masterpiece, Laura Warholic is a frowstier monster: its prose is no less captivating or fine-tuned, but replaces the musicality and sumptuousness with pricklier symphony of aeolistic attacks. “Character is plot,” says Theroux, and the titular anti-heroine dominates this vaudevillian doorstop. Laura is an allagrugous rock groupie in her mid-thirties, her speech and demeanour frozen in a Clueless-era slacker-speak, derided by everyone in the Quink offices—the magazine where our hero Eugene Eyestones works as The Sexual Intellectual—but especially her amurcous ex-husband who intends to sue her for every penny she doesn’t have. Eugene is the only kind-hearted character in the novel (Duxbak excepting): the moral and spiritual nucleus in a world of cartoon malfeasance and anhedonious loathing. His articles for the magazine are adoxographic musings in the Therouvian mould: quote-heavy mini-essays on love, romance, and female behaviour, all drawn from his observations of Laura. Laura is an autoschediastic bandersnatch who lies, betrays, steals and uses men to live a life of idle corruption and chaos, constantly dependent on Eugene’s Jesus-like charity and patience, and as the novel progresses, Eugene is trapped in a battle between his Christian conscience and his need to lance Laura like a boil—an agathokakological conflict that sits at the heart of the novel. Surrounding this relationship are brilliant Dickensian caricatures, rendered with fiendish devilry and typically waspish prose as Theroux preaches his lessons on the decay of American culture. Bursting with wondrous neologisms, relentless trivia and inhuman erudition, this is one of the finest and funniest novels it has been my pleasure to perch on my hydraulic ram and read. For those who dismiss Theroux as a sub-Nabokovian crank, the final chapter has some of the tenderest, more painfully beautiful prose in the Alex oeuvre, as Laura the tortured autothaumaturgist falls into one of the deepest abysses of loneliness ever rendered in prose. One of the most powerful works of fiction composed this century—indispensable, and perfect for the gynotikolobomassophile in your life.
6. David Bellos — Is That a Fish in Your Ear?
David Bellos, famous for translating Life: A User’s Manual and his compendious Georges Perec bio, writes a comprehensive, semi-scholarly and semi-accessible book exploring translation in its multifarious forms. Covering the complexities of literary translation—from verbatim likenesses to humour to style—into wider world areas such as legal and political translation (less captivating material for laymen), Bellos is a witty and super-smart writer who makes a convincing case for the importance of translation and its unsung participants. For those among you (that means Manny) still convinced a literary work loses too much in translation to bother reading—if this marvellous book doesn’t persuade you, nothing will. Last word from David:
“A translation can’t be right or wrong in the manner of a school quiz or a bank statement. A translation is more like a portrait in oils. The artist may add a pearl earring, give an extra flush to the cheek or miss out the grey hairs in the sideburns—and still give us a good likeness. It’s hard to say just what it is that allows viewers to agree a portrait captures the important things—the overall shape as that special look in the eye. The mysterious abilities we have for recognizing good matches in the visual sphere lie near to what it takes to judge that a translation is good. But the users of a translation, unlike the friends of the portraitist’s sitter, don’t have full access to the model (they would barely need the translation if they did). That’s probably why translation raises such passionate responses. There’s no choice but to trust the translator. When it comes to speech and writing, people are an untrusting lot.” (p331)
7. Anthony Burgess — Byrne
A. Burgess and me agree that all art should aspire to the condition of music (we paraphraseth Walt Pater), both for the harmony of form and content, and the visceral impact music has on a listener’s nerve-endings, always stronger than responses to books or paintings or YooToob kittehs. More than any other novelist, Ant Burg spent his life inventing musical forms to contain his explosive, spontaneous creativity, whether in the musical play Blooms of Dublin, the orchestral novel Napoleon’s Symphony, or this swansong Byrne, a novel in verse. (He also recorded a musical version of A Clockwork Orange—don’t ask). Most critics and wine-swiggers are unanimous in their opinion that Anto Burge failed to musicalise the novel and create anything particularly innovative in the novel form (in terms of long-term usability), leaving behind a canon of daring experiments (i.e. failures) and almost masterpieces (i.e. not masterpieces). This novel in verse (in Byronian ottava rima stanzas) is full of the bawdiness of Chaucer and Rabelais, and far from revolutionising anything simply shines as another wacky entry in an eccentric and loopy bibliography of one the smartest, comb-fearing bruisers of 20thC lit. And for me, that’s enough.
8. Andrew O’Hagan — The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and Her Friend Marilyn Monroe
To be filed alongside the brightest and funniest animal-narrated fiction (not a competitive field—ha, see the pun?), O’Hagan’s novel is a debonair shaggy dog story (homage to Tristram Shandy evident in the title) that concerns the exploits of a Highland pup, passed into the hands of Vita Sackville-West, Natalie Wood’s princess mother, and finally (via Frank Sinatra) Marilyn Monroe. Maf was raised a socialist in the Scottish Highlands, and is extremely au fait with European, American and Russian literature, as well as philosophy and human psychology. As he accompanies Marilyn in her final year of life, he bumps into Brooklyn rats and soup-flies with attitude problems, all the while observing Marilyn’s airy complexity and her run-ins with Sinatra, her psycho psychologist, Carson McCullers, and JFK. Told in a light but consistently amusing way with insights on Kafka, Proust and Woolf you wouldn’t expect from an Aviemore maltese, O’Hagan’s short novel is a charming and finely written comedy. Note: Monroe obsessives need not apply—this isn’t a barrel-scraping “fresh perspective.”
PS: Tara in her review has complained that this narrator is insufficiently doglike. Apparently she prefers her talking dogs to “sniff their butts” and “chase after [sic] dropped potatoe [sic] chips.” She is also upset because this talking dog used “words that I don’t know” when as we all know, most talking dog narrators should limit their vocabulary to doglike words such as “woorf” and “owf,” both one syllable, so more realistic for a talking dog. You’ve been warned!