Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald
In 1939, a five-year-old boy is sent on a Kindertransport from the Continent to foster parents in Wales. Until he comes to do his sixth-form scholarship exams, he grows up as Dafydd Elias, speaks Welsh, plays rugby, gets on well at school, remembers nothing outside of his current life. Before the exams the headmaster tells him that he must put the name Jacques Austerlitz, his real name, on his exam papers.
It is not until a good deal later in life that Jacques Austerlitz makes the journey, both literal and metaphorical, to find out about and confront his past. The narrative of this journey is a work of sheer genius. An investigation of identity, memory, dreams, loss, among many other things, it draws the reader in on level upon level, so much so that by the end, the desire to start again from the beginning is overwhelming.
Austerlitz is an architectural historian by career and the book opens with a disquisition on military fortifications. We soon begin to perceive why Austerlitz has chosen – or been chosen by – this particular interest: the greatest fortification of all is the one he has built up around himself. The voice of Austerlitz is reported to us through the nameless ‘I’ who is the ostensible narrator of the book, so that at all times we are presented with at least third-party narration. The layers even at this level are such that we occasionally find sentences like, ‘None the less, said Vera, Austerlitz continued, Maximilian did not believe that . . .’ where the narrators are placed one inside or in front of another like protective shells. Memory is fluid, time can speed up or slow down or even become static, so that every moment is an unending now, and people may have appointments to keep in the past. The book is shot through with misty scenes, half-lit rooms, blurred outlines, insubstantial figures. Echoes recur and recur: swirling snow later becomes the fall of bird feathers; the two square metres of space per person in the ghetto is joltingly recalled again in the two-square-metre television screen on a cafe wall. Ignore the names at your peril. The woman who fills in much of the past for Austerlitz is called Vera; the narrator meets Austerlitz in a bar on the boulevard Auguste Blanqui. Political activist Auguste Blanqui was sentenced to transportation in 1872, a sentence afterwards commuted to imprisonment; Austerlitz might be said to have suffered both punishments.
This is a book suffused with loneliness and melancholy which manages, by its brilliance, to uplift. It is a book about being haunted, which in turn will haunt. It is, in short, what great literature is about.
The Silence of Animals, John Gray
“Whereas silence is for other animals a natural state of rest, for humans silence is an escape from inner commotion. By nature volatile and discordant, the human animal looks to silence for relief from being itself while other creatures enjoy silence as their birthright. Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming.”
Gray’s book is subtitled ‘On Progress and Other Modern Myths’. His thesis is that in order to create meaning for our lives, we create fictions. In our own times, the fiction we have created to convince ourselves that life has meaning is the myth of progress, a myth that Gray debunks from any angle you might be sitting comfortably in: Christianity, atheism, humanism – truly nothing is sacred. In the course of his musings, he draws from works of philosophy, history, memoir, fiction and poetry; writers as varied as Orwell, Freud, Beckett, Schopenhauer, JG Ballard, William Empson and Patrick Leigh Fermor feature. Whether or not you ultimately buy his arguments, there is one thing for which to be thankful to the author. If you are a lover of really fine prose, the extracted passages from J. A. Baker and Llewelyn Powys will have you rushing to discover more about these writers if they were not already familiar to you.
This exhilarating book from John Gray crackles on every page with ideas. Some will resonate, others may infuriate, but all will arrest.
Daddy Love, Joyce Carol Oates
The new novel by several-time Pulitzer nominee Joyce Carol Oates should logically be snapped up by all those who raved about Room two years ago. It deals, after all, with the abduction of a five-year-old boy by what the blurb on the front describes as a “fiendish captor”. But it will not be snapped up, or even leafed through, by most of that vast audience. Why? Because, as the blurb suggests, this is the real thing. It is unpleasant, brutal, and (again the blurb) “compelling”. No cutesy five-year-old voice here to cushion the reader. You are taken into the mother’s head, the father’s, the child’s, and yes – and this is probably the main reason why the book will repel – the abductor’s. But in visiting all these perspectives we are offered here a genuine engagement with a chilling phenomenon. There is nothing gratuitous, either in the narrative or in the language in which it is related. There is enough to disturb and on occasion horrify, but not so much or so graphically detailed that the prurient need trouble themselves to thumb through it.
I read Daddy Love because I wanted to find out why someone would write such a book, not to mention why someone would read it. It was also a matter of trusting the author; had it been from the pen of a writer of lesser stature than Joyce Carol Oates I would almost certainly have left it alone. What I found was a harrowing but honest and powerfully affecting book. Apart from the more obvious issues it tackles, in itself it also poses interesting questions about the role of fiction. Not one for the very sensitive, but if you were happy to read Room, shouldn’t you be willing at least to try this?
Care of Wooden Floors, Will Wiles
Can a page-turner really be about someone trying not to damage a pristine wooden floor? The answer is yes, in this very engaging debut novel from architecture and design journalist Will Wiles. Oskar, minimalist composer and clean-freak (“What vodka does Oskar drink? Neat vodka”) has asked his friend, our narrator, to take care of his flat and two cats in an unnamed eastern European city while he heads to LA to organise his divorce. This is the premise of the novel, and to say anything more would be to risk spoiling the experience of being led, day by day, through the unfolding of our hero’s time in residence. And ‘unfolding’ is the word. There is a cumulative momentum to the plot, so if you’re the sort of person who flicks through a book before starting it, don’t.
The book is funny, at times darkly so. The prose is sharp and intelligent; the situation entirely believable, even when small events take on huge significance, and large ones somehow diminish in stature. Perhaps as a result of his journalistic training, Wiles has a wonderful way of providing detail without letting it become fussy or unnecessary.
One of our books of the year.
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Robert K. Massie
Johanna, who loves socialising and gossip is married at 15 to an austere military man more than twice her age. He needs a male heir; she wants a path to the highest society. They have a daughter, Sophia, who is immediately rejected by her mother. From her governess Sophia gets the affection and attention she so desperately craves. She also learns to cloak herself in meekness and submission. Temporarily.
Though Johanna could not have known what was to happen, the daughter she rejects as a disappointment goes on in time to become Catherine the Great.
If all this sounds like the premise for a novel, it’s because it could well be. As the subtitle indicates, this is a portrait as much as a ‘life’ or a ‘biography’. No dry history lesson, the prose moves fluidly and is studded with colourful detail. Yes, the intermingling of the various German, Prussian, Russian and Scandinavian royal houses of the time is occasionally tricky to keep track of unless you’re versed in the period, but that doesn’t matter here where the subject of the book is always the primary focus, and the extracts from her own memoirs dotted throughout bring the portrait psychologically to life.
If you’re on the lookout for something to curl up with on an autumn evening, or are impatiently waiting for Hilary Mantel to finish her trilogy, this might do quite nicely.
The Dinner, Herman Koch
The international bestseller from Dutch writer/actor Herman Koch has made it to English and looks set to be this year’s The Slap, though less crude and more focused than that book was. The book is set at a dinner for four – the narrator Paul, his brother and both of their wives – in an upmarket restaurant somewhere in Holland (Paul is careful not to name precise locations in the course of his narrative). The four have met to discuss an incident involving their teenage sons which featured on the Dutch equivalent of Crimewatch. So far the boys have remained unidentified by the police and the public at large; only their parents have recognised them from the hazy security camera footage. What would you do?
This book is a book club must. Even if your club is inclined to veer off topic, there is so much to ponder here that almost anywhere you veer will be to the point: nature v nurture; racism, political correctness; justice; morality; technology; waiters in posh restaurants . . . The list is endless. It’s a book you’ll fly through quite easily. The content is more interesting than the style (and there’s an American feel to the translation that screams, ‘Screenplay, please!’), but the questions it raises will remain with you for a long time after you finish reading.