by Paul Doolan
1. Alex Ross. The Rest is Noise. Listening to the Twentieth Century. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
A friend leant me this book and suggested that I read the first chapter, on Wagner’s influence, as I am a Wagner fan. I surprised myself by reading the first chapter and then staying up late a few nights to get the whole book read. Ross has, as far as I am concerned, turned a history of 20th century classical music into an almost unputdownable page-turner. Ross is the music critic of The New Yorker and has that magazine’s gift of writing as an expert for the layman without insulting the latter. Frank Zappa supposedly said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture” but if, like me, you have zero grasp of music theory but you are interested in modern classical music, this book is an ideal companion.
2. Tim Robinson. Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness. Penguin Books, 2009. Tim Robinson is an Englishman who has made his home in the lonely west of Ireland for many years now. Originally a Cambridge trained mathematician, he is an expert in geology, a cartographer, a visual artist and, as writer, a fantastic stylist. This book takes us through a stretch of the Galway coast and mixes geology, folklore and history, while it introduces us to some of the characters who live or have lived in this magical area, like Ludwig Wittgenstein, who claimed that he could only think in the dark and that Connemara was Europe’s “Last Pool of Darkness”. The polymath Robinson writes sentences of such startling beauty it makes me want to hang up my pen.
3. Hans Fallada. Alone in Berlin. Penguin Classics, 2009 (Published in USA by Melville House with the title Every Man Dies Alone) Fallada wrote this book in the year of his death, 1947, just two years after the collapse of Nazism. It is a novel set in Nazi Berlin. A simple, working class couple decide to oppose Nazi repression by writing an anti-Nazi slogan on a postcard every week, and they drop the postcards in strategic public places. The Gestapo attempt to hunt them down. The couple’s naïve attempt at resistance is almost pathetic, and, unknown to them, has no impact whatsoever except to set the brutal thugs who run the political police against them. Their act is doomed to failure and futility, but does, in some way, preserve their human dignity.This is not only one of the best reads of 2009, but of this century. This Tolstoyian novel contains over a dozen memorable characters. It is stifling, even terrifying in places and its dissection of what it means to live under a totalitarian dictatorship is unparalleled. I have read scores of books on Nazism, but nothing on a par with this. It makes for uncomfortable reading – how often have I collaborated with decisions that I have been opposed to? How can humans preserve their dignity while working and living in a system that is inhumane? The fact that this genuine masterpiece was published in 1947 in German and we had to wait until 2009 for a translation into English (by Michael Hofmann) speaks volumes about the insularity and ignorance of the English speaking world.
4. A.S. Byatt. The Children’s Book. Chatto and Windus, 2009. A book of incredibly rich texture and poignant detail, Byatt’s historical novel brings to life an array of fictional characters in late Victorian and Edwardian England – writers, potters, puppeteers and other middle class anti-establishment members of the establishment seeking an alternative lifestyle. Some critics have attacked her for weighing down the story with a surplus of historical detail, but this is equivalent to attacking Tintorreto for including too many brush strokes in his historical paintings. Byatt’s characters become real as they emerge out of their detailed historical background. History makes the characters more than the characters make history. And, for the reader, the tragedy is made more heartbreaking by knowing that World War One is waiting around the corner. One thing though: Byatt describes the lively artistic scene in Ascona in the early twentieth century, populated by vegetarians, nudists, neopagans and would be Hindus, but she locates Ascona is Italy, while it is (and was then) in Switzerland.
5. William Trevor. Love and Summer. Penguin, 2009.This might be William Trevor’s last novel, seeing as he is now in his eighties, which would be sad indeed. Nevertheless, let us be thankful, for this tale of love, loyalty and betrayal is near to being among his finest. It is a slow moving story, set in a small town in Ireland during the 1950s. No inter-textuality, self-referentialty or other post-modernist high jinxes in sight here. Instead the plot slowly unfolds with a pared down simplicity and sympathetic inevitability that is the mark of this master. Not a word is wasted or misplaced.
I just today finished Geoff Dyer's Jeff in Venice, Death in Venice - what an unusual book. A novel that reads like part fiction, part memoir, part travelogue. One half (in Venice) is all drugs (cocaine), very graphic sex scenes, drinking binges - a sort of desperate, tired superficiality, Jay McInerny at the Venice Biennale. The second half of the book switches from third person narrative to first person, switches to Varanasi India, "the world's least boring place" and becomes a sort of spiritual quest. The descriptions of Varanasi are dazzling.
One pair of books that really gripped me this year were James Lovelock's calls of desperation about climate change, The Revenge of Gaia and The Vanishing Face of Gaia. As he says, we are like tourists on a boat over Niagra Falls and we pretend to be unaware that the engines have just failed.