My five favourite books of 2016

I read 145 books in 2016, as compared to 146 in 2015. I also, for the first time, calculated roughly how much money I spent on books (this was a truly rough calculation, as I counted books I already had in the house as being entirely free, which I suppose isn’t exactly correct, and also I had to take exchange rates into account. And I didn’t count the postage for books bought from abebooks, which I perhaps should have): £864. Here are the five books I liked the most last year. My rule of thumb is not to put books I have already read, so Martin Gayford’s Man with a Blue Scarf doesn’t make it, neither do books like Stalky & Co. or The Way of all Flesh or Headlong Hall, or even Antonio Orejudo’s amazing Un momento de descanso, which I reread three times this year and which someone should contract me to translate, please. Anyway:

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I really should have read this before. Or maybe I shouldn’t, as studies of Russia and, in particular, Russian government, all tend to say the same things. But Custine says the same things as everyone else very well: ‘When the Tsar, with apparent freedom, opens his palace to the favoured peasants and the chosen bourgeois who are allowed, twice yearly, the honour of paying him court, he does not say to the ploughman and the merchant: “You are a man like me,” but he tells the great nobleman: “You are a slave like the serf, and I, your god, preside equally over you both.” […] It is a cruel game to seek a pretence of popularity in the equality of others, a despot’s jest which might dazzle men of another time, but cannot deceive nations which have arrived at the age of experience and reflection. It was not Tsar Nicholas who had recourse to the deceit, but since he was not the inventor of this puerile political game, it would befit him to abolish it. Admittedly, nothing can be abolished in Russia without peril: in the absence of any other form of security, a nation relies on habit. A stubborn attachment to custom, protected by riot and poison, is a pillar of the constitution and the periodic death of sovereigns proves to the Russians that this constitution knows how to defend itself. For me, the equilibrium maintained by such a mechanism is a profound and distressing mystery.’

Astolphe Louis Léonor, Marquis de Custine, Letters from Russia (1843, translated and edited by Robin Buss, Penguin Classics 1991).

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I had read Tiptree, Jr.‘s most famous stories before (‘And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side’, ‘Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death’), but reading in bulk was an eye-opening experience. Not a writer who unlocks new doors in your head, but one who describes things you thought you knew from better angles than you would ever imagine being able to position yourself. If that makes sense. I mean that I had the idea that I was reading stories I had read before, but set out better and in better prose than I had read them elsewhere. This might just reflect Tiptree Jr.’s influence on later writers.

James Tiptree Jr., Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (Arkham House, 1990)

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I did a degree in Russian literature, and thinking back on it I realise that I could have gone through the whole four years reading very few books written by women. We had to read Akhmatova’s Requiem in our first year, but apart from that I don’t remember any set texts by women. Talking to my former teachers, it turns out that this has since been remedied: one of them even sets Lidia Zinovieva-Annibal‘s Тридцать три урода for his second years, which is a step in the right direction. Anyway, it means that I can still be surprised by coming across things I should really have known about or had pointed out to me sooner. Karolina Pavlova‘s Двойная жизнь is a wonderful experimental short novel, in which a young woman’s life is told in alternating chapters of realistic but bitterly ironic prose, and poetry that corresponds to her dreams. Like reading a book written together by Jane Austen and Coleridge, almost.

Karolina Pavlova, A Double Life (1848, translated by Barbara Heldt, Barbary Coast Books 1996)

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Senator, I know John Clegg. This is a great and improbably terrifying collection of poems. I spent a lot of the summer feeling mildly oppressed, like I was walking across a scrubby desert just before a storm broke, the sky a single dark cloud. This was Clegg’s fault. I think my subconscious was connecting Clegg and Walter de María, but that’s probably not the worst connection that can be made.

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John Clegg, Holy Toledo! (Carcanet, 2016)

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Another good thing that John Clegg did this year was post on Facebook about his discovery of Christoph Meckel. On the strength of his recommendation, I bought a couple of books by Meckel. I didn’t get much out of his fiction, which seemed a little too squibby for me: ideas that were nice ideas, but set down rather than worked out. This, on the other hand, a brief memoir of his father, who was an author who ended up being too complicit in the Nazi regime for his or anyone’s good, was astonishingly good. And it ends with a little parable, full of nice ideas, that in the context made sense and was deeply moving.

Christoph Meckel, Image for Investigation: About My Father (Verbivoracious Press, 2016)

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