My five favourite books of 2019

Well, I started the year well enough on the blog, I guess. But there was a long period, about six months (if I’m being generous to myself) when my idea of keeping the rhythm going here and posting something every couple of weeks didn’t really work out. But better in 2020! Onwards and upwards! Less meat, more water!


I read 216 books in 2019. This is a slightly skewed number, because I had the great good fortune to be awarded the opportunity to go and write for almost a month at Hawthornden Castle in Midlothian, between mid-March and mid-April. My (then) new job was extremely flexible, and let me take the time off, and I spent a wonderful month doing nothing apart from eating and writing and reading. I discovered lots of people I didn’t know about, such as the great American poet Sandra Alcosser, and reread lots of people who were already favourites (Our Mutual Friend, which I hadn’t read since university, was a particularly great rediscovery). However, I filled up (and then lost) my reading diary for the first few months of the year, so I am choosing my five favourite books of 2019 from April onwards. In no particular order, they are:



I am growing more and more interested in Turkmenistan. I have probably forfeited my right ever to visit the country, given my involvement in certain projects connected with human rights issues in the least open and free state in the world (even North Korea has more of a tourist industry). Even so, I am reading whatever I can find about the literature and culture of the country: in particular I am translating the work (well, the work that was published in Russian; my Turkmen is still ‘very rudimentary’, if we’re being polite, and ‘limited to about five or six words and some grammar notes’, if we’re being accurate) of Annasoltan Kekilova, a great poet who was arrested and incarcerated in a mental institution during the Soviet period. But this year I also read the poems of Magtymguly Pyragy, the national poet of Turkmenistan, in a couple of editions. magtymgulyFirst was a glossy coffee-table book, published in English with introductions from the current president of the country Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and various scholars from the Smithsonian who should probably be a little ashamed of what it is that their desire for academic access has led them to. The translations were awful, as generally happens when they are run the wrong way round (Turkmen scholars translating into what is not their native language), and I couldn’t really see that Magtymguly had anything going for him at all. But then I found Louis Bazin and Pertev Boravav’s versions, and all became clear. It may be because I was reading them in French, where evocation and exaltation and exclamation are all much more usual and welcome in poetry, and it may be down to the genius of the translations (Louis Bazin was a very distinguished Turkologist, and the winner of the Prix international Magtymguly-1995, for what that’s worth, and Pertev Boravav was an extremely significant academic in the study of Turkic folklore), but I read this collection and, as the Spanish saying has it, me disfruté como un enano. Magtymguly comes across as a concrete mystic, putting his quest for the divine very firmly in the world of the desert, giving us bats and prophets, camels and visions. He’s very good on the woes of the world: here’s a poem about how things aren’t what they used to be.

On ne sait plus …

J’ai à me plaindre de mon pays et de mon temps!
On ne sait plus ou trouver le bien, le bonté.
Telles sont les cruautés et les violences des tyrans,
Qu’on ne sait plus où sont l’Islam et la Foi.

Plus personne, dans ses entretiens, ne cite le parole de Dieu,
Plus personne, dans une assemblée, ne donnes des sages conseils.
Plus personne ne distingue le licite de l’illicite.
On ne sait plus où sont le profit et le dommage.

Il n’y a plus, dans les masses, ni éducation, ni instruction.
Il n’y a plus, chez les riches, ni générosité, ni charité.
Les femmes ont devenues impudiques, et les filles, effrontées.
On ne sait plus où sont la bienséance et le décence.

Les uns ont l’œil rivé sur les biens de prochain;
Les autres, fanatisés, se chargent le cœur de haine
Et s’entre-tuent sans raison valable.
On ne sait plus où trouver aide et refuge.

Magtymguly! L’âme est un hôte passager, dans la charogne du corps.
Quand tout va bien, on a beaucoup d’amis. Mais quand cela va mal, on n’a même plus de frères.
De nos jours, tout est sens dessus dessous: tête en bas, pieds en haut.
On ne sait plus où est le bien, où est le mal.

It feels somehow comforting to read this, written about 1775, and know that things have always been getting worse. I also love the convention of this kind of poetry that the poet has to address him or herself in the final stanza: it’s something I might steal, to have lots of poems which end up by calling ‘Womack!’ to the heavens.


I can’t ever imagine writing my autobiography: I have too loose a grasp on things that happened to me, and immediacy is something I am not very good at. This probably means that I am overly overawed by people who can recall the details of their childhood as a set of more-or-less connected anecdotes. Regular readers of this blog (Ha. Ha. Ha.) will recall that I fell big-time for Elsa Lanchester’s autobiography last year, and Lord Berners’s First Childhood is more of the same, in some ways, although with less radical London politics and more Proustian reveries in the greenhouses. But he’s a very funny writer, adept at that kind of 1930s (the book came out in 1934) patrician irony, of the need to read between all possible kinds of line. I don’t know if we’ve lost it, or if contemporary versions of this kind of writing don’t seem so funny now and will only find their true audience eighty years down the line. If we are spared. Which we won’t be. Anyway, here’s a taster:

‘I had an impression that Mr Pratt was not very interested in children. When he came to the house my presence seemed to embarrass him and he seemed almost studiously to avoid noticing me. But once, when I rode over to take him a note from  my mother, he made himself unexpectedly agreeable. He showed me his collection of jade and his orchid houses, and when I left he presented me with a magnificent cattleya. When I showed the orchid to my mother on my return the gift appeared to cause her an unaccountable irritation. She said it was a ridiculous thing to have given a child. It is possible that the incongruity of the gesture aroused some dim apprehension slumbering at the back of her unsophisticated mind. I was accompanied, when I paid this visit to Mr Pratt, by a rather good-looking groom, and I remembered thinking that, after all, Mr Pratt must be a nice man as he seemed so amiable in his manner to servants.’

You know, that kind of delicate eternal humour that takes nothing and nobody seriously.

brambeus And, speaking of humour … I am trying to find out more about the Russian / Polish writer of satirical science fiction known to me as Osip Senkovsky (although the only substantial English-language biography of him, by Louis Pedrotti, identifies him as Józef-Julian Sękowski, which seems fairer, probably, as he was born near Wilno, in 1800). When we ran the Spanish publishing house, we put one of his stories, the great ‘A Scientific Journey to Bear Island’ (‘Ученое путешествие на Медвежий остров’), in an anthology. But since then, rather like the man himself, I’ve become a bit obsessed by his pseudonyms, his own personality, the way in which his whole life mixes in a fascinating way the refined and what was then called ‘brutal’: he’s a pioneering figure in the field of Russian studies of Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan, and went himself on one of those traditional European undercover tours to a vague and rather undefined ‘East’, which his studies did their best to redefine and fix. I don’t know what I want to do with my new knowledge: I have my own vague and rather undefined ideas about writing something about Senkovsky and his Jules Verne-esque imagination, and how satire can fade into real life (why I should be thinking about that this year, I have, of course, no idea). Here’s a bit from ‘The Poetic Journey Over the Whole Wide World’ (‘Поэтическое путешествие по белу-свету’) which gives you some idea of his tone, and why I might like him. The translation is by Pedrotti (who I find out died in 2010; it’s a shame to get interested in things just a couple of years too late for you to thank the people who made you interested in them).

‘All great poets play cards. The battle between greed and luck is the poetry of the pocket. I set about playing cards, and I played quickly, so as to produce at least some sort of shock to my soul, which had been stagnating motionless in one and the same rank. And this shock actually took place in it very soon. It happened during a fierce brawl when, in the heat of poetic inspiration, I made fifty thousand rubles off a couple of young and inexperienced Collegiate Registrars who had recently arrived from the countryside with ready money to serve their country.
But after this salutary shock, a really Classical kind of boredom threatened to destroy the embryo of the beautiful passions in my heart and turn it into a wasteland. The Registrars were bent on registering a complaint against me. I’ve never been fond of the damp and gloomy prose of prisons, where the human heart ids put in heavy chains as a precaution against the intrusion of great feelings: where the noblest creation in the world, inactive and humbled, like a mind confined within the iron cage of the three unities, goes begging for the alms of a few ideas and a morsel of glory through rhetoric’s thick grating—and I rode out of Petersburg, leaving my opponents penniless and in the fourteenth rank. But where should I go? I’ll go to Moscow.’


I’m not very aware of comics, not really aware enough to know what the specific taxonomies of their description should be (‘graphic novels’ etc.), but this book, Beautiful Darkness, whatever it is, is good. It’s fantasy (one version I saw had an endorsement from John Crowley, the author of the astonishing Little, Big, which seems a fair pairing), and it’s philosophy, and it’s art, and I don’t really have much to say about it, because I don’t have the words. It’s about a group of little fairies whose life is overturned when the vessel in which they live, a young girl, dies suddenly and alone in the woods. They are forced out of the corpse and have to make their own lives, scavenging and preying on one another. They are portrayed as almost entirely without morals, or else, in the case of the protagonist, with some vestige of moral scruples that might amount to nothing more than saying ‘This isn’t really very nice’. So, there’s murder, and cannibalism, and pixie frocks, and beautiful watercolour depictions of horrible, horrible things. I can’t get it out of my head. Obviously difficult to quote, but here’s an indicative page:

beautifuldarkness3And, deep breath, onwards.


This is published as an ‘experiment’, which seems a bit arch, but you can’t really blame a writer for her publishers. The main body of the book (sixty-odd pages out of 120) is an exercise in (yes, experimental) translation, where Bolland, who knows some German but not much, takes the German text (or rather a computer-generated pdf of the text, with its own mistakes) of Freud’s Über Deckerinnerungen and provides what she calls ‘a psychotic translation without a dictionary’. The results are odd, of course, but also fascinating, and a very clear indication of the truth of certain of Freud’s ideas: the texts swallow back upon themselves, remain constrained in a certain body of vocabulary, and give us a picture of the unconscious mind of the author (or the unconscious mind she wishes to offer us, because knowing about Freud means we are less likely to fall into his traps, and the possibility remains that this is all a very knowing exercise, an experiment carried out on us rather than one we observe). Maybe I’m not explaining myself too well, but here’s a bit that may help you see what it’s on about:

Ein anderer berichtet als erste Kindheitserrinerung eine Epi&ode von einem Spaziergang, auf dem er von einem Baum einen Ast abbrach. Er glaubt noch heute angeben zu kommen, an welchem Ort das vorfiel. E.s waren mehrere Per&Onen •mit dabei, und eine leistete ihm Hille.

A wanderer bereft and thirsty child-hot in-and-under an episode with a space-gang, of them and for them who are born in a star-boat. Her night gleamed hailing angels as cunts, a world orb falling.
“He swears my pens with diamonds, and a lace of hells”.’

I found the selection of favourites quite hard this year: there were lots of other books that, were I in a different mood, might have been in the list. For example, D. Nurkse’s Love in the Last Days, Sandra Simonds’s Atopia, Philip Terry’s Dictator, ‘Liane de Pougy”s My Blue Notebooks, M. Aurel Stein’s Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan, the poetry of Rimbaud, which I hadn’t really paid any attention to before now, too swayed by the judgement of the people at university (twenty years ago!) studying French who called him ‘the dipshit’s dipshit’, Henry Bashford’s Augustus Carp, Esq., By Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man … I hope I’ll have as much fun in 2020, although I’m likely to have less time.



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