Sunday, 26 December 2010

Books of The Year: Day One

As a reviewer, I don't get to read as many classics as I would like, but I do try to keep at least one at a time going. This year, my most satisfying discovery was J G Farrell's 'Empire' Trilogy. Such meatiness of prose - if his books were meat, they would be enormous capons or possibly large legs of lamb with giant crunchy roast potatoes and really thick gravy. And bread sauce, of course. And they would bring a spirit lamp to your table to make your coffee afterwards. Now, where was I. Yes, I'm going to give my own personal books of the year, spread over five days. I had intended to write them in sonnet form - or at least in the form of 'The Hunting of the Snark' - but then I thought it would probably take too long.

On the first day of Christmas, my true love sent to me (or if she had sent these books to me, then she would definitely have been my true love) a whole load of classic works. Furies, fops, fiends and fripperies (and ladders): it's my top twelve old books of the year.

1. The Family Reunion by T S Eliot

It's like the worst and best Christmas ever all at once! And it's all in poetry! Amazing. Just watch out for the Eumenides, who happen to be hiding behind the curtain. Of course.

2. The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan

Oddly enough, I'd never read this at school, though everyone else had. I won't tell you what the Thirty Nine Steps are. You probably know. This is most definitely the most rambustiously exciting of all the Buchan thrillers.

3. Barry Lyndon by William Thackeray

If you've seen the wonderful film, (pictured here with Mr Lyndon about to blow smoke into his wife's face), then you'll be stunned at the novel - Barry Lyndon is here portrayed with the blackest of morals; even Lady Lyndon is frightful. It still makes me want to walk around in a frock coat and duel a lot, though. The first of many dubious heroes who have accompanied me this year.

4. The Black Sheep by Honore de Balzac

Intricate and thrilling tale of sibling rivalry - Philippe is as much of a monster as Barry Lyndon. Fortunately virtue prevails in the end, in the form of his artist brother Joseph.

5-7. Troubles by J G Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur by J G Farrell, The Singapore Grip by J G Farrell

See above for the steakiness of these books. They create a world so entire that it occupies one's mind for days. Empire collapses; hypocrisies are exposed; absurdities pile up; and does anything change? We can only hope...

8. The Soul of Kindness by Elizabeth Taylor

A beautifully wrought study of loneliness and misdirected intentions. Taylor is brilliant at having her characters mooch about London not doing very much - and her writing is beautiful too.

9. Hippolytus by Euripides

Poor old Hippolytus doesn't really get much of a look in... It's such an alien concept, that to still feel the blade of the tragedy centuries later as keenly as ever is deeply thrilling. Watch out for that bull!

10. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

No bulls, but more blades, and a human tragedy, this study of evil resonates loudly.

11. The Italian by Ann Radcliffe

Scary monks! Last minute reprieves! Underground vaults! Illicit marriages! Comedy servants! Nuns! There is absolutely nothing that you could want in a gothic novel that isn't in this stonkingly brilliant novel. There's even a moment to rival the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Yes, really.

12. The Red and the Black by Stendhal

The last of the dubious heroes, Julian Sorel is a carpenter's son who hacks his way up from a position as tutor to a provincial noble to the salon in Paris of the Marquis de la Mole and conquest of M Mole's daughter. The plot veers excitedly from farce - he's putting a ladder up against his lover's window! And then three pages later he's doing it again! - to tragedy, with a good dose of mordant satire in between.

Merry St Stephen's Day! I can't see anyone collecting wood from my window, but if you can, I'd invite them in for a mince pie - and a reading of T S Eliot.

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