Merry Christmas to you, and God Bless You, One and All! (Flings away crutches, downs eggnog, kisses unsuitable person under mistletoe, passes out with paper crown over one eye.) Well I hope you all enjoyed your Christmas. Mine was distinctly unbookish (apart from dipping into Samuel Pepys); to rectify the matter I am returning to my books of the year round ups, which I hope will become a tradition as Yuleish as weeping over the Doctor Who special. (What? I didn't do that! Not me, guvn'or.) To start with, here are my Classics of the Year.
1. Vathek by William Beckford
Published by Oxford Classics, this is insane, terrifying and brilliant, concerning the Caliph Vathek, who meets an ugly stranger; said stranger promises him untold power and the knowledge of the pre-Adamite sultans; meanwhile, his Satanic mother Carathis gloats and commits various atrocities with her mute negresses. It veers from extreme farce (when Vathek shoves, one by one, fifty of the most beautiful of his subjects' children off a cliff) to madness (Koran-quoting dwarfs, anyone?). It's, basically, totally cool. Beckford was 20 when he wrote it, and it's my Classic of the Year for its complete and utter disregard for narrative and, well, anything, but yet managing to be scintillating. The bit where the mute negresses run into the marsh looking for poisonous weeds; the bit where Carathis storms around hell; the bit where people are being tortured for eternity with their hearts set on fire - just go and read it, you won't regret it.
2. The Iliad by Homer (trans. Stephen Mitchell)
Some thought this new version (see comment below) too colloquial - would Achilles, asked The Economist drily, really say "I don't give a damn about that man?" I think he probably would. Mitchell retained the grandeur of the original, whilst injecting it with some zest and spice - an excellent version for those who haven't yet been introduced to the wonders of Homer.
3. The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope
"The moving toyshop of the heart..." A fabulous little satirical epyllion, ordered yet chaotic, lovely, shocking, sharp and warm all at the same time, it left me longing for a twenty-first century Pope.
Printed by the stalwart Pushkin Press, the cover of this beautiful edition shows a woman draped in a kimono, made inert by ennui, as is Eline Vere herself. The Dutch Couperus was revered in his time; his highly realistic novels drip with detail, as gorgeously and tightly rendered as a painting of his countryman's. The riotous characters and scenes in this book seemed to be so close to us in spirit and temperament, so much more so than the aristocrats of War and Peace, or the WASPs of Edith Wharton; there is a naughtiness, an impishness in his prose which I found very touching. Eline Vere herself is a complicated heroine (if one can call her that), and reading this you sometimes feel as if you've overdone it on the cherry brandy, but it's entirely worth it to become wholly immersed in a world both familiar and strange. There is a Dutch film, but if anyone knows if there's one with English subtitles (my Dutch being, er, non-existent), I'd be grateful.
5. Electra by Sophocles, The Libation Bearers by Aeschylus, Philoctetes by Sophocles
This was the year I returned to Greek tragedy. There is something in the searing purity of Sophocles that cannot be garnered anywhere else; and the cosmic otherworldliness of Aeschylus feels like looking into a clouded mirror, back into the depths of our civilisation from which spring these extraordinary tales. The Philoctetes in particular I have been enjoying, finding in its tale of isolation, friendship and civilisation something that resonates widely, it being perhaps the most 'modern' of Sophocles' plays (containing, as it does, a meta-textual play directed by Odysseus). But lurking behind its resolution lies the future fall of Troy - and in that is the genius of Sophocles. I also highly recommend the version of Philoctetes by Seamus Heaney: The Cure at Troy, which adds an eeriness.
6. Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
Every time I read this I find it more savage. The murder of Mr Prendergast by the lunatic! The deaths of onlookers at the wedding of Paul and Margot! Almost every paragraph is laced with venom and wit, and it never gets any less fresh. I also read The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold again this year, but found it hasn't lasted nearly as much - I think because its "trick" seems so outdated. It's something you need to look at in the context of its time, whereas Decline and Fall stretches its black limbs across the centuries, settling in for good.
7. The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
This occupies a special place in my mental furniture, much like an old rockinghorse, having responded warmly to it as a child: its tale of young clairvoyants terrified of being found out for fear of death is both thrilling and poignant. And God I wish I was a mind-reader. It would make writing novels so much easier.
A little-known, and overlooked, novella, about the friendship between an Anglo-Irish aristocrat and a labourer on his lands; they come together in the trenches of the First World War, but their friendship does little but tear them apart as others misconstrue it. Written in sometimes quite oblique prose, it nevertheless manages to sear its imagery onto the brain.
9. Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald
The first Fitzgerald I've read - and why don't people read her more? This is a slim book but it contains within it more intelligence, wit, vividness and awareness of humanity than most. It concerns the lives of a group of houseboaters and is often quite nightmarish in its piercing lyricism.
10. A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford
Published by Daunt Books, this deserves a mention both because Daunts are doing a great job of bringing out neglected books, and also because you can see what a great writer Bedford would become. This novel is very curate's-eggish; the opening chapter is peerless, but the bits in between can be remarkably stilted. However, it is worth persevering with just to see how a writer forms herself.
Pip pip, then, till tomorrow...