Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Books of the Year, Day One: Classics

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.

4. Eline Vere by Louis Couperus

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.

8. How Many Miles to Babylon by Jennifer Johnston

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...


  1. There is nice irony in the statement that Stephen Mitchell's "translation" of the Iliad "retained the grandeur of the original."

    According to Mitchell's own drafts, he poached at least part of his Iliad from a venerable, published translation, then disguised the plagiarized lines with phrases plucked from other published translations.

    The drafts appeared in a piece Mitchell wrote for the Wall Street Journal, "Found in Translation," November 12, 2011, p. C-3, and online at:

    There, Mitchell disclosed three sequential drafts leading to lines 50-55 of Book 1 of his Iliad (lines 49-53 of the original Greek).

    Mitchell's first draft was copied from the prose version of A.T. Murray (Wyatt rev., Harvard, Loeb Ed., 1999), page 16.

    Murray has:

    "Then he sat down apart from the ships and let fly an arrow;
    terrible was the twang of the silver bow.
    The mules he attacked first and the swift dogs,
    but then on the men themselves he let fly
    his stinging arrows, and struck;
    and ever did the pyres of the dead burn thick."

    Compare Mitchell's first draft (parentheticals his):

    "Then he sat down apart from (opposite) / the ships and shot (let fly) an arrow,
    and terrible was the twang from the silver bow.
    First he attacked the mules and the swift dogs,
    then he shot his sharp (piercing) arrows on / the men themselves,
    and forever the pyres of the dead kept / burning thick (close together)."

    The indebtedness of this draft to Murray is too heavy to be accounted for by the normal probability of coincidence between two independently achieved translations.

    In his second and final drafts, Mitchell disguised his plagiarized first draft by incorporating minor changes, many found in the translations by Robert Fagles, Samuel Butler, Richmond Lattimore and E.V. Rieu. More details are at:

    Based on Mitchell's drafts, it is doubtful that his Iliad may accurately be called a translation, rather than a "version" or "reinterpretation."

  2. Thank you for that. I was aware, I think, that Mitchell had no Greek; I think you are right in that it should be called a "version", and I have amended accordingly.