Review 31's Books of the Year 2023
by Review 31
Alejandro Zambra, trans. Megan McDowell, The Private Lives of Trees (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
If a novel has the word ‘tree’ in its title, I’ll probably want to read it. There’s a rich and leafy backlog to get through, most of which I haven’t even read but they always tempt me — a silly habit, I know. . . my literary impulses should be guided by more profound criteria. Or should they? Earlier this year I buckled — quite happily — to a new entry in the arboreal canon.
The Private Lives of Trees is a tiny novel by Alejandro Zambra, a Chilean writer of sweet, melancholic and unapologetically literary novels. There’s a mellow, romcom-esque warmth to his writing. His protagonists are almost always endearing, vulnerable, kind, bookishly clever and navigating situations so normal they feel comforting. Private Lives begins as Julián is tucking his stepdaughter, Daniela, into bed. To lull her to sleep he makes up a story about trees, a poplar and a baobab to be precise. As is Zambra’s speciality, it is a novel of stories within stories, of lives rewoven and pressed into varying depths of fiction.
The layering feels authentic, not contrived or ostentatiously meta in the way many swirlingly postmodern novels are. (Think of Zambra as a chilled-out, Hispanic Paul Auster.) Each of the concentric narratives comes about naturally: the bedtime story turns into the diary of a bonsai grower, which is entwined by the story of how Julián and Verónica got together, and then by Julián’s own novel and the parallel narrative of where Verónica could have got to by now – why isn’t she home yet? A structure like this only works if it’s executed with a pleasant and easy-going kind of cleverness, one that suggests storytelling is a natural and healthy means of occupying the imagination and distracting the sleepless — both young and old.
I read Private Lives during a Zambrathon which included two of my other favourites this year: Ways of Going Home and Chilean Poet. Both were written much later than Private Lives but were translated years before. You can see why. They are longer, more substantial novels. Nevertheless, it’s wonderful that Private Lives has finally been translated. It’s slight but it’s intricate and perfectly constructed. Importantly, it gives you what all of Zambra’s books do: a feeling of fondness, a realisation that you’ve been smiling at the page without noticing. Nicole Krauss said that his books are ‘good company. . . like a phone call in the middle of the night from an old friend’. I agree. Reading Zambra for the first time feels like making a new friend. So thank you, Alejandro. Thank you, to quote Lady Gaga, Alejandro.
Michael Winkler, Grimmish (Peninsula Press)
Joe Grim was an Italian-American boxer famed not for his swift footwork, rear hook or any other aspect of his technique but for his ability to withstand punches. A typical Joe Grim boxing match would see his opponent exhausting themselves throwing punch after punch only for Grim to get back to his feet every time they knocked him down. Out of 104 official losses in his career, Grim was only knocked out twice.
Born Saverio Giannone, in Avellino, Campania, in 1881, Joe Grim emigrated to Philadelphia when he was ten years old. In 1908, he undertook a boxing tour of Australia, the apparent subject of Michael Winkler’s novel Grimmish. In the face of a fairly limited amount of factual information about Grim’s time in Australia, Winkler chooses to utilise a fictitious uncle as a framing device, alongside elements of auto-fiction, meta-commentary and intertextuality to create, in the narrator’s own words, an ‘exploded non-fiction novel’.
Normally, I’d be reluctant to use as trite a recommendation as this is like nothing you have read before, but, honestly, I never have read something quite like Grimmish before. It’s certainly the first book I’ve read that features an obscenity-spouting goat.
Winkler is upfront from the first page about the artificiality of his conceit, opening with a made-up review of the book that highlights the limits of his approach. He frequently makes his presence known through footnotes, which provide sources for further information, relevant quotes and commentary about what he is doing on the page. Old newspaper reports included within the book, for example, characterise Grim talking in an Italian-American patois — ‘He no hurta me he try to ana I staya da sixa rouns’ but when it comes to putting his own words in Grim’s mouth, Winkler makes him instead sound like a ‘tweedy don’ on the basis that:
‘I don’t care to mimic contemporary newspaper reports’ offensive pidgin… and we need dialogue to give some interiority to a man who, in life, won attention very largely through deeds rather than words.’
From the above descriptions, it may sound like Winkler is throwing literary devices at the wall to see what sticks, but it doesn’t come across that way on the page. Instead, the reader will find a contemplative, and sometimes mournful, meditation on pain, masculinity, the inherent artificiality of historical fiction and the folly of pursuing a writing life.
Across the front of the English and American cover is quote from J.M. Coetzee: ‘The strangest book you are likely to read this year’. He’s not wrong.
Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. Michael Hofmann, Kairos (New Directions)
When I wish for ‘political’ literature that is neither dull, didactic nor shallow in its exploration of power, I wish for something like Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos. This doomed, late communist romance set in the waning years of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and shortly after unification follows Katharina and Hans, whose chance meeting marks the beginning of a painfully drawn-out May-to-December affair. Katharina is nineteen, Hans is in his mid-late fifties and married; it’s obvious from the start that this won’t end well.
For a novel about communism translated, published and marketed to the Anglophone West, Kairos shuns the easy solutions and cheap moralism that so often accompanies works like these. Hans is a writer and radio host with zero interest in the business of resistance and becoming a capital D Dissident, a man whose German settler childhood in Nazi-occupied Poland informs his complex sympathy and passive support for the East German regime. Likewise, Erpenbeck’s East Berlin is simple and spartan, but never gray and gloomy, at least not to the degree that a typical tale of life under communism demands. As for Katharina, she, too, remains more or less content to ride the tide of capital H History to its foretold end, all while experiencing a profound sense of displacement and alienation that underpins the euphoria that follows the Wall’s inevitable collapse.
Kairos has been called “the great post-Unification novel,” and I agree. Some will no doubt interpret it as a work of Ostalgie — nostalgia for the former GDR — or apologia even, given its lack of negative sensationalism, but art can and should ignore demands to take a clear and unwavering stance and instead seek to capture history’s countless contours and contradictions. Kairos is, therefore, both a tender homage to and a scathing indictment of the old GDR, the relationship between the aging Hans and the young Katharina perhaps symbolising the broader relationship between the decrepit, decaying and often abusive East German state and the disenchanted youth that it failed to remake in its own image.
Saskia Hamilton, All Souls: Poems (Graywolf Press)
The American poet Saskia Hamilton died of cancer in June 2023 at the untimely age of fifty-six. She was a prodigious editor, most notably of the correspondence of Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Elizabeth Bishop and their overlapping circles, but also an accomplished poet in her own right. All Souls, her fifth collection, published posthumously in September, makes for poignant reading.
There are small poems, fragmentary prose reflections, and an appendix of bibliographic citations, but these are not ferociously demanding pieces. Mostly, their lucid glance at what can still be seen of life from the treatment ward windows, the books still avidly perused, is readily apprehensible. 'One might pray not to be at the mercy of the mind's wanderings in the final hour,' she writes in 'Exits and Entrances to the Auditorium'. 'What about the unraveling of thought, the destructuring of mind?'
In the title poem, a pocket watch in its case is scrutinised for its antique beauty – 'velvet ribbon knotted on the click and winder / black as wet roads, soft as a tongue / in the shadow of a closed mouth' – but also for the almost indiscernible link it suggests between ordinary chronology and the displacements of history. There is a note of levity too, particularly when Hamilton rehearses for us the long-gone matter of academic dispute — what Charles Rosen said of Christopher Ricks while writing about Frank Kermode in the NYRB, the courteous jousting dissipating to prattle while construction work carries on outside on a fine morning.
There are memories of travel, through the Netherlands by train, the rope of Hamilton's own family past spooling back to her mother's grandparents, who harboured the German Jewish legal scholar Hugo Sinzheimer and his wife in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. In 'Museum Going', she looks again at the Rembrandts and Vermeers, the students crowded about the anatomy table, the 'milk poured without end into the bowl', while the spectral figure of the poet's grandfather joins her in peaceable contemplation. When he 'leaned on his cane, the floor would give a little. He turned to look from one to another'. There can be reconciliation and deliverance in such looking back. It's her young son's entrances and exits in these pieces that finally clutches the heart.
Edogawa Rampo, trans. Ian Hughes, Beast in the Shadows; and The Black Lizard (Penguin Classics)
Two of the best books I have read this year were written nearly a century ago. Their author, whose real name was Taro Hirai (1894–1965), used a pseudonym. These English editions are credited to Edogawa Rampo – ‘Edgar Allan Poe’ put through Japanese and transliterated back. The joke sets the tone for both texts: whodunnit novellas but also tongue-in-cheek riffs on literary fame, Japanese customs and more. Reading this meta parody, you don’t know whether to laugh or to sigh, but you do know you want to keep reading.
Beast in the Shadows (1928) involves the writer, the entrepreneur, his wife and her ex-lover. There are only two crime writers in Japan, it is alleged; one is narrating this mystery, but what’s the other up to? The tale of two rivals moves fast, with several twists crammed into a hundred pages. The Black Lizard (1934), equally short and pacy, is the story of a femme fatale who doubles as a criminal mastermind. She leads the characters in a dance of desire and death, swirling around talking sofas, torture chambers and other attributes of the genre.
The language of these books is appropriately dated, sometimes tinged with purple (‘the jealousy even served as fuel to kindle the flames of my vengeful heart’) and sometimes positively lurid (‘And when we dumped the body into the elevator shaft . . . and that terrible spattering noise . . . ugh!’). The narratives are firmly of their time and place – at least that’s the atmosphere Ian Hughes’s translations create, and much as I’d love to be able to read the originals, I’ll happily settle for his versions, full of such inventions as ‘the flesh-mound spoke in a mish-mash of mannish and girlish words’. Then again, just as other sources suggest a different transliteration for the author’s pen name – ‘Ranpo’ – so another translator might find another key to his works. Resisting the temptation to ask AI to compose a pastiche of Poe and Japanese classics, I’ll look forward to reading the next book in the Rampo canon, The Gold Mask, due next year in William Varteresian’s translation.
Yasunari Kawabata, trans. Haydn Trowell, The Rainbow (Penguin Classics)
Seventy years since it was published in Japan, Yasunari Kawabata's 'lost' novel The Rainbow makes its first appearance in English, in a robust yet sensitive translation by Haydn Trowell. Set in postwar Kyoto against the backdrop of a nation undergoing rapid social and technological change, the novel follows two sisters, Asako and Momoko, born to different mothers but the same father, as they try to negotiate adulthood while searching for their missing half-sister. All of the noble-laureate's themes, familiar from his other novels and short stories, are crystallised here in his trademark limpid prose: identity, spirituality, mortality, sexuality and the inescapable nature of the past.
Beginning with a train journey that recalls the opening of Kawabata's Snow Country, Asako encounters a young father in sole charge of a baby. As they strike up an awkward dialogue, Asako is distracted by a rainbow over the far shore of Lake Biwa: 'She was filled with a strange yearning to go to that country beyond the rainbow while still alive'. Significant in Buddhism as the penultimate state before nirvana, the rainbow represents a state of transcendence that remains frustratingly out of reach for Kawabata's all-too-human characters. Amidst the rubble of a defeated country, and the tangled web of their father's life, the sisters struggle to make their way.
When the flighty Momoko takes up with an unsuitable young man, it appears Kawabata is aiming for a Japanese Sense and Sensibility, with the two sisters pitted against each other as stereotypical binaries. Yet the shifting POVs and uncanny control of imagery suggest he's after something far more subtle; a deep exploration of appearance and reality in which the natural world mirrors the human. Towards the end of the book, Momoko sees the reflection of a tree in a river: 'It was as though she were staring not at a reflection but at a tree growing inside the water. It was just an ordinary tree, and yet it stirred in her such a ghostly feeling'.
Written two decades before his suicide in 1972, with his characteristic tranced minimalism, Kawabata's novel has a sense of wonder, depth and psychological penetration beyond the reach of most (if not all) literary fiction published over the past year.
Emma Cline, The Guest (Chatto and Windus)
I enjoyed Emma Cline’s first two books and so was very eager to read her new novel, The Guest — which didn’t disappoint. The Guest features Alex, an attractive 22-year-old woman in the business of hooking up with wealthy older men. Her new relationship with the fifty-something Simon takes her to a lavish Long Island beach house for the summer, but their sudden breakup leaves her with nowhere to go. Imagining a near-future reconciliation, Alex stays in the neighbourhood, hopping from house to house as an itinerant guest, pretending to be the friend of a friend.
Cline has remarked that she was strongly influenced by John Cheever’s classic 1964 short story ‘The Swimmer’, and in The Guest she captures Cheever’s iconic, haunting atmosphere: the blasé realism of well-to-do suburbanites cracking open to reveal desperate undercurrents. I had already been drawn to Cline’s style, a dark humour that skewers the sophisticated culture of coastal elites while remaining very much within that world. Her fiction frequently depicts extraordinarily perceptive young women who nevertheless struggle to see themselves clearly. Alex is no exception; she quickly appraises her surroundings and strategises to secure what she needs, but her attempt to suppress her striving inevitably — as in a Greek tragedy — leads to her own unraveling.
The Guest has a fun plot, and Alex’s choices suggest a fascinating moral ambiguity. Is she a victim of a sexist, patriarchal society? Is she a devious criminal? Does she go too far? But I will return to the novel for Cline’s artful descriptions, both of Alex’s interiority and of the leisure class environs she never wants to leave: ‘These were the type of people who assumed that there were rules, who believed that if they followed them they would one day be rewarded. And here was Alex, naked in their pool.’
Adam Mars-Jones, Caret (Faber)
In Caret, the long-awaited sequel to Pilcrow (2008) and Cedilla (2011), Adam Mars-Jones completed a trilogy which may, he has hinted, continue into the future as a quartet (or perhaps a quincunx, or septet).
As his many admirers will know, it's a first person account of a 1950s childhood and adolescence by John Cromer, who becomes chronically ill following the onset of Still's disease and whose life, thereafter severely circumscribed, is enriched by a sharp intelligence, powerful imagination and strong sense of self. There's nothing as humdrum and artificial as plot, simply the extended dilemma of a challenging life navigated with wit, flair, compassion and understanding in a voice that's impossible to forget - droll, eloquent, often hilarious and never dull.
The three books have all been dutifully reviewed and widely praised but I feel that more of a fuss should have been made to celebrate this unique achievement; the Comer trilogy is among the very best English fiction of this century. Mars-Jones is nothing as banal as a national treasure — he's a national asset.
And a mention for Kevin Boniface's Sports and Social (Bluemoose Books), the author's third book, and first collection of short stories, all set in and around his home town of Huddersfield, Yorkshire, where he works as a postman. He is also an artist and filmmaker with a sharp Perecian eye and ear for the everyday, the unregarded and the undervalued, coupled with a generous understanding of human needs and weaknesses. He shares what he sees, but offers no judgement. These are humane, original and very accomplished fictions, some of them very funny, some piercingly sad. I'd love to read more.
Paul Murray, The Bee Sting (Hamish Hamilton)
‘Oh Jesus Christ — I’ve done it again,’ Paul Murray told me in an interview earlier this year for this very outlet, describing the moment he realised he had written yet another tome. The Bee Sting (Hamish Hamilton), Murray’s fourth novel in twenty years, comes in at a hefty 650 pages — roughly the same size as each of his three previous novels, The Mark and the Void (2015), Skippy Dies (2010), and An Evening of Long Goodbyes (2003) — and also has the distinction of being Murray’s darkest and certainly his most ambitious novel to date.
To describe The Bee Sting as a book about the unraveling of a used car salesman and his family in rural Ireland, seems to me about as useful as describing Ulysses as about a day in the life of a Dubliner. I mean, it’s not inaccurate — but what does it really tell us? If you were already acquainted with Paul Murray’s work, you might be primed to expect a warmhearted, often hilarious, and bittersweet novel. You would not be wrong to think that either. All of Murray’s novels are tragicomic — but The Bee Sting, to my mind, is Murray’s first novel that shifts the scales a little more firmly towards tragedy.
Which is of course not to say it’s not funny — it is, often. But with it, Murray has taken us a little deeper into the high drama and sadness that lies beneath the surface in all of his fiction. In doing so, he’s given us some of his finest writing yet, eclipsing even the most beautiful and shocking passages of Skippy Dies. If by departing from what we’ve come to expect from him, Murray may have disappointed some of his fans, I’m certain that The Bee Sting has earned him some new ones.