Review 31's Books of the Year 2020
by Review 31
Iain Bamforth, Scattered Limbs: A Medical Dreambook (Galileo)
‘May it please God that it should come about that doctors philosophise, and philosophers occupy themselves with medicine,’ wrote Gottfried Liebnitz. On the same lines, Galen penned a tract entitled ‘That the Best Physician is also a Philosopher’. Despite these pleas, the number of philosophical or literary works written by doctors is smaller than expected. Chalk it up to professionalism or lack of time. Thank heavens for the Scotsman Iain Bamforth, ‘a doctor of letters as well as a doctor of medicine’. He’s made a few other medicopoetic forays, including A Doctor’s Dictionary and The Body in the Library . This one, ‘an experimental history of medicine’, collects episodes from medicine past and present, ranging from takes on Wittgenstein to gloved-hands-in-viscera.
Usually I’m not too fond of aphorisms or fragments – as a reader I’m more drawn to the continuous drift of the essay than the stitched-together, ever-interrupted collage. Yet this book attracts me. The information presented doesn’t read as a fact dump, but rather as a presentation of idiosyncratic sources filtered through a clear sensibility, a lightly ironic yet tender voice. The scattered limbs of the title are meant in the Latin sense of ‘disiecta membra’, or scattered fragments of manuscript shards. And it’s a dreambook in the sense of being a dream-incubator, since ‘medicine’s own repressed history offers traction for the imagination’. We human animals have thought and embodied some pretty weird stuff while in our nerves and flesh, as Bamforth relates for instance in ‘Kidneys and Cities’ (on the circulation of waste through city-states and bodies), ‘Lick and Sniff’ (on the various smells of tuberculosis, from acetone to stale beer to applesauce halitosis), or ‘Mein Gott, Ich Sehe!’ (on Hans Castorp’s marvel upon seeing an X-ray of his hand).
When I stumbled across this book I was feeling disgruntled, after having read a string of nonfiction works that, although well-written, felt cold and distant, like exercises that could have been written by AI. Someday soon, if not now, machine learning will be capable of assembling such texts, gatherings of documentation. But here you can still tell there’s a living, breathing human with Scottish wit, raw honesty and experience at the helm: ‘I remember (to my shame) ridiculing my wife when she chopped up an onion, wrapped it in muslin and heated it gently in the microwave before wrapping it around our children’s ears when they were suffering from glue ear [. . .] The room smelt awful but by the morning their pain had gone.’
I took this slowly, a few entries at a time, and gradually it started to enter the rhythm of my life – one entry read with pounding post-run heart, another through the dull fatigue of hangover – until at last I reached the final page, ‘Tact’, about both touch and form of approach. One begins to understand reality in terms of illness, medicine, healing. This year health came to the forefront as not just a practical challenge, but also a chain of considerations about how we live in community and take care of each other. It feels right to come back to the body as a locus, one that’s endlessly interesting, strange, erudite and wondrous. ‘For our material lives are lived in a state of controlled burning, and the fuel is diatomic oxygen. We call this process time.’
Jonathan Gibbs, Spring Journal (CB Editions)
When the first lock-down began in late March this year I launched a twice-weekly online gathering called ‘A Leap in the Dark’ which, over six months, featured more than 150 poets, writers, performers, film-makers, musicians, singers, publishers and other creatives from all over the world. I pulled the plug after fifty shows and re-launched as Carthorse Orchestra, a weekly show in much the same vein which is currently running.
A week after that original launch the novelist Jonathan Gibbs began to tweet lines from a new poem in 24 cantos, a poem prompted by the 1939 masterpiece Autumn Journal, in which Louis MacNeice explored the anxieties and uncertainties, public and private, of the months before the outbreak of the Second World War. Jonathan’s poem Spring Journal, loosely referencing the original, maps the course of the pandemic during its first months, a period both recent and remote. It opens thus:
Close and slow, spring is starting in London,
Creeping up through thickset lawns that though too wet to cut
Still taunt the retired asset managers and accountants
Who would be out there by now for certain but
Strange thoughts stay their hands from the Barbour
On the hook in the hallway, and the lead and poop-bags by the door,
For this spring brings headlines from Italy and China,
And nobody knows what anyone’s allowed to do any more.
Jonathan kindly agreed to share the poem with our online gathering and, from April 4th, each new canto was read by the actor and novelist Michael Hughes on consecutive Friday evenings for the following 24 weeks. The poem navigated a time of unsettling temporality, giving structure to the unfolding clusterfuck of the pandemic.
The final canto was delivered by Michael in September as part of an evening in which the entire poem was performed by a cohort of admiring fellow writers: Kevin Boniface, Marie-Elsa Bragg, Season Butler, Susanna Crossman, Kevin Davey, Emma Devlin, Rónán Hession, Amy McCauley, J.O. Morgan, Samuel Skoog, Aea Varfis-van Warmelo and Eley Williams, with music by the composer Helen Ottaway and singer Melanie Pappenheim. It was an unforgettable night.
Rushed into print by CB editions Spring Journal is, quite literally, my book of the year — urgent, angry, fearless and lucid, an essential record of what may come to be seen as ‘the phoney plague’. The writers who took part in the final reading all get a gracious acknowledgement from the author as do Michael Hughes, myself and Jonathan Gibbs’s grandmother Jo (who features in the poem) as co-dedicatees.
Lina Wolff, trans. Saskia Vogel, Many People Die Like You (And Other Stories)
A year that began with the final delirious volume, Low, of Jeet Thayil's Bombay trilogy had a lot to live up to. While so much British fiction remains self-confined in generic straitjackets, explorations of the current affairs agenda and an unarresting insipidity of narrative tone, there is an abundance of fine work in translation. In the latter category, the Swedish writer Lina Wolff's collection of stories, Many People Die Like You, a 2009 debut work appearing now in Saskia Vogel's spare English translation from the enterprising independent And Other Stories, was a significant moment.
Wolff's characters are nearly all victims of their own frustrated desire, caught in fine meshes that only tauten as they struggle, the roots of which in the desires themselves they often fail to see. Two couples get together for dinner, only to find the sexual charge that had appeared to invite unspecified transgressions among them has dimmed to extinction in the subdued lighting. A woman who has had an extra-curricular affair invites the lover to move in with her and her boyfriend, producing a banal bond between the men that sends them off tree-felling together. A part-time chef strikes up a sadomasochistic involvement with a neighbour who has her own video channel.
The title of that last, 'Misery Porn', a squalid internet genre with ambitions to be an oxymoron, reveals that what drives the emotional asymmetry between women and men is so often men's yearning for women to enjoy their own ennobling subjection. These are not vicious stories – the diegetic tone is often interestingly close to the narrative voiceovers in Woody Allen's later films – but the degree of apathetic forgiveness in them is often the enduring failure of their flawed characters. They are people for whom the Golden Rule sounds good, worth giving a go, but who manage not to notice, or actively to overlook, the progressive dulling of its lustre.
Wolff sets some of her stories in her native southern Sweden, and others in the various parts of Spain in which she has lived, resulting in intriguing cultural as well as climatic variation among them. What unites them is the stoically enervated shrug with which a man greets the discovery of his fiancée consorting with a Peruvian migrant in a theme-park Mickey Mouse outfit: 'But it was what it was, as it had always been’.
Udith Dematagoda, Horizontal Rain (Hyperidean Press)
Already the winner of the Most Depressing Title of the Year Award, Udith Dematagoda’s Horizontal Rain is a strangely apt novel for 2020. A tale of masculine nihilism set in Glasgow, it follows the relationship tribulations of an almost-thirty film archivist from East Kilbride. Beginning with a breakup that leaves the unnamed narrator with the ‘stench a despair sweating fae every pore’, it quickly turns into a meditation on isolation, male vulnerability and terminal existential angst: ‘The long years of schooling in the ways of manhood are difficult, violent, and utterly brutal. The education is vulgar and cruel in every way imaginable, and it succeeds in making some men equally vulgar and cruel.’
When the narrator isn’t working shifts in a bar, he ‘surreptitiously works on his own film project’ while listening to the Jesus and Mary Chain. He hangs out with his debauched friend Robert, drinking whiskey and talking bands, before taking up with middle-class painter, Clara, an erotic siren who initially ghosts him before agreeing to go out with him. It’s this troubled affair that takes up the bulk of this short novel. There’s a harrowing scene of erectile dysfunction, and an equally catastrophic visit to a Chinese restaurant; though the book is not without humour. When he tells an actress he wants to sleep with that he’s suffering from ‘a spiritual malaise,’ her withering reply is: ‘Oh dear, that isn’t good, is it?’
Published by new, Edinburgh-based, micro-indie Hyperidean Press, Horizontal Rain was overlooked in the Covid-induced ‘book tsunami’ of the summer. A shame, as this vivid portrait of romantic misadventure and male friendship is full of melancholy insights into the state of modern masculinity. Occasionally, it reads like a Glaswegian Book of Disquiet. Dematagoda thankfully stays at a safe moral distance from his occasionally pretentious, Pessoan hero, allowing us to judge whether his narrator’s ‘earnest sensitivity’ is to be maligned or applauded.
Rebecca Giggs, Fathoms (Scribe)
While reading Fathoms, a breathtaking treatise on whales and the history of our species’ interaction with them, I was often reminded of the speech that Olga Tokarczuk made when she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2019. Anticipating, perhaps, 2020’s seismic year, Tokarczuk made a plea for a more empathetic and community-focused kind of literature – one ‘universal, comprehensive, all-inclusive, rooted in nature, full of contexts and at the same time understandable.’ This is the literature of Fathoms.
By looking at whales from several angles, Giggs envelops vast tracts of information about human culture, history, animal physiology, ecosystems and climate – on the way teasing out philosophical questions that feel crucial to our age. To what psychological zone have we relegated nature? What are the costs of our lifestyles on the oceans? In what ways do we seek emotional identification with creatures that are essentially unknowable? In the course of the work, we encounter whales in several different contexts: rolling in the waters off Australia’s South Coast, as a skeleton hanging in a museum, as a several rock petroglyph carved by Cammeraygal people on a headland.
Throughout, Giggs’ key impetus appears to be to demonstrate that ‘nature’ is not something that is ‘out there’ – on our camera roll; in political conversations about climate change – but something that we are involved in and which is continually implicated by our actions. She does this by, firstly, describing the interconnectedness of our world, and then emulating this interconnectedness by collapsing the boundaries between different prose styles, including science journalism, memoir, natural history and philosophy. Is it actually possible anymore to maintain that firm lines between these categories exist? Or that the categories exist at all?
Never polemical, Giggs’ book instead shows the reader, gorgeously and devastatingly, the cost of our actions on the world. Through a slow unravelling of wonder, one is left shellshocked and moved by this close encounter with nature, and what we might yet save of it.
Jon Fosse, trans. Damion Searls, I Is Another: Septology III-V (Fitzcarraldo Editions)
I have to confess that part of me died inside when I opened the first instalment of this three-book series (The Other Name: Septology I-II) and saw two characters named Asle, one named Ales, as well as an Alida and an Asleik. I am not good with names, and wondered whether I had gone one North-European-single-sentence-novel-with-slow-prose too far. But Jon Fosse, one of the most translated playwrights in Europe, knows how to engage an audience and a reader. The prose may be slow and meditative, but each thought on the page billiards another, and in a graceful translation from Damion Searls, the book was surprisingly engaging, its impression lasting.
The second book, I Is Another: Septology III-V, once again brings us back to the world of Asle, an ageing artist living in a remote part of southwestern Norway. Apart from neighbourly visits by the oddball farmer next door, and irregular trips to the town to drop off his paintings at the gallery, Asle lives a simple and solitary life, retreating into a melancholy widowerhood constituted from little more than the basics. And yet, and yet, this is a book rich in life. There are reflections on his past, a coming to terms with things, and a confronting of the alternative possibilities that are perhaps playing out in the life of another Asle – a doppelgänger who shares his name and lives in the town, standing for a sort of counterfactual life.
The first book, good though it was, now starts to feel like an undercoat over which this second instalment provides more texture and nuance. There is a sense of something gathering here, the culmination of a life. The stream of consciousness has matured into something slower, deeper and more winding. Undeniably, this volume is more overtly spiritual as Asle falls back on the religious habits that have now come to hold real meaning for him, as the balance of his life shifts from the practical to the abstract and metaphysical.
The third volume is due for publication in 2021, bringing to completion what will surely become the best – and only – septology I have read.
Vanessa Veselka, The Great Offshore Grounds (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
It didn’t take long after reading Zazen, Vanessa Veselka’s 2011 debut novel, for me to turn positively evangelical about it. This was a book I’d talk up to friends and weave into conversations with strangers. Some of that was due to Veselka’s skill and assuredness as a writer — there’s a reason, after all, that it won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, which looms large for me when it comes to literary awards. But some of it was also due to Veselka’s ability to convey both the realistic — urban spaces, musical subcultures, radical politics — with the ever-so-slightly speculative. All of which is to say that I’ve been waiting for her second novel to arrive for a while now.
The Great Offshore Grounds could have been Zazen II and I’d have been delighted; instead, though, Veselka has scaled her work up to a higher level without losing sight of the qualities that made her earlier work sing. At the heart of this novel are a quartet of characters: sisters Cheyenne and Livy, their mother Kirsten, and their brother Essex. On paper, that might look like a straightforward set of familial relationships; in the context of Veselka’s novel, though, they’re something very different.
This is a massive novel in its ambitions, its scope, and its capacity for empathy. Veselka’s characters experience harrowing situations; they also witness moments of sheer transcendent beauty. It’s probably worth mentioning right here that Essex’s name comes from the doomed whaling vessel of the same name that inspired a certain Herman Melville novel. And, like that book from a bygone century, what seem like narrative digressions and oddly specific moments turn out to have a much greater context when given time. This is a novel made to be inhabited; a moving, breathing document with more heart than you can imagine.
C.P. Cavafy, trans. Evan Jones, The Barbarians Arrive Today: Poems & Prose (Carcanet)
C.P. Cavafy’s melancholy finds a new, luminous voice in Evan Jones. In a year filled with absence and longing, Evan Jones’ translation of The Barbarians Arrive Today was the Cavafy I so desperately needed but didn’t know I wanted. Fresh off his searing, strikingly relevant, Later Emperors — a collection of poems well versed in the antiquarian but also well situated in the now — Jones, who is also a native speaker of modern Greek, is a perfect match for Cavafy’s verse. In addition to rendering Cavafy’s queerness with a sensitivity and depth, he also brings to the fore questions of regional and ethnic identity in his selection of poems. Cavafy wonders: what does it mean to be Alexandrian and also Greek? What is Greek-ness? Is it classical? Jones’ Cavafy sits in intentional ambiguity, and in a global moment of identity and geographic rootedness in flux, this is somehow the perfect mood of hesitation.
This volume also contains a much rarer commodity too; some of Cavafy’s prose. The Afterword serves as an apt biography and critical apparatus in one, musing on problems of translation and context. It can just easily be read as a Foreword too, if you’re new to the poet and his Mediterranean worlds. This the ideal volume for being socially distant with, and for grappling with what alone-ness (and loneliness) means when the social distancing finally ends. Though I name it my book of the year for 2020, don’t hesitate to buy it later or not as a new release; Evan Jones’ new Cavafy is one that will easily hold up for the next 25 years or more.
Owen Booth, The All True Adventures (and Rare Education) of the Daredevil Daniel Bones (4th Estate)
Owen Booth is a very good writer and a truly great inventor. In addition to the many inventions within this teeming Victorian picaresque — the rakish maverick Captain Clarke B, the edge-of-the-world Essex village where it all begins, the orgies and escapes, the rescues and explosions, the all-purpose blow-up bodysuit, the sewer race, the fierce and rather beautiful gay love story — the thing itself is an invention too, another new marvel: the sad romp; the rackety runaway yarn that is eight parts melancholy to two parts terrific fun.
Dan Bones’s transcontinental adventures have the feel of rich and lusty farce — but here indulgence is always paired with ennui, love with brutality, friendship with duplicity, awe with dread, and all that’s left, for Daniel, is a younger brother on a muddy shore with a broken arm and a fistful of lead soldiers. The tall tales hold your attention as they rattle along, but freeze the frame and the rogues and rakes, seen right, become monsters; the world of Daniel Bones is seen to be hard and dark. It’s all very funny and all very sad. It’s all very beautiful.