Home

2020 in Books – in which I once again fail to pick an outright winner…. ;D

57 Comments

As is traditional on the Ramblings, I’m going to take a look back over my year of reading to pick out some highlights. It certainly has been a very strange and unpleasant year, unlike any I’ve known – I hope 2021 will be better, but who knows what’s to come. Books have, as always, been a comfort and my coping mechanism; and I *have* read a little more than usual, despite the strains of coping with a pandemic world. As usual, I’m not going to do any kind of countdown or top ten – let’s just look at the bookish things which have kept me going!

Comfort reading

A favourite from this year’s BLCC’s releases!

2020 has most definitely been year when there’s been a need for comfort reading. My go-to books are Golden Age crime and once again the British Library Crime Classics have been a source of great joy. I’ve read a good number, and not a dud amongst them! I’ve also felt the urge to do a sudden bit of re-reading – for example, at one point needing pick up Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and revisit the wonderfully perfect ending. Longing for less complex times, I guess.

Indie Presses and Subscriptions

Some of the treats from my Renard Press sub.

If this year has been anything for me, it’s been the year of indie presses and subscriptions! Despite the lockdowns and restrictions, it’s been a joy to see independent publishers flourishing, supported by the love of serious readers and booklovers. I have spent happy hours with many wonderful indie imprints, authors and books, including Notting Hill Editions, Little Toller, Fum d’Estampa, Salt, Galley Beggar, Sublunary Editions and Renard Press; in fact, I did a nice little Q&A with Will Dady, the man behind the latter, for Shiny New Books. And of course it’s been lovely to keep up with Fizcarraldo Editions, who’ve released some quite marvellous volumes this year.

Which leads me on to…

Challenges/Events

I tend to steer away from most of these nowadays, as I find I get all enthusiastic about joining in then instantly want to go off in another direction! However, I did get involved in a Twitter-based readalong of the marvellous Malicroix (published by NYRB Classics), thanks to the influence of Dorian Stuber! A wonderful book and a great joy to take part in this! I’ve managed to reboot some of my personal reading projects, and even expand their scope – let’s see how that works out then…

Fitzcarraldos – I love Fitzcarraldos…

I also ended up co-hosting a two week celebration of the aforementioned Fitzcarraldo with Lizzy – Fitzcarraldo Editions Fortnight. Not only was this great fun, but it also got me reading quite a bit of my TBR – result! 😀

Which leads me on to…

Reading Weeks

As usual, Simon and I co-hosted two Reading Club Weeks this year, focused on 1920 and 1956. These are always such fun – if you haven’t encountered them, we basically read whatever we want from the year in question, review, post on blogs and other social media and share ideas of great books from the year. We’ll be hosting another in April 2021 so do join in! 😀

Social Media

Social media of all kinds has become pretty much a lifeline over 2020 and it’s been great to be able to keep in touch over the various platforms. Book Twitter is particularly lovely and I have been lucky enough to interact with some wonderful people on there. There have been postcards going around the world and moral support offered to our online friends who have suffered losses over the year. It is a lovely place to visit. Of course, there are always so many reading events to tempt me there, but mostly I manage to hold back because I know I will fail… I didn’t with Malicroix though, so result!

A little pile of my Harvill Leopards!

Twitter was also responsible for the Harvill Leopard Hunt, as it shall be titled, where a number of interested bookish people contributed to a wonderful master list of books issued in that imprint by Tim at Half Print Press. It was huge fun being involved in the detective work, and the resulting checklist is a thing of great beauty and use – you can check it out here! (Do take a look at Half Pint Press too – they produce some gorgeous things!)

Roland Barthes, a documentary and another interview!

Although I was often looking for comfort reads, it hasn’t all been lightweight this year. In particular, I seem to have been haunted by the spirit of Roland Barthes! I first read his Mythologies back at the end of 2019, reviewing it in January this year, and have revisited his work at various points over the year. He’s not always an easy read, but certainly fascinating, stimulating and thought-provoking!

Professor Richard Clay with Dr. Lonnie Bunch (c. Clearstory/BBC)

This also tied in with my Documentary of Year (and Decade!) 21st Century Mythologies with Richard Clay – it was quite superb, and I was delighted to welcome Richard back onto the Ramblings for a return interview. He’s always such an interesting interviewee, brimming with ideas! No doubt I shall continue to return to Barthes – there are several titles I have lurking on the TBR…

Shiny New Books

I continued to provide some reviews for Shiny New Books, the wonderful independent recommendations website. I always enjoy reading other people’s contributions and SNB covers such a wide range of books. Always worth checking out if you’re not sure what to read next, or want to find out what’s come out recently and is worth reading!

Trends in my reading

A translated work I enjoyed very much this year, which led on to many other reading ideas…

I’ve continued to read a lot in translation, from the Russian of course but also from French, German, Portuguese, Polish…. I’ve enjoyed poetry, and also a lot of non-fiction this year. There have been times when I’ve felt that I couldn’t engage properly with fiction, and so essays, philosophy, history, nature writing, travel writing and books which don’t actually fit into any category have been there for me to turn to in times of need. I plan to continue to follow no path but my own and read what I *need* to read!

Outstanding books

I’m not going to pick a best of the year, because I can’t. The kind of books I read are so disparate that it seems unfair to measure them against each other. However, I *shall* highlight some particularly special reads from 2020.

First up, I have ended the year reading Robert Macfarlane’s Underland and it’s a stunning book. Mesmerising writing and brimming with ideas and visions, it certainly lives up to its hype and it was the perfect book with which to finish off the year.

I’m a huge fan of Paul Morley’s writing, and so was delighted to be able to review his latest book, A Sound Mind, for Shiny New Books. A wonderfully Morley-esque exploration of classic music in all its shapes and forms, I absolutely loved it.

Another author whose work I’ve loved for a long time is M. John Harrison. He’s hit the public eye a bit more than usual recently, and this year saw the release of a new novel The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again. It’s another stunning read, proof that Harrison’s powers only increase with the years, and I was so pleased to see it win the Goldsmiths Prize! Lovely Comma Press also released a collection of his stories, Settling the World, which was another outstanding read.

A newer discovery for me is Andrew Lees; I read his wonderful book Mentored by a Madman last year, in a lovely paperback from Notting Hill Editions; it was a marvellous read, and Lees is such a good writer – in this book proving that literature and science go together. NHE published a new book by Lees this year, Brazil That Never Was, and I absolutely loved it. I described it in my review as a “wonderful blend of travelogue, memoir and reflection”, and Lees’ storytelling skills produced an atmospheric and memorable read. I can’t wait for his next book!

I can’t finish this section without mention of Square Haunting, which I covered in February for Shiny New Books. A quite brilliant book covering the lives of five inspirational women living in the same square in London, although at different times, it was an unforgettable read as well as an amazing work of scholarship – and it deserves all the praise it’s had!

*****

Frankly, that’s probably enough for one post – if I go on any longer I shall end up reliving the whole year and with 2020, that’s not something I necessarily want to do. The books I’ve read this year have been 99.9% pure joy (with the very occasional dud…) Whatever 2021 chucks our way I shall hang onto books as a way of maintaining some kind of sanity. Here’s to a better year for us all!

“And I am afraid of the dead” @nyrbclassics #malicroix2020

44 Comments

Malicroix by Henri Bosco
Translated by Joyce Zonana

Back in April there was quite a buzz about a new release from NYRB Classics, and a number of bookish Twitter types did a bit of a readalong. Now, somehow I’d managed to miss this book coming out, which is odd because I follow NYRB releases closely and often review their titles. The book in question was “Malicroix” by Henri Bosco, and fortunately another kind fellow blogger was able to pass on a digital copy to me, so I was able to join in and read alongside others (thanks, Dorian!)

Alas no picture of a pretty book, as I e-read this – not a format I enjoy, but it was worth it in this case! 😀

Henri Bosco (1888 – 1976) is a writer I hadn’t come across before, and it seems he might have been one of French literature’s best kept secrets. A prolific author, only a handful of his works have been translated into English in the past; and this from a writer who was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature four times!! So kudos to NYRB and translator Joyce Zonana for bringing his work to us Anglophone readers.

“Malicroix” was first published in 1948, and it tells the story of a young man coming into his inheritance. Martial de Megremut is an orphaned young man who lives a quiet life with his extended family of uncles, aunts, cousins and the like. However, his mother was a Malicroix and so when his uncle Cornelius de Malicroix dies, he leaves an inheritance to Martial who is now the last survivor of Malicroix blood. Contacted by the Malicroix family notary, the alarming and mysterious Maitre Domiols, Martial travels to a small island in the Camargue (an area of southern France characterised by marshes, swampland and lagoons). Here he is met by the other inhabitants of the island, Cornelius’s old retainer Balandran, and his dog Brequillet. The climate is hostile; his fellow man and dog taciturn; and the isolation overwhelming. For man like Martial it’s a real shock to the system, but Cornelius’s will makes it clear that Martial must spent three months on the island to come into his inheritance – which is in fact the island and all that’s attached to it (sheep and the like…)

No two times of solitude are alike, for we are never alone in the same way

It’s quite an ask for someone like Martial, used to calm, quiet inland living with a loving family; in fact, quite a simple and bland lifestyle. However, something stirs inside him, and despite the threatening presence of Domiols and his slippery servant Uncle Rat, Martial discovers a stubbornness which makes him want to see out the three months and claim the island as his. However, it will not be as straightforward as that; for Cornelius has left a codicil, and a final test will be faced by Martial to right a wrong of the past, if he wants to truly become a Malicroix.

That’s just a brief outline of what’s going on in this marvellous and immersive novel, and to be honest the plotlines as such are not the major focus of the book. What seems to me most important is the changes which we see taking place in Martial as he wrestles with the very essence of what makes him who he is. Although outwardly Martial recognises the Megremut in himself, represented by the image of his life as a quiet botanist in a greenhouse, inwardly he can feel the wild Malicroix blood that’s in him, symbolised by the wild untamed nature on the island. Those two types of blood are raging through him leaving us to wonder which will win; and while that battle is going on we can’t help but puzzle on what the secret of the island and inheritance actually is.

The island—I wanted it; I had become its spirit; I haunted it like a ghost; my soul depended on its possession, and in the auspicious darkness through which Dromiols vainly searched for me, I moved ahead toward my destiny, tormented by a growing anxiety, but lucid, my head lowered, like a blind force.

I must mention Bosco’s writing, because the narrative is quiet beautiful and the prose lyrical, often hallucinogenic. Martial goes through many trials on his journey towards his inheritance, with a number of stumbling blocks on the way. There are others on the shore across the river: the strange ferryman, another figure initially unidentified and descendents of ancient enemies. Early on in the story, the mysterious Maitre Domiols tells Martial the family history, and it’s a dark one; though at this point neither Martial nor the reader knows how the past will affect what plays out in the present. Bosco’s narrative captures Martial’s heightened state of awareness, his digging down into himself to discover what kind of man he really is, and his final appreciation of the two strands of blood within him.

A little later, he would give me news of the flock, always the same. How could it have been otherwise? The Malicroix solitude, the island, our wild and barren lands—all kept people away, and where people do not enter, nothing moves, except imperceptibly. Yet ever since Balandran loved me a little, I hardly suffered. He loved me like a Malicroix, an enfeebled Malicroix, to be sure, but still stamped with the seal. I had had my night of madness. And he had seen in it the strong blood of that old, wild lineage. From that moment on, he was my man, for this is a blood that binds and commands, even in me, who usually would not know how to insist on anything nor how to give an order, so much am I a Mégremut. Yet, through my innate gentleness, Balandran had scented the old, wild blood.

Reading “Malicroix” was a completely immersive experience; each time I picked up the book I was transported to the island in the Camargue to experience its landscape along with Martial (and it *is* a very dramatic landscape). The lyrical prose is almost hypnotic at times, and yet much is left elusive and unsaid which adds to the mystery of Martial’s story. The location itself is a powerful force in the narrative, dominating at times and almost taking on a personality of its own.

Had I not already entered the outline of a disturbing dream? Hanging by a frail thread at the center of the ravenous river, the boat seemed an improbable memory. Yet it was more than a dream, for my eyes had truly seen it, and in my sleeplessness I was tempted to interpret it as an emblem of a lonely thought—man on the water, awaiting night and death.

There’s a small supporting cast in “Malicroix”, but they’re beautifully drawn characters. Balandran and Brequillet, both initially wary of the incomer, warm to him as he comes to love the island and are loyal friends. A mysterious woman comes to Martial’s aid at a time of great distress, and may have more to do with the story of the Malicroix family than is immediately obvious. Even the dubious Uncle Rat is not as straightforward as he seems. And Martial’s family, initially portrayed as rather soft and bland, are revealed as good people, powerful in their own way and able support their errant family member; his return visit to them before a final trial is very moving.

She had not heard me approaching. Now, for the first time in my life, I could contemplate her at leisure, seeing her with new eyes, the eyes of another. For the stranger had followed me. The stranger was here—I was the stranger. Caught between these two natures that nevertheless interpenetrated one another, body and soul, I was reluctant to trouble the peace of this charming old woman who, while she waited for me, bent over her rose point lace, carefully stitching.

Looming over the book is the monumental, larger-than-life presence of the mysterious notary Domiols; his willpower is spelled out and it often seems that he will overwhelm Martial by sheer force of personality, compelling him to leave the island. However, the latter discovers that his Megremut blood gives him hidden strength in his patience and his ability to copy with isolation. Whether it gives him enough strength to cope with facing his ultimate fear – the chaos and disorder of the river – is something you’ll have to read the book to find out.

Henri Bosco [Souricette-du-13 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

As you might guess, I absolutely loved this book. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read, really (though the nearest comparisons I can think of are The Marble Cliffs and The Other Side, also both from Twentieth Century European authors). I grew extremely fond of Martial, Balandran and Brequillet in particular, and had some bad moments about the fate of all of them! And I can understand the fuss that’s been made about this book, because it really is something special. Beautifully written, totally absorbing, emotionally affecting and quite haunting, “Malicroix” is a book to get under your skin and into your soul.

*****

I feel I should say a special word of thanks to translator Joyce Zozana for her work on bringing Malicroix to us. From what I understand, she first encountered the book back in the 1970s when it was praised in another work she was reading – Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space”, which oddly enough has been lurking on my TBR for a few months. Now there’s synchronicity… Anyway, apparently Joyce was inspired enough to want to start translating it at the time, but then life got in the way. Fortunately for us, she was able to return to the book in the 2010s and we now have the chance to read Bosco’s electrifying work. Thank you so much Joyce!

(Many thanks to NYRB for allowing Damian Stuber to kindly pass on the e-reading copy to me – much appreciated!)

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: