Books 2014 #1
The act of reading fiction, like the process of falling in love, begins with a rush. Whether we click with a writer’s voice or fall for a tall dark stranger, there is the same discombobulating surge of hormones or aesthetic bliss (Nabokov located the latter as a tingle in the upper spine). But only time reveals whether this intensity is momentary or the beginning of a lifelong affair.
The book reviewer is a philanderer who occasionally realises a one-night stand a few months before had the makings of something special. We come to be haunted by a face that seemed little different to any other at the time. Ben Marcus’s short-story collection Leaving the Sea was published in February. I enjoyed it, reviewed it positively, and then rushed to the next book in the stack. But it has stayed with me; it has reverberated throughout the reading year.
Marcus belongs to that school of mainly North American writers whose sincere interest in ordinary human desperation is modulated by a self-lacerating sense that middle-class white guys cannot count on our undivided sympathy. His characters are often unpleasant, both to themselves and others: though it is a function of Marcus’s talent that he can (like, say, Lorrie Moore or Wells Tower) inspire compassion for his creations, even as he withdraws it from them.
In case this makes him sound like a garden-variety realist, Marcus, following in the footsteps of fabulist George Saunders, throws satire and suburban tragedy into the blender, along with a devout experimental urge.
Christina Stead has long resisted easy accommodation with readers. And while MUP has done a fine job in reissuing her work, my surprise favourite is a hard sell. House of All Nations is the 20th century’s best novel about money and finance. It is also 856 pages long and dauntingly elaborate. It makes the other contender for the title, J R, William Gaddis’s gigantic, Joycean novel of 1975, look almost trim.
Stead was the partner of a Jewish communist stockbroker, a combination whose oddity allowed her to approach the world of finance in a manner at once practical and critical. Set over two years at the beginning of Auden’s “low dishonest decade”, the author describes the machinations of those European bankers and brokers who saw in “every crisis ... a storm of gold”.
Stead’s canvas is vast, and it is filled with those quickening details that bring the febrile 1930s to life. That said, the novel’s insights into the cynicism and amorality that attend financial speculation have only gained in premonitory force. Written under difficult conditions in Spain at the fag end of the Great Depression, House of All Nations precedes by two years her acknowledged masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children. The same genius is at work here, just working on a mightier scale.
Late last year Penguin Classics initiated a project of similar ambition, though it offered simpler pleasures. The imprint set out to republish, month by month, all 75 novels featuring Georges Simenon’s detective Jules Maigret, newly translated by the best in the business (David Bellos, for instance, who introduced English readers to the genius of Georges Perec, and W. G. Sebald’s sometime translator Anthea Bell).
Simenon was famous for his appetites – he claimed to have bedded thousands of women throughout a tumultuous personal life – and his more serious works are sharp-edged investigations of how our hunger for love, respect, money or power can lead us to the utmost human extremity. Many of these are masterpieces (just try The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By – it’s Dostoevsky in pulp fiction drag) but they make for uncomfortable reading.
The Maigret Novels are nothing of the kind. They feature a Parisian policeman of adamantine decency who never gets drunk or sleeps around, never grows angry or vicious, and who never gives up until his quarry has been run to ground. Yes, these romans policiers are formulaic. Yet it is their narrative certainty that charms. When that fling with the tall dark stranger turns out badly, it is to the soothing domestic order of Maigret that the reader gratefully returns.
Best New Talent
Michael Mohammed Ahmad, The Tribe
Ahmad’s triptych of linked novellas about Lebanese Muslims from a minority sect unfolds in simple, even naive language that is belied by the agility with which he shapes character and story.
P. M. Newton, Beams Falling
Newton shouldn’t be regarded as a guilty pleasure, but there is always a frisson to be had from reading a genre fiction such as this, which is smarter and better written than much contemporary “literature”.
Brooke Davis, Lost and Found
Davis is talented and funny, but her debut novel Lost and Found suffers from a profound excess of cute.
Cory Bernardi, The Conservative Revolution
I can’t even.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 20, 2014 as "Books 2014 #1". Subscribe here.