A quarter’s novels

For a while, I’ve been trying to read a dozen novels a quarter, and so far this year I’m (almost) on track, having read

1. Abir Mukerjee, A Rising Man
2. Pat Barker, The Women of Troy
3. Elizabeth Strout, Oh William
4. Barbara Pym, Jane and Prudence
5. (Elif Shafak, The Architect’s Apprentice)
6. Kate Atkinson, Behind the Scenes at the Museum
7. Antonia Byatt, Possession
8. Benjamin Black, Christine Falls
9. Ivan Turgenev, Home of the Gentry
10. Andrea Levy, Small Island
11. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust
12. Mary Lawson, A Town Called Solace

I tried Abir Mukerjee’s Indian detective story as light relief having just finished Anna Karenina once more; but I found it very disappointing —  the plot rather routine, and surprisingly thinly painted local colour. But both the new Pat Barker and new Elizabeth Strout are as predictably brilliant as all the reviewers said. And Barbara Pym, a late discovery for me, is always a delight (at least for an English reader of a certain vintage).

I’m cheating a bit listing Elif Shafak’s book here, as I didn’t finish it. It is extraordinary, but to be honest before the end I got bored …. So I picked up one of the always hugely enjoyable Kate Atkinsons to re-read. Next, the weighty Possession has been on our shelves a lifetime, and I realised about a third of the way through that I had never read it all before: it now strikes me as very impressive on many levels, and I’m sure I missed much.

After that, for lighter entertainment again, I tried the first of the books by John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. Beautifully written as you might predict, and I rattled through it: but I’m not sure I’ll be returning to the series.

Turgenev remains a favourite, and I seem to have re-read most of his main novels in the last two or three years. Our old Penguin copy of Home of the Gentry had fallen to bits, and I bought a more recent translation which seemed occasionally oddly wrong in tone — so I found myself returning to the later half of the Penguin which was still intact. And then Small Island is wonderfully humane and engaging, and definitely worth revisiting. But while Heat and Dust won the Booker Prize, once upon a time, that fact today seems very surprising; this does now seem to be a rather insubstantial novel.

Finally, Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace comes recommended by Anne Tyler, and you can see why. I suppose this too is also slight in its way; but it is one of those books with overlapping small domestic worlds, touched by human dramas, which ambushes you as you realise that you have become so attached to the three central characters that you don’t want the book to end as soon as it does.

If I had to recommend just one of the newer books as a must-read? Elizabeth Strout’s perhaps. Wonderful writing and real feeling for the complexities of ordinary human relationships.

2 thoughts on “A quarter’s novels”

  1. Can you recommend a translation for War and Peace?

    It’s the translation issue — which one? — that’s stopped me from reading it. I have read Anna Karenina, because my school had a course in Russian literature (in translation), and a particular translation was assigned (probably whatever was in the Norton Critical Edition at the time).

    Penguin’s new translation(s) of Proust created a similar problem there, since I hadn’t already read it. (It’s plural because Penguin used different translators for different volumes.)

    (I’ve by now read two different translations of Thoman Mann’s The Magic Mountain and couldn’t say which I preferred.)

    1. All I can say is that I read the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation ten years ago (having previously read the old Rosemary Edmonds Penguin translation a few times over the years). It is spiky and occasionally jarring, but so apparently is Tolstoy’s own prose. I chose that against the Briggs having seen a few articles online comparing them, though quite a few people prefer that: but apparently Briggs goes in for rendering e.g. regional peasant soldier’s talk into contemporary northern voice, “fuck”s and all, and so on. I thought, conservatively, I’d find that sort of thing grating. And then some warmly recommend the revised version of the Maudes translation (e.g. the translator Rosemary Bartlett on the Five Books site whose piece there is worth reading) . One of those three, then. I might well be tempted by the Maudes if there is a next time!

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