A Year of Reading
Once again, newspapers, websites, and booksellers are showcasing their ‘Books of the Year’ and looking back on the past 12 months and some of the best work to have appeared in them. I don’t always keep quite the same pace with contemporary publications – often because I’m still reading my way through the previous year’s list and/or tackling books written a century or more ago – but, for what it’s worth, here’s my 2017 list of the books that have said the most to me this year.
In fiction, Ali Smith’s Winter continued the seasonal quartet begun with 2016’s Autumn and showed Smith once again to be one of the keenest and most thought-provoking commentators on our modern lives. Picking her way through the material, social, and emotional landscape of Brexit Britain, she has once again woven a tale as “rich and strange” as anything in Shakespeare and yet at the same perfectly rooted in the trials of everyday life. The thought that there are two more seasons still to come is comfort indeed.
Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair was a masterly tour of the artistic and emotional changes of the past century, and proof that in his analysis of the subtleties of social life Hollinghurst is perhaps the Henry James of our time, without the nearly-impenetrable prose. Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land was another superb survey of British life, revisiting the ‘state of the nation’ novels of the late-Victorian period and infusing the genre with Brexit-era ambiguity.
In a year when ‘reality’ often seemed stranger than fiction it was reassuring to have astute chroniclers and commentators on events that often tested the limits of what was credible. Luke Harding’s Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump win the White House summarised and contextualised the events still unfolding and which will surely continue to dominate 2018’s headlines. Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia reminded us that there is far more to ponder in terms of Russian policy than the saga of Trump’s election, and that what happens inside Russia itself as Putin stands for another 6-year term as president may yet be the largest global concern of all.
2017 was, of course, the centenary of the Russian Revolution(s) and amidst a host of art exhibitions and film screenings there were excellent new additions to the canon of writing on those events and their aftermath. Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government was as monumental as the Moscow apartment complex that provided it with its setting and its cast of characters, all rising and falling within the vortex of 20th century Soviet power. As ambitious as a Tolstoyan novel, and as disturbing as a thriller, it charted the life and death of a ruling class and a nation through an era that still reverberates in the present. In the same vein, the second volume of Stephen Kotkin’s immense biography of Josef Stalin (Waiting for Hitler 1929-1941) showed the man at the heart of Russian’s century at his most murderous and enigmatic, dictatorial in power even as he made himself the living embodiment of the Revolution in whose name millions were urged to sacrifice their lives or had those lives taken from them anyway.
My book of the year, however, is a Russian text of a different kind. Recognised by a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, the historical works of Svetlana Alexievich have only recently become available for English readers and constitute perhaps the most important recent additions to the canon of Russian writing. Her poly-vocal histories weave together the voices of witnesses and survivors, often captured after years of silence (self-imposed or state-enforced) and setting down on the record their own roles in the seismic events of their time. Whether discussing nuclear catastrophe (Chernobyl Prayer), war in Afghanistan (Boys in Zinc) or the freefall of post-Soviet society (Second-Hand Time) the reader in her works is surrounded by a multitude of thoughts, emotions, and griefs, each carefully woven into a text that reads like the collective memory of a community or a nation.
My book of the year is the English publication this year of The Unwomanly Face of War (Penguin Classics) – a book originally written in the 1980s and comprising the testimonies of a few of those millions of Soviet women who served in the armed forces between 1941 and 1945. In its pages the reader meets a generation of women whose heroism was crucial to the ‘Great Patriotic War’ that defined 20th century Soviet life (and is still extensively invoked by Putin’s regime today as a rallying point for national loyalty and sentiment) but whose stories were officially erased from the national narrative of masculine triumph. Only after decades of silence did anyone ask them to speak, and when Alexievich transcribes their words their stories assume a cathartic nature. Collating the details often lost in the broad sweep of history, the book gives us an experience of war (and peace) by turns surreal and disturbing but illuminated by moments of joy and relief as welcome as they are unexpected. That many of the voices Alexievich recorded are now silent makes her work all the more vital and the greater cause for our gratitude and recognition. In a year when we have often been deafened by what the poet Osip Mandelstam (writing amidst the Purges of Stalin’s rule) called ‘the noise of time’ The Unwomanly Face of War – like all of Alexievich’s works – demands our attention and affirms our faith in the human ability to endure all things.