December 2007 - January 2008

Arts & Letters

Sixty of the best

By Peter Craven
The best books for summer

Christmas is one of those times when the world gives books, almost as if a nostalgia for filling the mind with images suggested by words has as deep a pull on our unconscious mind as the birth in the manger of that Jewish preacher who said we should love the next person the way we love ourselves. It becomes a toss-up as to how much we treat our loved ones to what we would like ourselves or feed them their own poisons. Not everyone who is attracted to Julian Burnside QC’s Reflections on Human Rights, Law and Justice is going to rush to read Julia Fox’s The Infamous Lady Rochford, about Jane Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s sister-in-law who was also executed and whose story is told in sumptuous Antonia Fraserian prose. Some will double up, of course: a feeling for the rustle of the silk of history and the power and the glory of a turbulent Tudor past is not incompatible with a sense of justice and outrage at its betrayals, though Burnside may share more readers with that most intense and intellectually impassioned of Muslim-Australian voices, that of Waleed Aly in People Like Us.

You would have to belong to a very broad church indeed to give equal time in your heart of hearts to Christopher Hitchens’s God is Not Great and Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth, though both authors can shape a sentence. His Holiness is intent on getting to a religiously coherent (and orthodox) image of Christ, whereas the old Hitch is at war against the Evil of Religion. It’s not hard to think that the man who in his time has had a go at cutting down Che Guevara, Princess Margaret and Mother Teresa was always making his way round to God.

In Shakespeare’s Wife, Germaine Greer skirts around Shakespeare by speculating - with an abundant, overcompensating licence - on what Anne Hathaway might or might not have got up to. It’s Greer with her dry-as-dust hat on, poring over village records in order to speculate on a thousand mundane possibilities. A testing book if you don’t have a feeling for world-we-have-lost archaeologising. While we’re on the subject of the man who created the most after God, Bill Bryson’s pocket life of Shakespeare, The World as a Stage, is suave and readable, though a bit ordinary, but AD Nuttall’s Shakespeare the Thinker is one of the finest critical accounts of the Bard for years. And if you already have a straightforward collected Shakespeare, you might also like to invest in the RSC-approved Complete Works, handsome to behold and edited by Jonathan Bate, and there’s the RSC’s Shakespeare: The Life, the Work, the Treasures, a gorgeous picture book with extractable documents, for the young and luxury-loving.

Among literary fiction, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is a bleak evocation of that aspect of the early ‘60s that was a prolongation of the fumbling-in-the-dark of the ‘50s when it came to love, marriage and the old in-out. It’s the story of a young married couple falling apart right at the outset and it’s superbly done, with the right amount of warmth and optimism to make the denouement credible. Don DeLillo, the reigning progressive American master in later mid-career, has an arresting and poignant novel about the impact of September 11 in Falling Man, which cuts between a husband, his wife, his girlfriend and a group of terrorists. Not major DeLillo, but showing his matchless signature. Norman Mailer’s swansong, The Castle in the Forest, also plays with the shadows of history, in this case the childhood of Hitler, no less. It’s Mailer on a middling good day, though the novel is a lot longer than it needs to be.

Demonologies of all kinds are coming back into fictional play because of the mythology of terrorism. Janette Turner Hospital’s Orpheus Lost, in which an Australian composer of Jewish background and an American woman with a feeling for the mathematics of music together plunge headlong into darkness, is a superb novel that crosses the gulf between the literary and the popular, almost in the manner of Graham Greene. Joyce Carol Oates has always had the momentum of a popular writer, and in The Gravedigger’s Daughter a young woman born to a Jewish father attempts to make her way in a postwar America that includes gangsters and millionaires and which brings her, at the end of her life, face to face with a formidable woman who suffered, then articulated, the fate she avoided. It’s a strong and engrossing performance.

That is not true of that fine writer Edmund White wrestling, in fiction, with the figure of Stephen Crane (the author of the one of the best of all war stories, The Red Badge of Courage), in what is in practice a historical novel about late-nineteenth-century gay prostitution and infatuation. Despite White’s famous authenticity and chastity of style, Hotel de Dream seems at once decorative and prurient. That could scarcely be less true of the superb stories by the Irishman William Trevor brought together in Cheating at Canasta. Nor is it true of the Complete Stories of one of our most distinguished writers, David Malouf. The short story is Malouf’s most natural form and shows him to be a writer not only of lyrical power but, a little less obviously, of great range and accuracy.

Diary of a Bad Year is the latest work by our adoptive-Australian Nobel Prize winner, JM Coetzee, and it is again in the mode of minimalist fiction, almost meta-fiction, that has characterised his novels after Disgrace. It will confound some readers, but for my money it’s the most remarkable book of the year, full of pity and truth and humour, and anyone who cares about national or international writing has no choice but to read it. That’s true, in a qualified sense, of Les Murray’s Selected Poems - if only because a greatest-hits highlights the value and richness of the work of the man who will almost certainly be our next native-born Nobel Prize winner. Simon Leys (Pierre Ryckmans) shares with Coetzee (but decidedly not with Murray) a wily and removed cosmopolitanism that comes of being a French speaker by birth and a lover of Chinese by the dedication of a lifetime. His The Death of Napoleon is probably the greatest novella ever written in this country, and in the recently released Other People’s Thoughts we get a bouquet of fragrances in the form of quotations from the wilderness of the literary past. Plenty of Simone Weil and the gnomic Chinese to make this a striking portrait of an exotic sensibility who dwells among us.

If your taste is for the kind of expatriated Australian encyclopaedism that dwells in worlds elsewhere - in particular, London - then both Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia and Peter Conrad’s Creation: Artists, Gods and Origins are remarkable performances from a couple of our champion polymaths. James is not remotely fair to anyone he doesn’t like and keeps circling back to his own moral certitudes, but the book is consistently impressive and can be read at any time of the day or night, for whatever length of time, with pleasure. Conrad is different because the whole of civilisation exists in his massive book under the aegis of the hypothetical, and he does great ballets of pyrotechnical interpretation - and the accounts light up whenever the reader has an active interest in the subject.

The last essays by the late Susan Sontag, collected in At the Same Time, are not virtuoso in this way, though they are deeply sane and passionate and could be described as gleamingly elegant if they did not disdain any aesthetic accolade in their quest for the moral truth art enshrines and life may disclose. Janet Malcolm, in Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, is a more wily reader in the labyrinth and - if you allow for the indirection of her method - a rather more histrionic one. The surprises about Stein and Toklas have the frisson and brilliance of the unfolding of a detective story. And Orhan Pamuk (another Nobel Prize winner) has a deeply satisfying book of essays, Other Colours, that includes accounts of individual novels by Dostoyevsky, as well as a thousand subjects from Tristram Shandy to the novels of Thomas Bernhard.

One of a handful of the greatest masters of English is VS Naipaul, and in his new book, A Writer’s People, we get him creating with his dazzling candour and ambiguity portraits of Derek Walcott, Anthony Powell and Mahatma Gandhi. He is a spellbinding writer, whether or not you think the sensibility of the man behind the writing is snakelike or not. And it would be wrong in this area of memoir and essay writing that approaches the condition of literature not to mention Günter Grass’s Peeling the Onion, which has enough candour and grace in its depiction of a youth shadowed by Nazism to atone for the evasions of a career. Among memoir of the highest quality in this country, claims have already been made for Donald Horne’s Dying and for Craig Sherborne’s Muck, which seems to me a work of searing originality and part of an ongoing masterpiece.

Some might think the most recent novel by Philip Roth, Exit Ghost (the culmination of the Zuckerman saga), has more to do with biography than the pinnacles of fiction, but anything by Roth has its fascination. The shadow of the shaping of the self-spirit, meanwhile, burns through the opening of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girl, the brand-new book by a living writer of matchless reputation. It’s accompanied by a book of essays, Touchstones, in which the South American novelist talks about Conrad and Malraux, Virginia Woolf and the Pinochet case.

It may seem a bridge too far to jump from one of the greatest masters in any language to the world of celebrity and entertainment. The Australian film director Bruce Beresford handles it brilliantly and hilariously in Josh Hartnett Definitely Wants to Do This, a passionate but self-mocking account of the adventures in the screen trade of the man no one will allow to film The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, even though he is the director of Don’s PartyBreaker Morant and Driving Miss Daisy. Another book about someone cooeeing down the Strand is Barbara Angell’s life of Coral Browne, the fabulously foulmouthed Australian who played the Queen to Gielgud’s Hamlet and befriended Guy Burgess in his Moscow exile (a meeting Alan Bennett dramatised in a TV play, with Browne as herself and Alan Bates as Burgess). It’s a modest book about a glorious subject, and it’s a reminder of how much the world of books is an extension of the world of journalism.

It can be the brio of Gideon Haigh’s recent cricket journalism, collected in The Green and Golden Age, which a lot of people would feel bereft of without this Christmas. Or the wry and stylish folk wisdom of Kaz Cooke in Girl Stuff, which instructs young gels on how to deal with young men’s, er, packages. You might come to savour the richness and turmoil of the history of Bali in Under the Volcano (a title a bit inappropriately stolen from Malcolm Lowry), in the hands of one of our finest chroniclers, Cameron Forbes. Or you might like the rank smell of a great institution dying, in Gerald Stone’s Who Killed Channel 9?, an account of the post-Packer breakdown that has tabloid readability but broadsheet finesse.

Christmas is a feast of treasures when it comes to reportage, which blends imperturbably into history. Even the thousand flaws in the mirror of John Howard’s countenance are smiling in the Errington and van Onselen account of the veteran Liberal leader, published in his year of living dangerously. It’s up to you whether you want to scare yourself silly with William Langewiesche’s The Atomic Bazaar, in which - cheerful thought - the drift has been towards poor countries, more or less maddened by deprivation, getting hold of nuclear weapons. Or you can undergo the sobering experience of Tim Weiner’s 700-page Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, which argues that the most baleful and legendary institution of our times has been a sustained exercise in folly.

No wonder we take refuge in art and fol-de-rol. Among the ‘art’ books is Rosemary Hill’s God’s Architect, a superb life of Pugin, the man who designed the interior of the House of Lords, Big Ben and bits of old St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney. He effectively invented the Victorian version of Gothic. There’s also the elegant and streamlined ‘picture’ version of Bernard Smith’s The Formalesque, in which Australia’s leading academic art historian wages war on the terminology of the ‘modernist’, and a capacious, eloquent and gorgeous-looking biography of Arthur Boyd by Darleen Bungey.

These are formidable books, and so too is that tabloid story of positively Westminster Abbey-like grandeur, Tina Brown’s The Diana Chronicles, in which the former editor of the New Yorker puts together like the most shimmering of mosaics all the pieces of the story of the most haunting poor little rich girl since Marilyn Monroe. If that’s too much of a candle in the wind for you, you can retreat to the sorrows and pities of John Adamson’s The Noble Revolt, a magnificently packaged account of the prelude to the English Civil War, though perhaps not as vividly dramatic an evocation of the Cavalier-Roundhead clash that made England what it was than last year’s The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain, by Diane Purkiss. If you want your highbrow epic theatre to be more a matter of lions, gladiators and togas, you might try Mary Beard’s imaginative account of the phenomenon of The Roman Triumph.

And if your sense of the legendary and the historical is more celluloid or stagestruck, in The Biography of an Icon Graham Lord gives a warts-and-all account (he recounts how she was nicknamed ‘the British Open’) of that charismatic lady who conquered the world on Dynasty, Joan Collins. If you want a words-and-pictures book of a woman who can queen it with the best of them, Helen Mirren’s In the Frame: My Life in Pictures and Words is a handsome self-homage to the woman who can play Elizabeth I, Elizabeth II and Jane Tennison on Prime Suspect, while also being Harold Bloom’s favourite Cleopatra (in the Shakespeare version).

History - but not, alas, art - is honoured in Colleen McCullough’s novel Antony and Cleopatra (now there’s a misappropriated title for you). Tony Blair’s is the spirit that’s evoked in the season’s most irresistible thriller - no disservice to Minette Walters, Shane Maloney or Elmore Leonard, all of whom have new books - The Ghost, by Robert Harris, the man who in the past has made a meal of Nazi Germany and Cicero’s Rome. This one is about a ghost-writer to a British prime minister who is charged by a British foreign secretary of war crimes for allowing terror suspects to be tortured elsewhere. Quite an act of anger by the journalist who was once all for New Labour. Not the most probable thriller ever written, but a very absorbing and well-written bit of trash.

If the eyes fail at all this, there are always audio books. Five-hundred-mile journeys should be accompanied (for those with children) by Stephen Fry’s superlative 20-hour recording of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, so that you can feel at one with the spirit of the times. For those without ankle-biters, I recommend Anton Lesser reading The Iliad of Homer complete in modern translation or David Timson doing all the Cockney and poetry of that fog-laden, river-misty evocation of a dark and double-visioned London, Gothic and tabloid but with the true grandeur of art, Dickens’s old spellbinder Our Mutual Friend.

Peter Craven

Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.

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