Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Affirming Flames: Great Books of 2016

"Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame."

W.H. Auden (1939).

My Canadian fellow-writer, Barbara Kyle, shared these words of Auden's with her friends and followers a few days ago, as a sort of epitaph to a year that has had more than its expected share of dark moments, sending many of us to seek inspiration and solace more often in poetry than in prose.

I end this year, as I ended last year (and will, perhaps end every year), with more new fiction and non-fiction titles on my "to read" list, than on my "read and reviewed" list, but here are just three new books that caught my attention over the course of 2016, and which did strike me, in Auden's terms, as "affirming flames" that address themselves to the present moment, with all its dilemmas and uncertainties.

My first choice is a straightforward historical novel, The Women Friends - Selina, by Emma Rose Millar and Miriam Drori. Set in Austria between 1916 and 1938, it is inspired by Gustav Klimt's masterpiece, Die Freundinnen, and tells the story of a young woman, Selina, who leaves her rural community in the Tyrol to seek her fortune as a fashion model in Vienna. Work is hard to come by, however, in the capital city of a dying empire, and she finds herself with few resources or friends to fall back on, outside of a small circle of marginalised people - Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals, struggling to eek out a living, and to maintain their identity in a country that is losing its way, and increasingly turning against them. The history is very much in the background of the human story, but is made more interesting by virtue of its unfamiliarity (most British readers, I suspect, know far less about the early Twentieth Century history of Austria, than about that of Germany).

"Die Freundinnen," by Gustav Klimt (1916-17). Image: DirectMedia Publishing GmbH (image is in the Public Domain).

"Klimt didn't ask for me, and neither did Fraulein Floge. Neomi and Livia didn't even speak to me when they passed me on the stairs ... the days seemed terribly long. I wrote letters to my family in Tyrol, went to see exhibitions at the gallery and the Wien Museum on Karlsplatz, anywhere that was warm, where admission was free and I could at least improve my mind while my days were idle. But my purse was soon empty; I was short on the rent that month and increasingly frequented the library and the park so as to avoid my landlord as well as I could."

My second choice raises a fundamental question: is there such a thing as "contemporary historical fiction" (there is certainly such a thing as "contemporary history," with degree courses on offer at many of the UK's leading universities)? The Historical Novels Society defines "historical fiction" as being written "at least fifty years after the events described, or ... by someone who was not alive at the time." In another sense, all fiction is "historical," because of the time normally taken to edit and produce a book, even after the author has completed his or her final draft. Ali Smith's novel, Autumn, however, is recognisably set in 2016, with specific references to the Brexit Referendum, and to the murder of the MP, Jo Cox. Once again, the history is in the background to a human story (an inter-generational friendship between a centenarian man and a woman in her thirties), but it is unmistakably there. Rich in literary allusion, it is also written with very tangible warmth and humour.

Tributes to the murdered MP, Jo Cox, in London's Parliament Square. Photo: Garry Knight (licensed under CCA).

"It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That's the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it's in their nature. So an old old man washes up on a shore. He looks like a punctured football with its stitching split, the leather kind that people kicked a hundred years ago. The sea's been rough. It has taken the shirt off his back, naked as the day I was born are the words in the head he moves on its neck, but it hurts to. So try not to move the head. What's this in his mouth, grit? It's sand ... The sand in his mouth and his eyes is the last of the grains in the neck of the sandglass. Daniel Gluck, your luck's run out at last ... is this it? really? this? is death?"  

My third choice is a work of non-fiction: Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails. Like Bakewell, I was a teenage existentialist, and voraciously read the philosophical works, novels, and plays of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Although I knew that existentialism was not exclusively (or even originally) a French movement, I was far more suspicious of the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, who I knew to have been an active and enthusiastic Nazi, and, whilst I knew that I ought to read the works of Edmund Husserl, the translations available to me seemed dense and impenetrable, and my German, unlike my French, was not good enough for me to check them against the original. Bakewell combines the vocations of the philosopher, biographer and intellectual historian, and reveals much, here, that was unknown to me, not least the heroic role played by a Franciscan priest, Father Herman Van Breda, in protecting Husserl's manuscripts from the Nazis. Whether Van Breda actually considered himself an existentialist of any sort is unclear, but his actions show him to be as perfect an example of the existentialist hero as any invented in the novels of Sartre or de Beauvoir.

Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, with Che Guevara in Cuba, 1960. Photo: Alberto Korda (image is in the Public Domain).

"Where philosophers before him had written in careful propositions and arguments, Sartre wrote like a novelist - not surprisingly, since he was one ... Above all, he wrote about one big subject: what it meant to be free. Freedom, for him, lay at the heart of all human experience, and this set humans apart from all other kinds of object. Other things merely sit in place, waiting to be pushed or pulled around. Even non-human animals mostly follow the instincts and behaviours that characterise their species, Sartre believed. But as a human being, I have no predefined nature at all ... I am always one step ahead of myself, making myself up as I go along."

In their different ways, each of these books seems to me to have something particular to have something to say to us, living in the present moment. Whether one is reflecting, directly, on the year that we have just lived through; or learning the lessons of a more distant past; or considering the nature of human freedom (and the responsibilities, as well as the opportunities, that it confronts us with); one realises that nothing that we face is entirely new or unique. However disturbed we are by the things going on in the word around us, and with however much trepidation we walk on into the coming year, we can reflect, with the anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, channeled here by Seamus Heaney, "That passed over, this can too."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.

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