Best Novels of 2015

Kreative Leidenschaft

This wasn’t a great reading year. At least not during the second half of it. I’ve read so many books, I didn’t even bother reviewing because they left me cold. On the other hand I read a lot of nonfiction I loved but didn’t review either. That’s why, for the first time, my list was very easy to compile.

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. From my review:

Pick it up. It’s really worth it. If you love post-apocalyptic stories, you’ll read it anyway. If you don’t, maybe it will show you that not every book about the end must be traumatic. Certainly not one that makes you grateful for everything we have and, ultimately, shows that it’s possible to find beauty, no matter what will happen to our world. Nothing illustrates the message of the book better than the reversal of Sartre’s famous quote L’enfer c’est les autres – Hell is other people. In the novel Kirsten thinks that he’s wrong. She has come to the conclusion that hell is the absence of people you feel close to.

After Julius

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s  After Julius. From my review:

I found it hard to believe at times that this book was written in 1965. The open discussion of abortion and sexuality seemed far more modern. It made me wonder if we’re not living in more prudish times now.

Before ending this post I have to mention Elizabeth Jane Howard’s descriptions. They are stunning. When she describes a room, a scene, clothes, anything, she makes full use of these descriptions. It’s never just a random description but it always contributes to the understanding of a character, enhances the mood, sets the tone.

It’s still early but I wouldn’t be surprised if this book would be among my best of this year. Since she reminded me of many writers I absolutely love —Elizabeth Taylor, Rosamond Lehmann, Jean Rhys, Elizabeth Bowen — I know I’ll be reading more of her.

The Leopard

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Il Gattopardo – The Leopard From my review:

I haven’t done this book any justice. It would deserve a whole series of posts. One could say so much about all the individual elements. I’m sure I’ll re-read it some day. Maybe I’ll write a series then. For the time being I would just like to urge everyone who hasn’t read it yet to do so.

I expected a great novel, a novel that I would love, but I didn’t expect it to be this subtle and nuanced, this melancholic and funny. It’s truly one of the greatest works of literature.

Five Children on the Western Front

Kate Saunder’s Five Children on the Western Front. From my review:

Five Children on the Western Front is a delightful story inspired by E. Nesbit’s famous children’s book Five Children and It. I’m still surprised how much I loved this book. I’m not always keen on sequels of classics, but since I haven’t read Nesbit’s tale yet, I couldn’t compare. And I’m aware that the main character of the book “It” – or Psammead -, the sand fairy, is Nesbit’s creation and not Saunders’, nonetheless her book offers many new elements.

( . . . )

I really recommend this novel. It’s charming and sad. I thought she did well not to modernize it. The children sound like children of the time, which gives the story a nostalgic feel.

Farewell, my Queen

Chantal Thomas’  Farewell, my Queen – Les Adieux à la reine. From my review:

Farewell, my Queen is unlike any other Marie Antoinette novel I’ve read. It could only have been written by someone who has done extensive research. Still, it’s moving and nostalgic and really beautiful. It’s almost as good as my favourite historical novel L’allée du Roi  – The King’s Way by Françoise Chandernagor, which tells the story of Mme de Maintenon. The two novels complement each other, as we see Versailles still under construction in The King’s Way and abandoned in the later book.

A Month in the Country

J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. From my review:

I can’t praise this novel enough and would really like to urge everyone to read it. It’s not only a joy to read but illustrates what great writing can do. It will be on my “best of list” at the end of the year and I might even add it to my all-time favourites.

I’ll end with one of my favourite quotes

It would be like someone coming to Malvern, bland Malvern, who is halted by the thought that Edward Elgar walked this road on his way to give music lessons or, looking over to the Clee Hills, reflects that Housman had stood in place, regretting his land of lost content. And, at such a time, for a few of us there will always be a tugging at the heart— knowing a precious moment gone and we not there.

Lost Art of Keeping Secrets

Eva Rice’s  The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets. From my review:

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets is a smart, charming, exuberant book, filled with witty, endearing and eccentric characters, whose sharp insights, clever repartee, and uncrushable optimism are a delight to follow. If you need some intelligent cheering up—this is the book for you.

One Fine Day

Mollie Panter-Downes One Fine Day. From my review:

One Fine Day is intense and lyrical, a novel for those who like introspective books and don’t need a lot of action. But it’s also masterful because of the delicate way Mollie Panter-Downes uses motifs and other recurring elements that reinforce the themes of loss, change and – more positively – transformation. And how she juxtaposes the lives of her two main characters, who undergo, in one single day, a whole transformation, believing at first that they each want what the other has – an independent life, leisure to savour what a day brings -and then discover – it’s already there – they just have to grab it.

Jardì vora el mar

Sorry, this one hasn’t been translated yet.

Mercè Rodoreda’s Jardí vora el mar. From my review:

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is easily one of my top ten favourite novels. I also love The Great Gatsby. I enjoyed Rodoreda’s book a great deal, but I only loved the descriptions of the garden. In choosing a gardener as her narrator, as wonderful a character as he may be, we stay much more spectators of the characters, are never fully immersed. We only see what they do when they are outside; we never see them interacting inside of the house. Most of the things we learn, are things the gardener himself was told by someone who heard it from someone. Seeing characters from afar, doesn’t allow to get as close to them as we would wish. Plus, the main protagonists change. Every summer, someone else gets close to the gardener, visits him in his small house. Those are the most intimate moments in the book, the ones, other than the descriptions of the garden, that I enjoyed the most. It’s not always good to compare a book with such famous novels as The Great Gatsby or The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, but in this case it helped me understand, why Rodoreda’s book left me a little cold, although it’s a fantastic book that I might even re-read some day.

Of Kids and Parents

Emil Hakl’s Of Kids and Parents. From my review:

As I said, I’m really grateful Stu suggested this book. I loved every moment of it. It’s so rich, intense, and full of life. But also highly intelligent and lucid. It says a lot about being human and getting older. About history and how it repeats itself again and again. And about the humans who think they are the crown of creation while they are not. And I shouldn’t forget to mention that, at times, it’s a very funny book.

The Disappeared

Kim Echlin’sThe Disappeared. From my review:

The book explores the question of how much we can really understand of a foreign country. I liked that Anne never accepted to stay an outsider. She wanted to be part even if that meant that she put herself in danger.

The Disappeared isn’t easy to read but I loved this haunting book. It’s an amazing achievement, an intense, lucid, lyrical, and compassionate novel about a devastating conflict and a love that surpasses everything.

802630-5

Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness. From my review:

I expected The World My Wilderness to be a lot like Mollie Panter-Downes One Fine Day but it’s much more like a novel by Colette. Helen herself reminded me a lot of Colette and some of her heroines. She’s such an uninhibited, freethinking, sensual woman. While Helen is a cheerful woman, in love with life and love, she’s also a tragic figure because she was deeply in love with her second husband.

The World My Wilderness is also excellent in the way it describes post-war London with its ruins and struggling population. Everything is still crumbling—the houses and the society. It’s a world in change in which destruction is found right along a wild, mysterious beauty.

*******

As you may have noticed I decided to leave out the crime novels, although in terms of thrillers and crime, the year wasn’t bad at all. I even discovered four authors I really liked and want to read more of: Phil Rickman, Elly Griffiths, Louise Millar, and Laura Kasischke.

How was your reading year?

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa: Il Gattopardo – The Leopard (1958)

The Leopard

Published posthumously, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s only novel Il GattopardoThe Leopard is one of the most important novels of Italian Literature. If I hadn’t watched Luchino Visconti’s movie, I would have read it much earlier. The English translation of the title is actually a misnomer because a gattopardo is a serval and not a leopard. The two animals allude to something quite different. While the English title emphasizes the strength and nobility, the Italian evokes extinction.

Il Gattopardo is a historical novel, set in Lampedusa’s native Sicily during the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy, in the 19th Century. The novel starts in 1860 and ends in 1910. The main character is Don Fabrizio Corbera Prince of Salina, a Sicilian nobleman, the last great head of the house of Salina. Don Fabrizio is a melancholic intellectual, who finds solace in mathematics and studying the stars. Even if he wasn’t living in such troubled times of civil war and revolution, he’d be uneasy because he is aware his house is coming to an end as none of his children is as great as he is. None of them embodies the spirit of the true aristocrat. He would have wished that his nephew Tancredi was his son. He is extremely fond of Tancredi and does everything to help the impoverished young man to make an excellent match. The chosen one is Angelica, the extremely attractive but not very refined daughter of Don Calogero Sedàra, a rich businessman and social climber who actively supported the revolution.

Like so many great European classics the Gattopardo doesn’t really have a plot other than history, the passing of time, and the changes they bring. It’s one of a few novels who describe the end of an era, therefore it’s not surprising it’s full of motifs and metaphors of decay, death and ending. This doesn’t mean however that it’s a depressing book. Thanks to the intrusions of the author it’s very witty. And it’s also a sensual book, full descriptions of lavish interiors and lush gardens.

What I admired the most is how Lampedusa weaves recurring motifs and metaphors into the text and how the structure of the narrative reinforces them. One of the first scenes in which we see Don Fabrizio on his own takes places in the garden of Villa Salina in Palermo. Don Fabrizion is alone with his dog Bendicò. The Prince is a great lover of dogs and this is one of his dearest. It’s a summer evening and the garden is filled with scents. The roses and other flowers are in full bloom. They are at the point where the scent is about to turn from delicious to overripe.

But the garden, hemmed and almost squashed between these barriers, was exhaling scents that were cloying, fleshy and slightly putrid, like the aromatic liquids distilled from the relics of certain saints; the carnations superimposed their pungence on the formal fragrance of roses and the oily emanations of magnolias drooping in corners; and somewhere beneath it all was a faint smell of mint mingling whith a nursery whiff of acacia and a jammy one of myrtle; from a grove beyond the wall came an erotic waft of early orange-blossom.

It was a garden for the blind: a constant offence to the eyes, a pleasure strong if somewhat crude to the nose.

It’s one of many instances in which the reader feels the change and the end, without being told. This first scene is echoed in the last scene of the novel, which takes place in Concetta’s rooms. She was the Prince’s favourite daughter. The house Salina has changed so much that even the clergy doesn’t let them dictate rules anymore. They have a chapel in which they display relics. Unfortunately the church has decided to examine them and found that they were not authentic. Angelica wants to help them fight the decision but Concetta resigns. A lesser author would have ended on the thoughts of the elderly woman but Lampedusa chose to show us the Prince and Bendicò one last time. One is hanging on the wall as a painting, the other one is a moth-eaten piece of fur lying on the floor and finally thrown out of the window and discarded.

A whole chapter is dedicated to the death of the prince. It’s one of the greatest death scenes I’ve ever read. And one of the most beautiful. The prince compares himself to an hourglass. His energy has been leaving him for years and now – towards the end – it accelerates. Soon all the grains of sand will have left his body. And, just like in an hourglass, they will not be lost. They will just not be this body anymore but disperse and turn into something else eventually. I though this was a pretty picture and surprisingly non-Christian.

I haven’t done this book any justice. It would deserve a whole series of posts. One could say so much about all the individual elements. I’m sure I’ll re-read it some day. Maybe I’ll write a series then. For the time being I would just like to urge everyone who hasn’t read it yet to do so.

I expected a great novel, a novel that I would love, but I didn’t expect it to be this subtle and nuanced, this melancholic and funny. It’s truly one of the greatest works of literature.

If you own a copy with an introduction – don’t hesitate reading it. This isn’t a novel that can be spoilt and an introduction will help you navigate the confusing history of the unification. Unfortunately my copies (the Italian and the French translation) had no introduction.