Our turkeys were stuffed and now we are too. Reclining helplessly in the recovery position, our thoughts turn to feasts future. What better way to show your friends and family that you love them, and also that you have impeccable taste, than sending them a book?
In The Spectator’s stocking-stuffing December issue our staff, writers and friends make their seasonal suggestions for Books of the Year: stack upon stack of the most riotous reads, bibliographical beauties and pandemical page-turners.
, Volume I, by Gibbon, because in this year of scourge and collapsing polity it seemed apposite. And only Volume I, due to reader fatigue after 582 pages and the shift in Volume II to the history of Byzantium. I don’t view current events as Byzantine — marked by complexity, deviousness, and intrigue. I think current events are just stupid.
And stupid is what the Roman Empire was. Don’t be fooled by the pretty buildings, the fancy literature, and the airs and graces. Rome’s political-economic structure was primitive. Roman policy was to conquer everything and distribute the booty first to the great thieves of Rome’s elite and then, if anything was left over, to the minor criminals that were its proletariat.
Within a hundred years the Roman Empire ran out places to be readily conquered. Then Rome ran out of people to do the conquering. Better lounging by the Tiber receiving largess than prying largess from the hands of fierce Teutons. This led to an ‘illegal alien’ problem — opposite of the kind America thinks it has. Metaphorically, the Romans weren’t keeping Mexicans out, they were conscripting Mexicans into their army.
That army realized it held all the power. The figurehead emperors tended to abdicate very suddenly when the army killed them.
Between 235 AD and 284 AD (when the Roman Empire was about the same age as the American empire is) Rome had at least 30 emperors. These included Macrianus, Balista, Odenathus, Lollianus, Ingenuus and Aureolus (for anyone seeking something fashionably outré to name the baby). Thirty Emperors is much worse than any combination of Trump, Biden, Pence and Harris.
‘The fall of Rome we’re taught to rue
But it was we that Rome fell to.’
My new books pile is pretty thin this year, since lockdown drove me back to must-read texts that I had never found time to read. One exception was The Silence, Don DeLillo’s very short novel about a total technology shutdown on Super Bowl Sunday, our highest holy day. Set in 2022 New York, it’s harrowing, hopeless and funny in ways that make greater sense while one is living through a mind-blowing pandemic. However, at 116 pages, it’s simply not enough. So before I started it, I read all of Underworld, which at 827 pages constitutes the best argument for DeLillo winning the Nobel Prize and forms the perfect companion to the The Silence — a kind of a gigantic preface. Aficionados will be struck by the overlaps in characters and mood between the two books, but anyone can appreciate DeLillo’s brilliant narrative power, which takes you from the analogue America of 1951, newly menaced by nuclear annihilation, to 21st-century digital America, where no one knows what to do when the cell phones go dead.
Days before the pandemic started, my husband and I finished listening to Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, a delightful novel about a Russian aristocrat, Count Alexander Rostov, who in 1922 is sentenced to house arrest by a Bolshevik tribunal in the Metropol, a grand hotel facing the Kremlin. The Count, an educated and convivial man — and a great connoisseur of wine and food — lives in an attic room in the hotel as the tumultuous decades of the 20th century unfold outside his window. Bound within the four walls of the hotel, his routine is the same day to day — yet his life is far from drab. In that enclosed space, he forms lasting friendships with the hotel’s regulars and staff — a French chef, a seamstress, a Red Army colonel and an American spy. And he finds meaning and purpose in acts of kindness and service to others, eventually becoming a waiter at the hotel’s restaurant. These things bolster his spirits, giving each day color. The days are all the same — but they’re different, too.
I thought about this novel a lot during the early months of the quarantine — and took inspiration from the Count’s example as I managed my own transitions to this new life we are all leading. Though our outer lives may be smaller and more limited than they once were, our inner lives are rich places of emotional discovery, a lesson that the Count learns as he ages and matures. And there is still meaning to be found in the routines that form the architecture of our lives, and purpose to be experienced in the smallest acts of kindness we can still perform for others. As someone tells the Count when he is a child, ‘adversity presents itself in many forms, and if a man does not master his circumstances, then he is bound to be mastered by them.’
by Stephen Wertheim. Allow me to fess up: Wertheim is a colleague of mine at the Quincy Institute. But if he were a card-carrying communist, I’d still be recommending his splendidly original and insightful book. Tomorrow, The World charts the decisive ‘turn’ in American statecraft engineered by a cadre of elites following the fall of France in 1940, a process involving the invention of ‘isolationism’ as a grievous sin and the conversion of ‘internationalism’ into a euphemism for militarized US global primacy. This is a book of history, but it’s history with an urgent relevance to the present moment.
I almost didn’t get to read my favorite book of the year. The original cowardly publisher of Woody Allen’s autobiography, Apropos of Nothing, withdrew it after protest by staffers. Fortunately a brave publisher, Arcade, released it.
No reader will be surprised that is a funny and a great read. But it is also poignant, honest and important. The claim that it should be suppressed because of a quarter-century-old, unproven accusation is an attack on the marketplace of ideas. If that approach were accepted, we would be denied the writings of some of the greatest thinkers of history and modernity. The best protest against this self-righteous censorship is to read and enjoy Woody Allen’s wonderful book.
The big books in Washington DC conservative circles this spring were Yuval Levin’s A Time to Build and Ross Douthat’s The Decadent Society. Despite the bland title, Levin’s argument that American institutions have become mere platforms for individual brand-building is powerfully illuminating, though more might be written about how antecedent conformism left our universities, media, businesses and politics vulnerable to such appropriation in the first place. Douthat, for his part, says decadence may well be with us for a long time — a chronic condition rather than a quickly resolved crisis. And he wrote this before COVID-19.
Rod Dreher’s Live Not by Lies was a hit of the autumn, and so too is the best book yet published on the way in which right-wing politics is renewing itself in the face of an aspiring hegemonic left, Michael Anton’s The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return. For an outstanding work on an older conservatism, yet which is far from without relevance for today, I commend to you Gregory Collins’s Commerce and Manners in Edmund Burke’s Political Economy.
With Robert Draper’s exhaustively researched and tersely objective To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America Into Iraq, we finally knew how the decision was made to invade Iraq. The fact that this book didn’t rocket to the top of elite conversation is an indictment of the short attention span of insiders in Washington. Draper manages to be both empathetic and ruthless in his judgements of the key administration players: an impressive feat. An urgent book.
Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War came out in 2010, but I read it only this year. It is quite simply the greatest war novel I have ever read. It is massively long, and unrelenting in its close-up depiction of the horrors of jungle warfare. Marlantes’s portrayal of small Marine units is timeless, as I can attest, having been embedded as a journalist during the fighting in Fallujah in 2004. The tenor of the language and the dark, endearing humor and profanity is familiar to anyone who has observed the Corps up-close. This book begins with an absolutely gut-wrenching episode and never lets up for over 600 pages. As was said about Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises when it first came out in 1926, the honesty of the writing puts standard literary English to shame.
As we are at the end thereof, I returned to Civilisation, Kenneth Clark’s renowned 13-part series of 1969. I made it to year’s end by binge-watching the program yet again. Clark’s message well fits the bill for 2020. Student riots formed the backdrop of his episode on the French Revolution. The disturbances of our own annus horribilis might again recall that ‘however complex and solid it seems’, civilization is ‘actually quite fragile’ and easily destroyed.
This year I also read Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation, James Stourton’s 2016 update to Meryle Secrest’s 1984 biography. Stourton’s account left me wanting less of the ‘life’ and more of the ‘art and Civilisation’, so I tracked down a dusty library copy of Clark’s 1969 companion book to the television series, with the golden reliquary bust of Charlemagne from Aachen Cathedral’s treasury glowing on the cover. The book is adapted from the script of the show. Clark famously called his program ‘a personal view’. His viewpoint comes across even more personally in print. ‘After setbacks and deviations at least as destructive as those of our own time,’ Clark concludes, ‘Western civilization has been a series of rebirths. Surely this should give us confidence in ourselves.’ I sure hope so.
A strange year for a reader, and the most compelling literary experience I had was reading every one of Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels between March and July. The biggest vogue this unique novelist had was during the war years and in the time of privation afterwards. Reading, without distraction, her penetrating, disillusioned voices in the silence of an immured city was to understand why many of her contemporaries thought her the greatest English novelist of their time. When the climax of Elders and Betters (published in 1944) came, and the small boy asks, ‘with increasing violence’, ‘Have we been through an impossible day through no fault of our own, or have we not?’, it was as if the novelist had understood what was to come, and what her readers would live through. They are currently unfashionable novels — you will have to hunt for most of them on secondhand books websites — but, as I rediscovered in the spring, great masterpieces.
It was a disappointing year for new publications, only partly attributable to the disruptions of COVID. The non-fiction I most enjoyed was Judith Flanders’s A Place for Everything, her history of alphabetical order: an excellent subject, carried out with exemplary care and authority. On the other hand, too many novels, praised and rewarded, seemed to have no end in mind but to impress the reader with the virtue of the author. Even rudimentary technical ability or expressiveness appeared quite dispensable to prize juries. Usually reliable old stagers such as Martin Amis, Graham Swift and Anne Tyler let us down badly.
Exceptions were to be found in Maggie O’Farrell’s deeply felt Hamnet, Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light —the best book of the trilogy — and Petina Gappah’s buoyantly energetic Out of Darkness, Shining Light.The best novel of the year, I thought, was Adam Mars-Jones’s complex, shifting and sensationally lewd Box Hill — for once in 2020, a novel written not to make an approved point or demonstrate its author’s virtue, but to explore calmly the wildest stretches of human behavior. Its subject is cruelty, both theatrically performed and executed in reality, without costumes. A masterpiece that Dame Ivy would have been greatly interested by.
I’m very fortunate in that I managed to attend a wedding in 2020; back in February my sister got married in London. Gaining a brother-in-law turned out to be especially useful during the worst part of New York City’s lockdown, as he sent me a care package to take my mind off the near-constant sirens. In it was a book I’ve been slowly making my way through ever since: George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman, a favorite of every other Spectator staffer this side of the pond. Given the spurts of sex and violence, you might think the Flashman novels are crying out for a prestige TV adaptation. Given how shockingly politically incorrect Fraser’s novels now seem, I doubt HBO or Netflix has the stones. A damn shame.
My three favorite modern American writers are Annie Proulx, Mary Gaitskill and Richard Russo. Proulx has been silent since 2016’s Barkskins, but thankfully this year saw the appearance in paperback on the eastern side of the Atlantic of Russo’s superlative Chances Are. It also brought a reissue, as a Penguin Modern Classic no less, of Gaitskill’s short story collection Because They Wanted To (1997), which I read when it first came out and whose bleak yet intermittently sympathetic gaze is as captivating as ever. The most enjoyable memoir I read this year was Ferdinand Mount’s Kiss Myself Goodbye, which describes the author’s long search to establish the truth about his track-covering Aunt Munca and takes him via luxury and magnificence in the English Home Counties to the pre-Great War Sheffield slums.
On the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, I loved David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. This masterly explanation of the British influence on America brilliantly explains how different parts of America were affected by British settlers in their accent, buildings, food, dress and approach to marriage and sex. Settlers from East Anglia molded Massachusetts; those from southern England influenced Virginia; people from the north Midlands affected the Delaware Valley; and the Scotch-Irish and northern English developed the South. The effects of these settlements are still strong today. Completely compelling.
You don’t have to be a Beatles fan to love Craig Brown’s marvelous 150 Glimpses of the Beatles. As he did in his glorious biography of Princess Margaret, Craig Brown has completely reinvented biography. He darts in and out of the Beatles’ lives, moving backwards and forwards in time, examining not just their characters but also their effect on the world and their obsessive fans and hangers-on. Brown is so funny and so alive to the tiniest, bathetic detail. After Elvis met the Beatles in Beverly Hills in 1965, what really blew his mind was why, with all their money, they hadn’t had their teeth fixed.
The outskirts of fame are so much more interesting than the center stage, or so it appears to those of us in the shadowlands. This may seem an odd way to begin a recommendation of a book about the Beatles, but Craig Brown’s witty and playful 150 Glimpses of the Beatles has interrupted my lifelong indifference to the Drab Four. I will loathe ‘Imagine’ till my dying breath, and I really have had enough of ‘Silly Love Songs’ — yes, I know, both are post-Beatles tunes — but the great charm of 150 Glimpses of the Beatles lies in the characters Brown has pulled up from ‘the roiling waters of time’.
John, Paul, George and Ringo: bah. I prefer Jimmie Nicol, who for 10 days in June 1964 subbed as drummer on an Australian tour when Ringo took ill and then spent the next half-century nursing resentments; or the wincingly unfunny comic duo of Charlie Brill and Mitzi McCall, who shared the bill with the lads on the Ed Sullivan Show of February 9, 1964 and heard the sound of 73 million people not laughing; and of course Jim McCartney, Paul’s dad, who, upon hearing his son and John play a tune they had just written, gave it a modified thumbs-up but suggested a lyrical alteration to ‘She Loves You, Yes, Yes, Yes’.
My Best Book of 2020 is an easy choice: Catherine Belton’s Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West is a superbly impressive work of extensive reporting and expert analysis. There have been excellent similar books in the past, such as Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, but Belton’s prize-worthy achievement will endure for decades.
I’m often months late in getting to new titles, and oh, was that the case with Evan Thomas’s First: Sandra Day O’Connor, a biography of the US Supreme Court’s first female justice. I had modest expectations but found it to be the most revealing new book about the high court in more than a decade. Of books I’ve reviewed, the best without question is Barton Gellman’s deeply eloquent Dark Mirror: Edward Snowden and the American Surveillance State, which I found compulsively readable.
David Abulafia’s The Boundless Sea is a hugely ambitious masterpiece and quite rightly was the winner of this year’s Wolfson prize for history. It is a mighty thassologasm and a triumphant successor to his wonderful history of the Mediterranean. Remarkably, it manages to stitch together and make accessible some diverse and often intractable bits of ocean history, and is an astonishingly accomplished work of both scholarly synthesis and fluent narrative history.
As Christian Europe began flexing its muscles in Spain, Sicily, Syria and Palestine from the 11th century onwards, it came into contact with the far richer and more sophisticated civilization of Islam, stretching for thousands of miles to the borders of China. It was probably through Islamic Spain that such basic facets of western civilization as paper, ideas of courtly love, algebra and the abacus passed into Europe, while Greco-Arab medicine arrived via Salerno and Sicily.
I have hugely enjoyed two books that outline different but complimentary aspects of this process. After the fall of Rome, the libraries of the West were burned by marauding Goths and Huns, and the Greek and Roman classics survived only in the Islamic world. Violet Moller’s wonderful The Map of Knowledge tells the story of how that knowledge was first preserved, then returned to Europe through translations via Arabic made in cities such as Baghdad, Palermo, Toledo and Cordoba. It is a beautifully written and researched work of intellectual archaeology.
Diana Darke’s Stealing from the Saracens: How Islamic Architecture Shaped Europe is another brilliant challenge to Islamophobes everywhere, skillfully telling the architectural counterpart of Moller’s tale, and showing how much Gothic architecture drew on the forms and innovations of Arab architects and mathematicians. Among the borrowings were the pointed arch, window tracery, ribbed barrel vaults, merlons and machicolations — the building blocks that created the great Gothic cathedrals. Without the influence of the Islamic world, in other words, much that we regard as central to western civilization would never have come into being.
There have been optimal conditions for reading since March, but the fretfulness of the Great Isolation made, at least for me, concentration difficult. Then I checked the bestsellers lists and realized there may be other reasons I bought so few books this year. But Craig Brown’s 150 Glimpses of the Beatles was delicious genius. Irreverent, yet admiring, ironic, but not snarky.
I may be the very last person to have discovered Curtis Sittenfeld. Rodham, her what-if about Hillary, did not get as much attention as it deserved, but Sittenfeld newcomers can enjoy You Think It, I’ll Say It. These are stories (and I never thought that I would write this) with a feminist perspective that fizz with intelligence, smart observation and darkly dry humor.
Zephyr Teachout is another powerful American woman. Break ’Em Up is a trenchant attack on Big Tech and Big Ag. She’ll be remembered always for the coinage ‘the chickenization of America’, referring to the atrocious anti- social and monopolistic practices of US meat processors. She starts off at pace, but gets lost in hard-to-read legalese. Still, an important book.
In my own field, reflecting perhaps a malaise in the professions quite independent of the virus, there have been no architecture or design titles of note in 2020.
Armchair travel holding a special appeal this year, the books that made their marks and earned a permanent place on my heaving shelves all seemed to be transportive. In no order: Andrew Alpern’s Posh Portals, which I was fortunate to review in these pages and which presents a side of New York’s grand apartment buildings little heretofore considered; Stanford White in Detail, by the architect’s great-grandson Samuel G. White, which shows that the exuberance of the elder White’s personal life can easily be observed in his interior designs; and Clive Aslet and Dylan Thomas’s Old Homes, New Life: The Resurgence of the British Country House, which expressed the continuing fecundity of a house type once thought moribund. Some day our masters will allow us to visit great buildings in person again; for now, each of these books brings welcome relief from the endless bad news.
by Alathea Fitzalan Howard. Penned by a Catholic Romantic, who dreamed herself of marrying into European royalty, these are the wartime journals of a girl slightly older than the Little Princesses. She dubbed Royal Lodge in Windsor ‘Le Petit Trianon’, and she must be seen as the Saint-Simon of Lilibet’s adolescence. Instead of the court intrigues of Versailles, we have bike rides, games of Racing Demon, and Alathea’s yearnings, both to be loved by a man, and to be ‘in’ with the Royal Family. Far too old for dancing lessons with little girls, or ‘activities’ with the Girl Guides, she goes through the motions, in order to be near the princesses. (‘My patrol is going to be called Blue Tits’). She worshipped Lilibet, but saw her with the unsparing eyes of an unhappy, frustrated, lonely girl: so we have comments on the future monarch’s awkwardness in company, lack of imagination and ‘enormous chest’. A wonderful book.
The adventurous realism of Anna Keen’s Turneresque drawings of a dissolving, monumental London in London: The Metamorphosis, with an essay by Edward Lucie-Smith and the artist’s own contemplative commentary, reminded me of the multi-media paintings of Victor Hugo, another admirer of `the Black Babylon’.
Don DeLillo’s frighteningly funny The Silence begins with a crash-landing. The novel was virtually finished when the pandemic struck and screen time became more important than ever. In The Silence, the screens have all gone blank. Some vast digital malfunction has occurred: ‘The pauses were turning into silences and beginning to feel like the wrong kind of normal’. ‘Martin said, “Are we living in a makeshift reality?… A future that isn’t supposed to take form just yet?”’ DeLillo’s 17th novel celebrates the muted hysteria of intelligent human beings in the face of universal calamity.
Every new book by Kate Summerscale is a cause for celebration. Her latest, The Haunting of Alma Fielding, out in America in April, is her best since The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. Summerscale found the research papers of the Hungarian émigré ghost hunter, Nandor Fodor, in the library of the Society for Psychical Research in Cambridge. That day, even her taxi driver turned out to be a psychic medium with an invisible amphisbaena, or two-headed snake, around his neck for protection and healing. Summerscale follows Fodor’s investigation of the case of Alma Fielding, a young housewife at the centre of a supernatural storm in 1938. As always, she is a calm and riveting guide to traumatic historical events.
Hugh Aldersey-Williams reclaims the 17th-century polymath Christiaan Huygens from relative obscurity in an excellent biography, Dutch Light, that is also a story about the birth of modern science. Among other things, Huygens invented the mechanism for the pendulum clock and discovered the rings of Saturn through a telescope he had invented earlier.
Don’t be put off by the title. Postcolonial Love Poem, by Natalie Diaz is much subtler than it sounds — a collection of lyrics that speak to recent and historical Native American experience with great richness of language and profundity of mind. ‘I have a name,’ Diaz says, ‘yet no one who will say it not roughly’. As this implies, her work is a kind of confession but also an assertion; a record of wounding and grief, but also of resilience and wonderment. And it amounts to the best book of poems I’ve read this year from either side of the Atlantic.
My favorite is Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child by Laura Cummings: part mystery, part memoir, part hymn to the majestic expanses of Cummings’s native Lincolnshire. She starts by unraveling the secrets and lies that constrained her mother’s childhood in a web devised by her grandfather, a man as bleak as the flatlands he came from. But what begins as a furious indictment turns into a subtle searching portrait against a backdrop of land, sea and sky evoked with the ravishing delicacy and warmth of a Dutch landscape painting.
The other book that haunts me is Catrine Clay’s The Good Germans: Resisting the Nazis 1933-45, a brilliant and deeply disturbing account of six individuals— ranging from Prussian aristocrat to law student and factory hand — who risked and in some cases lost their lives to oppose Adolf Hitler.
Surveying his bookshelves one day, David Pryce-Jones had a brilliant idea: to compose snapshots of the famous authors who gave him personally inscribed volumes. Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime is a magical compendium of the writers and cultures who shaped him, part memoir, part history, part reportage, and wholly original. Pryce-Jones looks his lions and lionesses challengingly in the eye, and has a novelist’s knack for rendering character; yet he also celebrates aspects of their humanity of which they remained possibly unaware. His gallery of pen-pushers includes Harold Acton, Martha Gellhorn, Sybille Bedford, Muriel Spark, Martin Gilbert, Arturo Barea, and Adrian Berry (a particularly lovely requiem). Oddly, the one name who appears to have eluded him is Graham Greene, subject of the best biography I read this year, The Unquiet Englishman: A Life of Graham Greene. Richard Greene never met the author, but he conjures him back to life in a sensible, unsensational way.
It may have been too depressing a year to suggest this book, but if you’re a masochist go ahead and dust off Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot. One of his ‘great four’, The Idiot tends to go underrated, but it is a showcase of Dostoyevsky’s greatest talent: crafting unique characters of depth, each with manifold foibles, some more disturbing than others, and strengths.
In the protagonist, Prince Lev Nikolayvich Myshkin, we find an almost Christ-like figure. The Prince, whose mental disorder has given him his titular nickname, is fresh from an asylum. With a new fortune, he must navigate a society rife with baseness, gossip, humor and intrigue. We find the only thing that really makes the Prince an idiot is that he can’t get himself to place a restraining order against a particularly crazy woman. The Idiot presents a striking and complex confrontation between evil and good, with an unexpected ending.
Often, when admiring a friend’s outfit, she’ll confess to having borrowed the idea from someone else. Reading can induce a similar experience. And, embarrassingly, I have spent a good chunk of this year tracing the influences of a single author. It started with David Pryce-Jones’s arresting sketch of Muriel Spark in his new book, Signatures: Literary Encounters of a Lifetime, which prompted me to read Spark’s autobiography, Curriculum Vitae. This turned out to be so frustratingly elusive that I felt it necessary to consult Martin Stannard’s authoritative biography, Muriel Spark: The Biography, which his subject reportedly disliked.
Next, I read Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means, a slim and sexy novel about the loveliness and savageness of some girls in London as, in the aftermath of World War Two, they ‘began to consider where they personally stood in the new order of things’. From there, I considered Spark’s treatment of one of the most famous literary families ever to have lived in The Essence of the Brontes: A Compilation with Essays. This inspired a re-reading of Jane Eyre and Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and a newfound appreciation for the stories and essays of America’s newly ‘problematic’ Southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, who lived with some peacocks on a farm in Georgia and brilliantly captured the profundity and ridiculousness of man.
I loved The Sandpit by Nicholas Shakespeare, a masterful thriller that blends in Oxford and Iran. Judith Herrin’s Ravenna is an erudite but wonderfully readable overview of the life of a city that is often ignored, forgotten or misplaced. Scott Levi’s The Bukharan Crisis provides a masterful account of the pressures on the Bukharankhanate in the 18th century — and of the significance they had not only for the region but beyond. It revolutionizes how we should understand central Asia in a period when attention is usually focused elsewhere. I’ve greatly enjoyed Rana Mitter’s China’s Good War, a timely insight into how the memories and ideas about World War Two play a hugely important role in conceptualizations about the past and the present in contemporary China.
‘Those tall high-rises on the edge of town where the lights went out slowly in the night, flat by flat, window by window’ is the central image of Dark Satellites, a short story collection by Clemens Meyer, translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire. Meyer’s snapshots of urban life — a burger bar, a fairground wheel, a neglected train station — are so vivid, they make you see your own surroundings in the light of those faraway buildings. An even longer perspective of European urbanity can be gained from Brian Ladd’s The Streets of Europe, which examines the city of the past. Covering the period up to 1900, this study takes you through the ages to the dawn of the modern technological era, bringing into a new focus the streets you walk today.
I spent most of this year finishing my next book, which is something of a book about older books (my five-year-old self would have been disappointed to learn this is what he ended up doing as an adult). One chapter sent me deep into the labyrinth of ancient Gnosticism: the strange faiths that arose in the aftermath of the Alexandrian conquest of the East. In books such as Manichaeism, by the French scholar Michel Tardieu (2009) and Iain Gardner’s The Founder of Manichaeism I encountered the endlessly fascinating figure of Mani, the Persian guru whose weird, intricate and radically dualistic teachings had so enrapt the young St Augustine before his conversion to Christianity. As a Catholic convert, of course, I find all gnostic ideas, ancient and modern, utterly detestable. But as a son of Iran, I feel not a little indignant that a spiritual genius like Mani, whose religion at one point spanned the Latin West all the way to far-east China, has been all but forgotten by history. Perhaps another book project lies waiting for me in that very tension!
Shut up without guests, distant from colleagues, creeping scrupulously to and from the grocery: small wonder I turned in 2020 to the new adventures of some longtime friends, and revisited their old. If they were somewhere evocatively far away, all the better. A Song for the Dark Times could’ve been the title of any of John Rebus’s Edinburgh adventures, but the novel’s elegiac mode, complete with newly poignant Sean Connery motif, is perfect for this year’s entry. I’m rereading all of Ian Rankin’s series.
The adventures of Caimh McDonnell’s Corkonian detective Bunny McGarry, in Ireland and in the US in The Quiet Man are tightly plotted, hilarious, and offer the vicarious pleasure, acute this year, of seeing the deserving walloped with a hurley.
More seriously, I’m preparing for the longer haul by reading American Contagions: Epidemics and the Law from Smallpox to COVID-19: John Fabian Witt’s new book may be the earliest to engage the legal challenges we’ll encounter.