It began with death, and ended with death. My reading and re-reading for 2015, that is. Forbidding though that sounds, there is much to savour in what I encountered on the page.
The Magic Mountain started it. The world’s migrant crises and last week’s terror attack on Paris were months away when again I took up Thomas Mann’s 1924 classic. But that Europe was on the cusp of something big – renegotiation of integration, sundry secessionism, disintegration – was not in doubt. The multiculturalism and pluralism that the European project valued and fostered was threatened. And Germany was behaving once more with swaggering hubris, handing out edicts to Greece, among other European Union nations, all from an assumed moral high ground (which collapsed in the wake of Volkswagen’s knavery).
Who better than Mann to show the folly of certain European ways of thinking, being and behaving? And, after the Paris slaughter, I turned to the following:
“No,” Naptha went on. “Liberation and development of the individual are not the key to our age, they are not what our age demands. What it needs, what it wrestles after, what it will create – is Terror.” (From the chapter Of the City of God, and Deliverance by Evil.)
Naptha is the Jew-turned-Jesuit who stands dialectically opposed to Settembrini, the Italian humanist intellectual. Their cerebral fencing reminds one that novels of ideas and ideals are in short supply these days and that readers are the poorer for it.
Kent Haruf was a master at examining the triumphs and tragedies of human existence.
A year ago, my favourite American writer, Kent Haruf, died at 71. His last novel, Our Souls at Night (Picador, 2015), is touching, elegiac, economical. There’s not a sliver of fat in Haruf’s prose; he makes JM Coetzee and Cormac McCarthy seem voluptuaries. There is a simple, affecting social contract at the heart of Our Souls: two elderly people, bereft of spouses and families, alone in their houses, strike up an arrangement to keep each other company at night. To sleep in the same bed, if not to sleep together in the popular sense.
As Addie says to Louis: “I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?”
Haruf is the chronicler of so-called ordinary people in life, in love, and facing death. His penultimate novel, Benediction (Picador, 2013), is about a retired family man’s last summer of dignity, regret and quiet strength.
That gentle resolve, a no-fuss way of going through life and death, set me, of course, to re-reading Margaret Craven’s I Heard the Owl Call My Name (1967). There, she writes of the doomed young Catholic priest, Father Mark: “For a time he had been part of it, one of the small unknown men who take their stand in some remote place, and fight out their battle in a quiet way.”
You could say that what Haruf and Craven do in fiction is to bolster the work for the “common man” of those two great historians EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm. Thompson believed that historians should save “ordinary people” from “the enormous condescension of posterity”; he did, as did Hobsbawm.
In that vein, it was rich to discover A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler (Picador, 2015), translated from the German by Charlotte Collins. Seethaler is as laconic and spare as his protagonist Andreas Egger, a manual labourer, who lives one of those small lives that in reality are big in their courage, self-reliance and intimations of mortality – and of immortality.
For once, a publisher’s blurb does not misrepresent the book it describes. Part of this one runs: “It is about finding dignity and solace in solitude, the value of silence, and the honesty of work. It is about the beauty of the world around us and the power of nature.”
It is, so valuably, about the essential rather than just the existential. Seethaler has the eye and ear of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), those two minstrels of social revolution and working-class people. He tells an epic in just 124 pages (designed and printed ragged right, so shorter even), as Leadbelly and Guthrie could in brief songs such as Sylvie and I Ain’t Got No Home respectively.
Not since Beat (yes, Beat) Sterchi’s The Cow (Faber and Faber, 1988), translated by Michael Hoffman (the unrivalled renderer into English of Joseph Roth), have I come across a work so unflinching in fronting the perpetual and unremitting verities of human life. (The Cow was described by the late Seamus Heaney as a “de profundis of the cattle-sheds”.)
Vanity, as much as verity, is at the core of H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Vintage, 2014). Lauded and garlanded (Costa Book of the Year; Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction), it demanded to be read. It’s also about death – that of her father and how it affected her deeply and, at one point, apparently irretrievably.
That the author had bones to pick with TH White added to the appeal. White, other than being the author of The Sword in the Stone and the later The Once and Future King, which grew out of the Stone, was a failed falconer (which he told of in The Goshawk). Macdonald quotes reams from White, at least partly to show just how much better she is at gentling her goshawk, Mabel. At some point I thought that perhaps the White estate should lay claim to a portion of the royalties of H is for Hawk, so much do the words and thoughts and miserable failures of the well-meaning TH appear.
Critics abroad have observed, with seeming satisfaction, that Macdonald is far superior at this hawking business than was the bumbling schoolmaster White. But the claim made in at least one British broadsheet that she is a better prose stylist is absurd.
And, when it comes to saying goodbye to their respective birds, White was forlorn when Gos flew off; Macdonald sent Mabel to a breeding programme (presumably when Mabel’s remedial magic in Macdonald’s bereavement was no longer needed). It is reasonable to say that Macdonald’s book does not make it into my D is for Death classics.