A collection of short, brilliant, tragi-comic novels, written by a grandmother who started publishing fiction in her 60s, were the books that I enjoyed most over the past year. Discovering Penelope Fitzgerald felt like being inducted into a secret literary club I didn’t know existed. Fitzgerald isn’t exactly an unknown author – she won and was a finalist for major literary prizes, and she was the subject of a big biography by Hermione Lee a couple of years ago (its rave reviews being how I first heard of Fitzgerald, I think – I also read the biography this year, and it deserves all the praise it received). But, she isn’t necessarily the first name that springs to mind when making a list of the best post-war English novelists (although perhaps she should be). Part of the reason for this gap is that she may be something of an acquired taste. As Lee says in her biography: “Her writing is unsettling, and elusive; her style is plain, compact and subtle. She never shows off. She leaves much unsaid. There is often a sense of something withheld in her novels. She did not like to explain too much: she felt it insulted her readers. She likes to exercise her wit, and she likes her readers to have their wits about them.” Her books are short, understated, demanding – thematically they return again and again to questions of failure and the ways in which “life will not conform.” If I had encountered her novels say, five years ago, I don’t think I would have taken to them the way I did this year. Perhaps one needs a little seasoning in failure and frustration to appreciate Fitzgerald’s art. She also, I think, offers a model for “Christian fiction” (whatever that term is supposed to refer to) that contrasts helpfully with Flannery O’Connor’s “shouting to the deaf” (to paraphrase O’Connor’s famous line regarding the duties of a “novelist with Christian concerns”). Fitzgerald, when describing her work in an interview said, “I have remained true to my deepest convictions, I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?” If funny, challenging, enigmatic novels about lost causes sound like they might be what the doctor ordered, I highly recommend her work. My favorite of her books is The Beginning of Spring, although The Blue Flower may be the most accomplished (and Offshore may cut closest to the bone).
Some other highlights from my reading year (with apologies to all the other very fine books I’ve forgotten entirely, despite the hours I spent turning their pages – I’ve posted notes/reviews of some others elsewhere on the blog):
The Pickwick Papers – The best debut I read this year. Comic Dickens is always the best Dickens – such a lively, energetic, enjoyable book.
The Wild Places – Macfarlane was one of my favorite new discoveries this year. I read this while trapped in the house with a cranky infant, so the appeal of some vicarious wandering and wildness was, perhaps, obvious.
The Essex Serpent – Appealing, clever – a book about friendship and its complications (and also, just how complicated everything can be). Its plot stumbles, but some great characters and characterization of the late Victorian period.
The Karamazov Brothers (reread) – I only reread a couple of books this year, but the one book I did reread was this personal ur-text, which maybe explains why I didn’t feel the need (or possess the necessary energy) to revisit other past literary haunts.
Seveneves – If you sometimes just want pages and pages describing the technical details of orbital mechanics and spacesuits … then this is book you have been waiting for (not usually me, I confess, but I liked it when I read it).
The Elegance of the Hedgehog -Sometimes philosophical novels about the meaning of life are massive international bestsellers for a reason.
Although of Course you End up Becoming Yourself and Lost in the Cosmos – Read them together, like I did. Some enterprising graduate student somewhere is surely at work on a comparative study of David Foster Wallace and Walker Percy.
The Tech-Wise Family and How to Think – The books I have recommended and given most frequently to others over the past few months. Both feel essential for the current moment in their clarity, charity, and wisdom.