Rather than compile a list of my ‘best’ books of 2014 , I thought I would write a short piece about two ‘box sets’ I have read this year and which have had a massive impact on me.
Both of them are translated fiction which is interesting as I don’t tend to read much fiction in translation. I do read a lot of Francophone fiction, which of course includes Canadian and African fiction, but I read that in the original.
One of my choices is by an enigmatic woman and the other by a man now famous for letting it all hang out so that is quite a nice balance , as it happens!
The Neopolitan Series by Elena Ferrante :trans Anne Goldstein
These tell the story of Lena and Lila born into the Neopolitan slums just after the second world war. Three volumes are currently available in English, a fourth volume is to be published in Italian in early 2015 with , hopefully, the English translation following towards the end of the year.
Why are they so compelling ? Ferrante creates a ghetto that you can almost smell and taste, the characters fizz with life. Lila and Lila are the two central figures but many of the other characters reappear throughout the narrative , all caught in the web which pulls both women back to the neighbourhood they try to escape.
Ferrante explores the tensions and the joys of a female friendship. She also looks at the political history of Italy in the late 20th Century, still reeling from WW2, and the impact of feminist thinking on the lives of women during that time.
Ferrante herself refuses all interviews and very little is known of her personal circumstances. There has even been speculation in the Italian press that “she” is in fact a male writer. Ferrante herself remains impassive :
I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors.If they have something to say, they will sooner or later find readers; if not, they won’t.
My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard : trans Don Bartlett
In terms of self publicity, Knausgaard is about as far away from Ferrante as you can get.His six volume opus, ironically titled Min Kamp in Norwegian, has been a publishing sensation in his native country, although the writer now lives in Sweden, and throughout the world.
So far only three volumes are available in English with the fourth expected in Spring 2015.
I am going to see Knausgaard at Foyles in January 2015 and I expect I will have more to say after that ; I did, however, listen to a recording of an interview with him over the summer. In it he described how he decided that instead of taking things out when writing fiction, he wanted to see what would happen if you left it all in.The novels are all finely crafted but the minutiae of life is recorded. As well as bringing him unexpected fame, the novels have also brought Knausgaard into conflict with his family as he describes his father’s descent into alcoholism, violence, his own marital problems as well as his wife’s mental illness with an almost brutal honesty. What results is a modern day Scandi Proust.
Books 1 and 3 are very bleak, but I hadn’t expected the humour in Book 2. I defy anyone who has had small children to care for not to recognise something of themselves in those pages. Karl Ove adores his kids but describes his battle to cope with the every day grind and drudgery of life at home with small children when he is a stay-at-home parent. Eventually he conquers his own resistance and surrenders to domesticity.
What had once irked me, walking through town with a buggy, was now history, forgotten and outlandish, as I pushed a shabby buggy with three children on board around the streets, often with two or three shopping bags dangling from one hand, deep furrows carved in my brow and down my cheeks, and eyes that burned with a vacant ferocity I had long lost any contact with. I no longer bothered about the potentially feminised nature of what I did; now it was a question of getting the children to wherever we had to go, with no sit-down strikes or refusals to go any further or any other ideas they could dream up to thwart my wishes for an easy morning or afternoon.Once a crowd of Japanese tourist stopped on the other side of the street and pointed at me, as though I were the ringmaster of some circus parade or something. They pointed. There you can see a Scandinavian man! Look ,and tell your grandchildren what you saw!
There goes a Scandinavian man has become a catchphrase in our family !
Whilst Ferrante and Knausgaard have been the outstanding reads for me during 2014, I feel I must give an honourable mention to the Cazalet series by Elizabeth Jane Howard who died in January 2014.
The books follow the lives of the Cazalet family from just after WW1 through to 1958. Martin Amis has credited Howard,his step-mother, with encouraging him to read more seriously and become a writer.
I came to EJH late , only starting the series after reading her obituaries. Whilst I think it is fair to say that some volumes are stronger than others, I was swept up in the lives of the family, their hopes, love affairs and treacheries. Much social change is recorded too and I wished I had discovered the books earlier as they were a window into the world in which my parents grew up and gave me a greater understanding of some of their anxieties. I dreaded starting All Change as I knew that would finally be the end of a fantastic journey.
Happy New Year and happy reading in 2015 !