If food is the only dependable pleasure, then reading is the one true consolation, offering both immediate escape and a longer narrative arc that suggests how today’s shocks and swerves ultimately become the story. Also, on the whole, fiction has as its meat human characters – or artful approximations of them, anyway – and so little patience for ideas of perfectibility or progress.
That said, I hope to go straight from anger over the referendum to grim acceptance, bypassing grief and sorrow. But here is something from someone with his emotions less defensively expressed, a former infantry officer shocked not just by the result but the depth of his sadness at it:
“Security is not police, soldiers and border checks. It is social cohesion, education and equality – our society is global now and stepping away from that can only be damaging to the things that deliver long-term security.”
Here are some of the books I’ve read in the past six months that I unreservedly recommend for summer-reading. And they’re not even all fiction.
The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig
For those who haven’t already read this classic memoir of a Jewish Viennese intellectual who lost everything – family, home, culture, books, hope – in World War II, it feels like the book of our own historic moment. Zweig describes what it is to grow up comfortable, refined and secure and then be expelled by fascism and war from everything you know and love. Yes, war happens to clever middle class people, too.
Zweig’s father and grandfather “lived their lives in a single, direct way … spent all their days in the same country, the same city, usually even in the same house.” Such wars as they experienced were short or far away. But Zweig’s generation, born at the end of the nineteenth century “lived through everything without ever returning to our former lives, nothing was left of them, nothing was restored. It was for our generation to experience, to the highest degree, events that history usually bestows sparingly on a single land over a whole century.”
History is something we like to read about but would prefer to experience as little as possible of. So it is just a little sickening that we in the still-peaceful countries must now actively coach ourselves to not consign those whose homelands have been incinerated to some frightening, plague-like category of ‘other’.
So be it. If all a book does is hammer into our core the realisation that ‘this could be me’, then it’s almost enough. What it can’t do is direct or encourage what we do with that knowledge. That is up to us. Read Zweig. Then think about what is called for.
Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel
As a child, I carefully planned how long my family could survive in the only room in the house two doors from the outside, when the nuclear apocalypse happened. On train journeys, I studied the landscape for easily defensible farmhouses away from main roads. I was pretty clear that when the worst happened, it would be us against the world and our best bet was to wait things out. I now think that instincts don’t make good tactics, and it would be better to stay on the move.
Mandel’s novel of a global pandemic describes the last, perfect moments of our civilisation, when a Hollywood has-been plays Lear to a well-got Toronto audience. Then comes disaster, and then straight to Year Twenty when a band of actors and minstrels performs Shakespeare to settlements around the Great Lakes. Their motto is ‘survival is insufficient’. Station Eleven is a rarity; it has goes backwards and forward in time in a way that drives the intricate plot as opposed to just mildly frustrating the reader with the artful with-holding of information. But what makes this novel special is how some people – and not just the raving preacher villain – thrive. Plenty of post-apocalypse stories show the randomness of future people picking over our cultural bones, but this one shows that even when, per Zweig, nothing is restored, people can still be tolerably happy and good. Which is as much as any of us can say.
Diane Cook, Man V Nature
Man V Nature, on the other hand, is clearly dystopic. It’s a short story collection that takes as read your familiarity with the many different kinds of extrapolated human hell – misogynist dystopias, climate change ones, resource wars, alien monsters, just having too many boys – and focuses on one or two characters trying to survive. No clever world-building here. Just weirdness and familiarity blended, George Saunders style. Or maybe Kelly Link, but shorter, stranger and less cute.
You just know this one is coming …
Francis Spufford, Golden Hill*
Friend of CT, Francis Spufford, has written a novel, and oh what a novel it is. And this one is about beginnings and not endings, as my other recommendations have been so far. Golden Hill takes the Stranger Comes to Town plot, puts it in deeply royalist early New York and delivers the goods in a Fielding-like picaresque. It is a timely reminder of the basic purpose of stories, to give pleasure.
If I had to describe Golden Hill in one word, I’d say ‘Whee!’. It is just so much fun. The odd time I’d break the spell and try to think about how it was made, I pictured Francis sitting in a cafe in Cambridge, giggling to himself and drinking too much coffee. But Golden Hill also has uncomfortable things to say about identity and slavery, neither of which may be ego-stroking for New Yorkers. Funny and whimsical and fast-moving though it is, Golden Hill is also about the real consequences of people playing the game far from home where the stakes only seem lower. This book is flying out the door of my local bookshop in London and I hope our US and other friends get to enjoy it soon.
Shelley Harris, Vigilante
Shelley Harris’ second novel, Vigilante, is about a woman who used to be someone and now is ‘just a mother’ of a teenage girl, and who works in a charity bookshop in a provincial English town. It’s about the moment in her forties when a woman finds out that if she has no claim to status apart from her apparently diminishing sex appeal, she is nobody. There are some fantastically biting exchanges that illustrate this, including one at a parent-teacher meeting where the teacher can only imagine having a conversation with the father.
‘I’m a designer,’ said Elliot.
‘I run—‘ I began, but Mr Grafton was already saying, ‘Wonderful! What do you design?’
And just like that I was ejected from the conversation. I waited for the usual feelings to march in and got ready to subdue them. I waited to feel small, to feel livid.’
But she doesn’t get small and angry, because a few nights previously the heroine – and if ever there was a heroine… – has inadvertently become a crime-fighter in a super hero costume on her way to a fancy-dress party.
Vigilante is ostensibly about a violent rapist in a market town, and also about the one thing more frightening that aging out of the male gaze, your daughter aging into it.
Vigilante is every bit as funny as it is sharp with insight, the kind of book that has you nodding angrily as you chuckle. Above all, it is about the seething fury of ‘self defence’, where women are told be small, don’t fight, seek help, hope the attacker gets bored or tired and, as we have for millennia and with mixed results, wait for rescue. Vigilante’s heroine puts herself in the way of male violence, and laughs most of the way to the slightly chastened end. Cannot recommend this one enough.
Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier
Harry Parker, who wrote the essay I quoted at the beginning, has also written a semi-autobiographical novel about what happens when you step on an IED as a soldier in a war in a country like but not actually Afghanistan. It’s removed but also visceral. It has to be. The story is told from the viewpoint of inanimate objects, a bit like The Things They Carried, but here the device is used to blow up the story and make it not just be about ‘us’, but also ‘them’, and to largely disintegrate any idea of an accumulating plot.
The objects – including a handbag, a desert boot, a woven rug, a wheelchair, a blood transfusion, a prosthetic leg – tell of their encounters with the soldier protagonist or the local characters in a strangely affectless way. It is only obliquely that you can approach what we take for truth, or at least the necessity of telling what happened. It’s not just British under-statement that means the most moving scene in the book, when the soldier’s father visits him in hospital and shaves off many weeks of beard, has to be told from the point of view of the razor.
Previous generations of soldier-writers have tried to communicate the reality of war, many with the aim of encouraging our leaders to unleash it less brutally or less often. The inability of language to express our most extreme human experience has been met by work-arounds; Kate McLoughlin, in The Cambridge Companion to War-Writing, says writers use techniques like hesitation, amendment and restatement, and delay. Parker does all this and adds a few of his own tricks. But the most important thing he demolishes is the idea of a hero.
His soldier, BA5799, doesn’t lead his men back to camp with a mere field dressing round his arm. He is carried off the battlefield, biting and whimpering for release. The signature injury of our recent wars is not a John Wayne gunshot wound but the bloody, muddy mess explosives wreak on the lower body. Anatomy of a Soldier shows how terrifying it is to keep going out on patrol every day, and to live in a world where the soldiers giving your kids sweets are also responsible for their violent deaths. No one is a hero. The medical staff are often wonderful but sometimes just a bit crap, and in ways that can kill you.
The UK has only a couple of soldier-writers of fiction about the recent wars, unlike the US, which has many. This is down to more than the relative size of the countries’ armed forces. Much contemporary US war writing is about the impossibility of homecoming. Mutual incomprehension and alienation of civilians and soldiers is the overwhelming theme, whether it’s Phil Klay’s short stories, Redeployment, or David Finkel’s nonfiction, Thank You For Your Service. But for reasons I don’t understand, that feeling doesn’t seem so strong in the UK. Maybe British soldiers just never expected to be understood.
Read this book knowing that our innate need to write about war, to tell each other what really happened, is soaked in the bloody evidence that wider knowledge of war’s ugly truths has never been able to stop it.
For my own summer reading, I’m having a go at Felix ‘It Ain’t Middlemarch’ Holt, The Radical, George Eliot’s political novel (as if the rest of them aren’t). I’ve also been given the first of the Elena Ferrante books, so I’ll probably have to bow under a few ‘I told you it was great’s once I’m finally on board.
And I’m going to keep chipping away at Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred, about the radicalisation of a girl in 1980s Syria. Hard going. I don’t think there’s a line of dialogue in the whole thing. It’s the inverse of a recent Gene Wolf book, Home Fires, that is almost entirely dialogue and utterly disorienting. Whenever anything is at risk of happening, you fast-forward to some time later when the characters are talking about what may or may not have happened. At first I thought it was clever and post-modern. As it went on, I found it ‘odd, sad and puzzling’.
I know this because I started keeping a book diary this year, with just one line per entry. But already the entries are becoming mysterious. After Mary Wesley’s Not That Kind of Girl, I wrote ‘sticky’. What could that have possibly meant? And on Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier, ‘nature’. Who knows? And this was only April. At least Douglas Copeland’s Worst Person Ever has a simple ‘wretched’ scribbled beside it. You know where you are with one of those.