I passed the early months of 2020 lockdown reading at a considerable rate, though this dropped off somewhat after the initial relaxation of restrictions. Overall, last year I read around forty-five books — for those who read little, this is an unimaginable figure, and for those who are true bookworms, this is a paltry display. In any case, it’s a large enough pool from which to choose ten favourites.
10. If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino
Ever since reading Calvino’s tiny story “The Black Sheep” in a Junior Certificate English textbook, I’ve wanted to visit the strange world of this Italian writer. His first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders (1957), was a work of quite straightforward realism, set in a mountainous area of Italy during the Second World War. Calvino had participated in the Italian Resistance, and in the immediate postwar years, he and other anti-fascist writers felt the need to write the Italian For Whom the Bell Tolls. Published twenty-two years later, Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller bears no resemblance to his youthful efforts. Its deconstruction of the experience of reading is postmodernist style at its finest, as chapters alternate between a second-person narration that inveigles the reader into the labyrinthine tale, and a a third-person narration that communicates an increasingly bizarre series of tales. The plot is anchored by you, the “Reader”, and the “Other Reader”, Ludmilla, as the pair attempt to find a complete copy of a novel that they began reading at the start of this story. Each time they find a book which promises to be the original version, confusion ensues when a new story emerges. In this nested manner, Calvino depicts the manner in which “[r]eading is going toward something that is about to be, and no one yet knows what it will be…” It is a book that defies explanation or summary, and it’s unsurprising that David Mitchell cites it as a key influence. Twenty years before the Internet became mainstream, If on a Winter’s Night is the most meta of experiences.
9. Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert
If Calvino’s novel is the pinnacle of postmodernist literature, Madame Bovary is the flagship of literary realism. It charts the downfall of the eponymous character, as she becomes bored with her tedious life married to a country doctor, and seeks drama and excitement in a series of secret affairs which, of course, bring only ruin and misery to her and her family. In its depiction of scandalous activity, and its psychological core, Flaubert’s novel presages several key elements of twentieth-century modernism. What grounds it in the nineteenth century, however, is Flaubert’s accurate and detailed representation of French rural life, with all its distinctive personalities: the doctor Charles Bovary, the merchant Lheureux, the pharmacist Homais. Madame Bovary is a towering influence on modern literature, perhaps most obviously on Henry James’s A Portrait of a Lady, yet unlike some classics it is not an onerous read. As with any translated works, it is impossible to shake the sensation that you are missing out on a great deal, but nonetheless the story shines through with all its pathos and tragedy.
8. Blindness by José Saramago
In my work as an English language teacher, prior to the lockdown, I encountered many Brazilians, and several of them mentioned this as their favourite book. This, combined with its apocalyptic premise, made it an ideal choice for the early days of the pandemic. Saramago’s book centres on a single idea: what happens if there is an infectious disease that turns everyone blind? The ensuing tale is both quite similar and very different from what one may expect. The obligatory civilisational collapse and rule of violence plays out, yet Saramago’s choice of setting for the bulk of the novel’s action is surprising, and sets it apart from your typical end-of-the-world tale. The style is clear, simple, but distinctive: no character receives a name, but is each identified by some key characteristic, such as the man known only as the doctor, who is the first to discover the existence of the ocular disease. Blindness is, to an extent, a very obvious book. The messages behind its premise and developments are more or less predictable, and it does not require the exertion of very much interpretative muscle to grasp Saramago’s intention. This creates a sense of inevitability, and at times the unfolding of events appears to be a tad mechanical, for Saramago admits so little ambiguity. Nonetheless, in his execution of his idea, and his evocation of a series of chilling, non-cliched images, Saramago offers an unforgettable contribution to world literature. And, indeed, perhaps the book is justified by one line alone, one of the finest comments on the power of imagery that I have read: “Images don’t see, You’re wrong, images see with the eyes of those who see them.”
7. The Cold War: A World History by Odd Arne Westad
Back when I was feeling more enthusiastic, I actually wrote a review of this one, which says everything intelligent I can muster on the matter: https://medium.com/@calvinduffy/review-the-cold-war-a-world-history-by-odd-arne-westad-f2ef7203b46e
6. A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev by Vladislav M. Zubok
I spent several months in 2020 trying to decide whether or not I wanted to do a PhD on Cold War history, and this was one of the tomes I trawled during that journey. Published by the Russian history Zubok in 2007, it is a must-read for anyone interested in the Soviet side of the Cold War. Rather than the partial judgments of US historians with limited access to Soviet archives, limited Russian skills, or an inevitable skewed perspective one way or the other, Zubok’s is a work founded in solid archival research and first-hand knowledge of the cultural milieu of Soviet Russia. Stalin was a monstrous figure, yet the professional historian’s job is not to moralise, and Zubok deals with Stalin primarily as a statesman. Brezhnev comes in for more criticism that might be found amongst those US historians who praise his role in promoting detente, but the book’s objectivity breaks down somewhat when it reaches Gorbachev, whom Zubok clearly considers quite naive. It is a long read, and somewhat unforgiving on a structural level, but essential.
5. Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History by Richard J. Evans
Even non-historians have heard of Hobsbawm, which speaks to his immense fame and influence: after all, historians do not exactly form a large proportion of those whom we call “public intellectuals”. Published in 2019, by the prominent historian of Nazi Germany, Richard J. Evans, this biography is exhaustive, covering every public moment of Hobsbawm’s life from his first lectures to his final victory-lap appearances at literary festivals. The first half of the book is the more interesting one, in its description of Hobsbawm’s formation, his development as an historian, and the environment in which he moved, at universities and elsewhere. Apart from anything else, it shows what you must do, and who you must be, to be a great historian — and it’s exhausting. The second half, especially the last quarter, becomes somewhat tedious, as it recounts Hobsbawm’s endless movements from teaching post to teaching post; and there’s no doubt that the story becomes less exciting when Hobsbawm’s last marriage concludes his romantic escapades. Trivia aside, however, it is a fitting tribute to one of the most far-reaching historians of the twentieth century, and provides insight into the sort of life that is more often hidden behind tradition.
4. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
David Mitchell is most famous for his 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, a remarkable work that was adapted for the screen with relative success in 2012. In 2020, his new book Utopia Avenue received quite mixed reviews. His 2010 novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, however, is much less oft-cited, which is a shame, because it is probably his finest work. Set at Dejima, a Dutch trading post off the coast of Japan, during the late 18th century, Mitchell’s novel follows the fortunes of de Zoet, as he struggles to advance himself through the Dutch East India Company so that he can return home and marry his beloved. His plans are, of course, ruined by real life, and when he falls for a mysterious Japanese woman, he finds himself drawn deeper and deeper into a dangerous sequence of events. Mitchell spent four years researching the novel, and it shows: the sense of atmosphere is tremendous on all levels, and the interweaving of personal and political narratives is very effective. Mitchell is a visual writer, and this novel, like his others, builds to a climax better than many Hollywood movies. Indeed, it’s a real shame that the book hasn’t been adapted, though not surprising, as it would take a considerable budget to render Mitchell’s vision on-screen.
3. Dune by Frank Herbert
Perhaps it makes me a basic bro, but my favourite contemporary director is Denis Villenueve, and when I saw the trailer for his latest film, Dune, I had to read the book. Herbert’s novel, released in 1965, is a landmark work in science-fiction, influencing other such minor works as Star Wars. Indeed, Lucas did more than make passing references: Dune’s magical nun warrior-class, the Bene Gesserit, lack only the lightsabers of their Jedi counterparts, the protagonist Paul Atreides is a Chosen One of the highest order, and both fictional universes contain a valuable, illicitly-smuggled substance referred to as spice, though it is much more important in Dune than in Star Wars. Apart from the arcane worldbuilding, however, Dune is a truly literary book, filled with passages of prose to which modern-day fantasy writers can only aspire. It is a work imbued with legend, poetry, a sense of time and space across untold expanses, and yet these grand elements rarely overshadow the personal journey of Paul Atreides, from a young boy learning to be his father’s heir, to a man possessed with unconscionable power. I also read two of the sequels, and was increasingly disappointed with both, but the achievement of Dune cannot be undermined.
2. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Fragmentation, time-jumps, shifting perspectives, and a sense of regret and disillusionment are some of the distinguishing features of 21st century literature, at least from my limited exposure to it. These elements are so common that I can no longer think of them as formal innovations or even clever devices, but rather just part of the fashion. Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything, which I also read this year, represented an especially dull iteration of these methods. Egan’s book, however, released in 2010, draws on all these features and makes them interesting. In some ways, it is more like a collection of short stories than a novel, because each chapter is a different tale about a character connected in some way to music producer Bennie Salazar. These tales include such varying exploits as a PR guru’s attempts to rehabilitate a military dictator, and an art historian’s search for his missing niece in an Italian town. The central figure, though she does not appear at all in several of the tales, is Sasha, one-time PA to Bennie, a woman with a dark past and considerable sexual charisma, at least as far as the men around her are concerned. Her experiences embody the theme that guides all the stories in the book: the sense that the life you wanted is slipping away, to be replaced by something lesser and more degrading, and the question of what you are going to do about it. Some of Egan’s characters admit defeat, some do not, and it is those who retain their self-belief that maintain their dignity.
1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Yet another landmark work on this list, and another from the 60s: 1967, in particular. In abstract, it follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the Buendía family across a century, through war, pestilence, riches, and poverty. More than any other book on this list, it is beyond explanation or summary. It contains all of life, such that Joyce would have been jealous. Above all, it offers a sense of deep time, the sort of thing Fernand Braudel wanted to achieve. To read this book is to get some idea of how each person carries within them all of their ancestors and all that they carried. The question is whether we, like Aureliano Babilonia, “[are] unable to bear in [our] soul[s] the crushing weight of so much past.”