It’s that time of the year again, when everyone is posting their “Best Books of the Year” lists. And few places do it better that The Millions, who ask authors to name their favorite books of the ending year.
Here’s a round-up of our titles in The Millions’s lists:
If this is reminiscent of War and Peace, it should be; Grossman, a war correspondent who visited the front as often as he could and shared as much as he could of the soldiers’ lives, carried a copy with him and read it constantly, and he was deliberately creating a counterpart to Tolstoy’s epic. A foolish undertaking, you might think, but he pulled it off. His huge novel has nothing in common with the modernist works that stand beside it on the shelf of twentieth-century Russian masterpieces, Bely’s Petersburg and Olesha’s Envy [also published by NYRB Classics] and Nabokov’s The Gift; there are no magical interludes or language games or hidden messages, just a well-told tale of an extended family caught up in circumstances beyond their, or anyone’s, control.
But two books left the deepest impression on me in the year almost past. Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling was first published in 1966 and reissued in 2009 by NYRB Classics. Set in the Pacific Northwest, it’s about gambling, drinking, prison, and an unlikely but believably rendered relationship between two unlucky men. It’s a hard-boiled existentialist novel, and ultimately unlike any other I’ve read.
One of my favorite novels is Skylark, by the great Hungarian writer Dezso Kosztolányi (1885–1936). Thus I was very happy, earlier this year, to see New Directions bring out the first English translation of Kosztolányi’s final novel, Kornél Esti, and I’ve finally gotten round to reading it. Esti lacks the tightly plotted economy of Skylark, in which every word is perfect — in fact it’s hardly a novel at all, but a group of loosely linked, peripatetic stories that proceed from birth toward death, and the stories aren’t really stories but a high-concept mix of urban legends, folk tales, and sitcom premises — the German university president who can only sleep during lectures; the heroic life-saver who thereafter becomes a terrible nuisance; the kleptomaniac who steals words from books. Like Skylark, it’s a tender comedy tinged with the absurdity of life, the thrill of sociability, and the imminence of death, which I guess is exactly the kind of book I like.
Justice, humility, self-deception, degradation, grace, the acquisition of some small wisdom, and the complex relationships between them are among the matters that are explored, with great subtlety, over the course of Clarence’s journey, but no description of the book’s content nor speculation on its purposes can begin to suggest the pleasure of reading it. This resides in the author’s wit, charm, finesse, and originality, and in his elegant, vividly imagistic prose, gorgeous even in translation from its original French, shining and breathing with vitality.