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12.03.10

The Best of Brit Lit

The editor of the Times Literary Supplement picks great British reads. This week: their unconventional best of the year round up and Philip Larkin’s remarkable letters to his lover.

The TLS has been famed in the past (even sometimes mocked) for the obscurity of the titles chosen by its contributors for our Books of the Year issue. However rare our favored books, however distant and dusty their sources, this annual survey rarely throws up anything approaching consensus even among the better known titles. This year is no exception. Some 60 critics have made individual choices on subjects ranging from the value of art to the overvaluation of sub-prime mortgages, guiding readers to the Capitoline Museum in Rome, the Guggenheim in New York, and to the tougher streets of East Oslo or (Edwardian) Westminster. Some books do find favor with more than one of our writers, including two titles from Ireland, by Seamus Heaney and Colm Tóibín, that promise literary compensation for an otherwise “disastrous year.” The most popular destination by far, however, is fin-de-siècle Vienna, once home to a collection of Japanese netsuke, and one of several locations evoked by Edmund de Waal’s memoir-cum-cultural-inquiry, The Hare with Amber Eyes, chosen by several of our contributors, and described by one as “The book, not only of the year, but of the decade.”

Our sometime New York correspondent, Michael Greenberg, has sent his sometime editor searching for works chosen this year from the Argentine novelist César Aira “who follows a curious writing procedure: What he composes one day cannot be changed the next. La fuga hacia adelante he calls it—the escape forward: The story must move ahead, never backward, forcing him to come up with ever-new ideas and plot twists. The results are apt to be mixed—hit-or-miss confections that rely heavily on chance occurrences and the author’s raw imagination. But the procedure has produced at least one masterpiece: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, a short, unpredictable confection that manages to be both a roaring adventure story and a rumination on the chasm between reality and the reconstruction of reality in a work of art.

Philip Larkin’s Letters to Monica is twice picked as a Book of the Year, and, in the 25th anniversary of the poet’s death, it is given extended consideration by the TLS’s poetry editor, Alan Jenkins. He finds four decades of Larkin avoiding what we might call “commitment,” living out the thought distilled in Aubade that consciousness of death “slows each impulse down to indecision.”

Larkin’s letters to Monica are, Jenkins writes, “seldom performances,” as his letters to Kingsley Amis or Robert Conquest could be. Responding to other critics of the book, Jenkins points out that Monica was not Larkin’s "muse"; she was that much more valuable thing, a sensitive and trusted sounding board. To those for whom Larkin is an invaluable poet, the most thrilling moments here might well be those in which he intimates the first little stirrings of The Whitsun Weddings or An Arundel Tomb or Cut Grass – "O, it was beautiful! And always the rare white of early summer: may, hawthorn, chestnut candles, cowparsley, nettle flowers, so soon lost . . ." (June 8, 1969; the poem would be finished almost exactly two years later). But Monica had first sight of the poems themselves, along with Myxomatosis, Essential Beauty, Solar, Days, Water, Sad Steps.

Plus: Check out Book Beast, for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Peter Stothard's latest book is On the Spartacus Road: A Spectacular Journey Through Ancient Italy. He is also the author of Thirty Days, a Downing Street diary of his time with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during the Iraq war.