Friday, February 1, 2013

2012 In Review

It’s February already? Perhaps it’s past time for an end of 2012 post, but here’s one anyway. Whether a reader may share in the pleasure I take in looking over what I read last year I can only surmise from my own enjoyment of others’ similar recaps.

In addition to the mysterious internal algorithms that took me from one book to the next, I am indebted to the enthusiasm of other bloggers, who’ve led me to many new discoveries over the past year. I am particularly grateful for having been tipped off to one such work, Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters, which came along to offer a glorious, ribald ray of sunshine at an opportune moment. Sparkling with charmingly poor spelling and grammatical errors, Ashford’s 1919 novella manages to make such faults uplifting, as are the unusual turns of phrase and wildly irrational events concocted by the precocious mind of its nine-year-old author. My own nine-year-old goddaughter is now paying the price for Miss Ashford’s 105 pages of audacity: I have impressed upon her that I expect great things – poems, stories, novels, vast epics – and not simply these occasional, anodyne pleasantries hurriedly scribbled on a holiday card.

I began 2012 with There Came a Stranger, by good friend and former children’s book author Louisa Mae Johnston, who dragged out a dusty, decades-old manuscript once rejected by Harlequin Romances for being “too realistic” and reworked it to ratchet up the realism (take that, Harlequin philistines). By setting her romance among central Florida’s destroyed orange groves during a winter freeze, Louisa has created a haunting sense of atmosphere. This is a shameless plug. Buy her book. Born a mere handful of years after Daisy Ashford's book was first published, Louisa is now well along on a third novel, with the second undergoing final edits.

I ended the year with Irmgard Keun’s 1937 novel After Midnight, a surprising perspective on Germany being transformed by Nazism as viewed through the eyes of a young sybarite juggling party preparations and the man problems of her girlfriends against the looming background of encroaching totalitarianism and terrifying injustices. In shorthand, I’ve come to think of the book as Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories meets Anita Loos’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Nothing in the least uncharitable should be inferred from that; this was an unusual and memorable novel.

In between, 2012 provided a wealth of great books. Here, in rough order, are my top 15:


Celestina, by Fernando Rojas (Peter Bush, translator)


Little Dorrit, by Charles Dickens


Kaputt, by Curzio Malaparte (Cesare Foligno, translator)

All the Names, by José Saramago  (Margaret Jull Costa, translator)

René Leys, by Victor Segalen (J.A. Underwood, translator)

The Queen’s Tiara, by Jonas Love Almqvist (Paul Britten Austin, translator)


My Struggle, Book One, by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Don Bartlett, translator)


The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño (Natasha Wimmer, translator)

Ciné-Ville, by Ramón Gómez de la Serna (Marcelle Auclair, translator)

Kyra Kyralina, by Panaït Istrati (Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno, translator)

Les couleurs d’infamie, by Albert Cossery

Memoirs of a Revolutionary, by Victor Serge (Peter Sedgwick and George Paizis, translators)

After Midnight, by Irmgard Keun (James Cleugh, translator)

Honorable mentions go to Jerôme Férrari’s Le sermon sur la chute de Rome, Angel Ganivet’s La Conquête du Royaume de Maya, John Williams’ Butcher’s Crossing, John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle, Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child, the poetry of Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe, Richard Zimler’s The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World, Enrique Vila-Matas’ Never Any End to Paris, and a trio of Cesar Aira’s small, delicious bon-bons: The Seamstress and the Wind, Ghosts, and, especially, Les Larmes.

The remarkably few books that I either did not particularly like or that left me indifferent I won’t mention here other than as an affirmation, continuing into 2013, of William Faulkner’s suggestion that we “Read, read, read. Read everything.”


  1. That is some impressive list of titles!

    After Midnight does sound fascinatingly different and out of the box.

  2. The recap may be belated but it's much appreciated. It appears to be a solid year of books from Europe.

  3. Thank you for this. 'Celestina' is next on my list and your review from July has me anticipating it even more than I have been.

  4. a stunning list I myself am just reading the diary of a man in despair ,all the best stu

  5. I'm looking forward to reading the Knausgaard very soon - delighted to see it featuring on your excellent list.

  6. Brian - After Midnight would, I think, be an essential document of the Nazi period even if it weren't such a good novel - but it's that too. Highly recommended.

    Rise - I hadn't noticed how Euro-centric I'd been! One work in my top 15 that's from outside Europe (at least I ranged a bit further afield with some of the other works I read).

    R. R. - I'm glad to hear my Celestina post has encouraged you to read it. The Bush translation is really essential, I think. He does a very good job of explaining, in the preface, the flaws of some earlier translation approaches.

    Stu- Thanks - I look forward to reading your thoughts about Diary of a Man in Despair - I almost put that at the very top of the list.

    litlove - Knausgaard is just stunning. His novel A Time for Everything was certainly among the best contemporary novels I've read in years. I'm chomping at the bit for Book Two of My Struggle to come out this spring.

  7. Daisy Ashford, all right! Interesting list all around. Maybe I should drop my plans and read your list. Well, that is unlikely, but it would still be a good idea.

    1. Tom - No, no - please read other books. I count on you to bring me news of works I haven't read. I really am indebted, as The Young Visiters could not have come along at a better time.

      I'm just now reading Elizabeth Taylor's Angel, and would not be surprised to learn that the opening chapter was modeled after Daisy Ashford. A bored 16-year-old writes a novel - The Lady Irania - peppered with bad spelling and grammar, and which to her great consternation is received with gales of laughter (among other things, one of her characters opens a bottle of champagne with a corkscrew).

  8. I bought the Queen's Tiara on your rec and have The Diary of a Man in Despair to read (will get to it soon), so some of our paths will cross

    1. Guy - I hope you like The Queen's Tiara - it's in a category of its own. I'm eager to see other responses to Diary of a Man in Despair, now that it's just been re-released by NYRB.

  9. Seraillon, you had a great year and read many fine books, and I've enjoyed reading your thoughts on them. That's why I've decided to award you the Blog of the year award:

    1. Miguel - Thanks! How very kind of you! It's a real honor coming from someone who keeps up such a carefully researched and written, insightful and revealing blog as yours. I'm much indebted for the appreciation and encouragement.