The first real stand-out read of the year was The Little Russian by Susan Sherman (Counterpoint), a debut novel which was so accomplished it felt like a mid-career high. Authors like Hilary Mantel and Emma Donoghue are doing wonders to re-galvanize interest in the historical novel, but Sherman’s contribution deserves merit for focusing on less well-trodden terrain, namely the Ukraine and its bloody suffering at the beginning of the last century. There are no real stylistic tricks on offer, simply good old-fashioned storytelling.
On the other hand, Hari Kunzru displayed ample literary dexterity in Gods Without Men (Knopf), a multistoried mind-bending adventure that has (justifiably) drawn comparisons with the works of David Mitchell. Kunzru caused a literary splash with his first novel, The Impressionist, and just seems to get better and better.
I was pleased to discover that NYRB Classics was releasing another book by the ever-beguiling Robert Walser. Berlin Stories is a misnomer—the book is rather a collection of articles which Walser wrote during his short but eventful stay in the German capital—but we can’t fault the content. It was particularly interesting for me as I currently call Berlin home, and most of Walser’s shrewd observations still hold true today.
Another impressive non-fiction title was Masha Gessen’s The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (Riverhead). Stuffed full of facts, anecdotes and bitter truths, this is crucial reading for anyone interested in modern Russia and its democratic disintegration. It is also a masterclass in journalism. Gessen wrote this expose while based in Russia, and continues to live there; we should applaud not only her indefatigable research but also her immense bravery.
Finally, I managed to find time for something less contemporary. 2012 was the 200th birthday of Dickens but also the centenary of Death in Venice. I shunned the Dickens hullaballoo for Mann and at long last read his masterly novella. Mann’s star has fallen in recent years. Readers are put off by his supposedly starchy style and bouts of prolixity. Worse, Death in Venice is a turn off for a hysterical minority who reduce its plot to its bare bones (elderly man falls in love with young boy), recoil and reach instead for Lolita (at least Nabokov had the sense to make his novel of child-love a pitch-black comedy). It should go without saying that Death in Venice is no apologia for anything unsavory, and Mann’s prose is compelling, beautiful and entirely stodge-free.