Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Best Books of Fiction I Read This Year

I was trying to compile a top 10 list of films that I saw this year but then balked at the idea, after I realised what a huge enterprise that would be. I saw films beginning from January at a rate that would drive any normal person nuts. Most of them were old classics, mostly from Europe. I didn't see many "new" films released in the year although I have tried to make up for it in the last two months. What I didn't do this year was to read a lot of books. But whatever I read was all invariably brilliant. Here's a list of those books:

  1. Hunger by Knut Hamsun: By turns funny and harrowing, this portrait of a young struggling writer slowly losing grips on his mind and reality is unlike anything I have read in a long while. Its like an experimental, avant-garde version of Crime and Punishment, only that there is no crime and no punishment in it but in its feverish evocation of the inner life a tormented character it surpasses even Dostoevsky.
  2. Youth by J M Coetzee: Although far more clinical and objective in its approach, this is no less harrowing than Hunger in its depiction of the portrait of an artist as a young man. In this largely autobiographical tale, Coetzee tells the story of a young computer programmer working to make his ends meet in harsh winters of London. Our hero reads Rilke and Pound, watches the movies of Antonioni and Bergman and in the nights, longs painfully for a female muse who will spark off the artistic fire in him. Nothing like that ever happens of course and the novel ends without any catharsis or closure or any kind of hope in future. This may sound bleak and indeed it is but in its enthralling depiction of the life of the mind, Youth also is remarkably uplifting by showing that art indeed always triumphs over the misery of life.
  3. The Red and the Black by Stendhal: This story of a young and scheming yet romantic and naive social climber who would do anything to get ahead in a society filled with hypocrites, was the biggest literary entertainment of the year for me. There are a few dull pages towards the end, which would be of interest only to students of French history and society in the eighteenth century but overall it is a gripping tale full of romance and intrigue, all served with a most vicious irony and dark humour. I was reading the reviews of Woody Allen's latest film Match Point and the story looks remarkably similar to this book although I suspect the film ends differently.
  4. The Rings of Saturn by W G Sebald: I didn't know whether to put this book under fiction or non-fiction but since the effects it produced in me are generally associated with imaginative fiction--all very mysterious, very difficult to put in words--a mixture of sadness, loneliness and the feeling of being transported to a different time-space realm, I call it a work of fiction even though it is, at least on surface, a book of facts. I had written about the book earlier here. In fact it was my first post on this blog.
  5. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov: I had just finished reading the book when I started this blog in May this year, that's where the 'Zembla' in the title comes from. This story of a mad literary critic, who thinks he is the exiled king of Zembla, the distant northern land, writing 200 page annotation on the 999 line eponymous poem by his friend John Shade, is often hilarious, frequently inscrutable (because of its obscure literary allusions, at least for literary newbies like me) but is always insightful about how literature works. And that poem...brilliant, dark and very funny!
There were few other books too. Immortality by Milan Kundera, Some plays by Ibsen including the classic A Doll's House, Sebald's Vertigo, a few short stories by Nabokov including the brilliant Admiralty Spire, Mario Vargas Llosa's Who Killed Palomino Molero?. Everything was uniformally brilliant. Great entertainment and great education from each single one of them.

That's pretty much all that I read this year in fiction. I wrote about the non-fiction books here.

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