In a year where it seemed like much of the conversation was about very long books — I’m thinking particularly about the series of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novels — my favourite book was a very short one. In fact, the book has something in common with the Knausgaard books, in that it too is a sort of memoir cum novel. The book is William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow. I was in San Francisco on my desultory book tour when it was recommended to me by a friend. Knocking around the city with little to do, I went into City Lights Books and asked for it. They had a single copy, still in print as a Vintage paperback, 135 pages. I knew very little about Maxwell before this and hadn’t read anything else by him, but, after I’d read the book and was still in its thrall, I discovered that friends whose literary taste I respect knew it well, and remembered certain passages from the book with remarkable fidelity. It is that kind of book. Published when Maxwell was in his 70s, it bears on every page the mark of experience, wisdom, and a gentle humility — the consequence of the many mysteries and regrets that comprise a man’s life. At the heart of the book is a murder, a crime of passion committed in a rural Illinois community in the 1920s. Maxwell, a boy at the time, had only a glancing connection to the event, in that he was acquainted with the murderer’s son. But the event haunts him, largely because of a seemingly trivial act of cruelty — barely perceptible — that he visited upon this other boy. Tormented by the memory, Maxwell reimagines the events in the minutest detail, recalling not only his own boyhood self but inhabiting every character related to the murder — including, famously, a dog. That he is able to realize this in only 135 pages, sacrificing no depth for brevity, is a extraordinary achievement. I recommend the novel for this, and also for its prose — in a class with George Orwell’s — each sentence honed for honesty and clarity. It is an exemplary book, well-deserving of its high reputation. I’m sure I’ll return to it again, as I do to a number of other short novels that have staked their claim on me: Cees Nooteboom’s Rituals, Leonard Michaels’s Sylvia and Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer.
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The recently awarded international Man Booker prize (given to Ismail Kadare of Albania) inspired critic John Carey to announce in the Guardian: “If you speak Spanish or French or Italian or German or any of a dozen other languages, and walk into your local bookstore, you will … find what is being imagined in China, what stories are being told in Korea, how the novel is being reinvented in Spain and the Scandinavian countries. But if you live in England you will find no such abundance.” The same is true of the US, so I was happy to see that the Guardian had some experts put together a list of “10 overseas writers we should be reading.” As a supplement to the Guardian’s list, here are some of the books by these authors that appear to be available here in the StatesHarry Mulisch – Netherlands – The Discovery of Heaven, The Assault, Sigfried, The ProcedureStefan Heym – Germany – The Wandering Jew, The King David ReportCees Nooteboom – Netherlands – The Following Story, Roads to Santiago: A Modern-Day Pilgrimage Through Spain, Rituals, All Souls Day, In the Dutch MountainsMarcel Benabou – Morocco – Jacob, Menahem, and Mimoun: A Family Epic, Dump This Book While You Still Can!, Why I Have Not Written Any of My BooksHalldor Laxness – Iceland – Under the Glacier, Independent People, Iceland’s Bell, Paradise Reclaimed, World Light, The Fish Can SingJuan Goytisolo – Spain – State of Siege, The Marx Family Saga, Marks of Identity, Juan the Landless, Landscapes of War: From Sarajevo to Chechnya, The Garden of SecretsJaan Kross – Estonia – Professor Martens’ Departure, Czar’s MadmanMarie Darrieussecq – France – Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation, My Phantom Husband, Undercurrents, Breathing UnderwaterShen Congwen – China – Imperfect ParadiseDubravka Ugresic – Croatia – The Culture of Lies: Antipolitical Essays, Lend Me Your Character, Thank You for Not Reading: Essays on Literary Trivia, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, In the Jaws of LifeLooks like an interesting, eclectic list. I’m intrigued by Ugresic in particular. For more Man Booker International Prize coverage check out the Literary Saloon.