A Decade in Books: 2010

In 2010, I started keeping track of all the books I read in a notebook. Now, ten years later, I’ve decided to look back at my List of Books of Read from the decade to see what I remember, what has stayed with me, and what I’ve forgotten.

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In January 2010, as the decade began, I was halfway through the first year of an undergraduate degree in English Literature at McGill University and working part time in a chain bookstore on the South Shore of Montreal. The first book I finished that year was Athill’s Somewhere Towards the End, which had won the Costa Prize and would go on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography later in 2010. I loved that book, but not as much as the first Athill book I read, which was Yesterday Morning. You’ll see many more Athill turn up on my lists from the decade; the memoir she wrote of her publishing years, Stet, appears later in the same year. Athill died in 2019.

Another comforting favourite that crops up a few times in 2010 is Jacques Poulin, a wonderful Québecois novelist who writes short, tender books full of melancholy readers and writers. I admire Poulin for his ability to write what is essentially the same book over and over again, digging ever deeper into similar themes and experiences.

The English novels early in the list–Waugh, Woolf, Orwell, Isherwood, Green and Greene–were all for a class in early 20th century literature. It was a great class and the professor who taught it would go on to become my undergraduate thesis advisor. This class was also my first introduction to Elizabeth Bowen, who soon became one of my favourite writers. The first story I read of hers was “The Dispossessed” and the first novel was To the North, which I’ve promised myself to reread since.

Apparently amid all the school reading, including a number of classical texts, I had time to read for pleasure. I remember buying Ian McEwan’s Solar as soon as it came out. I had loved Atonement, On Chesil Beach, Saturday… and I was bitterly disappointed by his dark comedy about climate change. I also found time to read Wolf Hall, which had just come out the previous year, and loved it.

I know I read at length that summer, as G. and I prepared to spend a year abroad at the University of Bristol, in the UK. When I read 2666 it felt like everyone had been talking about it for the better part of two years. Overall the novel left me perplexed, although I quite liked it. There was a huge Bolaño craze in the early teens, with many of his stories and novels being republished posthumously, but now it feels like he’s hardly ever mentioned anymore. 2666 is the only book of his I read and I’ve always wanted to reread it to see if it still holds up now that the hype has passed.

Reading when I was twenty was a lot about catching up, getting around to books I thought one should read: Conan Doyle, Hemingway, Kafka, Capote, Updike. It felt a little like ticking names off a list. I recall reading Rabbit, Run at the anonymous office in Ottawa where one had to make an appointment to apply for our British visas, and the young employee who was registering my file making a comment about it. I can’t say I remember the novel particularly fondly.

One book that stood out for me that summer was my first David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which really shook me: an eminently readable literary page turner, with just the right pulpy hint of magic. I would go on to read most of Mitchell’s books, but now that I think about it I definitely picked up that one because I found the cover striking. Another favourite that summe was Laurence Cossé’s novel about writers and bookstores, Au Bon Roman (translated in English as The Novel Bookstore), which stunned me. It’s about two friends who open a bookstore that only sells great novels (no celebrity bios, no cookie-butter bestsellers), selected by an anonymous panel of writers. It starts off as a sort of thriller with some of the panelists getting attacked or threatened, but it’s also a love story with a very light touch. I reread it last year and still liked it, but found that it didn’t have quite the same impact the second time around. After I read it I bought copies for several people around me.

There are a few invisible lines between some of the books I read in 2010. I bought Anne Fadiman’s At Large and at Small after seeing it in the bargain bin at work, a serendipitous discovery of a book I didn’t even know existed (I had fallen hard for her collection of essays about reading, Ex Libris). The essay in that book about people who are more active at night (she calls them Night Owls) led me to Al Alvarez’s book Night (ordered used off the internet because it’s out of print), which in turn must’ve motivated me to buy his excellent book about writing, The Writer’s Voice. You can also see that I was indulging in my love for books about books: The Library at Night, Larry McMurtry’s Books, Attachements (which is about a woman who culls her library), Pourquoi Lire? (Why Read?). I still like books about books but ten years on I feel that there was something a bit performative about how eagerly I devoured them as a twenty-year-old. Was I in love with the idea of books more than I was with books themselves?

In the fall we moved to the UK, where I had fewer classes than in Canada and no job, which means more reading time. The streak of Henry James came from a class I had on that writer. I had previously read only a single short story by James, and being encouraged to read so many of his novels and stories in quick success–that sense of immersion into the work and life and voice of one writer–remains a highlight of my reading life.

Another flash of remembrance: reading The General in His Labyrinth, which I had first heard about from John Green’s novel Looking for Alaska, alone in a hotel room near Shiphol Airport in Amsterdam. I was stranded there because of a snowstorm on December 21, my flight to Montreal having been cancelled. From the hotel room window I watched the wind push around curtains of snow tinted orange by the sodium light. A strange way to end the year, and I had a strange book to accompany me. The next day I was able to get on a flight back home to Montreal.

 

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The List: 2010

Diana Athill, Somewhere Towards the End

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice

Homer, The Iliad

Homer, The Odyssey

Virginia Woolf, The Waves

Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia

Lord Byron, Don Juan (Canto 1)

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Eusebius, History of the Church

Christopher Isherwood, Mr. Norris Changes Trains

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

Graham Greene, A Gun for Sale

Ian McEwan, Solar

Elizabeth Bowen, To the North

Gerald Graff, Professing Literature

Henry Green, Party Going

Anne Fadiman, At Large and At Small

Jacques Poulin, Chat Sauvage

Helen Garner, The Spare Room

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Roberto Bolaño, 2666

Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

Diana Athill, Stet

Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis

Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Louise Warren, Attachements

Andrei Makine, La vie d’un homme inconnu

Larry McMurtry, Books

John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse

Ian McEwan, The Innocent

Stefan Zweig, Voyage dans le passé

Annie Proulx, Close Range (audio)

Jorge Luis Borges, Fictions

Nancy Huston, Infrarouge

Jacques Poulin, Volkswagen blues

Jim Shepard, Like You’d Understand, Anyway

Karen Blixen, Out of Africa

Dave Eggers, Zeitoun

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Vol de nuit

John Updike, Rabbit, Run

Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Al Alvarez, Night

Laurence Cossé, Au Bon Roman

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Dominique Fortier, On the Proper Use of Stars

Alberto Manguel, With Borges

Henry James, Roderick Hudson

Henry James, The Europeans

Henry James, Portrait of a Lady

Henry James, The Ambassadors

Christopher Reid, A Scattering

Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice

A.S. Byatt, Possession

Simon Garfield, Just My Type

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The General in His Labyrinth

Charles Dantzig, Pourquoi Lire?

Alberto Manguel, All Men Are Liars

Something Important Has Been Lost: The Diaries of Waguih Ghali

The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties, Volume 1: 1964-66. Edited by May Hawas. American University in Cairo Press, 2016.

The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties, Volume 2: 1966-68. Edited by May Hawas. American University in Cairo Press, 2017.

On December 26th 1968, the Egyptian writer Waguih Ghali, author of one acclaimed novel titled Beer in the Snooker Club, committed suicide in the flat of his editor and friend, Diana Athill. For the previous four years, Ghali had been keeping a diary, whose last entry he addressed to her: “I am leaving you my Diary, luv—well edited, it would be a good piece of literature.”

Almost twenty years later, in 1986, Athill published After a Funeral, which recounted her friendship with Ghali, whom she called Didi in her book. After a Funeral follows the push and pull in their relationship, and the inexorable decline in Ghali’s mental health. Ghali lived in Athill’s flat, but his visa didn’t allow him to work, so he didn’t have a regular income and couldn’t pay her rent. His efforts to make money by writing were stifled by his depression. Whatever money he managed to make he spent on gambling and alcohol.

The Egyptian writer Ahdaf Soueif published a scathing review of After a Funeral in the London Review of Books when it came out. She revealed Didi’s true identity and celebrated Ghali’s novel, which was then out of print. As for Athill’s book, Soueif ends her review by dryly stating: “He would have probably liked it better if she had edited his diaries.”

Readers would have to wait thirty more years before that happened, partly because the diaries were lost. The notebooks were misplaced when Athill moved to a retirement home in 2010, and Ghali scholars who wanted to access them for their research thought them lost forever. But it turned out that Deborah Starr, a professor at Cornell, had photocopied all 700 or so pages of the diaries ten years before on a research trip to London. The photocopies were digitized and are now part of a Ghali archive on the Cornell University website, along with some manuscripts and a stash of letters from, to, or about Ghali, including one from Philip Roth, who wrote Athill in 1963 to put her and Ghali in touch with Paul Engle, director of the Writers Workshop at Iowa (Roth, who was obviously a fan, even agreed to pay for Ghali’s transportation fees with a “long term loan of $100”).

It was the Egyptian academic May Hawas who finally edited Ghali’s diaries, which were published in two volumes by the American University in Cairo Press in 2016 and 2017.

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In the first volume, which covers the period from 1964 to 1966, Ghali is working for a British military base in Rheydt, West Germany. He attempts to write a novel, short stories, and a play, and he visits London for a brief interlude (“London…London…LONDON. My town, my city, the only place on earth to which I belong, my spiritual abode, my love, the great love of my love. No sooner have I been there, than I have started to worry about leaving it…”). Ghali dislikes Germany and his job with the army, and spends much of his time dreaming of moving away.

Volume 2 picks up with Ghali finally living in London, in Diana Athill’s flat. It follows Ghali’s tortuous descent into poorer mental health, as well his fraying relationship with Athill. A trip to Yugoslavia, which Athill also recounts in After a Funeral, is a turning point in their relationship. In one of the most interesting sections of this second volume, Ghali goes on a reporting trip to Israel following the Six-Day War, which made Ghali feel “disgusted, more humiliated and insulted,” specifically by Nasser’s declaration that Egypt lost because Israel had the support of Britain and the United States. Ghali writes pieces for the Times, and gives a few lectures upon his return to London. During one of these lectures, in May 1968, someone calling himself “a representative of the Egyptian government” rises and declares that Ghali “is not Egyptian. He has defected to Israel.” For the rest of the year, Ghali feels progressively worse, until he overdoses on sleeping pills on Boxing Day.

Both volumes of the Diaries are united by recurring themes: drinking, gambling, difficulties with writing, and sex. Ghali appears to have been popular with women, although they were a source of anguish as well as pleasure, depending on the woman and depending on the moment in their relationship. At the start of a new affair, he remarks: “It is this business of love again, you see. There must be some insufficiency in me to provoke in me those terrible yearnings for someone I cannot possess. I repeat cannot possess, because I never yearn for someone whom I know would love me back.” When a woman is interested in him, he begins to despise her. When she dismisses him, he becomes obsessed. Although he recognizes the pattern himself, he is unable to escape it. The reader gets dragged along.

It’s surprising how little current events or politics make it into the Diaries considering the momentous events that took place while Ghali was keeping them. For instance, he never mentions anything about Martin Luther King, or the events of May 68. Politics do crop up, inevitably, around the Israel trip. Ghali recounts that, at one of the lectures he gives at the Israel Student’s Union in London after his trip to Israel, he tells the audience that “the Israelis were feeling themselves superior to the Arabs… racially so, and this was a surprise to me, as well as making peace with their neighbours impossible.” Members of the audience stand to give “anti-Arab tirades.” Ghali is “astonished to see that most, or nearly all of them, were rather ignorant, bigoted and…reactionary. All those who spoke supported America’s policy in Vietnam, didn’t care two hoots about black South Africans.”

Ghali appears to have been strongly attuned to racism, and he was equally alarmed by some of the casual racism he witnessed in post-war Germany, which he saw as shocking remnants of Nazism, sometimes hiding in plain sight. His incisive, albeit sometimes overly critical, portrait of 1960s small-town Western Germany is one of the most interesting aspects of the first volume of his Diaries.

There is a scene in Beer in the Snooker Club, in which the main character, Ram, comes to blows with his patronizing cousin Mounir, who has just returned from studying in America: “He didn’t know there was any racial discrimination in America. He had never heard of Sacco and Vanzetti, he did not know what ‘un-American activities’ was. No, he did not believe there were poor Puerto Ricans or poor anyone else in America. Who was Paul Robeson? Red Indians without full citizenship? What was I talking about? I must be mad. All he knew was that he had spent three years in America, had picked up their pet phrases and had been given a degree.”

Thinking about the letter Roth wrote about Ghali in 1963, about the $100 he offered, one could imagine an alternate version of Ghali’s life in which he goes to America and joins the Civil Rights movement.

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Hawas, in her introduction to Ghali’s Diaries, writes that, for Ghali, “In some way, the diaries replace the novel as another creative genre, like the short story or novel or poem, simply another way, in his words, that a writer could ‘create something.’” For a writer struggling to write, keeping a diary can be a low-pressure short cut, a way of producing something, of seeing blank pages fill. Ghali himself becomes aware of how important his diary is as he is writing it; he often goes back and re-reads older entries commenting on his past mental state. At one point, he remarks, “The strange thing about this Diary is that I find it so imperative to write everything I did or that has happened to me—as though if I didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen, or, rather still (because, after all, there are things I wish didn’t happen) if I didn’t write it down something important has been lost.”

Although the Diaries have been expertly edited by May Hawas, with an excellent introduction, interesting interviews, and useful notes, I’m not sure they are as good a piece of literature as Ghali hoped they would be. While fans or scholars of Ghali will enjoy learning more about him as a person, they can also be a tedious read as they were most often written by Ghali at his worst. “Going mad, as I seem to be going,” he writes in his very first entry, dated May 24th, 1964, “perhaps it’d be better to keep my Diary […] if only for a streak of sanity.” Later on, he notes that the diaries “emanated through a death-wish.” One night where he feels particularly serene, he recognizes that “[t]hese Diaries have always been full of miseries and moans.”

Still, there are glimpses of the writer who was able to create the masterpiece of social critique, humour, and empathy that is Beer in the Snooker Club: incisive observations, glimmers of levity, poetic turns. In one bravura entry dated November 3rd, 1967—in fact, just after the comment about “miseries and moans”—Ghali reminisces with great tenderness about a woman he once loved, in Paris, when he was a medical student: “Then she came to Paris, Madam Piquot gave me a room again at 33 Rue des écoles. How lovely it was. What bliss. We just wanted each other. She was shy, always, and I was timid. We would sleep in the afternoon, and that also made her shy. The shutters close with a faint light. And she would say, ‘Toutou, turn around, just go somewhere.’ Do you know, I only saw her naked once.”

In passages like this one, we (or perhaps the rhetorical “you” Ghali employs in that last line) see what may have been the inspiration behind some of love scenes in Beer in the Snooker Club, or else the seeds of a second novel that never was.

At other times he is funny and irreverent—and much of the humour arises from what has occurred in intervening years. Of the man of letters Ian Hamilton, who later married Ghali’s own defender Ahdaf Soueif, he writes: “Not unpleasant, but a nincompoop. How did he ever become editor?” Reading V.S. Naipaul in December 1964, Ghali remarks: “He will, hélas, never be a great writer (not popular, either, complimentary nowadays).—Too engrossed with himself, his feelings, his thoughts which should only be a concern to himself and not expect others to feel.” Ironic, of course, considering the content of the Diaries and his later wish to see them published.

The Diaries may not often show Ghali at his best, both as a writer and as a person, but if they are part of a Ghali renaissance that will lead to new conversations about him and bring more readers to Beer in the Snooker Club, then they will have done something admirable. It was also the editor’s hope that the Diaries would give young writers, especially Egyptian and Anglo-Arab writers, permission to explore, to develop their voice, to write about the places they live in, wherever that may be.

Ghali’s novel is currently in print in English on both sides of the Atlantic, which hasn’t always been the case, and a new French edition was published last year under the title Les Cigarettes égyptiennes (which is better than its original title, Les jeunes pachas, which Ghali mocked as being “pompous”). Beer in the Snooker Club, set in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution of the 1950s, is more relevant than ever, with Egypt re-assessing itself in the aftermath of another revolution that, to some degree, has brought it right back to where it started. Ghali’s characters—zealous, exuberant, disillusioned—have aged well.

Near the end of Beer in the Snooker Club, Ram tells Didi, the rich girl he wants to marry, “‘I want to live with you in a beautiful house with lots of books bound in leather. To take you out to the poshest places. To go for drives in the desert in our car. To caress you and make love to you every night. To buy you the most beautiful clothes, jewels, perfumes in existence…’ and I involuntarily laughed – this tic of mine of suddenly laughing – ‘with your own money of course. Because you are very rich.’”

In Cairo, there is one last traditional bookbinder, whose shop is tucked away behind Al-Azhar mosque. I dropped off my copy of Beer in the Snooker Club there one April day in 2018 and it came back to me a few weeks later, bound in smooth, dark red leather. The author and title are engraved on the spine in neat gold letters. The slim paperback has been turned into a luxurious object; it looks damn fine on a bookshelf. I think Ghali would’ve liked that.

Diana Athill

Diana Athill died last week, aged 101. She had a career as a much celebrated and influential editor in London, and in later life she found fame as a memoirist thanks to a series of thoughtful, honest, beautifully-written books.

I wrote a piece about her a few years ago when her last book, Alive, Alive Oh!, a collection of essays, was published. Check it out over at The Millions.

Athill also has an Egyptian connection, which I will no doubt discuss here in more detail at a later date. Athill was the editor of the celebrated Egyptian author Waguih Ghali, who wrote a single, masterful novel, Beer at the Snooker Club, and committed suicide in Athill’s flat in 1969. Athill’s harrowing memoir, After a Funeral, which was originally published in 1986, recounts her relationship with Ghali.