2019: The Year Ahead in Books

Alasdair Gray PIC: John Devlin
Alasdair Gray PIC: John Devlin
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Looking ahead we can expect more books about Brexit – for or against, triumph or disaster – and, doubtless, as companion pieces, more about Churchill and “Our Finest Hour – When Britain Stood Alone.” Such books are best avoided. Then we wait for memoirs from David Cameron, Teresa May and other Tories, also to be avoided since the one thing we can be sure of is that none of them will be saying “mea culpa” or “it’s a fair cop, guv”. So it’s better to turn to a few books one might actually want to read.

In mid-January, Bloomsbury publish The Redeemed by Tim Pears, a novel which brings his West Country Trilogy to a triumphant conclusion. Readers who have delighted in The Horseman and The Wanderers will be disappointed only by the thought that there is no more of the story of Leo Sercombe and Lottie Prideaux to come. Pears is a wonderful storyteller with a truly remarkable sense of time and place. To my mind the trilogy is a masterpiece.

Almost 40 years ago the late Stephanie Wolfe-Murray, the founder of Canongate, took a huge risk by publishing Alastair Gray’s Lanark in an edition that was expensive to produce. A reward came almost at once when Anthony Burgess hailed it as the most remarkable and significant Scottish fiction since the Waverley novels. Now, with Gray himself in his mid-eighties, Canongate will publish his Essays of Me & Others in February. Now that William McIlvanney is sadly no longer with us, Gray may be regarded as the doyen of Scottish letters, and this publication is a fitting acknowledgement of his status. Not many writers get collections of essays published these days, and I daresay not many deserve to.

Sadly we don’t in Scotland have anything comparable to the authoritative editions of the Library of America, a lack which Creative Scotland might properly turn its attention to. The Library of America editions are beautifully produced; new among them are four novels by Jon O’Hara, all dating from the 1930s when he was really good. Among them are his first novel Appointment in Samarra and Pal Joey, which many will know only as a stage musical and movie. A publication to appeal to anyone interested in O’Hara, the art of fiction or the condition of Depression-era America.

With their new editions of Muriel Spark, Birlinn has been doing what a Library of Scotland should or would do. Not enough attention has been paid to this admirable venture, though one day the magnitude will be recognised. On a very different tack Birlinn will publish a book that should be of equal interest to sports-lovers and social historians. Monarch of the Green by Stephen Procter is the story of Young Tom Morris, described as “Golf’s First Superstar.” It’s a big claim, given how restricted interest in golf was in Young Tom’s all too short lifetime, so I shall be interested to find out if he makes it stick.

Adam Sisman is the biographer of Hugh Trevor-Roper, a historian who never finished his big books and had an eye for oddities. Now Sisman has himself made a book of one such oddity. The Professor and the Parson is described as “A Story of Desire, Deceit and Defrocking” (though Unfrocking is the more usual and indeed correct expression. The Rev Robert Peters was “a clergyman, conman and serial seducer.” Sounds fascinating, not least because I want to know how Trevor-Roper happened on him.

In February, Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day promises an intriguing study of the way the members of a close-knit group of friends react to the sudden, unexpected loss of one of their number, and in March we have Siri Hustvedt’s novel Memories of the Future, billed as a portrait of a young woman finding her way as a young writer in New York and illustrated with Hustvedt’s own drawings.

EM Forster reluctantly admitted that, yes, the novel does tell a story – reluctantly because he wasn’t very good at storytelling himself. Robert Harris is a master storyteller today, remarkable as Buchan or Stevenson in the range and variety of his work, ranging from the ancient world to Papal conclaves and 20th century politics. His next novel, to be published in August, is entitled The Second Sleep. Beyond that I have no idea of the subject-matter. I know

only that I will read it with the expectation of being enthralled. Stevenson said that fiction is to the adult what play is to the child, and the great storytellers like Harris, Ian Rankin and Pears are all-absorbing as novelists like Forster, for all their merits, are not. - Allan Massie