2023 Arts Preview: The Year Ahead in Books

Allan Massie looks forward to a year that promises new novels from John Banville, Fiona McFarlane and Michael Arditti, books on Scottish history from Alastair Moffat and Steven Reid, a memoir from Don Paterson and much more besides

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness to the flesh.” Quite so. Evidently even in Biblical times, long before printing and computers, a reader or critic might think there was a glut of new issues. Now, as the reviewer dizzies his eyes leafing through catalogues, he feels sympathy and admiration for his literary editor, who has the duty to pluck out reviewable books every month; sympathy too for authors who search too often vainly for a review in the crowded – overcrowded? - marketplace. Many are published but few are chosen.

Happily, our literary editor does the work of selection for me and has plucked interesting books, all welcome from the pile for the early weeks of the New Year. This isn’t always the case, there being books which must be reviewed but aren’t always a pleasure to read.

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The first is a collection of essays by the Peruvian master novelist and critic Mario Vargas Llosa, always good value. Some elderly readers may recall the splendid lecture he gave decades ago in Edinburgh as the Scottish Arts Council’s Neil Gunn Fellow. Query: can’t that fellowship be revived? Then there is a new Scottish historical book, entitled Scotland’s Forgotten Past by Alistair Moffat, described as a study of 36 mostly ignored or forgotten episodes in our history. Third comes Hotel Milano by Tim Parks, a favourite with any lover of Italy, even today. I should add that, for my colleague Stuart Kelly our literary editor has found two other plums (crystalised, I suppose, it being January); Paul Auster’s Bloodbath Nation, a study of what most of us see as America’s extraordinary gun culture, and Toy Fights, a memoir of a Dundee childhood and adolescence by Don Paterson, one of our finest poets. It’s no longer the case that Scottish writers are often better at recalling childhood than writing of grown-up life, but, happily, they are still usually very good at it.

Mario Vargas Llosa PIC: Carlos Alvarez/Getty Images

Two highly publicised novels appear in March. The first is The Sun Walks Down, by Fiona McFarlane, described as ”an epic tale of unsettlement, history, myth, art and love – and of a small boy lost in the Australian desert”. It comes festooned with praise and may even deserve the plaudits. The other is Camp Zero by Michelle Min Sterling, sold, we are told “for six figures in a hugely competitive auction” – a climate change novel and John Murray’s “2023 Lead Fiction Debut”.

Probably more to my taste is a crime novel by John Banville. The Lock Up, described as “A Strafford and Quirke Mystery”, is the kind of book he used to publish as Benjamin Black. It will be literate, intelligent, and agreeably low-spirited, nevertheless a delight, to me anyway, and likely to be that also for anyone puzzled by the world we’ve survived into. Some, hoping to understand our times, may find enlightenment in The Future of Money by Rachel O’Dwyer, published by Verso.

Others may seek relief in history. I am greatly looking forward to Professor Steven Reid’s The Early Life of James VI, published by Birlinn’s John Donald imprint. James survived a horrid and surely frightening childhood to become the most effective of the Stewart and Stuart kings, first in Scotland and then in England. Yet there must be a hundred books about his unfortunate mother, Mary, a political failure, for every one about James, a success and an unusual man with a sharp and robust sense of humour, a king who preferred peace and diplomacy to war. I am eager to read what Professor Reid makes of him.

Among established novelists there is a new book from Salman Rushdie, set, happily in India some centuries ago rather than New York today. There is also The Choice from Michael Arditti, one of the most pleasing and versatile of English novelists. It features a woman priest. Arditti is always rewarding, a novelist who invites you to think and feel.

Magda Szabo PIC: MAGYAR NEMZET/AFP via Getty Images

Translated fiction from the Maclehose Press is always good, or at any rate always worth reading. There are two interesting ones this year; The Fawn by Magda Szabo, one of Hungary’s most famous writers, and German Fantasia by Philippe Claudel, author of the excellent and disturbing Brodeck’s Report.

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Finally, in the autumn, I look forward to Nicholas Shakespeare’s biography of Ian Fleming. Fleming’s smart friends thought little of his Bond novels and indeed Fleming himself liked to give the impression that he had just tossed them off. But Bond has outlived author, critics and scoffers. I would like to know more about the man who made Bond.

Don Paterson