'Literature is not a sport' - Stuart Kelly on the year in books

How will 2022 be remembered in the world of books? Stuart Kelly reviews some of the highs and lows of the year

Maggie O'Farrell PIC: IBL/Shutterstock
Maggie O'Farrell PIC: IBL/Shutterstock

What a strange and sad year this has been. In the world of books, the death of Hilary Mantel was announced. I chaired her a few times and met her infrequently and remember her spiky wit when I congratulated her on winning the Booker. “At least I don’t have to think about it again” was her retort, before winning it again. Personally, I think there are other novels that she wrote that should have won rather than the Tudor Trilogy. If you are still looking for gifts then A Place Of Greater Safety, Fludd and The Giant O’Brien are marvellous; but for me it was always Beyond Black, her – well – most Mantelish book, about a fake holder of séances who is literally haunted. The reputations of writers often sink after they depart – think of Iris Murdoch or Beryl Bainbridge. Maybe it is right to let them rest for a time, and then remember and realise how good they actually were.

Also singing with the choir eternal is Raymond Briggs. He – like Mantel – was much loved. Why, I have no idea, as his works were grotesque, pessimistic, misanthropic and melancholic. If you hear anyone singing “We’re walking in the air” this Christmas, please do point out the point: the Snowman dies alone and the child is heartbroken. Maybe get Fungus The Bogeyman instead. He also, of course, did the definitive version of Santa Claus. It was also a grief to hear that Brian Catling had died. Catling did not have the public stature of Briggs or Mantel, but I think his reputation and legacy will only rise. The trilogy of novels – The Vorrh, The Erstwhile and The Cloven – are truly remarkable, although readers may find it easier to commence with his shorter fictions.

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It does not take a genius to write a headline like “Author We Have Never Heard Of Wins Book Prize Shock”, so it was an easy year for some. There must have been some noggin-scratching when Shehan Karunatilaka won the Booker, Annie Ernaux took the Nobel Prize for Literature and Natasha Soobramien and Luke Williams were awarded the Goldsmith’s Prize for innovative writing. Prizes – and I speak as one who has judged more than one – are a lovely irrelevance. Literature is not a sport; crossing the line and holding the cup up are pretty petty compared to whether or not the participant has run the good race and fought the good fight.

Hilary Mantel PIC: Justin TALLIS / AFP via Getty Images

What will remain with me from this passing year? In a strange way, a prize-winner: Katherine Rundell’s Super-Infinite won the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction; more movingly she gave the prize money to charity. Her examination, almost dissection, of the work of John Donne is one of the few non-fiction books I shall re-read. She is astute on lust, longing and the Lord in this book about a paradox of a man. Likewise, Hidden Hands by Mary Wellesley (published in paperback this year) is a jaw-dropping account of – wait for it – medieval manuscripts. You might think that the definition of dusty, but the book is utterly human, full of revelations and a serious addition to our understanding of the role of women in previous ages. I shall not forget that lapis lazuli was found in the teeth of a female skeleton: she had been licking her brush.

Robert Twigger is always an erratic figure, and having written about Japan, South America, the Rockies, pilgrimage routes and daring himself to do various things that might kill him – in Real Men Eat Puffer Fish – it was almost a comfort to read 36 Islands, his account of going to and staying on islands in the Lake District, with a dash of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows And Amazons. He puts it best himself: “But if there is one thing I have learnt, it is this: there’s never a perfect time. Never a perfect time to start, set off, begin or depart, return, come home, settle in”. There is something both comical and Zen like about Twigger’s work, and everyone is the better for it.

If there is one book which has done the rounds of the village where I live it must be Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait. I should here and now apologise, since it might be a contravention of the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patent Act, and it also means they did not buy the book. But such was the clamour to read her new work that, reader, I caved in and let them read it. The response to her Renaissance Italy set was overwhelmingly positive, a position with which I agree. But saying “you won’t see the twist” did twist my tongue more than once.

Being a reviewer is a strange old job. I read a lot that I do not review and a portion that I read I did not care to review. How will 2022 be remembered in the world of books? I hope with nothing more than a shrug. There were some excellent books and some drivel. Same as, same as. I did read a chapter of a novel by former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who unfortunately has more time on her hands, and do not recommend swilling or swigging Dettol.

Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka PIC: DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images
Annie Ernaux poses with the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature during the Nobel Prize Awards Ceremony at Stockholm Concert Hall on December 10, 2022 PIC: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images