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Frances Wilson

Books of the Year 2023

by Kerryn Goldsworthy et al.
December 2023, no. 460

What the authors of these three wildly different books share is a gift for creating through language a kind of intimacy of presence, as though they were in the room with you. Emily Wilson’s much-awaited translation of The Iliad (W.W. Norton & Company) is a gorgeous, hefty hardback with substantial authorial commentary that manages to be both scholarly and engaging. The poem is translated into effortless-looking blank verse that reads like music. The Running Grave (Sphere) by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling), the seventh novel in the Cormoran Strike crime series and one of the best so far, features Rowling’s gift for the creation of memorable characters and a cracking plot about a toxic religious cult. Charlotte Wood’s Stone Yard Devotional (Allen & Unwin, reviewed in this issue of ABR) lingers in the reader’s mind, with the haunting grammar of its title, the restrained artistry of its structure, and the elusive way that it explores modes of memory, grief, and regret.

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Shirley Hazzard challenged Auden’s line that poetry makes nothing happen. In her case, she said, poetry made everything happen. It was because she learned Italian as a teenager in order to read Leopardi in the original that she was sent, aged twenty-six, by the United Nations, to Italy, where she wrote ‘Harold’, the story about the awkward young poet that was published in the New Yorker in 1960, after which ‘everything changed’.

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Lydia Davis writes long essays and short stories; some of them, like this one of six words, very short indeed: ‘INDEX ENTRY: Christian, I’m not a’. Influenced by Kafka and Beckett, she is drawn to Anglo-Saxon words, complex sentences, and literary forms which are hard to define. In the United States she has been awarded Guggenheim and MacArthur Genius Grants; in France she is a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters; in the United Kingdom she won the 2013 Man Booker International Prize for what Christopher Ricks, chair of the judges, called her ‘vigilance … to the very word or syllable’. Rick Moody calls her ‘the best prose stylist in America’, The New York Times compares her precision to that of Vermeer, while for her publisher she is simply ‘beyond compare’. Claire Messud, looking for fresh adulatory epithets, says that Lydia Davis ‘has the gift of making us feel alive’. What, then, am I missing?

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A distinction needs to made between the critic and the book reviewer, because not all reviewers are critics. The reviews that run in the literary pages of newspapers – plot synopsis followed by puffery or condemnation – bear little relation to criticism, not least because critics read closely while reviewers tend to speed-read. Criticism is an art, and the finest criticism should be equal to its subject: a good critic should have a distinctive voice, a good ear, and a strong style. I like audacity and eccentricity in criticism, and I particularly admire those critics who are alert not only to the words on the page but to the ‘unconscious’ of the text – what is elided, repressed or not quite expressed in the writing.

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The life of Charles Lamb reads like a tale by Charles Dickens. In 1775, a sweet-natured boy is born in the Inns of Court, the ancient legal district in the city of London. The boy’s father, John Lamb, works as clerk, scribe, and all-round dogsbody for an imbecilic barrister called Samuel Salt – the names themselves are Dickensian – who does nothing without first consulting his servant. Charles, the youngest child by eleven years, grows up amid the great halls, libraries, chapels, staircases, sundials, fountains, and hidden orchards of the Inner Temple; his early youth is an Eden, but there is a serpent in the garden, because madness runs in the Lamb family.

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Why ‘burning man’? Because in this immense, obsessive, studiously unkempt work, the biographer brings accelerant to the raging bonfire that is D.H. Lawrence’s reputation and pours it with pyromaniacal glee. Frances Wilson’s new life of the writer stands athwart the accumulated crimes of which Lawrence stands accused – his obstreperousness, his intense and absurd hatreds, his dubious politics, the physical and metaphysical violence he committed against women – and demands a halt to the trial.

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