In 2018, Israel lost its two greatest novelists, Amos Oz and Aharon Appelfeld. Both were older than the country itself and had witnessed its entire dramatic history, but the ways they dealt with that history could not have been more different. Oz, born in Jerusalem in 1939, threw himself into the development of the young Jewish state: he wrote about the kibbutz where he lived and the psychology of the first Israeli Sabra generation, and assumed an active role in politics as a founder of the Peace Now movement. If you wanted to understand Israeli society in its first half century, Oz’s novels would be the natural place to start.
Reading Appelfeld, by contrast, tells you basically nothing about the country in which he lived—at least, not directly. Though he wrote in Hebrew, taught at an Israeli university, and received Israel’s highest literary honors, his imagination remained fixed in the land of his early childhood, which was Eastern Europe. Appelfeld wrote more than forty books—including “To the Edge of Sorrow,” which appeared in Hebrew in 2012 and is now out in a posthumous English translation by Stuart Schoffman (Schocken)—and almost all of them are set in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. They are often about people like his parents: assimilated, German-speaking, middle-class Jews who live in provincial cities, vacation at country resorts or in spa towns, and worship literature and music instead of the God of their ancestors.
What does it mean to travel? Does writing about it from where I stand make a difference? The question of moving has never ceased to be relevant, and it is, to borrow from Baudelaire, the one “I discuss incessantly with my soul.” “Questions of Travel” is the title of Michelle de Kretser’s novel about travel, home, and belonging, Caren Kaplan’s scholarly book on the modern and postmodern discourses of travel and displacement, and the famous poem by Elizabeth Bishop that both writers allude to. “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” asked Bishop. Questions of travel are many and have become more complicated, especially when we think about the global conditions that shape travel today.
Interrogating the socio-economic and environmental impacts of travel can be challenging because the romanticized images of travel have been sustained in narratives, via literature and the media. Thus here is the first question to begin with: Why do travel stories fascinate us, and why do people keep telling them? We want to know every path, every yellow brick road trodden by our favorite characters, on the pages or screen. What will Dorothy discover when the on-screen image shifts from black and white to technicolor? In The Wizard of Oz, excitement is always somewhere else, somewhere unknown, over the rainbow. Stories of travel speak to us because we, too, desire to venture into the unfamiliar. Perhaps in our journey, our troubles will melt like lemon drops, and we are eager to find out what awaits us. What kind of world is there to see? What souvenirs to bring home? Will we ever return home?
I was part of the fast and furious. I'd dip into the street to avoid a planted tree, then step back up onto the sidewalk to take the lead ahead of the texting-while-walking human Roombas and those just plodding along. It wasn't just about getting around. It was a race. If Google Maps, under the watchful eye of its GPS satellite up above the stratosphere, estimated that my pulsating blue circle would reach my destination in 11 minutes, I'd text my friend to say, "See you in seven!"
It became part of my bedtime ritual to peek at my iPhone’s Health app to see how much ground I’d covered that day. I’d gaze at the app’s orange bar graph—like Narcissus staring at his reflection—that displayed the total mileage for my day, week, month, and year. I was averaging 4 miles a day. On busier days that included a run and a trip to one of my kids' schools, I’d find the lines on the graph nudging beyond 8 miles. And while I hadn’t yet traded in my analog Swatch for an Apple Watch, my morning runs were accompanied by the halting robotic voice in the Map My Run app, which I kept on my phone to measure my speed and distance. Occasionally I forgot that the app was in workout mode, and the voice would startle me, jolting me out of whatever runner’s daydream I was having.
And then it all came crashing to a halt.
“Writers & Lovers,” while describing the intense effort of putting words in order, feels effortless, or at least like an unconscious natural process. King’s sentences are like layers of silt and pebbles condensed into sedimentary rock — distinct from one another but fitted into an indestructible whole. And she pulls off a considerable trick: she convinces us that the miracle of attention, that coveted capability we all imagine slipped from our grasps as the new millennium dawned, must still lie somewhere inside writers, even if their fingers are swiping as often as typing.
With this trilogy, Mantel has redefined what the historical novel is capable of; she has given it muscle and sinew, enlarged its scope, and created a prose style that is lyrical and colloquial, at once faithful to its time and entirely recognisable to us. Taken together, her Cromwell novels are, for my money, the greatest English novels of this century. Someone give the Booker Prize judges the rest of the year off.
It’s 1950, nearly two years after the HMT Empire Windrush deposited Lawrie Matthews in the motherland, and still he’s stunned by the many ways in which it diverges from the country of his schoolbooks. Austerity’s grip on Britain remains vice-like, and its capital’s streets are paved not with gold but with rubble. “Everywhere you walked in London you could see tragedy through absence,” Lawrie notes.
Louise Hare’s debut novel pairs a poignant tale of young love and shameful prejudice with a twisting mystery, all embedded in a historical moment with keen contemporary resonance. Tantalising ingredients to be sure, yet it’s her steady, calm prose and the animating authenticity of her material that make it so hard to resist.
If you’re going to give your memoir the sublime subtitle “A story of chip shops and pop songs”, you had better serve up a tasty hit. Gloriously, the music journalist Pete Paphides’s tale of his formative tussle between his Greek and Brummie identities, shot through with his life-determining discovery of music – his “third parent” – is lip-lickingly, dance-around-the-living-room good.