The Year in Fiction The Year in Fiction (Vol. 109)

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The Year in Fiction (Vol. 109)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Year in Fiction by Bruce Allen

The year 1997 was highlighted by new books from several of the English-speaking world's indisputably major writers. And no reappearance was more surprising than that of the late Anthony Burgess (1917–93), whose last completed fiction, Byrne ("a novel in verse"), was published posthumously to high praise in Great Britain and rather more tempered admiration in the U.S.

Byrne relates, primarily in ottava rima (the verse form most famously employed in Byron's Don Juan), the rambunctious artistic and amatory career of Michael Byrne, the scion of Irish potato farmers and shopkeepers, a gifted composer and a great success throughout Europe—most notoriously in Nazi Germany, where he successfully collaborates with a musical Joseph Goebbels. Then, in a surprising about-face, the focus shifts to Byrne's middle-aged children ("the fruits of my insemination"), struggling with unresolved feelings about their scapegrace parent as they journey to London for the reading of his will. This gloriously entertaining portrait of the artist spares neither its probably autobiographical protagonist (who knows he's at best a flawed genius) nor the twentieth century, which Burgess seems not to have liked much. But few readers will resist its resourceful and often quite brilliant versifying (for example, this, of a Russian physician: "His origin was Minsk or Pinsk or Moscow. Pe / Rusing Tim's chart he called for a bronchoscopy"). To the end, Anthony Burgess remained a vital, restless, mischievous creative force. Byron would have approved.

Three worthy novels by major Welsh writers made their first U.S. appearances. Monica, by critic and journalist Saunders Lewis, details the romantic unhappiness of a housewife betrayed by her romantic imagination with a frankness (doubtless inspired by Madame Bovary) that made it a succès de scandale upon its publication in 1930. Poet Caradog Prichard's One Moonlit Night (1961) skillfully fictionalizes the inhibiting parental and cultural environment that stifles its dreamy protagonist's desires to escape his moribund village. And Ram with Red Horns by Rhys Davies, a fine, flinty novel unpublished during his lifetime (1903–78), traces in striking realistic and symbolic detail the psychological deterioration of a long-married woman who murders her unfaithful husband, then tries to make peace with her (vividly characterized) neighbors as well as her own guilt and fear. Arguably unfinished (its ending is rushed), this is nevertheless a gripping fiction and a perfect introduction to Davies's justly celebrated novels and stories of rural Wales.

The Springs of Affection collects the short stories of the late Maeve Brennan, a longtime American citizen and New Yorker staff writer whose fiction endures as unmistakably (and irrepressibly) Irish. These twenty-one tales, which all appeared in Brennan's two published collections, include precisely detailed sketches of her girlhood in Dublin ("The Devil in Us" is especially acute about Catholicism and its discontents) and ampler studies of adult marital unhappiness and detente—most memorably the long title story's complex, elegiac portrayal of a troubled couple who are even in death the objects of lingering family resentments.

Penelope Fitzgerald, who began publishing fiction at the age of sixty, has in the twenty years since produced half a dozen sophisticated and surprisingly widely ranging novels; none is more accomplished than her newest, The Blue Flower . This is a character study of Friedrich von Hardenberg, a late eighteenth-century German idealist and visionary (en route to becoming the Romantic poet Novalis) as restless seeking intellect, perversely unconventional son and brother, and worshipful suitor to a beautiful young girl who dies in adolescence. Fitzgerald here evokes with masterly concision both the intellectual ferment of "Fritz's" time and the awkward development of his own Romantic temperament in a perfectly calculated little novel that speaks...

(The entire section is 7,308 words.)