Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The best books I read in 2014 – fiction

For the record once again, my reading of fiction is pretty minimal. I always have a long list of books to attend to, and sadly (because I would love to read more) fiction keeps getting bumped off. So talking about the best fiction I read in a given year is a bit like talking about the best white truffle dish I ate that year. And then there’s my idiosyncratic choosiness, which leaves my few recommendations useful to a fairly limited audience. That established, I’m only going to talk about one novel and a single short story.

These are the fictional complement to the historical works I discussed in my previous post. Like good political history, good political fiction reveals the effects of political events – in this case, World War II and the Cold War – on people and their relationships. The first is a 1955 novel by May Sarton, Faithful Are the Wounds:

It tells of leftwing Harvard scholar Edward Cavan, his suicide in the midst of Cold War persecution (the character was based on F. O. Matthiessen),* and the ways his colleagues, students, relatives, and friends attempt to make sense of his death and to cope in its aftermath. There are probably too many characters for all of them to be fleshed out as fully as I’d have liked, but Sarton manages to present each of them sympathetically despite real political differences amongst them. She showed a real tenderness towards her characters (and settings!).

The story I enjoyed most last year impressed me with its moral self-awareness and self-questioning: Leó Szilárd’s 1949 “My Trial as a War Criminal,” in his 1961 volume The Voice of the Dolphins and Other Stories.

Szilárd presents an alternate history in which the Soviet Union, having later defeated the US by resorting to biological weapons, tries physicists like Szilárd and political leaders for their participation in the atomic weapons program and the bombing of civilian targets in World War II. In this and the other stories in the volume (which are generally wry, playful, and humanistic, and often prescient) he offers a model of humility and questioning, qualities which often seem dangerously lacking in today’s champions of science.

This post provides a nice summary of “My Trial as a War Criminal,” and this comment a thoughtful analysis of Szilárd’s artistic choices that resonates this month in particular. The author of that comment, a man named Gene Dannen, published literally yesterday a new article about Szilárd, his first love, and how he was forever changed by their relationship: “A Physicist’s Lost Love: Leo Szilard and Gerda Philipsborn.” Announcing its future publication a few months ago, Dannen wrote: “I don’t think anyone who reads the article will ever forget it.” In a lifetime of reading, I can’t remember any such claim made by an author about their own work, much less one made on a personal website, that turned out to be correct. However, having now read “A Physicist’s Lost Love,” I’ll be darned if it wasn’t so. It’s terrifically moving and inspiring, so thank you, Gene Dannen.

*There is now an F. O. Matthiessen Visiting Professorship of Gender and Sexuality at Harvard.

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