By Bela Zsolt
PIMLICO pounds 7.99
Bela Zsolt fought in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War One, and between the wars became one of Hungary's most prolific and radical writers. Shortly before World War Two, he and his wife took refuge in Paris. But in August 1939 they were at the Gare de Lyon, with all their worldly possessions packed into nine suitcases, and boarded the only train that would accept such an amount of luggage. Its destination was Budapest. And that's why, in 1942, Zsolt found himself in a forced labour camp in the Ukraine, where he saw villages razed, children's heads dashed against walls, women raped and mutilated, and corpses urinated on. After a year in a political prison, he returned to his wife in Hungary, just as the country's Jewish population was ghettoised in readiness for their deportation to Auschwitz.
This is where Zsolt's heartbreaking memoir opens, when he's huddled in a synagogue guarded by the police, feeling like the doctor in Poe's story about the lunatics who take over the asylum. The country he once loved has disappeared and he finds himself in an absurd new world. He was always a gifted writer of political analysis but over-exposure leaves Zsolt inured to death and his tone here is coolly ironic. But he wrote it in the present tense, almost immediately after his escape in 1944, and it has a novelistic feel. All of which makes it seem unbearably immediate to the modern reader.
New Writing 13
ed Toby Litt and Ali Smith
PICADOR pounds 8.99
If one of the duties of the editors of these anthologies is to get them talked about, Toby Litt and Ali Smith did a fine job this year. Some uncharitable remarks they made in their introduction about all the unadventurous submissions they rejected were taken out of context, so that it seemed as though they'd described all fiction written by women as 'disappointingly domestic'. Cue a flurry of responses from women writers incredulous that the domestic could be seen as inherently unworthy, and angry that their fiction should be gendered at all. For the record, just over a quarter of the 46 writers in New Writing 13 are female, and of them, Fay Weldon, Emily Perkins, Vicky Grut, Helen Simpson and Azmeena Ladha write about relationships and families in variously attentive and surprising ways. So, too, do Matt Thorne, Daren King and Martin Ouvry. Other female contributors write about the gypsy slave trade, flamenco, killing dogs, and the Channel Tunnel.
The editors' preference for 'writing that renews language itself' shows in an excess of pieces about the act of writing, from A S Irvine's doodle- filled satire 'A Novel' to Lawrence Norfolk's essay about choosing the right music to write to. Representing the formal experimenters, David Mitchell peppers his story of a stammering schoolboy with wordplay, charts and tables. In all, it's a varied collection which prioritises good writing over subject matter. As it should.
By Peter Ackroyd
VINTAGE pounds 7.99
Chaucer's literary persona, which Ackroyd characterises as one 'of embarrassed bookishness', was an arch rhetorical device that allowed him to remain at a remove from the raucous content of his poems. It also belied his eventful life as a prominent and successful member of the royal household, a diplomat, civil servant, trader, soldier, spy, MP and judge. Born some time between 1341 and 1343, when London was in a period of rapid expansion and social upheaval, for Ackroyd he's every inch 'a London artist'. Rising through the ranks of Edward III and Richard II's courts, he was also entrusted with sensitive diplomatic missions to France and Italy. In Italy he was exposed to Dante and Petrarch. In France he was captured and held for ransom. He also did well to survive …