It was about the time I turned 40 in 1977 that I began to wonder if I would live to see the turn of the century. Ten years later, I realized I was now older than my father, who died when he was 49. I was certain then that I would never see New Years Eve at the end of the century.
Well, I did, whereupon I sallied forth into the 21st century. I thought surely I wouldn’t live through its first decade. Wrong again, as I am now trekking along into the first full week of January 2010. Surely this can’t go on forever.
This is the time for reflections on the past decade. Everyone seems to have something to say about it. What can be said about the last decade? On what basis do we judge it? Regrettably its most salient features were two wars, both unnecessary, both grounded in lies, both extremely costly, economic policies that almost brought the country to its knees, and the marginalization of the arts and sciences that will take years to recoup.
Why not instead reflect on distinguished works of literature or the cinema? So many fine authors died during the past year. They include those I have read and have admired—Saul Bellow, John Updike, Susan Sontag, David Foster Wallace, Simon Gray, Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller, W.G. Sebald and William Styron. There were many others too, but these are the ones whose books have moved me more than once.
Will there be others to fill the great gap they have left? Will there be another group of writers in the next decade who will write as well as they did? It is hard for me to imagine who they might be. I can think of a few—Coetzee, Roth, McEwan, Ondaatje but my hunch, no, more my hope is that each of them will still be pounding the keyboard on New Year’s Eve 2019.
Perhaps here I can simply point to the books that meant the most to me during the past decade. At the end of each year, I make a list of the books and periodicals I have read and organize them into Fiction, Non-Fiction, Essays and Short Stories. I went through the lists for each of the past ten years and selected one work of fiction, although there were at least two or three others that I might have selected. The choice was impossible but here are those that I rank among the most memorable novels of the first decade of the 21st century.
2000 Ann Patchett Bel Canto
2001 J.M. Coetzee Youth
2002 Azar Nafisi Reading Lolita in Tehran
2003 John Williams Stoner
2004 Ian McEwan Saturday
2005 Eliott Perlman Seven Types of Ambiguity
2006 Rachel Cusk Arlington Park
2007 Philip Roth Exit Ghost
2008 Pascal Mercier Night Train to Lisbon
2009 Michael Ondaatje Anil’s Ghost
It was a good decade for literature, would you not agree? It is tragic that the same cannot be said for the more public and influential worlds of commerce and affairs of state.