By Nick Major

If you’re worried politics in 2019 might prove a miraculous

improvement on last year, don’t worry, there’s plenty of literature on

the horizon to aid your despair. Entrenched national borders, a lack

of free movement, and a primitive fear of migrants look to be the

subjects of John Lanchester’s new novel, The Wall (Faber, January).

The protagonist, Kavanagh, is “a Defender”, who has to patrol the

border, presumably from “the Others”. According to the publisher, it’s

a novel about “why the young are right to hate the old” and “a broken

world you will recognise as your own”.

Two heavyweights, John Le Carré and Margaret Atwood, also return with

socially percipient fictions. Atwood has written a sequel to her feminist

dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale. The Testaments (Vintage, September) is

also inspired by “the world we’ve been living in.” It is about a

future utopia of gender equality, everlasting love and peace on

earth…either that, or Armageddon. Le Carré’s new novel confronts the

“division and rage” of contemporary life. Agent Running in the Field

(Viking, October) is purportedly also the name of an MI6 training

module. Swap that definite article for an indefinite one, and it could

be the title of a John Buchan novel.

Buchan was no stranger to clandestine government agencies. He worked

for the British Government’s War Propaganda Bureau during WWI. One of

its aims was to vilify the German people in order to encourage

enlistment and manipulate public opinion. Buchan’s granddaughter,

Ursula, has written a “popular life” of Buchan where, presumably, all

this will be revealed. Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John

Buchan (Bloomsbury) is out in April.

According to T.S. Eliot, "April is the cruellest month". That might

actually be true this year. If Brexit does mean Brexit, in March we

will be saying au revoir to the European Union. Back in 2016, the year

of the referendum, Ali Smith published the first in a seasonal

tetralogy of novels about the state of our nation. Autumn began with

the Dickensian twist, “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of

times.” The third instalment is called Spring (Bloomsbury, March).

Expect ferocious wordplay, energetic prose and - thank heavens - a

worldly imaginative vision.

Another Scottish novelist, Leila Aboulela, has a novel out in the same

month. Aboulela won the 2018 Saltire Fiction Prize for her collection

of stories, Elsewhere, Home. Bird Summons (Weidenfeld and Nicholson,

March) tells of three women who embark on a road trip through the

Scottish Highlands and encounter the sacred Hoopoe, a bird who regales

them with Islamic and Celtic fables. Sounds like a hoot, or a honk.

So, does Lucy Ellmann’s novel, Duck’s, Newburyport (Galley Beggar,

July), which is being hailed as a “modernist masterpiece.” Following

the inner thoughts of an Ohio housewife, it’s one sentence long….and

nine hundred pages. Sounds like my kind of fun.

Spring might be a good time to deepen your knowledge of Irish

politics. The Good Friday Agreement seemed to solve the problem of the

border between The Republic and Northern Ireland. The Border: The

Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics (Profile, February) by

historian Diarmaid Ferriter “charts its reality from 1918 to the

potential consequences of Brexit.” In other history news, George

Packer, the New Yorker staff writer, has written a biography of US

diplomat Richard Holbrooke. Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of

the American Century (Vintage, May) promises to be ‘an epic saga of

the rise and fall of American power, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, told

through the life of one man.’ History, supposedly, is written by the

victors. Actually, it’s written by historians. Richard J. Evans’s

biography of Eric Hobsbawm, A Life in History (Little, Brown,

February) will surely give you an insight into one of the finest

chroniclers of the twentieth-century, the first half of which Hobsbawm

gave the name, The Age of Catastrophe.

If all of this gloomy politics and history makes you want to join the

rest of the country and throw yourself off the proverbial cliff-edge,

perhaps you’d like to consider some alternatives. You could lose your

mind, for instance: T.C. Boyle’s 1960’s psychedelic-era novel Outside

Looking In (Bloomsbury, February) is about a PhD student and his wife

who come under the tutelage of LSD pioneer and scientist Timothy

Leary. Apparently, “it’s going to be one hell of a trip.” If you

prefer more conventional escapism, Glasgow-based crime writer Denise

Mina has written Conviction (Harvill Secker, May), the first in a new

series. The female protagonist is a devotee of true crime podcasts.

One day, she decides to investigate one of the unsolved cases herself.

A Miss Marple thriller for the twenty-first century then.

For two variations on science fiction, you could try Black Leopard,

Red Wolf (Hamish Hamilton, February) by Booker Prize-winner Marlon

James or Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Me (Vintage, April). James’ novel

draws on African mythology and follows the story of Tracker, a hunter

on the trail of a missing boy, a task which takes him through ancient

cities and deep forests. McEwan’s novel is set in an alternative 1980s

London where Britain has lost the Falklands War, “Margaret Thatcher

battles Tony Benn for power and Alan Turing achieves a breakthrough in

Artificial Intelligence.”

Well, that’s enough running away from brutal reality. Turkish author

Ahmet Altan has fallen victim to President Erdogan’s increasingly

oppressive regime. After the failed coup against Erdogan in 2016,

Altan was sentenced to life-imprisonment on the trumped-up charge of

“trying to overthrow the constitutional order.” His memoir, I Will

Never See the World Again (Granta, March), is a reflection on his life

in his tiny four-metre-long cell. For something closer to home and

more light-hearted, Alan Taylor follows his previous memoir, on Muriel

Spark, with one provisionally-titled The Road to Rose Street (Polygon,

August). This new book will trace the course of a walk through

Edinburgh, from Arthur’s Seat to The Abbotsford Bar. Along the way,

Taylor will tell of his encounters with, among others, the “poets and

politicians” in the city’s pubs, libraries and newspaper offices.

Taylor envisions the book to be – ahem – “a cross between Remembrance

of Things Past and [James] Thurber's The Years with Ross. In reality

it will probably be nothing like that.”

Back in the day, The Abbotsford Bar was the scene of many a stushie

between writers, which, let’s face it, everyone relishes. Yuval

Taylor’s Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal

(Norton, April) looks at two leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance,

Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. The pair travelled through the

American south together collecting folklore, wrote a play and even had

the same patron, until their inner furies got the better of them. Not

all disagreements end badly, however, and there is such a thing as a

good betrayal. On his deathbed in 1924, Franz Kafka ordered his friend

Max Brod to burn his remaining manuscripts. Thankfully, Brod decided

he’d rather not. Instead, he devoted his life to editing and

publishing the material. Benjamin Balint tells the fascinating

afterlife of the manuscripts in Kafka’s Last Trial: The Strange Case

of a Literary Legacy (Picador, January).

Alice Oswald’s new poetry collection, Nobody (Jonathan Cape,

September), sounds like it might be about one of Kafka’s characters,

and speculation is all we have with regard to that one. Even the

nobodies of the world have read Helen Dunmore, who died in 2017.

Fellow poet Sean O’Brien has praised her “remarkable alertness,

imaginative range, and generosity of spirit.” In February, Bloodaxe

publishes her Collected Poems: Counting Backwards. Finally, Lawrence

Ferlinghetti, the poet and co-founder of San Francisco’s City Lights

Bookstore, is best known for his collection A Coney Island of the

Mind. He’s one of the last surviving members of The Beat Generation.

In March 2019 he will be a centurion. His semi-autobiographical novel,

Little Boy (Faber, April) purports to be “the story of one man’s

extraordinary life.” The novel is “steeped in the rhythmic energy of

the Beats, gleaming with Whitman’s visionary spirit, and channelling

the incantatory power of Proust and Joyce. It is Lawrence

Ferlinghetti’s last word.” Fair enough.