The Top Ten Books I’ve Reviewed On This Blog

I’ve been running this blog for – as of a few days ago – seven years now. Long time. Fair few books reviewed over that time (though nowhere near as many as I’d have liked). So, with the seven year mark gone by, and the weather being wet and cold and dreary, I thought it might be nice to draw up an updated countdown of the best books that I’ve reviewed over that time.

There is, however, a slight complication. In recent years, a lot of my reading has been two big re-read projects of the works of two of my favourite authors – Robin Hobb and Terry Pratchett. This means that any brief list would be overrun by their works – in particular, I’ve reviewed around 35 of Pratchett’s Discworld novels, and a lot of them are very, very good. A list of Discworld novels with a couple of other things thrown in just doesn’t seem that useful.

So, a compromise: this is a list of the ten best books I’ve read in the last 6-7 years, but with only one book per author. Just for fun, I’ve also thrown in the opening paragraph or two of each novel.

So, here we go….

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The Rider, by Tim Krabbé

Only when there are arguments for something can there be arguments against it.

 

Cyclists are strange people. They say things like “The Rider is a book about cycling”, or “I guess maybe you can’t fully appreciate The Rider if you’re not a cyclist”.

Nonsense. The Rider is not about cycling. The Rider has got nothing to do with cycling.

What is it about? You could say, “it’s about obsession”, “it’s about insanity”, or “it’s about religion”. Those descriptions would all be accurate, but also pointless, as they’re all pretty much synonymous with being about cycling.

More informative would be to say that The Rider is about about the human condition. This would also be true, but it would also be missing the point. This is about something more important than life or death, being and time, meaning and identity. This is about the most important thing of all: cycling.

No, not ‘cycling’, that suggests something abstract, general, a worldwide practice, a pastime, an industry, a culture. This is a book about a person riding a bicycle.

There are a lot of ways to approach this book. If you don’t know anything about professional road cycling, for instance, this book tells you a lot about it – not just about the technicalities and the famous names, but about the soul of the sport. The soul the sport wants to have, at least – but then, that’s the soul of the sport, wanting to have a soul. This is the sort of book that might baffle outsiders, might send them away in confusion or horror; it’s also the sort of book that might seduce them, might convert them, might make them fall in love, or discover that they are in love with something they didn’t think they cared about at all.

But I think the more important thing is this: this is a book about a human being attempting an endeavour. It’s an endeavour that in one way is easy enough that the story is not all about the impossibility of the task. If your endeavour is to fly a spaceship to the moon, for instance, or be the first man to climb the Eiger, or to keep all your crew alive and escape from Antarctica in three small open rowing boats with little food and no means of navigation, then your story, while fascinating, is not really a story about you. It’s a story about something impossible, and all the ways it’s impossible, and how it was done nonetheless, and you are little more than a mirror of that impossibility, your despair and your triumph reflections of the awe-inspiring impossibility of the world. Your task is to be implacable, to be the immovable object that the world cannot distort, the irresistable force the world cannot resist. There’s little room for human foibles in a story like that.

The Rider isn’t a book like that. The Rider is a book about a high-level amateur bicycle race in the south of France in the 1970s. In it, the protagonist, in the course of a number of hours, must ride a bicycle relatively quickly over some small hills. At one point, it begins to rain. This is all far from being impossible.

On the other hand, if your endeavour is too simple, too easy to achieve, or even just too momentary in its achievement, there is little to talk about. Your story becomes not the story of what you did, but the story of why you did it, how you prepared to do it, what you felt about it afterwards.

This isn’t a book like that either. A bicycle race of this kind shows us man at the very limit of what he can do, pushing himself right to the edge, to the far extremities of the potential of his body and the last redoubts of his faculties of mind.

The Rider is a book about limits. Neither the calm, sleepy waters within the limit, nor the impossible, inhuman void beyond the limit, but a book about the limit itself, a book about the borderlands. It’s about the man – and about the absence of man.

It’s a book about a bike race.

Rider1

To get right down to the prosaic business of the facts, The Rider is a book about an amateur cyclist, Tim Krabbé, who has taken up racing late in life (at 29, and the book is set some years later) but discovered considerable talent for it. Enough talent, at least, to be able to compete in some major amateur races, and not purely as a hanger-on.

This is the story of the biggest race of his year, the fictional Tour de Mont Aigoual, in the Cévennes. It begins shortly before the race, and ends shortly after the race. We follow the experiences of Krabbé through the race.

That’s what it’s about. But it’s also about more than that. Krabbé talks to us about his thoughts – sometimes primitive, reactive images and barely formulable impulses at the limits of thoughts, other times more loquacious rumination about life, the universe, everything, and also cycling. Along the way, he provides illustrations from his own past, his own thoughts, and from cycling history.

So it’s a fun read about a sporting event – it’s not a personal test, it’s an actual race that he wants to win (and wants others to lose), and so narrative tension is present automatically. Will Krabbé win? If not, who will? It’s a basic and effective structure. It’s also a book about cycling, as Krabbé explains elements of road racing to us in case we don’t understand what’s going on, and illustrates them with famous anecdotes from history, particularly from the Tour de France. And on some level it’s also a book about the beautiful yet uninviting, peculiar, landscape of the Cévennes.

And yet it’s so much more than that.

This book could be literature. It could be literary fiction. Certainly, it should hold its head up high in at any dinner reception it attends with literary novels. It has its share of tricksiness: Krabbé, for instance, is a fictional narrator invented by the author, the amateur cyclist Tim Krabbé, and is not an entirely reliable narrator (something he comments on himself). It’s charged, in an easy and unposturing way, with continental concepts of postmodernity and semiotics, absurdism and situationism – although it never uses those terms. It has no shortage of reflection on the nature of human existence and the foibles of the mind.

Only I don’t think it wants to be literature. “Literature,” says the narrator, “is baloney”. This is about something much more important than literature: bicycle racing.

At its heart, this is a novel of irreconcilable dualities and the moments when they are reconciled – it is the literary equivalent of pushing two magnets together like-to-like, against the field.

It is about reality, human reality, lived human experience – about authenticity, real life stripped away of myths and fantasies. In the race, there is no time for fantasy, no energy for myth. Everything else in life, all the worry, the happiness, the intellectualisation, becomes stripped away into moments of raw physical being, into moments of will. “I am transformed into my body”, we are told at one point.

And yet it is also how precisely these moments of reality are most surrounded by fiction. Everything about cycling is a fiction. Krabbé’s fantasies and daydreams, from childhood through to now; all those myths of the Tour and the Giro – true, false, unsubstantiated, confused (and the most completely true story of the lot and verified by all records and witnesses is the one story that is outright impossible). Better than true, perhaps; myths more true than reality. The magical thinking – Anquetil moving his bidon (water bottle) from his bike to his back pocket because he thinks that reducing the weight of his bike will make him go faster. The riders, Krabbé tells us, are minds, and bodies and bikes are just the tools they use – and these minds are strange, irrational creatures who must be pushed on by mythologies of their own invention.

Fiction and truth, together in the same place at the same time.

Body and mind. Never are the body and the mind more divided: the mind wills and the body refuses. And yet precisely in the division, the unity becomes clear. The mind thinks what the body feels, and the body does what the mind wills: the unbreakable linkage between the two is never more clear than now. The mind is not free because it is one with the body; the body is not allowed to be free, because it is one with the mind. Dualism and monism, together at the same border-point.

Honour and violence. Riding, Krabbé tells us, is like humanity without the degrading influence of civilisation. It is brutal, it is merciless. In road racing, when you see your enemy on his back, you kick him to death. It is ruthless, it is calculating; it is professional.

And yet all that matters is honour. All that matters is passion. Sometimes all that matters is hatred. There is winning, and there is winning with honour, and only one of them matters, and everyone knows which one: both of them. Krabbé gives us the story of Coppi and Bartali riding each other out of the World Championship:

Kübler and Clemens left the peloton: Coppi and Bartali looked at each other. Dupont, Ricci and Schotte left the peloton: Coppi and Bartali looked at each other. Caput, Teissière and Lazaridès left the peloton: Coppi and Bartali looked at each other. Schulte and Ockers left the peloton: Coppi and Bartali looked at each other.

When the peloton at last consisted only of Coppi and Bartali, they looked at each other and climbed off, both of them satisfied, we might assume, with a success sweeter than the sweetest second place.

Krabbé doesn’t give us the other half of the story, six months later at the Tour de France, when Coppi’s bike broke and Bartali waited with him for a replacement before helping him chase – and then on stage 16, on the road to Briançon, Coppi and Bartali attacked together on the Izoard, and when Bartali puncture, Coppi waited for him, and when they came into Briançon together, Coppi let the older rider win the stage, because it was his birthday. Krabbé doesn’t give us that particular story, but that side of the sport is not left out either.

How can a sport that prides itself on its amoral, obsessive ruthlessness be so proud also of its irrational codes of honour, its moments of pointless self-sacrifice?

It turns out I’m not the first to talk about this. Here’s Roland Barthes in his essay on the mythology of the Tour de France:

The Tour possesses an ambiguous ethic: certain knightly imperatives constantly mingle with the brutal demands of the pure spirit of success. It is an ethic which cannot or will not choose between the commendation of devotion and the necessities of empiricism.

Do you know the story of why Coppi was still in that race? He hated Bartali so much that their team (the Tour having national teams in those days) was almost falling apart, and their manager, the great cyclist Binda, could barely keep them both together. Coppi had already given up quarter of an hour of race time as the result of a sulk. Eventually, on that stage where Coppi needed a new bike, it boiled over. Why wasn’t Binda right behind Coppi with a spare? Binda was surely favouring Bartali, who had won the Tour the year before. Coppi would not compete unless he were the absolute master of his team. Binda desparately explained that he was not being partial, indeed that he was really on Coppi’s side, and he had only been absent at that moment through bad luck. Coppi would not, could not, accept that argument. Coppi was going to quit.

At that moment, a blind man walked into the room with a dog. Nobody knew who he was, and he made no introduction, but spoke directly to the two men who had been arguing alone, as though he knew who they were, and what they were doing there. The blind man said that he had bought a dog and had named it Fausto (Fausto being Coppi’s name, although at that time he was really ‘Il Campionissimo’, ‘the Champion of Champions’). The blind man further swore that he would never betray his dog, and proclaimed that he knew that the dog could never betray him.

The omen delivered, the blind man walked out of the room. Coppi accepted Binda’s apology and stayed in the race. And that’s why they rode together on the road to Briançon, and why Coppi let Bartali win.

The day after that, on the 17th stage, they rode together again. Again, Bartali had a puncture. Again Coppi waited. Again Bartali punctured. This time Coppi did not wait. This time, Coppi instead chose to win the Tour de France. He attacked his fallen teammate, the defending champion, his teammate who was ahead in the ranking and who was going to win the Tour if Coppi only stayed with him. Coppi didn’t stay with him; instead, he won the Tour himself.

Coppi and Bartali, the two halves of the soul of Italy. Faustino and Il Pio – the little devil and the holy one. Coppi the rationalist, the modernist, the atheist, the adulterer, the pioneer in doping, the ruthless winner-at-all-costs, except when he wasn’t; Bartali who prayed as he rode, who was blessed personally by three Popes and had taught one to ride (his wedding was celebrated by a Cardinal and was also blessed by a Pope), Bartali declared Righteous Among Nations for risking his life to save Jews from the Holocaust, Bartali over whom the local priests brought out the children to sing canticles as the Tour rode past, Bartali the clean and fair and honourable rider. Bartali the narcissist, the braggart, the paranoid obsessive. The angels on each shoulder of cycling, and both of them insane.

Krabbé doesn’t tell that story either. But he does tell others.

Life and death. When he gets on his bike, Krabbé takes his life in his hands – and then throws it into the hands of chance. Storming down mountainsides into oncoming traffic at over 60kph… it doesn’t take one mistake, it takes one piece of bad luck. Even on the flat, injury and even death are only a moment away. The rider cannot ride unless he accepts that he might die: before the race, Krabbé throws his street clothes onto the back seat of his car and thinks that they will remain as they have fallen until he picks them up again, or until the authorities pick them up if he has died. The rider must ride without fear, without any regard for his own life. And yet at the same time, this is when his life is most precious to him. He prizes his life and his desparation to live is all that keeps him from dying – the rider who isn’t concerned with safety may be a great rider, but not for very long. So once again the book is about the limit – riding both terrified and fearless, without caution and without recklessness.

There’s a saying in the bible: If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. In the original context, this is Jesus talking, but in the context of the novel it could just as well be cycling. In this way the book is indeed also a book about obsession, or insanity.

Except it’s not really insanity. Krabbé is not mad. He does things that other people might consider mad, even things that even he considers mad, out of love for his sport, but we’re in his head and he’s not irrational. He’s articulate and insightful. It is simply that he is living in a world slightly at an angle from ours: his language, his gestures, do not make sense to us, nor ours to him. The famous first paragraph of the novel:

Meyrueis, Lozère, June 26, 1977. Hot and overcast. I take my gear out of the car and put my bike together. Tourists and locals are watching from sidewalk cafés. Non-racers. The emptiness of those lives shocks me.

[Note, incidentally, the vital use of determiners right from the beginning – the car, but my bike. Swap those two determiners around and you change nothing about the economics, but everything about the psychology.]

He does not understand us; we do not understand him. The Rider is therefore a portrait of a form of life; one reason it is such a great book is that by the end, some of us will understand what he means by that – even those of us who aren’t cyclists.

[Another word there: ‘shocks’. I know it’s unwise to rest too much on a word that is, after all, translated, but I’m going to anyway. One non-cyclist reaction to The Rider is that it is an arrogant book that says that non-cyclists are inferior. But read that sentence again. He does not say ‘those lives seem appallingly empty’, or ‘the emptiness of those lives disgusts me’, but ‘the emptiness of those lives shocks me’. I think that we should not read this as defending Krabbé’s arrogance, or even necessarily as imputing any sort of conscious arrogance, but rather as an attempt to get across the isolation of an obsessive pursuit. To Krabbé, it is self-evident that lives without cycling are empty, not self-evident intellectually, but a truth embedded in his faculty of sight. He sees them as as empty. But at the same time that sight shocks him. A truly arrogant man would not be shocked by the emptiness of the lives of others – he would take it for granted. ‘Of course everyone else has an empty life compared to mine – I mean just look at me, compared to them!’. But Krabbé expects himself to be like others, and others to be like him: it comes as a shock that the lives of others are empty, that they have allowed them to be so empty. So he is a man not comfortably superior but trapped uneasily between two worldviews that he cannot abandon and cannot reconcile: on the one hand the ordinary human conviction that we are all alike in some fundamental way, and on the other hand the clear evidence that other people, non-racers, are living lives that he cannot but regard as empty, and as inconceivable and shocking for having been chosen despite their emptiness. In a way, I think perhaps that being shocked by the Other is the only truly respectful response to difference. Disgust, hatred, rejection; or harmony, negotiation, solidarity, equanimity; or even emulation and praise: these all presuppose an integration of the Other into our own worldview, they are all ways in which we find a place for the Other, judge the Other, and whether we find it inferior, our equal, or even our superior, all these require on a prior level that we consider all these things commensurable with ourselves. We cannot do anything with our encounter with the Other until we resolve our impressions of the Other into something that is commensurable with the Self. Which, of course, in many ways they usually are, since, well, we are all human and we do share an astonishing amount with one another. But the true Other, perceived truly as Other, must begin by provoking an existential surprise, an incomprehension, a visceral shock, that things could be in such-and-such a way: and then we recover our breath and say ‘of course, this does make sense if we only realise that these are primitive people who lack our sophistication’, or perhaps ‘of course, this all makes sense when you realise that compared to them we are backward and foolish!’, or still again on occasion ‘of course, we must understand that despite their differences they can still be dealt with as equals, once their differences have been taken account of, because we share much and the existence of superficial differences does not refute that fundamental family tie, nor imply a moral inferiority or superiority’ – but Krabbé’s rider instead remains simply trapped within an inescapable condition of shock, a shock that cannot be resolved: he does not claim to understand how other people can live without racing, nor why he cannot. And why does Krabbé say this at all? Because he too wishes to provoke in us this condition of shock. And some readers recover from their shock, resolve their shock, and say “what a wonderful and important life this life-of-the-racer must be! Of course our lives seem empty to him!”; and others say “how dare he say such a thing? What a flawed character he must have, how blinkered, how narcissistic!” and in this way respond to him in exactly the way they believe he is responding to them. He says that they are full of emptiness, and so they say that he is full of nothing but hot air. But I think the desired reaction is simply: shock. He does not understand us; we do not understand him. We are, after all, living within different forms of life. Remember Wittgenstein’s insight that it is only when there is a shared form of life that there can be a shared language, a shared understanding: when the way of life differs sufficiently, our words become incommensurable. Krabbé is the lion that speaks, that we do not understand, and the shock of that encounter is only amplified because that lion is not a lion but an intelligent, ordinary, middle-aged Dutchman with a harmless weekend hobby, who the rest of the week is able to live among humans probably without anybody noticing that he is different. After all, perhaps he may be obsessed, but it is a sociable and unremarkable sort of obsession, the sort of obession that is private and that allows its bearer to ‘pass’ in mixed company. Indeed, a part of the power of the novel is from the suggestion that the Wittgensteinian lion is not merely unremarkably human, but may in fact be a part of, or an interpretation of, a great many people. I think it’s important to note that Krabbé is not unaware of how his Other is experienced by others, both professional cyclists and the general public – how some idolise him by imposing their own meaning his actions, while others disregard him. Others try to put meaning onto what he does, just as he tries and fails to explain their lives to himself – and indeed, it is far from clear that Krabbé as a man is entirely able to explain to himself the nature and reasons of Krabbé the rider. But these attempts at imposing meaning are doomed to failure – what gives meaning has no meaning in itself.]

I’m not a cyclist, but I am a fan of professional road racing. It would be nice to think that if I’d read The Rider ten years ago I might have become a cyclist myself – certainly it’s a book that could be life-changing for some, and not only in such superficial ways. But I know that wouldn’t have happened. Ten years ago I despised all forms of physical activity, particular anything involving endurance. My memories of compulsory cross-country running are enough of a data-point for me to know just how badly I’d have done if I’d taken up the bike.

But I am, I suppose you might say, a voyeur of interesting madness. I feel the same way, for instance, about religion: I’m not a religious man, but I find religion interesting precisely because of the way it can get perfectly rational, perfectly intelligent people to act in a way that simply does not make sense to an outsider. The Rider is in this way a book about a religion, complete with its own mythologies, dogmas, authorities, episcopacies, rituals, its own paraphernalia.

                And nothing is better for a firm and solid faith than being in the wrong.

And perhaps the most important borderline is the line between self and nothingness. There is a pervading sense throughout The Rider that for Krabbé cycling is a kind of death, longed for in a way without any depression, but rather in the mystical way that some religious welcome death, welcome death as a liberation from the bounds of self, a unity with God. The rider dissolves into the ride, the mind into the body, the self into the whole, consciousness into the divine goddess that is suffering. It is, in a literal sense, a kind of ecstasy, and as unsettling as all forms of ecstasy are for observers.

And yet even as the self sinks away, the self rises to new heights. It is precisely in and around this ecstatic liberation from the self that the entire world is subsumed into the self, that the self is raised up above the world, above itself, becomes limitless. In more prosaic terms: just as Krabbés connection with the real is also an entrapment within layers of mythology, so too his self-abnegation is an act of hubris. Krabbé is hubristic, he is narcissistic, he is selfish, he is self-obsessed, both his ruthlessness and his grandiloquent flights of fantasy speaking to a sense of self that is freed from all bounds in a way we suspect he cannot replicate in any other part of life. Self and selflessness – not only co-existing, bu co-dependent. It’s hard not to think here of Schopenhauer’s dictum that the will to cease to will is itself a willing, and that in the case of the suicide that will not to will is the strongest and most powerful will of all, a will so strong it can out-will all other will, even itself. So too Krabbé’s implicit will to escape himself is itself the strongest and most unconstrained expression of his self – it is, after all, he who wishes to escape. The paradox lends the enterprise a tantalising desparation, an existential frustration, that is only matched by the serenity that it simultaneously generates.

I view my wrists, stretched out in front of me to the bars, straight as ramrods. They’ve become so tanned, almost black in the wrinkles. The little hairs lie next to each other in wet rows, pointing away from me. I find my wrists incredibly beautiful.

But this isn’t a literary novel. There’s not a single middle-aged college professor and literary novel writer contemplating having an affair. Instead, there’s a bike race. And that’s a big and important difference, because on the one hand, a bike race is inherently dramatic in a way that sitting around thinking about stuff is not, and because, on the other, a bike race does not allow itself to be be second in an author’s affections. This is not a novel about human existence illuminated by a bike race. This is a novel about a bike race, in which human existence is fuel to be taken up and spent, human existence is the turbulence, the epiphenomenal excresence, of the spinning of the wheels. All there really is is the race.

To return to practicalities – and despite the vagaries of the above, this is a practical book – The Rider is a short novel (probably a novella, in truth), told in a series of mostly short, disconnected paragraphs. Many begin with a distance, the location in the race:

                Kilometre 111-112. A cold, wet forest is growing up around me.

For the most part, the story is told in terse, clipped, simplistic sentences. Sometimes fragments of sentences. It take a little while to get into, I found, because it doesn’t seem very sophisticated. It seems hard to believe these brusque reports of distances and terrain, gear-changes and muscle pains, can possibly sustain the interest. They more than do. As the race goes on and we get closer to the finish line, the methodical staccato of the words becomes gripping, even engrossing. It is, first and foremost, a good fun read.

I should of course also give some space to the negative. This is difficult in this case, as for the most part the only things it fails to excel in are things it does not really attempt. The one thing I will say is that sometimes, a few times, a sentence seems inelegant, as though it’s gotten caught in the spokes and stretched out a little further than it can spring back. It’s never confusing, but now and then it is a little rough. It’s also the case that throughout there isn’t quite enough poetry in the language, the sentences do not sing as they should – as the thoughts contained in them demand. It’s a little like hearing a symphony through a thin wall, the melodies all there but everything somehow dampened down. Part of this may be the intentionally straightforward style, that rarely allows for purples excess, but mostly I think that it’s a problem of the translation.

The Rider, you see, is actually De Renner, a novel in Dutch. For the first 24 years, you had to learn Dutch to read it (or only 18 years if you were Danish); this didn’t preclude its becoming a cult novel, and a national classic (the Dutch Foundation for Literature says it “is to Dutch literature what Paris-Roubaix is to bicycle road-racing: a royal classic… the definitive abc of sports, an encyclopedia, a literary masterpiece, an adventure novel and bicycling odyssey all rolled into one”… a “little miracle”), but may perhaps explain why it is not yet universally known in the English-speaking world.

The translation to English was finally made by Sam Garrett and published in 2002. Garrett does not write poorly, and in any case not knowing Dutch I can’t tell you what is Garrett and what is Krabbé; indeed, this is a prize-winning translation, and that must have taken some doing, since I suspect that this sort of writing is deceptively difficult to translate well. However, while no doubt Garrett is an excellent writer for a freelance journalist, he’s not as renowned a writer in English as Krabbé is in Dutch, and there are times when it feels as though maybe the original might have had a little more sparkle than the perfectly serviceable translation does, and, as I say, there are a handful of sentences in the book that seem just slightly inelegant to me. That said, it should be noted that the translation is appropriately sensitive to the subject matter: cycling is a subculture rich in jargon, which Garrett translates where appropriate and leaves untranslated where appropriate.

[Incidentally, if you’re looking for a book to read while learning Dutch, I suspect this may be a good one to try: rich enough to be rewarding, yet simple enough to probably not be too hard to understand]

The only other thing I might say is that the book has no doping in it. I’m not someone who insists that every story about bicycles should wear a scarlett letter on its forehead, but this is actually a story where some mention of doping would have been appropriate to its themes. It’s believable to me that nobody in a high-level amateur race like the Tour de Mont Aigoual (or is it an extremely low-level professional race? I guess the race is professional, in that there’s prize money, but the riders are amateurs, in that the prize money is woefully inadequate and they all need day jobs) would be popping pills in the seventies… but I find it difficult to believe that nobody would have talked about them, tried them, heard someone say something about them. This was, of course, more than a decade before the miracle of EPO, and probably before blood-doping was being widely used – certainly before it was outlawed – but it was in an era of steroids and corticosteroids, and many of the legends Krabbé tells us were from the era of rampant amphetamine use. Top riders were sanctioned, there were protests by riders against testing, some riders (most prominently Anquetil) publically argued for doping. People had been using horse-pills, snake-oil and magical coloured water since the bicycle was invented, and surely in a peloton of enthusiasts like this there would be some rumours about it all. But there is no mention of it. There is no mention of it in the legends either, even the legends that are all about doping – he treats The Fall of Rivière as a story about a fall, for instance, and omits the whole ‘so high he lost the ability to squeeze his own brake levers’ element of the tale. Even Simpson isn’t treated as an opportunity to discuss drugs. The one reference to Merckx’s multiple positive tests is oblique, dainty, almost as though he found the idea of mentioning doping explicitly, even when everyone knew about it, somehow distasteful.

It’s a shame not because it detracts from the book, but because it detracts from the discussion around doping. So often debates on doping are polarised into two extreme positions: ‘all doping is cheating, anything done by a cheater is invalid and worthless’; ‘doping is just a part of the sport (of all sports) and doesn’t really matter, in fact it should probably be legalised’. The Rider feels like a book that could have found a place for doping somewhere between those extremes – or, more in keeping with the book, found a place for it at both incompatible extremes simultaneously. Of course we can’t blame Krabbé, writing in 1978, for not addressing the hot topics of 2014, and nor could we expect an unflinching exposé of drug-taking in sport that took on and exposed the big names of the era. But it is, and was, a shadow at the edges of the sport, and it seems a shame that a book all about the edges could not have at least hinted at its existence.

 

That’s all I can think of to say against it. Other than that, it’s a fantastic book, it really is. A literary masterpiece that will be read for the next hundred years, as a review-blurb on that Dutch Foundation website says – and I know that blurbs come cheap, but that’s a blurb so golden that even if it’s taken at half-price it’s still worth something. In fact, whimsy leads me to revisit that description of it as the Roubaix of Dutch literature – Paris-Roubaix is indeed known as ‘The Queen of Classics’, and perhaps that’s going too far for The Rider. But in cycling, the greatest and most historic races are known as the Classics, and the five Classics traditionally considered the greatest among them – the long, fast, early Milan-San Remo (‘La Primavera’), the vicious cobbled hills of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (often known simply as ‘De Ronde’, the Flemish equivalent La Tour), the murderous and ancient Ardennes hills of Liège-Bastogne-Liège (‘La Doyenne’), the exhausted late-season Italian heights of the Giro di Lombardia (‘La Classica delle Foglie Morte’), and of course Paris-Roubaix itself (‘L’Enfer du Nord’, the hell of the North) – are known by a different name: the Monuments. I’m not sure I’d call The Rider the Queen of all the Classics, but I’d be happy to call it a Monument. Like many monuments, it’s become a little overgrown, a little hard to find, most tourists pass it by, and it is tended only by a relatively small club of devotees – at least in the English-speaking world. But it will be around for a long time, and it’s well-worth the detour.

If nothing else, the whole thing comes in at under 150 pages…

 

Adrenaline: 5/5. No, this isn’t a flawless, heart-bursting thriller. But I don’t think I could expect more excitement from a book: over 150 pages, and 150 kilometres, Krabbé gradually builds up one of the greatest depictions of the tension of great sport, and never lets his philosophical side distract him from telling a good story.

Emotion: 3/5. I suppose if there’s a flaw, it might be that, being so in the moment, there is relatively little time for emotional response. The passions are running high enough that this isn’t a real defect, but we aren’t given the space to wallow in them that might make the book extraordinary in this dimension.

Thought: 5/5. You may accurately object that this isn’t the most sophisticated philosophical treatise on the nature of being, the paradoxical dichotomies of existence, and the characteristics of the postmodern life. This would be true. It is, however, as good a treatise on these subjects as you could expect from a novel. Endlessly quotable, and I suspect endlessly re-readable.

Beauty: 4/5. Stunning landscapes, both of the Earth and of the soul, and some appealing turns of phrase. Docked a point because the prose itself is not actually that exceptional, stylistically.

Craft: 5/5. I could dock that point again here – the prose isn’t perfectly constructed, at least in translation. But I think there’s enough brilliance here to let me ignore that for a moment. The prose is good, the images and expressions remarkable, the development of character impressive. What perhaps is most striking, however, is the way that Krabbé is able to intermingle fact and fiction, the moment of the race with the legends of the sport and Krabbé’s own biography, along with a sizeable dose of outright fantasy, and yet still have something that fits together perfectly, never feeling scattered or at odds with itself.

Endearingness: 5/5. It’s a cult classic. The ‘cult’ part of that should suggest the depth of adoration this book has provoked in so many people. I’m not sure I do outright adore it, but I’m a bit in awe of it, and the only reason I won’t continually be re-reading it is for fear of wearing it out. This may not exactly be what I normally think of as comfort reading – it’s not very comfortable, for one thing – but there are many times when I’m feeling down and it’s pouring rain that I might want to remind myself of this novel.

Originality: 5/5. It’s not just the best novel about cycling, it’s the novel about cycling. Nothing else comes close (or such at least is the general opinion), and you can see why. It’s a novel that is utterly and essentially about cycling and could not be about anything else, but that is at the same time about something entirely different – and it does what it does in a way both universal and yet utterly specific and unique.

Echo: 1/2. I don’t normally give a score for this, so people may have forgotten what I mean; this is OK, as I’ve never really known. This is the score for the way that some books make you feel when you’re not reading them. Oddly, this is perhaps the opposite of most of these ‘echoey’ books. Most of them drive you to your knees with this great incomprehensible void, the absence the book has made, a numbness to the world; The Rider is more a call to action, a stirring of the soul, a trumpet-noise where other great books engender a great silence.

Overall: 7/7. BRILLIANT.
Adding up those numbers makes The Rider the best book I’ve ever reviewed. Is it? I’m not sure. Let’s put it this way: I wouldn’t stake much of value on this really being the best book I’ve read in the last five or six years. But on the other hand, confronted with the proposition “this is the best book you’ve read in the last five or six years, isn’t it?”… well, it’s hard to really find a way to argue with that suggestion. Perhaps I am being too generous. Perhaps my little impulse to maybe for the first time award something 8/7 is just a madness of the moment. But even if all that’s true, I can’t avoid thinking that this is, at minimum, a brilliant book, and at a minimum one of the best books I’ve ever read.

And just to remind you all: it’s 150 small pages and take only a few hours to read. And maybe this review should have all been a lot shorter and more to the point: if you haven’t read The Rider, go read The Rider, right now. Some of you will love it, some of you will just be baffled by it, but whoever you are and whatever you read you haven’t read The Rider until you’ve read The Rider.

That, in the end, is why De Renner has been a cult classic since 1978. It’s not because it’s a brilliant book, although it is, but because it’s the only De Renner. It’s a solitary monument to a certain way of life, a way of being, and in being that it is ensured a place in the cannon of literary significance. Many books are other books, their virtues coming from being better at being that book than any of the other books that also try to be that book. There’s nothing wrong with that. Some of the greatest books are like that. But there is always an element of interchangeability about them. De Renner, I suspect (not having read all other books ever written), is not interchangeable with anything else. It is, by itself, one (small, perhaps, and strange, maybe) part of the nature of humanity.

Or, more to the point: there is no excuse for not having read The Rider other than not having heard of it. You have now heard of it. Go read it.