Friday 31st January 2020
Q1) The book most influential for you as a young person
Alan Garner's The Owl Service. I've always been fascinated by the past and 'time-slip' novels, partly because I've had, since childhood, a form of synesthesia (a 'union of the senses') which makes me experience, sometimes overwhelmingly, words as colours and/or sounds.
Garner's book, like all his works exploring the theme of what has been termed 'ancient but living legend', was first published in 1967 and is set in mid-Wales. It's about the strange kinetic energy between three young people thrown together one long summer. This in turn links back to an ancient Welsh legend about a woman created from flowers, a love triangle, and a betrayal which features in the 12th and 13th-century collection of Welsh legends, the Mabinogion, and which is repeated in Garner's reinterpretation. It is spooky, mysterious, unresolved, timeless. I was lucky enough to publish an edition of the book when I grew up!
Q2) The book that gets you through hard times
Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift - the last book Nabokov wrote in his native Russian, while in exile in Berlin in 1935-37, before he settled in the US and wrote ever after in English.
It's a work of metafiction, and a story within a story, a form of the pseudonymous autobiography at which Nabokov excels, as well as being a novel of exile, a meditation on the loss of parents, and wild with literary ambition and hope. It's stuffed with beauty and poetry and wit, and the rather liberating idea that we are all just moveable characters on the stage of life. It was my late father's favourite novel and I still have his copy.
Q3) The book that most disappointed you
There are so many books that have disappointed me! Probably Wuthering Heights. I grew up in Yorkshire and it was the book that all teenage girls were supposed to love. It was an A-level set text and I found it - and still find it - overblown, sadistic and deeply troubling in its characterisation of Heathcliff and the damaging, overly influential notion of the 'flawed hero'.
Q4) Name a book with a brilliant opening
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens: 'Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.' An inspiration to anyone.
Q5) Your favourite character from a novel
Catherine Moreland from Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. In the book Austen brilliantly sends up the popular gothic novel, all the rage in the Regncy period - while also being a defender of good books and good readers. Catherine is a credulous, over-imaginative and sometimes brave anti-heroine who reminds me very much of myself as a teenager.
Q6) Next on your 'to read' pile is:
Apart from the many books for review, I'm looking forward to getting stuck into Fernanda Melchor's novel Hurricane Season, translated by Sophie Hughes and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions - a debut by a Mexican author about mythology, misogyny and machoism in Mexico, all delivered in an astonishing torrent of language.
Q7) Your favourite poem
John Donne's The Relic. It's a love poem, and a universal poem, I think, about loss and how we mourn - Donne, arguably the most significant of the so-called metaphysical poets, is especially good on mourning in his poems. Perhaps the best of us dies with those we love, just as the best of them in turn lives on in us. It's strange paradox. It's also an exploration of Donne's ambivalence abut the Catholic faith and its belief in relics and miracles. 'The bracelet of bright hair about the bone' Donne describes in the second stanza is one of the most striking images in poetry.
Q8) The greatest book you've ever read
A tall order! It has to be a firm tie between George Eliot's Middlemarch, not so much a book but almost a biography ... and a companion for life - and Henry James's intense, incredibly modern study of marriage and adultery, The Golden Bowl. ●
Catherine Taylor writes for the Guardian, FT Life & Arts, New Statesman, The Economist and TLS, and is editor of The Book of Sheffield: A City in Short Fiction (Comma Press, 2019) https://commapress.co.uk/books/the-book-of-sheffield. She has been publisher at the Folio Society and most recently deputy director of English PEN. Catherine is currently commercial director of not-for-profit quarterly the Brixton Review of Books (brixtonreviewofbooks.net) and is working on a cultural memoir of Sheffield, The Stirrings.