Friday 24th January 2020
Q1) The first book you ever loved
I think it was probably The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. There was something irresistible about being able to escape my humdrum lonely, only child life, and travel to a magical enchanted forest at the very top of the Faraway Tree. But there was horror and suspense too, because you had no control over which land would be there when you arrived. It could be the wonderful Land of Birthdays, or the Land of Do-As-You-Please; or you could get the Land of Dame Slap, the Angry Pixie and a thorough soaking by Dame Wash-a Lot. A great preparation for any young human for the arbitrariness and chaos of life in the real world, and an essential introduction to the idea of happiness tempered by pain.
Q2) The book you've read more than any other
Things I Don't Want To Know and Cost of Living by Deborah Levy.
I'm huge fan of listening to books, and because I spend so much time in the car, it feels like a good use of dead time to be able to enjoy literature this way. For the last few years I have been writing (and have just finished) a memoir about being adopted and growing up in South Africa during the apartheid years. A lot of what I read and listened to during the writing of this book, has been memoir, narrative non-fiction and personal essays. So many wonderful discoveries (see below). But the books I have listened to the most (perhaps once a month?) are Deborah Levy’s two short memoirs (read by the wonderful, velvet-voiced Juliette Stevenson). Levy calls these works ‘living autobiography’ and in the first volume she describes traumatic childhood events — the arrest and imprisonment of her father who was a member of the banned ANC in apartheid South Africa, and her subsequent move to the UK at the age of 9. In the second volume she examines the breakup up of her marriage in her fifties and her new life with her two daughters, an e-bike and a shed in which she will go on to write 3 new books. More than an exploration of personal history, these books are concerned with the practice of writing as a political and social act. Her intellectual engagement with the ideas of Simone de Beauvoir (on love and independence); James Baldwin (on identity and freedom); Virginia Woolf (on writing and the resources needed to do this successfully as a woman); and Marguerite Duras (on memory and how to write about the past in the present tense) form the scaffold for her own personal stories of writing and being a woman in the 21st century. Levy’s style is funny, episodic, engaging and full of carefully observed details that are made to deliver again and again — the snowman she builds with her father the day he is arrested is a symbolic gift that keeps on giving throughout Things I Don’t Want to Know.
Q3) A book that you despise
Despise is a harsh word. I have a huge admiration for anyone who sits down, puts in the work, writes a book, gets it published and sells copies to people other than their family. It's a commitment. Having experienced the joys and pain of belonging to book clubs where alongside wonderful selections, are the books that one really shouldn't waste a single hour reading. Books about finding long-lost family on a leper colony in Crete, designer baby hospitals for rich women on fancy ocean liners with a searingly handsome gynaecologist, Books with pastel covers, aggressive marketed as 'women's fiction' or the 'Holiday Read'. You get the picture.
Q4) A book full of beautiful writing
Maggie O'Farrell's I Am I Am I Am and Maggie Nelson, Argonauts.
This year I read Maggie O'Farrell's I Am I Am I Am (the title taken from Plath's The Bell Jar, "I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am" ). These self-contained essays describe her seventeen brushes with death. Beautiful and poetic, it contains the most powerful prose I have read in a long time about the struggle of her own child with extreme eczema. I also re-read Maggie Nelson's Argonauts and these two book set up a conversation about how to write about ordinary life; about relationships; about death in a way that is transformative. Reading these books challenged my thinking about the personal essay. Both these writers have an artists' s eye for how to curate words on a page and a poet's ear for rhythm and sense, combined with a memoir writer's barb of absolute honesty.
Q5) The book you've been meaning to read for years, but haven't
Cervantes, Don Quixote, and Alasdair Gray, Lanark
Don Quixote has been on my list forever - this is the year. Lanark because I can't believe I haven't read Alasdair Gray's masterpiece. It will be my way to honour his genius now that he has left us.
Q6) The book you're reading currently
For a new project I am working on for an MFA in Creative Writing at University of Glasgow, I am tackling the mammoth Frontiers by historian Noel Mostert, a comprehensive history of the Xhosa people in the eastern Cape, including the arrival of the Dutch and British settlers in the 1700 and 1800s; the ongoing frontier wars; land grabs and colonial crimes that have shaped the history of the country for the last two centuries. I am also re-reading Tara Westover's fabulous memoir Educated to examine how she maintains narrative tension. I bought two books for myself this Christmas, and I am waiting for a chance to dive in and enjoy Anne Boyer's The Undying: A Meditation Modern Illness and Jenn Ashworth, Notes Made While Falling.
Q7) Your favourite short story
I am a huge fan of the Irish short story and there are many writers of the form I admire (Anne Enright, James Joyce, Roddy Doyle, William Trevor, Kevin Barry) but my absolute favourite story is John McGahern's brilliant Sierra Leone. Set on the eve of the Cuban Missile crisis, it is a moody piece of genius with atmosphere as thick as an oil slick. It concerns an affair, loss of love, middle age and shame and is a masterclass in how a story can read (in Joseph O'Connor's description of it) "as though nobody had written it - as if it had somehow grown on the page."
Q8) Your all-time favourite novel
Madame Bovary. It also contains my all-time favourite character - Emma Bovary. I was devastated for weeks after I finished the novel and although it is my favourite, I have not had the courage to re-read it yet. I should also mention Cotezee's Disgrace as a favourite, probably because it leaves me stricken whenever I re-read it. This could be my personal criteria for a great novel: I have to feel undone when I reach the end. Disgrace has my favourite opening: "For a man of his age, 52, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well." Really? Here we go, dear reader ... ●
Lynnda grew up in Johannesburg and has lived in Glasgow since 1999. In 2007 she received a Scottish Arts Council new writer's grant. She has had poems and stories published in various magazines, including Gutter, New Orleans Review, NWS, and thi wurd. She is currently undertaking an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.
w: www.lynndawardle.com // t: @lynndawardle5