Friday 26th February 2021
Q1) The book most influential for you as a young person
Probably The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, which I got as a Christmas present, I think around the age of 11 or 12 – the Penguin Classics paperback stuffed into in my stocking, to be discovered on Christmas morning. It was the first fully adult book I had read, and I remember it blowing open my idea of what a novel can do. I was drawn in by the detective plot, and the desolation of the Yorkshire setting (drowning in quicksand!), but more than this I was thrown by the audacity of Collins’s plotting, that seemed, when the mystery was finally resolved, to break the rules the book was built upon. Can you do that? I seem to remember thinking, Is a book allowed to do that? Isn’t that cheating? The power of that paradox – of loving the rules and conventions by which stories are told, and of loving it when writers sidestep them, or tear them up in front of you, or simply stare you down and pretend they don’t exist – is something I have carried with me ever since.
Q2) The book that gets you through hard times
I’m going to define ‘hard times’ not as psychologically or emotionally hard, but simply as times when I find reading hard. The writer I turn to when I can’t concentrate on anything long, or normal, or ‘proper’, is David Markson, and the three of his five last books I own: Wittgenstein’s Mistress, This is Not a Novel and Vanishing Point. What they all share is the sense they have been assembled at random from a grab-bag of cultural fragments, delicious little factoids about the great writers and artists of Western culture (mostly white and male, it has to be said). In Wittgenstein’s Mistress there is narrative connective tissue, of a sort, but in the other books this dissolves, so that the only thing holding the fragments together is the ruminations of an author wondering what on earth he is doing. The effect is one that balances desolation with a kind of hope. They read like a message in a bottle thrown in despair into the ocean, or like something you’d send out into interstellar space attached to a probe, to give proof of civilisation, or a part of it.
Q3) The book that most disappointed you
Plenty of books disappoint me, because I have such high hopes of every book I open. But one recent book that I put down unfinished was Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry. I’m in awe of Barry’s talents as a writer in general, and I think some of his short stories are superb, and indeed different ones are superb in different ways, but I’ve never really been convinced by one of his novels. I hope I’m not demeaning short stories and short story writers by saying a novel holds out a different kind of promise to a story, and a greater one, less intense though it may be. Here is a story, it seems to say, that is also a book, that will go out into your life with you, and walk alongside you for a number of days, and keep pace with you, and reward the time you devote to it, and while you are reading it. There is a rhythm to it that extends to the wider rhythms of human life: days and weeks. I didn’t get that from Night Boat to Tangier, nor really from Beatlebone. I’ll happily wait for Barry to make good in that disappointment in a future novel.
Q4) Name a book with either a brilliant opening or a brilliant ending
I was given Jonathan Buckley’s book Nostalgia to review by Boyd Tonkin at The Independent, and I’m hugely grateful for being introduced to a British writer that I had never heard of, and think few have read. Nostalgia plays an awfully long game for a novel. A blunt resumé would say it is about a grumpy ex-pat English painter living in a small Tuscan town, whose visit by his niece is watched over by the painter’s taciturn assistant. It is bucolic, constrained, snail-paced, with as much space given to local history and architecture as to the well-drawn but slightly insipid characters. You might read the epigraph, from Schoenberg (“There is still plenty of good music to be written in C Major” – how good is that!) as mere self-deprecation, but the modulation of the book’s final pages manages to cast what has come before in a fine and delicious new light. It is the matter of the single instance of a change of pronoun, and in its own quiet way it is astonishing.
Q5) Your favourite character from a novel
Anna in Brigid Brophy’s The Snow Ball, originally published in 1964, and now available in a splendid new edition from Faber & Faber, with an introduction by Eley Williams. I love most of Brophy’s novels, but Anna is her quintessential character: highly intelligent, utterly detached, witty without being chatty, sexy without being beautiful, self-determined and self-sufficient. It is a total pleasure to be in her company as she passes coolly through a masked New Year’s party, especially as I’m sure she would never give me the time of day or night if I met her in real life. And quite right too.
Q6) Next on your 'to read' pile is...
Katherine Angel’s new book on consent Tomorrow Sex Will be Good Again has just arrived in the post, so that’s going to be fighting it out with No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood, Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson and Poetics of Work by Noémi Lefebvre to be my next read. They’re all quite short so I hope to get to them all very soon.
Q7) Your favourite poem
Hard not to say Autumn Journal, the book-length poem of 1938 by Louis MacNeice in which he looked around himself as London, and Britain, geared themselves up for the fearful unknown onslaught of the Second World War – and looked inside himself, at his life, his relationships, his work, his beliefs – and tried to write it all out, in real time. It shows how the practice of writing can help generate meaning, and when at the start of the Covid lockdown I decided to respond to MacNeice’s poem with my own ‘Spring Journal’, on Twitter, I found that there was a huge amount to learn from the close reading of and response to it.
Q8) The greatest book you've ever read
We’d better define our terms, hadn’t we? A great book, for me, is one that permanently expands my understanding of the world, that I can actually feel push against the limits of my sensibility as I’m reading it, and that I know will inflect my reading of every other book I read afterwards. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann would be the book that did this, to the greatest extent, that I can think of. It took me a long time to read, and I read it slowly, with a few false starts and a fair amount of back-tracking. It helps that Mann doesn’t treat his subjects (time, and death) in straightforward linear fashion. He is interested in the idea that this year is quite like last year, today quite like yesterday, all our days somehow versions of the same thing, while all somehow blossoming and decaying, growing and dying at the same time. It helps that, as well as grandly philosophical, the book is at times also wildly funny, with characters like Peepercorn, so boisterous and bombastic that when he is in full flow it takes a waterfall to drown him out, so Mann puts him in a picnic next to waterfall, and we lose half of what he says. And it helps that it has a delightful seduction, or at least flirtation, in it as well, with the greatest come-on line of all literature – easily the equal of Lauren Bacall’s in To Have and Have Not. That’s my greatest book, right there. ●