I was at a book group last night and was asked if I always wanted to be a writer. It’s a question I’m asked more and more. That I’ve written and published a novel surprises no-one more than me. For most of my life, writing was something other people did, with a clear dividing line – and me very definitely on the reading side of it. Besides, this notion that you could ‘be’ a writer from an early age by wanting it, that it could be willed in some way, baffles me. I’ve spent most of my life doing other things, working, being a parent, reading books other people have written. And then, I don’t know, about ten years ago, the writing simply arrived, fragments and vignettes to begin with – and that was how it began.
Looking back, I can see that my writing came pel-mel out of a crisis. But writing isn’t a form a catharsis for me: quite the opposite. Good work, the best work, is difficult and demanding, necessarily so. It takes. It exacts.
If I haven’t always been a writer, then I have been a reader. I thought I’d choose five books, one for each decade of my life,* as a way of showing how reading took me towards writing. These are books for which I have an enduring affection, or which in their own quiet, unexpected way, became part of me as my writing self. This is literature’s true power: the power of a book to become part of you as you read it, taken in, not just in the moment of reading, nor even in the immediate aftermath when it is finished, but with you for years. Not all books do this, become more than themselves, or have this astonishing power, but the books I’ve listed below have stayed with me in ways in which their authors could never have imagined.
1. Paul Biegel, The King of the Copper Mountains
This is the first time I remember being gripped by a novel, and aware of a novel’s capacity to do more than tell a story: in this case, to tell a series of stories within the main story. Arabian Nights, The Canterbury Tales do the same, but this was my first experience of this structure as a child, though I didn’t think of it in those terms then. An elderly, dearly-loved King is gravely ill, the only way to keep him alive is to tell him a story every night. Can story-telling sustain him (and by implication, us)? And does the old King live? I’m not saying; you’ll have to read it to find out . . . The book, for good reason, is still in print.
This edition, (Armada Lions, 1971), is beautifully illustrated by Babs Van Wely.
2. George Orwell, Complete Novels
A bit of a cheat this, as it’s in two vols, and includes both Orwell’s prose and his essays and journalism.
It’s the first time I remember reading one writer’s entire work with a kind of madcap compulsion: one book after another, until I had reached the end. Had I started smoking by then? I tell you, Orwell had the same addictive power; if I could have smoked these novels, I would have.
Earlier this year, I came across Orwell’s letters and his diary, published by Penguin. I bought both and read them the same week. One thing I learned: my favourite novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, was the one Orwell liked least. Ha! A reminder to any reader that whatever you think you might know of the writer, it is almost certainly false.
Other teenage reads: L P Hartley’s The Go Between. Anything by H E Bates, Camus, Negley Farson, Knutt Hamsun, H G Wells, Alain-Fournier.
I also read Lynne Reid Banks, Françoise Sagan, Mary Stewart – but otherwise, this was the decade when I read men. I never thought otherwise, never questioned it: literature was male.
3. Osip Mandelstam, Selected Poems
I visited Russia several times when I was in my twenties. This was the time, immediately post-Gorbachev, when Yeltsin came to power astride a tank in Red Square. For a few months, I taught English to the first new rich kids. The rouble crashed; gunshots cracked the night. I remember horse carcasses, bundled out of the back of a truck, butchered there in the street.
Friends thought me mad. Maybe. But there was reason. I’d come across Osip Mandelstam’s poetry in my late teens. That book, (pictured here), his poetry, took me to Russia. And Russia changed my life.
Whenever I bought a new book, I had a habit of putting my name in it, and the year. I never imagined looking back on it thirty-odd years later.
4. Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
This is the decade when reading began to change for me; when I started to read as a writer.
Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is a work I return to again and again. There is one scene, when Emma Bovary visits a country show. Flaubert takes the reader into the scene, weaving it in and around Emma and pulling away again. It is entirely cinematic in its scope and approach, (and, I think, suspense) – but obviously pre-film-making.
This is at least the third copy I’ve bought. The state of it, though. I’m ashamed. Each copy seems to get beaten up in the reading.
5. Jean Rhys, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie
Recently, I’ve been reading and re-reading Jean Rhys’ novels – works that blur the boundary between Rhys’s life and fiction. Books that say, here, woman, these are the shabby cruel limits of life. Each of Rhys’s words, then, in writing and publishing them, in absolute defiance of that. I totally get that.
In five decades of reading, I’ve gone from mostly reading books written by men to reading books written by women. I’ve learned in that time that literature isn’t male, but the structures I grew up with do still largely reward the white male voice.
One thing I never foresaw is how reading might take me towards writing and writing return me to reading again.
Here are a few more books which did not make my final five, but which all have mattered to me a great deal.
If you had to choose a book for each decade of your life, which would they be?
* truth is, having tipped over 50, I’m into the sixth decade of my life. . .