I’ve been asked by my publishers to provide a list of fifteen or so books that I love or that have influenced me, for something called Blinkbox (Pinterview). I decided to avoid James Joyce, Tolstoy and Chekhov for a change (much as I love them) in favour of books that are fun, and brilliantly written to boot. Here is my list (you saw it here first!):
Ernest Hemingway – The Complete Short Stories (Finca Vigia Edition). This is Hemingway’s masterpiece. No one else wrote as he wrote. Each word was considered, each sentence balanced to perfection. He watched, waited and described. All the nonsense talked about his life pales into insignificance when compared to these stories.
Joseph Conrad – Victory. One of the greatest love stories of all time. Conrad is the master of the gradual unfolding of character via the detailed exploration of the inner mind. Lord Jim, Nostromo, and Heart Of Darkness may be more approachable, but in the characters of Alma/Lena and Axel Heyst Conrad crafts victory from tragedy – the sublime from the commonplace. He gives dignity to human life, and expands our understanding of consciousness and of morality.
D H Lawrence – Women In Love. Lawrence’s greatest novel, and, alongside his sublime poems, his profoundest meditation on humanity, myth, and the sometimes fraught relationships between men and women, women and women, and men and men. It is sensuous, perverse and idiosyncratic. Just like Lawrence himself.
John Buchan – John Macnab. This is the ultimate comfort read for those who love the Scottish countryside and all its associated sports (both legal and illegal), and who hanker for an age where grace, fair play and the innate understanding of the natural world still had a chance of winning out against political correctness, ‘right thinking’, and the perils of social engineering. In Buchan’s world a gentleman or a lady was someone – from any walk of life and from any culture – who never knowingly gave another person hurt.
Geoffrey Household – Rogue Male. One of the greatest thrillers ever written and so far ahead of its time in terms of narrative structure and brevity of style that it can still serve as a template for aspiring writers in search of the elusive art of simplicity. Household was one of those rare beings who could twin mystery with mysticism. We are always aware in his books of what might be beyond our immediate ken. His later novels may be indisputably strange, but they are utterly compulsive.
Henry Rider Haggard – The Ancient Allan. This magnificent tale, which encompasses past lives and their effect on the present and the future, will have to stand in for all the wonderful Allan Quatermain books Rider Haggard wrote over the course of his career. Quatermain – a.k.a. Macumazana or ‘The Watcher-By-Night’ – was Haggard’s alter ego, and the representation, almost despite himself, of the perfect English gentleman. Both a man of action and a mystic, Quatermain was the quintessence of Haggard’s belief in Karmic reincarnation – the personification, in other words, of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces.
John D MacDonald – The Lonely Silver Rain. The most underrated American writer of the last century, MacDonald’s sublime philosophical interludes, his excoriation of ecological crimes against the natural world, his lifting of the lid on the criminal enormities foisted on his beloved Florida, together with the unerring simplicity of his prose, make of him a writer to be relished in the darkest watches of the night. The Lonely Silver Rain will have to stand in for the whole of MacDonald’s Travis McGee series of novels. It is a profound contemplation on ageing, the importance of family and friendship, and the impact of lost illusions. And a cracking good tale to boot.
Rumi – The Masnavi. In this thirteenth century Farsi masterpiece the great Persian poet Rumi describes the ecstasy that only oneness with God can bring. It is a paean to love and unity and the completion that only utter submission to God can afford. It is the finest Sufi poem ever written, and one can never reach the end of what it has to teach us.
Cormac McCarthy – Blood Meridian. Cormac McCarthy is the greatest living American writer and Blood Meridian is his masterpiece. That he has not yet won the Nobel Prize is a scandal. There are episodes in this book so beautifully written, with each word faceted like a signature diamond, that any rational individual will burst into tears of joy, just as I did once, in the middle of the night, reading McCarthy’s description of a thunderstorm.
James Salter – A Sport And A Pastime. If Cormac McCarthy is modern America’s William Faulkner, James Salter is its Scott Fitzgerald. A genius with a turn of phrase so beautiful it can snatch your breath away. A Sport And A Pastime is erotic, sensuous, knowing, playful and blisteringly romantic. It is a book for everyone who loves France and wishes to inhabit its purlieus, its boulevards, and its cul-de-sacs. Salter is the master of the intricacies of human relationships – he is the poet of the everyday.
Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. A poet and a master of the short story, Carver, like his own master, Anton Chekhov, died young from a pulmonary complaint (lung cancer for Carver, tuberculosis for Chekhov). He gave significance to people whose lives, to all intents and purposes, lacked all conceivable significance. He was the champion of the emotionally illiterate – the historian of blue collar despair. His stories are exquisitely paced, and he makes the commonplace momentous.
Charles Bukowski – Post Office. Flatulent, ribald, boisterous and bloody-minded, Bukowski is the Rabelais of the modern era. The misanthropic anti-hero of his own misadventures, he is both poet and barfly, victim and bully. Everyone needs to read Bukowski, if only to remind oneself that there is honesty in fabrication, wisdom in studied immaturity, and liberation in the suitably aimed scatological aside.
Jane Austen – Emma. Austen’s Pride And Prejudice may be better loved, but Emma is the more honest book. When Emma puts her foot in it, she pretty much empties the puddle, which makes her eventual salvation, in the form of her recognition of her love for Mr Knightley, all the more moving. Austen herself said ‘I am going to take a heroine that no one but myself will much like’. Well, I love Emma, and I’ll take her over Elizabeth Bennet (blissful though she is) any day.
Raymond Chandler – The Long Goodbye. How to choose just one novel from Chandler’s sublime miscellany? The Long Goodbye is arguable Chandler’s most personal work, written whilst his beloved wife Cissy was dying, and in which he mourns the loss of friendship, sobriety, and the certainties of youth. Chandler is a writer’s writer – only someone who has lasted out the writing of an entire novel without throwing up his hands in horror knows what it takes to craft insights and descriptions as exquisite as those Chandler conjures up. One percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration was Thomas Edison’s specification of genius. A perfect description of Raymond Chandler, who reminds us that to force writers into established genres risks overlooking some of our greatest and most noble talents.
Nancy Mitford – The Blessing. I love all of Nancy Mitford. Like the aforementioned James Salter, she understands France and the French and delights us with her insights into arguably the world’s most idiosyncratic culture. In Grace Allingham, Mitford constructs a heroine who is at the same time wildly in love with French society and its mores, while at the same reeling back in horror from its more enervating extremes. Her son Sigismund, half bluff Saxon and half Gallic Machiavelli, contrives both to lever his parents apart and to epically cement them back together again. Can Grace and Charles-Edouard’s fragile love survive the clash of two prepotent cultures and the machinations of their own son? Read on and be enchanted.
Daphne du Maurier – The Scapegoat. Daphne du Maurier was a master storyteller and a vastly underrated novelist. Damned for writing what certain critics construed as ‘romantic fiction’, her novels add up to far more than the sum of their parts. The Scapegoat, like Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer and Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner Of Zenda before it, shows what might happen if one were allowed to lead another person’s life (or to identify too closely with a person – a stranger, for instance – who nominally resembles us). Like all of du Maurier’s books, it is both beautifully written and powerfully evocative of both place and the mysteries of possibility. Her writing taught me about the importance of atmosphere in fiction.