These books have been important to me. I’d recommend them to anyone.
Just William by Richmal Crompton So funny, so cynical, so arch. These children’s books which mock children (and everyone else) introduced me as a child to the idea of a narrator, and to the power of style.
Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess I honestly don’t know if I still like this book, or if I would now find it overblown, but it was my fixation as a teenager. I loved its wildness and ambition, both in the grandeur of its theme (good and evil) and in its blazing multicolour prose. Young as I was, I don’t think I realised its strangeness. It’s huge, but one of the few novels I have read several times.
London Fields by Martin Amis Amis cured me of my Burgess fixation by starting one with him. Flashy again, but earthier. In a country very queasy about showing off, showing off so defiantly was glorious, to me. I don’t think two minutes have ever passed without delight while I’ve been reading Martin Amis. Delight is his secret, here running through another big ambitious novel. Whatever one thinks of his later work, Britain’s current lack of respect for its best living writer is a disgrace. I’ll write more about that one day.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt My goodness, what a pleasure it is when a novel distils and delivers this much excitement in a titanic hit. Real life was an irritating series of commercial breaks while I was reading The Secret History. It fixed in me the idea that the best novels should induce a kind of unhealthy desperation in their readers.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky The thing that novels, among all art forms, are meant to be best at - their killer app, to revive a now very quaint phrase - is the placement of one mind inside another. No novel that I’ve come across does this more completely than Crime and Punishment. Which mind inside which is always hard to say.
The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow Since overdoing Amis, I’ve mostly gone to Americans for prose. I doubt they saw themselves this way, but Bellow, Updike and Nabokov are to me like a menagerie of swaggering specimens from the last days when novelists could strut about like geniuses uncontradicted. I could have picked Couples or Lolita, but Augie March, from the first page, is really something else.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson I admit that almost as much as I loved this book I loved the fact that I loved this book. A contemplative, domestic, slow-flowing reflection on his nearly finished life by the aged minister of a church in rural America is not my usual line of country, I think it’s fair to say. Although I don’t like the idea of having a line of country, so I as often stray from it as follow, and this was one of the successes. Robinson is a master of controlled prose, fine observation and clear thinking.