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, the power of style, and a lot of long words.
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 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 this magnificently shouts bullshit to the whole thing. I don’t think I’ve ever gone two minutes without delight while reading Martin Amis. Delight is his secret, here running through another of those big ambitious novels. 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 I don’t think I experienced anything new reading this book. I don’t think the prose is above professional. To some extent, I think the whole thing is a salad of clichés. What I did experience, however, was the pleasure of an exciting novel distilled and delivered in a titanic hit. Real life was an irritating series of commercial breaks when I had this on the go. I tried to understand how Tartt had done it, and at times I’ve tried to do similar things myself. Ideally I do want readers to be this desperate to keep reading.
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 did this more totally 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 would have seen themselves this way, but Bellow, Updike and Nabokov are to me like a private menagerie of specimens from the time after the world got free and jazzy but before men lost the chutzpah just to consider themselves entitled geniuses and write without fear of contradiction. I could have picked Couples or Lolita, but Augie March, from the first page, is really something.
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. Anyway, this was one of the successes. Robinson, as the whole world seems to agree, is a master of controlled prose, fine observation and clear thinking. The main effect of this book on me, however, besides the pleasure of feeling myself still able to relate to someone religious, was the discovery of how elegantly she weaves miniature essays into the story. Home, the sequel, I didn’t like so much.