I am usually very good at sleeping. I can do it pretty much anywhere and for as long as is possible. Even during an unbelievably perilous journey across the Indian Himalayas, crammed into a tiny jeep with nine other people and a driver who stank of booze and drove for 22 hours without taking in anything solid. Head lolling from side to side, I was out for the count, much to the annoyance of the fiancé, who spent the 22 hours clinging on to his seat, eyes wide with terror.
But, the other day, I found myself unable to get off to sleep. For those who suffer from insomnia, it must be an incredibly frustrating, debilitating affliction, but, as it so rarely comes my way, I quite enjoyed the novelty. Rather than fretting about whatever it was that was keeping me awake, I decided to put my mind to better use.
I thought perhaps I’d go through the alphabet for a particular category. Capital cities are a good one, as are rude words (the only way to keep me sane while having a filling at the dentist). But, in the end, I went through the alphabet deciding on my favourite author for each letter.
It was a fascinating exercise. There were some unexpected and very difficult matches, (Virginia Woolf vs Edmund de Waal, for instance) and it also showed up several gaping holes in my reading. It is refreshingly logical, which is something I rarely am about books – it’s easy to gush about favourite books and marvellous authors, but when one has to weigh an author against another one, it becomes a far more measured exercise.
So I thought I’d share the fruits of my insomnia with you, and take you through my literary A-Z, a few letters at a time. I think what I’m doing, in blogging terminology, is introducing a ‘series’. I expect I’ll do it once a month. I hope you like it!
For many people A means Jane Austen. So many – usually very clever, well-read – people, such as P.D. James, absolutely adore Jane Austen. But I think she’s the musical equivalent of Mozart. Evidently a genius, but so twee and twiddly that I can’t bear her. I must be a philistine. I hope that, like tomatoes, it’s a taste I’ll grow into.
But just a slipped final letter away from Austen is Paul Auster. The first Auster I read was The New York Trilogy. I’d just decided to apply to read English at Oxford – as opposed to Biology or Psychology, which had been the original plan – and our English teachers had distributed these lists of books that I suppose they considered to be seminal works that we should have read before our interviews. I read several of the books on there with a feeling that they were good but old. Books like Rasselas and Candide and Gulliver’s Travels – all very clever, all very important, but nothing that sets a seventeen-year-old alight. But then there was The New York Trilogy and – apologies for being a bit Billy Eliot here – it was like electricity. I was so astonished to be reading something so modern, so new, so playful, so dark. And, in the words of my seventeen-year-old self, I thought it was quite ‘cool’. It made me feel incredibly excited about the possibilities of literature, as something that could be so experimental, something that was still evolving, something with a future, not just a past.
I went on a bit of an Auster binge after that, and I remember feeling particularly fond of Mr Vertigo, which is about a boy who learns to fly. And Timbuktu, told from the point of view of Mr Bones, a dog. And then I read Invisible a couple of years ago, which was, characteristically, weird but also brilliant. And, most recently, Sunset Park, which was a slightly disappointing 3 out of 5.
Martin and Kingsley Amis deserve a mention, although I hate the one and never got round to reading the other. I better stick with that first, tremendously excited, reading of The New York Trilogy and say that Paul Auster is King of the As.
The Bs, for me, boil down to Bronte vs. Bowen.
Having recently finished Bowen’s Court by Elizabeth Bowen (see my last post), I am very much under the Bowen spell. I am longing to read more by her – I’d love to see what her novels are like – and, as I said, her voice is so strong and familiar that I felt like I’d made friends with her. I am even beginning to miss her.
But the Brontes. How can anyone compete? Perhaps it’s because the Brontes are usually part of a schoolgirl’s reading, they seem like a rite of passage. I have felt a particular affinity with Wuthering Heights because when I went to Burma, nearly ten years ago, I met this very kind man called ‘Mr Book’, who ran a bookstall, and looked after my friend and me for a few days. He, funnily enough, loved books, and so he decided to call me ‘Emily Bronte’ or ‘Wuthering Heights’.
It’s hard to decide between Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but I think I’ve got to come down on the side of the latter. It’s such a wonderful book, and one that bears rereading several times. Charlotte Bronte creates such overwhelming empathy for Jane – a sweet, young girl in a big, strange house – that anyone who doesn’t count this among their Top 20 books can scarcely be human!
I nearly forgot Bassani, who wrote The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. I read this while I was on holiday in Italy last summer (see this post on it). At the time, I enjoyed it but I didn’t think it was utterly spectacular. It was only afterwards, that I found I kept on thinking about it, and began to see that really it was a rather subtle masterpiece – Bassani created a lingering poignancy, which still haunts me today.
But, when all’s said and done, no other B can beat Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte has to be the winner.
Now C is an embarrassing letter for me. Not in a Lady Chatterley way, but because it shows up so many gaps in my reading. I know, from various friends and colleagues, that the following C-authors are fantastic: Michael Chabon, Raymond Carver, John le Carre, Wilkie Collins, Albert Camus. I can hardly bring myself to admit this, but I haven’t read any of them. No, not even Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Not even Kavalier and Clay. Not even L’Etranger.
I suppose one very useful aspect of this exercise is in showing up the gaps. I must stop making excuses and just get round to reading some of these books!
So, for C, I’ve hopped over to poetry. To Coleridge and to Chaucer and yet another tricky decision. I’m not sure there’s much that’s better than ‘Kubla Khan’. And there’s the great opium story that goes with it. But Chaucer … he’s up there with Shakespeare, I don’t think it would be right to knock him off the top spot.
We read rather a lot of Chaucer at university. Here and here are earlier posts about the dream poems, and everyone knows about The Canterbury Tales, but it’s Troilus and Criseyde that seals the deal for me. It’s magnificent. And the character Pandarus, Criseyde’s uncle, who persuades Criseyde of Troilus’s virtues, gives us the word ‘pander’.
Yes, C has to be Chaucer.
Any disagreements? Any omissions? Let me know … In the meantime, I’ll start weighing up the Ds, Es and Fs.