The lack of last week’s post was in part because I was tied up writing the first of my fortnightly columns for the Spectator’s Book Blog (cue applause, thank you). It was also thanks to the horror of tackling a rather tricky trio of letters for the next instalment of my Literary A-Z. PQR. Not quite a football team, but not far off. PQ aaaargh is closer to how it feels.
But I can delay no longer. Here it is.
P has to be Proust. I say this not having read any Proust. I base my judgement almost entirely on my father’s opinion, where Proust is held higher than any other author. I do want to read Proust, and, as a teenager, often threatened to do so, but this prospect filled my father with terror. ‘No, you shall not read him yet,’ he said, with near-Victorian sternness. ‘You are too young.’
I don’t think I minded that much. Yes, I felt a bit patronised, and said, more than once, ‘It’s so unfair. I hate you.’ (All in the name of Proust.) I think I might even have begun Swann’s Way out of spite, but after a couple of paragraphs, I realised that it was rather slower than the books to which I was used, so I quietly replaced it on the shelf. Back to such teenage classics as Junk and Goodbye Johnny Thunders.
But I do have one – albeit tenuous – Proustian connection. At my hen party (written about at great length in this post), a dear friend presented us with a batch of home-baked madeleines. A literary treat, and delicious to boot. In no time, we were reminiscing about the good old days … and I’m sure that’s more-or-less Proust’s point.
I suppose, if one were to be strict and disallow Proust, either on the (not unreasonable) grounds that I’ve not read any, or on the grounds that my father’s other favourite reading material is Winnie the Pooh in Latin … then I’d go for Orhan Pamuk. I did think that Snow was really terribly good. And The Museum of Innocence wasn’t bad either. Just a shame it went on and on and on a bit too much in a post-modern imitation of the narrator’s obsession over the girl. But there we go, take your pick. Proust or Pamuk depending on how lenient you are feeling.
Perhaps Q should go to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who did, after all, style himself as the initial ‘Q’. This Cornish author wrote a few Robert Louis-Stevenson style stories, but the reason I’d heard of him was in his guise as an anthologist. He created the Oxford Book of English Verse in 1900, which was the big poetry anthology until the seventies. That’s quite a long time. I quite like the idea of his editing a quintessentially English book, which people pocketed as their companion while they roamed the Empire.
But I’m not sure it’s fair for an anthologist to take the biscuit, so it shall have to go for the only other Q I can think of: Thomas de Quincey.
I was very excited about reading Confessions of an English Opium Eater. I remember reading about him at university, as an influence on Virginia Woolf. Apparently some of her more hallucinatory prose was in part thanks to her Quincean reading material. Of course, when I eventually got round to reading it, a few years later, when a damaged copy was lying around the bookshop, I expected his crazed language to seep into my own writing too. I hoped that by reading about opium I might even do a Coleridge.
Sadly not. Confessions of an English Opium Eater was a bit of struggle to get through. There was a lot of preamble and the actual opiumy bits felt rather overblown and silly. I suppose I did always quite like the way he talked of ‘eating’ opium, as opposed to taking it. It made me wonder if this were a literary pre-cursor of the current vogue for drug dealers to call drugs ‘food’. But I digress.
As neither of these are particularly satisfactory, perhaps we could go completely off-piste and say Queen. As in the band. Bohemian Rhapsody has some pretty wild, silly lyrics.
Scaramouch, Scaramouch, will you do the Fandango!
Twentieth-century opium eating?
Phew. This one’s easier. It must be Salman Rushdie, although I did spare a (brief) moment to consider an author of the same initials, Samuel Richardson. Incidentally, while I was engaged in the distraction-fuelled putting-off of this piece, I saw that on Twitter Salman Rushdie was staging a #literarysmackdown between Richardson and Sterne. Little did he know that, over at EmilyBooks, the former was already engaged in a literary smackdown against his nibs himself.
But Rushdie wins hands down. Clarissa was so exhaustingly long, and while the whole letter device was quite fun and addictive, she pretty swiftly got on my nerves.
Granted, several people find that Rushdie’s writing gets on their nerves pretty swiftly too. But I am firmly of the school of thought that finds his writing imaginative, inventive, invigorating and really quite incredible. I read The Satanic Verses first, when travelling around Spain with my Muslim best friend, after leaving school. Perhaps it was a bit insensitive of me. She was more than a bit cross about it. But, as I told her then, in no uncertain terms, it is a wonderful book.
Then I went on to study Salman Rushdie at university, as part of the post-colonialism course. At Oxford, where life feels rather determinedly old-fashioned, studying books that aren’t classics and can be bought somewhere other than Blackwells, felt like sticking a finger up at the establishment. Bring on the revolution, I told myself, while others were quietly getting on with Chaucer and the Romantics.
So perhaps it is in part thanks to the intoxication of naïve student days, but I have since reread Midnight’s Children and loved it just as much. And apparently Rushdie’s children’s books are pretty brilliant too. Luka and the Fire of Life is one I’d like to read when I’m next feeling a bit poorly.
Gosh I hope that S, T and U are easier!