Twenty books I love and why I love them
David comments: “These pieces on favourite books were written for a now-defunct website in the late 1990s. They have been lightly edited here and there, but for the most part are reproduced without alteration. I am struck by the fact that I’d stand by all these choices. All are wonderful books, each an enduring classic of its kind.”
Writers are often asked about their favourite books, so here are some of mine. I say favourites, and that’s what I mean. This is not my list of the greatest books, or books I think everyone should read. Nor is it intended, consciously at least, as a list of my influences. These are simply books that have gripped me: fiction or non-fiction, adult or children’s fiction. There’s just one rule about what I include, and what I don’t. There are no fleeting enthusiasms here. Each book is one I can’t forget. They’re not listed below in order in preference, just alphabetical by author. Nor are these my only favourites, just the ones I’ve written about so far.
ALAIN-FOURNIER: LE GRAND MEAULNES (1913)
Alain-Fournier was the pseudonym of a French writer, real name Henri Alban, who disappeared – and presumably died – in the First World War at the age of twenty-seven. The narrator of this, his only novel, is a young boy, the son of a schoolmaster in provincial France in the late nineteenth century. The story begins when a new pupil comes to the school, the extraordinary Augustin Meaulnes (pronounced, more or less, like the English word “moan”). Taller than the other boys, stronger, more daring, Meaulnes seems destined for adventure, and adventure soon comes when he absconds from school and discovers the mysterious “lost domain,” deep in the countryside. There, guests gather for a strange and enchanting party, and Meaulnes meets the beautiful Yvonne de Galais, who is to beguile him for the rest of the book. Thus begins one of the great romantic novels of adolescence and a brilliantly magical fable, filled with mystery and longing.
A great many writers have citied this book as a favourite, notably John Fowles, in the preface to the 1977 revised reissue of his novel The Magus (1966), who claimed that he sought, in his justly celebrated novel about mysterious goings-on on a Greek island, to create the same effect of enchantment achieved by Alain-Fournier. (Interestingly, Fowles says that he missed a trick: he should have made his main character a teenage boy, instead of a young schoolteacher.) In English translations, Le Grand Meaulnes (the narrator’s bantering term of affection for his intrepid friend, as in “The Great Meaulnes” or “Meaulnes the Great”) now usually appears under the French title, but has been known in the past as The Wanderer or, more commonly, The Lost Domain.
ANTHONY BUCKERIDGE: JENNINGS AND DARBISHIRE (1954)
There was a time – it must have been eight or nine – when nothing was more important to me than the Jennings books. Back then I used to get up at five in the morning in order to read as much Jennings as possible before breakfast. While I can’t read them with the same unaffected rapture now, I still hold great affection for Anthony Buckeridge’s charming, hilarious chronicles of eleven-year old Jennings, his bespectacled sidekick Darbishire, and their absurd misadventures at Linbury Court Preparatory School.
If I choose Jennings and Darbishire as a particular favourite, there’s a reason. This is the one in which Aunt Angela sends Jennings “The Ideal Junior Printing Outfit” for his birthday, and Jennings starts his own newspaper, The Form Three Times. To say that one was inspired in one’s literary career by the barely-literate Jennings may be an odd claim, but it was because of this book that I started the first of a succession of school newspapers of my own – though not, alas, in an English preparatory school.
Jennings, who originated on the BBC radio Children’s Hour in 1948, before graduating to book form in 1950, had a tremendous run in the fifties and sixties. By the seventies, the game was up. Boarding-school stories, so every right-on children’s librarian aggressively declared, had had their day, and the last books (though it gives me no pleasure to say it) are lamentable in their attempts at modernity – notably Jennings at Large (1977), in which eccentric Aunt Angela has been transformed into a social worker, living in a tower block in south London, and Jennings spends much of the book not only away from school, but in the company of – oh, sacrilege! – a girl.
The Jennings books, at their best, are a species of pastoral, evoking a very English, idealised world of boyhood innocence. We like them because they aren’t realistic, gritty, urban, relevant, or any of those other dreary things that are supposed to be so good for us. Jennings couldn’t keep up with the times. What was Buckeridge to do next – send Jennings to a comprehensive school? Collins, the original publishers, dropped the series in the late seventies; in the nineties, with new publisher Macmillan, a revival came at last, but it was difficult to feel happy about Macmillan’s paperbacks with their gaudy orange covers, bland illustrations, and – worst of all – crudely “modernised” texts. For the real Jennings experience, seek out the old Collins hardbacks, preferably with dustjackets intact. Buckeridge, at his best, was a comic genius, the Wodehouse of the preparatory school, as the sublime Jennings and Darbishire demonstrates on page after page.
(A footnote: In case the reference to “modernised” texts sets off alarm bells in some, let me explain. So far as I recall, there is no racism or overt snobbery in the Jennings books. Buckeridge, who seems to have been remarkably liberal for a children’s writer, is a world away from Enid Blyton or Captain W. E. Johns, and there’s no need for the silent surgery I have seen in one 1912 classic – Jim Davis by John Masefield – in which a black horse that once had a six-letter name starting with “N” has been renamed “Ebony.” In Jennings, it’s a case of “dated” elements being removed, such as references to pre-decimal British currency, and up-to-date references substituted; evidently, modern children – or their “carers” – could not be expected to tolerate the elitist implications of the term “Preparatory School,” so the boys now go to “Linbury Court School.” But the fantasy of going to an upmarket boarding school is half the appeal of this kind of book. As a child, I found the idea of a “Preparatory School” magical, though I was never going to get any closer to one in real life than Mount Gambier East Primary School.)
AIDAN CHAMBERS: DANCE ON MY GRAVE (1982)
I picked up this book when it first came out, started reading it idly, then couldn’t put it down. This is a teenage novel, or young adult novel, of considerable and unusual accomplishment. It’s also a gay novel, a comic novel, and an experimental novel. The story is about Hal Robinson, a sixteen-year old schoolboy, and his dramatic and obsessive love affair with the richer, handsomer, older Barry Gorman. On the first page, we learn that Barry is dead, and that Hal has been arrested for desecrating his grave. In the rest of the novel, we find out why.
Not the least of the novel’s attractions is the clever and flexible style in which it is written. Influenced by Kurt Vonnegut and other postmodern writers, with diagrams, cartoons, lists, diary entries, scraps of screenplays and a social worker’s reports interspersing Hal’s vivid, fast-moving first-person narrative, the book is the second in a sequence of six similarly ambitious teenage novels by Chambers, also comprising Breaktime (1978), Now I Know (1987), The Toll Bridge (1992), Postcards from No Man’s Land (1999), and the eight-hundred page This is All (2005). Known as “the Dance sequence,” these books are not a conventional series: each tells a different story about different characters; not all the novels include gay themes; but all are experimental in technique and edgy in subject, intelligent books and about intelligent young people confronting the world.
CHARLES DICKENS: GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1860-61)
This is my single favourite novel. I don’t say it’s the best, only that it’s the most deeply enjoyable book I’ve ever read, and the one I would most like to have written. This one has everything: it’s laugh-out-loud funny, it’s scary, it’s romantic, it’s darkly perverse, it’s sentimental, it’s tragic, it’s literary, it’s popular, it’s for children, it’s for adults, and the twisting, turning plot is a marvel of construction.
Dickens created a huge gallery of striking, vivid characters, and David Copperfield (1849-50), for example, is equally rich in invention; but of all his novels, Great Expectations seems to me the most compulsively readable. From the brilliant opening scene, where the child Pip is terrified by a escaped convict in a graveyard, you know you’re in the hands of a master. By the time he meets Miss Havisham (an old woman, jilted at the altar years ago, who still wears her bridal gown and sits in a dark, cobwebbed room filled with the rotting remains of her wedding-day feast) you know this is about as good as literature gets. If you’ve not read Dickens before, this is the place to start.
F. SCOTT FITZGERALD: THIS SIDE OF PARADISE (1920)
No one would say this was Fitzgerald’s best novel: The Great Gatsby (1925) is that. But this is a book I’ve always loved. Fitzgerald was very young when he wrote it, and few books capture better the flavour of youth; youth, in this case, at a very particular time, America just before and after the First World War, and in a very particular place, the privileged milieu of Princeton University. In the story (highly autobiographical) of Amory Blaine, “romantic egotist,” Fitzgerald virtually defined the Jazz Age, almost before it had really begun. Even the style of the book, with its newspaper–like sub-headings, its interpolated poems and songs, its dialogues set out on the page like drama, is thrillingly jazzy, modern, fast. Fitzgerald’s first novel, it was a huge hit in its day, the biggest of his career, and it’s not surprising. The title, a quotation from “Tiare Tahiti” by Rupert Brooke (“Well this side of Paradise!… / There’s little comfort in the wise”) is wonderful too, one of my all-time favourite titles for a book.
JULIEN GREEN: MOIRA (1950)
Julien (or Julian) Green was a gay Catholic writer, American by birth, who lived most of his life in France, and wrote in French. Like many of his novels, this one is set in the American South. It’s about Joseph Day, a young man from a fundamentalist background, and what happens when he leaves home to go to college. Deeply isolated, obsessed with sin, Joseph is disgusted by almost everyone and everything he encounters. What really troubles him is his own developing sexuality. Despite himself, two people attract Joseph intensely. On one side is fellow student Bruce Praileau, rich, handsome, easily confident; on the other there is Moira, the sluttish daughter of Joseph’s landlady. When Joseph gives way to his sexual desires, tragedy can be the only outcome. This intense and tightly written novel is a powerful gothic fable of lust, religious mania and mental collapse. The fact that the name “Moira” means “fate” is not without significance.
NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE: THE BLITHEDALE ROMANCE (1852)
“The evening before my departure for Blithedale, I was returning to my bachelor apartments, after attending the wonderful exhibition of the Veiled Lady, when an elderly man of rather shabby appearance met me in an obscure part of the street …” Hawthorne is my favourite of the classic American writers, and this is my favourite of his strange, haunted novels. Based on a real-life experiment in utopian living, the commune at Brook Farm, Massachusetts, where Hawthorne lived in the 1840s, this novel at first appears to be a satire on socialism, but soon turns into a bizarre romance. In this story of repressed narrator Miles Coverdale and his ambiguous relationships with the beautiful Zenobia, the innocent Priscilla, and Hollingsworth, a dubious philanthropist, Hawthorne has fashioned a powerful story of erotic obsession, betrayal, and the darkness which lies inside the human heart.
MICHAEL HEYWARD: THE ERN MALLEY AFFAIR (1993)
This is a true story, and an amazing one. The “Ern Malley affair” was a famous literary hoax in 1940s Australia: the greatest literary hoax of all time. It began when Max Harris, young editor of Adelaide-based avant-garde magazine Angry Penguins, received a package from a certain Ethel Malley, containing The Darkening Ecliptic, a manuscript of surrealistic poems by her brother Ern, a Melbourne garage mechanic, who had died recently at the age of twenty-five. Did Harris think they were any good? Did he ever! Harris at once pronounced Malley a genius, and a lavish special commemorative issue of Angry Penguins was devoted to Ern’s poems. Only then did the truth come out. There was no Ern, and no Ethel either. Ern’s “works of genius” had been cobbled together in an afternoon by two traditionalist poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, in an attempt to discredit the avant-garde.
Up to a point, they did: Max Harris was never the same again, especially after the South Australian authorities decided that the Malley poems were obscene and dragged the young publisher through a public trial. The one-time enfant terrible of the University of Adelaide ended his days not as the great novelist, poet, or even literary editor he had imagined he would be, but as a canting, boorish newspaper columnist, churning out opinion pieces for Rupert Murdoch. Meanwhile, hoaxer-in-chief James McAuley, following his youthful jape, became an arch-conservative, founding the right-wing Australian journal Quadrant, while Stewart, ever the more interesting of the two, moved to Japan where he became a devotee of Zen and made collages. Interviewed in later years, Stewart never wanted to talk about the Malley business, and said that his old life in Australia all seemed like a dream.
But the Malley story was far from over. If Ern’s fame as a great poet had been brief, his fame as a hoax kept on growing, and has not abated to this day. The Malley poems confront us with crucial literary questions. With Malley, we are by no means a world away from “exquisite corpse” poems, from The Waste Land (that great modernist echo chamber of allusions), from the cut-ups and fold-ins of Brion Gysin and William Burroughs, from the whole panoply of surrealist techniques. When David Bowie writes his lyrics by gluing together random strips of words (“Serious moonlight, indeed!” a friend of mine once exclaimed), he is very much in the tradition of “Ern.” Are these techniques all to be condemned? And how much, in the end, does authorial intention matter, as opposed to the words on the page? There are lines in The Darkening Ecliptic that are better (more haunting, more simply memorable) than almost anything in “real” Australian poetry: “Rise from the wrist, o kestrel / Mind, to a clear expanse”; “My blood becomes a Damaged Man / Most like your Albion” (from a poem addressed to William Blake); “Princess, you lived in Princess St., / Where the urchins pick their nose in the sun / With the left hand”; “I have split the infinitive. Beyond is anything.” Are the Malley poems just rubbish? Or did the compilers of this hasty oeuvre, in mimicking surrealist techniques, inadvertently liberate a deeper world of meaning? In any case, Ern took on a life of his own, and soon became a cult figure, the missing genius of Australian literature. The artist Sidney Nolan painted his portrait.
I’ve often thought that the Malley affair is a classic Australian movie just waiting to be made. The story formed the basis of Peter Carey’s much fictionalised account, My Life as a Fake (2002), but the Malley story is compelling enough without Carey’s magical realist embellishments. Michael Heyward’s book includes the full text of Ern’s legendary manuscript. Almost sixty years later, the enigma remains. As Ern put it, in perhaps his single best line, “I am still / The black swan of trespass on alien waters.”
JAMES HOGG: THE PRIVATE MEMOIRS AND CONFESSIONS OF A JUSTIFIED SINNER (1824)
This is one of the great Scottish novels, and a classic of gothic fiction. It’s set in the early eighteenth century. The Colwan brothers, children of a boisterous old laird and his sour, puritanical wife, are brought up entirely differently after their parents separate. George, who lives with his father, becomes popular, sporting, devil-may-care; Robert, under the care of his mother, grows up to be a religious fanatic, resentful and envious of his dashing brother. Then George is murdered. Prissy, respectable Robert escapes suspicion. He succeeds to the family estates. Of course, he was guilty; but that’s just the starting-point for this phantasmagoria of supernatural terror.
The novel is in two parts. In the first, “The Editor’s Narrative,” we are given the objective, outward story of the family, the murder, and its aftermath. In the second, the “Private Memoirs,” we hear Robert’s story from the inside, and learn how the puritanical youth was corrupted, tempted into depravity and murder, by Gil-Martin, a mysterious young man who convinced him that no sin could affect the salvation of one of god’s elect. But is Gil-Martin the devil, or only a figment of Robert’s imagination?
RICHARD HUGHES: A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA (1929)
There’s a peculiarly boring film version of this, made in the 1960s, notable only because it features Martin Amis, then a fetching blond teenager, in a supporting role. Good books, so they say, make bad films, and this is a very good book indeed.
Richard Hughes had never been to Jamaica when he wrote this remarkably vivid story about a colonial family in the nineteenth century. Jamaica, as Hughes describes it, is a wild and lush paradise for the Bas-Thornton children; but a paradise from which they are soon to be expelled. After a hurricane devastates the island, their parents decide that the five children must be sent back to England. But they have not got far before their ship is attacked by pirates, and the children are kidnapped. The ordeal which follows is a dramatic and unexpected one, for the children, led by the tomboyish Emily, are more than a match for the brutal Captain Jonsen and his crew.
Not a children’s book as such, but a novel about childhood, this powerful adventure story has been likened to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). The vivid, laconic style is a considerable achievement, and the ending, especially the last sentence, is one of the wonders of literature.
W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM: THE RAZOR’S EDGE (1944)
Critics (fools that they are) don’t rate readability very high on the list of a novelist’s virtues. Maugham believed that it was the most precious gift a novelist could possess, and he possessed it. He is, quite simply, the most consistently readable author I know. I could read him endlessly. Choosing a favourite from his many books is difficult: I love Mrs Craddock (1902), Of Human Bondage (1916), The Moon and Sixpence (1919), Cakes and Ale (1930), not to mention the short stories. But best of all perhaps is this, his last major novel. Anticipating the 1960s counter-culture by some decades, this is the story of a rich young American, Larry Darrell, who gives up Western materialism and goes in search of a better way of life, much to the disgust of his family and his deeply conventional fiancée, Isabel. But the story is only part of it. The narrative method, in which “Mr Maugham” not only tells the story in the first person, but also appears in the novel as a character, is wonderfully accomplished, and the construction is faultless. In Isabel’s uncle, Elliott Templeton, a rich, name-dropping, social-climbing old queen, ludicrous and snobbish but ultimately poignant, Maugham created one of the greatest characters in all his work.
IRIS MURDOCH: THE BELL (1958)
This was the first Iris Murdoch novel I read, many years ago now, and straight away I was hooked. For months afterwards I was obsessed with her books, and read them one after the other. Her appeal is both simple and complex. Murdoch is a great storyteller, a brilliant inventor of plots. Typically, her stories start out like realistic novels of English life, only to become increasingly bizarre, with outrageous entanglements of relationship and motive, recognitions, reversals, melodramatic confrontations, all of it mingled with ancient mythological patterns, evocative symbolism, and philosophical speculation on the meaning of good and evil (Murdoch was a distinguished academic philosopher, publishing philosophy as well as fiction). Her novels are thought-provoking, erotic, and powerfully emotional. A cynical reviewer once said that Murdoch was “Enid Blyton for adults.” There of those of us who consider that high praise.
Murdoch wrote twenty-seven novels in all. Many consider The Bell, which is about a lay religious community, a convent, and a mysterious bell lying in the bottom of a lake, to be her best. It’s certainly among the best. Other favourites of mine, and good places to start, include A Severed Head (1961), which has a plot as marvellously convoluted as a Restoration comedy; A Fairly Honourable Defeat (1970), which features a brilliant portrayal of a gay couple, Simon and Axel; The Black Prince (1973), with its Chinese-box narrative; The Sea, The Sea (1978), which deservedly won the Booker Prize; The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), Murdoch’s Middlemarch, featuring an entire fictional town of Murdochian characters; and the story of guilt and atonement, The Good Apprentice (1985).
ANNE RICE: INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1976)
Mysterious, erotic, frightening and tragic, this dark, perverse account of a vampire’s life is the greatest of modern gothic novels. It’s not simply a ripoff of Dracula. Far from it: Rice reimagines the vampire mythology and makes it her own. Nor should Rice be tainted by the endless – and inferior – retreads of the vampire theme which have followed in her wake. Everything about this novel impresses from the first. The narrative device of the interview (so contemporary, so out of keeping, it seems, with the subject matter) is a brilliant one, and the opening page is a marvel of storytelling, gripping and holding the reader in a manner so deceptively casual, so laconic. Anne Rice is the best and rarest kind of popular novelist, one who extends, rather than confines, the imagination of her readers. Anyone wanting to learn about the art of writing will find much of interest in Michael Riley’s 1996 book of interviews with Rice, published in the US as Conversations with Anne Rice and in the UK under the surely inevitable title, Interview with Anne Rice.
SAMUEL RICHARDSON: CLARISSA (1747-8)
One may as well admit it at once: this is not a novel everyone will enjoy. Some will find it intolerable. At a million words, it’s the longest novel in the English language, and very slow-moving, perhaps the most slow-moving novel ever written, even considering Proust and The Magic Mountain. It’s hard to read, or at least to start. But once this book grips you, you are gripped. There’s nothing else like it in literature. The sheer narrative power is, in the end, overwhelming. By the time you’ve finished Richardson’s novel, you’ve lived through emotions as real as life. Reading Clarissa becomes an epoch in your experience.
The story, in its outlines at least, is simple. The Harlowes, a grasping, social-climbing family in eighteenth-century England, decide to force their beautiful daughter Clarissa to marry the repulsive, but very rich, Mr Solmes. Clarissa refuses. The family persecute her, determined to have their way. But meanwhile the handsome, sinister rake, Robert Lovelace, has his eyes on Clarissa. Pretending to be on her side, he persuades her to run away with him. This she does, but only to find herself in a dilemma worse by far. Imprisoned in a brothel in London, Clarissa must fight against Lovelace’s advances. But Lovelace is no ordinary rake. He doesn’t just want to rape Clarissa; he wants to break her will, forcing her to accept him as her lover. Told entirely in the form of letters, this relentless, operatic tragedy is one of the greatest European novels, a masterpiece of characterisation and psychological insight.
GEOFF RYMAN: WAS (1993)
The premise of Ryman’s novel is that Dorothy, the heroine of L. Frank Baum’s Oz books, was a real person, a girl that Baum met when he was a schoolteacher in Kansas in 1882. Instead of being magically transported to Oz, the real Dorothy was an abused child who could escape from her misery only through fantasy.
The novel begins in the present day when Jonathan, a gay Hollywood actor obsessed with Oz, is driven to find out what happened to Dorothy. Plunging between present and past (Jonathan’s story, Dorothy’s, and Judy Garland’s too) this is an extraordinary novel about the gap between reality and fantasy, the meaning of stories, and the origins and growth of a great American myth. Ryman’s writing can seem plain at first, even too plain. But he is one of those writers who can pull off narrative effects so brilliant as to leave you stunned, even shattered. In a Ryman novel, there’s a moment when he suddenly takes off, and all you do is hang on for the ride. There are great moments in Was. The scene in which Dorothy reads out her childish essay in Baum’s class (“I have a little dog called Toto …”) is one of the most moving things I have ever read.
NEVIL SHUTE: ON THE BEACH (1957)
I’ve never seen this novel in a list of science fiction classics, but that’s what it is. Shute, an English writer who moved to Australia, was a popular novelist of genius: he also wrote the famous war romance, A Town Like Alice (1950). After World War Two there were many stories about global disasters, reflecting the threat of nuclear holocaust. Many of these books remain enduring favourites of mine: George Stewart’s Earth Abides (1949), John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids (1951), John Christopher’s The Death of Grass (1956), Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959). But to me, On the Beach is the most haunting disaster story of all. It’s set in Melbourne. Nuclear war has devastated the northern hemisphere, destroying all life; now, slowly, the radiation moves southwards. Whether this scenario is believable I have no idea, but I don’t care. The power of the book lies in its vision of death creeping steadily towards the characters and their world. Shute’s story of the last months, before all life on earth is annihilated, is a triumph of storytelling: to write so gripping a novel, in which the main event has happened before the first page, in which the ending is inevitable, and no heroic action can avert the catastrophe, is a considerable literary achievement.
FRANCOIS TRUFFAUT: HITCHCOCK (1967; revised edition, 1983)
There’s a brilliant moment in Truffaut’s introduction in which he explains why suspense, far from being a mere trick or incidental effect, is in fact of the essence of cinema, indeed, of narrative itself: “Suspense is simply the dramatisation of a film’s narrative material, or, if you will, the most intense presentation possible of dramatic situations.” Which is one reason, perhaps, why Hitchcock, the wonderfully perverse genius behind Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds and a host of other classics, was the definitive film director; and this long, large-format, lavishly-illustrated production is the ultimate celebration in book form of his life and work.
Distilled from over fifty hours of taped interviews with Hitchcock, this sustained dialogue between two great directors is required reading for anyone interested in film, and anyone interested in storytelling too. You won’t learn everything about Hitchcock here; you should also read Donald Spoto’s biography, The Dark Side of Genius (1982), for a start. But it’s notable just how many of the best Hitchcock quotes in Spoto come straight from the Truffaut book. The first English-language edition, from 1967, is worth getting hold of (if you can find a copy) because it’s a beautifully designed book. But for content, it’s the 1983 update which is best, featuring additional interviews recorded after 1967, as well as Truffaut’s reflections on Hitchcock’s final years.
HUGH WALPOLE: THE KILLER AND THE SLAIN (1942)
You’ll have to try the used book dealers for this one. The prolific Hugh Walpole (satirised cruelly as “Alroy Kear” in Maugham’s Cakes and Ale) was one of the great bestsellers of the 1920s and 1930s. Today he is remembered, if at all, for an historical family saga called “The Herries Chronicle,” comprising Rogue Herries (1930) and its sequels, but throughout his career he was wonderfully readable and entertaining and sometimes powerfully disturbing. The Killer and the Slain is one of the novels in what he called his “macabre” vein, in which, under cover of crime and supernatural themes, Walpole frequently, outrageously, and perhaps unconsciously flaunts his frequently dark homoerotic obsessions to what must have been a remarkably innocent readership.
Walpole can be gloriously depraved. The novel which earned him his greatest critical acclaim, Mr Perrin and Mr Traill (1911), is the tale of a schoolmaster driven into madness by the hated fellow master he secretly loves. The omnibus Four Fantastic Tales (1932) collects some of Walpole’s best gothics: Maradick at Forty (1910), a novel about a man having an emotional crisis in Cornwall which, for all its absurdities, I have found sufficiently compelling to read several times; The Prelude to Adventure (1912), which has a great plot about murder and guilt and redemption (Dostoyevsky in a Cambridge college); Portrait of a Man with Red Hair (1925), which is just plain perverted (in one extraordinary scene, a naked man, held captive, is repeatedly nicked with a knife until there are red welts all over his body); and Above the Dark Circus (1930), which, so far as I remember it, is a lot less interesting, but still has one of my all-time favourite titles for a novel. (The “circus” is Piccadilly Circus; in America, the book was called Above the Dark Tumult, for the benefit of Americans who would otherwise expect lion-tamers, clowns, and the Big Top.)
The Killer and the Slain, which Walpole completed just before he died, is the intense, sexually charged story of a murderer who finds himself taking on the characteristics of the envied rival he has killed: not only the personality, but the physical features, too. Genuinely creepy, the novel is dedicated to the memory of Henry James, with whom Walpole had an apparently chaste but fervent relationship when Walpole was very young, and James very old. (Reportedly, Walpole once suggested that they go to bed, to which the celibate James, alas, replied that no, he couldn’t possibly.) Later, so it is said, Hugh developed a taste for policemen, although you’ll find out precious little about this from Rupert Hart-Davis’s biography, Hugh Walpole: A Life (1952), which, for all its many merits, takes discretion to absurd extremes, and is insufficiently analytical, indeed barely analytical at all, either of Walpole’s psychology or his literary output. Someone, preferably a gay man, should write a new life of Walpole: he knew everyone who was anyone in early twentieth century English literature; he turns up continuously in biographies of other, better-remembered writers (Maugham, Forster, Woolf); his career spans Bloomsbury, bestsellerdom, and Hollywood; he was a huge popular celebrity who was secretly homosexual. Walpole is interesting.
IAN WHITCOMB: AFTER THE BALL (1972)
It’s not easy to explain why this book is so wonderful. If I say it’s a history of pop music, many of you will groan. And I’d understand. Most books about pop music are rubbish. If I add that this was published in 1972, you’ll probably also think it’s useless, outdated. But After the Ball is no nerdy encyclopaedia of bands and hits, dependent for its value on being current. This is a personal essay, and one so charming, so idiosyncratic, so simply well-written that it’s irresistible. I discovered the book in the public library when I was perhaps twelve or thirteen. It didn’t matter that I’d never heard (and, back then, had no chance of hearing) most of music Whitcomb was talking about. I fell in love with the book and have loved it ever since.
A few explanations. “Pop music” in this connection doesn’t mean just the usual rock’n’roll roster (Bill Haley, Elvis, the Beatles). We’re talking about commercial popular music, going back to the time the industry first assumed a recognisably modern shape. The title After the Ball derives from Chas. K. Harris’s sentimental ballad of 1892, the first million-selling song (which, in those days, meant a million copies of sheet music).
The author, Ian Whitcomb, was a minor sixties pop star, briefly famed for his bizarre falsetto hit “You Turn Me On” (1965). The book begins and ends autobiographically. On tour in the USA, Whitcomb the pop star (not incidentally, a history graduate from Trinity College, Dublin) suddenly wonders what on earth this whole pop thing is all about. Where did it come from? What does it mean? He decides to find out, plumbing through the eras of ragtime, jazz, swing, and rock, veering frequently between America and Britain, with many an acute observation on the way, before returning, finally, to his young pop star self and the inevitable end of his career.
What makes the book is the way that Whitcomb writes. His is a relaxed, wry idiom, perfectly suited to a subject matter he at once regards with passion but never quite takes seriously. Nothing could be further from the dull sociological treatises to which pop music has been subjected in recent years. There are passages that are laugh-out-loud funny. There are moments of sheer poetry. Fiction and fantasy mingle with fact. If there were an award for the best book about pop music ever written, my vote would go to After the Ball.
Whitcomb’s later book about sixties pop music, Rock Odyssey (1983) is also wonderful, as is his memoir of his life as an Englishman in California, Resident Alien (1990). He’s a tremendous writer, wonderfully readable, wonderfully entertaining.
KENNETH WILLIAMS: THE KENNETH WILLIAMS DIARIES, ed. Russell Davies (1993)
The English actor Kenneth Williams, best-known for his roles in the Carry On films, kept a diary from 1942 until his death, probably from suicide, in 1988. This book, a necessarily but expertly edited version, functions in effect as his autobiography. It’s astonishingly vivid, intimate and compelling. This is one of the best pictures we’ll ever have of an actor’s life, of the day-to-day realities of a long career. More than that, it’s funny: bitchily, brilliantly funny. And once you’ve read this book (think Cockney rhyming slang) you’ll never look at Barclay’s Bank in the same way again.
Kenneth Williams was famed for his outrageously camp, mannered persona, and those who remember him on talk shows and game shows will agree that he was even funnier when he was being himself than when he was playing a part. But, in a sense, he was always playing a part, and what fascinates and appals and disturbs the reader of the diaries are the revelations from behind the mask. Williams, it is clear, was both a highly intelligent and literate man, frustrated by the direction of his career (pre-Carry On, he had played legitimate parts, including a supporting role in the Olivier film version of The Beggar’s Opera) and also deeply lonely and melancholic. In his lifetime, it seems, he was never understood. This book shows him as he really was. It’s a brilliant legacy.