A Idea Bubbling Away

What remains of fiction read in our most formative years? An atmosphere, certain sentences, some nuances of character, memories anchored in the place and time a book was read. A quarter of a century after reading a story I still retain not-quite images, not-quite sensations, but definite specific memories. A woman sitting on a thistle in order to fix a memory; a teenager-who would become a junkie-coming to Swiss Cottage to meet his sister; a man hidden underground while spies search overground for his traces, each memory almost as real as if they had happened beyond the pages of a book.

I read differently in those days, before the internet, when I relied on browsing and serendipity to lead me from one book to the next. When I read something that made the world feel charged, made me see, hear, sense the world around me in new ways, I read and reread, often reading a book three or four times in a row, and again after a few month’s break.

Those books, which wouldn’t fill much more than a typical shelf make me curious. Some of them are almost certainly poorly written, many riddled with cliché, some maybe ideologically unsound, but what would it be like to return to them now, to re-explore those early encounters?

Would it be awful, inadvisable to put together a short reading list? It would be primarily a list of male writers, curated not to allow an imbalance of science fiction. There would perhaps be some William Gibson, a Patricia Highsmith, maybe Kingsley Amis, Trevanian, Winston Graham, Iain M. Banks, Kem Nunn, maybe a Neal Stephenson, almost certainly a Richard Allen or two, perhaps Anne Tyler, Paul Theroux, J. P. Donleavy, Douglas Coupland or Nicholson Baker and Margaret Atwood. (There is also a very long list of those I know I couldn’t stomach again.) This is probably a rotten idea. I hope it goes away.

Influential Books

List time: books that influenced me. Influence is defined as either life-changing or transformative in reading patterns (which equates to the same thing). These are roughly in time order. Later I may explain what changed as a consequence. Here’s the list:

  • Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson
  • Dicken’s Great Expectations
  • Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
  • Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source
  • Winston Graham’s Angell, Pearl and Little God
  • Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London
  • Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment
  • Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums
  • J. P. Donleavy’s The Destinies of Darcy Dancer, Gentleman
  • Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land
  • Bruce Sterling’s Artificial Kid
  • Sartre’s Nausea and Being and Nothingness
  • Kierkegaard’s Either/Or
  • Proust’s Rememberance of Things Past
  • Roger Deakin’s Wildwood
  • Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night
  • Mann’s The Magic Mountain
  • Woolf’s The Lighthouse
  • Joyce’s Ulysses
  • Josipovici’s Whatever Happened to Modernism?

Seven Random Things

At the wonderfully named Dada doesn’t catch flies, one of my favourite bloggers has challenged me to share seven things things about myself. I normally shy away from such invitations but reluctantly accept the proposition, perhaps it will be therapeutic.

  1. A highly nomadic childhood and commuting long distance to various boarding schools meant accruing a lot of air miles. At eleven years of age I became the youngest recipient of the Cathay Pacific 100,000 miles flown certificate.
  2. Near my boarding school was a communist bookshop. Every Saturday for at least two years I stole a book, the first being Mao’s Little Red Book. Sometimes I fool myself that the owner knew and let me get away with my crimes. I still feel guilty. Sorry.
  3. The first author that inspired me to read his complete oeuvre was Robert Heinlein, followed closely by J. P. Donleavy.
  4. Inspired by J. P. Donleavy’s tales of his home country, I spent three months in Ireland, hitching north to south and east to west.
  5. For reasons I can no longer recall, as a teenager I was drawn to the Middle East. Setting out with three hundred pounds, I spent nine months hitching through Spain, to Morocco, and then through Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, then to Cyprus and Greece. The current turmoil has resuscitated my fascination for the region.
  6. After returning from this supposed ‘gap year’, for all sorts of reasons that made complete sense at the time, I did not go back to university. I have regretted this at leisure. It is the source of my autodidacticism.
  7. My talisman book, that I have read so many times that, in a sense, I am always reading it, or thinking it, is Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea.

Discovering Buechner’s Godric

A delightful post about Frederick Buechner’s novel, Godric, has introduced me to a writer I did not know and a book I think I will enjoy. Its period accords with Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon poetry (The Wanderer and The Seafarer) that I have been enjoying so much this year.

The fragment that Christy (A Shelf of One’s Own) quotes of the narrator, “puddling my way home like a drowned man from dark Wear with my ballocks shriveled to beansize in their sack,” reminds me a lot of an author I once read compulsively, J. P. Donleavy. Sadly, Donleavy is little read today.

A Meme About Influential Books

I am an irregular meme participant but like the idea of this one passed on from A Momentary Taste of Being:

Memes come, memes go, and I rarely inflict personal stuff on readers of this blog. However, this meme is fun: list the ten books that most influenced you. Forget the books you love, or the books you think you need to say you’ve read; instead, list the books that answer the question, “Who are you, and how did you get that way?”

  1. Sartre’s Nausea scared me witless. I was nineteen and understood that God was either dead or had turned his face from man. It took three years to begin to recover from Nausea and I consider that recovery  a work in progress. The only book that I have reread annually.
  2. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment was the book that brought home Kafka’s truism that “literature is an axe for the frozen sea within us.”
  3. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land lead to a fifteen year engagement with science fiction and fantasy. How many books did Heinlein publish? I must have read most of them. I’m not proud of Heinlein and you’ll find no evidence of my passion on my bookshelves today.
  4. Bruce Sterling’s The Artificial Kid was published in 1980. Can you believe that this novel is thirty years old? This book still has more pointers for the future than science fiction written in the last ten years.
  5. Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or provided guidance and sustenance during an unfortunate first marriage.
  6. Winston Graham’s Angell, Pearl and Little God adheres thirty five years later. I don’t know why and feel no need to explore or revisit the memories.
  7. J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Donleavy, in my twenties, was a writer that I read exhaustively. It began with this book. None of his books have survived my regular culls but I occasionally have an urge to reread this book.
  8. The influence of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is inestimable. This is possibly the source of my passion for rambling, digressive literature,
  9. Roger Deakin’s Wildwood kicked off a continuing appetite for poetic prose about the natural sciences. Deakin lead to Robert MacFarlane, Sara Maitland, Roger Mabey: all writers with a notable influence on how I live.
  10. Although I considered myself a collector of books before reading Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night, Manguel helped me to appreciate the value in a carefully selected, well-culled and organised library.

15 in 15

Via Anecdotal Evidence, I enjoyed a 15 minute indulgence in a tweaked literary parlour game: “name the fifteen books that have most influenced your thinking, that you have found yourself referring to most often in reflection, speech, and writing.” No apologies for for an odd mix:

  1. Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary
  2. Gustave Flaubert – Sentimental Education
  3. Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Crime and Punishment
  4. Harold Bloom – The Western Canon
  5. Richard Powers – The Time of Our Singing
  6. Jean-Paul Sartre – Nausea
  7. Alberto Manguel – The Library at Night
  8. Søren Kierkegaard – Either/Or
  9. Marcel Proust – In Search of Lost Time
  10. Fyodor Dostoyevsky – The Idiot
  11. Christopher Alexander – A Pattern Language
  12. Roger Deakin – Wildwood
  13. Alan Flusser – Dressing The Man
  14. Julian Barnes –  Nothing to Be Frightened Of
  15. J. P. Donleavy – The Ginger Man

These are the first that came to mind. Sixteenth would have been Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War. Where is Philip Roth, William Gibson, Robert Heinlein? Of course, ten years ago the list would be different, as it will ten years hence. On reflection I am bemused that Nabokov and Beckett did not make the cut. In a couple more weeks, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain may prove an omission.