I came to J.B. Priestley quite recently when I picked up a copy of his theatrical novel Lost Empires in a second-hand bookshop, drawn by the photo of a rather tatty showgirl on the front cover. Suffice to say it was a revelation, and now I’m gradually working my way through his fiction. The Good Companions is his biggest novel in every sense – it’s long, it’s panoramic, and it was massively popular from the day of publication. Set between the Wars, it follows the fortunes of a disparate group of malcontents all of whom leave home for various reasons and are united in a struggling touring concert party. The characters are loveable, the narrative whips along and there’s a pungent sense of place and period, something Priestley excelled at. So why, I ask myself, are his novels so badly known? His plays get regular revivals, but the novels are overlooked. Obviously the critics, then and now, dislike him because he’s straightforward and popular, an ‘anti-modernist’ I suppose. But that doesn’t mean he’s not good. The Good Companions would make an excellent holiday read, if anyone’s looking for inspiration.
Monthly Archives: July 2012
Not much explanation needed for this one. There can’t be many readers – can there? – who haven’t been touched by the Pooh books. They’re so intricately tied up with my memories of childhood that I find it impossible to be objective about them. In memory, I seem to be constantly reading either Winnie-the-Pooh or The House at Pooh Corner, or When We Were Very Young, or Now We Are Six. I’ve chosen Winnie-the-Pooh because it contains most of my favourite episodes – the bees, getting stuck in Rabbit’s hole, the Heffalump, Eeyore’s birthday – but I love the sequel just as much. The E.H. Shepard illustrations are masterpieces in their own right. I even love the Disney movie and I think the soundtrack LP was the first album I ever owned.
Tempting as it is to put ‘all the Sherlock Holmes books’, I have to limit myself to one full-length novel so it might as well be The Hound of the Baskervilles. It’s got everything I love about Holmes – loads of travelling up and down on trains, a grisly death, undercurrents of sexual cruelty and perversion and loads of opportunities for Holmes to demonstrate his superior mental powers. It also features a bloody great dog, which clinches it. I came to detective fiction relatively late in life – I only started reading Holmes and Christie in my late thirties, having been rather sniffy about the genre in earlier years. But I now think it’s one of the highest forms of literature, if it’s done well, because the good detective author can completely subjugate the reader with mystery and unravelling. I love the experience of surrendering to a real master of the art. Conan Doyle does it better than anyone, and he writes beautiful prose too. I will go on more about this when we come to Agatha Christie somewhere up the list. One of the things I most love about Kindle is that I can have the complete Sherlock Holmes about my person at all times.
Easily one of the bleakest books on this list, Hangover Square is a beautifully written, tightly controlled outburst of anguish by a man who, shall we say, knew the territory rather too well. If you’ve read this far, you’ll know that the mid-century boarding house milieu is one of my favourites, and this book captures the seediness, anonymity and despair of brown lino, boiled cabbage and creaky stairs better than any other. The central character, the deeply troubled George Harvey Bone, nurses a painful obsession for a thoroughly unpleasant young woman, Netta, whom he knows only as a drinking companion. Netta extracts as much money and liquor out of Bone as she can, leads him astray on a nightmare trip to Brighton and finally betrays him just once too often. I won’t reveal the plot, because, among other things, Hangover Square is an excellent thriller. I love Hamilton’s other novels too – notably The Slaves of Solitude and Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky – as well as his plays which include Gaslight and Rope. Recently I discovered that he drank himself to death in the seaside town where my mother lives; I like to walk by the house whenever I’m down there, and raise an imaginary glass.
Gerard Reve is one of the giants of post-War Dutch literature, but of course he’s barely known in the UK and hardly any of his work has been translated. I first came across him through Paul Verhoeven’s film adaptation of The Fourth Man, an art-house hit in the 80s. Years later, a well-read polyglot friend was raving about Reve, so I tracked down a copy of Parents Worry, his only translated novel, and I loved it. It’s a heady mixture of alcoholism, homosexuality, Catholicism and self-loathing all wrapped up in a fractured narrative with all sorts of linguistic experimentation – the sort of thing I’d usually cross the road to avoid. But once you enter Reve-world, there’s no turning back. I wish someone would sort out a decent English edition of his work, it’s so frustrating! When Reve died in 2006 I petitioned the Guardian, for whom I was then working, to run an obituary, but they said he was too obscure, presumably on the grounds that he was only a major European author and not an American jazz musician.
Graham Greene is one of those writers I blow hot and cold about. I want to love everything he ever wrote, but some of the novels (eg The End of the Affair, Our Man in Havana) bored me to tears. Brighton Rock, however, is superb on every level. For starters, it’s probably got the best title of any book, ever. The period and setting (seaside town, seedy underworld, 1930s) are right up my street. The characters – vicious little Pinkie, sweaty, scared Hale, gullible Rose and the implacable Ida (‘a big woman with a laugh’) – are vivid and pungent. But above all, what I really love about Brighton Rock is the way Greene lets the story unfold with a tense, terse economy of means, never waffling on with too much description or interpretation, but never leaving the reader in any doubt of who’s doing what to whom. He regarded Brighton Rock as an ‘entertainment’, which seems to me to be the highest state to which literature can aspire.
Hawthorne is best known for The Scarlet Letter, a book that I find baffling and dull. The House of the Seven Gables, however, is a different kettle of fish. In a way it’s a gothic horror novel – it’s set in a spooky old house in Salem, Massachusetts, and it recounts a series of gruesome and mysterious events which may or may not be the result of witchcraft. But that only explains part of its appeal. For me, the joy of The House of the Seven Gables is in the vividness with which Hawthorne recreates 18th and 19th-century New England – it’s the closest I’ll ever get to time travel. It’s also very funny, and even features an important and humourous chicken character. Where The Scarlet Letter is all high-minded and symbolic, Seven Gables is pacey and tough. I’ve never seen any of the film adaptations, which all sound ropey as hell. If any book’s crying out for a proper movie version, it’s this.
After the huge impact of The Swimming Pool Library in the 80s, I have to admit that I struggled with Hollinghurst. I found a lot of his subsequent books chilly and impenetrable, and I really didn’t like The Line of Beauty at all. But The Stranger’s Child is a different matter altogether. It’s warm and engaging and it manages to sustain an engrossing narrative throughout some huge temporal jumps. What could have been a literary exercise ends up being a really moving meditation on ageing and memory and the ambiguous nature of art. All of which makes it sound as dull as ditchwater – and it’s anything but. A lot of people were sniffy about this book (‘Oh, it’s just a pastiche of Forster’ was one of my favourites) which I put down to jealousy. Obviously I’m a sucker for the period stuff, and anything that involves frustrated bank clerks poring over physique mags is going to work for me – but there’s so much more to The Stranger’s Child. For me it’s the outstanding novel of the last ten years.
Candide is the earliest book on the list, and you really don’t need me to tell you how great it is. But I will tell you why I love it. I don’t suppose Voltaire invented the narrative device of the ‘innocent abroad’, but he certainly brought it to perfection. Candide, the sweet-natured hero, is the perfect medium through which Voltaire can satirise the wicked world in which he travels, and it’s a particular stroke of genius that made him sexually irresistible to all and sundry. I suppose it’s the forerunner of all the ‘satirical biographies’ that pepper this list (Little Me, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes etc), and there’s a vein of extremely cynical humour beneath the surface of goodness and innocence that I find particularly appealing. Weirdly, for a book by a philosopher, the overall message seems to be ‘just get on with it and make the most of things’, but I’m probably missing something.
I consider At Swim, Two Boys to be the great gay romantic novel that I spent the first few decades of my reading life waiting for. When it first came out to rave reviews I was put off by the critics’ focus on the literary elements, particularly the tired old chestnuts of modernism (stream of consciousness, fractured narrative etc). In fact, these elements are sparingly and effectively used; I think the critics were just trying to ignore the more obvious point, that this is a huge, powerful narrative of homosexual love. The relationship between Jim and Doyler, two young men caught up in the turbulent events of Ireland 1915/16, sweeps all before it – politics, ‘literariness’, religion etc – to the point that the ending of the novel is absolutely unbearable. The secondary characters, particularly the louche, tortured MacMurrough, drive the plot along with a demonic energy and humour. At Swim, Two Boys came out at a time when ‘Oirishness’ was big business in the publishing world, but it stands far above most of those dreary pratings. I’m saddened by the fact that Jamie O’Neill has never written another book, but I guess when you’ve achieved something as good as At Swim, Two Boys you don’t have that incentive to ‘do better next time’.