Books have always played an inescapable part of the multicoloured tapestry that is my life. From the moment I could read more than a few simple lines, I read books about anthropomorphic mice and bears, books in Italian about Bambi’s journey to adulthood, books about charmed trees conveying children to distant lands and books about groups of children foiling the dastardly plans of would-be villains or hatching secret plans for yet more adventures. As I grew older, frivolous tales of teenage exploits dealing with, amongst other things, sleuthing of sorts intertwined with Poe’s gothic fixations, the first forays into the detective genre, Sherlock Holmes and Tiziano Sclavi’s iconic Dylan Dog graphic novels. My parents also made sure that I was acquainted with several works in the English canon, so along came Jules Verne, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë and HG Wells. Add a brief flirtation with Nietzsche at the age of 15, poetry by Ted Hughes, and you have a rather odd mixed bag for an adolescent. My university years then brought along with them the likes of Havel and Kundera, whose works I absolutely devoured, in addition to Allende, Borges, Julian Barnes, T.S. Eliot, Toni Morrison, Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, Maurice Blanchot and a host of others. It was, however, in my early to mid-twenties that I discovered some of the authors I am so obsessed with today, some of whom are, sadly, no longer with us. Below you can find a selection of some of the writings that have had a crucial bearing on my existence:-
(1) Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tales of Mystery and Terror” – seldom has an assortment of tales inspired and influenced a nine year-old child to the extent of this moribund collection. Poe’s writings hugely expanded my as yet narrow world at that tender age – although I have always had a propensity towards dark, gloomy and horrendous things (one of my fondest childhood memories is that of first staring transfixed at, then squealing in delight as I aped the zombie shuffle dance displayed in all its gory glory in the video for Michael Jackson’s monster 1983 hit, Thriller, from the eponymous album) – Poe demonstrated to me that perfidious thoughts, insanity, murder and poetry went hand-in-hand. I indulged in his richly embroidered tales, many of which had devastating endings, wondered about the fractured realms the author’s imagination inhabited and vowed to search for similar literary outpourings for the rest of my days. Works such as “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Cask of Amontillado”, “Ligeia”, “The Masque of Red Death” and, best of all, “The Fall of the house of Usher”, which I was later to discover had been gorgeously rendered into cinematic language by Roger Corman, taught me about the parlance of fear, psychosis, grief, despair and frustrated love – exactly what a morbid child needs to be apprised of!
(2) Jonathan Coe’s “The House of Sleep” – this epic novel, which I discovered in my early twenties as a postgraduate student, taught me that black humour could be beautifully interspersed with sadness, despair, the grotesquerie immanent in certain aspects of contemporary life and the bleakness and simultaneous wonder of truth. Not as devastatingly satirical as Coe’s other seminal work, which I shall detail below, “The House of Sleep” lambasts pride, the British inability to express one’s deeper feelings for one’s true love and puts forward a terribly accurate picture of sorry human behaviour. It also takes clever and subtle shots at some aspects of literary theory and philosophy, deeply embedded in the text as these are. It was the novel that turned me into a lifelong devotee of Coe’s and satirical British fiction.
(3) Angela Carter’s first collection of tales, “Fireworks” – like Coe above and below, Carter’s writing opened my eyes to the essence of literary wanderings that could fascinate by the extent of their multi-layered richness. “Fireworks”, Carter’s first foray into the tale form, is, quite simply, amazing in its capacity to draw the reader in with its exploration of profane cityscapes and their equally alluring, simultaneously troubling rural converse – both literally, and in the way in which they inhabit one’s consciousness. In her words, I found my true inspiration in literature – all the philosophical and theoretical writings which appealed to me in their pleasing laboriousness, their labyrinthine preoccupations, suddenly appeared to me perfectly rendered in a prose which was so profoundly laden with signification that every nuance sent me into a frenzy of cross-referencing, or simply delighted me with its sense of daring. Even though I would come to embrace some of her other works to a greater extent, Carter’s Fireworks was my first encounter with her work – and certainly not the last.
(4) Iris Murdoch’s “The Unicorn” is one of those novels that does not grab you by the lapels and screams its themes at you; rather, it insinuates them via the subtlety of its language. Using a gothic setting and tropes, it ostensibly plunges the reader into a world of supposedly evil deeds and their accompanying punishments, gaolers and prisoners, victims and aggressors, characters with apparently mythical qualities weaving a web of mystery around the protagonist, who needs must extricate herself from this pattern of moral judgement that is doomed to repeat itself until the central figure, and the ones around her, are no more. Through this novel, as in other, later works, Murdoch explores the broader notions of good and evil, with several underlying concepts relating to ideas of love, possession, faithfulness and power.
(5) Hilary Mantel is, of course, mostly celebrated for her recent best-selling tomes of historical fiction, the incisive portrait of Thomas Cromwell that is “Wolf Hall” and its sequel, “Bring Up the Bones”. For my money, though, some of her earlier works are just as impressive, if not more so. One such entry, and my favourite of the lot, is her scathing, brilliant and darkly hilarious portrayal of small-village community church life in her 1989 novel “Fludd”. The eponymous character is a curate of sorts who is sent to the dull, indistinct village of Fetherhoughton, a place mired in monotony and small-mindedness, only to wreak havoc with his talent for mischief and his rather worldly preoccupations with a sense of the aesthetic and the importance of language. Far from being a harbinger of morality to the village on which he and his delightfully tenebrous ways descend, Fludd embellishes the mundane world he has intruded by forcing those around him to question the boundaries of the real and the unreal, the sacred and the profane, beauty and ugliness. Mantel’s work is a wonderfully clever send-up of the parochial, the petty and the essence of a certain type of adherence to Catholicism which anyone brought up in a country obsessed with the ceremony that pertains to this, and the rituals surrounding it, can very easily relate to.
(6) If Fireworks was the collection of tales that turned me on to Carter’s work, “The Bloody Chamber And Other Stories” cemented my adoration for the unusual creations flowing from her many-hued pen. While feminist or female-centred rewritings of male-oriented fiction are the norm today, whether in literature or via Hollywood film scripts, it was more unorthodox in 1979, the year that the above tales saw the light. From a re-imagining of the beast in a parallel beauty-and-the-beast version as the female protagonist of the tale, to an apparently virginal Bluebeard’s wife who is more resourceful than she seems and is rescued by her mother rather than her elder brother, The Bloody Chamber deals head on with and glorifies in all savoury and (conventionally regarded as unsavoury) aspects of female sexuality, including menstruation, the process of ageing, a general appetite for sex and the unashamed desire to lose one’s virginity. For woman is beast too, she is not as pure as the driven snow, she is “nobody’s meat” and yet carnal enough to enjoy a coupling with a wolf. Carter demythologises the essence of what it means to be female and feminine in a wry, earthy manner, sparing no-one’s blushes and taking no prisoners. This assortment of tales is really essential reading for anyone intrigued by gothic revisionings of well-loved fables with feminist overtones.
(7) This is where I deviate from the contemporary titles I have mentioned so far to revisit a much more canonical author – Charlotte Brontë or, to give her the male alias that she used for the first few months of her career as a writer, Currer Bell. “Jane Eyre” is probably the first highly regarded literary classic that I came across as a child, albeit initially in comic and then abridged form. Its effortless fusion of quasi-naturalism and the irrational is, no doubt, what first compelled me, and I am indubitably but one out of tens, if not hundreds, of the thousands who have expressed admiration for this text. Set to become the inspiration behind hundreds of inferior “gothic romances”, and the blueprint for somewhat well-constructed tales resembling it in tone and theme, Jane Eyre was highly unusual, espousing a spirit which some may say bordered on the revolutionary, for its time, on very many different counts. For one thing, the character of Jane herself is the very antithesis of what a female literary protagonist was supposed to represent and embody, from her appearance to her views. Instead of being affluent, buxom and conventionally pretty, she is depicted as being financially dependent on her wealthy relatives due to her social status, slight and plain. She is, however, imbued with more than just a little fighting spirit. She loves, detests and admires in equal measure, pushing against circumstances that threaten to hold her down. This mid-nineteenth-century novel can be read on so many levels and interpreted in a multitude of ways, with, for instance, an appreciation of the use of nature, setting, the manner in which the Byronic hero is handled, the utilisation of language and narrative devices – the list goes on.
(8) If I first fell in love with Coe’s “The House of Sleep”, “What a Carve-Up!” is the title by this British author that astounded me by the seemingly effortless, ferocious manner in which Coe succeeds in dismantling whole sections of contemporary British society and aspects of what may be termed as ‘the essence of British culture’, including the time-honoured and still ongoing obsession with social class, massive industries and how they set about hoodwinking the public at large, unscrupulous politicians and a whole lot more. It is satire at its most savage, utilising mordant wit and the blackest of humour, challenging the reader to dispel the veracity of some of the notions being dealt with in a devastatingly flippant style. Together with the novel already referred to above, What a Carve-Up! constitutes, for me, Coe’s finest hour.
(9) Like Fludd above, Muriel Spark’s “The Ballad of Peckham Rye” deals in the comically fiendish, but the language in which this is couched is vastly different from its more modern ‘cousin’, if you will. The title itself already promises a certain incongruity in the juxtaposition of the two words, “ballad” seeming softer, at least in its sonic impression, than the more prosaic-sounding Peckham Rye. This is borne out by Spark’s exceptional use of language, where the terse and the pithy admirably espouses the absurd, sometimes moving towards the surrealistic. Her diabolical mainstay, who goes by the improbable name of Dougal Douglas, is wicked indeed, but rather than being so in the suave, debonair style of Fludd or John Milton in Andrew Neiderman’s “The Devil’s Advocate”, who seduce with their notions of beauty, Douglas is hideous, boastful and makes no attempt to hide his iniquity. Overshadowed by the much-lauded “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, perhaps looked upon as Spark’s mangum opus, The Ballad of Peckham Rye is one of Spark’s most curious novels. Its ingenious digs at the social fabric of the era and thoughts on migration interweave with Spark’s specialty – an almost dulled sense of the fantastic, which is further rendered complex by religious symbolism.
(10) – Like the other authors discussed above, Mantel is one of whom it is very difficult to choose the best works, such is my enthusiasm for her art. “Vacant Possession” is one of my favourites out of her oeuvre; there is much about its dark, teasing world to recommend – but the title which will probably stay with me a great deal more is “A Change of Climate”. Mantel builds the suspense to an almost unbearable degree as she weaves the reader in and out of a complex series of webs detailing the relationship of the married couple whose world we are, at the moment, inhabiting. The terrible secret that has been pushed underground for so long begins to fester and threatens to burst, thereby disintegrating the lives that these two individuals have attempted to create, notwithstanding the enormity of the suppressed event. Excruciating memories recommence this torture, and the couple is forced to acknowledge what cannot be undone. By dint of her words, Mantel confronts the reader with highly flammable, uncomfortable ideas of truth, good and evil. I found it breathtaking from beginning to end, and regard it as a fitting way in which to end this -to me, that is! – oh-so-crucial list.