I’m having a short break. Will be blogging again the week beginning 8 November. See you then!
I’ve just read Susan Hill’s HOWARD’S END IS ON THE LANDING about the year she spent reading from her own collection of books. I enjoyed it and agreed with her about a lot. Like her I think that THE RECTOR’S DAUGHTER is a masterpiece. Like her I have a high regard for Trollope and Dickens and admire the diaries of James Lees-Milne for the writer’s absolute frankness about his own short-comings. She made me want to go back and read some old favourites and gave me some new books to add to my reading list. But perhaps the most fascinating section was on books she HADN’T read. One of them was ULYSSES.
In my last blog I wrote that doing a degree in English can deter one from writing oneself. But it is also a wonderful foundation for a reading life. Would I otherwise have read all of PARADISE LOST or all Shakespeares’s plays or BEOWOLF in Anglo-Saxon. Highly unlikely especially in the case of BEOWOLF. It was a struggle at the time, but I am glad these things are part of my mental furniture. Of course not everything took, and something that didn’t was ULYSSES. Fifty pages in was the furthest I ever got, and I don’t intend to go back, so I am with Susan Hill there. But I didn’t know whether to feel amazement or envy when I learned that though she has read a truly vast amount and is far more familiar with for example the novels of Hardy and Virginia Woolf among than I am, she has never read THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY or THE GREAT GATSBY. To my mind THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY isn’t just Henry James’s best novel, it is one of the best novels ever written. On the whole I am sorry. True, she can now have the pleasure of reading it for the first time, but she has fewer years left for rereading it. THE GREAT GATSBY, too, I am glad that I read as an undergraduate, though for a different reason. Certainly it can certainly stand rereading, but I think it is best encountered first as a young person.
Some books when read in youth become companions for life. For me another of those is ANNA KARENINA. My reading group has chosen it as an optional extra and, as I suggested it, I certainly have to reread it. But in any case it has for a while been calling me to take it down from the shelf and I am looking forward to plunging back into it. Rereading: what a great pleasure that is.
My friend, Martin Edwards, has an entertaining blog with the splendid title ‘Do you write under your own name?’ I have been asked this too at parties, usually in a hopeful tone after the speaker has ascertained that they have never heard of me or my novels. I never hold that against them. I don’t EXPECT them to have heard of me. On the rare occasion when they have – the last time was a Society of Authors meeting – I am thrilled. The next question is often, ‘Have you always wanted to write?’ I usually say no, and explain how I came to start writing fiction. Bur really the answer should probably be yes, because I have always written: stories at primary school, essays and dissertations at school and university, a Ph.D thesis, academic books and articles. I just haven’t always written fiction or even wanted to write fiction. In part I think this has something to do with having studied English. I knew that I was never going to write like Shakespeare, or Dickens, or Tolstoy, or Jane Austen, so why bother? I didn’t know that there is a lot to be gained from the writing life, even if you’re never going to reach the heights or learn a lot of money. And I didn’t know that two things will carry you a long way as a writer: a willingness to learn the craft and a willingness to stick with it for the long haul.
And what about talent, I hear you say. Well, yes, but then again some people have the skill of making a small talent go a very long way, others may have a larger share, but it means nothing if they haven’t got self-discipline to go with it.
But, of course, there are simply writers of pure genius, like the ones I’ve already mentioned. In my view one of the foremost today, if not the foremost, is Jonathan Franzen and I am looking forward to reading his new novel, FREEDOM. The review sections of the papers are full of articles and interviews. Blake Morrison in the Guardian writes about the almost monastic life Franzen leads as a writer, no children, doesn’t go on holiday, locks himself away in a cell-like room. For most of us this trade-off wouldn’t be worthwhile. But someone with Franzen’s huge talent has almost a duty to nurture it and I am glad that he does.