What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book (2 page)

BOOK: What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book
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Monica Ali

on
Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a brilliant novel may forever be ruined by being forced to read it at school. But my first encounter with
Pride and Prejudice
took place in a classroom, and it ignited my lifelong love affair with Austen's work.

Every time I come back to
Pride and Prejudice
, I find something different in it depending on where I am in my life. When I first read it as an adolescent, I related to Lizzie's agonies of embarrassment over her family. I think that's wonderful and deeply telling – that despite the centuries, class and culture that separated me from Austen's protagonist, I related to and drew strength from her inner struggles. In another reading, this time shortly after I had started my own family, I became acutely aware of the narrow, domestic gaze of the novel. The big world – the
Napoleonic wars, the stirrings of the industrial revolution – barely features in Austen's work. She gives us the world in a bowl of white soup. And the work gains greatly in intensity and beauty.

From feeling frustrated and trapped beneath a breastfeeding infant, I began to appreciate that what is important is not what you see, but how – and how carefully – you see it. More recently, while writing my novel
Love Marriage
, what I drew from another rereading was that while Austen writes about courtship, engagements and marriage, the reader actually does learn a great deal about how the society of the time worked. Austen is very sharp in her observations about money, power, class and the position of women. I drew inspiration from that in my own writing, using the rituals and customs and family dynamics surrounding an impending wedding as a lens to look at how we live and love in Britain today.

Pride and Prejudice
has spawned so many imitators that sometimes it feels, in a way, damned by its own success. Can any book that popular be truly worthwhile? Okay, so it gave us Colin Firth in a wet shirt in the television adaptation, and many of us are enduringly grateful for that. But doesn't that just emphasise the shallowness of the novel's appeal?

Of the widespread affection for this book there can be no doubt. On the many Jane Austen websites – the Republic of Pemberley, for example – the most ardent discussions are reserved for
Pride and Prejudice
. The book has spawned an entire film and television industry, including
Bride and Prejudice
, a Bollywood reworking that speaks to the universality of the themes. And there have been sequels written and much homage paid, not least of which is Bridget Jones.

So, am I just a hopeless romantic, sucked into the well-told, romantically idealised tale of Lizzie, who is resolute in her goal of marrying, against the odds, for love?

Absolutely not.

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.' Austen's exquisite irony lays bare the institution of marriage as an exchange commodity system. Yet she treats the subject with a great deal of subtle inflection, making a thorough study of the married state, from the unequal union of Mr and Mrs Bennet, through the unstable passion of Lydia and Wickham, to Charlotte's marriage to the gruesomely pompous and obsequious Mr Collins. Lizzie's initial response to her friend's decision is one of horror. But it is part of Elizabeth's maturation that she
comes to admire Charlotte's ability to manage her household and her husband, whose many silly statements ‘Charlotte wisely did not hear'.

Of course, Elizabeth Bennet is a character I love. Quick-witted, lively, self-assured, full of good sense and yet so fallibly human. It is not only her prejudices she must conquer to make the match with Darcy but, to some extent, her pride. She is ruled by reason, but she makes mistakes. Austen gives us the landscape of her internal conflicts with a level of psychological insight that still seems both acute and fresh today.

Other heroines may stand up to and even conquer domineering men of so-called higher standing, others yet may represent our fears or wish-fulfilment fantasies, but Elizabeth takes the reader on her most important journey – and it's not the one to Pemberley but the path to self-knowledge. And that's why I'm among the many millions of her adoring fans.

Monica Ali is a British-Bangladeshi author of five novels, including
Brick Lane
and
Love Marriage
. A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, she has been nominated for the Booker Prize, the George Orwell Prize and the Critics' Circle Award and has taught creative writing at Columbia University, New York.

Ann Patchett

on
Sorrow and Bliss
by Meg Mason

Back in the days when I was just a novelist, as opposed to a novelist who owns a bookshop, I favoured dead writers. When people asked who had shaped me, I would trot out Mann and Garcia Marquez and Welty.

Then we opened Parnassus Books and everything changed. The dead still get plenty of real estate in bookshops, but they get very little of the booksellers' attention. That's because we're endlessly pummelled by the new books coming out. Every week a crop of titles is set loose on the world and the booksellers scramble to read as much as possible so that we can converse intelligently with our customers. I'd like to read Dickens again, but I doubt I will until I sell the store.

Because I am a bookshop owner who is also a novelist, everyone wants to send me their books. Not only can I write catchy endorsements, I can
also actually press the book into customers' hands. I receive rafts of advance reading copies, busloads and boatloads of books I'll never have time to read. I understand this is a luxury, but sometimes I forget.

I read and read. I had just sent in a quote for a very good first novel called
Valentine
by Elizabeth Wetmore. I picked it for our store's first editions club. I was pleased to give the editor the good news.

But a not a week went by before that same editor was back again saying she was very sorry, but would I please take a look at this other new book because she thought I'd like it, too.

When there are a hundred people asking for a favour, the person I am least inclined to help is the person I just finished helping. Didn't this editor know I was being crushed to death by fiction? Plus the author of this new book lived in Australia, which meant I couldn't pick the title for my book club even if I wanted to (we need signed copies). Worse still, the cover indicated a kind of lady fiction I don't go for.

I had just taken the recycle bin to the kerb five minutes before. Instead of throwing the book on the towering pile of books I'll never get to, I decided to walk it straight to the bin. I opened to the first page while walking down the stairs. I stopped in the driveway. I turned the page.
I stood in the driveway for five pages. Then the book and I went back inside.

Meg Mason's novel
Sorrow and Bliss
is an impossible rarity: a book of profound emotional depth that makes the reader bark like a seal. The world is full of books capable of scaring me to death or moving me to tears. There are no end of titles that can educate me in matters I know nothing about. But books that make me laugh out loud are rare. A book that, when read in bed, will make my husband say, ‘What's so funny?' and then when I tell him, he'll laugh too, those books are scarce. But were I to try to find a book that is funny and also scares me and moves me and educates me,
Sorrow and Bliss
would be standing by itself.

I won't tell you what the book is about because I want you to read it the way I read it: in a driveway, open to amazement. I will, however, tell you what I wrote for the jacket: ‘
Sorrow and Bliss
is a brilliantly faceted and extremely funny book that engulfed me in the way I'm always hoping to be engulfed by novels. While I was reading it, I was making a list of all the people I wanted to send it to, until I realized that I wanted to send it to everyone I know.'

By the time the hardbacks arrived at the bookshop, we were deep in the pandemic. Many
people had told me they were having trouble reading. ‘I want something funny,' customers said. ‘I want a book that will hold my attention and not let me go. I want a book that will make me feel smart and not crush me at the end.'

I had just what they were looking for.

We ordered cases of
Sorrow and Bliss
. We ordered busloads. We sold them all.

Did this book change my life? Yes, but in an unexpected way. Meg Mason wrote to me from Australia to thank me, and I wrote back to thank her. Those letters led to an exchange of emails, then phone calls, then Zooms, then voice notes, then friendship. A true friend is always an agent of change. What luck it is to love someone you've never met, to be elevated and improved by both the author and her book.

Ann Patchett is an American writer and the owner of Parnassus Books, an independent bookstore in Nashville. She is the author of eight novels, including
Bel Canto
, and five works of non-fiction, including
This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage
. She has been awarded a PEN/Faulkner Award and the Women's Prize for Fiction.

Leïla Slimani

on
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
by Milan Kundera

I was 14 years old. It was the summer of 1995 and we'd installed ourselves at our house in Kabila, a small village on the Mediterranean coast in the north of Morocco. During the holidays, my parents would go out a lot and have friends over often. I loved watching them drink, laugh and dance. I loved eavesdropping on adult conversations that I didn't totally understand. That summer, my mother was reading a book with a beige cover, decorated with the famous red border of
La Nouvelle Revue Française
. Its title:
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
. She brought it everywhere with her. When we went shopping, she'd rest it on her naked thighs whilst driving. The unbearable lightness of being? What could that possibly mean? It was an incantation that had a strange effect on me. I asked my mother what it
was about. She said ‘It's a very beautiful book but I wouldn't know how to summarise it.'

One afternoon, my parents went out on a boat trip. I've always had seasickness and I decided to stay home alone. I lay down on the bed, opened the book at random and here's what I read: ‘He undressed her, during which time she was almost inert. When he kissed her, her lips did not respond. Then she suddenly noticed she was moist and was appalled. She felt excitement, which was all the greater, given it was despite herself.'

I was physically overwhelmed by this chapter. For the first time in my life, literature had provoked a sensual, erotic shock in me. I think I blushed, closed the book and ran back to my room. That night, and during the days that followed, I did not stop thinking about it. And then, one day, I stole the book. I pretended to be sick and locked myself in my room. I remember it was very hot out. There was sand on the sheets of my bed and notes of music resonated in the air outside. People were having a party, somewhere.

The story unfolds in Prague at the end of the 1960s. Tomas is a surgeon who divorced 10 years earlier after a brief marriage, the remains of which include few memories and a son. He's a polygamist at heart who cannot conceive of another emotion than erotic friendship. He makes
an exception for Tereza, a waitress in a brasserie who shows up in his life and attaches herself to him for two weeks by way of a very nasty bout of flu. At night, Tomas holds her hand to help her fall asleep. He loves her but cannot stop cheating on her, notably with Sabrina, a painter who walks around her atelier naked, dressed only in her father's bowler hat.

Their lives are suddenly disrupted by the arrival of Russian tanks in Prague and the repression that ensues. Tomas wonders about the responsibility of Czech communists: if they pretend not to see what's going on does that make them innocent? He publishes an extremely critical article that his superior asks him to renounce. He refuses, so the couple must emigrate to Zurich, only to eventually return to Prague. Banned from practising medicine, Tomas becomes a window washer, then a truck driver, pursued all the while by the Russian police force.

At the time I first read it, I was living in Morocco under the regime of Hassan II and there was no freedom of expression. My own father would end up in prison, accused of a crime he did not commit. Through the magic of literature, I discovered unexpected similarities between communist Prague and my own country. It was during this period that I discovered my passion
for Central Europe. I read Zweig, Kafka, Márai, Kertész, and at the age of 22, I moved to Budapest for a couple of months.

I have reread this book dozens of times. My copy is dog-eared and annotated, and I think I'd endure a great deal of sorrow were I one day to lose it. Certain scenes have made a lifelong impression on me. It is impossible to sum this book up. One could say it's a novel about love, or rather, the inability to love, to be at once faithful to another and to oneself. This story also has a philosophical dimension and each situation provides the narrator with a chance to wonder about the human condition. If we only live once, why stubbornly insist on favouring severity?

I don't know what I really understood at the time. And deep down I tell myself it's not what matters most. It's less about ‘understanding' a novel than being understood by it. It's a total book and a liberated book in which Kundera invents his own style. This novel achieves the most incredible literary fusion, blending myth, love story, musical score and political reflection. And it's this liberty that creates a reading experience that is at once intellectual and sensual.

My first novel,
In the Garden of the Ogre
, is an homage to Kundera's work. Adele, the main character, reads
The Unbearable Lightness of Being
and is blown away. When my book was published, I sent a copy to Milan Kundera. A few weeks later, I received a letter at home. It contained a drawing of the Czech author and this note: ‘Thank you for your novel. Milan.'

Leïla Slimani is a Franco-Moroccan journalist and the author of four novels, including
Chanson Douce
, which won the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious literary award in France. It was published in the UK in 2016 as
Lullaby
and won a British Book Award. In 2017, she was appointed representative for the ‘promotion of French language and culture' by Emmanuel Macron.

BOOK: What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book
10.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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