Sunday 3 October 2010

Twenty-ones, under and over

I bought the Times on Saturday specifically because the Review section carried a feature headed The books you must read before you’re 21, a title guaranteed to excite my curiosity. Don’t you just love the imperative, the use of the word must? If I’m told I must do something I invariably go in the opposite direction. Oh! Ever thus from childhood's hour. :-)

Actually, the title was rather misleading. It was just a collection of authors detailing the book that they had found most influential, or those, so the sub-heading went, that made them grown-ups. I honestly don’t believe any book has that power, no matter how influential.

Still, there were some interesting choices, a number that I also read before I was twenty-one. I was pleasantly surprised by Nigella Lawson’s selection of Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger, because- and I have to be completely honest here – I did not think a sleb cook and all round telly person would have such good taste! In a nutshell you have my snobbish sense of intellectual superiority combined with my condescension towards celebrity chefs, no matter in what guise they come! I dare say they all have tastes as elevated and as impressive as Nigella. Actually, no; I simply can’t see Gordon Ramsay reading Thomas Mann!

OK, the other under twenty-oners that I managed to bag are Selected Essays by George Orwell (Sebastian Faulks), the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (Tom Stoppard), the Collected Shorter Poems by W. H Auden (Alexander McCall Smith), Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (Val McDermid), Hamlet by absolutely no need to mention the author (Barry Humphries), The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer (Phillipa Gregory), Matilda by Roald Dahl (Philip Ardagh), Emma by Jane Austen (P. D. James), Madam Bovary by Gustav Flaubert (Alistair Campbell), The Diary of Anne Frank (Lynne Reid Banks), The Last of the Just by Andre Schwartz-Bart (Steven Berkoff), and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery (Fergal Keane).

The first thing I have to say here is slightly put out that I favour any kind of book that Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s thuggish and foul-mouthed former press secretary, also favours. But Madame Bovary is such a great novel, arguably the greatest French novel of the nineteenth century, that will just have to live with the annoyance! I'm more than happy to identify with P. D. James, though. Emma is a sublime novel, Austen’s best, about a character I simply adore. Emma resembles me in so many ways!

Roald Dahl was among my favourite childhood writers. I think I read, or had read to me, everything he wrote, not just Matilda - by far the best - but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mister Fox ( great to read about; even better to hunt!) and Witches ( slanderously inaccurate!) I later turned to Dahl’s adult fiction, his short stories, which I found incredibly disappointing, a great many of them being completely anti-climatic.

They are all good, the books selected, the books these people have read and I have read. I did enjoy The Female Eunuch ,though the message was somewhat lost on me in that I had never in any way been made to feel that my life choices were restricted.

I have to make special mention of The Last of the Just, an astonishing novel I read when I was eighteen. I’ve mentioned it in previous blogs as a book that deserves to be far better known. As Steven Berkoff says in his notes, it’s a powerful retelling of an ancient Hebrew myth about a select band of just men who carry the burden of the world’s pain and sorrows, men who are the ultimate scapegoats. It’s a parable of the suffering of the Jewish people, from tenth century England to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, where Ernie Levy, the last of the just, died in 1943. The final pages tore my heart out, leaving me numb for hours afterwards.

Now, what about those that I did not read, those that are now ‘too late’ for me? It’s too, too boring for me to go over them all. Some I’d never heard of, like On Having No Head by D. E. Harding (Simon Callow), The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns (Helen Oyeyemi) and Puckoon by Spike Milligan (Dawn French), so no great loss, I expect. I’m a little alarmed, though, to discover The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas (Aravind Adiga) and Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey (Antonia Fraser) are also minus twenty-ones. I have both in my collection – I bought Strachey quite recently –though as yet unread. Should I risk bringing to bear a more ‘mature’, a more ‘cynical’ eye, a view from the heights of the mid-twenties? Yes, I rather think I should; I rather think I shall. The thing is a new boundary has been established which I will simply have to break. It’s my nature. :-)


  1. How interesting. I don't much care for Nigella either, but I suppose she's earned some of her...well, she's earned something anyway.
    If I had to pick a few books that truly inspired me before I was 21 it would have to be
    1. Götzen-Dämmerung
    2. From Peel to Major: The History of The Conservative Party
    3. Just So Stories
    4. Julius Caesar(not sure if a place counts)
    5. Songs of Innocence and Experience--not sure if poetry counts?

  2. Too bad I'm so 'old'--it prohibits me from putting A Journey on this list. What a remarkable work of fiction--better than Dickens!

  3. Good choices. Well, since Hamlet and the Collected Shorter Poems of Auden were among the choices, they clearly do. :-)

  4. Yes, indeed. Oh and we can't forget Gordon Brown's The Labour Party and Political Change in Scotland 1918–29

  5. not sure if a play counts I should say.

  6. Together with a recommendation that the classics are still worth reading, here are a few lowbrow choices.

    Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift
    Idylls of the King - Tennyson
    Dune - Frank Herbert
    Kim, & The Jungle Books - Rudyard Kipling
    At the Mountains of Madness - H. P. Lovecraft
    Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James
    The Snow Goose, & Jennie - Paul Gallico
    Swallows & Amazons (series) - Arthur Ransome
    Conan the Barbarian - Robert Howard
    King Solomon's Ring - Konrad Lorenz
    My Family & Other Animals - Gerald Durrell
    On the Origin of Species - Charles Darwin
    Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage - Alfred Lansing
    The King Must Die - Mary Renault
    The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler.
    . . . anything by P. G. Wodehouse.

  7. Thirty was my twenty-one (a slow developer). I had a goal to have read a whole lot of English and French stuff by then (translations were not allowed and I didn't know any other languages). I was genuinely impressed by a Lithuanian university French teacher mainly because she moved like a leopard (and had a giant picture of a big cat pinned on her office wall) and because she wore red and black to lecture on Stendahl's novel, but also - curiously as I see it now - because she had read all of Balzac's novels. I've come to feel the notion of being well-read is increasingly unsustainable. Sad because knowing the same stories is what holds societies together and bridges generations.

  8. My top ten:

    1) Batman
    2) Spiderman
    3) Zagor

    Err that made top three. More than enough for me. :)

  9. Calvin, some super choices there. I love Gulliver's Travels, just about anything, really, by Swift, one of my all-time favourite writers, the best satirist in the English language. I've also read the Tennyson, the Kipling, though Plain Tales from the Hills is my favourite, H. P Lovecraft, a bit too florid for my taste, Ransome, Durell, Chandler and lots of Wodehouse. I've dipped in to The Origin of Species, though really just as casual reference. I simply adore the stories of M. R. James, Count Magnus being a creepy favourite. You've now inspired me to write something on the delights of childhood terrors!

  10. Oh, Mark, people like us will sustain culture and civilization, no matter if the masses can't draw themselves away from Britain's got Talent and the X Factor. Bread and circuses, pizza and telly; what's changed? :-))

  11. Levent, I like Batman, he appeals to my Gothic taste. :-)

  12. I'd include some favourite war novels:

    1. Herman Wouk's Caine Mutiny, Winds of War and War and Remembrance.

    2. Norman Mailer's The Naked and The Dead


    3. Nicholas Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea

  13. I read a lot of books before I was 21 ... perhaps more than in the subsequent 29 years.

    I read some soon after I moved away from home, aged 17, that influenced me a lot ... in particular, Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf, and Jean-Paul Sartre's Roads to Freedom trilogy. Also The Grapes of Wrath a bit later.

  14. Retarius, I haven't read any of those though I have see the movies based on the Caine Mutiny and The Cruel Sea.

  15. Brendano, we obviously have the same tastes! I went through an 'existential' phase when I read a lot of Sartre's fiction, including the Roads to Freedom and Nausea. He's wrong: there are perfect moments. :-)