On the ‘About Me’ section of the website you’ll find a list of the writers who have had the biggest influence on me. Now, here are my ten favourite books (in alphabetical order by author):
Le Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac – As anyone who has followed my writing knows, I’m fascinated by the ‘fantastic realist’ style: that fusion of the everyday realism with bathos, the grotesque and fantastical. (NB – it is not to be confused with magic realism, a different genre altogether). Balzac is a master practitioner; his Paris is full of comedy, horror, bizarre characters, and events that seem sprinkled with the supernatural. Goriot is in many ways a reworking of King Lear and its protagonist, Eugène de Rastignac, is a role model for anyone wanting to better themselves. It has my favourite line in all literature, as Rastiganc throws down the gauntlet to society at the very end of the novel: ‘À nous deux maintenant!’ [I leave it in French not to be a pseud but because its exact translation is so contentious.]
Any Human Heart by William Boyd – Told in diary form, AHH recounts the life of Logan Mountstuart, a failed novelist, as he witnesses some of the key events of the 20th Century. This would be my Desert Island Discs book choice. I keep a copy of it on my desk and whenever I’m lacking inspiration, I’ll open it at random to see what Logan is doing. For me, no novel better captures the ‘human condition’, what Boyd describes as this ‘peculiar, fascinating journey we’re all on’. It is funny, profoundly sad, soulful and ultimately uplifting. Published in 2002, it is the most recent book on this list.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell – I couldn’t decide whether to include this or not. In recent years Campbell has become almost insufferably trendy. Partly this is due to George Lucas acknowledging its influence on Star Wars, but the main culprit is Christopher Vogler, a former movie executive, who wrote a bastardised version of Campbell’s theory that has become essential reading for anyone in Hollywood. However, as a writer fascinated by myth and why we need to tell stories, I can’t deny the hold Hero has on me. I first read it during the school holidays of 1988 and must admit most of it went over my head. I picked it up again during my A-levels and since then it has become richer and more insightful on each new reading. Campbell’s belief was that all stories – from plays to novels, films and beyond – are essentially one story: a ‘monomyth’ with a shared structure of what he calls ‘The Hero’s Journey’. It’s a compelling hypothesis and although I maintain a degree of scepticism about it, I’ve yet to find an exception. Every book listed here conforms to it.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – Imagine a Greek island at night with a thunderstorm raging outside and the windows lashed with rain. That was the setting the first time I read HoD; I recall it vividly. I was seventeen and Conrad’s novella left a huge impression on me. Several years later I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on it. It’s one of the few books I re-read every decade. The older I get the more disturbing and insightful about the fragility of our social constraints it becomes. Its brevity means it can be read in a single sitting. Combine that with the density of the prose and you have a truly immersive experience. As with Any Human Heart, there’s always a copy on my desk.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald – The first time I read this it didn’t leave much of an impression, but given Fitzgerald’s reputation I made myself re-read it some years later. The second time round it clicked and each subsequent reading enthrals me more. I find two things especially striking: the precision and clarity of the prose; each sentence is like a piece of polished cut-glass. And Fitzgerald’s ability to pack a story that feels so huge – an epic of love, loss and the Roaring Twenties – into such a slim volume. It’s only two hundred pages.
Fatherland by Robert Harris – Quite simply, the finest thriller there is. I’ve read it more than a dozen times and it never ceases to keep me turning the pages. It’s not just the clever, twisting narrative; it’s the recreation of Nazi Berlin in the 1960s and the vibrancy of the characters. Xavier March feels like a real person to me. Harris’s subsequent novels became more ambitious (I’m a big fan of his Cicero trilogy) but in my opinion he has never bettered his debut. Another one I always keep on my desk and not only because I’m writing about Nazi Africa.
The Odyssey by Homer – This is a book that has been with me for so long I literally cannot imagine a life without it. It was first recounted to me by my Greek grandfather as it was in ancient days – spoken aloud, the story changing each time it was retold. Later I moved on to a children’s adaptation, and at school studied it in the original. Since then I’ve read several translations. When I was younger it was the creatures and monsters I loved (especially the Cyclops). As I’ve grown older it is the capricious politics of the Gods that fascinates me and Odysseus’s wit and sheer determination to survive. One can argue that it is the blueprint for every story told (I’m sure Campbell would agree). I can certainly see its influence in everything I’ve written.
The Alchemist by Ben Jonson – I’m not sure this is strictly a favourite, but no top ten list could be without it. This is probably the most influential text I’ve ever read. Jonson structures the play like a house of cards (this is meant as a compliment). Remove any scene and the whole thing collapses: each piece is essential to the integrity and forward thrust of the story. This is the structural basis for all my novels. Take any of them, including the unpublished ones, and if you remove any chapter, the plot will begin to fall apart. The same cannot be said for every book published. I believe all would-be writers should study Jonson.
1984 by George Orwell – Like many people I first read this at school. I came back to it later and now feel compelled to read it every few years. I’m not entirely convinced it’s a novel: it’s too polemic, with Orwell’s attention clearly on the satire rather than the plot or characters (both of which seem secondary). But what a satire! It’s pitch black and eerie in its prescience even though the original target was the Soviet Union. Given the subject matter and how the book ends, it should be depressing and yet every time I read it, amidst the despair I’m left with an unexpected flutter of hope. The system may destroy us but people will always stand against it, even insignificant, cowardly people like Winston Smith. Amongst Orwell’s many targets is ‘Newspeak’, a form of reductive English, that serves as a warning that the manipulation of language is always political and extremely dangerous. We should be on guard for it – a lesson for any writer. The book’s own prose is simple, almost bare, and there lies its authority.
The Time Machine by HG Wells – In many ways a companion piece (or antidote) to Heart of Darkness; they were published four years apart. It has a wonderful late Victorian naivety about it, yet its depiction of a divided world – with the haves enjoying easy lives above ground and the have-nots lurking in an industrial underworld – is more relevant than ever. I love its vernacular (‘Confound it!’ said I) and sense of adventure. The Time Traveller is an explorer the equal of Livingstone or Stanley. The scene as the world ends and falls into eternal darkness never fails to move or chill me.
As a rule I’m not one for ‘best of’ lists, so this is the first time I’ve ever drawn together my favourite books. What’s most striking to me is that with the exception of The Alchemist, Any Human Heart and Gatsby, I first read these books before I was twenty. I’ve also read them all multiple times and on each occasion the book has become richer and revealed more of itself. These books are like old friends. We’ve changed and grown-up together, and I couldn’t be without them.