It’s usual for a list of great novels to include
- an inscrutable foreign masterpiece from the present-day
- one Jane Austen title (choice depends on intellectual criteria, such as which film hero was most fanciable)
- an angst novel (Philip Roth often fits the bill)
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- and *drum roll* Anna Karenina.
Maybe you’re waiting with bated breath for Rosamund Bartlett’s new translation? Her Anna Karenina, due to be published in August, is already ranked about two millionth on Amazon (how does that happen? Tolstoy pulling rank again?).
Sorry to disappoint, but my choice of Russian blockbuster is by Boris Pasternak. When I first read it, I was neither a medic nor a writer, whereas Yuri Zhivago was both.
It snowed and snowed, the whole world over,
Snow swept the world from end to end.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.
I loved Doctor Zhivago for its action, its setting, its characters, its lyricism (and Omar Sharif). I even studied Russian and tried to write poetry. Then I figured out the real lesson: to avoid becoming as self-absorbed as Pasternak’s hero. Also, not to turn into a bloke, especially not one with a frosted tache and a balalaika.
Catch-22 may not be on this list, but I treasure another novel that gave rise to a very current phrase. Yes, the past is a foreign country in L P Hartley’s The Go-Between. Twelve-year old Leo figures out the facts of life. He also figures he’s being used.
“Well,” he said, “let’s make a bargain. I’ll tell you all about spooning, but on one condition.”
I knew what he was going to say, but for form’s sake I asked: “What is it?”
“That you’ll go on being our postman.”
While the lad was naïve by today’s standards, the book is still fresh for 1953 and nicely captures Leo’s post-traumatic stress. By comparison The Shrimp and the Anemone is rather dull. Which is to say that I don’t recall any spooning.
My choice of modern foreign masterpiece is the perfectly scrutable The Yacoubian Building. If you haven’t read it, it’s a lively ensemble novel peopled by a doorman, his family, a gay newspaper editor, Islamists, and the other motley inhabitants of the building on Suleiman Basha Street. Here’s a passage about the womanizing aristo Zaki Bey.
From Lady Kamla (she of the inexorable appetite) he learned how to start and when to desist and how to ask for the most abandoned sexual positions in extremely refined French. Zaki Bey has also slept with women of all classes – oriental dancers, foreigners, society ladies and the wives of the eminent and distinguished, university and secondary school students, even fallen women, peasant women, and housemaids. Every one had her special flavor, and he would often laughingly compare the bedding of Lady Kamla with its rules of protocol and that of the beggar woman he picked up one night when drunk in his Buick and took back to his apartment in Baehler Passage, and who he discovered, when he went into the bathroom with her to wash her body himself, to be so poor that she made her underwear out of empty cement sacks. *
The story may seem a bit ‘told’ for some, but that’s probably the nature of Arabic literature. The book has special resonance for me as I’ve lived in Cairo, although Al-Aswany doesn’t describe anything as atmospheric as my first terrifying day at school when I screamed so much that I threw up onto the teacher’s shoes.
For a tale that moves at breakneck speed and grips like a novice on a rearing stallion, look no further than Dick Francis. Low-brow? Maybe. Formulaic? Sometimes. But brilliant all the same, right from the off. This is from For Kicks.
The Earl of October drove into my life in a pale blue Holden that had seen better days, and danger and death tagged along for the ride.
I’m not the only fan of his opening style. Here’s what writer and blogger Emma Darwin has to say in Straight proof: what any of us can learn from Dick Francis.
After brooding Russians, a traumatized adolescence, Egyptian neighbours and skulduggery in the stables, what could I possibly have left out? Chick-lit, that’s what. If you’ve read Me Before You by JoJo Moyes, you’ll know that Will has a life-changing motorbike crash.
“So, Patrick,” Will said, perhaps sensing my discomfort. “Louisa tells me you’re a personal trainer. What does that involve?”
I so wished he hadn’t asked. Patrick launched into his sales spiel, all about personal motivation and how a fit body made for a healthy mind. Then he segued into his training schedule for the Xtreme Viking – the temperature of the North Sea, the body fat ratios needed for marathon running, the best times in each discipline. I normally tuned out at this point, but all I could think of now, with Will beside me, was how inappropriate it was.
What have all these books got in common?
A cracking story. Lots of conflict. Great dialogue. Wit, of course. I’m pretty sure there’s something else too, but it’s hard to analyse when you’re in awe so I’m damned if I know. Ask me again when I’ve got more of my own books onto other people’s shelves of favourites.
*I had to correct the grammar in the English translation by Humphrey Davies. Sloppy editing, HarperCollins.