As I’m making personal book recommendations I’ll make a detour into my favourite fiction. At the risk of this deteriorating into a sort of sub-Facebook page, here are a few of my favourite authors: Tolstoy, Turgenev, Bulgakov, Chekhov and Bunin (that’s the Russian stuff); Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Hardy, William Trevor, George Eliot, CP Snow, Graham Greene, Mario Vargas Llosa, Eileen Chang, Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and DH Lawrence. Nothing particularly odd there really.
I’ll mention three books that I have loved for years and re-read from time to time (though the gaps are getting longer). The first and least well known (and shortest) is “The Good Soldier” by Ford Madox Ford. Apparently regarded as one of the earliest modernist novels, this is a brilliantly constructed book about the complex relationships between four people told from one person’s shifting, incomplete point of view. It moves forward and backwards in time in a way that is quite commonplace in books and films now but was very innovative at the time (1915). But if that makes it sound like some academically important but boring book, then I’m failing to do it justice. The reason I love it is because it’s a wonderful, moving and intensely human story. The formal cleverness works entirely to make the book more satisfying and absorbing and it’s not a “difficult” read at all. One example of the text:
“But the real fierceness of desire, the real heat of a passion long continued and withering up the soul of a man is the craving for identity with the the woman that he loves. [..] We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist” (p.109).
The book is sub-titled “A tale of passion” and its apparently calm setting among stilted, proud American and English rich people makes the suppressed emotions all the more intense.
A second book, much longer, is one of the classic Victorian novels, “The Mill on the Floss” by George Eliot (a woman, for those who aren’t familiar with English literature). This is a wonderfully entertaining story of a family and a community, with beautifully drawn characters of great humanity. It has a marvellous plot and its greater than usual length means you can become utterly absorbed in it, to the point where it’s disappointing when it ends. Somebody once said that all male readers inevitably fall in love with the heroine, Maggie, and I will have to admit that I did too.
Lastly, even longer but quite different in style is a very famous book, one that is almost a cliché but that should not discourage those who haven’t read it from picking it up. Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is still my favourite novel, after four readings over many years. Tolstoy was an arch conservative and so the married woman who breaks the rules by falling in love with another man must therefore be punished. But Tolstoy is evidently fascinated with her and Anna commands the book. The parallel story of the more homely, well behaved and frankly rather dull Kitty, just puts the magnificent Anna in a clearer light. The writing in this novel is amazingly good in places and it has a tremendous story. Even the minor characters are drawn convincingly. A favourite scene of mine is one where a man who is widely expected to propose marriage to a particular girl accompanies her into the woods to pick mushrooms. He intends to propose, she expects him to and they happily approach the moment while talking of flowers. Then, mysteriously and heart-breakingly, at the perfect moment to declare his love, he instead asks a question about mushrooms. She understands he will not in fact propose, the moment passes and their entire future together evaporates.
(I noticed there is a similar scene in Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” when I performed in it a few years ago, in which the peasant-businessman Lopahkin fails to propose to the adopted daughter Varya, even though he, she and everyone else had fully expected them to get married. Again a woman’s life is completely changed in a few moments of irresolution.)
For those without the time to read novels (which includes me these days) I recommend the short stories of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Thomas Hardy or if you want something more modern, Milan Kundera and William Trevor. I will add Ivan Bunin’s stories too, another Russian author who I learnt about from a Russian MBA student in Cambridge three years ago. Here’s a taste of Bunin:
“And so it was in solitude that Natashka slowly drank in the bitter-sweet poison of unrequited love” (Sukhodol).
Curious to find that last phrase with a certain similarity to the famous first line of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’:
“It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”