My Literary Top 10:
Best short story I’ve ever read
I don’t think in terms of an absolute ‘best’ - there are so many ways of being good, so different from each other. But the story which stopped me, literally, in mid-stride when it came out of the radio, and held me in the same posture for fifteen minutes, was ‘The Dark’, a story from Tove Jansson’s (out-of-print) collection The Sculptor’s Daughter - the best evocation of the utterly un-cute strangeness of childhood that I’ve ever read or heard.
Book I was forced to read at school
Several Shakespeare plays, and in particular A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Wonderful stuff, I now know… but the problem is we read it. There ought to be a law that no one has to read a Shakespeare play before they’ve seen it performed - a good film version would do.
Best ‘film of the book’
Though I can respect and enjoy faithful renderings on screen, I’ve a preference for films that unashamedly create something parallel and different, in the way that Tarkovsky’s Solaris becomes pure Tarkovsky, with just a grateful nod towards Stanislaw Lem’s splendid but quite differently-focussed novel. I won’t mention the recent American remake.
Best writer for children and adults (equally).
Alongside Ursula Le Guin (see Q9) there’s Russell Hoban who is equally at home with magic-real multi-layered fables for adults (Riddley Walker, a book as much about language and myth as post-nuclear devastation) and classic children’s writing (The Mouse And His Child is a splendid example of apparent simplicity concealing real subtlety and edge). Even his toddler-age books about Frances the Badger are full of wry deep insights into parenting.
My favourite opening line of a novel
I know everyone should be able to think of a snappy, grabbing, taut, mysterious one-liner… but what comes to my mind is “Gormenghast, that is, the main massing of the original stone, taken by itself would have displayed a certain ponderous architectural quality were it possible to have ignored the circumfusion of those mean dwellings that swarmed like an epidemic around its outer walls.” (Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan) The whole first paragraph goes on like this, piling buttress on groaning buttress of subordinate clauses on each other, building a grammatical edifice very much like Gormenghast itself. No creative writing class would let him get away with it, but it’s so entirely what it is. Good for him!
My favourite children’s novel that no one else seems to have heard of
How about Patricia Wrightson’s The Nargun and the Stars. I’ve never seen the Australian outback, but I can’t think of many books, for children or adults, that give such a convincing voice and consciousness to elemental forces. (Reading it, you really believe this is how stone thinks.)
The book I’d most like to reread, if I could find it again
Smallcreep’s Day, by Peter Currell Brown. Published in 1965, it reached me in the late 60s and I remember a thrill at the blend of surreality and political edge. Would it seem dated now? Smug, naïve, as we often were in the late 60s? Merely sub-Kafka? Or is it as unsettlingly funny and odd as I remember it. I’d like to find out.
My favourite bookshop
Once a month, the book caravan arrives in town, and erects its small encampment of yurts lined with portable bookshelves and cushions where the readers lounge, drink coffee, read and chat. The actual number of books is relatively small, of course, and mainly the ones you wouldn’t have expected or heard of or sought for online — an element of serendipity is built in. There are some fine books, limited editions you can handle, too. Meanwhile the online screens give you access to all the publishers’ catalogues, however specialist, and the world of web-based writing too, and people leave their comments with each book they buy, then bring back for resale. (Oh, OK, you’ve guessed: this is pure fantasy. But heck, why not?)
Author I’d like to nominate for the Nobel Prize for literature
Ursula Le Guin, for her tremendous and generous range, across age groups and genres, from the humane thought-experiments of her science fiction (e.g. The Left Hand of Darkness) to the children’s fantasy world of Earthsea which took magic clean out of the clichés of swords and sorcery and said it all about wizardry long before Harry Potter. Most of all, I like her courage to come back, rethink her earlier work and keep changing.
Deceased author I’d most like to meet and put a name to…
The unknown author of the Middle English vision-allegory Pearl, in which you feel the poem’s premise (that the writer’s lost young daughter becomes his guide through earth and the afterlife) is actually true, and the religious thinking is fed by a real and healing grief, like an underground stream. Textual scholars reckon that the same author wrote the wonderful Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight too. But the balance of the language was already shifting, and Chaucer’s English, that of London and the South-East, became standard English while the author of Pearl, probably writing at a court in the North-West, was left without a name, and with works in a dialect that only scholars can now read (although there are some pretty good translations.)