Anna Karenina on the beach, The Corrections in Patagonia, Death in Venice overlooking the Lido … Writers recall their most memorable holiday reads – what are yours?
I came late to Henry James. In my teenage years I read some of the stories and The Turn of the Screw, but I did not approach the novels until the early 1970s when, on holiday in Florence, I took up The Portrait of a Lady in a well-thumbed Modern Library edition. I had not realised that so much of the book was set in and around Florence, or that James had written the first instalments in the Hôtel de l’Arno, just around the corner from the pensione where I was staying, near Santa Croce.
The “discovery” of James was one of the formative experiences of my life, and that it should have occurred in Florence, of all places, lent it an almost magical significance. In those days, before mass tourism thoroughly destroyed it, the city was largely still the one that James had known, and for me his stately ghost haunted its shaded streets and sunny piazzas, where often, too, I thought I glimpsed, strolling among the international crowd, a handsome young American woman from another age, whom I seemed to recognise . . .
In 1971, at the age of 18, I left school and went off to spend nine months at the University of Nice on the Côte d’Azur. It was my gap year, long before gap years were invented. As reading matter for my journey to Nice I bought an American novel – because I was only interested in American novels at the time – called The Sophomore by Barry Spacks, first published in 1968 but now out of print. I still have the tattered Fontana paperback. Over that unforgettable summer of 1971 I read The Sophomore again and again. It was speaking to me in the most insistent way. It’s a comic novel about the amorous travails of a 23-year-old man at an American university – but it’s also very dry, knowing and sophisticated. I was about to go to university myself and, through my reading of this novel, I began to understand what one could do with fiction: how experience of life could be invented or edited, then manipulated and shaped to make people laugh and think about themselves. I see now that The Sophomore was the serendipitous push I needed to set me on my way. I read it again last year. It holds up remarkably well – an American Lucky Jim. Someone should republish it.
I was married (for the first time) in the summer of 1959. I was working on a D Phil in Oxford on 17th-century religious allegory. My supervisor was the great Helen Gardner. I went to see her at the end of the academic year. She said, not for the first time, that the academic life required a nun-like devotion and chastity. She said that when I married my state research grant would be withdrawn as I would be a married woman – a married man had his grant increased. After these blows she made gracious conversation. She was, she said, reading Proust. She gave a little laugh. In English, of course – she wasn’t up to reading him in French. In a state of pure rage I walked into Blackwell’s, purchased the whole of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu in French, and began reading. I read all summer, across Europe, back in England. That was when I knew I was a writer, not an academic. Every sentence was a new revelation of what language could do. At first I needed a dictionary, and then I didn’t, mostly. I had never met so finely woven a tapestry of writing. I began to plan a novel that would be as long as my life, that would make life and novel one. That didn’t exactly work out. But that was my very best summer of reading.
I read Narziss and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse some time in the late 1970s, when I was on a caravan holiday with my parents. We would go away every year to Abersoch for three weeks, and although, if the weather was bad (which it usually was), there was precious little to do except read, I never seemed to take enough books with me. So I was often thrown on the mercy of the beachside bookshops.
You could wander into one of these tiny places and there, amid the shrimping nets and souvenir egg timers, you would find a revolving stand with the most eclectic choice of novels, including Penguin Modern Classics, of all things. So there I found Hesse’s penultimate major work, and that began my late-adolescent love affair with his books – although I always preferred the austere, Germanic ones to those that flirted with eastern mysticism. Narziss and Goldmund is schematic in a way that is typical of Hesse – one character stands for the Apollonian way of life, one for the Dionysian – but I didn’t notice that, I just loved its sense of the medieval landscape, and I spent a happy few days dreaming that I was in a German monastery rather than a rain-swept corner of north Wales.
When I was 22 my parents took me to Lake Como in Italy, the perfect romantic setting. Mourning a break up with an adored boyfriend, I discovered and devoured the poems of AE Housman, totally identifying with their sense of love and loss and revelling in the ravishing descriptions of the Shropshire countryside. One poem, which contained the lines “Possess, as I possessed a season, / The countries I resign”, moved me so much that I copied the entire thing into my notebook. Chancing upon it, my parents assumed I was the author and that they had given birth to a genius. Alas, I had to disillusion them, but I’ve adored Housman’s poems ever since.
My most memorable holiday book is Angus Wilson’s Late Call, which I read on holiday in Morocco, or rather on my way to Morocco, for I think I read it on the boat from Marseille to Tangier. I had discovered Wilson’s work while still at university and eagerly read each book as it was published; this novel, which came out in 1964, was as gripping as all the others had been, and very unexpected. It’s the story of a newly retired hotel manageress trying to adapt to life with her widowed headmaster son in a new town. It’s full of social comedy and human tragedy, and I remember being utterly gripped by the wholly real world Wilson created. It was a perfect companion on a trip that was at times rather unsettling. I don’t know how a sophisticated and highly educated man such as Wilson can have entered so fully into this woman’s hopes and fears, but he did. It’s also more experimental than it looks in terms of narrative technique. It was made into a TV series in which Dandy Nichols played the main role brilliantly. Many of Wilson’s books are now available through Faber Finds, including this one. I continue to associate it, quite inappropriately, with memories of Marseille, the Mediterranean and Casablanca.
I bought Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia in June 1986 from Compendium in Camden, London (a Mecca, back then, for theory-hungry radicals) and read it, intermittently, throughout the summer in Brixton. Given the diversity of these “Reflections on Damaged Life” – compiled in the molten core of the 20th century – it’s not surprising that what I recall is less the specific content of the book than the experience of reading it, the current coursing through its pages. Dialectical thought – “an attempt to break through the coercion of logic by its own means. But since it must use these means, it is at every moment in danger of itself acquiring a coercive character” – is taken to an extreme that is aesthetic (the first section is “For Marcel Proust”) as well as cerebral. Needless to say, I couldn’t understand all of it; still can’t, to be honest, but this passage means more to me now than it did 25 years ago: “Slippers are designed to be slipped into without help from the hand. They are monuments to the hatred of bending down.”
I read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History in the summer of 1991, while staying with my boyfriend in a small house on Martha’s Vineyard. The book hadn’t yet been published, but there was already such advance furore over it that just getting my hands on a battered, grease-stained galley felt like an unbelievable score. I sat down expecting to be riveted but prepared for disillusionment – how many books can stand up to an expectation like that?
Shortly after I started the book, the septic system in the house where we were staying backed up and filled the washing machine (which happened to contain most of our clothing) with sewage. We had few clothes, no hot water, and a domestic crisis to deal with. But I experienced the devolution of our beach vacation into drudgery from a blurred remove; I was reading The Secret History. I read Tartt’s book at a laundromat, trying to remove the cloacal stench from our clothes; I read it while awaiting the arrival of a septic expert. I read it in line at a hardware store and at red lights. At one point I found myself contemplating – seriously – trying to read the book while actually driving.
I don’t remember the characters or plot particularly well. What I remember is the way it transported me – kidnapped me, really, from circumstances I was all too happy to escape. I remember thinking, as I read: “I want to do this to people.”
In 1997, when my mother knew she didn’t have long to live, she spent a good part of her life savings and took her three kids and their families on a cruise to Alaska. I’d been working on a piece of fiction about cruises, and I’d rushed to finish it before getting on the ship, because I didn’t want to be influenced by a real cruise experience. But I was ready for a real vacation – unlimited food and drink and coastal scenery – and the book I brought along was Halldôr Laxness’s novel Independent People. It’s a story about an Icelandic sheep farmer, but it’s also a story about everything: modernity, history, freedom, love. Its excellence was almost a problem for me, because once I was hooked I just wanted to stay in my stateroom and read it. Fortunately the northern summer days were endless, and I could read all afternoon and still have hours after dinner to soak up the Iceland-like light and air. The best reading experiences partake of eternity, because we forget time for a while and thereby escape it. When I came to the end of Independent People, I cried like I’ve never cried over a novel, before or since.
I once spent the whole long summer holidays in the Highlands of Scotland reading A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell. It certainly rained outside, and probably inside, too, given the ancient structure of the house, but I never noticed. I was transfixed by that time, that place, as delineated by the master. And just as I finished the last volume, the master himself (married to my aunt) came to stay. He volunteered laughingly to sign all my copies with some deprecating phrase: “If you don’t object.” There was a temporary hitch when one of the books – Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant – was found to bear the inscription “Marigold Johnson”, obviously swiped by me from my best friend. But Powell was more than equal to the situation. He wrote: “This book once belonged to” above “Marigold Johnson” and then added: “but now belongs to Antonia Fraser”. I still have the whole set, of which this is a particularly treasured volume. This summer I intend to read them all again – on my Kindle this time, so no signatures involved.
We were staying in a hotel deep in the Umbrian countryside. Alitalia had lost all our luggage, and we had no car because I’d managed to leave my driving licence behind, so there was nothing to do but read. But that turned out to be fine, because it was my second and even more enjoyable trip through La Chartreuse de Parme, and my first acquaintance with one of the most wonderful books I’ve ever come across, A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz. It’s a magical recreation of not one but several lost worlds, of an intensely lived childhood, and of the unforgotten pain at the heart of it. Car-less, luggage-less Italy vanished behind a bright veil of tears and laughter.
It was early summer and I’d gone on holiday to the island of Formentera, feeling particularly ragged and exhausted after a play I’d written, acted in and produced. I booked to stay in the same hotel I’d stayed in as a child, not knowing for sure if there were any other hotels, and arrived to find that it was on the top of a hill almost an hour’s walk from the coast. So every day I set off with my costume, a towel and a book – Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and spent the afternoon lying on the beach immersed in Russia, romance, philosophy and suspense. As the days passed, these worlds began to tangle together, Anna’s soaring feelings for Vronsky, the white sand of the beach, Levin’s discourses on nature, a quick, cold dip in the sea. I never think now about Kitty’s frustrations, or the terrible suffering of Anna as she is forced to choose between her lover and her child, without remembering the long trudge up the hill to La Mola, and the sense of peace as I sat on the terrace eking out the last pages in the fading light. I arrived back in London, refreshed and restored; though I’ve never been back to Formentera, I’ve reread Anna Karenina many times.
If that’s holiday as in “utterly removed from any sense of immediate surroundings”, my most memorable holiday reading is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which I started in the cab on the way to Vancouver airport, headed for a first trip to Berlin where I was doing something, I wasn’t sure what, with Samuel Delany and Wim Wenders at the Kunsthalle. I am uncertain as to the year, likely it was 1991, before the publication of All the Pretty Horses. I had recently read McCarthy’s astonishing The Orchard Keeper, and on the urging of the friend who had recommended that, I began Blood Meridian. I remember nothing else, door to door, between my home in Vancouver and the hotel room in which I finished the book in Berlin. I awoke from it as from some terribly potent dream, and found myself, quite unexpectedly, in a strange city. Being Berlin, and particularly then, it was a very strange city. A few nights later, over in the east, I continued to experience intense overlays of Blood Meridian. Indeed, I think those overlays helped me better comprehend what I was seeing, and not to panic. The Judge, I knew, would understand all of this.
I can’t recall exactly when or where I first read John Cowper Powys’s Wolf Solent from cover to cover. I remember taking the book with me on a summer trip along the California coast, something like 30 years ago, and being completely absorbed in it while lying on a cliff north of San Francisco. Very few places have the wild tranquillity of that coastline, and yet I found myself following Powys’s protagonist back to the fields and hedges of the West Country – a part of the world that at the time I hardly knew. The imaginative intensity with which Powys re-envisioned the landscape in which he had grown up (he wrote the book while living in upstate New York) almost blotted out the beauty of the place I had come to see.
Powys came to see his life as that of a collector of memories. Like his character Solent, “he hunted them like a mad botanist, like a crazed butterfly-collector”. Not just any memories – those that Powys/Solent pursued were more like Proust’s distilled sensations, which preserve moments of natural beauty and human poetry from being consumed by time. The novel tells how Solent returns to his Dorset home, where he finds himself lost in a maze of family secrets and complex relationships. He never emerges from the labyrinth, but along the way he gathers a cache of memories – torn-off leaves, rain-drenched roads, banked-up clouds, “casual little things” more significant and enduring than the outward events of his life. Contained in a succession of battered paperbacks, Powys’s brilliant images have lit up many otherwise almost forgotten journeys I’ve made since that summer 30-odd years ago.
At the end of 2001, I went walking in Patagonia with a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Every day I couldn’t wait to get blown back off the trail and into my austere bed to read another hundred pages. I would, as it turned out, spend the next eight years in the book’s company, writing 23 drafts of a still-unrealised screenplay. But I’ve never felt for a moment that I was wasting my time. All the intimacy you enjoy in a novel was at last being combined with a wit, a vigour, a historical perspective and a political grasp that remain completely original. I recommend Patagonia – wind, rain, sky and wildness. In short, the best possible place to feel an art form moving forward.
I’ve always had a leaning towards island literature (from The Tempest to The Admirable Crichton). So it wasn’t surprising that I was won over by the extraordinary enchantment of Sylvia Townsend Warner’s novel Mr Fortune’s Maggot some 15 years ago while on the Canary Islands. Having been left £1,000 by his godmother, Timothy Fortune abandons the real world, where he was a clerk at Lloyd’s Bank (the bank in which TS Eliot worked), and enters the church. Equipped with a harmonium and a sewing machine, he sets off on a pious adventure to an island in the South Seas. There he appears to convert a young boy but, having eaten from the Tree of Innocence, he is himself converted to nature, love and the secret of happiness. This charming story seemed to lend a special magic to the fortunate isles where I was on holiday and, reluctant to reach the end and return home, I remember reading the book extremely slowly. But no one can stay long in such places of fantasy without destroying their unique qualities. Mr Fortune must face returning to the mainland where the first world war has started. I returned to a country that would become contaminated by bankers. I still have this book, however, and can make my escape back to that island from time to time.
I knew that if I was going to read Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, I’d need a lot of time and concentration. In 1997 I went travelling alone round Chiapas and the Yucatán. I put all six volumes of the Terence Kilmartin translation into my backpack, and tackled them in a series of hostels and cafés. I read at least three volumes in a hammock on the beach at Tulum, where I spent a couple of weeks living in a kind of shack – I understand it’s quite developed now, but at the time there were relatively few travellers. In the morning the army would sweep the beach, looking for packets of cocaine that had been dropped into the bay by light planes. You could hear their engines at night. I remember being engrossed in Marcel’s jealous fantasies about Albertine, as a 3ft-long snake made its way across the sand directly underneath me. It wasn’t much like the elegant hotel at Balbec.
In the 1970s we had several family summer holidays in Connemara, staying in or near the little fishing port of Roundstone. When the weather is fine (admittedly unpredictable) it is a place incomparable for wild beauty and superb, sparsely populated beaches. On the first of these trips, in 1971, I took with me John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which had just come out in paperback. It was the perfect vacation reading for me, since it was not only a gripping story with a picturesque seaside setting, but also fed my professional interest, as both novelist and academic critic, in the nature of narrative. Fowles tells his Victorian tale with a wealth of carefully researched detail, but deliberately sabotages realistic illusion by intruding into the text himself as a modern existentialist writer unable or unwilling to make up his mind how to end his story. In fact he provides three different endings and invites us to choose. This kind of metafictional experimentation was more daringly original then than it may seem today, and I found it very exciting. Fowles’s play with alternative endings certainly influenced the last chapter of a very different kind of novel which I was writing at the time, Changing Places, where every possible ending to the long-distance wife-swapping plot is canvassed but none selected.
The Odyssey on Ithaca. Whenever I looked up from the page, I saw the ruins of Odysseus’s palace (so called), the beach where he eventually made landfall, the empty cave where his cult once thrived, the bare rocky hills described in the poem – and also saw myth and reality tumbling through one another.
When I was 17, my first girlfriend gave me a tattered copy of a novel she loved. I read it on holiday that summer in Connemara. Encountering the opening sentence of JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was like waking up in a new world. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” It had never occurred to me that anyone could write with such glee-inducing sullenness. It was like hearing Bob Dylan or the Sex Pistols for the first time.
You felt Holden was talking to you – perhaps to you alone – and that your responses were somehow part of the story. You even felt he was listening. This was something remarkable: fiction as friendship-assertion. I return to it every three or four summers, the closest thing in my life to a pilgrimage, and whenever I do, I’m reading a different novel, but one as fresh and funny and strangely unnerving as the book that switched on the lights of my youth.
Venice, late summer of 1971. Not really a holiday, because the New Statesman had asked me to fill in for their regular movie critic (John Coleman, who was drying out at some alcoholic clinic) at the film festival. My hotel room on the Lido was small and hot. It filled with mosquitoes whenever the window was opened, and stank of insecticide whenever it was closed. I read Death in Venice for the first time, and the second, and the third, and the fourth. The smell of Flit, or whatever it was, turned into the disinfectant reek of the city in a cholera epidemic, as I turned into Von Aschenbach, guiltily enchanted by the boy Tadzio. I neglected my film-going duties to live in Thomas Mann’s Venice, a world so powerfully vivid that the real thing seemed its faint shadow. I can’t recall a single movie that I saw, but the book remains a touchstone. I wouldn’t read it in Venice, though, unless I wanted to be blinded to my surroundings; safer to keep it for a wet Sunday afternoon in, say, Catford or Slough.
A few years back, my wife and I went to Kenya on holiday. Her brother was working in Nairobi and arranged a week-long “safari” for us. We would be camping – no TV or radio; no newspapers or laptop or mobile phone signal. I knew I needed to take a nice long book with me (as well as a torch). I opted for War and Peace. It had been sitting unread on one of my bookshelves for years. I started reading it on the flight over and soon became engrossed. There was one accidental benefit of the book, however – as we lay under canvas in 30-degree heat, I would read the winter descriptions aloud to Miranda. They became our virtual “air con”. (The book was also handy for crushing bitey insects.) I don’t think it’s the greatest book ever written – there’s too much concentration on the “haves” and nothing about the disenfranchised. But it was a good choice of book for Kenya in the heat.
When I was 18 I took a bus to Lisbon – you used to do that back in the day. Magic Bus from a dusty parking lot next to Gloucester Road tube – I think it cost £25. I had an army surplus kitbag, some hash stashed inside a toothpaste tube – you picked apart the end of the tube with plyers, shoved in the dope, then rolled it up as if it was half used – and John Fowles’s The Magus. I’d liked Fowles’s other books (The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Collector, and so on), while not exactly viewing them as belonging to the literary bon ton – more, I suppose, what would nowadays be called a “guilty pleasure”. Anyway, the bus, for those of us of extended height, was waaay uncomfortable – but the Fowles did its job of nullifying the bumps and bashes. I can’t remember that much about it, except that it was all about some young, romantic, sex-obsessed man and how his cruel and feckless treatment of a lovely girl – in the Father Ted sense – was punished by the eponymous Magus with a series of real-life psycho-dramas staged in the Cyclades. It was – if I remember rightly – one of those books with huge narrative pulsion, and I couldn’t stop reading. I read to the Channel, I read on the ferry, I read south on the autoroute, I read through the Pyrenees, I read through Spain. I arrived in Lisbon and read all night in a fleapit hotel. I entrained for the south and read on the train. I arrived at the Algarve and walked along a cliff, reading. I got the toothpaste tube out, unrolled it, got out the hash, skinned up, lit up, and finished the book on a high that then plummeted. There I was: not in the Cyclades being punished for sexual amorality, but in Portugal being approached by a German hippy for a toke. A German hippy who then strummed “Stairway to Heaven” on his guitar and suggested I sing along.
About 50 years ago I took two books by Edmund Wilson on a solo journey through Spain by train, bus and thumb. One of the books was Classics and Commercials, a fat collection of book reviews. The other one was Axel’s Castle, longer essays on “the makers of modern literature”. Wilson remains the exemplary critic for me. I missed quite a lot of Spain on my way down to Gibraltar, spending hours on my bed reading instead of looking around. I’ve forgotten everything about my journey except getting bitten by Wilson and by bed bugs in Algeciras.
I have the book still. I wrote a date on the title page: July 1972. I got a summer job as a barman in the Grand Hotel in Tramore in County Waterford that summer, when I was 17. I was the worst barman who ever lived. My pints of Guinness were unholy. Even the vodkas I poured (and vodka was all the rage in Tramore than summer) had something wrong with them. I worked from six in the evening to two in the morning. I spent the fine days on the big long beach. My copy of The Essential Hemingway has pages stained with seawater. I read The Sun Also Rises on that beach in Tramore and I read the great Hemingway short stories for the first time. It made me dream about going to Spain, but it also gave me something else – an idea of prose as something glamorous, smart and shaped, and the idea of character in fiction as something oddly mysterious, worthy of sympathy and admiration, but also elusive. And more than anything, the sheer pleasure of the sentences and their rhythms, and the amount of emotion living in what was not said, what was between the words and the sentences.
In 1967, the year I left university, I spent most of the summer in an isolated house in Corsica, built above a deep, winding river. I used to spend hours by this river, reading, sunbathing and swimming and wondering where my life was headed.
The book I was reading was Patrick White’s Voss, which charts the journey of a German exile into the unmapped Australian outback in the 1840s. As Voss travels deeper into the intemperate wilderness, persecuted by every tribulation this arid terrain can inflict on man, he struggles to understand the nature of his sudden love for Laura Trevelyan, an orphaned young woman, shunned by society for her obstinate cleverness. Even as Voss moves further and further away from Laura, with little hope of return, his dreams of “normal” happiness and domestic ease increase.
This tension – between the solitary voyage and the longing for love and companionship – is what makes this book such a masterpiece. And in 1967, before I had written anything worth publishing, yet already aching to succeed as a novelist, I understood that these conflicting desires lie at the heart of most writers’ lives and would lie at the heart of mine.
My first grown-up holiday was in 1987: my girlfriend and I had just finished our finals, and wanted to celebrate with a budget trip to somewhere sunny. By chance, we chose Dubrovnik – and it was such a glorious, memorable trip that it is still Dubrovnik’s hot stone streets and blue seas that pop into my head whenever I hear the words “summer holiday”. The book I took was a memorable one, too: John Fowles’s The Magus. With its vivid Greek island setting, it was an ideal vacation read; and, at 21, I was just about the perfect age for it, for it’s a book about the awful arrogance, but also the wonderful susceptibility, of youth.
Rereading the novel recently, I was struck by its essential daftness, as well as by the deep dubiousness of its sexual politics. But I was still gripped and impressed: Fowles is a fabulous storyteller, and The Magus is brilliantly twisty and tricksy, with some really uncanny moments. It’s one of the few novels I’ve read that has made me gasp in surprise. I’d still recommend it as a fascinating read, for a holiday or for any time.
Compiled by Ginny Hooker.