The Masked City – Genevieve Cognan

The Masked City – Genevieve CognanThe Masked City (The Invisible Library, #2) by Genevieve Cogman
Also by this author: The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library, #1)
Also in this series: The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library, #1)
Narrator: Susan Duerden
Series: Invisible Library #2
Published by Pan on December 3 2015
ISBN: 1447256255
Genres: Book Series, Fantasy, Time Travel, Urban Fantasy
Pages: 352
Buy on Amazon UK
Buy on Amazon US

Format: Audiobook, Paperback
Source: Purchased

Good Book Hunting is a member of the Amazon associates program. This means that GBH receives a small percentage for purchases made using such links. You pay the same Amazon price. Any profit goes towards the running of the site and to provide any giveaways for our readers

Librarian-spy Irene is working undercover in an alternative London when her assistant Kai goes missing. She discovers he's been kidnapped by the fae faction and the repercussions could be fatal. Not just for Kai, but for whole worlds.
Kai's dragon heritage means he has powerful allies, but also powerful enemies in the form of the fae. With this act of aggression, the fae are determined to trigger a war between their people - and the forces of order and chaos themselves.
Irene's mission to save Kai and avert Armageddon will take her to a dark, alternate Venice where it's always Carnival. Here Irene will be forced to blackmail, fast talk, and fight. Or face death.

Librarian-spy Irene is working undercover in an alternative London when her assistant Kai goes missing. She discovers he’s been kidnapped by the fae faction and the repercussions could be fatal. Not just for Kai, but for whole worlds.
Kai’s dragon heritage means he has powerful allies, but also powerful enemies in the form of the fae. With this act of aggression, the fae are determined to trigger a war between their people – and the forces of order and chaos themselves.
Irene’s mission to save Kai and avert Armageddon will take her to a dark, alternate Venice where it’s always Carnival. Here Irene will be forced to blackmail, fast talk, and fight. Or face death.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • 2016 Reading Challenge

The Invisible Library – Genevieve Cognan

The Invisible Library – Genevieve CognanThe Invisible Library (The Invisible Library, #1) by Genevieve Cogman
Also by this author: The Masked City (The Invisible Library, #2)
Also in this series: The Masked City (The Invisible Library, #2)
Narrator: Susan Duerden
Series: Invisible Library #1
Published by Tor UK on January 15th 2015
ISBN: 1447256239
Genres: Book Series, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Urban Fantasy
Pages: 329
Buy on Amazon UK
Buy on Amazon US

Format: Audiobook
Source: Purchased

Good Book Hunting is a member of the Amazon associates program. This means that GBH receives a small percentage for purchases made using such links. You pay the same Amazon price. Any profit goes towards the running of the site and to provide any giveaways for our readers

The first installment of an adventure featuring stolen books, secret agents and forbidden societies - think Doctor Who with librarian spies!
Irene must be at the top of her game or she'll be off the case - permanently...
Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, which harvests fiction from different realities. And along with her enigmatic assistant Kai, she's posted to an alternative London. Their mission - to retrieve a dangerous book. But when they arrive, it's already been stolen. London's underground factions seem prepared to fight to the very death to find her book.
Adding to the jeopardy, this world is chaos-infested - the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic. Irene's new assistant is also hiding secrets of his own.
Soon, she's up to her eyebrows in a heady mix of danger, clues and secret societies. Yet failure is not an option - the nature of reality itself is at stake.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • 2016 Reading Challenge

Packing your holiday reading

Our panel of experts picks the perfect books to read in the top 10 holiday destinations for Brits. Add your own suggestions here – and make a list of your own summer reading choices


Tom Holland, classical historian and novelist

This has not been a good year for the Greeks, but it has been an excellent one for books on a Greek theme. Holidaymakers to the Aegean can always remind themselves of more heroic times by tucking into Peter Krentz’s The Battle of Marathon (Yale £20), a gripping account of the ancient Athenians’ finest hour. Poetry lovers should be sure to invest in The Known, a translation of selected poems by Nikos Fokas, one of Greece’s finest living poets: his elegiac and often unsettling meditations will make the perfect accompaniment to a late-evening glass of ouzo in a village square. Finally, for the perfect beach read, look no further than Zachary Mason’s witty, inventive and often deeply moving reworking of Homer, The Lost Books of the Odyssey (Vintage £7.99) – a worthy winner of last year’s Criticos prize. In 44 startlingly various versions of Odysseus’s adventures, we are given, among numerous other treats, a Penelope who turns out to be a werewolf, a Cyclops who turns out to be Homer and a Helen who turns out to have been abducted by Death.


Julius Purcell, Barcelona-based culture writer

Spanish fiction lists are dominated by Javier Marías, lugubrious to some and monumentally beautiful to others. A good start is Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me (Vintage £9.99), about an adultery gone horribly wrong, and which I found to be lugubrious… and monumentally beautiful.

Many novels about Spain are now being written by South American immigrant writers. Of the few translated so far, the late Roberto Bolaño’s The Skating Rink (Picador £7.99), a Catalan love story featuring embezzled public money, is a good example. Classics that can be found in English, and which deeply affected me, include Ramón J Sender’s 1960 Requiem for a Spanish Peasant (Aris & Phillips £14.95), about a village that becomes a microcosm of the Spanish civil war. Juan Marsé’s Golden Girl is a witty portrait of a mediocre pro-Franco writer, who, after the death of the dictator, tortuously rewrites his own life history with the help of his unstable niece.

Among the best of recent non-fiction is Javier Cercas’s The Anatomy of a Moment (Bloomsbury £18.99), a part-investigative, part-narrative analysis of the 1981 coup attempt against the Spanish parliament. John Hooper’s The New Spaniards (Penguin £10.99) surveys the country’s ultra-traditional/ultra-modern paradox, while Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain (Faber £9.99) expertly exorcises Spain’s contemporary traumas.


Andrew Hussey, Paris‑based academic and cultural historian

France Observed in the 17th Century by British Travellers, edited by John Lough, is a collection of letters, documents and travellers’ tales in which Brits witness, with horror and fascination, the economic and social conditions in France, the courts, the church, the poor state of the armed forces and what goes on in Versailles.

In complete contrast is Voice Over (Faber £10.99), a novel by Céline Curiol, which is an example of what I’d call Eurostar literature. It’s about a woman who reads out the announcements at the Gare du Nord in Paris and is completely bored and ready for sexual adventure, which she finds by falling in love with a transvestite. It’s like an uber-sexy Tale of Two Cities.

My favourite French classic has to be Journey to the End of the Night (Oneworld £12.99) by Louis-Ferdinand Céline. It’s an epic that takes you all around the world, but the centre of the world is Paris, or Céline’s delirious, slightly hallucinatory, incredibly poetic vision of it. There are two translations but neither conveys the scabrous energy of Parisian lowlife slang, so it’s best to read it in the original.


Alain de Botton, author and social entrepreneur

If you’re holidaying at home in the UK, you might want to bring along Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s The Cloudspotter’s Guide (Sceptre £8.99), because it encourages us to give up on the false dichotomy between good weather (cloudless) and bad weather (cloudy) and learn to appreciate the hidden beauty and complexity of an unclear sky. Because no good holiday is complete without fierce arguments, bring along a great British therapist such as Donald Winnicott, author of the beautiful, useful and lyrical book Home Is Where We Start From (Penguin £12.99).

One of the joys of holidaying at home is the capacity to dream about what it might be like if you were somewhere else, without encountering the disappointing reality. This is one of the themes of the wonderful Geoff Dyer’s book Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It (Abacus £8.99). Last but not least, pack in Simon Jenkins’s guide to the churches of Britain, England’s Thousand Best Churches (Penguin £22), as when you’ve done all the usual more exciting visitor attractions, gorged yourself on fish and chips, walked a windy pier or two and admired the view from Ben Nevis, there’s nothing quite as comforting and boringly interesting as a British country church.


Matteo Pericoli, architect, author and illustrator of Observer series Windows on the World

Seeing how the 150th anniversary of Italy’s unification is unexpectedly rushing through this country’s blood, it would very sensible to read Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (Vintage Classics £8.99). Published posthumously in 1958 and set during the Risorgimento, it appears to be a perfect metaphor of all things Italian, back then and, most importantly, now: the clash between the north and the south, the complex idea of Italy’s wholeness, the sense of cynical realism and resignation embedded in everyone’s way of thinking – just to name a few. Plus Tancredi’s ever-lasting quote: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

Ignazio Silone’s Fontamara is a novel set during the fascist era in a fictional village in central Italy’s Abruzzo region. Its passive and vulnerable peasants live in misery, the outside world barely exists and their only tangible relationship is with the soil they cultivate. Because of fascism’s censorship, Fontamara wasn’t published in Italy until 1947, and soon after it became a fundamental document to understand the complexity of Italy’s south. Another insightful tool for this is Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah (Pan £8.99), in which the Sistema (the name used in the Campania region instead of Camorra) has created a parallel criminal world, organised beyond anyone’s imagination and, apparently, beyond any possibility of being dismantled.


Maureen Freely, novelist and translator of Orhan Pamuk

Princess Musbah Haider had an English mother but grew up in the Ottoman court during the early years of the 20th century. Around her, the empire was crumbling, but she was one of the last to know. Her memoir, Arabesque, is one of the most charming books I have ever read.

Carla Grissman is an American woman who spent a year in a remote and impoverished Anatolian village in the late 1960s; in Dinner of Herbs, she describes her experiences with extraordinary insight.

Fifty years ago, Yashar Kemal was the Turkish novelist. His first book, Memed, My Hawk, is set among the aghas and brigands of south-east Anatolia and is one of the great modern epics. It is very unusual for a bookish person to head for Turkey these days without packing a few novels by Orhan Pamuk. But don’t forget his memoir, Istanbul: Memories of a City (Faber £9.99), still one of my favourite books.

The Istanbul in Moris Farhi’s Young Turk (Telegram £8.99) is joyously multicultural, if under threat. But not forever, as Selçuk Altun proves in his edgy, witty, dangerously literary novels, of which two – Songs My Mother Never Taught Me and Many and Many a Year Ago (both Telegram £7.99) – are available in English.


Ahdaf Soueif, Anglo‑Egyptian novelist

Start with The Dawn of Conscience by James Henry Breasted. It’s old, but then what it deals with is even older! It’s a brilliant introduction to ancient Egyptian life and thought – and its continued relevance today. The Crusades Through Arab Eyes (Saqi £14.95) by eminent Lebanese author Amin Maalouf is a great read. Take care though: it’s not the angle that western readers are used to. Everyone should read one Naguib Mahfouz novel. In English, Miramar is the one I’d go for.

Egypt: The Moment of Change (Zed £16.99) edited by Rabab El Mahdi and Philip Marfleet – this provides an excellent background and interpretation of today’s Egyptian revolution. Tweets from Tahrir edited by Alex Nunns and Nadia Idle will take you right up to the present and give you a sense of the Egyptian revolution as it unfolded.


Jonathan Freeman, Granta editor

Although primarily about the far north, Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams (Vintage £9.99) is a must-read for anyone travelling to North America. Lopez reminds us that long before interstates and factory farms carved it up, America was a continent of astonishing beauty.

If you’re going to be driving – which I recommend – bring a copy of John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley (Penguin £9.99), a travelogue that covers almost 50 states. It also has a dog aboard – always a good thing in my book.

Chances are you will want to skip the Rust Belt. Don’t. The story of America’s decline can be seen in this necklace of creaking towns that stretches from Philadelphia up to Buffalo, over to Cleveland. Richard Russo has conjured them vividly in his novels, especially Nobody’s Fool (Vintage £9.99), which is raucous good company.

Finally, once you point your car left of Cleveland you’re bound to head toward the high plains and the far west. No one, not even Cormac McCarthy, has captured it like Annie Proulx in Close Range (Fourth Estate £7.99), her first of three collections she wrote about Wyoming. Skip Brokeback Mountain – you know how that ends.


Erica Zlomislic, Toronto writer who worked in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia during the 1990s wars

As an alternative to the usual reporter dispatches from Croatia in the 1990s, try Island of the World by Michael D O’Brien (Ignatius £15.54). The novel follows the Croatian protagonist Josip Lasta through the second world war and the wars of the 1990s to eventual redemption. Have tissues at hand.

For something equally dramatic try American writer and activist Julienne Eden Busic’s riveting novel Lovers and Madmen: A True Story of Passion, Politics and Air Piracy (iUniverse £15.99). The story starts with blonde, blue-eyed, model-like Eden falling in love with exiled Croatian dissident Zvonko Busic, who fights to gain Croatian independence from Tito’s Yugoslavia. The book is rife with secret police assassinations, poverty, imprisonment, passion and, finally, a plane hijacking.

For a touching collection of short stories from the 1990s Croatian war try Do Angels Cry?: Tales of the War (Ooligan £7.38) by Matko Marusic. It’s especially poignant now, precisely 20 years since the war broke. For something less tearful while strolling along the cobblestones of old towns, try Dubrovnik: A History (Saqi £14.99) by Robin Harris. The book is a detailed history lesson explaining why the “pearl of the Adriatic” is more than just a pretty walled city in Croatia.


Rattawut Lapcharoensap, US novelist raised in Bangkok

For those unfamiliar with Thai literature, Kukrit Pramoj’s magnum opus Four Reigns (Firecracker £10.99) might be a good place to start. Though not untroubled by a certain conservative nostalgia, it’s a wonderfully expansive historical novel tracing the life of one woman across the reigns of Rama V to Rama VIII, from the 1890s to the second world war.

For those interested in Thai short fiction, In the Mirror: Literature and Politics in Siam in the American Era, edited and excellently translated by Benedict Anderson and Ruchira Mendiones, collects many of the major short works of the 60s and 70s, from Suchit Wongthes to Sulak Sivaraksa.

Somerset Maugham’s seldom-read The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey from Rangoon to Haiphong is a quick, interesting and, above all, sinuously written travelogue of the author’s time in the region. I also greatly enjoyed Mischa Berlinski’s Fieldwork (Atlantic £7.99), Lily Tuck’s Siam, or The Woman Who Shot the Man, and Joan Silber’s recent The Size of the World. Then there’s Paul M Handley’s The King Never Smiles: A Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej (Yale £25), which needs to be read before one enters the country. It’s banned.

• Add your own suggestions below – and make a list of your own summer reading choices

The top 10 holiday destinations for Brits as compiled by © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

This might also be of interest to those who are still doing the Around the World in 80 Books challenge!

Crime novel co-written by 26 authors

Luminaries including Jeffery Deaver, Kathy Reichs and Faye Kellerman have contributed to No Rest for the Dead

It’s the literary world’s version of consequences: from Alexander McCall Smith to Kathy Reichs, 26 bestselling crime writers have teamed up to create the multi-authored mystery No Rest for the Dead.

Published later this week, the authors – who also include Raymond Khoury, RL Stine, Faye Kellerman, Tess Gerritsen and Jeffery Deaver – have taken it in turns to write the novel’s chapters, pulling together the story of Jon Nunn, a detective haunted by a case he thought he’d cracked 10 years earlier. Nunn becomes convinced that Rosemary Thomas, executed for the brutal murder of her husband, was actually innocent. When he discovers that a memorial service is being planned for Rosemary, with all the other suspects on the guest list, he realises it is the ideal opportunity to find out who really did the deed.

British crime author Peter James, chair of the UK’s Crime Writers’ Association, contributed a crucial chapter to the novel, in which a decade-old diary is discovered, providing vital clues. “The hard thing was not knowing what any of the characters were like – none of us saw what the others had written,” said James. “I’m a very detailed plotter. A big part of my writing technique is seeding things into each chapter, and it was hard to not have that flexibility – I was writing it in a complete void. In a way it was harder than I thought, but in a way it was liberating.”

Provided with just the outlines of his scene, James compared the experience to a paint-by-numbers painting, as well as to the parlour game of consequences, in which a story is created word by word by a group of people. “It’s amazing though – it actually works,” he said. “It shows most thriller writers think in a similar, Machiavellian way.”

The novel, which is published by Simon & Schuster, is the brainchild of Andrew Gulli, editor of US crime fiction specialist Strand Magazine, who said it was the first time so many major bestselling authors have been involved in a single project. Gulli edited the book with his sister Lamia, and has also contributed several chapters to the novel. The siblings will donate all their proceeds to the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society.

“The line-up of writers who have contributed to this mystery is akin to the Murderers’ Row of the 1927 New York Yankees … While they each deliver their own signature brand of storytelling to the novel, it is startling how these writers, several of whom are friends of mine, have woven a yarn that seems to be the product of one mind, one imagination (albeit schizophrenic), and one on steroids of such strength that even Major League Baseball would ban them, and that is indeed saying something,” writes author David Baldacci in an introduction to the novel. “Yet I will add that if you were expecting an Agatha Christie ending where Poirot or Marple stands up, calmly lays out the case, and reveals the true murderer, you’re in for a shock. The creators have, collectively, another denouement in mind. And in my humble opinion it’s a twist that is so original you won’t have to concern yourself with bragging on your blog about how you figured it all out long before the conclusion. Well, I guess you still can, but you’d be lying.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

A fresh look at Flannery O’Connor

You may know her prose, but have you seen her cartoons?

Flannery O’Connor is best remembered for her potent fictions, and to a lesser extent for her unfortunate life (she eked out the last decade and a half of her life in relative solitude with her mother, refashioning her childhood home into a makeshift bird sanctuary before dying of lupus at the unripe age of 39). What she isn’t primarily remembered for are her cartoons, although this may change with the publication of a collection of her early drawings later this year.

The drawings that comprise the majority of Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons are taken from her time as a high school student at Peabody and then an undergraduate at Georgia State, and would have been published in journals alongside news stories relating to the life of the school and college itself. Cut from linoleum with oil-based ink applied to the ridges, the drawings are rudimentary but charming, a stripped down version of what Marjane Satrapi did in Persepolis. What’s clear, though, is the perspective of the outsider, which O’Connor refined in her debut novel Wise Blood and stories such as A Good Man is Hard to Find A bespectacled wallflower watches a dance and thinks to herself, “Well, I can always be a PhD”; an audience member snipes to her friend, “Wake me up when it’s time to clap!”; a frumpy young girl with a mottled face asks a librarian, “Do you have any books the faculty doesn’t particularly recommend?”

Even though the cartoons are largely comic, and lack the richness of detail that a short story affords, it would be wrong to dismiss them as juvenilia. O’Connor seriously considered a career as a cartoonist, according to her biographer Brad Gooch, submitting cartoons to the New Yorker (and drawing “a lot of encouragin’ rejection slips” along the way) and winning comparisons with James Thurber (whose book My World and Welcome to It made him a household name in the US in the 40s) and George Price (O’Connor’s friend Robert Fitzgerald said they shared “an energy and angularity”). What’s more, cartoons and drawings were O’Connor’s entry point to creativity. Like most children, she spent a great deal of her youth drawing pictures; where O’Connor arguably differed was in the offbeat perspective even her first drawings displayed. Gooch writes:

“A cartoon O’Connor drew when she was nine years old shows a child walking with her father and mother. In a balloon coming from the mother’s mouth are the words: ‘Hold your head up, Mary Flannery, and you are just as bad, Ed.’ To which the girl, dragging along, snidely replies, ‘I was readin’ where someone died of holding up their head.'”

Like a lot of Southern writers, O’Connor largely eschewed topicality. The topical cartoons she did attempt (particularly those that deal with the influx of female military personel to the college campus) don’t stand up as well as those that stand outside of the period in which they were drawn. My particular favourite of these sees the two girls who are the closest O’Connor gets to recurring characters gossiping beneath an umbrella in the rain: “Understand,” one girl says, dressed in a head scarf and with a pile of books beneath each arm, “I got nothing against getting educated but it just looks like there ought to be an easier way to do it.”

While some may say that it took the shadow of death (O’Connor found out she was suffering from lupus at the age of 25 and spent her last years doing what many regard to be her best work) to turn Flannery O’Connor into a great artist, the Flannery O’Connor responsible for these cartoons had recently lost her father, also to lupus, a judgment she regarded as a “bullet in the side” from God. The darkness she would make her own is already showing its teeth. One cartoon shows a jolly dentist perched on the chest of a bald bug-eyed man with razor teeth saying, “You don’t mind if I get comfortable do you?” Another shows three tearful girls staring into a hole in the ground from which two legs protrude.

Later in life, Flannery O’Connor – the “pigeon-toed only child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you complex” – turned to painting, the house she shared with her mother adorned with portraits of herself and her peacocks. The cartoons, then, remain a glimpse of what might have been. And for fans, this is that all-too-rare commodity: a “new” Flannery O’Connor book to slip on the shelf besides the scant few books she left us with. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Poet creates ‘buzz’ around work by reading over phone to potential buyers

Heather Christie launches new book by offering one-to-one readings over the phone

It’s one way to connect with your fans: poet Heather Christle is launching her new collection by offering readers the opportunity to give her a call and hear her read a poem.

The American author, whose poems have appeared in the New Yorker, has just published her second collection, The Trees The Trees, and rather than relying on the usual publicity tour, has decided instead to list her phone number on her website. At set times every day until 14 July she will read a poem to anyone who calls her.

“The book itself is full of references to phones and phone calls, and the speaker often seems to mistake the technology of the page for that of the telephone, imagining that the reader is right there in the moment,” said Christle. “My father is a merchant mariner, and when my sister and I were small we would record messages to him on cassette tapes. I’d often ask questions and then pause for his response. There’s something so lovely and sad about the hope that another actual person is on the other end of any technology. So I thought it would be interesting to bring that dynamic forward, to read these poems (which frequently address a ‘you’) directly to another person, across the intimate distance a telephone creates.”

So far she has received around 60 calls, from a multitude of different readers, from a couple from Toronto looking for a love poem to a class in western Massachusetts. “I’ve been amazed at how variously people respond. Some callers state quickly that they’re calling for a poem, listen, say thank you, and then promptly hang up. Others want to chat a little bit about the project. I love it when people tell me where they’re calling from. One man called on his break from work, which made me glow. If people seem chatty I’ll often tell them where I am as well, because I think it’s exciting to know that the poem they just heard was read in the middle of the shampoo aisle at the supermarket,” Christie said.

“I didn’t feel particularly anxious ahead of time. I trust poetry to make good things happen, and so far that’s been the case. When I was writing these poems I so often had this mysterious ‘you’ just in front of me, just behind the page. When people call it’s as if that imagined figure has suddenly come to life.”

At literature blog HTML Giant, which called the collection “unprecedented, and gorgeous”, readers described their experience of the calls. “It works. I felt a little creepy calling it, like I got the number off a restroom wall. She read ‘My Enemy’, and I’m sold. A great idea,” said one. “When I dialled I was like ‘can’t believe it’s dialling, someone smart is going to be on this phone in 10 seconds’ then it was awkward and I didn’t know what to say and said something stupid and then asked her to read my favourite poem from the book (‘That Air of Ruthlessness in Spring’) … keep thinking how something as stupidly simple as using a phone for what it’s meant to be used for can be so awesome and heartwarming,” said another.

The Trees The Trees is published by small press Octopus Books. Christle said that she couldn’t take full credit for the phone-a-poet idea, pointing to Frank O’Hara’s Personism, about which he wrote “it was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realising that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born”.

“This isn’t the most terribly original idea,” said Christle. “Another antecedent I should mention is the ‘Dial-a-Poem’ project, started by John Giorno in the late 60s, though that featured recordings, rather than live readings.”

From “Plus One” by Heather Christie

I lost my phone    I am using the baby monitor instead    it’s in
the flowers    nobody’s calling    but I know that some day you will
it’s just plain math    love is never more than an extension of

From “Our Sense of Achievement” by Heather Christie

every day many things do not happen  a perfect love   a perfect
winter  you don’t fail once  you keep failing  just when you
think you’ve got it right   arrives some spring © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Best of all possible books

Julian Barnes pays tribute to Voltaire’s Candide, a satire that remains as fresh and pertinent today as when it was written in the 18th century

The acknowledged classics of French literature crossed the Channel at widely differing speeds. Rabelais, for example, took almost a century and a half to be translated; whereas John Florio‘s version of Montaigne’s Essays came out only 11 years after the Frenchman’s death. The earliest recorded English translation of Racine’s Phèdre (1677) dates from 1776; whereas the immigration of Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses was fast-tracked (French 1782, English 1784), no doubt because of its saucy reputation. On the other hand, Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir (1830) had to wait until 1900 to find Anglophone readers. Balzac’s Le Père Goriot (French 1834, English 1860), and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (French 1856-7, English 1886) were rather quicker. But with the exception of Laclos, none of these writers could ever have set eyes on an English edition of his text. It was the norm for death to precede translation.

All this makes Voltaire’s Candide even more of an extraordinary case. It was written between July and December 1758 and published simultaneously in Geneva, Paris and Amsterdam in January 1759. That year no fewer than three English translations appeared, shortly followed by the early version that is now most often read, by Tobias Smollett. This formed part of a 25-volume edition of Voltaire’s works “translated from the French with Notes by Dr Smollett and others” and published between 1761 and 1765. Even the British acknowledged Voltaire as Europe’s most famous public intellectual, and his Candide as a prime example of literature as news. This philosophical tale may be described as an attack on Leibnitzian optimism – and, more broadly, on all prepackaged systems of thought and belief – a satire on churches and churchmen, and a pessimistic rumination on human nature and the problem of free will. But it was no fable inhabiting some make-believe or symbolic location; rather, it was a report on the current state of the world, deliberately set among the headlines of the day.

Thus, the naive Candide and his philosopher-master Pangloss get instructively caught up in the Lisbon earthquake, an event of such destructiveness – 30,000 dead – and of such philosophical and theological aftershock as to make 9/11 look like a minor incident. This disaster had occurred as recently as November 1755; while the Inquisition’s response to the calamity, that of an auto-da-fé designed to prevent further earthquakes (the heretic-hunt sweeps up Candide and Pangloss) took place in June 1756. Even more recent was the incident Candide witnesses in Portsmouth harbour: the execution of Admiral Byng for cowardice in the face of the (French) enemy at the battle of Minorca. This had taken place on 14 March 1757, just over a year before Voltaire started writing his novel. Equally of the moment was the question of the Jesuit missions in Paraguay – and whether the priests, by wielding civil as well as religious authority, had created an earthly paradise or yet another squalid terrestrial dictatorship. Voltaire’s text also contains allusions to Farinelli (the greatest castrato singer of the day), to Charles Edward Stuart (the Young Pretender), and to contemporary books and theatrical productions. In the novel’s second edition of 1761, Voltaire sends Candide to his own verse tragedy Tancrède, which had come to the stage in September 1760 – and which gratifyingly reduces the novel’s protagonist to tears. Candide even finds room to reply to the many scurrilous attacks made by various fools, scoundrels, and critics on Voltaire himself. To the novel’s first readers, then, it would have felt, in its punch and immediacy, like a politico-philosophical strip-cartoon.

This effect would have been emphasised by the novel’s mode: that of the extreme satirical picaresque. It is not – does not try to be – a realistic novel on the level of plot: the narrative proceeds by means of incredible coincidences and enormous reversals of fortune; characters are left for dead, and then improbably revived a few pages later when the argument requires their recall. In this genre, the participants are even more subject than usual to the whims of the puppeteer-novelist, who requires them to be here to demonstrate this, and there to demonstrate that. They have opinions, and represent philosophical or practical responses to life’s fortunes and misfortunes; but have little textured interiority. Candide, the innocent of all innocents, is a kind of pilgrim who makes a kind of progress as a result of the catalogue of calamities inflicted upon him by the author; but those around him, from the deluded Pangloss to the disabused Martin to the doggedly practical Cacambo, remain as they are when first presented. Pangloss, despite relentless evidence against his Leibnitzian view that the world demonstrates a “pre-established harmony”, is defiantly foolish to the end: “I have always abided by my first opinion . . . for, after all, I am a philosopher; and it would not become me to retract my sentiments.”

While a lot of the contemporary references have faded and fallen with time (many readers will need a footnote to be told that the Lisbon earthquake was a real event), the novel itself remains as fresh and pertinent as ever. Most of us come into this world as innocent and hopeful as Candide, even if most of us discover, slowly or quickly, that there is no pre-established harmony to life. The same established religions are still hawking the same nostrums as a quarter of a millenium ago; while their clergy continue to provoke scandal. Where Voltaire has men of the cloth consorting with prostitutes and acting as pandars, our world has its sadistic nuns and paedophile priests; where Voltaire has Cunégonde’s brother condemned to the galleys for bathing naked with a young Turk, we have imams urging the murder of infidels and homosexuals. And while Voltaire’s satire on religion inevitably took the spotlight, his analysis of the other powers that control the world – money, rank, violence and sex – still applies. At the end of their South American adventures – having inspected the Jesuit missions and stumbled into the perfect society of El Dorado – Candide and Cacambo approach the town of Surinam. By the roadside they see “a negro stretched out on the ground with only one half of his habit, which was a pair of blue cotton drawers; for the poor man had lost his left leg, and his right hand.” They enquire what has happened: “When we labour in the sugar-works,” the man replies, “and the mill happens to snatch hold of a finger, they instantly chop off our hand; and when we attempt to run away, they chop off a leg. Both these cases have happened to me, and it is at this expense that you eat sugar in Europe.” The developed world’s economic exploitation of poorer countries continues to this day, and Voltaire would have found a richly illustrative cast in Russian oligarchs, British bankers and American militarists. How little fictional invention he would have needed to work in a figure like Silvio Berlusconi.

But we wouldn’t still be reading Voltaire just because he was right then, and would be right again today. As the sugar-worker’s tale shows, it is the manner of Voltaire’s being right that keeps him alive. Just as it’s a fair bet that Borges’s famous summing-up of the Falklands war – “two bald men quarrelling over a comb” – will outlast in the public memory details of the actual events, so the four crunch words used by Voltaire to characterise Admiral Byng’s death have endured better than the actual rights and wrongs of the matter. Voltaire’s treatment of the case has a sharper edge to it because during his two-year exile in England (1726-28) he had known Byng as a young navy captain; 30 years later, despite their two countries being at war, he intervened (even taking an affidavit from the opposing French admiral) in an attempt to save the Englishman from execution. In the novel, Candide, having tired of the wit and corruption of France, arrives at Portsmouth on a Dutch ship from Dieppe. “You are acquainted with England,” he says to his travelling companion Martin, “are they as great fools in that country, as in France?” “Yes, but in a different manner,” replies Martin, citing the two countries’ current squabble over “a few acres of snow” in Canada. As their ship docks, they observe a kneeling, blindfolded figure on the deck of a man-of-war. Candide enquires about the matter. He is told that an English admiral is being punished “because he did not put a sufficient number of his fellow creatures to death”; the court has found that in an engagement with the French admiral, “He was not near enough to his antagonist.” “But,” Candide replies, with an innocent’s logic, “the French admiral must have been just as far from him.” True, comes the reply, “But in this country it is found requisite, now and then, to put one admiral to death, pour encourager les autres.”

I leave that last phrase in French because it has become absorbed in that form into our national glossary. And with an almost Voltairean irony, its first subsequent recorded use in an English context came in a despatch from that great and successful opponent of the French, the Duke of Wellington. The history of the novel’s other world-famous phrase, which serves as the book’s conclusion – il faut cultiver notre jardin – is more peculiar. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it didn’t come into written use in English until the early 1930s – in America through Oliver Wendell Holmes and in Britain thanks to Lytton Strachey. But a long, unrecorded history of its oral use and misuse can be deduced from Strachey’s announced desire to cure the “degenerate descendants of Candide” who have taken the phrase in the sense of “Have an eye to the main chance.” That a philosophical recommendation to horticultural quietism should be twisted into a justification for selfish greed would not necessarily have surprised Voltaire. A century after his death, the centennial commemorations were sponsored and organised by Menier, the famous chocolate manufacturers. Flaubert, always alert to the corruption of art by commerce, remarked in a letter: “How irony never quits the Great Man! The praise and the insults continue just as if he were still alive.”

It is a common complaint that satire is “negative”, that it only attacks people, and “fails to make a case” for any alternative system. There are two answers to this. The first is to point to those characters in Candide who at various times succour and protect the novel’s innocents: Jacques the Anabaptist, Martin the Socinian, Candide’s sturdy servant Cacambo, and the old woman (originally a pope’s daughter) who serves Cunégonde. The first two belong to minor heretical sects (Martin believes that God has absconded); the second two evince little interest in anything but the day-to-day means of survival. Together, these four exemplify the virtues of work, charity, loyalty, moderation and practicality. Such virtues may not always protect against the world’s fanaticism, but they offer the best chance of reaching what Voltaire and the French Enlightenment argued and fought for: freedom, toleration, justice and truth.

The second answer is to say that, true as all this might be, it is as utopian – and therefore irrelevant – as El Dorado. The world is not reformed by the end of Candide, and cultivating one’s garden protects no one from an army of Bulgars. Satire is not about “finding a solution”, doesn’t spring from a worked-out strategy for the micro-managed moral rehabilitation of humanity; rather, it is the necessary expression of moral rage. Satirists are by nature pessimists; they know that the world changes all too slowly. If satire worked – if the hypocrite and liar, publicly chastised, reformed themselves – then satire would no longer be needed. “But to what end,” Candide muses, “was the world formed?” Martin replies: “To make us mad.” Satire is one response to, and outlet for, this cosmic madness. When Candide and Cacambo stumble into El Dorado, they are at first astonished by what is there, from the gold and diamonds lying around in the dust to the courtesy and generosity of the civilisation; next they notice what is not there. This perfect land contains no conniving priests or disruptive monks, no law courts, no parlement, and no prisons. Voltaire does not mention the fact, but we can also be sure that satire does not exist there either. It would be strictly meaningless, like blaspheming against a dead god. But we are still far from living in El Dorado, and shall have need of Candide for some centuries to come.

Voltaire’s Candide, translated by Tobias Smollett and illustrated by Quentin Blake, is published in a limited edition by the Folio Society (£195). © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones – review

This persuasive book about the label ‘chav’ makes a nonsense of the idea that Britain is now classless

“Class is a communist concept,” Margaret Thatcher told Newsweek in 1992. “It groups people together and sets them against each other.” Just over a decade later, Thatcher’s crude rightwing dogmatism had given way to a kind of all-pervasive centre-right wishful thinking. Towards the end of his reign as prime minister, Tony Blair told a New Labour think-tank “we’re all middle class”, an opinion echoed more recently by both the Daily Telegraph (“We’re all middle class now, dahling”) and the Times (“We’re all middle class now as social barriers fall away”).

The truth, as Owen Jones’s points out, is more complex and more disturbing. Chavs, despite its provocative title, is a lively, well-reasoned and informative counterblast to the notion that Britain is now more or less a classless society. For Jones, the British class system is “an invisible prison” from which, increasingly, there is little escape for those born into working-class families. Without the privilege of family wealth, higher education – and the lucrative careers it provides access to – is fast becoming a no-go area for all but an elite sector of the population. Britain is well on its way to becoming a society run by the wealthy for the wealthy.

Jones, who is 26 and has worked as a trade union lobbyist and parliamentary researcher for a Labour MP, begins by looking at the rise of “chav” culture. This, he argues, was created and then mercilessly lampooned by the middle-class, rightwing media and its more combative columnists. The crimes committed by “chavs” included being too loud, too flash, too drunk, too vulgar and, most inexcusable of all, too disrespectful towards their “betters”. Somewhere between the rise of New Labour and the start of the current financial recession, the middle classes seemed suddenly surprised and appalled to discover a new “feral underclass” (Simon Heffer) in the place of the old deferential proletariat.

One one level, Jones has written a book about how the dread word “chav” came into being and how it has been bandied about without much thought. (The word’s origins are unclear: it may derive from the Romany word “chavi”, meaning “child”, but it is now usually understood as an acronym for “council house and violent”.) Jones gives some vivid examples of just how loaded the term has become: there is a popular self-defence course called “chav fighting”, run by the fitness company Gymbox. Perhaps predictably, the Daily Telegraph has led the media assault against the chavs, with James Delingpole caricaturing their offspring as “rudderless urchins… downing alcopops and cans of super-strong lager”.

All this moral humbug would be laughable, argues Jones, if it weren’t so pernicious. Since Margaret Thatcher’s divisive reign, he says, the working class have been increasingly disenfranchised politically and economically while simultaneously being caricatured as feckless, lazy, loutish and amoral. What was once gross caricature – Little Britain‘s Vicky Pollard – has somehow become a symbol of broken Britain.

For Jones, though, the “chav” phenomenon is really just a starting point. His book develops into a sustained polemic about the perniciousness of the British class system. Taking his cue from a quote from the Observer‘s Nick Cohen – “To say class doesn’t matter in Britain is like saying wine doesn’t matter in France; or whether you’re a man or a woman doesn’t matter in Saudi Arabia” – he ranges far and wide in his research, touching on the changing political landscape of post-Thatcher Britain, the ever-widening gap between the wealthy and the rest, and the ways the middle classes find to justify their selfishness.

Jones is good on the causes of what appears to be a new sense of working-class powerlessness – the waning power of the unions, the destruction of traditional jobs and, with them, the communities they fostered, the reckless rush towards globalisation and the attendant deregulation of the markets, which has bred a kind of helplessness among those left behind. His final chapter offers some well-reasoned remedies, all of which, interestingly, call for a revitalisation of the traditional bodies that underpinned working-class struggles of old. Whether the new middle classes would countenance such a ground-up revolution remains to be seen, although a period of austerity could well be the motor for the kind of radical shift in consciousness that Marx once urged the proletariat to undertake. Now, that would be Thatcher – and Blair’s – worst nightmare. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

The best holiday reads

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?

John Banville

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 . . .

William Boyd

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.

AS Byatt

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.

Jonathan Coe

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.

Jilly Cooper

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.

Margaret Drabble

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.

Geoff Dyer

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.”

Jennifer Egan

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.”

Jonathan Franzen

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.

Antonia Fraser

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.

Michael Frayn

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.

Esther Freud

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.

William Gibson

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.

John Gray

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.

David Hare

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.

Michael Holroyd

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.

Hari Kunzru

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.

David Lodge

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.

Andrew Motion

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.

Joseph O’Connor

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.

Jonathan Raban

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.

Ian Rankin

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.

Will Self

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.

Tom Stoppard

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.

Colm Tóibín

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.

Rose Tremain

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.

Sarah Waters

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. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

After the Booker

He had trouble publishing his explicit first book, but by 2004 he’d won the Booker prize. Alan Hollinghurst talks about living alone, the allure of the upper classes and why he’s not just a ‘gay writer’ any more

One line from Alan Hollinghurst’s new book, The Stranger’s Child, is lodged in my head as I arrive at his Hampstead flat. Daphne Sawle, a key figure in the book, whom we follow from a poetically inclined 16-year-old to a tough old boot of 83, is about to be interviewed by would-be biographer Paul Bryant. “He was only pretending to be a friend,” Daphne tells herself, “something no interviewer, probably, had ever been.”

Bryant duly writes his book and uncovers all sorts of secrets about Daphne’s tangled relationship with Cecil Valance, the Rupert Brooke figure at the centre of the novel, whose memory is fought over for decades after his death. I rather like Bryant – a “little wire-haired ratter”, according to Daphne – who becomes increasingly bombastic as the book proceeds. Hollinghurst is perhaps less enamoured of his character, and of biographers who confuse art with life. I ring the bell with trepidation.

Hollinghurst’s large flat, spread over three floors, overlooks the southern edge of Hampstead Heath. He lives alone – he generally has, though there have been “periods of experiment” with live-in partners – and the flat feels monastic. “I’m not at all easy to live with,” he says. “I wish I could integrate writing into ordinary social life, but I don’t seem to be able to. I could when I started. I suppose I had more energy then. Now I have to isolate myself for long periods. It’s all become more of a challenge. I find writing novels gets harder and harder, which is not what I thought would happen. I thought you’d learn how to do it.”

The carpets are beige – I feel an urge to remove my shoes; the walls white; each picture, each object, has its place; a cleaner is doing her weekly rounds – young, dark-haired, Spanish perhaps, the most beautiful cleaner you have ever seen. There is absolute silence, broken only by a loud burst of the overture to Swan Lake on Hollinghurst’s mobile phone when his mother calls. As well as Tchaikovsky’s lush ballet scores, he has an enduring love of Henry James – there is a bookcase of Jamesiana in his top-floor study. James became his art; forswore life to write perfect fictions. My immediate suspicion is that the pupil is taking the same course as the master, though I accept it is a large thesis to hang on beige furnishings.

The Stranger’s Child – the title comes from Tennyson’s In Memoriam – is Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, and his first since The Line Of Beauty won the Booker prize in 2004. His first four books, written over a span of almost 20 years, form a quartet that explore gay life in the UK, present and past. The Swimming-Pool Library, his sex-drenched first book, published in 1988, mapped the gay world before and after the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised homosexuality; The Folding Star (1994) was a disturbing study of pederastic desire; The Spell (1998) a sex-and-drugs-fuelled comedy of manners; The Line Of Beauty another dark comedy exposing the hypocrisy and cupidity of the 1980s.

Those four books seem like a set of themes and variations: hidden histories, young men’s rites of passage, the compulsion of desire, the fragility (perhaps even the impossibility) of love. He accepts that with The Stranger’s Child he has embarked on a new phase. “I did have a strong sense after The Line Of Beauty of having come to the end of what I rather pompously thought of as a sort of symphonic structure of four movements and coming back at the end to the time at which the first book was set. It did seem to seal something off. This is a book I would not have been able to write 10 years ago, a book about time and its workings, and memory and its failings.”

Did he worry about having to follow a Booker winner? “Not consciously. I’m quite good at shutting out those worries and expectations. But perhaps unconsciously I was. In a way, I was in this marvellous position that I could have done anything I wanted, and I meant to do something much smaller and quicker.” A cash-in book? He laughs. The seven-year gap since he won the Booker absolves him of that charge.

He initially set out to write short stories, but managed only one before another novel took root. “My first idea of it was that it would be a novel about the great war that didn’t actually have the great war in it. I thought it would be a two-part thing: the prewar section, and then you’d jump in again some time after the war and you’d pick up these people and see how their lives had been altered. But then when I added the idea of literary biography into the mix, I realised that I wanted to pursue it through further episodes.”

I wonder if, with the new novel done, he feels bereaved. “Normally, I do have a brief but acute sort of depression when I finish a book, which is to do with saying goodbye to this place you’ve been inhabiting. But I was so desperate to get this thing off that I seem to have escaped that.” He has a deep, drawly voice – so deep he used to be known as Basso Profundo when he worked at the Times Literary Supplement in the 80s – and a hesitant, donnish manner, but his brown eyes sparkle behind his glasses, and he laughs a great deal, managing to take himself very seriously and at the same time not in the least seriously.

One reason he was keen to finish the book was that he was running out of money. “I handed it in at the end of September, which was two years later than planned, so I had absolutely no money left. It was really getting quite hairy.” Winning the Booker netted £50,000, there were foreign rights, a TV adaptation, and then the advance for this book, but even a novelist as successful as Hollinghurst – producing on average a book every five years – is not earning a vast sum annually.

Many novelists do journalism to top up their earnings. Hollinghurst does the odd book review and literary essay, but he doesn’t do punditry. Isn’t he tempted? “No,” he says, “I don’t really have opinions. After The Line Of Beauty, I was always getting requests from newspapers, asking me what the election meant for Labour, that sort of thing. I said I didn’t have the faintest idea what the election meant for Labour. I just happened to have written a book that had a Tory politician in it.”

Hollinghurst’s hero, Henry James, had three distinct writing periods – early, middle and late. He even seems to have imagined them in capital letters. Does Hollinghurst think in those terms? “No,” he says firmly. “That would be insanely self-conscious and self-important. I’ve always felt I was going gropingly into the future.” Yet The Stranger’s Child, with its wider canvas, excavation of the past and rumination on whether we can ever really establish the truth, does mark a new chapter. It may not be Middle Hollinghurst, in the sense in which James would have understood it, but it is the work of a middle-aged writer, whereas the four earlier novels were the work of a younger man galvanised by his arrival in London and by exposure to a suddenly more assertive gay world after 10 years doing EngLit at Oxford in the 70s. If, as Schopenhauer said, the first 40 years of life supply the text and the next 30 the commentary on it, Hollinghurst, at 57, is now well into the latter.

I like to think his text phase was as exciting as his early novels might suggest, but he gets cagey when I ask if he was indeed “living the William Beckwith life” – Beckwith, the narrator of The Swimming-Pool Library, is a 25-year-old for whom any day without a new sexual partner is a day wasted – when he came to London in 1981. “Not entirely,” he replies, with something halfway between a laugh and a sigh. “But coming to London was a new phase. I didn’t have the capital to live the William Beckwith life, but I arrived with a feeling this was where I was going to be from now on.”

The great game that journalists – me, in fact, in Paul Bryant mode – play with Hollinghurst is trying to imagine to what degree the characters in his books are based on him. It’s absurdly reductive and he elegantly refuses to play along – all people really want to know, he once complained, is have I really fucked as many men as that? – but you can’t help it. Beckwith is a libidinous aesthete with a taste for beautiful young men, Wagner and the novels of early 20th-century gay writer Ronald Firbank (about whom Hollinghurst obsesses); in The Spell, the self-effacing, thirtysomething civil servant Alex Nichols discovers the drug ecstasy at about the same age Hollinghurst admits to having been captivated by it; in The Line Of Beauty, Nick Guest is an Oxford graduate writing a thesis about… you guessed it, Henry James.

Hollinghurst’s own life has to be pieced together from shards of fact; not unlike the way lives gradually, reluctantly reveal themselves in his books. He says he has been “incontrovertibly” gay since he was an undergraduate in the early 70s, but prefers not to say when he first realised he was gay. He was an only child, the son of a bank manager in Stroud, Gloucestershire, which one imagines in the 50s as a sleepy, conservative country town. Just such a town is the setting for one section of The Stranger’s Child; there is even a bank and a bank manager, who is married to Daphne’s daughter and has been psychologically damaged by the second world war. I ask whether there is anything of his own father in that portrait. “They are very unlike my own parents, I’m rather relieved to say, but I spent the first eight years of my life living in a house above a bank and playing in the bank after everyone had gone home, so it was a plunge into memory doing all that, and I rather enjoyed recreating it.”

In The Spell, Alex – who has “contracted the occasional ailment of the late developer, an aversion to his own past” – recalls his horror of the country town in which he’d grown up, with its “old outfitters selling brown and mauve clothes [and] photos of fetes and beauty contests and British Legion dinners in the window of the newspaper office, which might almost have been the window of a museum”. He also tenderly recalls the solitary child’s “taste for lonely places”, playing hide and seek alone. “It can’t be hide and seek if no one’s coming to look for you, darling,” his mother tells him. “It’s just hide.”

Hard though Hollinghurst tries to hide in public, he drops in clues about himself throughout his novels. He even appears in person at the end of The Spell, “a sympathetic-looking man with short grey hair and a darker goatee”, spotted by Alex when he goes cruising on Hampstead Heath. Another character in The Spell, an unappealing antique dealer called George, is said to have “a delight in artifice and a mania for honesty”. The same might be said for Hollinghurst.

Stroud might have been terminally inhibiting for the young Hollinghurst, but he escaped. At eight his “aspirational” parents took the curious decision to send him to prep school as a boarder. “Neither of my parents had been to boarding school, but they thought it was important,” he says vaguely. From there, he went to Canford public school in Dorset, also as a boarder, and it proved an artistic awakening. “Being in a beautiful and interesting old house made a profound impression on me at an early stage.” The decision to send him away was to be the making of the young aesthete, as well as the beginning of the remarkable voice.

The relationship with his parents is hard to fathom, and he is reluctant to speak about them – “I cringe from saying anything that might be used to make them into figures of curiosity or comedy,” he tells me later in an email. It has sometimes been implied that his father reacted badly to The Swimming-Pool Library – he has been quoted as saying, “I believe that what they are doing is against the law” – but Hollinghurst says the remark has been taken out of context. “All my father said to me was that he supposed Will was breaking the law by having an affair with Arthur [his young black lover], who was under the then legal age. It was an oblique but coolly clever way of dealing with what both my parents must have found a rather shocking book. But they were both from the start delighted by the book’s success, and movingly supportive of my freedom to write whatever I wanted.” His father died in 1991, three years before The Folding Star was published, but his mother, though frail at 92, is making steady headway with The Stranger’s Child and calling him with enthusiastic updates on her progress.

Hollinghurst enjoyed his time at Canford, and wrote enthusiastically about it in the old boys’ magazine, the Canfordian, a couple of years ago, recalling with affection two teachers who had opened his mind to poetry, painting and architecture. The critic Peter Parker, who was at school with him, says he “never thought of him as a boy – he always seemed old”. Parker recalls that Hollinghurst had a self-deprecating manner and even then his trademark bass voice, and that the poetry he wrote for the magazine Parker founded was mature and fully formed: “I am rather proud to have been his first publisher.”

Parker stresses that Canford was not Eton, yet there is a sense in which Hollinghurst’s parents’ decision to place their serious-minded son among a certain class of boys determined all that followed. I ask whether he accepts his books exhibit a fascination with upper-class life – a recurring milieu that some critics suggest limits his work – and when we will get his great mining novel. “Don’t count on it any time soon,” he says unabashed. “I’ve always felt rich people have more scope for behaving badly, or for behaving amusingly badly perhaps. Some of those issues were addressed in The Line Of Beauty: the interest in lovely old houses and possessions, inevitably entailing some sort of consideration of the people who live in them and own them. There are habits that I haven’t shaken off. Whenever I go to any place, I go and look at the church, and it’s an interest I put straight into my book. I probably do too much of it. There have been big Victorian country houses in my last three novels. I had to be careful this book wasn’t marketed as a Downton Abbey-type thing, and I hope it doesn’t trade in easy nostalgia and fantasy about the past; rather the opposite.”

Hollinghurst does indeed look tweedy and staid in the school photograph that accompanies his article in the Canfordian. He has described living his life in reverse: hemmed in in his teens and 20s, when he was at Oxford, living in a house with Andrew Motion and doing a thesis on three gay writers, EM Forster, Firbank and LP Hartley, working at a time when it was not possible to write openly about homosexuality; then flowering in his 30s after he came to London.

Though he always had a novel “on the go”, Hollinghurst initially saw himself as a poet. He published a well-received volume of poetry with the provocative title Confidential Chats With Boys in 1982, but says the muse deserted him in 1985 on the day he signed a contract for a book of poems with Faber. In any case, by then the novel that was to establish him was well under way.

He started writing The Swimming-Pool Library in 1984 and it appeared to general acclaim four years later. “It all looked rather dicey before it came out,” he recalls. “No one would buy the paperback rights. People didn’t quite know how to handle it.” Publishers feared that, as a book by a gay author, with a gay protagonist and lashings of gay sex, it might attract only a niche audience, but it did astonishingly well in hardback and suddenly the paperback rights were a hot property. “It changed my life,” he says. Having been deputy editor at the TLS, he went part-time in 1990 and left after The Folding Star was published in 1994.

One question he refuses to engage with is whether he is still pigeonholed as a gay writer. This was the canard that followed him on his promotional tour for The Line Of Beauty, when interviewers asked whether his gayness defined him as a writer and every news piece was headlined, “Gay writer wins Booker”. “I have a feeling it’s changed,” he says. “I spent 20 years politely answering the question, ‘How do you feel when people categorise you as a gay writer?’ and I’m not going to do it this time round. It’s no longer relevant.”

Can he imagine writing a book with no gay characters or gay themes? Pause. “I still slightly feel there are a lot of those around already, and I’m not sure my heart would be completely in it.” He has embarked on his next novel, and says it will “certainly have a gay strand in it, though the protagonists will all be more or less heterosexual.” The “more or less” is significant: sexuality in Hollinghurst’s world is fluid. “There’s a lot in The Stranger’s Child which is rather liminal,” he says. “There’s quite a lot of bisexuality. One of the ideas of the book is about the unknowability or uncategorisability of human behaviour, and I was rather tempted into those ambiguous sexual areas.”

He was never a writer of manifestos, but his early novels were to some extent conscious efforts to bring gay writing and gay life into the mainstream. That phase is now over. “With the first book, I was deliberately choosing the subject of the homosexual world and history. Now books come upon me in a more sly and roundabout way. Themes emerge in the process of writing.” But some of the old imperatives still assert themselves. “Sexual behaviour, sexual mores and sexual psychology are fascinating, and I will always write about them.” Hollinghurst’s mania for honesty means that intellect, the hankering for order and beauty, will always be subverted by the messy realities of desire.

• The Stranger’s Child, by Alan Hollinghurst, is published by Picador at £20. To order a copy for £16 (including UK mainland p&p) go to or call 0330 333 6846. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Lark Rise to Candleford writer to adapt Zola novel for BBC1

Series based on The Ladies Paradise tells story of a young girl in 1890s working in department store after death of her father

The writer of Lark Rise to Candleford is to return to BBC1 with a new series based on French novelist Emile Zola’s The Ladies’ Paradise, a rags to riches story about a young girl in the 1890s.

Bill Gallagher’s adaptation of Flora Thompson’s memoir of her Oxfordshire childhood into the series Lark Rise to Candleford has proved a hit with BBC1’s Sunday night audience.

His reworking of Zola’s novel will focus on the adventures of a young girl who falls in love with the intoxicating charms of the modern world while working in the glamorous world of the first ever department store in a booming northern city.

“This project has been close to my heart for a long time and I’m thrilled to be making it with the BBC,” said Gallagher. “The Ladies’ Paradise is set at exactly the same time as Lark Rise – but now we’re in the city, at a time of great change and upheaval, so the series is exciting and constantly dramatic.”.

He added that in a similar vein to Lark Rise the series will “explore the lives of a colourful cast of characters struggling to survive and flourish in difficult and dangerous times”.

The series will centre on the character of Denise who goes to work as a shop girl after being made homeless by the death of her father. She soon discovers a world of intrigues, affairs and shopfloor power struggles.

Ben Stephenson, controller of commissioning for BBC drama, described it as a “a romantic, thrilling and sexy post-watershed relationship drama”.

The show will be made by BBC Drama Productions and will air in 2013. The number of episodes is yet to be finalised.

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Do books have a future?

What does 21st-century technology hold for the printed word? Last week academics, librarians, publishers and writers descended on the Villa Reale, near Milan, to find out.

We hear from a Senegalese publisher struggling with the differences between west and south, from an Argentinian innovator who keeps his office on a laptop and a digital designer who has put Wikipedia between hard covers.

Harvard professor Robert Darnton explains why, far from killing off the book, the new digital technologies are giving it a new life, while the Chilean novelist Antonio Skarmeta – author of Il Postino – asks how the writer is going to make a living in the new world. The American teacher Esther Wojcici suggests that the answer may lie in a radical new form of copyright.