Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Some books I like ... (1)

... and have to re-read every few years. This began as 6, but now its 10. I like to have a book on the go, and discover new writers (like Irish Donal Ryan and Kevin Barry), and keep up with established writers like Colm Toibin; currently I am browsing chunky short story collections by Willian Trevor and Tennessee Williams. Some books though stay with one, and one has to have them to hand. Of course writing about favourite books (or films or music) leaves one open to having one's taste criticised -  Here are the first 5:

THE BELL - Iris Murdoch. I must have been a precocious teenager, I remember reading those early Iris Murdoch novels on the beach in Ireland (it was that pre-internet world). THE BELL first published in 1958 is among her best, funniest and most liked. One can re-read it happily every few years. The misadventures of Dora Greenfield ("Dora hated pointless sacrifices" when she was going to offer up her seat on the crowded train, leads to an amusing sequence of events). 
Imber Abbey is home to an enclosed order of nuns. A new bell is being installed and then the old bell, legendary symbol of religion and magic, is rediscovered by teenager Toby, abetted by Dora the erring wife who returns to her husband. 
Michael Meade, leader of the community outside the convent, is confronted by Nick Fawley, with whom he had disastrous homosexual relations, while the wise old Abbess watches and prays and excercises discreet authority. Religion and sex are the motifs here - Michael also impulsively kisses Toby which sets off another series of events... . Iris Murdoch's funny and wise novel is about religion, the fight between good and evil and the terrible accidents of human frailty, but is also deliciously funny, leading to a hilariously tragic climax. A great introduction to Murdoch's novels like THE SEA THE SEA, THE UNICORN, THE RED AND THE GREEN and many others. BBC did a nice serial of THE BELL in 1982, with Ian Holm, Michael Maloney and others, it would be nice to see that again.

THE LEOPARD - Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa. This chronicles the changes in Sicilian life and society during the Risorgimento. In the spring of 1860, Fabrizio, the charismatic Prince of Salina, still rules over thousands of acres and hundreds of people, including his own numerous family, in mingled splendour and squalor. Then comes Garibaldi's landing in Sicily and the Prince must decide whether to resist the forces of change or come to terms with them. 
Published posthumously in 1958, the book remains a marvellous read. Luchino Visconti of course made one of his best films based on it, released in 1963 (as per my comments at Visconti label). The characters are so vivid: Don Fabrizio the still virile Prince, his large family, Tancredi and Angelica, and that sumptous ball at the end, when the Prince realises that things have to change in order to stay the same. The novel too gives us flash-forwards to the characters, like Angelica, in their later years. I particularly like my early '60s edition, nicely hardbound and embossed. 

THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY - Patricia Highsmith. For a novel first published in the mid-'50s this is surprisingly explicit about Tom Ripley's desires and nature, and those of the crowd he hangs around with in New York. Tom is a small time embezzler but sees his opportunity when sent on a mission to Italy .... We know the story of course from the various films (particularly my favourite, Rene Clement's PLEIN SOLEIL capturing that 1960 era perfectly). The novel has been through many editions and reissues - I have had several - and is, like most Highsmiths, still in print.This led me to devouring all of Highsmith's other novels, including of course STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and EDITH'S DIARY. She was also a master of the short story, with several collections. The collection on animals is marvellous, I love and often re-read her MING'S BIGGEST PREY, about Ming, a very jealous cat in Acapulco - it really feels like the cat is narrating this and is brilliantly done. 

COLLECTED POEMS by C.P. CAVAFY. I cherish my Hogarth Press edition of Cafavy Poems (and also that paperback, a different translation, with the David Hockney illustrations, below). I have now seen this new edition BEFORE TIME COULD CHANGE THEM, 'The complete poems, with an introduction by Gore Vidal' - and just had to have it, so it is on its way to me.
"In the dull village"
Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) of course was the poet of Alexandria, in Egypt, and has come to be recognized as one of the greatest poets of modern times. Elegiac, deeply sensual, and able to plumb the heart with language of immense richness, Cavafy evokes the great lost classical world of the Mediterranean with unparalleled beauty. Much of his poetry - written about 100 years ago, deals with love, specifically homosexual. It speaks of human desire, the experience common to all mankind of love offered, sought, and lost. His verse is beautiful and embracing, and remains as alive and sensuous as it was when he wrote it.
There are so many of his poems I like and return to: "The City", "Candles", "In The 25th Year of His Life", "He Swears", "Before Time Altered Them", "Two Young Men 23 to 24 Years Old", "Days of 1909, '10 and '11", "Kleitos' Illness" as well as specific Greek themes like "Waiting For The Barbarians", "Ithaka", "Nero's Deadline", which splendidly evoke the Ancient World. If you do not know Cavafy, do try to discover his works. 

YEVTUSHENKO: SELECTED POEMS - This Penguin Paperback was an early '60s favourite of mine, it was interesting finding it again the other day. The blurb says: "Yevgeny Yevtushenko is the fearless spokesman of his generation in Russia. In verse that is young, fresh, and outspoken, he frets at restraint and injustice, as in his now famous protest over the Jewish pogrom at Kiev. But he can write lyrically too, of the simple things of all humanity - love, a birthday, a holiday in Georgia. And in "Zima Junction" he brilliant records his impressions on a visit to his home in Siberia". Yevtushenko is now much older, but was the Rudolph Nureyev of poetry then. Even now looking at those titles like "Lies", "Waiting", "Colours", "Encounter", "People", "Babi Yar" and that long marvellous poem "Zima Junction" brings it all back, being 18 or 19 again. 

Part 2 soon (Jane Austen, Muriel Spark, Edna O'Brien, Mary Renault, James Joyce).


  1. Thanks Michael for your interesting book reviews here and the film greats!

    Have you come across the book 'Beautiful Shadow' a life of Patricia Highsmith, 2004/5 by Andrew Wilson? It illuminated her life's dark corners, kept hidden until her death. Wilson's use of her candid diaries, letters, notebooks reveal inks between her fiction and her private life. Her home life in France, Switzerland and Suffolk make fascinating reading revealing friendships with people like Arthur Koestler and Jeanne Moreau plus a bright intelligentia by which she was nourished. Graham Greene described her as the 'poet of apprehension' and the actors' world embraced her's.

    May 1949 she wrote in her notebook on sailing from New York, 'that America is fatally off the mark of true reality and that the Europeans have it precisely.'

    Through the mystery of the creative process she turned her unspeakable angst into transcendent entertainment. All her books were about men and their shadows and Ripley was an expression of what she wanted to be, an expression of her shadow which she never really was able to accommodate within herself. Hence the angst and the writing which outs the play of human hidden desires in her brilliant fashion.

    There was also a Southbank show with Melvin Bragg in 1982 for TV : a Gift for Murder where Ripley's character was analysed in detail.

  2. Thanks for that Emma, yes, I read the "Beautiful Shadow" biography of Highsmith, rather depressing actually. She was certainly a fascinating woman who gave lots of interviews in print and on tv as she progressed from America to England and to France and on to Switzerland ... with her pet snails and cats in tow I imagine. It seemed a very solitary life, but such a productive one. She was part of that era from the late '40s where American writers were drawn first to New York and then to Europe.