Over the remains of summer days, our columnist suggests revisiting some literary greats.
Douglas Lloyd Jenkins’ list of books to re-visit
The other day an old friend took one of those phone calls from his doctor that no one wants to receive: “I’m admitting you to hospital.” After packing a bag for a brief stay, it occurred to him that he needed a book. He had been sorting out old books, long in storage, and grabbed the first decent read on the top of the pile, threw it in his bag and headed out the door. The book was The Fountainhead (1943) by Ayn Rand, something we both read as teenagers, adored and, back then, discussed at length. It still provides occasional conversational references. The next day, he sent a text: “Could you bring reading material? Anything light.” I turned up at the hospital with a bag full of David Sedaris and Benjamin Law. When I asked about The Fountainhead, he looked a little guilty as he said, “It’s bloody awful.” I’m a big fan of re-reading books and re-watching movies, but there are some you just can’t go back to. I suspect Ayn Rand’s black-and-white view of the world suits the teenage mind but less so those of us who have since realised we are not a unique, supremely talented genius living on a moral plane well above the heads of the common folk. Architects will always love this book but the smart ones read it while they’re young and then move on. Summer is the time for reading. Book sales go nuts in December – and here’s hoping there are one or two new titles in your Christmas sack this year. But once you’ve read those and are on the hunt for more, consider re-reading. Some of the best books for a fresh take are those in which houses are major characters – they can be re-imagined slightly differently as your ideas about design mature. No spoiler alerts – here’s a list of classics I assume you’ve read (or at least seen the movie) and which lie around the house, the bach, the farm, in grandparents’ bookcases, op-shop or the local library. Great Expectations (1861), by Charles Dickens Satis House has everything you might want in a great mid-Victorian do-up, if only old Miss Haversham would move on. You might have to get commercial cleaners in – but the world is your oyster. Rebecca (1938), by Daphne du Maurier The unnamed second Mrs de Winter moves into Manderley, the hauntingly beautiful house where she fails to follow the cardinal rule of a second wife – redecorate completely – with dire consequences. The Castle of Oranto (1764), by Horace Walpole Okay, this classic Gothic horror isn’t lying around in most baches. It was written by Walpole after he dreamed about coming down the staircase at Strawberry Hill, his house in Twickenham, London, to find a giant severed hand in the entrance hall – the story unfolds from there. When I visited Strawberry Hill I marvelled at its tiny staircase and little reception hall, but mostly at Walpole’s fevered imagination. Gone with the Wind (1936), by Margaret Mitchell Forget Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, the real star here is Tara, the southern plantation house. The best scene is when Scarlett makes a dress from the curtains. On a wet day at the bach you can while away the time figuring just how you’d turn those curtains into a dress to wear for a life-changing business meeting – all good fun. The Age of Innocence (1920), by Edith Wharton I never tire of Wharton. In this, the author illustrates the wealth of the Julius Beauforts through their ballroom “used for no other purpose, and left for three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year to shuttered darkness, with its gilt chairs stacked in a corner and its chandelier in a bag”, until, of course, they give a ball. Her books are full of acute descriptions of décor and spaces as befits the author of The Decoration of Houses (1897). The Great Gatsby (1925), by F. Scott Fitzgerald When talking about mega-mansions, Gatsby had the best. Fitzgerald cleverly under-describes it, leaving your imagination to go wild. Baz Luhrmann did it pretty well on film but try the book first. The Eustace Diamonds (1871), by Anthony Trollope One of the Palliser novels, it’s ideal if, like many contemporary readers, you prefer a series. However, Game of Thrones fans beware – there’s not a hairy, unwashed, princeling to be seen, just some carefully clipped moustaches and wonderfully detailed interiors. Also try The Small House at Allington (1864) from the Chronicles of Barsetshire series. Brideshead Revisited (1945), by Evelyn Waugh When I first read this I was quite convinced that Brideshead was mine and we’d simply and cruelly been separated at birth – such are the evocations of clothes, food and interiors. A recent visit to Castle Howard in Yorkshire, where both television series (excellent) and film (abysmal) were shot, simply confirmed what I’ve always suspected – I had come home. One lunchtime this summer, make a sorrel omelette like the one Charles Ryder orders for Rex Mottram in a London restaurant – they’re heaven. Remains of the Day (1987), by Kazuo Ishiguro Darlington Hall is a late entrant into the category of stately home fiction – but when did the Noble Prize for Literature last go to someone whose book you’d want to read at the beach? I’ve been reminded to mention the New Zealanders – and our best writer of fictional interiors is Shonagh Koea. The titles say it all: Staying Home and Being Rotten (1992), The Wedding at Bueno-Vista (1996) and the unforgettable Yet Another Ghastly Christmas (2003). The last one makes a great cover to hide behind when you want to get your point across to the rellies this summer break. Happy reading.