The 100 books that changed my life
1. TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES THOMAS HARDY
The one thing you could never say to Thomas Hardy is ‘Cheer up – it might never happen’. Happen it always does: lovers are forced apart, children die, innocents are hanged. But this cosmic doom is always framed by a strange beauty: of the English countryside, and of his prose.
2. MIDDLEMARCH GEORGE ELIOT
For at least 30 years Salman Rushdie has taken every opportunity to boast that he has never read Middlemarch. Why ever not? It has everything – wonderfully drawn characters, a series of beautifully interlocking plots and, in the pedantic Mr Casaubon, one of the great tragic/comic figures in literature. And it also contains that rarest of literary qualities: wisdom.
3. COUSIN HENRY ANTHONY TROLLOPE
It might almost have been written by Samuel Beckett: a novel about prevarication and indecision, with an anti-hero who freezes whenever action
4. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY
In many ways it’s a thriller. It certainly had a deep influence on Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith, who were both excited by Dostoevsky’s exploration of the nature of guilt. For no good reason, a student drop-out murders a mean old woman with an axe. Almost against our will, we find ourselves hoping that Raskolnikov will evade detection. Dostoevsky creates a moral whirlpool into which the reader willingly plunges.
is called for. Henry Jones is to inherit an estate, but his uncle, who can’t bear him, just has time to change his will before dropping down dead. Henry is the only person who knows the will has been altered to exclude him. He doesn’t want to give up the estate, but neither does he have the nerve to commit a crime by destroying the will. Somehow, Trollope managed to create a fast-moving novel about someone doing nothing.
5. GREAT EXPECTATIONS CHARLES DICKENS
There are many things I wish I liked more, including whisky, cricket, Howard Hodgkin… and Dickens. I enjoy him for long stretches, but then along comes a comic grotesque, talking phonetically, and I can’t go on. But Great Expectations is clearly a masterpiece, and the mechanics of its plot are unsurpassable.
6. ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND LEWIS CARROLL
The White Rabbit, the Queen of Hearts, the Mad Hatter and stubborn little Alice herself: they are not just part of the language but part of our lives. The world gone mad, but abiding by insanity’s own peculiar logic: by turns funny and frightening, liberating and claustrophobic.
7. THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN MARK TWAIN
‘You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures
Of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.’ Was any first sentence better designed to bamboozle English pedants who insist on the supremacy of Correct English? And was any novel so full of life, fun and adventure?
8. THE BEAST WITHIN EMILE ZOLA
There isn’t a novel by Zola that I haven’t enjoyed. He believed in realism, the earthier the better. This one is about sexual jealousy, and the way that technology – exemplified here by the train – can unleash the inner beast in man. It sometimes veers toward melodrama but remains as shocking and as raw as steak cut fresh from the carcass.
9. THE WAY WE LIVE NOW ANTHONY TROLLOPE
‘I’m reading a Trollope,’ said my wife. ‘Which one? Jackie Collins?’ replied her lowbrow friend, quite innocently. This is the fastest-paced Trollope of them all, the longest, the most satirical, and also the most prescient: the dodgy financier Augustus Melmotte is feted by smart society, but then his empire starts to unravel…
10. JOSEPH ANDREWS HENRY FIELDING
I read Joseph Andrews in my early 20s, before getting round to Fielding’s more famous Tom
Jones, and this may be why I still prefer it. That an 18th-century novel could be so sexy and so funny was an eye-opener. Pleasure often takes a back seat to self-improvement where classics are concerned, but Joseph
Andrews is one of the rollicking exceptions.
11. NO NAME WILKIE COLLINS
Like Patricia Highsmith, Wilkie Collins – friend and contemporary of Dickens – had a soft spot for liars and frauds. In the at times unbearably tense No Name, his heroine dons a bogus identity in order to seduce her weedy cousin into marrying her and thus gain the fortune that, but for a fault in the law, should rightly be hers. Will she succeed in her duplicity? We all hope so.
12. NEW GRUB STREET GEORGE GISSING
A gripping, gloomy parable of literary life in Victorian London. Gissing contrasts the fortunes of the honest and impoverished Reardon and the slick and successful Milvain. Few contemporary authors could read this novel without asking themselves which of the two they most resemble.
That an 18thcentury novel could be so sexy and so funny was an eye-opener
13. JUST WILLIAM RICHMAL CROMPTON
‘I don’t want to behave like a civilized yuman bein’,’ says William Brown (no relation). The creation of a former senior classics mistress at Bromley High School for girls, William is the scruffy schoolboy who creates havoc wherever he goes. Fun fact: the original for William was Richmal’s brother John. In the Second World War, John served under Air Wigglesworth, who had been the original for the air-ace Biggles.
14. THE DIARY OF A NOBODY GEORGE AND WEEDON GROSSMITH
First published in 1892, this gentle satire on self-importance has been the inspiration for an amazing amount of comedy ever since. Like Jekyll and Hyde, Macbeth and Uriah Heep, the name of Mr Pooter, the prim diarist, has entered the language. We call someone ‘Pooterish’ if he or she mixes banality with self-regard. And the joke goes on: over the past decade, the Twitterati have given The Diary
Of A Nobody fresh resonance.
15. THE EDUCATION OF HYMAN KAPLAN LEO ROSTEN
Surely the most touchingly funny book ever written, and one of the cleverest, too, full of verbal gymnastics. Boundlessly optimistic and self-assured, Hyman Kaplan has arrived in Thirties New York from Eastern Europe and is learning English at night school. ‘Who can tell us the meaning of “vast”?’ asks the tutor. Kaplan’s hand shoots up. ‘Vast! It’s commink from diraction. Ve have four diractions: de naut, de sot, de heast, and de vast.’
16. RIGHT HO, JEEVES PG WODEHOUSE
If you’re a writer’s writer then you’re generally not a reader’s writer, but PG Wodehouse is both. The only thing he’s not is an academic’s writer, because he is far too enjoyable, and requires no explanation. He wrote 93 books as well as hundreds of short stories. I have chosen Right Ho, Jeeves because it contains his funniest scene of all: the sozzled Gussie Fink-Nottle presenting the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School.
17. HIS MONKEY WIFE JOHN COLLIER
Out in the Congo a bookish chimpanzee called Emily falls hopelessly in love with a schoolmaster called Mr Fatigay. Emily is thrilled to accompany him on a visit to England, but on arrival she discovers that he intends to give her to his haughty fiancée as a maid. Her fury knows no bounds. Funny ha-ha and funny peculiar at the same time.
18. seven men and tWo otHers max BeerBoHm
Max Beerbohm is best known for his one and only novel, Zuleika Dobson. To my mind, these short stories are snappier and cleverer, with elements of time travel and the supernatural as well as satire. The author presents portraits of cranky contemporaries who never really existed. Or did they? Though Beerbohm is often seen as old-fashioned, this extraordinary book was postmodern decades before the term came into being.
19. THE COLLECTED FICTIONS OF JORGE LUIS BORGES
If you can only take magical realism in short doses, then Borges is your man. In one story, a map is as large as the world it depicts. Borges’s stories are like vivid dreams in which, in a flash, the world is reduced and explained, and all in a couple of pages.
20. HENRY JAMES’S SHORT STORIES
It has been said of Henry James that he chews more than he bites off. Some people find his more monumental novels like Portrait Of A Lady or The Golden Bowl too wordy and effortful. But his short stories have a greater sense of purpose and perhaps, as a result, linger longer in the memory.
21. THE COMPLETE STORIES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES
There are, of course, mysteries galore in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Why is a job advertised only for applicants with red hair? Who stole a document from the dispatch box of the Secretary of State for European Affairs? Needless to say, each has a satisfying solution. But the central mystery – and the one that has kept readers glued since they were published – is the mystery of Sherlock Holmes himself. He tantalises. The more we yearn to know about him, the less his creator reveals. Therein lies his magnetic pull.
22. THE COLLECTED STORIES OF WILLIAM TREVOR
A typical short story by William Trevor will end with a character’s sudden comprehension of an essential truth about herself or some event in the past that has shaped her life. There is sadness in his stories, but beauty in the sadness.
23. THE STORIES OF JOHN CHEEVER
Cheever was a secret homosexual and a secret alcoholic. His short stories are about the secrets that lurk behind the curtains in the middle-class suburbs of America. Beneath the suave surface sheen of his sentences, anything can happen. 24. THE COMPLETE SAKI Dark to the point of jet-black, often violent and sadistic, languid, worldly and tinged with camp, the Saki stories have influenced everyone from Evelyn Waugh to The League Of Gentlemen. Unusually, their jokes have not aged: ‘I knew it was dawn because there were lark noises in the sky, and the grass looked as if it had been left out all night.’ 25. CHEKHOV’S SHORT STORIES We like to equate genius with obscurity and madness, but Chekhov’s is located in clarity and sanity. I find his plays ever so slightly boring, perhaps because boredom is one of their themes, and the theme leaks into the treatment. But his short stories pulse with the heartbeat of humanity; they are, as John Carey once said, ‘sanity raised to the power of genius’.
26. A JUDGEMENT IN STONE RUTH RENDELL Suspense is to fiction what melody is to music. Most novels rely on some measure of suspense. It’s the nature of narrative: the reader is pulled along by the need to know what happens next. But some novels accentuate the suspense above all else. This one begins: ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’ So in just 13 words we are told who did it and why. The second sentence goes: ‘There was no real motive and no premeditation; no money was gained and no security.’ How could you not read on?
27. TRUE GRIT CHARLES PORTIS
‘People do not give it credence that a 14-year-old girl could leave home and go off in wintertime to avenge her father’s blood…’ In old age, Mattie Ross tells the story of her quest, all those years ago, for justice. It’s hard to think of a more perfectly realised novel than
True Grit. There is so much to enjoy: the pluck of the voice, the cruddiness of the villain, and all the surprises along the way.
28. ROGUE MALE GEOFFREY HOUSEHOLD
It is 1938. The would-be assassin of an unnamed European dictator is being chased both by the British authorities and the murderous agents of this foreign power. They track him down to Dorset, where he is forced to burrow into an underground hole. The hunters and the hunted: the two vital ingredients of any thriller, ruthlessly distilled and then placed lovingly within the beauty of the English countryside.
29. MAXIMUM BOB ELMORE LEONARD
Funny and tense: a rare combination. Elmore Leonard used prose like no one else. Like P G Wodehouse, he created his own universe of spivs, idiots and chancers, and then invented a brilliantly compacted and electrified language to go with it. The Maximum Bob of the title is a Florida judge notorious for awarding the maximum sentence for any crime. Throw in a drug-addicted doctor, a crazy wife, numerous shady convicts and an alligator, and you have one of this great magician’s most perfect novels. 30. THE SECRET HISTORY DONNA TARTT An elite group of college friends kills someone by mistake, and are then preyed upon by a needy fellow student who discovers their secret. A nerve-jangling study of cliques, guilt and paranoia. 31. THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD JOHN LE CARRÉ I’ve tried reading longer and weightier and more complex books by le Carré, but none has matched the perfect Rubik’s-cube intricacy of this, his third novel. 32. DEEP WATER PATRICIA HIGHSMITH Hundreds of lesser crime writers still attempt to ape Highsmith’s spare, matter-of-fact style, but no one can do it quite like her. In her unsettling novels, the reader’s sympathies tend to be with what she called ‘my hero psychopaths’ rather than the victim. Any idea of a settled moral universe is sent spinning. She is the opposite of Agatha Christie. ‘Neither life nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not,’ she once said.
33. RESERVOIR 13 JON MCGREGOR
A 13-year-old girl goes missing from a village in the Peak District. Over the next 13 years her contemporaries grow up and leave home; some villagers split up, others get together. Shops open and close. Rituals of birth, death and marriage go on; each season brings fresh animals, fresh crops, fresh rumours.
Reservoir 13 was first published last year. It has an entirely original voice, construction and point of view. Who would have guessed that, after 300-odd years, there would still be new and exciting ways to write a novel?
34. THE MEZZANINE NICHOLSON BAKER
It’s billed as a novel but has virtually no story. It is more of an extended tour around the tiniest of things: the obscure pleasure of drawing on an eraser with a biro, the mechanics of the paper drinking straw, the practice of pre-bunching socks before placing them on your feet. There’s even a four-page footnote devoted to the whys and wherefores of the grooves on the treads of escalators. The more obsessively detailed it grows, the funnier and more wonderful it becomes. The Mezzanine turns nerdishness into art.
35. MARY SWANN CAROL SHIELDS
An unpublished Canadian poet dies in complete obscurity. Overnight, her reputation starts to rise and rise. Everyone wants a bit of her – the biographer, the feminist critic, the world of academia. Carol Shields wrote ten sharp novels and lots of equally sharp short stories. It’s hard to know which to pick. Some, like Larry’s Party, are broader and kinder, but this merciless satire on the ambitions and pretensions of the literary world is hard to beat.
36. MIDDLESEX JEFFREY EUGENIDES
‘I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy…’ Thus begins the exhilarating tale of Cal, a hermaphrodite born to the child of Greek siblings. It’s a rollicking, picaresque fantasy, but so minutely grounded in everyday life that it’s a joy to suspend disbelief, and no effort at all.
37. TAMARA DREWE POSY SIMMONDS
A graphic novel based loosely on Far From The Madding Crowd; in a just world, Posy Simmonds would have won both the Booker Prize and the Turner Prize, as she writes just as well as she draws. Wickedly observant of the contemporary scene (particularly as regards literary types and disengaged teenagers), and beautifully realised, Tamara
Drewe can also claim to have the first plot in which mobile phones played a crucial role.
38. LIFE: A USER’S MANUAL GEORGES PEREC
A playful, labyrinthine, delightfully dotty French novel about jigsaw puzzles. The characters are all the residents of the same vast apartment block in Paris. ‘Every move the puzzler makes, the puzzlemaker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.’
39. THE TEN-YEAR NAP MEG WOLITZER
Sharply drawn characters, a wry and witty narrative voice, a strong plot and a great contemporary theme: The TenYear Nap has it all. I discovered Meg Wolitzer a couple of years ago, then raced through her most recent five novels. It’s hard to choose a favourite but this exploration of the perennial clash between work and motherhood has everything she does best.
40. SAINT MAYBE ANNE TYLER
How to pick a favourite Anne Tyler? She is remarkably consistent. Saint Maybe is equal first with about seven others. Tyler is one of the few novelists who can capture family life, its joys as well as its constrictions. Her writing seems as natural as breathing: reading her is like living, only more so.
41. TinTin in TibeT Hergé
A boy at my boarding school regularly used to wake our dormitory by shouting, ‘Tintin! Tintin! Help me!’ during his nightmares. Age blunts the sense of sheer excitement you once felt while reading a Tintin book, but it also increases one’s appreciation of the draughtsmanship, the colours, the zest and the sheer joie de vivre.
42. THE RABBIT BOOKS JOHN UPDIKE
Updike published his first novel about the feckless, slobbish, selfish and unexpectedly lovable Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom in 1960. He followed it up with a Rabbit novel in each of the next four decades, ending with Rabbit At
Rest in 1990. This meant that Rabbit – surely the prototype for Homer Simpson – seemed to live, and to die, in real time. There is something tantalising about the combination of Rabbit’s galumphing outlook with his creator’s precise and delicate prose. ‘My duty was to describe reality as it had come to me – to give the mundane its beautiful due,’ Updike once wrote. Remarkably, he succeeded.
43. THE BALLAD OF PECKHAM RYE MURIEL SPARK
The devil comes to south London in the form of Dougal Douglas, a corporate man hell-bent on temptation, ruin and destruction. Spark is the most aptly named of all novelists. Never has wickedness been rendered so nimbly.
44. SABBATH’S THEATER PHILIP ROTH
Filthy, scabrous, disgusting, unreasonable, angry, incontinent, misogynistic, deranged; so why is Sabbath’s Theater so amazingly enjoyable? It’s to do with Roth’s furious energy, and the seductive power of his satanic glee.
45. MRS BRIDGE EVAN S CONNELL
She’s a well-off American housewife in the Fifties with a hard-working husband and two children. Life has been good to her, and in return she does her best to meet its exacting standards with fortitude. But she has a nagging sense that something is missing, whatever it may be. In short, tight-lipped scenes, Evan S Connell creates a unique mix of gentle humour and deepest melancholy.
46. THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS JOHN WYNDHAM
I hadn’t read John Wyndham since I was 13. Sometimes when you revisit a writer, you feel strangely deflated. But nearly 50 years on, I read Wyndham’s eerie novels once again and found them even more powerful. In The Midwich
Cuckoos, all the women in a Home Counties village fall pregnant at once and give birth to menacing children with weird kinetic powers. Both a creepy sci-fi adventure, and a deadpan satire on middle-class mores in the Fifties.
47. REVOLUTIONARY ROAD RICHARD YATES
For years, I thought F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night the perfect novel. I reread it not long ago, and though many passages were still sublime, I noticed many more glitches, non-sequiturs and drunken rambles than I had before. Revolutionary Road has echoes of Tender Is The Night. Both portray the death of the American dream, the gradual destruction of domestic happiness. But to my mind, Yates tackles the theme with clearer eyes than Fitzgerald: his lyricism is less selfconscious, his vision less deceived.
48. ENDING UP KINGSLEY AMIS
Kingsley Amis turned irritation into an art form. This, his shortest novel, is a distillation of his hilarious misanthropy. A group of friends decide to share a house in the autumn of their years; within weeks they are getting on each other’s nerves. Revenge ensues. Humour can get no darker.
49. TO SERVE THEM ALL OUR DAYS RF DELDERFIELD
A shell-shocked First World War soldier takes up a post as a teacher in an unremarkable public school. This long, absorbing novel chronicles the ups and down of the following 22 years. Towards the end, he hears news of his former pupils as they return – or fail to return – from the next war. Written in straightforward, workmanlike prose, occasionally a teeny bit clunky in its characterisation, this novel transcends its solid, middlebrow roots by having so much to say about love, loss, teaching and the passage of time, and saying it so movingly.
50. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE JD SALINGER
The great American novel may still elude them, but this is surely the great adolescent novel. Sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield is awkward, randy, confused, uncomfortable, a self-proclaimed liar who can’t stop searching for the truth, with a burning zeal to sift the real from the phoney. We’ve all been there, and most of us have a nagging feeling of what we lost when we left it behind.
51. THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY EDITH WHARTON
‘Undine was fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative. She wanted to surprise every one by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met.’ Posterity doesn’t always get it right, but it so happens that the three or four most famous Edith Wharton novels are also her best: and this one –with a most unexpected twist at its centre – is the best of all.
52. TWENTY THOUSAND STREETS UNDER THE SKY PATRICK HAMILTON
Hamilton was the master of the dingy, the drunken and the disreputable. Twenty Thousand Streets is a trilogy of interlocking novels, all flowing from the same deadbeat London pub in the late Twenties and early Thirties. If you went into the same sort of pub today, you’d spot the same sort of characters, all let down by life. We are often told that John Osborne pioneered this sort of thing with Look Back In Anger: but Hamilton beat him to it by a good quarter-century, and did it far more acutely.
53. GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES ANITA LOOS
The delectable Lorelei Lee tells her tale in her own voice, innocent and not-quite-soinnocent, after one of her many ‘gentlemen friends’ tells her she should put down her thoughts. ‘I mean I seem to be thinking practically all of the time. I mean it is my favorite recreation and sometimes I sit for hours and do not seem to do anything else but think,’ she begins. A hoot from start to finish.
54. THE ORTON DIARIES
The plays of Joe Orton are starting to date. Anti-Establishment views that were outrageous in the Sixties have become mainstream. But his diaries still have the power to shock, largely because they are so candid about every aspect of his existence, including his breezily unsentimental sex life.
55. THE ALAN CLARK DIARIES
Not everyone liked him. ‘Anybody who went to public school will have recognised Clark as the sort of old boy who returns to his old school in some veteran vintage car to impress the smaller boys,’ wrote Auberon Waugh. There’s some truth in that, but shameless show-offs make good diarists, and Clark’s Flashman-style journals of his time as a Junior Minister under Mrs Thatcher are both riotously unfair and hilariously indiscreet. 56. THE COMPLETE SMOKING DIARIES: SIMON GRAY An amazing technical accomplishment, written in a sort of controlled stream-of-consciousness, these diaries are funny, iconoclastic, selfscrutinising, languid, wry and sometimes – particularly when friends die, or he learns of his own impending death – unexpectedly moving.
57. THE PILLOW BOOK OF SEI SHONAGON
Written more than 1,000 years ago, it’s by far the oldest book in my selection, but who’d have guessed it? Sei Shonagon was a court lady in 10th-century Japan. She jotted down stray lists, observations, philosophical reflections and gossip, often peppered with an irritability caused by exacting standards. It reads like a postcard from another age, written this morning.
58. THE DIARIES OF AUBERON WAUGH
Auberon Waugh’s fantasy diaries, published fortnightly in Private Eye from 1972 to 1985. They remain as outrageously comical today as they ever were – perhaps even more so as the passage of time has made his grotesque facsimiles of fading figures such as Captain Mark Phillips, Edward Heath and Jimmy Goldsmith more vivid than the originals. Fundamental to his strength as a satirist was, of course, his refreshing absence of good taste.
59. THE DIARIES OF SAMUEL PEPYS
Pepys wrote his diaries for nobody’s eyes but his own. They are often cherry-picked for eyewitness accounts of the Great Fire of London and the Great Plague, but his everyday life as a man-about-town is every bit as compelling, not least because of the breathtaking honesty with which he chronicles his own most inexcusable characteristics.
60. THE JOURNAL OF THE DE GONCOURTS
‘A ring at the door. It was Flaubert.’ The Goncourt Brothers chronicled their lives at the centre of events in literary Paris from 1851 to 1870. They knew everyone who was anyone – Turgenev, Degas, Victor Hugo, Rodin, Zola – and turned gossip into an art form. One day, they have dinner with Oscar Wilde, just back from the Wild West. ‘It appears that in that part of the world theatre managers look for real criminals to play criminal parts; and when Macbeth is being put on, a contract is offered to a poisoner who has just come out of prison, and the posters read: “The part of Lady Macbeth will be taken by Mrs X (Ten years’ hard labour).” ’
61. KILVERT’S DIARY
Francis Kilvert was a rural vicar, mainly on the Welsh borders, around the middle of the 19th century. He kept a diary of his daily comings and goings from 1870 until 1879, when he died at the age of 38 of peritonitis. It’s warm and kindly – you can tell what a good vicar he must have been – and, every now and then, yearningly erotic.
62. THE KENNETH WILLIAMS DIARIES
Pepys’ diaries ran to a million words, and are considered long. Kenneth Williams’s ran to more than four million, of which only a few hundred thousand have ever been published. They were his best friend, and his only real confidant. The Carry On star was a self-loathing narcissist, an unhappy but electrifying combination. His diaries – impetuous, abusive, frustrated, hilarious, rhapsodic, suicidal – teem with life, and deserve to be read long after his performances have faded.
Fundamental to Waugh’s strength as a satirist was his refreshingabsence of good taste
63. THE PERIODIC TABLE PRIMO LEVI
Best known for his memoir of Auschwitz, If This Is A Man, Primo Levi later wrote this wholly original work – part autobiography, part essays, part short stories, part treatise – in which each chapter takes its theme from a different chemical element. Levi was a chemist by profession. He saw chemistry as truth, and unverifiable creeds (not least, Nazism) as the enemies of truth. Each element in the Periodic Table represents the primacy of fact. In one essay he writes about the time he thought he caused an explosion by using potassium instead of sodium. ‘The differences can be small, but they lead to radically different consequences, like a railroad’s switchpoints; the chemist’s trade consists in good part in being aware of those differences, knowing them close up, and foreseeing their effects. And not only the chemist’s trade.’
64. SPEAK, MEMORY VLADIMIR NABOKOV
It glitters like a diamond, this playful, episodic and gorgeously exact re-creation of the novelist’s aristocratic childhood in St Petersburg, immediately before the Revolution that forced his family into exile.
65. THE VERY BEST OF THE DAILY TELEGRAPH BOOKS OF OBITUARIES EDITED BY HUGH MASSINGBERD
From Bunny Roger, who claimed to have advanced through enemy lines during the Second World War with his chiffon scarf flying as he brandished a copy of Vogue, to ‘Big Bambino’ Rizzo who said ‘I’m gonna be so tough as Mayor of Philadelphia, I gonna make Attila the Hun look like a faggot’, all human life is here, and celebrated in style.
66. THE LIFE AND DEATH OF PETER SELLERS ROGER LEWIS
The crazy, monstrous, self-deluding chameleon got the biographer he deserved. Lewis is encyclopaedic in his research and merciless in his execution, but he is also a master at getting to the heart of what makes any given performer unique. And he’s very, very funny, too.
67. THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING JOAN DIDION
Joan Didion’s husband of 40 years had a fatal heart attack while their daughter was in intensive care. This is an account – spare and undeceived – of what happened next. Moving despite itself, it’s a study in grief, or rather, of the way in which the madness of grief can tear even the steeliest mind asunder.
68. BRIEF LIVES JOHN AUBREY
Surely the punchiest and most gossipy work of historical biography ever written. Aubrey (1626-1697) realised that a single colourful detail is worth a thousand words. It is a lesson many of our more dogged biographers would do well to remember today. Who can forget his description of sex up against a tree between Sir Walter Raleigh and a young lady friend? At first, she gasps: ‘Sweet Sir Walter.’ Then, ‘as the danger and the pleasure at the same time grew higher, she cried in ecstasy, “Swisser Swatter, Swisser Swatter!” ’
69. OUT OF SHEER RAGE GEOFF DYER
A book about not writing a book. Geoff Dyer set out to write a biography of DH Lawrence and ended up by writing this hilarious book about never quite getting round to it.
70. EMinEnT viCToRiAns lyTTon sTRACHEy
Whoever said biography had to be balanced? In his portraits of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr Arnold and General Gordon, Strachey may often swap fairness for laughter, but he always gets a terrific exchange rate. The philosopher Bertrand Russell read it in Brixton prison and laughed so loud that an officer felt obliged to remind him that prison is a place of punishment.
71. THE QUEST FOR CORVO AJA SYMONS
The flakiest people often inspire the finest biographies. Baron Corvo was one of a number of identities assumed by the pathologically unreliable Frederick Rolfe, who wrote a wonderfully camp, batty, baroque novel about the only English pope, ‘Hadrian the Seventh’. The Quest For Corvo reads like a detective story, with the biographer pursuing the most elusive of quarries.
72. A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL JOHN PRESTON
The most charismatic and popular politician of his day plots to have his former lover murdered. It would, he says, be ‘no worse than killing a sick dog’. He then pays a comically clumsy would-be assassin out of Liberal Party funds, at which point the assassin loses his nerve and shoots the lover’s Great Dane. I thought I knew every last detail of the Jeremy Thorpe affair but John Preston taught me much that I didn’t know, and told the bizarre tale with just the right amount of relish.
73. MARGARET THATCHER: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY VOL 1: NOT FOR TURNING CHARLES MOORE
You’d have thought that this first volume, which takes her up to the British victory in the Falklands, might be stuffy and reverential. Instead, it reads like an undiscovered novel by Arnold Bennett. Young Margaret Roberts, claustrophobic in her po-faced family – her father was a pious Alderman with wandering hands, while her mother, writes Moore, ‘had no pretensions to good looks, style or display’ – plots her escape, starting at Oxford where her contemporaries ‘did not know her terribly well, and were not strongly attracted by what they did know’. Now read on…
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes