Stuff I’ve Been Reading: October 2004

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: October 2004

Nick Hornby
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  • How I Live Now—Meg Rosoff
  • Liars and Saints—Maile Meloy
  • Through a Glass Darkly: Life of Patrick Hamilton—Nigel Jones
  • Father and Son—Edmund Gosse
  • The Siege of Pleasure—Patrick Hamilton
  • So Many Books—Gabriel Zaid


  • Chekov: A Life in Letters
  • Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters
  • The Letters of Kingsley Amis
  • Soldiers of Salamis—Javier Cercas
  • Timoleon Vieta Come Home—Dan Rhodes
  • The Wisdom of Crowds—James Surowiecki
  • Liars and Saints—Maile Meloy
  • Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall—Anna Funder
  • Seven Types of Ambiguity—Elliot Perlman

Sex with cousins: are you for or against? I only ask because the first two books I read this month, Maile Meloy’s Liars and Saints and Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, answer the question with a resounding affirmative. (It’s a long story, but in Liars and Saints, the couple in question is under the impression that they’re actually uncle and niece, rather than cousins—and even that doesn’t stop ’em! Crikey!) People are always plighting their troth to and/or screwing their cousins in Hardy and Austen, but I’d always presumed that this was because of no watercoolers, or speed-dating, or college dances; what is so dispiriting about Liars and Saints and How I Live Now is that they are set in the present, or even in the near-future, in the case of the latter book. No offense to my cousins—or, indeed, to Believer readers who prefer to keep things in the family—but is that really all we have to look forward to?

I know that when it comes to subconscious sexual deviation there’s no such thing as coincidence, but I swear I haven’t been scouring the bookshops for novels about the acceptable face of incest. I picked up Liars and Saints because it’s been blurbed by both Helen Fielding and Philip Roth, and though I enjoyed the book, that conjunction set up an expectation that couldn’t ever be fulfilled: sometimes blurbs can be too successful. I was hoping for something bubbly and yet achingly world-weary, something diverting and yet full of lacerating and unforgettable insights about the human condition, something that was fun while being at the same time no fun at all, in a bracing sort of a way, something that cheered me up while making me want to hang myself. In short, I wanted Roth and Fielding to have cowritten the book, and poor Maile Meloy couldn’t deliver. Liars and Saints is a fresh, sweet-natured first novel, but it’s no Nathan Zuckerman’s Diary. (Cigarettes—23, attacks of Weltschmerz—141, etc.)

How I Live Now has had amazing reviews here in England—someone moderately sensible called it “a classic”—and although that might sometimes be enough to persuade me to shell out (cf. Seven Types of Ambiguity, which has received similar press), normally that wouldn’t be enough to persuade me to read the thing. Rosoff’s book, however, is delightfully short, and aimed at teenagers, and the publishers sent me a copy, so you can see the thinking here: knock off a classic in a day or so, at no personal expense, and bulk this column out a little. And that’s pretty much how things worked out.

I’m not sure that How We Live Now is a classic, though, even if a book can achieve that kind of status in the month of its publication. It’s set in a war-torn England a few years from now, and though the love affair between the cousins has a dreamy intensity, and Rosoff ’s teenage voice is strong and true, her war is a little shoddy, if you ask me. London has been occupied, but by whom no one, not even the adults, seems quite sure: it could be the French, it could be the Chinese. What sort of war is that? Rosoff is aiming for a fog of half-truth and rumor, the sort of fog that most teenagers live in most of the time, and yet one is given the impression that not even Seymour Hersh would be able to shed much light on the matter of who invaded Britain and why.

I’ve been meaning to read Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son for about ten years; the only thing that was stopping me from reading it was the suspicion that it might be unreadable—miserable and dreary and impossibly remote. First published (anonymously) in 1907, Father and Son describes Edmund’s relationship with his father, Philip, a marine biologist of some distinction who was also a member of the Plymouth Brethren, and whose fierce, joyless evangelism crippled his son’s child-hood. In fact, Father and Son is a sort of Victorian This Boy’s Life: it’s inevitably, unavoidably painful, but it’s also tender and wry. OK, sometimes it reads like that Monty Python sketch about the Yorkshiremen, constantly trying to trump each other’s stories of deprivation (“You lived in a hole in the road? You were lucky.”): when Gosse’s mother was dying of cancer, and too sick to travel from one London borough to another for the hopeless last-chance quack treatment she was trying, she and her young son stayed in a grim boarding house in Pimlico, where Edmund was allowed to entertain her by reading from religious tracts. His pathetic treat, at the end of the day, was to read her a hymn—in the Gosse family, that was what passed for fun.

My first book, Fever Pitch, was a memoir, and I own a copy of Father and Son because some clever-dick reviewer somewhere compared the two. (I seem to remember that the comparison did me no favors, before you accuse me of showing off. Someone must have been dissed, and I can’t imagine it was Gosse.) My young life was blighted by my devotion to Arsenal Football Club, a team so dour and joyless during the late sixties and seventies that they would have been rather intimidated by the comparative exuberance and joie de vivre of the Plymouth Brethren. It’s always weird, though, for a writer to spot the same impulses and ambitions in another, especially when the two are separated by history, culture, environment, belief, and just about anything else you can think of, and I identified absolutely with more or less every page in Gosse’s book. I had hoped, when I wrote mine, that even if I were to allow myself the indulgence of writing in detail about 1960s League Cup finals, people might be prepared to put up with it if they thought there was something else going on as well; Gosse’s football-sized hole was created by religion, and filled by marine biology, so he was, in effect, both damaged and repaired by his father’s twin obsessions. (His father, meanwhile, was almost split in two by them—Darwin’s theories were more devastating for the evangelical naturalist than for just about anyone else in the country.) Father and Son is an acknowledged classic, so I had expected it to be good, but I hadn’t expected it to be lovable, or modern, nor had I expected it to speak to me. How I Live Now, by contrast, felt as if it was talking to everyone else but me—I was watching from the wings as its author addressed the multitudes. Maybe that’s why you have to give books time to live before you decide that they’re never going to die. You have to wait and see whether anyone in that multitude is really listening.

Every time I read a biography of a novelist, I dis-cover that the novels in question are autobiographical to an almost horrifying degree. In Blake Bailey’s book about Richard Yates, for example, we learn that Yates fictionalized his mother by changing her name from Dookie to Pookie (or perhaps from Pookie to Dookie, I can’t remember now). In Nigel Jones’s Through a Glass Darkly we learn that, like Bob in The Midnight Bell, Patrick Hamilton had a disastrous crush on a prostitute, and that, like Bone in Hangover Square, his obsession with a young actress (Geraldine Fitzgerald, who appeared in Wuthering Heights alongside Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon) was deranged, although he stopped short of murdering her. And, of course, like all of his characters, Hamilton was a drunk. I’m sure that a biography of Tolkien would reveal that The Lord of the Rings was autobiographical, too—that Tolkien actually fell down a hole and found a place called Central Earth, where there were a whole bunch of Bobbits. Some people—critics, mostly—would argue that this diminishes the achievement somehow, but it’s the writing that’s hard, not the invention.

See, some of us just don’t come from the right kind of background to be the subject of a literary biography. Hamilton’s father was left a hundred thousand pounds in 1884, and pissed it all away during a lifetime of utter indolence and dissolution; his first wife was a prostitute whom Hamilton Sr. imagined he could save from the streets, but the marriage didn’t work out. ’Snot fair! Why didn’t my dad ever have a thing with prostitutes?(Note to Believer fact-checker: I’ll give you his number, but I’m not making the call. He’s pretty grouchy at the best of times.)

Jenny, the prostitute in The Midnight Bell, takes center stage in The Siege of Pleasure, the second novel in the 20,000 Streets Under the Sky trilogy. Hamilton was a Marxist for much of his life, and though he ended up voting conservative, as so many English Marxists did, in his case it was because the Tories hated the Labor Party as much as he did, which at least shows a warped kind of ideological consistency. The Siege of Pleasure is in part a careful, convincing analysis of the economic and social pressures that forced Jenny onto the streets and out of her life below stairs. It’s more fun than this sounds, because Hamilton, who wrote the play Rope, which Hitchcock later filmed, loves his ominous narratives. He’s a sort of urban Hardy: everyone is doomed, right from the first page. Hamilton isolates Jenny’s plight to an evening spent boozing with a tarty friend; she gets plastered, wakes up late in the house of a man she doesn’t know, and fails to turn up at her new job, skivvying for a comically incapable trio of old people. It’s sad, but Hamilton’s laconic narrative voice is always a joy to read, and as a social historian, Hamilton is unbeatable. Who knew that you could get waiter service in pubs in the 1920s? And plates of biscuits? Biscuits! What sort of biscuits? Hamilton doesn’t say.

In So Many Books, Gabriel Zaid attempts to grapple with the question that seems constantly to arise in this column, namely, Why bloody bother? Why bother reading the bastards, and why bother writing them? I’m not sure he gets a lot further than I’ve ever managed, but there are some great stats here: Zaid estimates, for example, that it would take us fifteen years simply to read a list of all the books ever published. (“Author and title”—he’s very precise. You can, presumably, add on another seven or eight years if you want to know the names of the publishers.) I think he intends to make us despair, but I was actually rather heartened: not only can I now see that it’s possible—I’d be finished some time in my early sixties—but I’m seriously tempted. A good chunk of coming across as educated, after all, is just a matter of knowing who wrote what: someone mentions Patrick Hamilton, and you nod sagely and say, Hangover Square, and that’s usually enough. If I read the list, some-thing might stick in the memory, because God knows that the books themselves don’t.

Zaid’s finest moment, however, comes in his second paragraph, when he says that “the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more.”

That’s me! And you, probably! That’s us! “Thou-sands of unread books”! “Truly cultured”! Look at this month’s list: Chekhov’s letters, Amis’s letters, Dylan Thomas’s letters… What are the chances of getting through that lot? I’ve started on the Chekhov, but the Amis and the Dylan Thomas have been put straight into their permanent home on the shelves, rather than onto any sort of temporary pending pile. The Dylan Thomas I saw remaindered for fifteen quid (down from fifty) just after I’d read a terrific review of a new Thomas biography in the New Yorker; the Amis letters were a fiver. But as I was finding a home for them in the Arts and Lit nonfiction section (I personally find that for domestic purposes, the Trivial Pursuit system works better than Dewey), I suddenly had a little epiphany: all the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal. My music is me, too, of course—but as I only really like rock and roll and its mutations, huge chunks of me—my rarely examined operatic streak, for example—are unrepresented in my CD collection. And I don’t have the wall space or the money for all the art I would want, and my house is a shabby mess, ruined by children… But with each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not. Maybe that’s not worth the thirty-odd quid I blew on those collections of letters, admittedly, but it’s got to be worth something, right?

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