Books: a book that changed me

Margi Clarke actress and presenter on mile Zola's 'Nana'
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The Independent Culture
When did you first read it?

In 1980 I went to Paris; I fancied myself as an artist, and I thought, well, Paris is the duvet for artists, isn't it? I met this this character called Jean-Francois. He was very eccentric; a real bibliomane. He lived in this dark flat, and never opened his curtains, and there were books lining the walls and newspapers piled up on the floor. He never seemed to leave his flat, but he knew everything that was going on. I asked him to recommend a book one day, and he took down Nana.

Why did it strike you so much? She was the first sex symbol; men shot themselves outside her door, that kind of thing. She devoured the wealthy elite on behalf of the working classes - she was the first person to eat the rich, and I liked that. She had an inner light which drew people to her. And she had this glorious red hair (I had red hair myself at the time, the colour of tomato ketchup). It's really sad at the end. She dies of Aids, basically, though it was syphilis in those days. She lies there in her coffin, and she's physically destroyed, but she still has this lustrous, beautiful hair ...

Have you re-read it? I haven't, but I am planning to. I really enjoy reading about that period, the late 19th century, but I'm not interested in the stuff that Thatcher was always going on about, the commerce; I like the spiritual side. People like William Morris are so inspiring. I'm reading a biography of W B Yeats at the moment. I'm a print junkie and I love anything about words. When we came to live in Kirkby as kids, there was no library here; there was frig-all, even though the town had one of the highest concentrations of children in western Europe. So my mother started a petition to get a library built; she took us all on demos. And when that library opened, it was like the Beatles were coming. Everybody was there. I thought it was a youth club or something. Liverpool's great: the poorer you are, the richer you are in words. I've got two kids, 21 and 5, and they always see me with my head in a book or reading the newspaper, so something's got to rub off.

Margi Clarke will be discussing 'The Book of My Life' on Tue, BBC Radio 2, 9.30pm, to mark National Libraries Week.

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