To select the book of a lifetime is no easy task. Masterpieces clamour from all sides. My own shortlist would include Moby-Dick and Heart of Darkness, both watery tales, both dominated by men who are huge, flawed colossi. My book of a lifetime, however, is Wuthering Heights, in which another towering figure bestrides a wild place, and incarnates the elemental principle of storm. It confirms, too, the universal truth that in the absence of institutions, man is liberated from morality.
Heathcliff remains for me the most glorious creation of the novelistic imagination. He arrives from nowhere – a fatherless urchin discovered in the slums of Liverpool – and from the start displays his flinty integrity. But at the heart of this perverse, inhuman grandeur lies an enigma, and it is this that has sustained Heathcliff, and the novel he uneasily inhabits. For what drives the violence, the cruelty, the selfishness, the pride, and the bitter, biting contempt of the man is: love. Heathcliff's monstrosity, his evil, is a function of love. The love he feels for Catherine is of such intensity that it obliterates all the lesser virtues and sentiments that we associate with love. There is no tenderness in Heathcliff; no suggestion that love as he knows it is productive of happiness. His love disdains such petty obstacles as marriage, and even death itself.
Close to the end he tells our narrator, Nelly: "Last night I was on the threshold of hell. Today, I am within sight of my heaven". These last pages, when he is either lunatic or saint – when he breaches the barrier that separates him from Catherine, dead now almost 20 years - are among the most extraordinary in our literature. We are swept into the experience of a man whose thwarted passion has condemned him to the anguish only the most emotionally privileged of human beings can know; and who finally glimpses the reward his suffering has earned him. He is Christ-like, radiant in anticipation – and how beautifully Brontë demonstrates that he has indeed transcended mortality.
Three months after Heathcliff's death, Nelly has left Wuthering Heights one thundery evening and is crossing the moor. She encounters a small boy and asks him what is the matter, for he is crying terribly. The answer is chilling, and also wonderful: "'Thay's Heathcliff and a woman, yonder, under t'Nab,' he blubbered, 'un' Aw darnut pass them.'" Nelly supposes the child has been influenced by the "nonsense" he's heard from his parents. I know better. Heathcliff and a woman are there all right. They were there the first time I read the book, and they're still there. And I believe that they'll be there under t'Nab on through the lifetimes of the next generation, and the one after that one too.
Patrick McGrath's new novel is 'Trauma' (Bloomsbury)Reuse content