Katy Guest chooses Virginia Woolf
A plausible charmer once told me that my email style reminded him of Virginia Woolf's obscurer essays. He later said that I looked like her, which spoiled the compliment, but of course I wish I could write like that. Who else could be so thrilling in a story in which hardly anything happens? Sebastian Faulks says that Bond was difficult to write because he has "almost no internal life". Then Woolf's novels are the anti-Bond: her characters have interior life – to the exclusion of much else. In fact, Bond would be about the same age as the six year-old James in To the Lighthouse. Which could explain a lot...
To the Spy Who Loved Me
"Yes, of course, if it's fine tomorrow," said Mrs Bond. "But you'll have to be up with the lark," she added.
To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled that the target practice were bound to take place, and the karate lesson to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night's darkness and a quick fumble on the beach with the lighthouse keeper's crippled daughter, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan of English public schoolboys who cannot express any emotion at all, and must let future prospects, of mutilating mackerel and throwing them back into the sea, foreshadow what is actually at hand, since to such people any expression of suffocating motherly compassion or paternal disapproval has the power to crystallise and fix the moment somewhere only the best-paid Harley Street shrink could ever find it, James Bond, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of Italian-made Beretta 418s, endowed that picture of cold steel with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy. The Aston Martin DB5, the Rolex submariner, the sound of heavy breathing, a naked girl softly singing on a beach – all these were so coloured and distinguished in the mind of this image of handsome British manhood unformed, though there was something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold, so that his mother, watching him guide his scissors with deadly skill around the pictures, imagined that it might take only the slightest disappointment to this childish sensibility, the smallest snub from a figure of authority, to turn this sweet, rumple-haired child into a ruthless killer.
"But," said his father, stopping in front of the drawing room window, "it won't be fine."
DJ Taylor chooses Anthony Powell
While I reread Anthony Powell's novels endlessly – the 12-volume A Dance To the Music of Time and also the comedies like From A View to a Death and What's Become Of Waring – I've always enjoyed the three volumes of his Journals, published before his death in 2000. Understated and deviously constructed, the novels are masterpieces of concealment and oblique comedy in which the procedural games are rarely given away, but in the Journals the gaze becomes, if anything, more wintry, the exasperation more pronounced, the stylistic tics and obsessions even more amusing.
Anthony Powell's heavenly journal 29 May 2008
Woken by angelic trumpets – coming, one imagines, from "the steep", wherever that is (my knowledge of local topography not outstandingly hot.) These early morning chorales rather a business, altho' as Andrew (Devonshire) truly remarked doubtless an attraction to those less fortunately than oneself. Breakfast: ambrosia (just tolerable); staff of life (unexciting); to drink, Celestial Spring 2007 (did not see label). Presiding angel dressed in robes of scarlet and blue (GH Lyttelton's house colours) tho' without flaming sword, latter perhaps used only for ceremonial purposes. Resolved to ask Archangel Gabriel – possibly descended from Gaye-bryells, remote connections of my Lincolnshire ancestors, tho' Debrett unclear – if he knew (he did not).
Later. To Elysian fields – these always remind me of Lower Meadow at Eton, if possibly shade less picturesque – where, selection of books in library more than usually feeble, compelled to read Bible. This, it seems, only partly successful. Viz: One can accept figure of God, however stylised, one can see something of his motivation (reduction of Lot's wife to saline pillar etc perfectly understandable in circumstances), yet naturalism of early scenes always compromised by intensely "romantic" finale. Jesus, one feels, simply would not have behaved in that way. Andrew, with whom I discussed this, pointed out further flaw always under-appreciated by critics, that Jesus "not a gent."
Late still. At tea (manna, loaves, fishes – perfectly acceptable) sat next Shakespeare. Small, bald, agreeable, pronounced Warwickshire accent. On goodish form. Said – something I had always inferred – that would have been perfectly happy in father's glove business. Daily Heavenograph, we both agreed, now more downmarket than ever... [ continues]
Philip Hensher chooses Charles Dickens
People say that Dickens's characters bear no relation to real people. There are only two words to say to such people: John Prescott. Dickens loved his food, but I think he would have struggled to find sympathy for Prescott's eating disorders as he would for his political ambitions. I could see him as a minor apparition in the Circumlocution Office in Little Dorrit, the indignity of the character and the indignation of the novelist inexpressibly linked.
London. Summer. Parliament not yet risen, and around the Palace of Westminster, that great yellow over-iced cake, its downtrodden drones and its sleek striped Queens gather and bustle, some melting in shirtsleeves, their faces the colour of raw beef; others cool in the iced air behind guarded glass. The window above the flurry of Whitehall is open; and from it comes a great melancholy gulping, over and over again. Whitehall looks upwards, astounded; for Leviathan has risen from his primeval depths, and taken office. The Deputy Prime Minister is at his luncheon.
Inside, from the laden pair of trolleys, yoked together, a pair of devouring hands mournfully rise and fall with the rhythm of a pendulum, as if they had discovered the secret of perpetual motion, and rejoice not a whit in the discovery. Down they fall; and up come two dripping handfuls of fried fish, chipped potatoes, trifle, asparagus, hollandaise sauce, a Government white paper on rural regeneration which lost its way in life and fell into a jug of gravy, and three iced coconut fancies. They rise inexorably towards the open mouth of the Deputy Prime Minister; and he is not done yet.
Miss Tifter, the Deputy Prime Minister's useful secretary, stands in the doorway, her eyes of glass and her bosom a front of steely rectitude. "Was there something?" the Deputy Prime Minister asks. "You don't fancy a –" "No, DPM," Miss Tifter says. "But if I could be of assistance in any other..." Miss Tifter is the spirit and soul of the Civil Service; she could be bound to its collective prow, and with her as figurehead, the Civil Service can set sail another day. "I'll think about it," the DPM manages to say.
Andy McSmith chooses Marcel Proust
Insomnia has fouled my life, causing me to wish for perfect powers of recall to chase away impotent rage against the night's small noises and fill the mind, detail by detail, with the sights, colours, smells and sounds of childhood. I wish I was a rich neurotic sitting in bed all day, writing a novel that never ends, without chapters, in paragraphs six pages long, made of immaculate sentences in which five or six hundred words lay a winding path through clauses and sub clauses towards an unexpected verb. In short, I wish I could be Marcel Proust.
Time for Lost Quests
My listening resumed in the garden, on the pine bench placed opposite a buddleia which had come uninvited, carried by invisible air currents across the lacquered fence delineating the border of our family's private realm, and which for that reason could be designated a weed, although for many summers it had atoned by emitting a silent invitation to countless butterflies to explore its pollen; but in the lazy mid-afternoon an act of momentary clumsiness caused by unseeing fingers to mistake my white iPod, which was then drawing from its digital memory the "Andante molto mosso" of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, for a piece of carrot cake, which from habit I dipped into my tea, whereupon the abused object switched to the discordant noise of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", a work far from rhapsodic but nonetheless ageless, unlike the youths who once performed it (for in contradistinction to the generation mourned by Laurence Binyon, and with respect to Sir Michael Jagger and his ilk, rock stars must grow old, the larynxes that belted out lyrics must weaken, the fingers that held spectra must grow arthritic, and hips that gyrated will finally be supplanted by plastic limbs) – and on hearing the voices that asked again, "Is this the real thing?", as they did when I was young, I cried out, "Oh yes, it is, it surely is!" and memories clustered like the butterflies on buddleia, as I was transported to the Stevenage Mecca ballroom, where teenage bodies sweated and writhed, whilst an illiterate disc jockey, whose flared trousers told of a youth passed, placed black discs on rubber turntables and uttered muffled nonsense into a faulty microphone...
Suzi Feay chooses H P Lovecraft
In order to compose what were essentially cheap fantasy stories for the magazine market, H P Lovecraft invented a whole "Cthulhu" mythology which still inspires writers today. So powerful is his prose that some people believe imaginary texts he cited such as The Necronomicon must actually exist. You wouldn't want to write like him all the time (and you certainly wouldn't want to share his unpleasant views about race) but his style is utterly unique.
Forbidden pages from the Necronomicon
For it is written in cursed lines of blood that once under a gibbous moon, pale slimy shapes boiled beneath the oily surfaces of the lakes by the shining towers of Kah na Ree Worf, the unspeakable city. The squamous worshippers of Dagon the fish god, waiting in the moomy glurk for untold ages, hauled their scaly, finny, slimy and yet also somehow indescribable bodies from the water to do final battle with the puny sons and daughters of men.
And all the heavens were filled with an indescribable scent of teabags and frogs, and clashing cymbals chimed, and choirs hooted and glockenspiels rained a furry tattoo. And those who saw all this went mad, shouting, "What's it called again? THAT's it – the Un-nameable!"Reuse content