I grew up in a house without books. My father didn't read fiction – except for the occasional Frederick Forsyth thriller – and I can't remember seeing my mother holding a novel until I was about 25. For a long time I associated literature of any kind with a sense of torpor; books and plays were punishments handed down by teachers to further shrink the amount of time available to me to watch television or go to the movies. The act of reading was, for the most part, joyless and dull. I knew that it was supposed to be intellectually improving, but I couldn't seem to derive any pleasure from it.
Then came The Beautiful and Damned. I was 18, just out of boarding school, staying in France at a beautiful house in the Dordogne. It belonged to the parents of a friend, Olivier, who had already introduced me to the wonders of cinema. It was in Olivier's London home that I first watched Apocalypse Now and The Wages of Fear and learned to talk earnestly about montage and auteur theory.
Now he recommended that I settle down with a copy of F Scott Fitzgerald's second novel. I'm very grateful that he did. It was a transformative experience.
Before The Beautiful and Damned, I had never known what it was to read a book purely for the pleasure of hearing a writer's voice, of seeing the English language made vivid by a master prose stylist. For A-levels, I'd waded through A Tale of Two Cities and Mansfield Park, the latter of which almost put me into a coma of boredom. Fitzgerald's writing was something completely new, like tasting white Burgundy for the first time, or putting on a beautiful suit. The experience was sensuous and dazzling.
Perhaps my reaction was connected to leaving boarding school a month earlier. Or breaking up with my first serious girlfriend, just before I'd left for France. Who knows? I wasn't going to have to write an essay about The Beautiful and Damned; I wasn't going to be tested on it. That certainly appealed.
To this day, I can't remember a thing about the plot or the characters, only the feeling of lying beside a swimming pool in France and realising that a whole literary world was opening up to me. So above all there is a sense of gratitude to Scott Fitzgerald, just as there is to Olivier.
'A Colder War' by Charles Cumming is out in paperback (HarperCollins). It is a Richard & Judy Book Club title for SpringReuse content