My ideal version is showing at the Kington Coronet - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

My ideal version is showing at the Kington Coronet

We must all have books we like so much that we don't want other people to make films of them

I ONCE found myself sitting at a big lunch next to Stephen Fry and asked him, as one does, what he was doing, I mean really doing, and he said what he was really, really doing - apart from all this acting and writing and earning a living lark - was working on a film script of John Kennedy Toole's novel, A Confederacy of Dunces.

This was what he was really doing in the sense that he had started it and he couldn't see the end in sight. I met him again about a year later and asked him if he was still working on the film script, and he said wearily, Of course, yes, still working away at it, which is normally what writers say when they aren't working away at it, just thinking about it, or actually doing some work but seeming to progress backwards...

I'm glad he hasn't finished that script yet, because I don't particularly want to see a film made of A Confederacy of Dunces, even from a Stephen Fry script. This rich, rambling comic novel is set in New Orleans, which is where I bought my first copy of the book - no, I tell a lie, I didn't actually buy it there, because a bookseller in New Orleans I was talking to was so shocked to hear that I had never read A Confederacy of Dunces that he gave me a copy free, along with all the other books I was paying for, and I am very glad that he did, because it turned out to be one of those books which leave such an impression on you that you almost make your own filmed version of it in your mind as you go along, and the last thing you ever want to see is someone else's film version.

We must all have books like this, books we like so much that we don't want other people to make films of them. ( In my wife's case, she has just added the Baroness Orczy Scarlet Pimpernel books to her list. She is still trembling with rage over the television travesties recently broadcast, which seemed to her to miss the entire point.)

Actually, I've got books I like so much I don't want other people to read them. I've met other people who have read A Confederacy of Dunces. Stephen Fry, for one. But I have never met anyone who has read Un Rude Hiver by Raymond Queneau, or L'Affaire Blaireau by Alphonse Allais, or Voyages en Espagne by Theophile Gautier, which are three of my favourite books, and which I guess I might like less if they were popular. Or available in English. But I am safe in the knowledge that they are safe from prying eyes, at least on this side of the Channel, because they are off-syllabus.

When I was doing modern languages, all the weary way from early school to university, there were certain authors you could not avoid, around whom there were no ring roads. You always had to go via Racine, Corneille, Goethe, Schiller, Moliere, Thomas Mann, Flaubert... It was only when you got off the beaten syllabus that you could start taking pleasure in the scenery. In the off-syllabus writers, or the off-syllabus works of on- syllabus writers.

I came to think after a while that all the big chaps on the motorway exit roads, the Racines and Schillers, were only there out of duty and that all the good stuff worth reading was off the beaten track, so I occasionally become confused to find plays by Racine going on in the West End. I assume that everyone knows you don't put Racine on in the theatre - you only study him for exams. Indeed, one result of my education was that I came to think that some authors in English were not for reading, only for studying. Chaucer, of course, and Milton, and Beowulf. Dryden and Ben Jonson. All for work, never for pleasure. Coming closer to today, I'd assume that nobody ever reads Thackeray and George Meredith, save for study, and probably Henry James and Proust...

George Bernard Shaw attempted to decree in his will that none of his plays should ever be set for exams, for fear it would make the young hate him. But some books actually seem written only for exam purposes. I can remember one book from my French A level days which is a perfect example. It was called Letters from My Windmill, by Alphonse Daudet. A lightweight book, a lightweight author. Pleasant, short, ideal for yielding essay subjects. Everyone at school had a copy. Everyone hated it, even thought it was actually quite a nice book, and I have never met anyone since I left school who has so much as mentioned the book.

So you can imagine the shock of finding that on Radio 4 this week, Letters from My Windmill - a book which has never previously been seen outside any classroom anywhere - is being read out loud in episodes at 9.45 am each day. By Stephen Fry, as it happens.

Oh well, at least it stops him turning A Confederacy Of Dunces into a film.

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