You've tried chocolate (too fattening), analysis (too expensive) and gin (never again). But better than any of these if you're feeling wretched is a course of cheering literature. Hester Lacey asks some readers and writers for their prescriptions
Sunday 29 March 1998
Meanwhile, Radio Four has spotted the popularity of reading groups and is bringing its own version to the airwaves. Once a month, James Naughtie will host Book Club; after a short interview with the author of that month's book, listeners will be invited to join in the discussion. "We are very excited about it," says Radio Four's Marion Greenwood. "There is a definite commitment to increasing our books coverage. It is absolutely our territory."
There is, of course, more to much-loved titles than mere entertainment. Prozac, paracetamol, a shoulder to cry on, a box of tissues, a friendly ear, a bowl of chicken soup, a glass of wine. Or a book. Which is the more therapeutic? Whether the problem is a broken heart or a broken leg, a dose of flu or sprained self-confidence, books can help make it better. Apart from the obvious cheerer-uppers like Wodehouse and Molesworth, some extremely sad books can also raise the spirits: who can read Jean Rhys without feeling better about their own situation, however dire it may be?
"I often like depressing books," says Nigella Lawson. "Good art, even if it's about things that are depressing, is incredibly uplifting. When you are feeling low, what is difficult is being trapped in your own feelings and anxieties; in a book there is some escape." Comfort-reading, says literary agent Felicity Rubinstein, needs to be "an incredibly familiar book, one that has been reread over a period of time at least once a year".
She swears by Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle (a movie version by Mike Newell, screenplay by Amy Jenkins, is now in production). "It's the story of two sisters who go to live in a ruined castle with their eccentric, difficult father and their stepmother, who used to be an artists' model. It was a huge hit when it was published, and everyone I've passed it on to has found it a hit - it works every time, for absolutely everybody, though I don't know why."
Blood, gore, sex and violence are out when it comes to reading for therapy. Instead childhood favourites, classics and the like offer a friendly, comforting voice. Below, we offer half-a-dozen personal recommendations for a course of book therapy.
I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith). It's got a kind of magic, if you read it you'll love it. There is a real twist at the end - as in many uplifting books, the end isn't always happy.
Jane (Dee Wells). It's about an American woman living in London who has three lovers, a languid aristocrat, a black American civil rights lawyer and a beautiful burglar. She discovers she's pregnant but doesn't know who the father is, and there is another bittersweet ending.
The Dud Avocado (Elaine Dundy). This time it's an American living in Paris, who meets a wonderful man.
Ballet Shoes (Noel Streatfeild). In fact, anything by Noel Streatfeild. Like all classics, her books are timeless. All through Streatfeild's books you meet characters you recognise all your life. They often feature people who start out poor and unhappy, but life gets better and better - the have-nots becoming haves makes you think life can get better.
Love in a Cold Climate (Nancy Mitford). Another unhappy ending; Linda, the main character, dies in childbirth, her lover dies in the war. But still immensely therapeutic.
Mr Fox (Barbara Comyns). Like several of the other titles I've chosen, sadly out of print, but an incredible writer.
David Copperfield (Charles Dickens). Freud's favourite book, and you can see why; this is so complete, so bulging with life.
Jane Grigson's Vegetable Book. I am anyway a food-book junkie, but I take this to bed for reading and rereading, not for a fix, but to restore me. I also like her Fruit Book, but the vegetable one is especially comforting and soothing.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Anita Loos). Everytime I read this, it's better than I remember it. Someone once said of Jane Austen (see below) that you can't read her without realising that grammar is wit; Anita Loos reminds us again.
Persuasion (Jane Austen): I read this when I was about 14, and then again, twice yearly, until I was in my mid twenties it feels like: for me this is Austen's best - not playing to the gallery, but lethal.
Shame (Salman Rushdie). I am compelled by the mixture of lush imagination and precision-bombed detail.
Tonio Kroger (Thomas Mann). This was the book of my adolescence. I hardly dare reread it now for fear of disappointment, both with the book and my earlier self.
On Love (Stendhal). Books are most needed when you're unhappy in love. This is my favourite, written by the most romantically unsuccessful writer in the history of French literature. He could never get a date, but at least this masterpiece came out of his rejections.
The Sorrows of Young Werther (Goethe). Another unhappy-in-love favourite. Young Werther is twenty-something in 1770s Germany, and deeply in love with the adorable Charlotte, who unfortunately loves someone else. He weeps a lot, writes poetry and then shoots himself. A cautionary tale, great to read at 3am, in tears, with chocolate.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Milan Kundera). Kundera's razor- sharp insights into human psychology encourage us to laugh at our own foibles. Corrects any tendencies towards self-importance.
My Life as a Man (Philip Roth). Easily Roth's greatest book, charting a disastrous marriage with tragi-comic humour. Again, affords the consolation of laughter.
Essays (Michel de Montaigne). A philosopher who manages to be profound yet remain light-hearted. The perfect companion and one of my best friends, even though he died in 1592.
U & I (Nicholson Baker). A charming, quirky book written by a very lovable nerd about how books influence our lives. Of great comfort to bookish nerds like myself.
Alain de Botton's 'How Proust Can Change Your Life' will shortly be issued in paperback, Picador, pounds 5.99.
I am very ill-read, especially in contemporary fiction (I never read non-fiction at all - there's no truth in it), and always intend to read new stuff, but when you need a book you can rely on, a perfect book, it's safer to re-read Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen). It's a strident and sexy affirmation of the power of love; Persuasion a sadder one, which accompanied me through many an unrequited wandering.
Thomas Bernhard's novels. To cure my malaises, books must offer malaises of their own. Bernhard's wittily misanthropic novels, drenched in dissatisfaction and despair, are very necessary to my well-being.
Good Behaviour (Molly Keane). Good Behaviour is actually about feeling bad - the lot of an ungainly daughter - but helpfully gives a recipe for White Ladies (mostly gin). I remember the booze in books better than the food.
Gargantua and Pantagruel (Rabelais). Every now and then I think of reading Rabelais in bed and am immediately crushed by the weight of the copy of Gargantua and Pantagruel someone at some point insisted I buy at great expense (the translation by Urquhart and Motteux published by the Fraser Press, 1970.)
In the loo I like to have a volume of Orlando the Marmalade Cat (Kathleen Hale).
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark). This seems to me as near perfect as a book can get: mischievous, terrifically clever, thoroughly believeable, and practically all aphorism.
Lucy Ellmann's 'Man or Mango' is published by Review, pounds 14.99.
Post Captain (Patrick O'Brien). The second of O'Brien's brilliant series of 19th-century naval stories featuring the incomparable Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin. A mix of high action and brilliant characterisation set within a superbly conveyed context.
The Other Side of Paradise (F Scott Fitzgerald). This is the most romantic book from the most romantic of authors. No one portrays the glamour of life and love quite like Fitzgerald.
Fugitive Pieces (Anne Michaels). A harrowing but beautiful book whose prose shines from every page. A book to cry over.
Quartered Safe out Here (George MacDonald Fraser). A poignant but very funny memoir of life as an infantryman in the "forgotten army" of General Slim in Burma 1944. His depiction of squaddie humour and dialogue is unforgettable.
Naples 44 (Norman Lewis). In my view Lewis's best book is this diary of his year as an intelligence officer stationed in Naples. Makes you want to go to see Naples and die tomorrow.
Catch 22 (Joseph Heller). The
funniest book ever written. Also one of the most disturbing; it shows how the horrors of war can sometimes be best described through humour.
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett. When the whole world's against you I recommend this. Don't be put off by the title: it isn't twee at all. It reminds you that no matter how dire your circumstances (Sara Crewe goes from pampered pet to starving skivvy in a snobbish Edwardian school), you can win through by force of personality, imagination and grace.
The journals of Sylvia Plath. No matter how bad you're feeling, Sylvia Plath's journals will cheer you
up because she always feels much, much worse than you do. Even her happiness has the mad, crackling intensity of a migraine.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens. When life gets hideous I immerse myself in Bleak House, which I've read about eight times. For a week or so you can be totally absorbed in this bizarre world. It has some of the most wonderful writing Dickens ever produced, the most memorable characters, and the most striking scenes. The bit where mad Miss Flyte lets her birds go free gets me every time.
Anything by Leslie Kenton. When you want to resist that box of chocolates or glass of champagne, a few pages of any Leslie Kenton book, opened at random, normally help.
"Epipsychidion" by Shelley. I often carry a copy of Shelley's long poem, a sort of erotic and spiritual rhyming autobiography, on long-haul flights to read during bouts of turbulence. Not only is it very soothing, it's important to have something beautiful to clasp in the event of sudden death.
'Booked', Channel Four, starts Tuesday April 7, see listings for times. 'Book Club' starts Sunday April 5, Radio 4, 4pm.
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