My Answers to Author Questions

I don’t normally do these memes on this blog, but I have been enjoined to do so by the redoubtable Di Nguyen of The Little White Attic blog. (Her own answers to these questions may be found here.) So here goes.

1/ Who are your favourite writers? Restricting myself to ten (or we’ll be here for ever), Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Ibsen, Tolstoy, Tagore, Conan Doyle (and not just for the Sherlock Holmes stories), M. R. James (I’ve always loved creepy ghost stories), and, finally, P. G. Wodehouse, who makes me laugh more than any other author.

A few more? OK – Gerard Manley Hopkins, Eugene O’Neill, William Butler Yeats, Flannery O’Connor, Emily Brontë, William Faulkner, Franz Kafka, George Eliot, Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov, John Keats, Carson McCullers, Sophocles, Nikolai Leskov, Robert Louis Stevenson, Boris Pasternak, Benito Pérez Galdós, Raymond Chandler, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Homer, R. K. Narayan, Thomas Mann, Seamus Heaney, Cervantes, Elizabeth Bishop, James Joyce, Nikolai Gogol, James M. Cain, Muriel Spark, Thucydides, Alexandre Dumas, Vasily Grossman, Harold Pinter, Joseph Conrad, Eudora Welty, Gustave Flaubert, Bertolt Brecht …

Can I stop now?

2/ Who were your favourite writers when you were a teenager? Which of them do you still like? I was an overly serious teenager, and my teenage reading was, on the whole, fairly heavy duty stuff. Shakespeare I discovered early, and has remained a constant companion. I also discovered the 19th century Russians – Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, etc. I was a great admirer of Bernard Shaw for a while, but the major influence on my political thinking was Orwell – not so much his two well-known novels, but, rather, his essays, reviews, and journalism.

I continued my childhood love of reading creepy ghost stories in bed at night: other than M. R. James, writers such as Algernon Blackwood, A. M. Burrage, E. F. Benson, and various other writers who will only be known to aficionados, were (and remain) huge favourites. And, of course, there were the Sherlock Holmes stories. And various other stories by Conan Doyle: it’s a shame that the Holmes and Watson stories, wonderful though they are, overshadow, for instance, the Brigadier Gerard stories.

For some reason, when I entered my teens, I felt adventure stories – which I enjoyed in my pre-teenage years – were now beneath me. So I gave up on the likes of Stevenson, Rider Haggard, John Buchan, Anthony Hope, etc. It was very foolish of me.

3/ Which writers have most influenced you? In terms of my political views, Orwell, certainly – although, as I said, his essays and journalism were more important to me than Animal Farm or Nineteen Eighty Four.

My literary mentor was Anthony Burgess. I did not know anyone sufficiently knowledgeable or interested in literature to discuss it with me, or to guide me, and Burgess filled that position admirably.

As for the rest, just about every writer whose works I value has, in some way or other, influenced the way I think, and the way I see the world.

4/ Which writers do you wish had not influenced you? None that I can think of, really. For a time, I was something of a Shavian, but I soon got over that, although I still admire him as a comic dramatist. Sadly, I don’t think he was anywhere near as profound a thinker as he imagined himself.

5/ Which writers are you embarrassed you used to like? Once again, none I can think of. In my early childhood, I used to love Enid Blyton’s adventure stories, and I know I am supposed to find that embarrassing now, but I don’t. I enjoyed her stories, and they gave me the confidence to read in English (which was, of course, not my mother tongue).

6/ Which writers did you not expect to like, but did? I find that the older I get, the broader my range of sympathies become. I used to find Austen, for instance, very alien to my sensibilities. Similarly Henry James, or Edith Wharton. I much preferred the irregularities of a Dostoyevsky to the smooth and immaculately polished surfaces of a Henry James; the vast, mysterious vision of late Ibsen to the seeming ordinariness of Kathrine Mansfield; Gogol’s streaks of madness, or the exuberance and eccentricity of Dickens, to the eminent sanity of Austen. I now admire (and even like) all those sane, immaculate polishers who used previously to bore me.

And, of course, Tagore. I grew up in a very Tagorean household: he was, effectively, an extra member of the family. His music and poetry were all around me, and I think I absorbed Tagore virtually through the pores of my skin. I turned against him in my teenage years, only to return to him later, in middle age.

7/ Which writers do you think you will still read, and like, for the rest of your life? I’ll be sixty in a few years time, and I can’t really see myself turning against any of those writers I have loved now for decades.

8/ Who are your favourite prose stylists? Or your favourite writers on the sentence level? I don’t think I know of any prose writer in English who had greater command over the language than James Joyce. Dickens had a magnificent ear for the rhythms and sonorities of the English language: no matter how long his sentences, he never lost his way. I enjoy also the grace and the elegance of Austen, Wharton, and R. K. Narayan.

And, for all his repetitive clumsiness (and, it must be said, occasional gibberish), the prose of D. H. Lawrence could, at its best, communicate states of mind and levels of consciousness that one might have thought were beyond the power of words.

9/ Who are your favourite writers of characters? Shakespeare and Tolstoy.

10/ Which writers, alive or dead, would you invite to dinner? I’d invite renowned conversationalists, such as Mark Twain or R. L. Stevenson.

11/ Which writers, alive or dead, would you like to know personally? And think you could be friends with? See answer to previous question. I also like to think I’d have got on quite well with Carson McCullers.

12/ Do you personally know any published author? Yes, one or two, but this is not the place for name-dropping.

13/ Which writers do you like/ admire but generally avoid, for some reason? Nabokov comes to mind. Not entirely sure why I tend to avoid him: it’s something I haven’t analysed.

14/ Which writers do you like as critics/ essayists but not as novelists? I do like Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four, but I rate Orwell more highly as an essayist. Also, I find the novels of Virginia Woolf very alien to my sensibilities, but her critical judgements tend to be sound. (Except her views on Ulysses: like so many others, she was shocked by it, but didn’t really want to admit being shocked.)

15/ Which writers have changed you as a reader? Just about every writer who has meant anything to me.

16/ Who do you think are overrated? On the understanding that “overrated” doesn’t mean “inferior”, I’d nominate John Steinbeck and Harper Lee. It’s not their fault: it’s just that, in UK schools at least, everyone (and I mean everyone) has to read Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, or both; and as a consequence, these two novels, which are both pretty good, are often regarded as representing the highest peaks of literature.

I’m also genuinely puzzled by the reverence in which F. Scott Fitzgerald is held, but that’s probably just me. I really don’t know. The high status of Evelyn Waugh and E. M. Forster also continues to puzzle me.

17/ Who do you think are underrated and should be more widely read? R. K. Narayan, definitely. And Aldous Huxley should be known for more than just Brave New World: his early novels especially – Crome Yellow, Antic Hay, Point Counter Point – are intelligent, endlessly witty and inventive, and a sheer joy to read.

18/ Who do you think are the best living writers? My reading of contemporary literature amounts to so little, I’d be embarrassed even to try to answer this question.

19/ Which writers do you go to for comfort? Conan Doyle, M. R. James, P. G. Wodehouse, R. L. Stevenson, Alexandre Dumas. And many writers of creepy ghost stories.

20/ Which writers do you go to for mere amusement? I’ve never thought of “amusement” as “mere” (the ability to provide high quality amusement is a skill to be respected) but P. G. Wodehouse I think fits the bill here. And, possibly, the Flashman novels of George Mcdonald Frazer, although, once again, it is doing these books a disservice by applying to them the rather insulting adjective “mere”.

21/ Who are the greatest writers that you don’t personally like/ that you just don’t warm to? See answer to Question 13.

22/ Which writers do you hate/ strongly dislike? When I dislike a writer who is generally well regarded, I put it down to shortcomings on my part rather than on the writer’s. The whole point of reading is to come across perspectives and sensibilities very different to my own, and to absorb them into mine; but some perspectives and sensibilities are so very different to my own, that taking them in becomes virtually impossible. One just has to shrug one’s shoulders, accept that there are limits to what one can take in, and move on.

I confess as well that I have a strong antipathy to the fantasy genre, and to science fiction. Once again, that’s a comment on myself, and not on the accomplished writers within these genres. But I generally try to avoid people who push a copy of The Lord of the Rings into my hands and tell me I really must read it.

There are many writers I’m sure I’d dislike if I were to read them, but who are not even on my radar, so there’s little point my mentioning them.

23/ Which writers are you prejudiced against? Writers in the science fiction and fantasy genres (see answer to question above).

24/ Which writers do you feel you should have read by now? Montaigne (I’m reading his essays now); the mythical Valmiki and Vyasa (reputedly authors of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata), and the anonymous authors of the Icelandic sagas; the great poets of Persian literature; Dante and Proust (I’ve only dipped my toes into their works, and don’t claim to know them adequately); Lady Murasaki; Ezra Pound (I’ll get round to the Cantos some day, I’m sure); … and so on, and so forth. In the immortal words of Stan Laurel, life’s not short enough.

25/ Which writers from your country would you recommend to a foreigner? I’m not entirely sure what “my country” is. Bengal? India? Scotland? England? UK? Assuming it’s Bengal (or India), I’d recommend the two magnificent novels Pather Panchali and Aparajito by Bibhuti Bhushan Bandopadhyay. (Tagore was a towering figure, but his poetry is very difficult to translate. However, the existing translations have garnered much praise.) Assuming it’s Scotland, I’d recommend Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg.

And assuming it’s England, I’d recommend Shakespeare. (For those who insist that these plays were “meant to be seen, not read”, I refuse to discuss the matter further.)

26/ Which writers do you recommend to everyone? Every serious reader? I love talking about the books I value, but these days, I never recommend anything to anyone, We all have our own priorities, and we all have too little time.

27/ Which writers do you wish you could write like? R. K. Narayan. I wish I had that seemingly effortless grace and elegance, and that natural charm.

28/ What is your favourite language to read in? English. It’s not my mother tongue, but it’s the language I know best.

29/ Which foreign-language writers make you wish to learn their language in order to read them in the original? Russian. My enthusiasm for Russian literature is still as strong as it ever was.

30/ Who is the best writer you’ve just discovered recently? I recently found the short stories of Giovanni Verga quite revelatory. And I am currently enjoying rediscovering Molière, whom I had previously underrated.

If any other blogger would like to address these questions on their own blog, please do go ahead, and put a link to it in the Comments section below.

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7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jonathan on April 24, 2017 at 1:02 pm

    I saw a copy of Pather Panchalu in a secondhand bookshop the other day and didn’t buy it. I’m starting to think that was a mistake. I’ve seen the Satyajit Ray films, of course, which are favourites of mine.

    Reply

    • There’s a good Folio Society edition of Pather Panchali that pops up regularly in second hand outlets. It’s a lovely translation, but it ends where Ray’s film ends, whereas the book goes on for another 50 or so pages. Some enterprising publisher really ought to commission a translation of the whole thing, although I doubt the existing translation by T. W. Clark & Tarapada Mukherji (despite its lack of completeness) could be improved upon. As an experiment, I tried translating a few passages myself, and then compared my work to the Clark-Mukherji version, and, quite frequently, I found myself thinking “Yes, that’s rather good, isn’t it?”

      Harper Collins (India) publish Aparajito in a rather fine translation by Gopa Majumdar.

      Ray’s films diverge quite significantly from the novels (the three films are based on two novels). Rays’s thematic focus seemed to be on Apu’s engagement with life, and his growing with experience; while Bandopadhyay’s focus is more on memory, and the role shaped by the past in becoming the people we are.

      Reply

      • Posted by Jonathan on April 24, 2017 at 4:22 pm

        Thanks for the info. If it’s still there I may pick up a copy. Unfortunately I’ll have to go with whatever translation is available. I hadn’t realised until recently that the films were based on books; I’d assumed the screenplays were original from conception. I’ve been thinking of watching the films again but it would definitely be interesting to read the book before doing so.

  2. Posted by caromalc on April 24, 2017 at 9:56 pm

    The trouble, Himadri, and you won’t approve of me saying this, is that your writing of these wonderful authors always makes me feel a little inadequate (even inferior). Even allowing for all the books we read at university (and which haven’t been revisited since) I have only read 20 of your favourite authors, and of them only Dickens and perhaps Muriel Spark in any quantity since university. I haven’t even heard of Elizabeth Bishop!

    But I see one omission in your list who I really liked but I knew you haven’t got to appreciate – John Donne. I use the past tense because I haven’t read him much recently. And I never read any essays from valued authors, except present-day newspaper writers (and mostly then only occasionnally from the Guardian online). Reading GK Chesterton’s introduction to The Old Curiosity Shop this feels a bit of a lack in my reading – he sees things in it that I would never have thought about.

    Reply

    • Hello Caro, so good to see you here after such a long time!

      Reading is not a competition. I used to think it was, in my younger days, and tried to read as much as I could, so I could be ahead in the race, as it were. But I soon realised the foolishness of that. What is the point of racing through books just to tick them off the list? The point, surely, is to get as much out of the book as is possible, and if that slows you down, and leaves little time for other books, that’s fair enough: one can’t read everything, and it’s better to know a few books well than to know a lot of books superficially. And knowing a book well sometimes means re-reading them, and thus giving yourself less time to move on to other works.

      The list of writers above is simply a list of some of the writers whose works I have enjoyed, or whose works have enriched me: sometimes (though not always) both. It’s hard to enjoy Conrad: but yes, his novels have certainly enriched me.
      I have been reading Donne quite a bit of late, but haven’t been writing about him here. This is because I continue to find his works difficult, and I don’t think I could say anything about him that is likely to be of interest to anyone else. Elizabeth Bishop is a very favourite poet of mine. I should write a bit more about poetry on this blog, but I’m never quite sure how to go about it.

      Cheers for now and all the best, Himadri

      Reply

  3. Posted by caromalc on April 24, 2017 at 9:58 pm

    Meant to say there is nothing that would make me read Joseph Conrad again! We read about 6 of his books at university and I didn’t like them at all, but then I have never been a fan of adventure books.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Di on April 29, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    – Marly Youmans has just recommended Wodehouse to me recently.
    – Nice to see Vasily Grossman in your extended list of favourite writers. I look forward to your comments when I start the read-along.
    – I’m surprised that Flaubert’s not in top 10.
    – Your teenage reading is impressive. What did I read in my early teens? Marc Levy. Embarrassing.
    – D. H. Lawrence drove me crazy but his prose is sooo good sometimes. Have you read his writings about Melville?
    – Regarding Nabokov, check out Pnin and Despair.
    – I used to have a F. Scott Fitzgerald phase. Haven’t touched his works since so I don’t know if my view has changed, but I do think that it’s funny to call The Great Gatsby The Great American Novel, even though I love(d) it.

    Reply

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