This Christmas a writer friend has given me a fascinating little book called What Writers Read. It’s one of those charity collections – in this case to support the National Literary Trust – in which a bunch of supporters get together to produce something to promote the cause and raise funds.
This time it is 35 essays by various writers, some of whom I have been reading most of my life, some I’ve never heard of, about their experience of reading their favourite book. And most of the pieces I have read so far are genuinely about the experience.
What Writers Read – Discovery
For instance, William Boyd on Catch 22 assumes we will already know the book. And on that basis, he gives us a chilling insight into his teenage self going home to a war zone. I sat up straighter in the chair, gripped by anxiety, as he described going round the book store at Heathrow.
Well, of course, I did. He had just told us: Israel, on a visit to his home-village, was forcibly conscripted into the Biafran army but managed to desert and return to us. As I flew out to Nigeria from London – the overnight flight lasted about eight hours in those days – I had no idea what strange adventures would be awaiting me on my holidays from school.
He calls it a Damascene moment. For the course of a thousand word essay, you share it.
What Writers Read – Enlightenment
Ruth Ozeki – a writer new to me – writes about discovering her scholarly mother’s copy of The Pillow Book of Shei Shonagon. And then how she has re-read various translations over the years. Above all, she was moved by the lists, for which Shonagon was famous.
The Pillow Book contains over 150 lists, and from them I learned an important lesson: make interesting lists. Your taxonomies will change how you experience your life. If you only make lists of thing you must do, then you’ll only do the things you must. If you make a List of Things that Make Your Heart Beat Faster, then your heart will beat faster.
Like her, I too first found Shei Shonagon in Arthur Waley’s truncated translation and was fascinated. It felt strange, oblique, still, yet profound.
For Listening as well as Reading
When BBC Radio 4 made a series of detective stories from The Pillow Book, I listened entranced.
Writer Robert Forrest has caught the mystery of the unsaid, among court formality and impervious class distinctions. All the tiny signs of beating hearts and conniving minds are there. But while the practical detective Yukinari (marvellous Cal MacAninch) can perceive and admit them, Lady Shonagon is conflicted, bound both by court ceremony and her deep personal devotion to her Empress Teishi.
This is a jewel of a programme. The music is Heaven. And the wonderful Ruth Gemmell’s voice transports me to a contemplative garden as she reads Lady Shonagon’s lists. Total bliss.
And yes, Ruth Gemmell is Violet, the Dowager Viscountess Bridgerton. And she’s wonderful in that too.
But whenever I hear That Voice, I have a little moment of purest pleasure recalling Lady Shonagon, fighting off the vulgarity of even the possibility of loving a humble policeman.
This Writer Reads – Intrigued by the Title…
Which brings me to the book I might have written about, if I had had the same brief. It is a detective story by Ellis Peters of Brother Cadfael fame. It was published in 1962, fifteen years before the first Cadfael.
The story of Figaro is essentially contemporaneous with its publication. The protagonist, Johnny Truscott, was recruited to Special Ops age 23 (somewhere between 1938 and 1940?) and is now as “restless and venturesome at forty-five” as he was then. It is almost the first thing we are told about him. The War still looms large over the characters and plot of this story.
As a teenager, I first found the book in the public library. Having just seen my first Mozart opera, I was fathoms deep in love with half the arias, the whole of the last Act and, of course, Figaro himself. The title alone was enough to whet my appetite. And the story opened in the middle of a rehearsal. I took it home and fell into it at once.
…Absorbed into Not-My-World…
Now I was used to diving into the universe of a book until it met over the top of my head. I’d done it from Homer to Mills and Boon. But what was different about this one was that it was so precisely set in time.
Already, I half-recognised this one from my parents’ tales of what they did in (and after) the War. Johnny Truscott was their contemporary. Yet while I was reading the book he felt like my contemporary. Heck, he felt closer than that. He felt like my alter ego.
Disconcerted, I suddenly felt as if my parents and I were the same age; no, we were the same state of being.
I still get that same little shock of recognition, whenever I pick it up again. It is something like the idea that we are all brothers, if only we could see it, only without the moralistic overload. I treasure it. And it makes me remember being 13 and suddenly standing up straight and seeing myself as a functioning moral being.
…And Feeling their Pain
But what I also remember is how much I delighted in the details of putting on the opera, in which all the characters are engaged. Opera might be a new love, but I was already a regular attender at The Old Vic and every aspect of putting together a theatre production fired all my rockets at the same time.
Only, hand in hand with that gleeful pleasure, came dread. For Figaro was murdered on stage. He deserved it. In some ways he got justice. BUT I was desperate that no character I loved should have done it. And for most of the book it seemed that one or the other must have.
And here there was another painful pleasure. For Johnny Truscott buccaneer, now a millionaire and not always on the right side of the law, is a sort of Robin Hood. His last boat sank during the War and he now employs the walking wounded, some of them clearly unemployable by anyone else, in his Leander Opera Company. Solving the murder looks as if it’s going to destroy that company of survivors and banish them from their lovely safe forest.
And I really loved them. I read on, shifting between hope and despair at each turn in the plot. Even now, when I know what happens, I can’t help physically shifting with anxiety in some places.
What Writers Read – Justice
Her entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography says that Edith Pargeter (the real name of Ellis Peters) was “attuned to moral questions”. She said herself: “The thriller must be a morality. If it strays from the side of the angels … takes pleasure in evil, that is the unforgiveable sin … It is probably true that I am not very good at villains. The good interest me so much more.”
I take odds with her over her villains. Her singer of Figaro is deeply, disturbingly, believable. To begin with, he is even rather attractive. Then you eavesdrop on his thoughts, learn something of his history, and you do not mourn his loss. But you fear that you will mourn his murderer when discovered.
It is safe to say, I think, that the worst does not – quite – happen. But the ending is unique in my experience of whodunnits. Is Justice served? Maybe.
To me it is both sobering and blessedly, heartwarmingly satisfying. It still does it to me, every time. And that’s why I still go back to it.