A S Byatt’s list of great novels
This is an excerpt from an interview of Byatt by the blogger, dovegreyreader scribbles. The whole interview.
Could you try and imagine that none of us here read books at all, an unlikely scenario I know, but who should we read as a matter of urgency, who should we read for pure pleasure and who is writing now who we mustn’t overlook?
Where to begin? I think I’ll start with a list of great novels of the world and then a list of moderns.
Tolstoi War and Peace Flaubert Madame Bovary (You really ought to have Anna Karenina for comparison but I love War and Peace more.) Dostoevski The Brothers Karamazov. Thomas Mann Death in Venice (for starters). George Eliot Middlemarch Jane Austen Persuasion Scott Fitzgerald The Great Gatsby Saul Bellow Henderson the Rain King Henry James The Ambassadors. Chekhov stories – start with the collection in Penguin that includes Lady with a Little Dog. I am at the moment passionately reading Balzac but I don’t think I can ask anyone of you to take a run at him, especially in translation which doesn’t always work You could try Lost Illusions and its sequel. Dickens – what to include, what to leave out? Any and all. Bleak House and Great Expectations – one in the third person, one in the first person.
Moderns. Alice Munro’s short stories. Penelope Fitzgerald The Blue Flower but all her books are wonderful. Like some of you I am excited by Hilary Mantel. Lawrence Norfolk (not easy but if you get caught up in it, amazing) The Pope’s Rhinoceros. Julia Franck The Blind Side of the Heart – translation just out, knocked me over. I am very interested in Michelle de Kretser. Michael Ondaatje’s early novel In the Skin of a Lion. I am also watching Nadeem Aslam who writes wonderfully. His last book was grim and beautiful in equal proportions. Iris Murdoch – my favourites are perhaps her first Under the Net and maybe The Black Prince. Philip Hensher – both his elegant early short novels and the two big ones – The Mulberry Empire and The Northern Clemency. I read Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants and cannot get it out of my head. She and Julia Franck are my Books of the Year, so far. And Wolf Hall. As you can see I have mixed up two sections of the answer – moderns, and”who to look out for.” I truly enjoyed Dai Siije’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress – it’s translated from the French, and the French, who are preoccupied with style, say the sentences are not elegant. But it’s an amazing story, told with wit, and a way of seeing into a distant world. His second book is amazing too. A new way into China by a maker of fables who is both grim and funny and elegant. It’s not that I’m peculiarly interested in China – it’s because there are a few new Chinese writers who seem to be saying new things in new ways.
I could go on and on. Kafka is essential at some point. I love Ford Madox Ford – I think I’d recommend The Good Soldier and his first world war quartet before D.H.Lawrence and E,M.Forster – but I think this is partly reaction after having taught those two too much and reacted against their influence. This is a list of books that matter to me as a writer – and I write because I read. Which brings me on to my last point. I really write as I do because I was overwhelmed by Shakespeare as a girl. The English language is wonderful and can do all sorts of things both simple and complicated , straightforward and beautiful – and I do think much of its range and flexibility and breadth – for writers and readers – exists because he wrote as he did when he did. So you imaginary readers who have read nothing must at some point read him – the major tragedies first – Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet – and then things like Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure – and The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale – and then, the comedies, which are harder than the tragedies because the jokes and the vocabularies have dated – except perhaps A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a must-read. And haunts The Children’s Book, so maybe I’ll stop there. Thank you for all the intelligent reading.