Recently I was asked to name five books that everyone should read. That old chestnut. I declined; people have such different tastes and read in such different ways that the idea makes no sense. I offered instead ‘five books I’m glad to have read’. This was accepted. I nominated: The Complete Short Stories of Somerset Maugham, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Why I am not a Christian by Bertrand Russell, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler and The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy.
My sister won the first volume of Maugham’s stories in a newspaper competition when I was about twelve. I loved the stories and soon acquired the next two volumes as birthday and Christmas presents. I’ve never been without them since – first as paperbacks until they fell apart and eventually as handsome hardbacks as a present to myself. I frequently re-read my favourite stories; ‘Rain’. ‘The Fall of Edward Barnard’, ‘The Letter’ and many others.
Maugham has an Edwardian style, a reticence about sex, a slow pace with attitudes shaped by class and race consciousness but a peculiarly modern sensibility shines through. His prose is plain and unaffected; his moral stance is cynical, agnostic and tolerant. His stated ambition was to tell a story and he did so in a way that defies time. It is no surprise that many of his stories and novels have been filmed more than once, a recent example being the excellent, The Painted Veil (2006). When I’m stuck for something to read, down comes a volume of Maugham.
Orwell is my model for essays and book reviews – plain language, no attempt to prove cleverness, praise and criticism where due and humour. ‘The Moon under Water’, an essay about his favourite pub, which proves to be fictitious is a masterpiece of witty writing.
In the late 1950s I watched a television program, ‘Bertrand Russell Speaks his Mind.’ Russell was interviewed by a stuffy BBC type, Woodrow Wyatt. I remember the old man pricking Wyatt’s pretensions and agreeing with everything he said. In the essay ‘Why I am not a Christian’, Russell demolishes religious belief through logic and common sense. In particular he demonstrates that it is a cowardly fear of death, and that those who peddle it are exploiting that fear. Russell may have been a nasty bit of work in some ways, but you don’t have to be a good bloke to have a great mind and to write well.
I graduated from Carter Brown and Peter Cheyney to Raymond Chandler and immediately knew the difference. Chandler had a range of experience, education and sensibility to lift a very basic narrative mode – the violent mystery story – up a few rungs to something better. He is dated now by his racism and sexism, but what still shines through is his sheer enjoyment of his craft. This is what attracted me to imitate him. No Chandler, no Corris. How could I not be grateful?
I find the Victorian novelists hard-going now. I can’t come at George Eliot and, as readers of this column will know, I was recently put off by the wordiness and artificiality of Conrad. Thomas Hardy is a different matter. He is concerned to push the story along and his style is economical. Like those he is ranked with, Eliot, Conrad and Henry James, he is concerned with moral issues but they are more clearly defined – trust, betrayal, sex – and are played out in the action and dialogue rather than hinted at. The Mayor of Casterbridge dramatises a transitional period in English history – the shift from an agricultural society and its values to those of an industrial world, compellingly.
I have all these writers’ attributes, techniques and achievements in my head as I’m writing. Of course I fall far short of emulating them and mostly I don’t even try, but maybe there is just touch of them here and there. I hope so.