Simon Akam

21 books for a godson, pt. 2

21 books for a godson, pt. 2
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This post is the second half of a list of 21 books that a man might give to his godson on the occasion of his twenty-first birthday.That is novels done. The bespoke bookcase is more than half loaded; 12 slots are full, nine remain. I conceive the selection of other titles as a complement to the novels we have already chosen – an acknowledgement too, if you like, that the novel is the highest of all art, let alone book, forms and other texts should therefore pay homage to it. Having ended prose fiction with a novel that pretended to be a long poem we will now begin the best of the rest with a long poem that pretends to be a novel. Byron’s Don Juan (1819 onwards) is lengthy, unfinished, sprawling and utterly hilarious. It’s couplets – the sting in the tail of the Italianate ottava rima verse form – include 'Society is now one polish'd horde, Form'd of two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored' and the much-quoted 'A little still she strove, and much repented, and whispering, "I will ne'er consent" – consented.' On its initial publication neither Byron nor his publisher John Murray dared put their names to the poem. 194 years on its capacity to shock remains; the very first stanza puns on what is still the most obscene word in the English language. We never know if Byron’s Don Juan ends up, as the legend suggest, in hell. We do know though that even unfinished, much of the wide world is included in this great poem.

Now to the wars, and the process of complementing fiction continues. Vietnam, which we have touched on already with the novels Matterhorn and American Pastoral, bears cross-genre reinforcement with Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977), a book once described by fellow denizen of this collection John Le Carré as 'The best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.' Herr went to Vietnam in 1967 as a correspondent for Esquire. Free from the daily deadlines of his newspaper colleagues he produced an extraordinary collection of long form reportage, published in book form in 1977. Herr went three times to the garrison of Khe Sanh during its siege and his work is the unimpeachable original source for almost every subsequent Vietnam cliché from the mad colonel to the thud of helicopters over the jungle canopy.

Going thirty years further back, we have already touched on the bureaucratic backrooms of the Second World War with Anthony Powell. The best non-fiction complement to A Dance to the Music of Time is to my mind the diaries of Field Marshall Alanbrooke (1957, 1959, 2001), who indeed makes a brief cameo in the ninth volume of Powell’s work as a 'thickset general, obviously of high rank, wearing enormous horn-rimmed spectacles.' Alanbrooke served as chief of the British Imperial General Staff, England’s senior soldier, from 1941 to the end of the war. In breach of every regulation he kept a diary. Edited versions were published in the 1950s, but the unexpurgated text had to wait for Alex Danchev and Daniel Todman’s edition of 2001, at least in part due to concerns about libel. Alanbrooke, more than almost anyone else, had to deal with Winston Churchill’s inconsistencies and wild ideas, and his diaries lance much of the prime minister’s legend. Our 21-year-old will be well reinforced by this book should he ever encounter a nightmare boss of his own. Likewise, Alanbrooke’s telling of the direction of the Second World War at the highest level, from the fall of France to Washington, Cairo, Yalta and Potsdam shows the tremendous drama of the period, and why it continues to have such draw for both novelists and historians.

[caption id="attachment_8482751" align="alignnone" width="391"] Illustration by Daisy Wallis[/caption]

Two other non-fiction books that deal, though not exclusively, with the Second World War, merit inclusion here. The first is Fitzroy MacLeans’ Eastern Approaches (1949). MacLean, a Scottish laird turned diplomat turned solider, was a possible model for James Bond. The current Penguin edition of his book is a ghastly thing, its macho typography and subtitle 'The original British action hero' suggesting some kind of proto-Andy McNab volume. In fact Eastern Approaches is an elegant narrative turning from pre-war Moscow – the description of Stalin’s’ show trials is a tour-de-force – to central Asia, the Western desert and MacLean’s’ work as a liaison officer to the Yugoslav partisans. It is a yarn no doubt, but a superior one nevertheless.

The other nonfiction title that strikes a glancing blow to the Second World War and which we shall include is Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another (1978), a selection of the great correspondent’s worst ever journeys, which includes a trip with then-husband Ernest Hemingway to China in 1941 and a stint looking for U-boats in the Caribbean. It is Gellhorn’s prose rather than the period in question that wins her inclusion here though; she is compassionate except when she is acerbic, she writes honestly about Africa, which remains a precious thing to do 35 years after this book was published, and her extraordinary nerve shines throughout.

Gellhorn’s title is strictly speaking a travel book – at least on the grounds that the superior publisher Eland currently has a handsome edition of Travels in print, and there is space for a couple more examples of that genre in our rapidly filling bespoke bookcase. I would include Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna (1951), which incidentally follows Mahfouz as the second example of translation in our collection. Herzog, a French Alpinist, was in 1950 the first man to climb an 8000 metre peak, the eponymous Himalaya of the title. His book is one of the few mountaineering titles that transcend that lofty genre ghetto into wider literature (Henrich Harrer’s The White Spider is another from the 1950s, Robert MacFarlane’s Mountains of the Mind is a more recent example). Annapurna deserves inclusion here because it is in essence a meditation on tremendous suffering gained in pursuit of the wholly intangible. Herzog did not die on his mountain. Instead, he lost all of his toes and most of his fingers to frostbite. The descriptions of the rounds of dead tissue removal on the march out are among the most visceral pieces of prose I have ever read. Our 21-year-old will never feel the same way about his extremities after he reads this book.

The third and final travel book I chose is A Time of Gifts (1977). I pondered hard and long as to whether we really should put Patrick Leigh Fermor in. Since Christmas Artemis Cooper’s new biography (which is generally a fine thing, if rather hagiographic), seems ubiquitous and I fear Fermor is less of a cultic figure for my generation now than he was when I discovered him. But he is still the man who set out to walk to Byzantium at eighteen and his much later account of the first stage of that trip, embroidered as it certainly is, is a thing of great beauty. Thus the first stage of Paddy’s big walk is to be included.

Leigh Fermor was expelled from Kings School Canterbury for holding hands with a greengrocer’s daughter, and in our rapidly diminishing series of slots I think, even though our 21-year-old has left secondary education, we should include another classic text of schoolboy rebellion, Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (1929). Graves account of hating Charterhouse, untempered by the trenches that immediately followed, was like manna to me when I first read it as a disgruntled schoolboy at around 15. When I returned to it last year I found its quality had endured. Goodbye to All That is worth including here too because, though we have largely focused war-wise on later conflicts, Graves’ book can serve our 21-year-old as a gateway to another rich vein of literature. The First World War has a fertile written legacy all the way from Graves fellow Royal Welch Fusilier subaltern Siegfried Sassoon to Erich Maria Remarque, Ernst Jünger, and more recently, Pat Barker’s fine Regeneration series. With 21 books only we cannot include all that we should here, but we can at least point our ward in the right directions.

Returning to generic issues, Goodbye to All That is by type a memoir, and I think we should include one more of that breed before we are done. None of Ernest Hemingway’s novels made the cut here, though they did come close. However, I would like to insert his posthumously published memoir of Paris in the 1920s, A Moveable Feast (1964). It may not be how it really was, and it is terribly, terribly rude about poor F. Scott Fitzgerald, but the book portrays a high time of history better than all the dry biographies that can tell you what actually was going on at Gertrude Stein’s house at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Hemingway goes in here as an example of glorious, if rose-tinted, memories of things past.

There is one slot left. Just as Pale Fire crept under the bar as our final novel due to Nabokov’s structural innovations I am including Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (1979) in acknowledgement of its own attempt to do something new. To my mind Wolfe’s account of the early US space programme is the finest example of that 1960s phenomenon, the non-fiction novel, the ultimate extrusion of the new journalism’s attempt to repurpose the narrative techniques of the traditional novel. The Right Stuff succeeds where Norman Mailer’s rival space book Of a Fire on the Moon fails and also, in my opinion, though narrowly, bests Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Like Michael Herr, The Right Stuff is an object lesson in how to tell true stories.

The bookcase is full now and ready for its final presentation. The godfather can iron his dress shirt and prepare for the party. There is little to be said in conclusion beyond the caveat that my selection does not claim to be the 21 greatest books in the world or any century; they are titles that have simply meant much to me and I think might do to another. A legitimate complaint would be that this list is excessively male both in authorship and concerns; that is undoubtedly true. In response I would say that I conceived it as a man’s gift to a man, and to collectively say something about manhood and its flaws as well as strengths. But others both could and should have other choices of books. It would be a better world if all 21 year olds received 21 books, but a dull one indeed if they were all gifted with the same titles.

Simon Akam is a British writer. His work has appeared in publications including the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist, the Literary Review and the New Republic. He tweets @simonakam. His website is