What I thought I’d do this summer holidays is catch up with all those classics I’ve been meaning to read for ages: A la recherche du temps perdu, Moby-Dick, David Copperfield, Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary, Vanity Fair, everything by the Brontës, anything German, Metamorphosis, the Odyssey, the Iliad, most Balzac, anything by P.G. Wodehouse, Our Mutual Friend, Anna Karenina...
But where to start? Our Mutual Friend is out because the wife is reading it and it’s surely a waste to buy two copies. Also, Dickens generally is very Dickensian and I’m not sure how much of that I can cope with on holiday. The Brontës, I think, are more a girl thing than a boy thing. I’ve seen Vanity Fair on TV. Moby-Dick’s one of those books you need to read in the right circumstances — on a whaling holiday, something like that. The Odyssey and the Iliad you kind of don’t need to read because a bit like the Bible — which I also haven’t read — you know the key stories anyway. The Proust I’ve tried and I think I’m more of a War and Peace kind of person. Kafka, Schmafka. Germans? You don’t really need to read the Germans, do you? Balzac’s possible — I enjoyed Père Goriot — but I don’t know which others are any good. P.G. Wodehouse I’m sure would be fun, but then I’d no longer be able to shock Wodehouse fans by telling them I’ve never read any Wodehouse.
Which leaves either Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, except I’m pretty sure they both die at the end so isn’t that going to spoil it slightly? The whole way through the books — really thick, commitment-requiring books at that — you’ll be saying to yourself: ‘Yeah, but it’s all going to end horribly, so what’s the point?’
Still, the good intention was there. I did get as far as finding a copy of Anna Karenina in a second-hand bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, because I know that despite knowing the ending it’s a book I’m really going to enjoy. I liked his other big one, anyway. But then fate intervened. The edition I found was a full-price new paperback edition and this felt a wrong thing to be buying in Hay. Unfortunately, by the time I’d scoured a few more shops and found there were no charming, slightly foxed second-hand editions of Anna Karenina available, my wife told me we had to go immediately or we wouldn’t get to Builth in time to pick up the hand of pork I’d ordered from the butcher, which obviously I didn’t want to miss because it’s amazingly good value at only £8 for a cut big enough to feed about eight people. So that was Tolstoy out for another day.
Now I find myself at the lovely house we rent every year, scouring the shelves over and over again for the perfect holiday book. I know exactly what it’s like: it’s a major classic which you can’t reach your 45th birthday and still not have read; it’s got fantastically good war scenes in it, plus lots of thriller-like tension and hair-breadth escapes; possibly it has a bit of romance but not so much that it starts to interfere with the war/action-adventure stuff; it’s sweeping, epic, utterly involving; it’s beautifully written but not in such a way that the prose style keeps distracting you with its brilliance. Problem is I haven’t yet managed to lay my hands on the actual title. Anyone got any suggestions?
War and Peace comes closest, but I’ve read that too recently. The other contender would be Zoé Oldenbourg’s The World Is Not Enough, which is another of my all-time favourite books. It’s about knights in 12th-century France and one of the many things I love about it is that it’s at once desperately moving and entirely pitiless. Oldenbourg — who was born in St Petersburg in 1916, but educated in France — makes no attempt to prettify or sentimentalise the discomforts and life-is-cheap ruthlessness of the Age of Courtly Love. Anything could happen to any of her characters at any moment — and often does — which gives her epic romance a peculiar dreamlike quality. It has the most upsetting death scene I’ve ever read.
So what else? The best I’ve done so far from the library at the house we take is H.E. Bates’s The Purple Plain. Apparently the heightened, 1930s romantic slush of some of his books is so overdone they’re almost unreadable now — I wouldn’t know, never having read any H.E. Bates before either — but The Purple Plain I’d highly recommend.
It’s about a Mosquito pilot in Burma who, having spent most of his war trying to get himself killed, suddenly finds he does want to live very much after falling in love with a beautiful local girl. Then his plane crash-lands miles from anywhere and with two companions he has to fight his way home, beset by thirst, hunger, exhaustion, injury, jackals, thorn bushes, hallucinations and the blazing heat. You don’t know until right to the end which of any of them are going to make it. It’s good.
Not sure I’d bother with the other book I plucked from the shelves, though: Rider Haggard’s She. So many books written before about 1980 suffer, to a degree, from the ‘too much information’ problem. (Nowadays we prefer our books to read more like film scripts.) But with Haggard, it’s more like too, too, too much information. You keep having to skip whole pages as he treats you in lavish, lovingly crafted detail to the history of the lost African civilisation among which dwells the beauteous She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Not only does he offer you a facsimile of the shard of pottery with ancient Greek inscriptions describing the lost world, but also a Greek transliteration thereof, a cod medieval version of it, then a modern translation. None of which I bothered reading, obviously, because I was skimming ahead to reach the action scenes like the one where the natives plot to kill the goodies using an ingeniously ghastly method where they heat a huge cooking pot till it’s white hot and then thrust it on top of their heads. But the chaps are having none of it and shoot and stab and punch their way out of the pickle, as native bodies pile up all around them. This is why Haggard makes such good film material: stuff happens.
But he can’t write for toffee. Originally I thought this was merely a consequence of the period but, after reading the introduc- tory essay to my edition of She, I think it might be more fundamental than that. Haggard, it turns out, was a bit of a thicko. That’s why his father, despairing of finding a career for him (he failed his army entrance and was almost certain to fail his Foreign Office exams), secured for him an unpaid post on the staff of Sir Henry Bulwer, who was going to South Africa as governor general of Natal. This, of course, ended up giving Haggard the most fabulous material for his books. But it did nothing to cure his hang-up about being such a dunce. Which is why, presumably, he strove to compensate with all the overwriting and excessive cod-intellectual flummery.
Now if only I’d spent £9.99 on that Anna Karenina.