I was touched and honoured, when pottering over to Tales from the Reading Room, to find that litlove had very kindly given me – along with Miss Darcy, Desperate Reader, Dolce Bellezza, Nooks & Crannies, Mrs Carmichael and Curate’s Egg – a Liebster Award! It’s the first award and also first meme I’ve ever received; I feel a little bit as if I’ve ‘arrived’ in the land of blogs...
The Liebster Award is given to web-logs with fewer than 200 followers. You answer the seven questions posed by the person who gave you the award, and then devise a further seven which you give to seven people to whom you in turn award the Liebster. I loved litlove’s questions, in fact I couldn’t get to sleep that night for fantasising over my ideal study God I am sad, only to find that kind Miss Darcy had also given me a Liebster Award (here I am in the fine company of ). Well, I may say that I have been secretly swanking about since then, two awards eh?, and the knowledge has cheered me through a week of hard work, I know the majority of the world works hard but I am lazy and find it a struggle, I have the temperament of a princess rather than an ordinary working person and it’s too bad that I am indeed an ordinary working person.
What with all the work (which I should be doing now, but I have no self-discipline) and not wanting to flood the internets with my opinions all at once, I am going to answer litlove’s questions this week and Miss Darcy’s next. I am also facing the problem of tagging fourteen readers – I don’t think I have fourteen readers, let alone fourteen readers with blogs with fewer than 200 hundred followers. Hmm.
1. What do you think of literary prizes? Good idea or bad?
I used to accept the idea of prizes unquestioningly. Then I went through a period of doubt. I like them because the longlists and shortlists may bring to my attention novels I would not otherwise find (especially now I live outside Britain). If you look back at all the Booker winners, for instance, I think you see interesting snapshots of the literary establishment, what sort of novel might be valued at any given moment, how tastes change. Literary prizes can drag literature into the news, and encourage people who don’t read a lot of books to pick up a collection of poetry or a biography or novel ‘safe’ in the knowledge that others have deemed this particular volume to be ‘good’ and they are unlikely to waste their time or money. On the other hand, I dislike the idea of there being a ‘winner’ among art forms and the implication that this novel is ‘better’ than that one, when there is inevitably such a hearty dollop of personal taste involved in the selection. Everyone loves the suspense of a competition, but I think really I’d prefer it if prizes were awarded to a shortlist rather than one single book, perhaps six Booker winners per year instead of one, for instance.
2. If you could write any sort of book, what would you write?
(Woman with a writing tablet, fresco, Pompeii 1st century AD; from here)
Since this isn’t contingent on talent... I’d write a novel which experimented with form or language but yet was richly perceptive in its portrayal of character and had something about it which would compel the reader to the end (perhaps plot, perhaps not). It would be the sort of novel which would change for ever the reader’s view of the world, and which would be, like Jane Eyre, regularly cited by people in years to come as something which changed their lives.
3. Describe your ideal home library/study.
This was such fun! My ideal library or study would be accessed by fireman’s pole or, for the untrousered or less nimble, a velvet-and-gilt, slightly zippier version of a Stannah stairlift, which would spiral gently downwards round the pole. The room would be wood panelled, perhaps hexagonal, the walls lined with bookshelves, there would be windows with deep window-seats and views over a garden of apple trees and old roses. There would be treasured paintings hanging on the walls and a large globe. The ceiling would be decorated white plasterwork and there would be a fireplace with a Jacobean mantelpiece, carved grotesques on it which would flicker and dance in the firelight. (A fire in winter would keep all those books on their toes.) A device for hanging a kettle over the flames, a toasting fork for teacakes, a tea service, caddy of tea and other tea-making necessities would all be to hand, while a tray on a polished table would hold sherry, whisky and glasses to fortify the imagination when required. A couple of comfortable old armchairs for visitors would be pulled up near a day bed where I’d generally be found, because I prefer reading lying down. Faded Persian rugs on the stone-flagged or wooden floor on which a couple of fat smelly old dogs would doze (sorry Mister Puss) and a massive desk with ample space for all my heaps of messy papers, oh and I’d have a fancy set of ink bottles for my fountain pens. There would be a secret panel to hide my cheese supply, and a couple of whizzy ladders on wheels for reaching distant books (more than one ladder would offer the opportunity of races). The entire room would magically clean itself and the bookshelves stretch themselves to accommodate new purchases. Actually I’d never leave.
4. Name two new authors whose work you think will last the test of time, and explain your choices.
I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading contemporary fiction rather, so this is tricky. I am going to restrict myself to British adult literature because I know very little about other English literary traditions and almost any novel which succeeds in being translated out of its first language into English is on a fast track to classic status within its own culture at least, so choosing it feels like cheating. I first thought of Beryl Bainbridge with her idiosyncratic eye, but sadly she is no longer publishing. On the strength of The Accidental, which I read a few weeks ago, I’d say Ali Smith had a good claim on the future. I’d also nominate Susanna Clarke because although she has only published one novel and one excellent collection of short stories, she almost single-handedly changed the wider reading public’s opinion of fantasy novels with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and thus I think has an assured place in literary history. (Image of Susanna Clarke from the Bloomsbury Publishing site.)
5. Which books do you hope to get for Christmas?
I should be particularly pleased to receive Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science and Antal Szerb’s The Queen’s Necklace, although that would be a bittersweet gift as it would be the last of Szerb’s works I’d be reading for the first time.
6. What’s the last book you did not finish and why?
I rarely abandon a book because I have become quite good at finding books with something that will interest me, and I’m prepared to work reasonably hard to find that. Recently I read The Storyteller by Mario Varga Llosa and that was a struggle at first, I wasn’t initially keen on the passages narrated by someone who is ostensibly a Machiguenga Indian, but I pushed on and soon began to understand the book better and enjoy it. Like many of you I have a hefty number of unread books lying around, plus plenty of books I’d like to reread, so I can generally find one which suits my mood. And yet, I must say there is a book which I haven’t finally cast into the outer darkness but which I haven’t finished and am finding problematic, and I am not sure why. It’s The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women and the Artists they Inspired, by Francine Prose. The author writes well, the biographies are well researched, and yet… I feel a lack somewhere. I can’t work out if it’s the nature of the book to which I object – the biographies have to be short and I wanted more – or the fact that the women whose chapters I read first – Alice Liddell, Lizzy Siddal and Lou Andreas Salomé – seemed to inspire such dislike in Prose, and I prefer biographies whose authors are to some degree sympathetic with their subjects, or that I felt that too much of the lives were too clearly filtered through Prose’s own analysis for my taste to the degree that I had no space for my own impressions (and that analysis is presented as objective). But then I think I am punishing this book for not being what I want it to be, rather than judging it for what it is. Has anyone else read it? Enjoyed it? Anyway, we are not getting on, and I cannot help contrasting it with a book on a similar subject, Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, which I am zipping through – it’s messy, repetitive, personal, angry, partisan, annoying (!) and more my cup of tea.
7. Would you accept 20 books that were absolutely perfect for you and dependably brilliant reads, if they were also the last 20 books you could ever acquire?
No no no! Even if ‘acquire’ excludes borrowing from the library. It would be like shutting me out of the sweet shop. I don’t want anything dependable or perfect for me, I want flawed and prickly and I want to explore and change as I read...
(A mermaid, fish and other animals depicted in the Jacobean plasterwork overmantle of the Kings Room at Westwood Manor, near Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire; National Trust; ©NTPL/Robert Morris)
And now my seven questions, two of which I am stealing from litlove because I enjoyed them:
- Describe your ideal home library/study.
- With which literary character would you spend a week’s holiday in the location of your choice?
- Name two new authors whose work you think will last the test of time, and explain your choices.
- If you could live in a novel, which one would it be and why?
- Is there a literature from a particular time and place (medieval Chinese, nineteenth-century Russian for instance) which is a favourite of yours?
- What book have you read in the last year or so which you feel so evangelical about you would press it on everyone you meet? Explain further...
- If you had to memorise a novel or book of poetry to preserve it à la Fahrenheit 451, which would it be and why?
I am tagging Alex, Joan, Michelle, Christine, Harriet, Catie and Bibliolathas (and if you all have a thousand followers please don’t be offended that I picked you!) but really anyone who wants to join in can do so. If you don’t have a web-log, you could write your answers in the comments below...