Postscript: Bookprints in the sand
Having critiqued so many people’s ‘Bookprints’ in my previous article, I perhaps ought to venture my own five choices. The list has changed slightly in the past year; and may be of use to those looking for more material on the issues discussed above.
Hitch-22, by Christopher Hitchens
A somewhat ironic first choice, given both the context and the fact that I singled Hitchens out for a slight male bias in his book Arguably. Perhaps I am guilty of something, then, for I adore Hitchens. The smoke-wreathed old hack was a Marxist, journalist, international socialist and self-styled “anti-theist.” He was also a brilliant and prolific writer, a indomitable debater and public speaker and, above all, a great student of English literature.
If I take the ‘print’ aspect of the ‘Bookprint’ concept literally, Hitch-22, Hitchens’ memoirs, has marked my life more profoundly than any other work. First and foremost, it has led to me towards dozens of new writers and titles, four of whom — Martin Amis, James Fenton, Salman Rushdie and Edward Said — are the subject of separate chapters in this fascinating work.
Secondly, like any great book, many of the lines and passages linger in the mind: “The very phrase ‘compulsory games’ had automatic resonance for me, bringing back not merely the memory of freezing soccer and rugby pitches, and of the gloating sadists who infested the changing rooms in the aftermath of these pointless contests…”; “So there it was: Cuban socialism was too much like a boarding school in one way and too much like a church in another”; “It wasn’t all that easy to get a reputation for boozing in Fleet Street, where the hardened hands would spill more just getting the stuff to their lips than most people would imbibe in a week, but I managed it.”
Lastly, Hitchens’ wide-ranging erudition made me revise my opinion on a number of issues, most notably on what he called the liberation of Iraq. For a devotee of Trotsky to support the Bush-Blair invasion was not easy, but Hitchens presents the case against Saddam with such clarity, conviction and expertise that I defy anyone not to be convinced.
Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett
More than a decade after I was in a high school production of Beckett’s existential masterpiece, I can still quote many of the lines. To play one of the two hapless chaps waiting for Godot is to accept that certain phrases and objects will always take you back to that country road – a pair of boots, say, or a hat, or a tree. “There’s man all over for you,” says Vladimir to his partner, Estragon: “Blaming on his boots the faults of his feet.”
Beckett first wrote the play in French and then translated it into English. Reading the scripts side by side, you notice subtle differences in the translation and the way certain actions and thoughts are better expressed in one language than the other. Best of all, and in contrast to seeing the play in a theatre, you also get the deadpan humour of the stage directions:
Estragon: “I’m going.” [He does not move]
That Waiting for Godot is a funny play surprises many people, but then, what else would one expect from the théâtre de l’absurde? Until the very end, Beckett continually punctures dark and tense moments with comic turns and slapstick.
Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernières
“It’s unquestionably my masterpiece,” Louis de Bernières told me as we discussed his fifth novel. “It’s my attempt at War and Peace: a big book that’s about everything.” The fact that the author of this epic story was my teacher at university makes me somewhat biased, but nobody can deny the great emotional and historical depth of Birds Without Wings.
Set in a fictional village in the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th century, this vast novel is the story of what happens when ordinary people are swept up by historical events far beyond their control or comprehension. Like Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and de Bernières’ trio of South American novels, Birds Without Wings is narrated by more than a dozen characters, from soldiers, potters, kings and concubines to the founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. As much as anything, de Bernières’ “masterpiece” is a magnificent and colourful history lesson that takes in the Galipoli campaign of the Great War and the Turkish War of Independence that followed.
Philip Larkin: Poems chosen by Martin Amis
Another potentially ill-fitting choice on a page about perceptions of women – doubly so, given that both the poet and the man choosing the poems left many a woman miserable. Never the same woman, though. In fact, in one of the chosen poems, ‘Letter to a Friend about Girls’, Larkin addresses his friend Martin on this very subject:
After comparing lives with yours for years
I see how I’ve been losing: all the while
I’ve met a different gauge of girl from yours.
Despite his somewhat warped attitude to women, even the most ardent feminist would have to admit that Larkin is the greatest British poet of the 20th century, perhaps ever. From his unremarkable home in Hull, he wrote some of the funniest, most poignant and most memorable lines of verse: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do”; “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three”; “The trees are coming into leaf / Like something almost being said”; “Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life?”
Again, the emphasis here is not just on beauty and merit, but memory. These and many other stanzas – sometimes entire poems – stay with you.
Nomad: A personal journey through the clash of civilizations, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
A cynic might say I’ve ended with Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir in a desperate attempt to placate the female critics. Well, if that is the case, I could not have picked a better book. Nomad is not by just any woman, it is by the bravest woman you could ever meet, one who defends women’s rights — and bodies — more passionately and more articulately than anyone in history.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia in 1969. Her childhood was marked by vicious clan squabbles, religious indoctrination and genital mutilation. At the age of 23, while in Frankfurt, on her way to Canada to marry a cousin she had never met, Ali fled to the Netherlands. Securing asylum in the land of Rembrandt, she encountered a peaceful and wealthy country that functioned on enlightenment values rather than religious texts. Within 10 years, she had mastered the language and become an MP. In 2004, she collaborated with the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh on his documentary Submission. On the 2nd of November, a Moroccan-born immigrant shot Van Gogh dead and left a note, pinned with a knife to his victim’s body, that warned Ali she would be next.
In Nomad, Ali elegantly describes this incredible journey and her struggles with death threats and endless security. Most of all, she implores women’s rights activists — and indeed all women — to stand up to the hell of FGM, niqabs, spousal abuse and other barbaric practices. And as if that wasn’t remarkable enough, she does it all in English, her fourth language. Her soft voice and doe-eyed elegance belie the fierce courage Ali summons everyday in her urgent cause.