Last year I was asked to write about four books that had changed my life. Despite the hundreds of books I have read and loved, it was a strangely uncomplicated task. I scribbled down four immediately – and revised only one a few days later. The list was published in the Sydney Morning Herald‘s regular column on the subject last November. All the books that – seriously – changed my life, that made me different from what I might have been given the world in which I grew up, caused me existential angst, soul wracking, the books that THREW ME, I read before I was 20. The four books were, are:
- Myths and Legends (adapted from the world’s great classics by Anne Terry White), which I read when I was eight.
- Antigone by Jean Anouilh (1944), which we studied in French at school.
- The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848), which we studied in Government at university.
- Myth, Religion, and Mother Right: Selected Writings of JJ Bachofen, which I discovered thanks to Oskar Kokoschka, who wrote that he’d read Bachofen on matriarchy with the same enthusiasm as others were reading Marx.
But I realised last week – when a friend told me she’d started reading War and Peace and had fallen into it so utterly that she could function in no other part of her life, and I told her it was my all time favourite novel – that the books that most change your life are not necessarily the books you most live in, or even the books you most love. Well, certainly in my case they’re not. Because War and Peace is my favourite novel, perhaps my favourite book of all time (along with the Iliad and the Odyssey and probably King Lear). But it didn’t even occur to me to include it in the list of books that changed my life. As if that category is almost too functional, too utilitarian, for a book such as War and Peace. Perhaps such books don’t so much change your life, as ARE your life. I think George Orwell says something similar when he writes so astutely and plainly (and yet so profoundly) about the joy of Henry Miller in his essay ‘Inside the Whale’:
‘But read him for five pages, ten pages, and you feel the peculiar relief that comes not so much from understanding as from being understood. “He knows all about me,” you feel; “he wrote this specially for me.” It is as though you could hear a voice speaking, a friendly American voice, with no humbug in it, no moral purpose, merely an implicit assumption that we are all alike. For the moment you have got away from the lies and simplifications, the stylised, marionette-like quality of ordinary fiction, even quite good fiction, and are dealing with recognisable experiences of human beings.’
I’ve read War and Peace so many times – and have already written about it here – but thinking about it last week, returning to its irresistible opening pages, made me immediately buy the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky to read when I am again free to read as I please, round about October 2015. I’ve been meaning to read it ever since it came out, having read their translation of Anna Karenina a few years ago, as mentioned here, which brought the novel to life – especially Anna’s devastating passion for Vronsky and its terrible unravelling, as well as the wonder that is Levin – in whole new ways.
My other all time favourite novel – and there really are so many, including Don Quixote, Moby-Dick and Wuthering Heights, all of which just sprang to mind – but my other ALL TIME favourite novel is DH Lawrence’s Women in Love. At the same time as I was reading Anouilh and Marx, I was devouring every single thing that DH Lawrence ever wrote, and Women in Love is my favourite of them all. And as with War and Peace, it was a book I lived, and lived in.
DH Lawrence has few fans these days. In 2013 The Guardian‘s Sam Jordison called Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers ‘sloppy, repetitive and even silly’. Although he did also concede that ‘Lawrence does have something special’. I’m not sure I personally know a single person who professes to love Lawrence. But writers Howard Jacobson and Geoff Dyer both love and have written about him. And I was very pleased to read two weeks ago that Rachel Cusk (who’s new in my reading sights and whose book Aftermath will join War and Peace in my reading for next October) said of Lawrence, ‘I would so love to have had him as my friend.’
So, Happy New Year! To ring in the new year DH Lawrence’s Women in Love is up next.