Issue 187 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
I am obsessed with books. I love visiting and browsing in bookshops. I cannot resist buying books. I frequently give books as presents and I live with Yvette who devours more books than the local library. There is, however, just one problem--I rarely read them. So I am writing this piece with a sense of false pretence.
My predicament stems from word saturation at work. The amount which has to be assimilated in a short time subject to immovable deadlines entails a well developed facility for speed reading, stripping away nuances, literary devices and stylistic idiosyncrasies. Put shortly, reading becomes a means to an end rather than an end in itself. I feel a certain security by knowing that I have the books and where to look if I need to.
All that being said, there are certain authors whose works have made an impact over the years. Many of them not surprisingly are Irish--a nation with a sense of history, humour and dignity. I would like to single out Edna O'Brien as a writer of such novels as The Country Girls, The Lonely Girl, August is a Wicked Month. She engages the reader on line one and carries you through the warmth and passion of intimate relationships set against powerful social realities. In The House of Splendid Isolation she brings together the conflict within Ireland through two figures representIng very different perspectives, Josie and McGreery.
As a contrast the cerebral and caustic observations of Bernard Shaw on the state of humankind have always intrigued and inspired me. I am lucky enough to have two first edition Prefaces which have a greater feeling for socialism than anything that now masquerades under the new realism of Clause Four--particularly Man and Superman.
Other writers I admire in the same vein are Émile Zola--Germinal as a tribute to all those who do real work and expose exploitation and L'Assommoir as a tribute to Yvette and the struggle for equality for women--and Charles Dickens. Although he is somewhat pompous and stylised, his details and caricatures do portray the hypocrisy of English society, particularly within the law, for example in Bleak House. I fondly remember a magnificent rendition of the novel by Mike Alfred's theatre company Shared Experience who, without props or costume, recreated every scene and sound effect such that the smell of corruption filled the auditorium.
Latterly I feel that all John Pilger's untiring writing and investigation of government bankruptcy and worldwide genocide is such an example of courage that he himself should be featured in his book Heroes.
I add a small literary footnote for N F Simpson whose inventiveness and Milliganesque humour has me rattling and rolling around. For instance the court scene in One Way Pendulum where talking weighing machines are cross-examined about the globe; and the overweening ineptitude of bureaucracy or in Harry Bleachbaker where Albert Whitburce was floating and drowning in the Mediterranean whilst the world failed to recognise or organise aid. He is the master of understatement and perception dressed up as nonsense.
Perhaps the real attraction is what he wrote on the cover: 'This is not, it goes without saying, a book to be read from cover to cover at one sitting or even several sittings. It is not indeed a book to be read through from cover to cover at all except by those wishing to be poleaxed in the interest of science by a tedium so monumental as to be entirely without precedent in the history of fiction. It is, rather, a book to be dipped into, a book to be perused with such interest as can be mustered at whatever page it happens to fall open while one is waiting for an egg to boil or a bath to run.' My kind of book!