When reading ‘Little Women’ as a child, I lost myself so completely in a new and exhilarating world that, although I wanted to see a happy conclusion, I dreaded reaching the end of the book. When I did, I felt positively bereaved to be parted from the March family. I have experienced that sense of loss many times since and, whether I am reading a sad, joyful, thrilling, or even disturbing book, I never cease to marvel at the sheer genius of writers who are able to draw me – sometimes reluctantly – into an imagined world of their own creation.
Joseph Conrad wrote, “I, too, would like to hold the wand giving that command over laughter and tears, which is declared to be the highest achievement of imaginative literature”. This accurately describes my own wishful thinking. As a voracious reader, I spend a huge part of my life living different lives, some uplifting, some exciting, some sad, some life-changing – but, most, totally engaging and absorbing. When I finally emerge, disoriented, back into my own life, I often struggle to regain my equilibrium. I am left in awe at the sheer power of the words that I have just read and the talent that has organised them in such a way that I was transported into an entirely new existence.
Conrad, of course fulfilled his own aspirations, never more so than in his compelling masterpiece ‘Heart of Darkness’. His command in this case was over the mounting sense of evil that pervaded his dark tale of Kurtz in the jungle. The sense of despair and depravity was so palpable that it was difficult to shake off even after the story was finished. “The horror! The horror” came as no surprise. I felt repulsed and contaminated by the book, but I still couldn’t put it down.
In the same vein, Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ so fully captured for me the choking dust and suffocating heat of the California dust bowl that it was impossible to read it without instinctively raising my head occasionally, just to take in a deep breath of clean air. Despite this, I accompanied the Joads on every step of their grueling, futile journey.
Of course, we all have our favourites. A novel by Jane Austen can be relied upon to comfort, amuse and gently chastise, Stephen King will always keep you on the edge of your seat – and Dickens will break your heart every time. It’s also deeply satisfying to know that, if we ever tire of the classics, modern writers are constantly introducing new, original stories and innovative ways of telling them. We still have many new realms to inhabit and explore ahead of us.
However, sometimes, it doesn’t need to be a whole book that captures our imagination. Conrad also wrote, “Give me the word and the accent and I will move the world.” This for me is the very essence of a ‘great’ writer – and also, I suspect, what holds me back from writing as much as would like to. So many times, when I am writing, the ‘word that will move the world’ hovers, tantalisingly, on the periphery of my brain. Occasionally, it materialises – usually the day after I have sent my story off to the publisher!
I am filled with admiration for writers who are able to select, seemingly at will, a phrase that is so sublime in its context, or an adjective that is totally irreplaceable, that I have to stop reading while I savour and applaud this enviable gift. Then I throw up my hands in surrender and vow that I will never write again.
Who could resist Daphne Du Maurier’s persuasive enticement into her novel ‘Rebecca’ – “Last night I went to Mandaley again”? And who doesn’t still shudder when remembering the words of Thomas Harris in his ‘Silence of the Lambs’ – “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti”?
When Dylan Thomas wrote the dedication to his father, “do not go gentle into that good night”, I wonder, jealously, if those words leapt fully-formed and unbidden into his consciousness. Or, like me, would he have agonised over a multitude of inferior alternatives before alighting on that perfect sentence?
During his final illness, Bruce Chatwin wrote about seeing a vision which included a troupe of glass horses that ‘galloped off in a shatter’. It’s years since I read that, but the splintered fragments of those horses have stayed in my head ever since.
I could go on recalling the many memorable words of gifted authors who have made me gasp in astonishment, while highlighting my own inadequacies. But, instead, I will finish with my current favourite.
I am a huge fan of Hilary Mantel. Her fictionalised account of the life of Thomas Cromwell in the Wolf Hall trilogy is a tour de force. Her erudition, riveting story-telling and perfect prose – to say nothing of her sly touches of dry humour – are matchless.
But it was in her memoir ‘Giving up the Ghost’ that she earned my undying envy. When writing about her schooldays, she explained that (like me) she had to wear big convent knickers. Unlike me, she was a rebel. When her first passion killers wore out, she scavenged amongst the usual scraps of cotton and lace in the airing cupboard for a replacement. As a result, she spent the remaining years of her schooldays – including her stint as head girl – ‘with an illicit bottom’.
Oh! I do wish I’d written that.