What We’re Reading – Peter Stark

What We’re Reading

In a new seasonal feature, QR writers and readers tell us what’s on their summer reading lists. This time – PETER STARK

At the moment I seem to need security foods. I will re-read, as I do most years, Orlando by Virginia Woolf, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Kim by Rudyard Kipling. I like H.G. Wells again as much as I did when I was ten.

If there’s a new book by Christopher G. Moore, the Bangkok-based Canadian author, I’ll read that, particularly if it’s a Calvino private eye one. His novels, set among louche expatriates in a semi-criminal nocturnal demi-monde, managed to put Bangkok into a context for me when I was spending time in S.E. Asia. He leads you into hidden establishments and constructs, some palatial, some mean hovels in hidden side-streets, to which only a cat could find its way and that by accident.

Conrad’s many South East Asian tales didn’t do any harm either. Almeyer’s Folly if there’s time, summer or winter.

Evelyn Waugh still keeps his place in the list in spite of an abhorrence of him as a personality and even if his early work is beginning to remind me of P. G. Wodehouse. Grahame Greene, naturally. Hemingway’s “Nick Adams” stories.

Government House in Calcutta

English writers seem to become ever more predictable and provincial, not to say parochial. You need an umbrella to protect yourself from their sodden sanctimonious preoccupations, so many tears, so much rain and damp. There must be some others, but I just haven’t read them. Maybe it’s part of becoming a third rate power, though William Dalrymple’s White Moghuls flashed with a rare fire, English even if it was ignited by India. I read somewhere a while back that certain producers at the BBC wanted to reduce international coverage in the news because what really interested people, or them, was football – not foreign affairs or the intellectually over-demanding phenomenon of foreigners. Just like America then. No surprises. Fortunately, for those not entirely bent on migrating to Lesser Pokesdown, there’s still English language Al-Jazeera.

Maybe only a great power can have a great literature. Maybe only those in a great power can have the courage of their convictions or believe that they have something to say that must be said. Influence America and you still influence the world. The rest will have to write comic observations in the margins, the Good Soldier Svejk, say, performing mental somersaults in a station waiting room, waiting forever for the train that will never arrive, ha- ha. It will probably also be a long time before it arrives in Canada or Australia, themselves unconsciously stalled in a permanent crisis of national identity. The Irish Brian Moore was the best Canadian writer (not to mention American and English. He lived everywhere) unless you count Saul Bellow, an assimilated American. The much heralded arrival of English language Indian authors in spite of BBC chic has so far misfired for me, and none of them are as good as Dom Moraes was in the 1960s. No doubt their future is bright, but like it or not, the future of the English language is for the moment probably American.

I read history continuously, mainly ancient or, if English, Tudor to the end of the Second World War.

I will certainly re-visit certain of the poems of Rimbaud, Appolinaire, Rilke and Robert Graves as I always do and I will probably, as I usually do, re-read the letters of Byron, still entirely contemporary in feeling and as good as any of the best prose ever written in English.

PETER STARK is a London-based writer and poet


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3 Responses to What We’re Reading – Peter Stark

  1. Derek Turner says:

    A list demonstrating typical depth and catholicity of taste! Waugh can be like Wodehouse, but I had never thought of that before.
    Your reminding me of Svejk makes me want to re-read this delightful piece of Czech marginalia

  2. Kirby Olson says:

    I love Wodehouse especially the Jeeves novels and stories. I’ve read all of them twice. I also like Uncle Dynamite and the two autobiographies. He wasn’t the pro-Hitlerite that he is often portrayed to be, nor is he as silly as Orwell made out. In The Code of the Woosters, for example, he makes fun of the Brownshirts (only he calls them Brownshorts) and makes fun of Oswald Mosely (leader of the British fascists). Orwell said PG was unawares of contemporary political problems when he made his radio broadcasts (for which he was banned from participating at the BBC for decades). The radio broadcasts are mildly funny toward the Germans (he was locked up by them at the time, since they had caught him at his French estate and whisked him off to a chateau-prison somewhere in Germany). Underneath the seemingly mild humor, it seems to me, is a fairly canny read of human eccentricity and sinfulness. My favorite read is Thank You, Jeeves (the English edition has a different name, I think). It has Bertie Wooster at an English estate trying to escape the matrimonial clutches of an American millionairess whose father has docked his yacht. Good fun! Next time you’re down with a very serious cold, try Wodehouse. Nothing like it to put your mood back on track!

  3. David Ashton says:

    Careful analysis of the passages in Wodehouse supposedly making fun of Mosley (not Mosely) show either that this author had little idea of whom he was (allegedly) talking about or (more likely) was not attempting a political satire at all. Wodehouse fans have constantly repeated this unexamined belief until it has become yet another false fixture in the literary environment, their motive mostly being embarrassment over the emergent full details of the wartime “collaboration” and the desire to turn this political innocent, though supremely gifted writer, into a crusading anti-fascist ideologist. John Tanner carefully refuted their idee fixe at some length in a “Mosleyite” magazine called “Comrade” some time ago. Incidentally, those shorts were “black” not brown, the one thing (colour) that PGW got “correct” – unlike Kirby Olson!
    An article on other – superficially plausible –
    literary myths, or on incorrigibly persistent leftwing legends, might be a good idea for an independently-minded quarterly.

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