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.
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