Some books just scream out for sequels. None more so than Henry James’s 19th century classic The Portrait of Lady which ends with heroine Isabel Archer facing the choice between going back to her adulterous, deceiving husband or scandalising society by leaving him. Brave is the author who picks up James’s pen and continues his masterpiece, but John Banville does it and, somehow, manages to pull it off.
The story behind this short John Steinbeck World War II novel is as fascinating as the book itself. Steinbeck, a world famous author by the start of the war, was deeply concerned about the rise of Fascism in Europe. He’d noticed the Fascists’ clever use of propaganda and urged the precursor to the CIA, for whom he worked, to create their own. In 1941, Steinbeck wrote The Moon is Down, which is largely based on conversations with people who’d fled their occupied countries. The book would become one of the most read underground novels of the war, with thousands of copies printed clandestinely in France, Denmark, Norway, Belgium and the Netherlands. Judging by its success, it must have played a role in mobilising resistance and keeping up morale.
Our narrator, François Seurel, is the bookish son of a schoolmaster, residing in a provincial French village in the 1890s. Passive and impressionable, he yearns for adventure, but will never be the architect of his own life. When the charismatic adventurer, Augustin Meaulnes, comes to board at his home, Seurel’s life is changed irrevocably. A French classic, often described as the greatest novel of adolescence in European literature, The Lost Estate deserves to be more widely read on this side of the Channel.
Cassandra and Judith Edwards are identical twins. Both brilliant and beautiful; one happily engaged to be married, the other severely depressed. This 1960s psychological drama is an intense read that will bring you into the psyche of both protagonists and show the devastating effects of depression not only on the depressed, but also those around. Brace yourself for something much darker and a great deal more profound than the title suggests.
I’ve just been through one of the longest good book ‘droughts’ in my reading career. In the end I decided to reach for a classic, sometimes the only way out, and grabbed hold of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. It’s a short book that is more like a portrait of a community than a linear narrative, but within it are sublime little stories, descriptions of people, places and atmosphere that only an old hand like Steinbeck can conjure up.
This is a beautifully produced scholarly edition of 18 of Fitzgerald’s short stories, none published in his lifetime. Varying in length from three pages to thirty, these stories are peopled not so much with the glamorous but damaged Jazz Age characters familiar to us from his novels but with a poorer, sadder, post-Depression cast including drunks, travelling salespeople, hypochondriacs, divorcing couples, movie producers, starlets, has-beens, and – overwhelmingly – the unwell. The best of these stories glitter with the author’s wit and familiar ability to demolish a character’s pretentions in a sentence. The others, more plodding, will appeal nevertheless to Fitzgerald fans for the light they shine on his preoccupations and problems, and for the glimpse they afford into the seedier side of 1930s small-town American life.
I devoured Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin and Alias Grace when they came out quite a few years ago, but somehow missed The Handmaid’s Tale. That was a mistake. Atwood’s dystopian, futuristic story about a totalitarian regime where women’s bodies are political currency has become a modern classic since it was published in 1985. Even more relevant now with religious and political extremism on the rise, The Handmaid’s Tale is about to come out as a TV-series. I suggest reading it first. It’s creepy, it’s dark and it’s a page-turner that will keep you reading long into the night.
Ready to escape the grey, cold winter for a few hours? Try this sensual and sensuous Italian classic set in the 1860s amongst the arid hills, frescoed palazzos and turquoise seas of Sicily. It’s the story of the aristocratic Salina family’s decline, of ageing and mortality, of politics and passionate love all mixed up into a fabulous Italian literary feast.
I was inspired to pick up this set of books after hearing snatches of the Radio 4 adaptation this year, and reading reviews of Artemis Cooper’s new biography of the author, Elizabeth Jane Howard – about whom I knew little apart from the fact that she was unlucky enough to have been married to the old devil himself, Kingsley Amis. How glad I am that I did, particularly in the dying days of this particularly dismal year. The experience of reading the Cazalet series (The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change) is like stepping into a warm bath. Comforting, life-affirming, immersive – and you absolutely don’t want to pull the plug.
Novels don’t come more English than this: boys at boarding school, stately homes, social class, unspoken rules. Leo Colston, our narrator, looks back at his 12-year-old self during the summer of 1900, a summer that would shatter his naivety and change his life. A great English classic and an ominous, intense, coming-of-age novel. Highly recommended!