My favourite authors
Reading has been one of my favourite pastimes since I was very young. My parents introduced me to the world of books and stories and I was enchanted by Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows and Alice, of course.
As I learned to read for myself the love of books continued. There were always books, newspapers and magazines about the house, in addition to which we paid frequent visits to the local lending library to take out more books.
I still regard a book as a minor miracle - the amount of information and entertainment contained between the covers of a book is really amazing when you think about it. And most books are highly portable and can be taken anywhere, read anywhere, and don't really take up too much time in specialised care (unless you're into first editions and stuff like that).
Books open up a world, literally, to the reader. By reading you can come into contact with the thoughts and ideas of people from ancient China and India, the early years of civilisation in Western Europe, or the latest in scientific discoveries, philosophy, theology and every branch of human knowledge in between.
In this Hub, in which I answer the question posed by Julie-Ann Amos, I am listing just some of the authors I turn to for relaxation and a bit of escapism from the normal round of responsibilities and chores. As I have usually at least two books on the go at any one time, a fiction book and a more serious, usually non-fiction one, the list could go on for many pages if I did not.
Master of espionage: John le Carré
One of my very favourite reads is anything by John Le Carré. Most of his books are thrillers, very well-written and -crafted thrillers, and he usually manages to grab my attention from the very first sentence: His opening sentences are so well-crafted that they introduce the theme of the book in such a way as to get me into a commitment to reading the rest: "On the day his destiny returned to claim him, Ted Mundy was sporting a bowler hat and balancing on a soapbox in one of Mad King Ludwig's castles in Bavaria." Immediately I am hooked, as I have to find out what destiny claimed him, what was the meaning of the bowler, how does "Mad King Ludwig" fit into the whole picture? And the next sentence confirms my decision to continue reading: "It wasn't a classic bowler, more your Laurel and Hardy than Savile Row." Classic Le Carré, that. And irresistible to me. This pair of openers is from the 2004 Absolute Friends.
of Le Carré's books have been turned into classic movies, perhaps
most famously The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
Colin Dexter and Morse
My next favourite author of thrillers is the creator of Inspector Morse, Colin Dexter, Oxford Don and writer extraordinaire. The Morse stories are wonderful concoctions of erudition and music, so that the thriller part can seem almost incidental, yet it's not. Morse himself is a complex, enigmatic and sometimes quite infuriating person who somehow manages to be simultaneously clever and amazingly out of touch with what is going on around him. And then suddenly the reader becomes aware that Morse was actually right there all the time, even when listening to his beloved Wagner.
Dexter is another crafter of crafty opening lines - and the final Morse novel, The Remorseful Day (typical Dexter wit, that title) - offers two for the price of one, so to speak. There is a "Prolegomenon" at the start of the book which offers as an opener, "So I often hook my foot over the side of the mattress." If that doesn't pique your interest I'm not sure what would!
And then there's Chapter One, which starts off with "Apart (of course) from Wagner, apart from Mozart's compositions for the clarinet, Schubert was one of the select composers who could occasionally transport him to the frontier of tears." The image of Morse, that's Chief Inspector Morse of the Thames Valley Police, sitting in his bachelor pad in North Oxford, listening to a Schubert lieder recital on BBC Radio 3 with, as usual, "an amply filled tumbler of pale Glenfiddich beside him," is the classic Dexter opening. this particular book, however, is the last of the series, evidence that Dexter knows how to quite when he's ahead.
A modern Gothic Irishman: John Connolly
The last, but not the least, of my favourite thriller writers is Irishman John Connolly who also writes erudite and literate novels, though his have a sometimes disconcerting surreal tinge to them. His novels are altogether darker, more Gothic than Le Carré's or Dexter's, and he is also a master of the opening line. Like Dexter's The Remorseful Day, Connolly's 2005 novel The Black Angel, offers two. The Prologue gives us the terse "The rebel angels fell, garlanded with fire," contrasted with the seemingly commonplace scene of Chapter 1: "The woman stepped carefully from the Greyhound bus, her right hand holding firmly on to the bar as she eased herself down." The downward movement of the two sentences links them, but they seem superficially completely unrelated otherwise, either in purport or in feel. The incongruity of the juxtaposition of the everyday with the out of this world is typical Connolly, and shows why he can hold your attention so firmly throughout novels which go on for about twice the length of either Dexter's or Le Carré's.
An Englishman in Africa: David Lambkin
David Lambkin is an English author who has made Africa his home, and his novels are set in Africa, at least the important action in the novels occurs in Africa. Another author who manages to link his love of music and literature with the stories he weaves so skilfully and excitingly. The first book of his that I read was Plains of Darkness, his first, and still, I think, his best novel. Published in 1992 it won the Central News Agency prize (a South African prize for literature) in 1992 for the best fiction debut. He published The Hanging Tree in 1995 and Night Jasmine Man in 2002. I am still looking for a copy of Plains of Darkness which I would love to re-read. (That's a non-too-subtle hint, in case you missed it!)
Night Jasmin Man is another two-opening-line book. The Prologue opens with a line which seems to set up a standard thriller: "The man with the sniper's rifle climbed up into the umbrellathorn tree when he first heard the low-gear grinding of the trans-Africa Bedford's engine, well before the truck nosed over the high sand dune that formed the southern bank of the river." This promises high adventure in the hot and sweaty wilds of Africa. But the novel gives far more than that. And it's complexity is heralded by the opening line of Chapter One: "I lost all my hope on the narrow roads to her asylum."
The novel explores love, music and the occult in a heady, jasmine-scented mix. Great stuff!
Oom Schalk Lourens: storyteller of the veld
Herman Charles Bosman was a South African writer of, in the main, wonderfully witty, not to say uproariously funny, short stories, though he also wrote poetry and two novels. But it is for his short stories, and particularly his narrator Oom Schalk Lourens, that Bosman is known and loved in South Africa.
Bosman used his narrator to poke sometimes gentle and sometimes very biting fun at the prevailing mores and prejudices in the South Africa of the pre-apartheid times. As Craig MacKenzie, editor of the 2006 collection The Complete Oom Schalk Lourens Stories, wrote in the book's Preface: "Bosman's Oom Schalk Lourens is a literary creation without equal in South African literature." The opening of the first story in the Oom Schalk Lourens series, "Makapan's Caves" from 1930, showed what Bosman would do with this narrator. The story starts with this great, wry paragraph, which perfectly sets up the racism so taken for granted, for a great put-down:
"Kaffirs? (said Oom Schalk Lourens). Yes, I know them. And they're all the same. I fear the Almighty, and I respect His works, but I could never understand why He made the kaffir and the rinderpest. The Hottetot is a little better. The Hottentot will only steal the biltong hanging out on the line to dry. He won't steal the line as well. That is where the kaffir is different."
An explanatory note: the rinderpest is a cattle plague caused by the rinderpest virus (RPV) and is related to morbillivirus. It is an extremely virulent and lethal disease and the rinderpest to which Ook Schalk is referring was the outbreak of 1890 which killed an estimated 80% to 90% of all the cattle in South Africa, causing devastation to the farmers, mainly Afrikaans, who lost everything as a result and caused many to become paupers.
Biltong is salted, dried meat, of great value to farmers, especially the so-called "trek-boers" or migrant farmers who roamed South Africa in search of new pastures in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries.
Hottentot is the name given by the Boers to the Khoisan indigenous people of South Africa.
The story ends with Oom Schalk discovering that he had shot and killed a young black man who had been very kind and loving to Oom Schalk's brother Hendrik:
"You know" he (Hendrik) whispered, "Nongaas was crying when he found me. He thought I was dead. He has been very good to me - so very good.. Do you remember that day when he followed behind our wagons? He looked so very trustful and so little, and yet I - I threw stones at him. I wish I did not do that. I only hope that he comes back safe. He was crying and stroking my hair."
As I said, my brother Hendrik was feverish.
"Of course he will come back," I answered him. But this time I knew that I lied. For as I came through the mouth of the cave I kicked against the kaffir I had shot there. The body sagged over to one side and I saw the face.
Of course Oom Schalk doesn't see the irony there, and that is what makes the stories so powerful. The laughter is sometimes quite a bitter laughter, and is sometimes tinged with a great sadness.
Another author I would claim as South African, though he now lives in the United Kingdom, is Justin Cartwright.
Cartwright's novels are quite different from the others I have written about above, and a very sophisticated entertainments which look quite deeply at human issues. The latest of his that I have read is the 2004 The Promise of Happiness, a novel about a disintegrating marriage in a world of disintegrating values. It is by turns very, very funny and incredibly poignant. A very honest look at some very modern dilemmas with this opening line: "A man of sixty-eight is standing on a Cornish beach, peeing on small molluscs." The book only gets better from there.
As a very apt epigraph to the book Cartwright sets some lines from Thomas Hardy:
I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on,
Projecting trait and trace
Through times anon
And leaping from place to place