The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne
By Brian Moore
My mother still can't read this book. She says she knew too many women like Judith Hearne over the course of her lifetime—spinster ladies, as they used to be called, in reduced circumstances, eking out their days in small rooms and trying to keep things respectable. Judith Hearne has a drink problem, so her respectability develops a bit of a wobble. This is made worse by the arrival in her Belfast boarding house of a man she thinks might be romantically inclined. Moore has absolute control over his narrative, and Judith Hearne's descent is both excruciating and enthralling.
Nights at the Circus
By Angela Carter
This book is about Fevvers, a circus woman who can really fly. Angela Carter was one of my writing heroes when I was a student—she wrote lush, passionate, and subversive prose that was also funny. She was, above all, wicked and sexy when she talked about relations between men and women. I went to the University of East Anglia to study with her, only to find she didn't bother to teach me at all. "This is all absolutely fine" she'd say, patting my precious manuscript. Then she'd be off talking about Japan, or Hamlet, or whether I should bother going back to live in Ireland when London was so much more exciting. I was immensely flattered—that my work should be treated with such tact, almost as though the printed word was actually a private thing. She made me feel like that indefinable thing: a real writer.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
By James Joyce
There are some books that are so important you don't even notice them anymore; they're just part of the way you think. I am always surprised to see how much my own work is influenced by James Joyce—not least because it seems so presumptuous. But it's not something I can help, I'm afraid. Dubliners seemed to me to be about members of my own extended family, though it was written so long ago. A Portrait of the Artist is the founding myth for all Irish writers. Stephen Dedalus decides that the only thing to do with Ireland is to leave it, and then write about it. This, effectively, is what Irish writers still do—in our heads at least, if not on an actual airplane. It is also, still, a really good book about growing up and leaving home.
Flaubert and Madame Bovary
By Francis Steegmuller
This is a biography not just of an author but also of his book. Flaubert worked every day for almost six months on the first chapter of Madame Bovary and he hated it. He thought Emma Bovary was provincial and dull and only wrote about her in response to a challenge set by some friends to write about ordinary life. He was much happier writing his next novel, Salammbo, which was set in ancient Carthage and featured parades of elephants. This is the best biography of a novelist I have come across. It shows how writers are only good insofar as they fight their talent, how great work can be an accident, and how you never know, when you sit down, whether it will be bad or good but only if it will be well made.
The Shadow of the Sun
By Ryszard Kapuściński
For reporters and historians, Africa can seem an impossible, confusing place. Everything is such a mess and the wars seem just meaningless—what do these people have to win, or lose? Any essay by Ryszard Kapuściński tells you more about African politics than you thought it possible to know. A Polish journalist who reported from the continent for four decades, he has a simple trick: He writes about Africa the way he would write about any other place. The people he writes about have a history; they have reasons and allegiances. He also writes beautiful, moving, and simple prose.