Books That Made a Difference to Kazuo Ishiguro
By Charlotte Bronté
Almost everything I know about first-person narration comes from this novel. Its plot lacks the clean lines of Jane Eyre, but this is the richer, more daring achievement. What looks at first like laughably flowery language steadily builds into one of the most extraordinary narrative voices in literature. Lucy Snowe is a lonely young Englishwoman teaching in a provincial Belgian boarding school. What she relates has almost the texture of a diary in its patient attention to the everyday, but seethes with unspoken love— and almost indistinguishable from it, a yearning for a fuller, freer life. The ending is a heartbreaker.
Right Ho, Jeeves
By P.G. Wodehouse
The best Jeeves novel, and as such a masterpiece of comic escapism. The plot is standard Wodehouse: a country-house farce in which Bertie Wooster attempts to help his pathetic geek friend, Gussie, find the courage to propose to his true love. It's hard to say why this is great literature. There's no attempt to engage with the complexities of life. But the book does several things supremely well: There's Bertie's first-person voice, a pitch-perfect mix of posh English and American Jazz Age slang; it has a beautiful structure, with one hilarious, expertly staged setup folding seamlessly into the next. And Wodehouse does make you believe (at least momentarily) in a world where trivial problems have the status of huge ones, and the huge ones have vanished altogether. Pure delight.
By Cormac McCarthy
When I arrived in England as a small boy from Japan, I promptly became obsessed with cowboys. I never fell out of love with Westerns, and became a huge fan of the great films of Ford, Hawks, Leone, Eastwood, and Peckinpah. But where were their literary equivalents? To an outsider, this is a gaping hole in American letters. But I found one magnificent novel, a work of unambiguously high ambition that takes on the myths of the frontier. The reach of McCarthy's book is such that it goes way beyond America: It stares unflinchingly at human nature itself—at the darkness and violence from which we're built, individually and societally. The story follows a gang of gunfighters who rampage around a Texas already scarred by butchery. Commissioned to slaughter hostile Native Americans, they are paid by the scalp, and soon cease to care where the scalps come from. There are staggering images of savagery, many of them hauntingly beautiful. Not for everyone (my wife always stops at the first massacre), but this is a monumental work of art.
By David Mitchell
I went well into my 40s under the delusion that I was still a "young" writer. The publication of this book ten years ago made me acknowledge both my decrepitude and the emergence of a brilliant younger generation. Arguably Mitchell has since gone on to even greater heights, but as unignorable announcements of arrival go, this multistory novel stands comparison with the first Dylan album or Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. The ten discrete, compulsively engaging episodes;with settings such as Okinawa, post-Communist Russia, an Irish fishing village, or a late-night U.S. call-in show;are linked by the presence of a mysterious force-cum-creature reminiscent of the metal object in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The imaginative energy on display is humbling.
South of the Border, West of the Sun
By Haruki Murakami
I have a thing for the minor works of major writers. (And of the living ones, Murakami is one of the most major we have.) Of course, the works have to be gems;and this short novel, like Chronicle of a Death Foretold or The Turn of the Screw, is certainly that. It's a love story of sorts, set in a materially comfortable but spiritually lonely modern Japan of glassy offices, wearying commuter trains, and smoky bars. With the possible exception of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye, I've never known a book that so perfectly captures that sublime romantic bittersweet mood sought after by countless late-night jazz musicians and films like Casablanca.
By Homer (Translated by Robert Fagles)
A magical experience, this 2,700-year-old poem reads to a surprising extent like a modern novel. It has a sophisticated structure, with alluring subplots and flashbacks supporting the central story of Odysseus, the exhausted, traumatized veteran of the Trojan War, and his decadelong struggle to get back home across a wonderfully evoked world of strange islands and dangerous seas.
It's about the memory of home and the fear that it may no longer correspond to reality, the sadness of losing comrades, the kindness of strangers, the will to keep going against relentless obstacles, and a whole lot more. Robert Fagles's translation is full of startling, lovely phrases, giving weight to the view that for all its narrative drive and psychologically complex characters, this work should be read as verse.