Kit de Waal: ‘Life is too short to finish books I don’t like’
My earliest reading memoryBeing bored, either reading the Bible (who begat whom) or something at school, the slow procession around the class, three pages aloud for each child, The Mill on the Floss or some such. When I was 15, there was Dickens – Great Expectations, Miss Havisham, the rags-to-riches-to-rags, great, rollicking adventure of it all.
The book that changed me as a teenagerFor English literature we had to read The Merchant of Venice. I was very affected by the way everyone in the class and apparently everyone in Venice hated Shylock. To me he was underdog, not villain. I think I also picked up on the racism, which, to be fair, Shakespeare did address, but still …
The writer who changed my mindGustave Flaubert changed my mind about the power of words. I read him aged 22, without any idea of who he was, but in Madame Bovary he put me right there in Rouen, in a small world with the dreams and dashed expectations of this woman caught in an unhappy marriage. I had never really “entered” into a book before. This was the one that did it.
The book that made me want to be a writerDonal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart made me not want to be a writer. I was just beginning to think I might have a grasp of the craft and then, bam! Here was the prose I wanted to write, with magic and heart on every page. I have read it since and horribly it’s even better than the first time.
The book I came back toI remember reading Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman when I thought I was middle aged – I was 42. Then I got divorced and read it again. Oh, I see. It had a wisdom I had not seen before and all the brilliance and wit found a home in me. I am grateful to Elizabeth Buchan for that book. It was a balm.
The book I rereadI listened to Old Filth by Jane Gardam on audiobook some years ago. It’s a wonderful performance of the text by Bill Wallace. I listened again in lockdown – to disappear from the horrors of the times. It was just as good: taut, restrained writing with a story that unfolds slowly like an old English, black and white film.
The book I could never read againI read War and Peace and quite enjoyed it. But I wouldn’t have the patience for that size of book now, or the endless description of military strategy and horsemanship. I used to insist on finishing any book I started. Now I give it a really good 100 pages but after that, unless it’s gripping me, nope. Life is too short.
The book I discovered later in lifeThe Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Donald Sutherland when I was in my late 40s. What a book. The sentence structure is so clever and the bald, flat style of it unravels a wonderful and very short and simple story. Fisherman versus fish, success versus failure, status versus shame. Hemingway isn’t for everyone but the story itself is a beautiful thing.
The book I am currently readingWeird Fucks by Lynne Tillman. It’s not as weird as I thought it would be but it’s clever and arresting. It was written in the 70s and chronicles some fleeting and some meaningful sexual relationships. It’s conversational and sweet, written by a woman who knows what she wants – most of the time. And next up is Strange Sally Diamond by Liz Nugent, which I’m really looking forward to.
My comfort readThe Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry. I have never known any writer squeeze as much poetry into plain words. Not the Shelley/Byron poetry but imagery and play. In one story he describes a much longed-for but sickly new baby as “the scrap of a song”. His books are things that dissolve slowly on the tongue.