Imaginative classics from the novelist’s bookshelf.
Graham Swift’s novels explore how the past pervades the present, most notably in Last Orders, which won the Booker Prize in 1996. His new novel, Wish You Were Here, is about a man who learns that his brother has died in combat, and must grapple with the loss and his own longing for a bygone era. When we asked him talk with us about his favorite books, Swift recommended the work of two literary titans and an entertaining nautical novel by a master of adventure fiction.
By Anton Chekhov
“Chekhov’s complete stories, some just a few pages, some of near novel length, fill several volumes, but any good selection should include brilliant examples. His reputation rests for many on his plays, but, for me, it’s the prose fiction that’s truly Shakespearean — in range, empathy, and sheer humanity. He is simultaneously serious and humorous, can do joy and bleakness with equal conviction, and identifies with characters from all walks and levels of life while allowing every one of them the freedom to be who they uniquely are. His descriptive touches are superb and, though he can produce a well plotted ‘tale’, his strongest pieces give you the astonishing unfathomable feeling that nothing has ‘happened’, yet everything has happened, a whole life, a whole world has been revealed.”
By Joseph Roth
“I envy anyone yet to read this great novel. Put simply, it’s about the delusions and decline of Empire — in this case the Austro-Hungarian empire before World War One — but this does little justice to the intimate way in which Roth explores three generations of the ambiguously destined Trotta family. This is one of those rare novels in which a brilliant conception, declared in the opening pages, is never let down — indeed is surpassed — by its execution and development. You feel Roth is in command, and in command enough to melt into his creation. Like Chekhov, he sees the ridiculous and the sad at the same time and his physical descriptions are wonderfully fresh. And while the novel keeps a masterly hold on its historical framework, its real power lies in its all-levelling-Chekhovian-humanity. There are scenes in which superiors (including emperors) become as one with their inferiors, which are quite tear-inducing in their authenticity.”
By C. S. Forester
“After such giants my third choice may seem whimsical, but this is a fond favourite. Forester is best known for the Hornblower novels, which I lapped up as a boy, and they have, of course, their boy’s-own element. But his gift for narrative is underpinned by psychology and intelligence — nowhere more than here. I won’t give away the story or even what the marvellous title means, but the novel’s coup is its long early section, set in London at the end of the nineteenth century, relating how the unwitting hero-to-be, Brown, came to be born and raised and how his fate was sealed as much by this domestic process as by the future chances of war. We’re not so far, in fact, from Roth’s evocation of a pre-world-war world sliding towards its doom, and what might have been just a boy’s-own story (the action’s intensely gripping when it comes) is given remarkable pathos and depth. This little-known book is a compelling study in the ironies of bravery and a small masterpiece of story-telling.”