Magazine article The Spectator

I Know Exactly What I Want to Read This Summer-If Only I Could Find It

Magazine article The Spectator

I Know Exactly What I Want to Read This Summer-If Only I Could Find It

Article excerpt

What I thought I'd do this summer holidays is catch up with all those classics I've been meaning to read for ages: A la recherche du temps perdu, Moby-Dick, David Copperfield, Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary, Vanity Fair, everything by the Brontes, anything German, Metamorphosis, the Odyssey, the Iliad, most Balzac, anything by P.G. Wodehouse, Our Mutual Friend, Anna Karenina. . .

But where to start? Our Mutual Friend is out because the wife is reading it and it's surely a waste to buy two copies. Also, Dickens generally is very Dickensian and I'm not sure how much of that I can cope with on holiday. The Brontes, I think, are more a girl thing than a boy thing. I've seen Vanity Fair on TV. MobyDick's one of those books you need to read in the right circumstances - on a whaling holiday, something like that. The Odyssey and the Iliad you kind of don't need to read because a bit like the Bible - which I also haven't read - you know the key stories anyway. The Proust I've tried and I think I'm more of a Wa r and Peace kind of person. Kafka, Schmafka.

Germans? You don't really need to read the Germans, do you? Balzac's possible - I enjoyed Pere Goriot - but I don't know which others are any good. P.G. Wodehouse I'm sure would be fun, but then I'd no longer be able to shock Wodehouse fans by telling them I've never read any Wodehouse.

Which leaves either Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary, except I'm pretty sure they both die at the end so isn't that going to spoil it slightly? The whole way through the books - really thick, commitment-requiring books at that - you'll be saying to yourself: 'Yeah, but it's all going to end horribly, so what's the point?'

Still, the good intention was there. I did get as far as finding a copy of Anna Karenina in a second-hand bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, because I know that despite knowing the ending it's a book I'm really going to enjoy. I liked his other big one, anyway. But then fate intervened. The edition I found was a full-price new paperback edition and this felt a wrong thing to be buying in Hay. Unfortunately, by the time I'd scoured a few more shops and found there were no charming, slightly foxed second-hand editions of Anna Karenina available, my wife told me we had to go immediately or we wouldn't get to Builth in time to pick up the hand of pork I'd ordered from the butcher, which obviously I didn't want to miss because it's amazingly good value at only £8 for a cut big enough to feed about eight people. So that was Tolstoy out for another day.

Now I find myself at the lovely house we rent every year, scouring the shelves over and over again for the perfect holiday book. I know exactly what it's like: it's a major classic which you can't reach your 45th birthday and still not have read; it's got fantastically good war scenes in it, plus lots of thriller-like tension and hair-breadth escapes; possibly it has a bit of romance but not so much that it starts to interfere with the war/action-adventure stuff;

it's sweeping, epic, utterly involving; it's beautifully written but not in such a way that the prose style keeps distracting you with its brilliance. Problem is I haven't yet managed to lay my hands on the actual title. Anyone got any suggestions?

War and Peace comes closest, but I've read that too recently. The other contender would be Zoe Oldenbourg's The World Is Not Enough, which is another of my all-time favourite books. It's about knights in 12thcentury France and one of the many things I love about it is that it's at once desperately moving and entirely pitiless. …

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