Andrew Norman Wilson is a London-based English writer, journalist, essayist, controversial thinker and speaker. His literary output includes 20 novels, often satirical commentaries on British society, and black comedy; and 19 works of non-fiction, mostly scholarly biographies of literary figures, including Leo Tolstoy, Sir Walter Scott, John Milton, Hilaire Belloc, CS Lewis and Iris Murdoch. His popular histories include God's Funeral, The Victorians, London: A Short History and After the Victorians.
Religious and ecclesiastical themes frequently inform Wilson's work. Originally destined for ordination in the Church of England, he changed his mind after a year of training for the priesthood to concentrate on his writing and produce his first novel, The Sweets of Pimlico (1977).
In the late 1980s, Wilson, 61, lost his faith and stated publicly that he was an atheist and even published a pamphlet, Against Religion: Why we should live without it (1991). However, he rediscovered God three years ago. In typically combative fashion, he wrote several articles affirming his newly found beliefs, and attacked the atheists in both the media and academic circles with whom he had associated: "When I think about atheist friends, they seem to me like people who have no ear for music, or who have never been in love."
Perhaps it is Wilson's ambivalent beliefs - he can hold several contrasting views simultaneously, and presents them to entertaining effect - that make him such a dazzling conversationalist and fascinating writer. His new novel, The Potter's Hand, based on the story of the Wedgwood pottery dynasty, is to be published by Atlantic Books this autumn. He tells Carla McKay all about his Desert Island Books.
THE DIVINE COMEDY
My book Dante in Love (2011) is a tribute to what I think of as the greatest European poem.The first time you read him, you might think it's too stuck in the past but when you study it you realise that it's about everything - and it's as relevant now as it was then. It's about the history of Europe, where we are now, the mess we make of life and how we come through it. It's about love, it's about cultural collapse. It makes you think seriously about your own life... it's a masterpiece.
WAR AND PEACE
by Leo Tolstoy
This huge, majestic novel is a real Desert Island Book. I re-read it every few years. The characters are so real; there are so many of them, and they are so different. He gives you the experience of growing up, being in love, having children, fear of death, war, country falling to bits, country coming back together again. It's about huge experiences which he describes so well - so much better than anyone else. Tolstoy's own life was complex and dramatic and shaped by the turmoil of ideas and politics in 19th-century Russia. In my biography of Tolstoy I try to show that there are no great public questions facing the world today that he did not anticipate and address in some way.
Truly one of the great books you shouldn't die without reading - a mad blueprint for the perfect society run by philosophers, but also the beginning of western philosophy and one of the most interesting books ever written. The basic argument is that the world is run by idiots and criminals, whereas it should be run by intelligent, rational people. The form it takes is a conversation between Socrates, who makes this case, and his friends, who put forward various arguments against it. It's really one of the great political satires and really, when you look at the world today, you have to acknowledge that it wouldn't actually hurt if things were run by the intelligentsia.
THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER
by JW Goethe
One of the great classics that I came to read only recently. It's a brilliant account of the sheer lunacy which possesses someone in love - how people literally go mad. This loosely autobiographical novel about the pain of love bewitched an entire generation when it was published in 1774 and influenced the Romantic literary movement. It spawned lots of imitation suicides at the time because the hero, the victim of unrequited love, sees no other choice at the end of the novel but to take his own life. Easily the best description I've read about the menace of being in love!
THE FRENCH REVOLUTION: A HISTORY
by Thomas Carlyle
The French Revolution is "popular history" at its best - and it brings from the old Scotch Calvinist faith the notion that if you behave in a certain way, you'll get your comeuppance. It's a superb account of how the French aristocracy had it coming to them, but how the revolutionaries were even worse (a tale of our times). The ultimate curative for political optimists. Carlyle abandoned religion and became a sort of lay prophet for his generation, and it's an extremely funny read. It was Carlyle who coined the quip "a whiff of grapeshot" rather than Napoleon.
JOY IN THE MORNING
by PG Wodehouse
I could actually chose any Wodehouse story for my desert island and be happy, but this is one of the best crafted of them all. Wodehouse is the patron saint of writers, a proper unpretentious writer and producer of the most brilliant prose. This one was written at a very dark moment in the war for Wodehouse when he had lost everything and was in a POW camp. Nevertheless, it is just as full of humour and sunshine as ever. The plot concerns Bertie's trying not to get entangled with a high-brow girl, Lady Florence. It still makes me laugh immoderately.