x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Desert Island Books: Sebastian Faulks

The English writer shares his favourite half a dozen books.

The British novelist Sebastian Faulks shares his favourite half a dozen books. AP Photo
The British novelist Sebastian Faulks shares his favourite half a dozen books. AP Photo

Sebastian Faulks is a London-based English writer who, as a young man, wrote novels while working as a journalist on a national newspaper.

His fourth novel, Birdsong, published in 1993, catapulted him to international fame and launched his full-time literary career.

The story begins with a love affair in northern France between a young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, and Isabelle, a married Frenchwoman. It then moves to the Western Front during the First World War, where Stephen is serving, and details the horrors of the soldiers' daily lives.

"It is a book about sons," Faulks, 58, says. "Ten million of them killed for no reason, and the grief of 20 million parents." Birdsong has become a modern English classic, having sold millions of copies worldwide. It has consistently topped polls of people's favourite novels and is widely taught at schools and universities. The novel has also been adapted for both the stage and television.

Its success enabled Faulks to give up the day job and focus all his energy on writing. "I made up my mind to become a writer when I was about 14," he says. "I was inspired by Dickens and DH Lawrence, among others. I set my heart on being a novelist."

Several of his other novels are also set in France, among them The Girl at the Lion d'Or and Charlotte Gray, which was made into a feature film starring Cate Blanchett. His love of France and its history and literature stem from a year he spent studying in Paris and learning the language, between school and Cambridge University. But he has written widely on many other subjects and in other settings. His favourite, Human Traces, an ambitious, epic novel published in 2005, was five years in the making and tackles what makes us human and the nature of consciousness. Faulks was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Tavistock Clinic, in association with the University of East London for his contribution to the understanding of psychiatry.

While undoubtedly "un homme serieux", Faulks is also a popular and witty television and radio performer, a wonderful raconteur and a brilliant writer of parody.

He is working on his next novel, A Possible Life, which will be published this September by Hutchinson.

He shares his Desert Island Book choices with Carla McKay.

 

REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST by Marcel Proust

It's true that I've never finished all 12 books but I've read the ending three times, the beginning about five times, and most of the rest in between. It's one of those books that, when published, made people think there was nothing else left to write. Certainly, Virginia Woolf thought so; maybe that's why she drowned herself. Some parts you need to hurry through, but there are many passages so perfect that you want to stop everyone in the street and read out sentences. For a desert island it would be great as it's very long and a whole world in which to lose yourself.

 

GERMINAL by Émile Zola

This is considered Zola's masterpiece about life in a poor coal mining village in northern France in the 1860s where there is a strike and a battle between the impoverished miners and the rich owners of the mines. It's dour, brutal social realism, but also a very exciting story that culminates in a rescue scene that's worthy of Alistair MacLean or one of those adventure story writers. In this country, incident or plot has been considered rather infra dig in serious fiction for the last 100 years or more, but I like the fact that Zola, like Shakespeare, is a serious writer who can deal with dramatic incidents.

 

MONEY by Martin Amis

What is exhilarating about this book is you feel Amis was born to write it. He's a great talent and it all came together for him in a way it hasn't since, in this one book which is funny, rude, over-the-top and hugely entertaining. It features an Englishman, John Self, a successful director of commercials, who is in New York to shoot his first film. Self is a vile character, an avid consumer of alcohol and drugs - a total slob, in fact - and some say this is a political satire on the excesses of the era (the 1980s), but I don't think Amis had any social agenda. It's the best book I've read about New York, certainly by a Briton.

 

SONGS AND SONNETS by John Donne

These poems are a bit like crossword puzzles - they have a surface meaning, and then a hidden meaning that is fun to decode. They're also very sensual, quite romantic and very witty. So, you have pretty well everything that poetry can do, but put together in a very unusual combination that gives them a distinct flavour. You would never mistake a stanza of Donne for anybody else's. They are a young man's poems about love - quite subversive in fact - and they still feel very fresh and invigorating today. You could read them hundreds of times and not tire of them.

 

VICHY FRANCE: OLD GUARD AND NEW ORDER 1940-1944 by Robert Paxton

Published in the 1970s and written by an American academic and historian, this is the shameful and fascinating story of France under the German occupation. It suggests that collaboration, far from being forced upon the French, was something the French government actively sought as a means of promoting its own political agenda.

 

THE BLACK PRINCE by Iris Murdoch

This is an old favourite about an ageing author, Bradley Pearson, who falls in love with the daughter of a friend and literary rival. It has a remarkable structure in which the story is in parts told in postscripts by other characters, each interpreting the action differently. I was thrilled by this novel when I first read it. Murdoch has such a distinctive voice. It's easy to parody but for sheer narrative drive, it is unbeatable. I remember feeling euphoric when I read it at 21. Unfortunately, the great authors of my time - Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, John Fowles and Anthony Burgess - are now all but forgotten, which is dispiriting.