Saturday, October 15, 2011

Chapters In My Life -Week 3

This week on 'Chapters In My Life', blogger and author Deborah Lawrenson is going to choose 5 books, which have had an influence in her life:

L’Assommoir by Emile Zola. This heartbreaking tale of a laundress comes with the harsh moral that even the best and hardest-working are not immune from the tragedy of the demon drink. I first read this when I was about fifteen, living in Brussels. It belongs to that time in every teenager’s life when anything seems possible if you want it enough, and as I was fiercely competitive academically, I was an ambitious reader. I think I may have attempted it in French first, but had to give up. The edition that survives on my bookshelves from that era is the Penguin classic, at any rate. L’Assommoir had a huge impact, in the way it portrays life’s terrible unfairness.

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh. Sharp, sly and mischievous, this is a glorious send-up of the Bright Young Things of the 1920s. It was one of the first novels to have a cinematic quality, for example in the depiction of a party scene that swoops from one side of the room to the other, assassinating all characters in its “flying” narrator’s path, all in the space of a paragraph. Waugh also uses telephone conversation in a way that was innovative in its time, to great comic effect. This was the book that lit the spark of writing my first novel. In my twenties I worked for a while on Nigel Dempster’s newspaper gossip column – a great fun job for a young journalist, meeting film stars and the louche cast of aristos and arrivistes featured on the page. I always knew that milieu would make the basis of a book, and when I saw how Waugh had done it, I knew I had to try to write a modern version. (It didn’t quite turn out how I envisaged, but that’s another story!)

Mary Swann by Carol Shields. Pulitzer prizewinner Shields is such a fine writer. Her novels are intelligent and engaging, even when the subject matter is quiet. Mary Swann is my favourite: a story of a Canadian housewife who wrote poetry but is murdered by her husband before she is published. It’s a literary quest, on one level, as four diverse people who knew her, or know her work, try to unravel the secrets of her writing life.
This is the kind of writing I love to read: flowing, full of intelligence, yet understated – and the kind of writing I aspire to achieve. My favourite of her novels, this is a quietly gripping story of literary detection.

A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes. Epic voyages, history, art, survival and philosophy are explored in this marvellous book through a series of linked stories, starting at a slant with the re-telling of Noah’s Ark through the eyes of a stowaway woodworm. I have very happy memories of this book and a holiday in Antigua, when my husband and I had been married a year. We both read it, and one evening we started talking about its various themes while sipping a first cocktail, and were still discussing it over late-night coffee. It seemed the perfect scenario: a lovely island, a lovely book, and a lovely clever husband who was interested in the same books and issues I was.

Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell. No-one does spellbinding nostalgia and spirit of place quite like Durrell. Here is a slim book that masquerades as a diary/notebook of the time he spent on the Greek island of Corfu in the 1930s – the same material shaped in a very different way by his younger brother, the zoologist Gerald Durrell in his comic masterpiece, My Family and Other Animals. Lawrence’s version of those island years is an elegy to lost youth and his first wife (never even mentioned by Gerald) in a dazzling sensory recreation, gilded by distance and rosy memory. It was this difference between the two brothers’ accounts that was the beginning of a wonderful book trail, through both their biographies and on to the many autobiographical works by other writers they knew, that resulted in my fifth novel, Songs of Blue and Gold.

[You might find it disingenuous that I haven’t mentioned Daphne du Maurier, Charlotte or Emily Brontë. I can only say that that I’ve explained in plenty of other spaces this summer about the influence of Rebecca and the gothic tradition on The Lantern, and wanted to give something in addition to that here.

You can read Deborah's blog here.

Deborah's latest novel 'The Lantern' is available on , and all good book shops.


  1. Hi Spangle!

    I have just arrived back and went immediately to the first 'Chapters of My Life'. And now I am up to the third. Firstly, it is a great concept, secondly, it is an insight into the 'reading past' of other writers, and thirdly, it is both iteresting and entertaining.

    Well done for coming up with this concept. Let others know about these posts, as they are well worth reading, when you are commenting on other blogs.

  2. Thanks, I'm glad that you are enjoying the new feature Aguja! It has been rather quiet in blogland lately, but I hope more people get the opportunity to read this new series, as I think it is really interesting.