Music Features

Holiday Reading (Summer 2004)

Now I know we tend to wait until December to do our lists, but this time of year, writers and editors around the country start publishing their essential holiday reading lists. Generally it's a good excuse to plug your mates' and colleagues' books and, as often revealed in the pages of Private Eye, it's one of the greatest back-scratches outside the Oscars. This list is different, in that 1) I'm not a writer (never, you gasp); 2) None of my mates are 3) Most of these guys are dead. Yes, you'll notice that all these writers are men. That's possibly sexist, or, as I'd prefer, just a coincidence. These are all books by writers I've read and loved, and a few of them I've read and loved in the country they're set in. So what I'm trying to do is offer you a couple of options. If you're going nowhere, then these will help you see the world without leaving home, just like Lezama Lima claimed to be able to travel to the court of the Sun King or witness an Inuit birth rite where tribe ate the placenta, all without stepping outside his little house in Havana. Of course if you're lucky enough to be going anywhere spectacular, I hope one or two of these will speed you on your way. But I'd also recommend another option. A while ago I went to Cuba, and sweltered on a beach drinking cocktails while reading Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, arguably the coldest book of the 20th Century. Now that's screwy.

So, here we go. If you're holidaying in the UK, try Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. Seaside, dead-end hell. Nasty little pretty boy thugs. Horrible fights involving file index dividers. Ouch. The most vicious English classic I can think of, with the most horrible ending. Full of Greene's strange relationship to Catholicism and the shitness of being trapped and working class in an English town, this will make any seaside holiday seem eminently amenable. And you'll never look at a record in the same.

Sticking to the English-speaking world, no one goes to the core of the States like Dom Delillo, and nowhere better than in the campus-chemical-spill portrait of the nuclear-family-gone-wrong, White Noise. It's hilarious throughout, but also deeply concerning in the accuracy and foresight of its satire. Soon, there will be drug to cure the fear of death, believe me. Thousands of miles away, Peter Carey wrote the most remarkable novel about gambling and the birth of a nation in Oscar and Lucinda. A novel of quite astonishing breadth and ambition, it follows the white invasion of the east coast of Australia, crossing continents and oceans with two unique leads. Borrowing relentlessly from its intertexts and awash with historical curiosities, it also boasts one of the most striking endings you'll read. Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water. And if you're trekking back via India - I'm sure some of you are - don't forget to sling a copy of Midnight's Childrenin the rucksack alongside your malaria tablets and Krishna beads. Salman Rushdie's tabloid presence often unfairly gets in the way of his magnificent novels; there's probably no one who has a higher strong-opinion to not-read-his-books ratio. Another birth-of-a-nation classic, this is one man's attempt to write the entire history of a nation and a modern Tristram Shandy in one. Big noses are back in style. But not big knees.

Back in Europe, we can do a little inter-railing. In France we are obviously spoilt for let's try something a little left-field and from a different genre, and for scatological humour and utterly brilliant childishness, try Alfred Jarry's Ubu plays. More fart jokes and swearing than South Park, they'll turn you into a filthy so and so. Arriving in Italy, you'll probably want to raise the tone, so try The Leopard, by Lampedusa. Unrecognised in his life, Lampedusa became a posthumous novelist almost by accident with this beautifully crafted jewel of a novel, covering a hundred years of Italian history, taking in Garibaldi and unification, through to the collapse of the ruling classes. Many have argued that it's the finest novel of the 20th century. It's certainly close.

Now I don't know what route you're taking, but I'm going to Germany, where I'd like to read some poetry. I know he was Romanian and lived in France most of his life, but Paul Celan wrote the most bewitching, dense and linguistically precise poetry I've read. I don't know what it means, but I know I like it. And then he drowned himself. If that's too much for you, try Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction, one of the most readable and far-reaching pieces of literary studies in recent years, containing a stunning dissection of the post-war German dilemma.

I'm in Norway now...yeah, funny journey, I know, tramping around the streets of Oslo, starving, and reading Knut Hamsun. I know he became a fascist and supported Hitler - bummer - but in Hunger he set down a marker for all the other hallucinatory, stream-of-conscious theatrics we find in Kafka and Joyce. Perhaps the least likeable hero you'll meet, but a fascinating little git nonetheless.

Phew...Cruising is very popular this time of year - careful now - and there's no better novel to accompany a good drift than Moby Dick. Yes, the titular whale gave his name to the author's great-great etc grand-nephew, the Christian-vegan advert soundtracker Moby, but this epic journey through bildungsroman, life sciences, marine biology, geography and the buddy-buddy genre will live and grow with you like your best friend. It took me six months to read, on and off, and the day I finished it was both the saddest and happiest reading day I've ever had. Truly unique, and always a joy.

If your going away with the boys or the girls, I suspect that there are three places that will dominate. In Portugal the powerful social allegory Blindness by the Nobel Prize winner José Saramago is one of the sharpest investigations of human barbarism since Golding's Lord of the Flies. I have to declare an interest, because he presented me with my degree. Now if you're in Spain, there is no excuse not to read Don Quixote. Here are the facts: it was the first novel; it has been voted the greatest novel of all time; in the four hundred years since it was written, no one has come up with anything to do in a novel that Cervantes didn't do here. It almost makes other novels redundant. But a quick tip - skip all the bits that aren't about the Don. Even Cervantes admitted that they were piss dull. For Prague stag and hen trips try Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Reading clever-clever novels always impresses the opposite sex. This is also a kind of Carry On Intellectual, or Confession of an Internal Exile, equal parts quasi-magical realism and sex comedy, as well as scathing attack on trendy left-wing causes. Read this before you join in any peace marches.

Which will do for Europe. If anyone's going to Africa, two more Nobel prize winning recommendations are the Nigerian Wole Soyinka, whose combination of national ritual and raw politics turned him into a pariah of the government, and the South African J.M Coetzee, who writes with brutal honesty about human frailty and selfishness. A pretty sketchy assessment of a whole continent, I admit. But this is holiday reading, after all, not an encyclopaedia of world fiction, and I only know one person going on holiday to Africa this year. So I'll leave that to the experts.

Crossing another ocean, Brazil produced its first great novelist in the shape of Machado de Assis, whose Dom Casmurro is a precise and clever portrait of jealousy and class conflict in turn-of-the-century Rio, set around a central riddle about marital fidelity that will never be solved. It's a novel so prominent in Brazil that Capitu syndrome, named after the protagonist's wife, has been used as an excuse in murder cases. If you're lucky enough to be sunning it up in Mexico, then ensure you read Juan's Rulfo's Pedro Páramo, as it's only short and offers a stark and dry mini-epic portrayal of rural Mexico in a uniquely terse and epithetic style. Crossing into the Caribbean, try The Kingdom of this World by Alejo Carpentier. Set against the uprising that overthrew the French in Haiti, it pretty much invented magical realism. At least you'll know who's to blame.

So that's that...if you're going anywhere else, drop us a line, and we'll be happy to suggest something from the noripcord annals. As for me? Well I'll be in Argentina. And I'll be reading Money to Burn by Ricardo Piglia. Again. Hard as nails hard-boiled, only they're all perverts on drugs: a bunch of wasters knock off a bank and then kill half the police in Buenos Aires. And then the action starts. Punk in every sense of the word. The punkest novel ever written? I reckon. See you later.