The author, most recently, of “Autumn” ranks “Invitation to a Beheading” among the great books: “Nabokov treats us to, then liberates us from, the bad farce of totalitarianism. What a blast.”
I don’t have a night stand. If I read at night in bed or too close to sleep-time, I lie awake thinking in the dark for hours. But there are books piled randomly everywhere around the house, and I read randomly from them — the little pillar of books here next to me at the moment is formed by Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades”; Han Kang’s “Human Acts”; Kate Tempest’s “Let Them Eat Chaos”; Dilys Powell’s “The Villa Ariadne”; Jenni Fagan’s “The Sunlight Pilgrims”; Gillian Beer’s book about Lewis Carroll’s Alice, “Alice in Space”; and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s “Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World.”
What’s the last great book you read?
“Invitation to a Beheading,” in which Nabokov treats us to, then liberates us from, the bad farce of totalitarianism. What a blast. I recently read “Pale Fire” for the first time too (so am now forever inoculated against critics), and the energy in it, the vision, the richness, the force of voice, the panache, the detail (e.g., the gift of the source of the word “eavesdrop”) — reading Nabokov is always liberating, the joy of not just the pure originality but also the knowing what safe hands you’re in speeding along the unsafe edge of the curve high up the side of the mountain.
What’s the best classic novel you recently read for the first time?
“1984.” I’ve read a lot of Orwell, but not this, till last year. The Two Minutes Hate — the Two Minutes Tweet? “A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, . . . an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.” Plus, a rereading can feel like a first-time read in itself, which is another great thing about books and time; we think we know them, but as we change with time, so do they, with us. And to take this thought a little further: Over the past few years the poet Jamie McKendrick has been producing new translations of the works by the great Italian writer Giorgio Bassani that go to make up his “Il Romanzo di Ferrara,” and something, maybe McKendrick’s understanding of the poet in Bassani, means that the reread is a kind of new discovery. I felt the same about Sandra Smith’s translation of Camus’s “L’Étranger.” It’s like she’d studied and understood the heartbeat of the original syntax. I wish someone would ask her to retranslate all of Camus.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“Origins and Elements,” poems by the Orkney film-poet Margaret Tait; well, any of her books — she’s a maverick, quietly seminal in both the film form and the written form. You can see some of her films online in the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive, but the poetry is harder to track down. It’s unique, conversational, visionary, beat, thrawn and thoughtful. Or there’s “O Caledonia,” a novel by Elspeth Barker, a sparky, funny work of genius about class, romanticism, social tradition and literary tradition, and one of the best least-known novels of the 20th century, I reckon.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
This question just made my brain pixelate, and now the inside of my head’s a roaring celebration. That first fragment of a second, this is who came through the door: Toni Morrison, Nicola Barker, Jan Verwoert, Margaret Atwood, Giorgio Agamben, Kate Atkinson, Alasdair Gray, Helen Oyeyemi, Laurie Anderson, Marina Warner, Elif Shafak, Kamila Shamsie, Paul Virilio. . . . That’s just the start of the party.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
I don’t avoid anything. If I’m working on a book I keep the weekends free, if I can, for reading, and I choose what to read more or less randomly — though there’s no such thing as reading randomly, really, since one of the gifts of reading is that the satisfactions and the astonishments of serendipity always kick in sooner or later.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
The earth moves, for me, when the read comes together on all its levels, from syntax to instinctual platelet level. Also always really exciting to me is the crossing-over the written work does into the other art forms, prose into poetry into music into choreography into visual — text into textural.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I like reading pretty much everything.
How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or simultaneously? Morning or night?
Well, I love all the ways of reading. The more the better. But I naturally prefer the form of the book. We’ve loved it for centuries, and no wonder: Look at it; its always-opening-to-something, its two wings, its two sides making one form, its act of opening us as we open it — you can’t “open” a screen like you can literally open a book. And a book always holds the reminder of the organic world, the trees that went to make it — and the word “spine” was originally used for the spine of the book because of the spine of the creatures whose skins were once used to bind books, the place where the skin folded over the creature’s own spine. That’s how close to the process of life, death, time, growth and oxygen the form of the book is.
How do you organize your books?
Alphabetically on the shelves, haphazardly in the little ziggurats round the house.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I’ve thought about this, and I really can’t tell. It’d depend on the people and their preconceptions. My shelves themselves haven’t any — preconceptions, I mean.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
A first edition of Plath’s (or Victoria Lucas’s) “The Bell Jar.” It’s been well loved in its life, it’s fairly barreled and slopy, and there are the remnants of what looks like Chinese takeaway on some of the pages. But opening that package and finding it there was the closest I suspect I’ll ever come to being given a sports car or a pony.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Emma Woodhouse (for being both heroine and anti-).
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Because I was the youngest, at the back of four older siblings, as a child I read as if I was 10 years older than I really was, which means I came to children’s literature late, read a lot of the children’s classics in my 30s and 40s, and read writers like Joyce and Orwell and Swift as a child sort of by chance, because they were on the (brilliant) Scottish secondary-school curriculum and happened to be in the books cupboard above the bed when I was 7 or 8. It also means I’ve never really been able to see the division between the child reading state and the adult reading state, which is probably why I love Tove Jansson’s works, which are themselves near-interchangeables; her fiction for adults written with a clarity, openness, foresight and refusal to compromise on the darks and lights, all preserved from her children’s fiction, and her children’s fiction imbued with an adult philosophy, experience, wisdom, generosity, forgiveness.
If you could require the prime minister to read one book, what would it be? The American president?
I’ll give them both “King Lear.” It’s good and prescient about divided kingdoms. I’ll add a copy of “Macbeth” (“the Scottish play”) as a special Scottish gift for your president. And in case they don’t rate Shakespeare, or think “Shakespeare, yawn, that was then, this is now. . . ,” I’ll send Mrs. May a copy of José Saramago’s “The Stone Raft,” a book about what happens when a piece of the Iberian Peninsula breaks off mainland Europe and floats off by itself, and for your president, I’ll add a cubit to his name with “Trumpet,” by Jackie Kay, a novel whose humanism, humor and vision demolish anyone’s urge to think they’ve got the right to decide about, categorize or dismiss other human beings.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
I’d never organize a literary dinner party. The very thought. No, instead I’ll phone the great 20th-century photographer (and superb writer) Lee Miller, up in heaven — she became a gourmet surrealist cook in her later years, and I’d love to try that bright blue fish dish she made — and I’ll ask her to invite Katherine Mansfield, Colette and Simone de Beauvoir. And we’ll need a musician or two. Stéphane Grappelli. Nina Simone. Ask Harpo Marx to bring his harp. I’ll bring the Talisker and sit shyly in the corner with George Mackay Brown.
Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful?
“There But for The.”
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Whatever it was, I’ll try and finish it later. Sometimes books don’t deliver till their very last pages.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
Sebastian Barry, who invariably grants that all our ordinary lived lives are courageous, warm, messy, lyrical, rich in their poverty and risky, grand and small and symphonic. Or Lydia Davis, who’ll write the perfect three lines that do all the work of a 3,000-page biography.
What do you plan to read next?
Everything I can.
THE NEW YORK TIMES