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Support your local independent bookshop - here's a reading list

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DURRELL Lawrence - Two cards Signed 1980 regarding the genesis of his novel Nunquam

As the Covid-19 situation drags on, businesses are struggling. On the high street shop after shop is closing. The latest lockdown will probably see more closures, but...

One bright spot is a local independent bookshop, The Open Book, and I am doing my bit to keep them in business. Then again, as the theatres are all shut, I have rather more time for reading.

Further afield, some of the great bookshops, known for their history as well as their books, are facing exceptionally difficult time.  First and foremost is Shakespeare and Company in Paris.  Whenever I'm in Paris, I head straight to Shakespeare and Company, check out their books and chat with the friendly and very knowledgeable staff. A lot of friends are going to get Shakespeare and Co tote bags for Christmas (I just hope they don't all read this!).

There are so many other small, independent bookshops which need your support right now as well - the local, helpful shops where staff will advise you, hunt out books for you and talk about books all day. Wherever you are in the world, there is probably one near you, and they would be happy to see you or at least get an email from you. A great many of them have websites and will take online orders, a lifeline at the moment.

So, what should you be reading?  Well, I can give you a brief reading list of my own - or perhaps not so brief.

As the travel and other restrictions dragged on, I decided that it was finally time I tackled the Decameron. It's the sort of thing one really should read at a time like this. The short stories that make up the whole are entertaining and generally very brief. In the twentieth century, other writers perfected the form - Aldous Huxley, Isak Dinesen, Marcel Aymé. W. Somerset Maugham and, of course, Saki, all of them excellent in their different ways. 

Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories are generally short and a must for winter months, but he also wrote some terrific supernatural tales - The Ring of Thoth is highly recommended for a truly scary short story.

Mention of Conan Doyle brings me to detective stories. I have, very occasionally, come across someone who dislikes detective stories.  I think there are very few of these about - most people like a mystery, and in times of stress they are hugely engrossing, distracting, and give one the satisfying thought that, although there may be murders, mayhem and destruction, the detective will eventually restore order.

Let's start with the queen of detective fiction, Agatha Christie. Personally, I find Miss Marple more satisfying than Poirot. There is something special about all those murders in cosy Cotswold villages, surely the most murder-prone area in the world, at least in fiction. For those who have yet to discover Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, of her Partners in Crime series they are highly recommended, being light-hearted, frivolous and flippant - something to cheer you when the world is at sixes and sevens.

Even better than Christie, in my view, is Dorothy L. Sayers.  One should really start with the first of her novels, but the one that first entranced me was Murder Must Advertise, followed by Have His Carcase and Gaudy Night.  Intellectually satisfying and with some of the best-rounded characters in this sort of fiction, one can spend hours oblivious to the world outside, which is occasionally essential for one's sanity.

Not quite a detective story, but half-detection, half-adventure and entirely a very clever joke, there is always Mark Gatiss' The Vesuvius Club.  It is imaginative and entertaining, but definitely not for Maiden Aunts. . . unless of course, your Maiden Aunt resembles the heroine of Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt, who was much more likely to raise other people's eyebrows than her own, another life-affirming novel for times of stress.

Still on the theme of escapism, it is difficult to know where to start, but three English writers stand out, all of them writing in the decades after the First World War, when so many were just trying to forget what had passed. My top three would be P.G. Wodehouse, E.F. Benson and Nancy Mitford. Wodehouse especially is pure sunshine - particularly his Blandings novels. Someone once told me that Tolstoy was supposed to have read and enjoyed one of Wodehouse's early works. I have never been able to ascertain whether there is any truth to this, but  Wodehouse had produced several early novels during the last decade of Tolstoy's life, so it is not entirely impossible, however improbable it seems.  If it were true, it would just go to prove that Wodehouse, even in his immature work, could brighten the world of that most serious of writers.

Attractive though all these titles may be, it was a serious historical study which kept me busy, and very happily so, at the start of the lockdown - Orlando Figes' The Europeans.

The Europeans charts the story of the lives and peregrinations of Pauline Viardot, her husband, and her lover Ivan Turgenev. It managed to combine two themes close to my heart - the development of a pan-European culture and the growth of train travel as a means to encourage it. This book reinforced my view that the advance of the railways was one of the (if not the) greatest accomplishments of the nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, there was no new title from Simon Schama to see me through this period - I have already read all of them! A quick look at the letters I choose for my stock will leave readers in no doubt that my favourite is, of course, Citizens, a virtually day-by-day account of the French Revolution, from the events leading up to it to the fall of Robespierre. 

Another writer who has the gift of making history come alive in narrative and anecdote is John Julius Norwich.  The Middle Sea, a history of the Mediterranean, is both interesting and entertaining and to be recommended. He was also exceptionally interested in Venice and in Byzantium - you can see a pattern here, can't you? - and wrote brilliantly on both.

The list of historians whose works I turn to for reference or for enlightenment is a long one, but I will just add Simon Sebag Montefiore (Jerusalem, the Biography), Stella Tillyard (Aristocrats and Citizen Lord), Peter Frankopan (The Silk Roads) David Olusoga (looking forward to Civilisations: First Contact, next on my 'to be read' list).

So far, so British.  But what of the rest of Europe, and, indeed, the rest of the world? How sad to limit one's scope ... so here is a quick trip around Europe, at least, to give you ideas, with titles in English.

Two great French classics should be better-known abroad, Stendhal's The Red and the Black and André Gide's The Counterfeiters. Stendhal was on Napoleon's ill-fated Russian campaign and present at the burning of Moscow. Napoleon doesn't appear in The Red and the Black, but his presence is felt. As for André Gide, it is quite possible that The Counterfeiters would never have been written had it not been for his encounter with Oscar Wilde some decades earlier. The tone of the novel is not at all Wildean, but the encounter was an important moment in his life.

For fun, adventure and taking you to destinations around the globe, there is Jules Verne. The English-speaking world knows him well through Around the World in Eighty Days, but my own favourite is Michel Strogoff, a frantic trip across the Russian steppes.

Getting back to detective fiction, Georges Simenon's Maigret stories are gripping psychological studies, and there are enough of them to keep one busy for a very long time. I should mention, though, that Simenon wasn't really French - as Poirot would quickly remind us, he was a great Belgian writer.

Germany has a great literary tradition, and a great love of poetry - which can be difficult to translate adequately. Goethe, of course, is at the pinnacle, but he is far from the only great writer. I would recommend a look at the works of Heinrich von Kleist, especially The Marquise von O. As I can't resist bringing Napoleon into the discussion, Goethe had a very happy encounter with Napoleon, who made a detour to speak with, or rather listen to, the great poet.  Kleist, on the other hand, whose country had been so devastated by Napoleon, detested him.

Among 20th century writers, I particularly like Heinrich Boll, whose work is often overshadowed by other post-war German writers, and unfairly so.

Apart from the great playwrights, Spanish literature used to begin and end with Cervantes for me, until I discovered a contemporary novelist, Arturo Perez Reverte. I am now a dedicated fan; his Painter of Battles is rivetting, and his mysteries - try The Fencing Master - dark and captivating.

These days, Italian literature appears dominated by Elena Ferrante, and her Neapolitan novels will certainly keep one occupied and interested for several weeks. But, looking back to the twentieth century, there are three other writers I would choose. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard transports you to another world, another era, in the most resplendent manner. I saw the Visconti film before I read the book, and was thrilled to discover that the book is even better than the film. I haven't met many in Britain who read Alberto Moravia, but have been an admirer of his work ever since I discovered The Conformist (yet another novel I discovered thanks to a splendid film). And of course Umberto Eco will keep you very busy with his elegant, often playful, intellectual games.

I hardly dare tackle Russian literature, dominated by War and Peace (you didn't expect a Napoleonic history enthusiast to leave that out, did you?), not to mention Anna Karenina, all of Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Pasternak ... but I would put in an especially good word for Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, written during the days of Stalinist repression and impossible to categorize, a must-read.

I should stop soon, the reading list could go on and on ... But I will end with two English writers abroad. Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet will instantly transport you into another world, fascinating and mysterious. I was guided to it while at university, and will remain eternally grateful to the fellow-student who told me I must read it.  I did, and have re-read it time and again since. It never palls.

The other writer who has seen me through the frustration of lockdown is Patrick Leigh-Fermor. Reading A Time of Gifts, the tale of his epic walk across Europe (or rather, the start of the epic) made me dream of the days when I will once again be able to travel without concern of quarantine or restrictions. And, like Durrell, his prose is endless pleasure - the best possible antidote to difficult times.


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