Here are some of the novels I’m commemorating with this book club thing (we can’t afford to get multiple copies of “Ulysses”, Proust or Musil to leave around the city for free, so they don’t appear. Can’t seem to procure anything of Beckett’s cheap either, no thrift editions available). Nietzsche and Cioran don’t make it either as, a) no cheap copies available b) we’re sticking to novels for now (except for “The Rebel” which has somehow slipped in). But I recommend all of the above: I revere these people like some do U2 or Manchester United. Lyndon Morgans
- The Great Gatsby (F.Scott Fitzgerald)
I remember sitting in my mother’s back-kitchen in South Wales reading this book in an edition with Robert Redford (and was it Mia Farrow?) on the cover (the film had recently appeared). Fitzgerald was the great chronicler of the Jazz Age, and this is the story of Jay Gatsby’s moral decline, doubling as a critique of the American dream as it was dreamt almost a hundred years ago. The experts say Fitzgerald wrote better books than this but Gatsby‘s the one that’s always stayed in my mind.
- Sons & Lovers (D.H.Lawrence)
Here’s one I first read in the mid-70s, still back home in Wales: Lawrence’s novel is an oustanding account of growing up in a working-class family in the Nottinghamshire coalfields in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. There are just so many brilliant things in this novel that it really would be stupid not to read it. (I saw a BBC TV adaptation in the 1980s and fell for the actress playing Miriam: years later I happened to meet her, but was too shy to make my move).
- Crime & Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
This is among the greatest novels ever written: Raskolnikov, a student in St Petersburg, kills a vile old pawnbroker and his sanity begins to unravel under the pressures of the ensuing police investigation and his own feelings of overwhelming guilt (I was in St Petersburg a few years ago and a friend showed me the apartment-block where Dostoyevsky had set the murder, he knew I’d be thrilled). This is Literature with a capital L and all you have to ask yourself is: Do I have the balls for it?
- Dubliners (James Joyce)
It’s compulsory to tackle James Joyce sooner or later, and most start here with these 15 stories of Dublin life in the early 1900s; Joyce wrote these some years before he launched himself full-tilt into the radical experiments with style he’s famous for. All the stories are wonderful, but if you’re really pushed for time, at least be sure to read the final one, “The Dead”. (I’ve never yet visited Dublin in case it’s no longer like it is in Joyce, I’d only be disappointed). “Dubliners” is a great book (and, incidentally, the name of a great band).
- A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man (James Joyce)
They say this was the first novel in English to use the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique: I couldn’t say, but I can say it’s a brilliant book (and from here it’s but a skip-and-a-jump to “Ulysses”). Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s alter-ego, is one of the great characters in fiction, and if I had son and he couldn’t be Iggy Pop, then I’d want him to be Stephen.
- Metamorphosis (Franz Kafka)
This bureaucratic, technological nightmare we’ve built ourselves is the world Kafka warned us about in “The Trial” and “The Castle”. There’s no going back now, but there are still Kafka’s wonderful books to shore against the coming horror. This is the one where Gregor Samsa wakes up and finds he’s metamorphosed into a dung-beetle. I couldn’t even say what’s it a symbol of, but it is one of the most haunting, riveting symbols in all art.
- Doctor Faustus (Thomas Mann)
A retelling of the Faust tale (my favourite myth, since you ask). Adrian Leverkuhn, a composer, (the character was based on Nietzsche), sells his soul to the Devil in return for the inspiration to create an unprecedented work of art, the pact leading, inevitably, to death and madness. Leverkuhn symbolises, too, Germany itself, and its accommodation with the Nazi dream of a thousand-year Reich. The long pages on musical theory can be skipped (me, I ploughed dutifully through them) without detriment to the ‘plot’ (though plot isn’t exactly the point in a book like this). This is an awesome work (I use that word in the sense it used to have before a whole generation gang-banged it into meaninglessness) by a writer of genius. I was halfway through it when my bag got stolen: the thief had been after my diary (it’s a long story) but I was more upset by the loss of Doctor Faustus, and had to rush out to get another copy, it really felt like a life-and-death thing at the time.
- Darkness At Noon (Arthur Koestler)
Though Soviet Russia is never explicitly mentioned, the catalyst for this book were the purges and show-trialsof old Bolsheviks in Stalin’s USSR in the late 1930s. Rubashov, a lifelong servant of the Party, is imprisoned and urged to sign a groundless confession others have prepared for him as his final sacrifice in the name of the cause (the Party here stands as a symbol for all and any forms of totalitarian regime or ideology). Though Rubashov has been responsible for the ruin and deaths of many innocent people in his long years of service, he commands our sympathy as he struggles through a series of day-dreams, soliloquies and intense interrogations to make sense of his life, the meaning of history and truth, and strives to come to terms with his impending fate. Though the outcome is inevitable, Koestler invests the telling with all the drama and excitement of a good thriller.
- The Trial (Franz Kafka)
Scarier than Stephen King could ever be, this tale of Joseph K., accused of some nameless crime and subjected to the endless and pointless preliminaries of an ever-deferred trial, unfolds in a claustrophobic and unsettling world peopled by lunatics and conniving bureaucrats (hey, welcome to the Information Age!) and is one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. Readers and critics will argue about its meaning and Joseph K’s guilt or otherwise for as long as books exist, but on my first encounter I assumed he was guilty of simply being alive, of just being human and born into the world, and daring to ponder some of the implications of that: for me, this interpretation seemed to chime nicely with all that befell K. in the rest of the book, and although I’ve read many other theories since — some of them quite brilliant — K. as a symbol of the human condition still works for me. (“K.? He’s as guilty as hell!” guffawed Orson Welles). (I used to have a Franz Kafka badge and wore it for years until a girl who I thought was leaning in close to kiss me liberated it from my lapel and vanished into the crowd after a gig at Dingwalls).
- The Outsider (Albert Camus)
The best book ever written by a goalie. In the 70s, just as you were either a Beatles or a Stones man, so, when it came to your choice of existential-loner-adrift-in-an-absurd-and-indifferent-universe you sided with Sartre’s Roquentin (in his novel Nausea) or Camus’s Meursault, (‘hero’ of The Outsider), according to temperament, I suppose (I rooted for both, as I did the bands). Meursault’s weird, he can’t (won’t?) feign the emotional responses a decent, hypocritical society expects of him, so when he shoots an Arab (it was the oppressive heat of the sun made him do it) he goes on trial as much for his otherness, his refusal to play the game by the rules, as for the murder itself. There are elements of Camus’s own biography in his hero, but only up to a point: Meursault would never have prospered in goal, he’d have seen that whether he saves the ball or not really is a matter of no importance whatever in the meaningless world we inhabit, and so just let too many in.
- How Green Was My Valley (Richard Llewellyn)
An elegy for a vanished way of life, set in the Rhondda coalfields in the late nineteenth century. I read this as a boy, drawn to it because I too lived in a mining community in the valleys and we had the same name as the family in the novel (I have a cousin with the same name as the book’s central character). I remember the scene where Huw spies on a woman giving birth scared the living hell out of me. It’s beautifully written, Llewellyn often cranking the lyricism up to ten, but I’m such a sucker for that and I remember the book often made me, er … a bit tearful (this was before I discovered tight-arsed rock n’roll and started worshipping at the Tabernacle Of Cool, of course; now I’ve got balls of steel and never cry). I see How Green was My Valley is now published as a Penguin Classic, and rightly so.
- Naked Lunch (William Burroughs)
“Where do you belong? Squaresville or the Interzone?” Bill seemed to be demanding (and in a tone suggesting he half already knew we were just going to let him down). But he was right, it was important to take sides, declare your colours. This novel was a rocket right up the straights’ nether regions, the more depraved and disgusting and often downright incomprehensible it got the more it felt like Bill was really ramming it to ’em, with us less experienced hands cheering him on. Boy could Bill be scary, but he had to be! I mean, I knew those Mugwumps personally, they drank beer, wore rugby shirts and made the walk up to town riskier than a picnic in Comanche country! And liked shit music too! Naked Lunch a satire? I hope not. ….. It’s a pity Bill’s gone, we need guys like him more than ever…..
- Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
The story of one of the greatest (and most charming) monsters in all of literature, Humbert Humbert, and his obsession with Dolores, a 12-year old girl. Every page dazzles, the overall effect is of a firework display of writerly brilliance, and it’s funny and tender and poetic and the subject matter alone guaranteed to unsettle, the whole experience of reading the novel heightened by the tingle of being somewhere ‘forbidden’, like finding yourself alone, with no money and in the wrong part of the city after midnight. (I was thinking of this book while I was writing “With Her Pop-Art Lips & Cappuccino Skin” for the “Haiku” album).
- Le Grand Meaulnes or The Lost Domain (Henri Alain -Fournier)
I came across this as a set book on my A-Level French course, and I can’t think of any other novel like it. So many books are described as ‘haunting’, but, I promise, this one genuinely is: it’s about the magic of childhood and not wanting to leave it behind, the romance of adolescence (Jesus, that’s my whole life summed up! How could I not love this book!) and it feels more like a myth or a fairy story than a novel. A French lady of my acquaintance once dismissed it as ‘sentimental’ and I didn’t know whether to write her off as a philistine or suddenly take a new interest in her for the tantalising glimpse of alluring cruelty betrayed in her sneering dismissal…..
So mix into the pot a bit of Brel, Cohen, Joni, Dylan, Scott Walker, etc. plus a pinch of two of any of these books (plus other books by these authors and others), add the secret ingredient I’m not at liberty to divulge, and hey presto, you get Songdog!