Julian Barnes: ‘When I first read EM Forster, I thought he was a bit wet’

My earliest reading memory
Almost certainly one of the Noddy books. I deeply believed in the reality of Toyland and wanted to drive a car like Noddy’s (even though it was a taxi).

My favourite book growing up
Speed Six by Bruce Carter, about a pre-war Bentley, painted British racing green, which takes on and beats various postwar foreign cars – Maseratis and so on – at Le Mans. Perfect fodder for a little Little Englander.

The book that changed me as a teenager
I was dressed in army uniform for a Combined Cadet Force field day, and at lunchtime took out of my pack my Penguin copy of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Despite the distance of time and place and language and social milieu, I knew that this was much more like what life was about than the scenes going on around me.

The writer who changed my mind
Shakespeare, Flaubert and the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The book that made me want to be a writer
There was certainly no single book, and I never thought I could “be a writer” – my confidence was too frail for that. I hoped to write a single book and get it published. Thereafter, things got a bit out of hand. I’m definitely a writer now.

The book or author I came back to
EM Forster. When I first read him, in my teens and 20s, I thought he was worthy but a bit wet. Forty years later, I read his description of a ghastly English breakfast served on the early-morning boat train from Harwich and realised he could be very funny. Then I tried the novels again and saw what a master he was – deeply serious, fiercely liberal, slyly amused.

The book I reread
At five-yearly intervals, approximately, I reread Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time and Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Beginning of Spring. Each has its own mystery and magic, which I am still working out.

The book I could never read again
Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which 50 years ago seemed luscious and sensual, filled with people and deeds of which I had no experience and feared I never would. I expect I would now find it merely florid and pretentious.

The book I discovered later in life
Jane Eyre, clearly one of the three greatest novels of the 19th century, along with Persuasion and Middlemarch.

The books I am currently reading
David Storey’s painful memoir, A Stinging Delight, and Svetlana Alexievich’s Last Witnesses.

My comfort read
It’s hardly comfort, because his view of life and human motivation is so pessimistic, but I always have a Simenon close at hand. Nowadays, it’s his romans durs rather than the Maigrets. And there are so many of them, they will never run out!




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