Saturday, January 12, 2013

Edward St. Aubyn: By the Book

Published: January 10, 2013 - New York Times

If the author of the Patrick Melrose novels could meet any character from literature, he would choose Isabel Archer. And then he’d propose marriage.

Edward St. Aubyn - Illustration by Jillian Tamaki
When and where do you like to read? Any reading habits of note?

There is a marked difference between my reading habits when I am writing a novel (as I am now) and when I am not. Between novels, I try to read in a focused and disciplined way, choosing a theme or a genre to get to know better. The last time it was memoir and autobiography. The things I remember best were enjoying Martin Amis’s “Experience,” Gore Vidal’s “Palimpsest” and V. S. Pritchett’s “A Cab at the Door”; being exasperated by Rousseau’s “Confessions”; and being re-dazzled by rereading Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory.”
When I am writing, I read much less and much more haphazardly. I generally have half a dozen books on the go at once and read only a few pages a day. There is usually a personal reason driving my choices at this time: Terry Eagleton gave the first lecture I attended at Oxford; a friend of mine is appearing in Pinter’s “Old Times” this month; another friend of mine is quite rightly obsessed with Alice Munro. . . 
What book is on your night stand right now?
“The Event of Literature,” by Terry Eagleton; “Too Much Happiness,” by Alice Munro; Harold Pinter’s “Old Times”; and Edith Wharton’s “Custom of the Country.”

What’s the last book that made you cry?
I don’t remember the last time I cried over a book. This is not due to hardheartedness — I often cry in movies, and I cry almost uninterruptedly in front of the news — but due rather to the technical gaze that I bring to writing: I am always thinking about how it’s being done and other ways it might have been done instead, which means that if something is deeply and effectively sad in a book, I would be more inclined to aesthetic bliss than to tears.

The last book that made you laugh?
“Mrs Henderson,” a short story by Francis Wyndham.

The last book that made you furious?
Do you have a witness protection program?

What were your favorite books as a child? Do you have a favorite character or hero from children’s literature?
The first book I fell in love with was “Little Toot,” the story of an adorable tugboat operating out of New York Harbor. Looked down on by all the big tugboats, Little Toot turns into a hero when he braves a storm that none of his haughty detractors dare to face. He was my first hero, overcoming impossible odds and being far more courageous than all the big bullies around him.
In mid-childhood, my favorite book was “La Chèvre de Monsieur Seguin.” The eponymous goat was a more ambiguous hero than Little Toot, a figure of suicidal disobedience and hedonism, but also of heroic defiance. He knows there’s a wolf in the mountains, which has eaten all of Monsieur Seguin’s previous goats, but he still runs away to spend a day feasting on a riot of Alpine flowers. At sunset he sees the long shadow of the wolf stretching across the grass and knows that he is doomed. Nevertheless, he lowers his head and charges, thinking, “As long as I can last until the dawn.” I didn’t read in those days with a technical gaze and this story never failed to make me cry. 

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