1. Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. Yes, yes, I know. But it’s a matter of power, depth, beauty and intensity… With a host of indirect points of view, Conrad manages to put it all in a dizzying perspective, all centred on the hero’s one vital mistake, and then slowly unfolds it, a consequence at a time. I think I could lie, steal, cheat and kill to write something like it.
2. Rodney Bolt’s History Play. This one is the most brilliant, the subtlest, the cleverest, the funniest literary game I ever stumbled across. It helps that I entirely fell for the ruse. It took me a good deal to realise what the antistratfordian slant actually was*, and that half the sources were made up… And by the time I did realise it, I was entirely caught in the game. I wish I knew how to cheat this gracefully.
3. Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. No relation to the previous author, as far as I can tell. Frankly I’m not even all that wild about this one, and certainly haven’t much sympathy for Thomas More – but still. Who wouldn’t want to put on a stage historical characters – and the odd allegorical one – and have them talk of power, God, conscience and philosophy in such a natural, individual and effective way?
4. Emily Dickinson’s Poems. And no, I don’t write poetry, but wouldn’t I like to manage those gem-like images so full of striking clarity, powerful insight and enduring beauty!
5. Steven Runciman’s The Last Days of Constantinople. Excellent history that reads like a novel. It’s rich, vivid, perfectly clear throughout. It makes you root for the defenders, and their doomed, unyielding bravery – never mind that we all know how it ends. Remember Kipling about history and stories? Well, this proves that he was right.
6. Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time. Keeping tense a mystery told through the eyes of a sleuth is confined in bed is a feat in itself. What’s more, this particular mystery is a striking exploration of history, myth, propaganda and truth. Add to the mix a handful of great characters and scintillating dialogue – and you have something very near perfection.
7. Ros Barber’s The Marlowe Papers. And yes, for a fairly orthodox Stratfordian, I read (and like) a good deal of neo-marlovian fiction, don’t I? What can I say? I have a weak spot for Kit Marlowe – bordering on a compulsion to read any and every piece of fiction, non-fiction or theatre he’s in. Even if I don’t share the premises. But this one is in iambic pentameters, and between that and the wonderful characterization, it tells the old story in such a fresh and engrossing manner…
And in truth, it’s hard to stop here. The world is full of books I greatly admire and want to emulate a little or a good deal, and the list grows constantly – which I take as a good sign. Let’s say that what I like and strive for is a combination of ideas, fire, craft, great dialogue, intensity, a sense of humour and complex characters it’s hard to forget. A pretty tall order, I know – but that’s the idea, right?
And what about you? What do you wish you had written yourself?
* Well, I claim comparative innocence: I had never even heard of the Authorship Question, back then…