Stuart Evers, author of Ten Stories About Smoking, takes you through the books that influenced him while writing this brilliant début collection of short stories.
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Life: a User's Manual – Georges Perec
Life: a User's Manual is a massive, index-touting, genre-bending work that the author describes as three novels, rather than just one. Sitting squatly on a shelf – all tight type and running to over 600 pages – it is a forbidding looking thing, made all the more awkward when you realise that the structure is based around both a mathematical formula and the Knight's move in chess. Despite all of this, however, within just a few pages, it becomes clear that this is a book that's joyously, incredibly, maddeningly readable: a book that has untold gifts that unravel the more you read it.
First published in French as La Vie Mode d'Emploi, Perec's masterpiece takes place in the fictional building of 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier. It is 23 June 1975 and time has frozen, allowing Perec to wander the rooms of the building telling the stories of the residents or previous occupiers. At the centre of this is Bartlebooth, a man who has devoted most of his life to a grand and ultimately pointless artistic pursuit involving watercolours and jigsaws. Perec shines a light on his obsession and his personal melancholy, creating a character that lingers in the mind long after reading.
Clever, sad, riotous and beautiful, Life: A User's Manual is my desert island novel; the book I would, perhaps most have liked to have written myself.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? – Raymond Carver
Over the years, it's become almost fashionable to be snobbish about Raymond Carver. His minimal prose has been aped so much, so many writers – often erroneously – have been compared to him that his work has strayed into a kind of cliché. Like many writers, his work is easy to parody (see this glorious skit from the Onion), but that should not deflect from its power. This is a writer who understood ordinary people, their day-to-day concerns – and without him American letters would be as dirt-poor as his upbringing.
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? is Carver's début, published the same year I was born, 1976. It is the collection I go back to most of all, the same way other people might go back to a record they love. It contains almost all of my favourite Carver stories, many of which I've read so many times they feel less like stories, and more like part of me. 'Fat' may well be my favourite ever short story (only Haruki Murakami's 'On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl one April Morning' rivals it in my affections), but there are so many dirty gems in here that it pains me to single out just one. 'Are These Actual Miles', 'What’s in Alaska?', 'Neighbors'...the list just goes on and on.
Carver had a profound, deep influence on me and my writing. His economy, his empathy and his concerns – regret, loneliness, moments of joy shining through drudgery – resonated with me as a reader, writer and person. He has had many imitators, but no one in my eyes can match him.
Hangover Square – Patrick Hamilton
Hangover Square is not my favourite of Hamilton's novels – The Slaves of Solitude is, perhaps a much better book – but it is the one that had me scrabbling around to find more books by him. This was not easy in 1999. There was an edition of his Gorse Trilogy listed on the Penguin stocklist but it had fallen out of print. A Thousand Streets Under The Sky – another trilogy, this one centred on a Soho pub – was similarly obscure. Popular in his lifetime, he had fallen through the cracks of literary history. It is heartening, therefore, that interest in him has been resurrected, and copies of all of his books are pretty much now available.
Set in darkest Earls Court, Hangover Square is the unremittingly bleak story of George Harvey Bone. Bone is not only one of life's losers, but suffers from a split-personality and a blind devotion to the gloriously exploitative Netta. It's a thriller, of a sort, but it's also a meditation on the loneliness of urban living, how dreams can be manipulated and shattered, and the human ability to cause pain to others. Hamilton's writing is steeped in cigarette smoke, in smog, in the fug of pubs and bad restaurants. It is also beautiful and haunting.
Billy Liar – Keith Waterhouse
I don't think life in a drab, northern town has ever been as acutely captured as in Keith Waterhouse's touching, funny and all-too-true novel. As much as I enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, this was the book I saw myself in; less caustic outsider, more confused dreamer.
Billy Fisher is engaged to at least two girls, works at an undertakers for the dreadful Mr Shadrack, and spends most of his time in a land of his own invention: Ambrosia. There he is powerful, dynamic, and successful; back in reality he's just a young man without a clue where he fits in to the world, clinging to his pipe-dream of making it as a comedy writer in the city.
This is a book about the power of those dreams and the power of self-delusion; about the stories we tell each other and the stories we tell ourselves. It cuts to the quick of people who are happy with their regular lives and those who want – demand – more than their family or friends have settled for. Waterhouse captures a moment in time when things were beginning to change, and does so with such clarity you can’t help but fall a little bit in love with Billy, despite his cowardice at the end of the novel. A constant delight.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying – George Orwell
I've read Keep the Aspidistra Flying probably more times than any other novel. I re-read it endlessly in my mid-teens, sometimes reading it again straight after finishing it. Orwell’s novel about Gordon Comstock – bookseller, battler against the middle classes, bastard – is uneven; nasty even in places, but it enthralled me to the exclusion of almost every other novel.
Comstock has declared war on money and status. He gives up a job in advertising to work in a bookshop and concentrate on his writing. His only published work, a collection of poetry called Mice, has been remaindered and looks wanly at him on the shelves of the shop. Obsessed with money, class and his own neuroses, Comstock is an unpleasant, pompous, arrogant prig; but at the same time, I can't help rooting for him. His journey through the novel is both depressing and complex: Orwell asking the question of his readers: what side do you really fall on?
Keep the Aspidistra Flying informs so much of what I write, but at a very base level. Again, it's about the power of delusion – this time from as much as societal perspective as a personal one – and the tragedy of broken dreams, but Orwell's keen political brain makes this a more contemplative take on those tropes.
Cold Water – Gwendoline Riley
Gwendoline Riley's debut novel, Cold Water, is a slim volume, set in large type, in which not very much happens. But it's the way things don't happen that truly excited me. Riley is a writer of sublime gifts, of astonishing power considering the narrowness of her writing palate and the geographic scope of her work. All of her novels are worth reading, but Cold Water was the one that made me see the possibility of British writing.
Riley's fiction is like a Hopper painting: still and fragile; beautiful but also suggestive of menace. Cold Water follows Carmel around a damp, bitter Manchester – a place both recognisable, but also given a kind of other-wordly emptiness by Riley's stark prose. Carmel dreams of leaving the city but doesn't do much about it; instead she drinks in dive bars and takes long night-time walks. I wouldn't want her to do anything else.
On reading this in 2002 I was struck by the confidence and the surety of the writing, of Riley's ability to create character and place with just a few words. I was also struck with a huge pang of jealousy. She'd done precisely what I had wanted to do: take American precision but create a very British kind of story. It's taken me almost a decade to come up with my own take on this ambition.
American Pastoral – Philip Roth
Virginia Woolf famously said of Middlemarch that it was one of the few novels written for grown up people: American Pastoral belongs in the same exalted company. Not as bitterly, caustically or violently realised as the novel that preceded it – the jaw-droppingly brilliant Sabbath's Theater – American Pastoral is, nonetheless, one of the most beautifully constructed, endlessly engaging and superlatively written pieces of writing from the 20th century. There are passages – particularly the school reunion dance – that are as close to flawless as I can imagine a novelist ever getting.
The story of Swede Levov – a man for whom everything has worked out, except when he need it most – American Pastoral is both elegiac and venom-spitted, winsome and vituperate. Roth takes forty years of American history and carves out a family that is utterly credible and heartbreaking with equal measure. I only have to look at the word 'shucking' to bring one of the quietly distressing scenes in the book right to the forefront of my mind.
Roth is a writer whose work always seems fresh and vital; his sentences seemingly crafted without any kind of effort. Nowhere is this more evident in American Pastoral: a novel that should serve as an inspiration to everyone who cares about modern fiction.
Liars in Love – Richard Yates
A friend from the US was staying with us in the long, hot summer of 1999. He saw that I was reading Carver, again, and with a look of conspiracy said: 'What you really want to read is Yates. He's the one. Truly he is.' I wrote down the name Revolutionary Road and ordered it from the States. It was the only one our bookshop could import and that title had a profound effect on me. Though perhaps not as much as Richard Yates' stories.
Liars in Love is a collection just as great as its title. Which perhaps suggests just how good it is. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, his debut, is brilliant, but it's this second collection that took hold with me. Restrained, controlled and empathetic, these are the kind of stories you fall into; stories that matter so much it hurts.
Yates understood that the greatest tragedy for the white western world is to have small dreams left unfulfilled: and his stories and novels are testament to that. He inspired a whole generation of writers – including Richard Ford, one my idols – and any examination of American literature without mention of Yates will always be found wanting.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami
I was working in a bookshop in Birmingham and the sales rep left me a copy of this book. He told me I'd love it, but I didn't hold out much hope. It was close to 900 pages; the cover was awful and I'd never heard of the author. I finished it in two nights, intoxicated by its blend of history and the occult, of politics and personal salvation. It was a revelation.
I read everything I could find – not much, as it turned out – by Murakami and became evangelical about his charms. I pressed that book on as many people as I possibly could. Carver and Yates, Orwell and Joyce were not my discoveries: Murakami, or so I thought, was. It was only when I checked out the responses on the Internet – still a slightly new phenomenon back then – that I realised I was far from alone.
At a distance of ten years, I can still remember the thrill of it all: the ideas, the prose, the feeling of reading something new. When I used to talk to people about working in a bookshop and every day having the potential to change someone's life in a very, very small way, it was always this book I had in mind. Apparently, Sophia Coppola was inspired to make Lost in Translation after falling in love with Murakami's work. I hope that's true: I sold her a copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle back in 2000 based on my recommendation...
Lunch Poems – Frank O'Hara
At University I read poetry to the exclusion of all other forms. There were many reasons for this, most of them, it has to be said, down to laziness. I didn't really fall in love with contemporary fiction – swooningly, desperately – until after I'd graduated; up until that time, Americans like Ginsburg, William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley were the poets I came back to time and again. And at the head of that roll-call was Frank O’Hara: a writer who brought New York thrillingly alive.
The simplicity, humour and sexiness of O'Hara's poetry is what give it its power; the immediacy too. These are quick poems, often strikingly simple, that make you feel as though you are being taken into a stranger's quick intimacy. Lunch Poems is his O'Hara's love-letter to the city, to the possibilities it offers. Two of them – Ave Maria and Day Lady Died – are amongst my very favourite bits of writing; revealing more of themselves the more you read them.
O'Hara died at the age of 40 in a bizarre accident involving a beach buggy. It robbed us all of a poet who saw things that we all did, but expressed them better than we could ever hope to ourselves.