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Cheltenham Literature Festival – the Desert Island Books of Sebastian Faulks

7th October 2019

Sebastian Faulks

Faulks at the Cheltenham Literary Festival

Sebastian Faulks, one of our most revered and successful living authors, arguably isn’t best known for his modesty. Or for happily suffering fools not matching his own prodigious intellect. So the opportunity to hear him talk about those books, written by others, which might keep him entertained on a desert island, sounded like too interesting a proposition to miss.

In conversation with Sophie Raworth on the first Saturday of this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival, a rapt audience heard which eclectic books from his own shelves would accompany Sebastian, a self-confessed ‘voracious reader’, to this isolated island,,,,

1. Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis

Norman Lewis arrives in war-torn Naples as an intelligence officer in 1944. The starving population has devoured all the tropical fish in the aquarium, respectable women have been driven to prostitution and the black market is king. Lewis finds little to admire in his fellow soldiers, but gains sustenance from the extraordinary vivacity of the Italians. There is the lawyer who earns his living bringing a touch of Roman class to funerals, the gynaecologist who “specializes in the restoration of lost virginity” and the widowed housewife who times her British lover against the clock. “Were I given the chance to be born again,” writes Lewis, “Italy would be the country of my choice.”

SF talked about how this remarkable memoir, not published until the 1970s, describes unspeakably desperate living conditions in the city towards the end of WWII, but yet how bleak humour occasionally peeks through the sad, brutal gloom.

2. The Mating Season by P.G. Wodehouse

At Deverill Hall, an idyllic Tudor manor in the picture-perfect village of King’s Deverill, impostors are in the air. The prime example is man-about-town Bertie Wooster, doing a good turn to Gussie Fink-Nottle by impersonating him while he enjoys fourteen days away from society after being caught taking an unscheduled dip in the fountains of Trafalgar Square. Bertie is of course one of nature’s gentlemen, but the stakes are high: if all is revealed, there’s a danger that Gussie’s simpering fiancée Madeline may turn her wide eyes on Bertie instead.

It’s a brilliant plan – until Gussie himself turns up, imitating Bertram Wooster. After that, only the massive brain of Jeeves (himself in disguise) can set things right.

SF has been asked by the descendants of Wodehouse to write a new Jeeves story. He planes to reverse the foles of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster….

3. Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin

When David meets the sensual Giovanni in a bohemian bar, he is swept into a passionate love affair. But his girlfriend’s return to Paris destroys everything. Unable to admit to the truth, David pretends the liaison never happened – while Giovanni’s life descends into tragedy.

This is probably the book that SF was most animated about taking to his desert island. He admires James Baldwin, a writer growing up in poverty in 1930s Harlem, and about how he later became politicised. This novel tells of a passionate gay affair in Paris in the 1930s, superbly and sensitively written, but how the protagonist succumbs to marrying a girlfriend. SF also praised the way a sex scene with an American girl was written.

4. Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald

From the Booker Prizewinning author of ‘Offshore’ and ‘The Blue Flower’; a funny, touching, authentic story of life at Broadcasting House during the Blitz.

The human voices of Penelope Fitzgerald’s novel are those of the BBC in the first years of the World War II, the time when the Concert Hall was turned into a dormitory for both sexes, the whole building became a target for enemy bombers, and in the BBC – as elsewhere – some had to fail and some had to die, but where the Nine O’Clock News was always delivered, in impeccable accents, to the waiting nation.

SF admires the dry, sardonic writing of Fitzgerald, ‘a journalist who constantly wrongfoots the reader‘.

5. The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore

Since the publication of Self-Help, her first collection of stories, Lorrie Moore has been hailed as one of the greatest and most influential voices in American fiction. Her ferociously funny, soulful stories tell of the gulf between men and women, the loneliness of the broken-hearted and the yearned-for, impossible intimacies we crave. Gathered here for the first time in a beautiful hardback edition is the complete stories along with three new and previously unpublished in book form: Paper Losses, The Juniper Tree, Debarking.

SF loves this American writer’s female perspective of life. She tells funny, risky and daring stories, sometimes in as few as ten succinct, powerful pages. In SF’s opinion, Lorrie Moore’s short stories are better than her novels.

Separately, Ms Raworth managed to get her guest to admit that ‘A Possible Life is one of the most favourite books from his own hand:

Terrified, a young prisoner in the Second World War closes his eyes and pictures himself going out to bat on a sunlit cricket ground in Hampshire.

Across the courtyard in a Victorian workhouse, a father too ashamed to acknowledge his son.

A skinny girl steps out of a Chevy with a guitar; her voice sends shivers through the skull.

Soldiers and lovers, parents and children, scientists and musicians, risk their bodies and hearts in search of connection – some key to understanding what makes us the people we become.

Provocative and profound, Sebastian Faulks’s dazzling novel journeys across continents and time to explore the chaos created by love, separation and missed opportunities. From the pain and drama of these highly particular lives emerges a mysterious consolation: the chance to feel your heart beat in someone else’s life.

And as a Desert Island bonus, we were sent out into the Cheltenham night listening to SF’s favourite piece of music – This Old Heart of Mine, by The Isley Brothers. ‘Tamla Motown was born out of slaves moving north from the southern States, to the Motor City of Detroit.It engenders a sense of freedom, and the music is uplifting. This Old Heart of Mine is just a joyful song‘.

Andrew for the TripFiction team

With thanks to the Cheltenham Literature Festival 2019.

Follow Sebastian on Twitter and via his website.

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