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In this second instalment of an occasional series, Francis Phillips reveals ten books that made a lasting impression. Feel free to add your own in the combox.
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Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest: I never cease to be moved by re-reading this fictitious study of actual spiritual warfare, first read in my thirties: the clash between good and evil and how our eternal happiness or eternal despair are at stake in this clash. Coupled with this is the wonderfully deft characterisation; the novel’s personalities leap from the page in all their human frailty as they are described.
Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter: I discovered this marvellous historical novel about the struggle between Christianity and paganism in early medieval Norway in my twenties. The author brings enormous erudition to bear on her chosen period, but subsumes it within her story of a passionate love affair and all its ramifications within the family and the local community.
F. Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden: this looks like a child’s book –which is when I first discovered it – but whenever I watch the film of it with my youngest daughter who is disabled, I am reminded of its underlying and eternal themes: two young lives that have been blighted but that are brought back to life by the mutual discovery of a secret walled garden which they also rescue from blight.
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady: Henry James’ novels do reflect a highpoint of the novel form and none more so than in this wonderful, complex study of feminine idealism and slow marital disillusionment, alongside the enduring moral courage of the “Lady” in question.
Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights: I read this in one long session in the airing cupboard (so the light wouldn’t show) overnight at my boarding school; it gripped me then and grips me now, with Bronte’s dramatic and bold depiction of a pagan romantic passion, utterly selfish and utterly consuming.
Boris Pasternak, Dr Zhivago: I read this in my teens, also at school, and felt instantly moved by the dilemma of a cultured and sensitive intellectual, caught up in the violence of actual events (the Russian Revolution) and tragically powerless to defeat them as the Revolution heedlessly destroyed his and millions of other lives.
T. S. Elliot, Collected Poems: I discovered Eliot at school (my introduction to “modern” poetry) and fell under the spell of his wistful, beautiful, enigmatic lines which articulated for me the moral consciousness of 20th century man (or woman.)
Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Illych: I had a youthful morbid preoccupation with death, so felt entirely familiar and at ease with the anxieties and preoccupations of Tolstoy’s protagonist, described in his vigorous and compelling style, as well as deciding that Russia was my spiritual homeland.
Rudyard Kipling, Kim. Kipling was my childhood reading and this book brought together all the ingredients I love in him: mystery, exoticism, adventure, story-telling and the strangeness of India.
James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: also discovered at school in my teens, it resonated with my Irish Catholic background and the dilemma of how to develop an individual voice within the dominating culture of the (Irish) Church; a powerful study, full of black comedy, in Joyce’s incomparable and masterly style.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.