A (very) few Rare Books


As a musician, I get to travel for much of the year; and as a traveller, I get to read a lot – whether on planes or trains, in bed when unable to sleep because of jetlag, or whatever. And so I get through a lot of books. In my choice of reading (as with my recital programmes) I like to alternate the great classics with lesser-known works; and I thought that I might pass on here some of my favourite comparatively rare books, in case anyone might be interested.

First, the Howard Webber section: In the ‘enthusiasms’ section on this site I wrote about the novels of an almost-forgotten author, R C Hutchinson. (I still swear by most of his books – not all of them, but most. Works such as ‘A Child Possessed’ and ‘Testament’ are, I think, masterpieces.) Some years ago, I received a message through the site from a gentleman named Howard Webber, who wrote that he shared my love of Hutchinson’s books. He also casually mentioned a couple of other little-known authors whom he thought I might enjoy; and that has led to a long correspondence (and a couple of meetings in person) during which he has recommended many books, many of them pretty much unknown or forgotten – and all of them worth reading. Here are a few:

Her Son’s Wife, by Dorothy Canfield: Canfield was very famous in her time, but somehow her reputation (unlike that of her great friend Willa Cather) has wavered since her death. Her Son’s Wife shows the humbling and humanising of a cold woman – and poses a multi-layered moral question that remains uncomfortably unanswered. A memorable novel.

The Harsh Voice, by Rebecca West: I found these four novelettes, each with a sting in the tail that took me by surprise (not that I am hard to surprise!), fascinating and wonderfully vivid.

The Way the Crow Flies, by Anne-Marie Macdonald: This lengthy – too lengthy, perhaps – novel by a contemporary Canadian writer, showing the darkness behind some seemingly innocent family lives in small-town Canada, is disturbing, moving, and impossible to forget. Upsetting – and involves quite an outlay of time; but it is worth reading.

Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon: Science-fiction is really not my thing; but then, it wasn’t Olaf Stapledon’s thing either, even though I gather that this book has something of a cult following among science-fiction aficionados. It is hard to pigeonhole it, in fact – an extraordinary fantasy novel of unique imagination and intelligence.

George Gissing: New Grub Street and The Nether World: Perhaps my favourite reading of all is from the world of Victorian novels – Dickens, Trollope, Wilkie Collins, George Eliot, etc. Gissing isn’t nearly as well known as these, and his stories tend to be fairly unremittingly dark; but they are extremely powerful. He had a burning social conscience – Jeremy Corbyn must love him. His sympathy for his downtrodden characters is moving.

Another person who has recommended many wonderful books to me is Edith Aron, a writer and translator herself (and the mother of my girlfriend Joanna Bergin!) The books she’s given me are almost all European books, in translation. I read rather few books originally in other languages – but that’s my loss, of course. I’m so glad that she introduced me to the following:

Joseph Roth: The Radetzky March

A truly marvellous fin-de-siecle story – a celebrated classic in Germany and Austria, but surprisingly little-known to English-speaking readers.

Daniel Kehlmann: Fame

I loved this book of connected short stories for its satisfying intelligence and skill – somewhat reminiscent of Julian Barnes’ History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters.

And finally – two novels written about music and musicians. Many writers turn their hands to writing about music; but for musicians, it is very obvious whether the author is a real music insider or an outsider. That is not necessarily a quality judgement – many non-musicians (Proust, for instance) can write extraordinarily perceptively and interestingly about music; but somehow it is still not the same as a trained musician’s approach. Embarking on both of the following novels, I knew immediately that they were written by professionally-trained players – it was obvious.

Henry Handel Richardson: Maurice Guest.

Not a comfortable novel – a dire warning of the dangers of obsessive love; but a memorable one, by an Australian female writer (another Howard Webber recommendation!) from the late 19th/first half of 20th century, whose nom de plume perhaps suggests her musical interests. Richardson also wrote a surprisingly sympathetic novel about Cosima Wagner, ‘The Young Cosima’, which I enjoyed very much, despite my antipathy to its subject.

J Meade Faulkner: The Lost Stradivarius. A wonderful ghost story by the author of Moonfleet – convincingly creepy. Never trust violinists – even dead ones…

So there are a few tiny drops in the ocean of under-appreciated books – I know that there are millions of others that I’d love. My theory is that in the next life – IF we get to the right place – there will be no time, just eternity; and therefore we will be able to read all the books – and listen to all the music (and eat all the food, perhaps) – that exist. Now THAT would be heaven!