1. Lord Jim To the point where I’m not actually at all sure I’ve read this. Every now again, I have a sudden spurt of confidence and think, ‘yes, I did read it’. But it remains in this weird incorporeal space where I have no memory of any feeling, place or time associated with it. It’s that lack of sensation of reading that puts it ahead of other potential winners in the classic novel subgcategory – Dombey and Son, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Portrait of a Lady. With them, I simply don’t know what happened, and can’t name any characters in them (with the exception of Dombey, Son, The Tenant and A Lady). Take, as another point of contrast, Under Western Eyes: I know I read and enjoyed it, yet I have no recollection of its plot. With Lord Jim, I ask myself again and again ‘Have I read it?’ And again I shudder, because I fear this is the question I will be asking myself on my deathbed.
2. The Child in Time Ian McEwan’s child goes missing. This is probably the plot of this book. I remember I read a lot of it on the 53 going out of town down Humberstone Road. This was probably 16 or 17 years ago now, before the 50/51 took over that route. I think a child’s fare was around 26p then. Lovers of Midland Fox buses may wish to write in and correct that detail. My memories are uncertain.
3. Two or possibly three of those Zuckerman novels, by P Roth. People always told me I’d like these books. ‘Unsure about Roth?’ they’d say, ‘Read Zuckerman Unbound or The Ghost Writer. Your kind of thing.’ Liars. The advice came back to me recently: I had decided to give Roth another chance – HIS LAST – and read approx 100pp of The Ghost Writer before realising I had read it and ZU before. Astronomy, dying dad, actresses, Anne Frank. tbqh I’m slightly angry at the world about this one & think someone has to be the one to stand up and say if you think you don’t like Roth there’s a very good chance that you simply don’t like Roth and there is nothing wrong with you, no matter what the broadsheets & your friends (who are probably only pretending to like books & roth is like the safe Coldplayish choice – you might want to check if they can read, like give them a bit of paper with ‘there is a tiger behind you’ on it and see if they turn around) say. In fact, it is quite hard work & I consider you brave for not liking Roth. Well done.
4. The Third Reich: A New History by Michael Burleigh. I have read a 700-page history of Nazi Germany and yet if you asked me to talk about the rise of fascism in 1930s mitteleuropa I am certain I would just start describing Mr Hilter & the Minehead By-Election. See also that book about the death of Yugoslavia I read (poss The Death of Yugoslavia?). I can’t even remember who the bad guys were (Dalmatians?). Deciding to improve myself by reading books about important topics is clearly a dead loss, & it is clear I should only find out things I already know.
5. Almost every single play by John Dryden. I have definitely read every single play by John Dryden, many of them twice. But again, nothing. Not only could I not name any characters, if you were to give me the names of four plays and a list of characters taken from them, I’m not sure I could sort them properly. I mean obviously you’d have to do it so I couldn’t sort by common sense – Dutch or English names go in Amboyna, Greek into Amphitryon, etc – but if you were to come up with a fair, unobvious selection, then I’d have a lot of trouble. I say ‘almost’ every, because I’m okay on All for Love, Oedipus and Don Sebastian. Maybe Amphitryon too.