Susie Boyt: ‘I found Noel Streatfeild in the phone directory and rang her up’ | Books

My earliest reading memory
I loved a picture book called Story Number 1 by Eugène Ionesco. It showed a louche 1960s household where the mother and father have a great deal of high life and are always hungover. Their maid, Jacqueline, brings them in an enormous tray each morning on which, sandwiched between the ham, eggs, coffee and postcards, crouches their little girl.


My favorite book growing up
Insane for dancing as a child, I got hooked on Ballet Shoes. There was something about showing business being the remedy for genteel poverty that greatly appealed. One evening I found Noel Streatfeild in the phone directory and rang her up!

The book that changed me as a teenager
I read The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil when I was 14, as I’d heard someone describe it as “nervous romanticism. The subject matter was alarming: sadistic, sexual bullying in an Austro-Hungarian boys’ military academy, but I was transfixed by the quality of the writing. I felt I was in the hands of a genius.

The writer who changed my mind
Henry James explained my life to me. As I remember everything I’ve ever thought and everything anyone has ever said to me, his commitment to rendering the entire landscape of human consciousness makes sense of so much. His preoccupation with how to be good in the world, without taking on too much of the taint that the word “worldly” carries, soon became a focus. I also love his fidelity to perceptions that have a provisional quality: the comment you thought you might have heard but actually hasn’t been uttered, or the moment when you are certain someone has caught you thinking something you would never in a million years think …

The book that made me want to be a writer
When I left primary school, the headteacher gave me a copy of Walkabout by James Vance Marshall. Inside she wrote: “I hope one day to see a book of your writings on a bookseller’s shelves.” I was knocked out.

The book I read
I’m always reading 77 Dream Songs by John Berryman, rooting for him, despairing of him, entering into his strangely refined sensibility while absorbing all the pain and chaos of his days. He conjures the sharpness and wonder of living out at the very edge of things, life in your teeth, with Shakespeare as your lifeboat.

The books I could never read again
I read Saul Bellow‘s novels in my 20s and their intense liveliness and wild, heroic sweep has stayed with me. I think they would strike me as sexist now and Bellow’s troubling attitudes to race would cause dismay.

The book I discovered later in life
Set largely in Harlem in the 1920s, Jazz by Toni Morrison is a complex, startling, richly textured novel that pulls you so tightly into its world you feel as though you’re living in the thin-walled flat next door.

My comfort read
I go back to The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton, where Miss Roach’s constrained and valiant adventures at the Rosamund Tea Rooms, a guest house in a small English town in 1943 delight and horrify. The writing is sublime, the subtle evocation of wartime meticulous and Miss Roach is a queen.

The book I am currently reading
Annie Ernaux’s memoir The Years has a generous lyrical precision and takes in not her life, thoughts and hopes but broad currents in France from 1941 to 2006. Ernaux writes brilliantly about times of great scarcity, emotional as well as material, but also of the spree and swoon of celebrations .

Loved and Missed by Susie Boyt is published by Virago. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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