The Godfather: Peter Corris on discovering Maugham (and others)
In an idle moment, of which I have many these days, I found myself trying to remember who had introduced me to certain books and writers. I was unsurprised to find how many I’d forgotten, but surprised to find how many I could remember.
My sister introduced me to Somerset Maugham. She had won a book voucher in a newspaper competition and had chosen the first volume of Maugham’s short stories. I am eternally grateful – I believe I have read almost everything Maugham wrote and some stories many times.
As a student at Melbourne University I mentioned to Senior Lecturer in English ‘Jock’ Tomlinson that I was an admirer of Raymond Chandler. Tomlinson, a fellow diabetic, a Leavisite and a chain smoker, took a drag on his Rothmans filter and said, ‘Yes, but Dashiell Hammett is much tougher.’ ‘Tough’ was a buzzword in the Melbourne Leavisite vocabulary. I immediately read Hammett, saw what he meant, but still preferred Chandler.
In one of the long vacations I worked in the furniture department of Myers department store. It was a hateful job with long periods in which there was nothing to do but appear to be busy. A fellow-sufferer, whose name I’ve forgotten, was a science student and a reader. We wore grey dustcoats; he carried Penguin books in his pocket at all times and he lent me Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net. We sneaked off from time to time to read and smoke.
Those borrowings set me off. I still find ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ in Salinger’s story collection For Esme with Love and Squalor extraordinary and for a time thought Murdoch’s A Severed Head was one of the best novels I’d ever read.
The Department of Pacific History at the ANU, where I was a PhD student, had JW ‘Jim’ Davidson as professor. He had an extensive library of fiction and encouraged me to read Virginia Woolf, which didn’t take. However, my supervisor, Dr Deryck Scarr, who admitted, when I confessed my own interest in writing fiction, to have written pirate stories when younger, suggested I might enjoy Dick Francis as light relief from research and writing. Good advice. I enjoyed one after another of Francis’s racing novels until I wearied of the formula.
Dr Ann Chowning was an anthropologist at the ANU and an avid reader. When our chats one day turned to hard-boiled private eyes, she recommended Ross Macdonald. This was seminal. Over the following years I bought and read everything Macdonald wrote, and when I came to write myself, Macdonald’s books had a big influence on my early Cliff Hardy efforts.
As it happened, Ann Chowning was appointed as an examiner of my thesis and I’ve since wondered if my thanking her for the introduction to Macdonald and our shared appreciation helped me to get the nod.
A girlfriend at that time urged me to read Dickens, whom I’d avoided since my dislike of Bleak House in undergraduate days. Anxious to remain in her favour, I waded through Barnaby Rudge and Little Dorrit but couldn’t warm to them. I found and still find Dickens’s people to be caricatures and unreal. Evelyn Waugh’s inspired creation in A Handful of Dust of a man condemned eternally to read Dickens aloud to his captor struck home.
Happily for the, albeit temporary, success of that relationship, her advocacy of Thomas Hardy worked. I still regard The Mayor of Casterbridge as the best Victorian novel I know.
With academic life behind me and embarked on literary journalism and then a writing career, influences on my reading came from all directions. One I remember in particular was artist Michael Fitzjames’s recommendation to read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which knocked me sideways. I re-read it not long ago and it had a similar impact. I’ve read most of McCarthy since and the atmosphere of his recent The Road stays hauntingly in my head.
Now, when I meet friends I haven’t seen for a while one of my first questions is apt to be, ‘What’re you reading?’ A reader never stops looking for something new and good.