Claire Tomalin’s Favorite Fictional Heroine? It ‘Must Be Natasha’ in ‘War and Peace’

“Joined of course by Emma, Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot, Marianne — well, that’s enough.,” says the renowned British biographer Claire Tomalin, whose latest book is “The Young H.G. Wells.” “We all enjoy heroines who don’t always behave themselves.”

What books are on your night stand?

Beside my bed this week is Anil Seth’s “Being You” a book about consciousness, which he describes as the “continual process of prediction error minimization” that takes place as your brain makes predictions while your senses inform you of what is actually there in front of you.

He also tells us about the Japanese roboticist who builds “Geminoids” — robots as similar to human beings as possible, including one resembling himself, which delivered a 45-minute lecture to a large audience of students. It is a brilliant book, and far above my level — so I have to be content with enjoying the parts I can just about manage to understand.

Atul Gawande’s “Better” a doctor writing about his work, with a special emphasis on the treatment of cystic fibrosis — is just a truly magnificent piece of descriptive writing. I was reminded of my experience with cystic fibrosis.

When my son was at his first school he had a friend who suffered from it — Paul — who sometimes came to spend a day with us. Although I did a good deal of patting his back hard to make him more comfortable I had no idea how precarious his hold on life was. He died a few days after a visit. I visited his family and then went to his funeral in a London cemetery, a large one with graves among the trees and grass. And there I saw his mother in her grief throw herself down into the grave. It was an act that seemed to me exactly right and I have naturally never forgotten her or Paul. But setting that aside, Gawande emerges from his own book as a great doctor — one would be happy to have one’s child cared for by him.

What’s the last great book you read?

I can’t say what the last great book I read was — I live among my bookshelves and I constantly take out books to reread or check up on in some way. Tolstoy writing about his own early years is one I often return to. The complete poems of Andrew Marvell — and most of the metaphysical poets — and also Tennyson. I have a pocket-size selection of Wordsworth that I almost always take with me when leaving the house.

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

Well, honestly I am as happy reading on the bus as anywhere else, although I gave up reading in the bath, which I used to do when my children were young — the bath protected me effectively. I like reading by the fire at home, or in the garden when it is warm. I always take plenty of books to read on holiday, and I enjoy reading in trains and on hotel balconies.

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    What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

    A book I greatly admire is Julia Boyd’s “Travelers in the Third Reich,” published in 2017 — a beautifully written and brilliant book for which she did wide-ranging and meticulous research. The result is surprising and fascinating — and it could be better known.

    Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

    I admire Christopher Reid as a brilliant and engaging poet, and over the years I have watched his formidable wit and originality build an impressive oeuvre. And now some of his long poems are performed in the theater to great effect.

    David Runciman is one of the sharpest and most sensible writers on politics in England now. My friend the historian Frances Harris has just died, leaving important historical books — one is a study of John Evelyn, the other great 17th-century diarist alongside Pepys.

    You’ve written many biographies of canonical British authors. As a reader, do you favor any of their work more than the others?

    If I favor one of my biographical subjects it should probably be Thomas Hardy, great and long-lived poet and novelist of English country life.

    Your latest biography is about H. G. Wells’s early life and career. What Wells books would you recommend to a beginner?

    I’d recommend Wells’s “The Time Machine” and “The War of the Worlds” — both long stories — and his novel “Tono-Bungay,” which is my favorite among his books. I also admire his pamphlet “This Misery of Boots.”

    Wells is often considered the “father of science fiction.” Were you a big reader of the genre before you tackled this biography, and are you now?

    I have never been a great reader of science fiction.

    Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

    I mostly enjoy poetry, fiction, biography and history.

    Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

    Reading aloud with my children was very important to all of us, I think, and brought us close. I learned poems with them, and my son learned French with me largely by us reading together in the first place — he is disabled and travels alone through France now very successfully.

    What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

    I was very interested in Atul Gawande’s “Better,” from which I have learned a great deal about the practice of medicine in the U.S.A. — its excellence, and how expensive it is.

    What moves you most in a work of literature?

    Good writing moves the reader — finding that someone has been able to put words together in a way that is exact, involving, sometimes surprising, always informative.

    Good writing moves me — I remember the wonderful shock of Alice Munro’s early stories, which shone out like a new dawn.

    How do you organize your books?

    I arrange my books largely alphabetically by author. I keep poetry separately. I have special sections for authors I have written about.

    Biography is difficult, it’s probably best to shelve by subject. I also have a section of feminist books. And a shelf of precious first editions. It is impossible to have an entirely logical and clear system. Art books of course are separate.

    What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

    I don’t think I have anything surprising on my shelves.

    What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

    The best book I ever received was the first: “The Tale of Tom Kitten,” by Beatrix Potter, given to me by the nurse who looked after me in the hospital when I was nearly 5, I think. It is a great book.

    Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?

    My favorite heroine must be Natasha in “War and Peace” — joined of course by Emma, Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot, Marianne — well, that’s enough. We all enjoy heroines who don’t always behave themselves.

    Among rogues I rather like Thomas Mann’s Felix Krull. Heathcliff, of course.

    What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

    I read everything I could lay my hands on as a child (this was during World War II). I was reading Anna Sewell’s “Black Beauty” when war was declared and worried at once about the fate of horses. “Wuthering Heights” and “Jane Eyre,” of course. I read “Sans Famille,” by Hector Malot, a great French novel about a child on his own, published in 1878. Poetry: Ronsard, Yeats, Tennyson, Shakespeare (my dear mother gave me a complete Shakespeare for my 11th birthday, with the poems as well as the plays — and I read and read it).

    How have your reading tastes changed over time?

    I don’t think my literary tastes have changed much over time. It is always a treat to find a good new book to read. I read history and also about current politics now.

    What do you plan to read next?

    My husband, Michael Frayn, is finishing a book and I hope to read the typescript of that next.

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