The Classic Novel That Robert Macfarlane Just Couldn’t Finish
“Wild landscapes, weird nature, science fiction — this really should be my jam,” the writer says of “Dune,” by Frank Herbert. “But no.” Macfarlane’s latest book, a collaboration with the artist Stanley Donwood and the writer Dan Richards, is “Ghostways.”
What books are on your night stand?
At night, I mostly read either poetry or gumshoe noir. Right now it’s (for poetry) Jericho Brown’s “The Tradition,” Jorie Graham’s “Runaway” and “When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through,” an anthology of Native Nations poetry edited by Joy Harjo; plus (for gumshoe): Arnaldur Indridason’s “Strange Shores” and Ace Atkins’s “The Revelators.” I’m a bit of a “library cormorant,” to borrow Coleridge’s memorable phrase — always on the swim through books, gulping down this and that, here and there.
What’s the last great book you read?
Bao Ninh’s “The Sorrow of War,” part of a recent deep dive into the Vietnam War in fiction and historical writing. A haunting, brutal account of the conflict from the perspective of a young North Vietnamese soldier.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate.”
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
In a tent, by torchlight, at the end of a long day in the mountains, with another to follow tomorrow. Tired in the legs, content in the mind. The first stars beginning to show in a clear night sky, a silhouette-sense of the ridgelines around. Breath misting in the cold, and a few pages of a good novel before deep sleep.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Alexis Wright: I’m awed by the range, experiment and political intelligence of her work, from fiction such as “Carpentaria” and “The Swan Book,” to her “collective memoir” of an Aboriginal elder in “Tracker.” As essayist, activist, novelist and oral historian she is vital on the subject of land and people. Barry Lopez has always been an immense inspiration: I value the grace and luminosity of his sentences, the moral charge of his writing, and the symphonic patterning he embeds over the length of books like “Arctic Dreams” or “Horizon.” Among others, then, I’ve huge admiration for the ways Robin Wall Kimmerer, Jedediah Purdy, Rebecca Solnit and the theater-maker Simon McBurney go about their work.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Heroine: Lyra Belacqua from Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials.”
Villain: The judge in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.”
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
My books tend to take a long time — an increasingly, dismayingly long time, in fact. The last big book, “Underland,” took getting on for a decade, though as its subject was deep time I felt I had an excuse not to rush it. Inevitably, then, I read as I go, and nothing much gets outlawed. I do find myself returning increasingly to early epics, which then make their ways in unexpected forms into my books. Finland’s folk epic “The Kalevala” surfaces in “Underland,” and “Beowulf” and “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” are both obliquely present in “Ghostways.”
During lockdown, with the musician and actor Johnny Flynn, I co-wrote an album of songs arising from “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” the oldest written story in literature. That remarkable text — surviving as cuneiform on clay tablets — records the first great act of environmental destruction, when Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu take their axes to the sacred trees of the Cedar Forest: a bad idea, as it turns out. “It was the first of the tellings / Of all of the fellings,” starts one of our songs.
Do you count any books as comfort reads? Or guilty pleasures?
Every winter I reread — sometimes for myself, sometimes with my children — Susan Cooper’s “The Dark Is Rising,” surely one of the eeriest novels there is. I know many thousands of other people do the same around the world: a true midwinter comfort. And then there’s Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin nautical novel-cycle, which I’ve read three times now, not least for its beautiful portrayal of a long-term male friendship. During lockdown I ran an online Twitter reading group for Nan Shepherd’s “The Living Mountain.” Thousands of people from around the world “walked together” into that book and the mountains it describes, at a time when most of us could go no further than the curtilage of our dwellings. There was a comfort in that companionship.
What writers are especially good on the natural world?
Alive now, writing now? Richard Powers and Cormac McCarthy. A young Indian naturalist called Yuvan Aves whose Instagram posts are minor classics of that ultramodern form. Environmental historians such as Bathsheba Demuth, Kate Brown and Elizabeth Rush. Lauret Savoy, whose “Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape” is a landmark text. Jeff VanderMeer for recognizing the sheer eldritch eeriness of “nature”: How can a world that contains the hagfish, the axolotl and the Devil’s Finger fungus not make for weird writing? N. K. Jemisin and M. John Harrison. Among the dead, well, some of the most extraordinary “nature writing” I know is by Celtic monks from the eighth and ninth centuries, or Tang Dynasty wanderer-poets such as Li Bai and Du Fu. And then there’s W. G. Sebald, Nan Shepherd, and J. A. Baker, whose “The Peregrine” is one of the few set-texts for Werner Herzog’s “Rogue Film School” — along with Virgil’s “Eclogues” and “The Warren Report”!
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Frank Herbert’s “Dune.” Wild landscapes, weird nature, science fiction — this really should be my jam. But no; the violence came to sicken me by halfway through, as did aspects of the politics. So I junked it.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
I’m not sure I hold with the distinction. Nabokov has some fine lines about “reading with your spine,” and waiting for the “telltale tingle” between the shoulder-blades that tells you when a book has power. That seems a right rule to me. “Let us worship the spine and its tingle,” he goes on, “Let us be proud of our being vertebrates, for we are vertebrates tipped at the head with a divine flame. The brain only continues the spine: the wick really goes through the whole length of the candle.” Whoosh!
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
These days I tend to avoid books which conspicuously self-identify as “nature writing.” As already mentioned, I can’t get enough good crime fiction (recommendations always welcome). I’ve a sneaking suspicion that Lee Child’s Reacher novels, with their affectless prose and numbed heroics, may end up being understood as a great, experimental roman-fleuve of our time.
How do you organize your books?
At home, by color of spine. My partner’s a Sinologist, so a good part of one wall is red. At work, there is only disorganization. The bookshelves long ago filled up twice over. Now there are unsteady book-pile pinnacles that occasionally collapse, and glacial tongues of paperbacks that wind toward the center of the carpet: bibliography as geomorphology.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
A first edition of Baker’s “The Peregrine” (1967).
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
One moment from my childhood reading sticks sharply with me. I used to wait in the local library after school, while my mum was still at work. One day — I guess I was 11 years old — I slammed shut a book I was reading with a clap. The girl across the table from me — 13? 14?— instantly scolded me. “Never treat books like that!” she snapped. I burned with shame, and haven’t taken books for granted since. These days, admittedly, I fox and dog-ear and scribble in my books, but I understand these to be signs of love rather than of disrespect.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
First I cancel the dinner party and turn it into a walk into the hills. I can’t bear dinner parties, and I really like walking. Then I invite Nan Shepherd, Bruce Chatwin and Robin Wall Kimmerer. Nan can take care of the navigation, Robin will know all the mosses and lichens, and Bruce will stalk off into the distance before tramping back to share gusts of gossip.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
Italo Calvino: I’d need a master metaphysician, storyteller and prestidigitator to make something glittering out of my mostly repetitive and rather beige existence.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Whisper it, then, and promise you won’t tell anyone else — “Jane Eyre.” Oh, and “Sense and Sensibility.” And “Anna Karenina.” And “War and Peace.” Is that enough? Have I embarrassed myself enough?
What do you plan to read next?
Rebecca Wragg Sykes’s “Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.” I’ve been fascinated by the Neanderthals since reading William Golding’s astonishing, underrated novel “The Inheritors” (1955).
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