Simon Mawer: The Best Books I Never Wrote
Brown on Resolution
An opening line that grabs you by the throat and drags you into a story of illicit love (when there really was such a thing, even between consenting adults) and global war. It ranges from foggy Edwardian London to a remote Pacific island (Resolution) during World War I. CS Forester's reputation these days is as a teller of good yarns but he was so much more than that. In this book there's heartbreak and anguish and grim, solitary courage. What more could a 14-year-old boy with ambitions to be a writer want?
The Quiet American
No one has done moral jeopardy better than Graham Greene. He also employed the techniques of spare description and oblique dialogue as well as Hemingway. An excellent exemplar for an embryo writer. In this book we're in Vietnam during the French colonial period, before the US muscled in and completed the disaster.
But really we're in Greeneland, a world in which characters attempt to navigate their way to redemption despite their moral compasses being broken.
If you want to witness the English language in the hands of a past master, then this is it. Take no notice of the book's reputation (they tried to get it banned in the 1950s), this is one of the cleverest, weirdest, most sinister, most hilarious, most erotic pieces of writing you'll ever meet, by the greatest writer never to have won the Nobel Prize for literature. Or was that James Joyce?
The Spy Who Came in From The Cold
John Le Carre
An heir to Graham Greene, Le Carre wrote this espionage novel at a time when such books were shackled by the genre label "spy thriller". Thus he was never even considered for the major literary prizes he deserved. A story of betrayal and disillusion it introduced the world to the real moral ambiguities of the Cold War just when James Bond had shied away from all contact with reality in pursuit of fantasy villains. With The Spy Who Came in From The Cold you feel you are really standing in the chilly shadow of the Iron Curtain.
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
The Oscar-winning film may be lovely to look at but it never really got to the heart of this agonising tale of the Jews of Ferrara before WW2. It inspired me to attempt to play the evocative instrument of memory in my own writing but no one, certainly not me, did it with quite such painful clarity as Bassani. And in Micol Finzi-Contini he created one of the loveliest women of fiction – a ghost to haunt you for the rest of your life.
Tightrope by Simon Mawer, is published by Little Brown, $38.