The Books that Built India Knight
[listen to the podcast]
‘The charm of your writing‘ Evelyn Waugh once wrote to Nancy Mitford, ‘depends on your refusal to recognise a distinction between girlish chatter and literary language.‘ The same could be said, I think, of the appeal of India Knight, whose considerable intellectual clout is effortlessly tempered by the warmth, wit and generosity of her writing.
India has an uncanny ability to produce a book at precisely the moment I need her most – From Pig to Twig [more properly known as ‘Neris and India’s Idiot-Proof Diet’] arrived when I realised that the avoirdupois I’d acquired whilst pregnant with The Tiniest Trefusis wasn’t going to shift itself. Thrift turned up – helpfully – in time for the Great Trefusis Economic Crisis, and her four novels have endlessly consoled and amused me (and once, when I was reading ‘Comfort and Joy
‘ aloud to my sister as she drove us up the A303, she became so hysterical with laughter she had to stop the car). And of course, India’s weekly comment column and newish beauty feature for the Sunday Times seem to connect exactly with the collective zeitgeist (one has no sooner thought, ‘God, my legs are the colour of skimmed milk’ than a column appears recommending the ne plus ultra of fake tans). Now, when the face that stares back at me in the mirror shows the relentless march towards middle-age, India’s latest book ‘In Your Prime; Older, Wiser, Happier,’ appears, oasis-like. It’s full of India’s trademark drollery and shrewd, sensible advice – not all of which must be followed prescriptively – my blissful friend Belgian Waffling and I were paralysed by wardrobe anxiety before the launch party for In Your Prime, after reading in its pages that after a certain age one must never wear black, it being so funereal and ‘draining’. Obediently, both of us cast off our nightly colour only to discover India resplendent in a super-sexy black sparkly number, looking for all the world as if she’d had her DNA blended in a centrifuge with Gina Lollobrigida’s and Sophia Loren’s. Nor do I think we should worry too much about getting ‘on top’: as suggested, I put a mirror on the floor, straddled it, and looked down. Admittedly, the view wasn’t delightful but I think one’s partner is probably too busy in the throes to pause for much thought (also, if similar age, will probably be quite grateful to you for taking weight off his ageing joints).
Anyway, if you’re tempted to punch people when they ask you what you’re going to do for ‘your big birthday’, this book is for you. If you’re about to ask one of your friends, or your mum, or any other woman in your life what she plans to do for her ‘big birthday’, please button your lip and buy them ‘In Your Prime’ instead.
‘In Your Prime’ has my favourite appendix of all time – a list of more than fifty comfort reads, alone quite worth the price of the book. Uncle Matthew, one of the glorious characters in India’s first Books That Built Me choice, Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love, says “My dear Lady Kroesig, I have only read one book in my life, and that is ‘White Fang.’ It’s so frightfully good I’ve never bothered to read another.”. I’d go so far as to say these fifty are so good one would never have to bother to read others, though one should definitely add those that built India as an author, and about which we chatted at The Club at Cafe Royal.
So, here are India’s Books That Built Me
1. The Pursuit of Love Nancy Mitford
“I admire it more than almost any other novel, because she immediately, from the first page, plunges you into this eccentric and peculiar and atypical, for the average reader, world and you completely, by the end of the first page, you completely believe in it, you’re in it, you exist in it. The people are alive, the landscape is alive, the entrenching tool on the wall with which Uncle Matthew bashed in a German’s head is alive, everything is alive and I really admire that so much, that she does that within about six paragraphs. The other reason I really love her is that she is what is still actually, reprehensibly, quite patronisingly called a woman’s writer. Not many men read Nancy Mitford, which is their sad loss. And she is a better writer than any kind of niche suggests, she is a woman, she is quite a posh woman, she writes about fairly rarefied things, but in a really universal and generous way, I think.”
“My mother gave me this very edition, which must be from about 1984, exactly 1984, when I went to university. And the reason I’ve chosen it is that first of all I really love Elizabeth David, but secondly it symbolises my love of cookery writing and my appreciation of cookery writing and my great liking of sitting in bed reading cookery books, just like novels. And I don’t like cookery books that don’t have a novelistic element, I like cookery books with a story, I mean I want, you know, bang, bang, bang recipes that work, but I like them to be topped and tailed with really nice writing about apricots or figs, and she invented that really, pretty much, in this country. She also invented post-war food, and she had a very brisk tone, it was full of knowledge, quite bossy, which you want in a cookery writer when you can only buy olive oil in Boots, because of ears. I don’t like to think of that so much, but anyway, I remember when my mother and I moved to London in 1975, I remember her looking for olive oil and the olive oil being in Boots for ears, and being completely what, ears? What, oil, ears? And also what about our salad? So Elizabeth David understood that the rightful place for olive oil was in a big bottle to make a vinaigrette with…
I also like the Omelette and a Glass of Wine thing and I also like the idea that you don’t have to eat some ludicrous poncy dinner, all chopped things into tiny dice and make reductions, an omelette and a glass of wine is, she says, the perfect solo supper. And that was true then and it remains true now.”
“I love, love, love crime fiction and detective fiction and I always have done, and I read this off my dad’s shelf when I was, I don’t know, 12/13/14 something like that, during a summer holiday. And it’s completely brilliant. He is a brilliant writer of crime fiction; this one is sort of, it’s like Sartre or something, it’s so nihilistic and so completely barren, so completely contains no morality, everybody is awful, awful people do awful things and everybody around them is awful and the sky is low and the canal is black, but it is saved from being comically French by the vigour with which the story is told and the great knowingness of the author’s voice and it is a masterpiece. And if it hadn’t been published as a slightly trashy, pulpy, crimey book, it would have won every award going. It’s that thing of appearing to be effortlessly crowd pleasing, while actually having worked very hard; a literary version of that thing Dolly Parton said about taking a lot of money to look this cheap, you know, it actually takes quite a lot of talent to write like it’s something you just kind of tossed off in between going to the shops and having a snooze.”
4. Her Lover: (Belle Du Seigneur) (Penguin Modern Classics)
“It’s basically a love story. It has fairly experimental kind of stream of consciousness bits in it, but mostly it’s the story of a relationship between a handsome, rakish, Jewish man working at the League of Nations in Geneva who falls in love with a bored, bourgeois housewife. All of that is extraordinary, the bit that is really extraordinary is when they get bored of each other, as inevitably they must because their love affair burns very brightly and, like that bit in The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis, where horribly he discovers her slightly soiled knickers and suddenly is what is this, women don’t do this. What is wrong with her pants, there is the pant disaster. More beautifully than that, because it is so beautifully written and so viciously funny a lot of the time, they are disgraced for various reasons and they run away together and he stops loving her and all of things that he thought were remarkable or beautiful or charming or interesting of quirky, now he finds banal and wearying and ploddy and boring. And it’s really, really terrible and it ends up being the great tragedy and I really think probably it’s my favourite book in the whole world, probably, and it’s very, very sad because it is kind of true about love I think and it is written, it’s very, very cutting, like being stabbed, about race, about religion, about social class, about bourgeois morals, all of those things and it is sort of wildly romantic and beautiful about love and also incredibly pragmatic and honest and the love dies and everything is shit. It’s really good.”
“I chose Dante because this to me is university. I read modern languages and I really loved Dante and I had a fantastic tutor who made me love Dante even more and I particularly loved Inferno, I find the other two interesting but I cared more about the bad people burning and I found it really extraordinary. I think the reason I like it so much is that it was the first proper complicated thing I could read in Italian and understand, rather like reading Chaucer or something, I felt it was a great achievement. Do I pick it up every couple of weeks and have a good old wallow? Really not, no. It is not a comfort read, but it is a magnificent achievement and it is an extraordinary thing and everybody should read it at least once”
6. Excellent Women (VMC) Barbara Pym
“I’ve chosen Barbara Pym in her entirety because I love these books so much and they make me so happy and they should be read and re-read on a kind of roll all the time. They are about very, very small things, they are about nice quite blue stockingey women, usually unmarried, who live in villages or suburbia. The novels usually feature vicars, curates, anthropologists, quite eccentric people and their tiny lives completely brilliantly observed, stories with no great driving plots, very gently told, but viciously funny. The humour is really first class satire occasionally, properly laugh-out-loud funny. Her very little observations about people, seemingly very gentle and benign and sweet, but actually really mordant, with teeth. And she’s wonderful and I love her for writing about a world that we now consider quite rarefied. I love her for not thinking oh, my slightly dusty blue stockingey women who love nothing more than the British Museum and the vicar might not be a giant commercial success, they amused her and she knew that world, and it was what she wrote about. I am very against people pretending to be something they’re not. So for example I am told, because I don’t read reviews, that there was a review of my book recently that said that my preoccupations were middle class. Well, you know, what am I supposed to do? Write in a voice that isn’t authentic. She and actually all of the writers that I’ve chosen, but she particularly, wrote, she kind of doggedly wrote in her own voice about her own interests and little worlds that she knew and those worlds are so touching and humorous and affecting and have universal applications. She was a complete genius.”