‘If my writing is about any one single thing,’ said Andrew O’Hagan at The Books That Built Me, ‘It’s about the precariousness of identity’.
The Illuminations, O’Hagan’s latest novel (Faber £17.99), deftly and movingly explores themes of identity in the combined narratives of former photographer, Anne Quirk, and her ex-soldier grandson, Luke Campbell. It articulates brilliantly the sense that no one is only one thing, in the way that Woolf, and Stevenson and Dostoevsky – Luke is a rare soldier ‘who knows that Browning is not just a small arms weapon’, Anne is the alzheimer-suffering occupant of an old people’s home whose past life comes back to her in increasingly illuminating flashes. We are about the omissions and the yearnings and the latent desires and the ways in which others see us, at the same time as we say ‘That’s not me,’ or ‘I’d never do that’, as if our identities are somehow a fixed point. And if selfhood and the way identity is constructed is the thread that runs neatly through O’Hagan’s writing life, whether fiction or non-fiction, then so too are the books he selected to show what has inspired and delighted him along the way.
The books that built Andrew O’Hagan
1. The Penguin Book of First World War poetry
The first job O’Hagan had after graduating and leaving Scotland for London was at St Dunstan’s, a charity for blind ex-servicemen, some of whom had fought in the First World War – ‘Sassoon’s men called by bugles from the sad shires’. Their voices echo down the years through the poetry.
2. I am David, Anne Holm
I can’t believe I’d never read I Am David as a child – it’s an atmospheric and moving story of a boy who escapes the prison camp where he’s lived all his life – he has no idea who he is, he has no idea of his origins, all he has is his name, yet he has a strong and immediate sense of self. Andrew O’H and I grew up in a world dominated by the Iron Curtain, and it’s almost impossible to imagine the how divided the world was until relatively recently.
3. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde offers an extraordinary metaphor for the power an author has to reveal the hidden lives and desires of their characters to readers, the things that can’t be seen by the people around them.
4. Norma Jean, A Biography of Marilyn Monroe, Fred Lawrence Guiles
If Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is about the divided self, the same is true of the myth of the divided Marilyn – Guiles is responsible for concreting into the popular imagination that the ‘real’ Marilyn Monroe is Norma Jean. I adored Andrew O’Hagan’s last novel, The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, And Of His Friend, Marilyn Monroe, in which we get Monroe through yet a further lens, that of the imagined opinions of her maltese terrier and I remember reading an interview in which A O’H wrote she was ‘a woman who had somehow been erased as a woman and replaced with mythology’, but Norma Jean is in the list less as a way of illuminating that novel, though it does, or so that we can talk about the role of writers in constructing a public identity for their subjects, though we do, but because it’s the only book A O’H remembers his father giving to him. A bookish child in a resolutely un-bookish family, it’s an oddly touching and tender gift (and who knows, without it, would Maf the Dog have ever been written?)
5. The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer
Mailer, of course, was famously accused of cribbing vast swathes of Guiles’ Norma Jean for his own Monroe book, a work he called ‘a species of novel’, or ‘a novel biography’. A O’H got to know Mailer well when interviewing him for The Paris Review [wonderful, read here], and like A O’H, Mailer is that rare breed of writer who moves adroitly between fiction and journalism – we talked a lot about A O’H’s work for the LRB, particularly the brilliant account of his aborted attempt to ghost-write Julian Assange’s autobiography.
6. The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark
Set in 1945 in a shabbily genteel boarding house for young ladies, in the same part of Kensington that A O’H lived in when he first moved to London, The Girls of Slender Means is one of Spark’s finest novels. She’s savagely brilliant in the economy of her prose, and no character emerges unscathed – some are literally not slender enough to live. If you’ve never read Spark, or are only vaguely aware of her from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, do please immediately get hold of a copy of The Girls of Slender Means. Stylistically, A O’H has been compared to Spark, though if this is the case he’s infinitely kinder to his creations.
Buy The Illuminations, Andrew O’Hagan