William Boyd: My 5 Favourite Classics

William Boyd: My 5 Favourite Classics

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

Our Mutual Friend was Charles Dickens’ last completed novel, and some believe his most sophisticated. A young man discovers that he must marry a mercenary young woman before he can claim his inheritance. He is on his way to do his father’s bidding when a body discovered in the Thames is identified as his, and his inheritance passes instead to Boffins, a working class man. The effects are felt through all levels of society.

This was the last novel Dickens completed before he died and it remains probably the greatest novel ever written about London. There’s an astonishing sweep of characters from every level of society and the language Dickens employs sees him at the very height of his literary powers. As well as comedy and satire there are also darker themes at work. A wonderfully rich and complex novel. – William Boyd

Collected Short Stories by Anton Chekhov

Chekhov’s mature short stories, written in the last ten years of his life (he died in 1904 at the age of 44) are both extraordinary and revolutionary. Chekhov is one of those rare writers (Dickens and Kafka come to mind) who changed the way we see the world. In a sense we are all Chekhovians, now. Chekhov’s view of the human condition was astonishingly modern. He had no faith and saw the world as a place where vulgarity and mediocrity triumphed, where the best intentions went awry and our human affairs were governed by luck, good and bad, and sheer happenstance. His eye is magnificently true and clear. – William Boyd

The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth

The Radetzky March is a meditation on the Austro-Hungarian Empire through the prism of three generations of the Trotta family. The novel opens in 1859 at the Battle of Solferino, when the young Lieutenant Trotta saves the life of the Emperor and is ennobled. He owes the Empire everything, and his son also becomes a conscientious servant of the great multinational state even as it enters into its period of chaos, with competing nationalisms and ideologies tearing it apart. The final generation of Trottas cannot comprehend or survive the collapse of the Empire, which no longer has any purchase on reality. Beginning at the moment when the Habsburg dominions began to crumble, and ending at the moment when the old Emperor’s body is finally entombed in the vault of Capuchins in Vienna, the narrative arc of Roth’s novel is perfectly judged. However, it is Roth’s intelligent compassion and ironic sense of history that confer on The Radetzky March its greatness.

Roth, who died in 1939, is in a real sense the Austrian Chekhov. His masterpiece is The Radetzky March, a portrait of Austro-Hungary on the eve of the Great War. Haunting, poetic, funny and moving, it is a lament for a lost empire and way of life — one of the great 20th century European novels. – William Boyd.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

Lord Copper, newspaper magnate and proprietor of ‘The Daily Beast’, has always prided himself on his intuitive flair for spotting ace reporters. That is not to say he has not made the odd blunder, however, and may in a moment of weakness make another. Acting on a dinner party tip from Mrs Algernon Stitch, he feels convinced that he has hit on just the chap to cover a promising little war in the African Republic of Ishmaelia.

I happen to believe that Waugh’s best novels are his comedies and Scoop is a near perfect comic masterwork. It contains possibly the funniest chapter in English literature (Mr Salter’s visit to Boot Magna). The brilliant aspect of Waugh’s humour was its utter ruthlessness. He refused to console the reader and this is what makes his comedy so bracing and enduring. – William Boyd

A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

When Mrs Hawkins tells Hector Bartlett he is a ‘pisseur de copie’, that he ‘urinates frightful prose’, little does she realise the repercussions. Holding that ‘no life can be carried on satisfactorily unless people are honest’ Mrs Hawkins refuses to retract her judgement, and as a consequence, loses not one, but two much-sought-after jobs in publishing. Now, years older, successful, and happily a far cry from Kensington, she looks back over the dark days that followed, in which she was embroiled in a mystery involving anonymous letters, quack remedies, blackmail and suicide.

It’s hard for me to choose a favourite Muriel Spark. This novel is actually loosely based on a period of her own life in the 1950s – Spark often wrote thinly disguised autobiography as fiction (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, for example) though she was also capable of writing her own brand of malignant allegory. Very funny, dry and very shrewd, her tone of voice is what makes Spark’s work unique. Interestingly, Evelyn Waugh was one of her earliest and greatest admirers. – William Boyd

Click here to read Richard and Judy’s reviews of William Boyd’s Sweet Caress