My Favourite Books

As an adolescent, it’s natural to be fascinated by art that corrupts you: the snake that slithers into your mind and whispers the truths that adults are trying to hide. Those works of art can leave a lifelong impression and demand annual rewatching/rereading throughout life, with a sense of nostalgia for a time when art could invoke such dissolution of innocence. For me, it was the film Dangerous Liaisons. I still haven’t forgotten watching it at a sleepover, aged fourteen, wide-eyed and open-mouthed in shock. Then I discovered the novel by Choderlos de Laclos, as well as the script for Christopher Hampton’s play - which is brilliant in itself, but was reworked to intensify its extremes of tenderness and cruelty for the film. Indeed, it is very much a story about innocence and experience, with the virginal Cecile losing her innocence when she is deflowered by Valmont as part of an aristocratic game, and the depraved rake Valmont in turn regaining an innocence through falling in love with a woman whom he initially pursues with cynical intention. By the end, however, everyone is fucked – literally and metaphorically.

I recently had an argument with a friend as to whether the end of Les Liaisons  Dangereuses is comic or tragic. He argued that the ending – with the punishing of the amoral Marquise de Merteuil via smallpox and subsequent disfigurement – is a hoot and is so cartoonish and ridiculous that it establishes the novel as a comedy. I might agree, if it were not for the Appendix. Many novels begin in media res; Les Liaisons Dangereuses ends in media res.The inclusion of an earnest and tender letter from Madame de Tourvel toValmont, closing with the lines“Am I not yours, entirely yours?... I had, as usual, dismissed my maids before going tobed”, is deeply poignant. (Interestingly this was included at the end of the original manuscript as a letter which had been lost and later recovered, though not published in early editions of the novel.) So I think the novel is a tragedy and now when I read it, I am less shocked and more moved by the ending.

 

I wrote a short piece about my love affair with this extraordinary novel for Norman Geras's blog

It's hard to pick a favourite Self. I prefer his short stories to his novels and this remains my favourite of his s.s. collections. One of the best pieces of criticism on this collection that I've enjoyed is by the Workshy Fop

 

Another short story collection. This one is by a French writer, Marcel Aymé, which has recently been reissued by the Pushkin Press. In his review for The Guardian, Nicholas Lezard described this collection as '...somewhere between Kafka and Will Self's early stories, [exploring] a fantastic premise taken to logical conclusion, but with a kind of gentle firmness, as well as great humour.'