William Boyd: TOP TEN BOOKS

William Boyd (2)

It took William Boyd three failed attempts at writing a novel before he hit gold with A Good Man in Africa, which won him both the Whitbread Book Award for a first novel and the Somerset Maugham Award. That was in 1981, and Boyd hasn’t stopped to draw breath since. This year he has published both the paperback version of his 16th novel, Trio, and the hardback of his 17th novel, The Romantic, another sweeping panorama of one man’s life, this time set against the tumultuous years of the 19th century.  Boyd has also published four collections of short stories and written 20 screen plays  Among his other achievements is bringing James Bond back to life, in the novel Solo–in which the martini-swigging spy undertakes a mission to the fictionalized West African country of Zanzarim – a stand in for the Nigeria in which Boyd spent his youth. Below are William Boyd’s favorite books, available to purchase individually or as a set.



Peasants and Other Stories

I revere Chekhov as a writer – of short stories. And I’m absolutely fascinated by the man himself, also. Any volume of Chekhov’s mature stories – the ones he wrote in the last ten years of his life – will contain masterworks but if you only had to read one Chekhov story then his longest, “My Life”, will open the door to his particular genius. His sensibility is completely modern, it seems to me, he speaks to us today as much as to his 19th century contemporaries.
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Pale Fire

Vladimir Nabokov
This is a unique novel. How often can you say that? A 999-line poem with hundreds of pages of completely wrong-headed footnotes. Only Nabokov could have pulled off this extraordinary feat of narration (and beautiful poetry, it has to be said). Mesmerising prose – and also very funny indeed.
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A Far Cry from Kensington

This is perhaps Muriel Spark’s most autobiographical novel but it is also a great exemplar of her extraordinary gifts. The tone of voice is perfect – sly, deadpan, brusque – which is what gives her fiction such “zing”. Her heroine, Mrs Hawkins, is a wonderfully shrewd self-portrait. Formidable.
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Our Mutual Friend

This is Dickens’s last completed novel and arguably his finest and darkest. It is also the great novel of London. Written and published in the 1860s, the portrait of the city still – amazingly — resonates in the 21st century.
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Elizabeth Bishop
Bishop is in my personal Pantheon of poets (along with W.H.Auden, Philip Larkin, Wallace Stevens and a few choice others). What’s remarkable is just how small Bishop’s corpus of work is. Her huge reputation rests on a mere seventy or so published poems. They are perfectly wrought, often labored-over for years. The precision of language is sensational.
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This could be the perfect comic novel – the misadventures of a young man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Order disturbed, chaos and disorder, order restored. Waugh’s immaculate deadpan prose is amazing and the book is extremely funny. The chapter detailing Mr Salter’s visit to Boot Magna in darkest England is the funniest piece of comic writing ever.
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This is not regarded as Updike’s best novel but when I read it in my early 20s it blew me away. Suddenly I saw the human condition depicted with a clarity – and beauty – that I hadn’t experienced before. It is a pure distillate of the Updike-ian world-view.
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The Life of Henry Brulard

This isn’t the Life of Henry Brulard – it’s a pseudonym, swiftly discarded. It’s actually the life of Henri Beyle, aka “Stendhal”, and is one of the most extraordinary autobiographies ever written, up there with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Confessions. Candid, tormented, passionate, outspoken – the man who was Stendhal comes vibrantly, unforgettably alive.
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The Bottle-Factory Outing

I knew Beryl Bainbridge a little and I think she is a most underrated British novelist. Like Muriel Spark her take on the world and its denizens is amazingly clear-eyed. And like Spark, again, she sees oddness and eccentricity as the defining features of human relationships. Very funny and very true at the same time.
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The Heart of the Matter

I read this novel in my teens and it opened my eyes to the transforming power of fiction. I was born and raised in West Africa and West Africa (in WW2) is the setting for the story. Here were landscapes, people, situations, sights and smells I knew intimately, transformed and immortalised by a novelist’s skilful hand. I think this book was the one that made me want to be a writer.
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