This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of the greatest revolutionary and most argumentatively religious poet of the English language – a good reason to re-enter the fierce debates and visionary scenes of his epic poem Paradise Lost. The account in Book Two of the assembly and speeches of the rebels against God foreshadows all such arguments through history. Milton went blind and had to compose by dictating; yet his imagined hosts of angels and devils and his dizzying perspectives of celestial and infernal space etch themselves into your mind. In his prose writings on divorce and freedom of speech, he was way ahead of his time.
Quite simply, the best living inheritor of Milton’s anger, skill and grandeur. From his early sonnets about being the son of northern working-class parents to his haunting ballad about a charred Iraqi soldier [first printed in the Guardian], he tells the truth about war and class. He has invented a new form of television documentary, the ‘film/poem’, in which he speaks about Hiroshima and the Holocaust, Alzheimer’s and the collapse of Soviet communism. The music of his verse makes you want to dance; his Yorkshire humour lights up the darkest landscape.
Philip Roth (Jonathan Cape, 2006)
Sex and, increasingly, death are the subjects of America’s finest living novelist. Everyman (2006) is a good introduction to his world of inexhaustible talkers, seductive women and restless men. Or, like many other readers, you could start with his controversial novel Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), which put masturbation into the heartland of middle-class Jewish America. Roth is an inveterate questioner and troublemaker. In his sixth decade he began a series of big novels, which take on American politics and history, notably American Pastoral, a novelist’s take on the Vietnam war, ‘the indigenous American berserk’. Like all the best novelists he’s both serious and hilarious.
Walter Benjamin (Schocken Books, 1969)
A collection of essays by the outstanding German critic and philosopher, who committed suicide in 1940 on the Franco-Spanish border, running away from the Nazis. A friend of Brecht, and also of Gershom Scholem, the great modern scholar of Jewish mysticism, Benjamin is the subtlest Marxist thinker I know. This collection contains essays that remain necessary for thinking about the world now: The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Theses on the Philosophy of History, which begins with Paul Klee’s painting of ‘the angel of history’, transfixed by the debris of the past. ‘Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.’ I re-read Benjamin because he was a communist with an indelible sense of tragedy.
The Golden Notebook
On a hot summer’s day by a swimming-pool in Bristol in 1962, I was chatting up a young woman with liquid eyes, sweet-talking her by reading out chunks of Lessing’s novel. She asked me if she could borrow it. I never saw her or the book again, and had to buy another copy.
I love this book because it breaks open all the forms. Lessing describes it as ‘an attempt to break a form; to break certain forms of consciousness and go beyond them. While writing it, I found I did not believe some of the things I thought I believed: or rather, that I hold in my mind at the same time beliefs and ideas that are apparently contradictory. Why not? We are, after all, living in the middle of a whirlwind.’
I shall take with me the complete works of Shakespeare, but this is the play I will return to most often. Speeches of it are already engraved in my memory. I imagine myself quoting out loud to bewildered penguins taking refuge from global warming:
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?
There’s nothing in world drama to match Lear’s account of civilisation’s breakdown, torture, the journey to sanity through madness, love reconquered too late. There’s even a succinct description of socialism out of the mouth of a character caught in Shakespeare’s world-shaking storm: ‘Distribution should undo excess /And each man have enough.’
Bertolt Brecht (Methuen, 1980)
A life that ran from anarchy and appetite to a watchful communist hope, a lifetime that drove Brecht into exile, ‘changing countries more often than shoes’, is refracted in these indestructible poems. Our greatest Marxist playwright, Brecht has survived the nitpicking of cold war critics and the subservience of Soviet cultural commissars. He wrote his best plays – Mother Courage, The Good Person of Setzuan, The Life of Galileo – as a refugee without a theatre to see them put on. Then he returned to East Germany, where he was given a theatre and created one powerful production after another, though tussling with party bureaucrats. His poems became the repository of his true thoughts. In 1953, when there was a workers’ rising against the government, he couldn’t resist writing this classic statement against tyranny:
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
(Translated by Derek Bowman)
Michael Kustow has just completed A Passage from India, based on his life in 2006/7, and also written The Half, featuring Simon Annand’s photographs of actors in their dressing-rooms, which Faber and Faber will publish this autumn
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