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Socialist Review, March 1994

Michael Bogdanov

My favourite books

From Socialist Review, No. 173, March 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

We have all played the game of the world’s ten greatest books. Mine are always those that I have most recently devoured, remaining the freshest and clearest in the mind.

So, Wild Swans is harrowing. While we were swinging, singing and flaring in the 1960s, China was busy self-destructing, annihilating thousands of years of sophisticated civilisation in the name of a ‘cultural revolution’. I cannot have been alone in believing naively that this was a return to basic values, a moral purity that would purge the world forever of corruption and chaos.

As I brandished my copy of Mao’s Little Red Book I was contributing unwittingly to the wholesale destruction of a nation’s heritage.

A devastating indictment of a totalitarian regime that had transformed dreams into nightmares, Jung Chang’s book is unputdownable, not least for the unemotional way that each new and more horrific facet of family and national life is revealed. A stupendous story of China’s struggle with itself through the lives of three generations – grandmother, mother and daughter.

Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha is a real joy. Ten years in Dublin have made me partial to anything to do with the city and Roddy Doyle’s scurrilous language and life giving energy, viewing the north Dublin highrise wasteland through the eyes of kids fighting and feuding on the seashore and rubbish tips, would warm anybody’s cockles. The Commitments, The Van – Doyle’s is a distinctive and unique voice capturing the lives and hopes of those Dublin communities that live on the edge of deprivation and despair, a testament to the enduring forces of imagination and invention.

I have finally got round to reading Schoenbaum’s Shakespeare’s Lives. Considering that we know so little about the bugger, Schoenbaum covers an extraordinary amount of ground in filling in the gaps with a hundred alternative versions. Whose Shakespeare was he anyway? You choose. The lover, the poacher, the drunk. Was he the good burgher of Stratford, the poet of London town? Was he Marlowe, Cardinal Wolsey? Did he bring home the Bacon? Was the Earl of Southampton the real dark lady of the sonnets? This and Gary Taylor’s Reinventing Shakespeare are the perfect complementary pair to show how each successive generation has hijacked Shakespeare in the name of a conservative status quo, inventing what it doesn’t know and bending the plays to fit its own particular theses and presumptions. Just like Patten and Portillo.

They read like thrillers – CNN’s Seven Days That Shook the World and Martin Sixsmith’s Moscow Coup (take them together). Gorbachev imprisoned in his Crimean Dacha. Hardliners lining up the troops and broadcasting to the nation, but the hands are shaking ... the White House occupied, the barricades manned, Yeltsin rallying the people atop a tank. Rogue radio reports, the transmitter hidden in the oven, letraset broadsheets signalling defiance. Car chases, plane chases. Will the video tape succeed in being smuggled out in the knickers? Is the food poisoned? How far was Gorbachev involved in the coup? Indeed, did he engineer it? As he stepped off the plane expecting a hero’s welcome, Yeltsin delivered the uppercut. Communism is dead ...

Not so much a read as a nostalgic wallow in Parisomania, Atget’s Paris, a comprehensive photographic record of Paris by Arrondissement [district] from 1890 to 1925, is a must for those of us who roamed (and husked) the left bank in the 1950s goggling at Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir.

Still by the bed to reread: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, A.N. Wilson’s biography of Tolstoy, G. Tremlett’s Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes’ Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, Middlemarch ...

Michael Bogdanov is a theatre director and founder of the English Shakespeare Company

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