Anne Enright on the books that changed her

Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2020

I must have read Alice in Wonderland about fifty times when I was a child. There was great rereading in it. But you never quite knew what it was. That playful, eluding quality was really important to me. I loved the maths of it, among other things. It’s much more of an intellectual book than an emotional one, but you know, in a really playful way.

I was the youngest in a house of readers, and I started very early. I read everything in the children's section of the library by the time I was seven and had to get them to give me a library card for the grownups section. My Mother came from a bookish house; my father, not so much. But he himself was interested in crosswords and dictionaries and languages. Certainly, Alice belonged more to my father's kind of mindset than to hers.

My mother was quite disappointed that I didn't love Wind in the Willows. That was interesting to me: a regret she had that I was wrong in some way. You could psychoanalyse it. I suppose the episode with Mr. Toad and the laundry woman, when he dresses up, was kind of interesting for a child, but really once it was read it was done. You got it. You never ‘got’ Alice.

I read Lolita in my teenage years because I thought I was going to get loads of information about sex. I was really disappointed. But I went back to it every five years or so, including when I was in college.

It’s an amazing book in the world changed around it. It started off as a lesson in how to write beautifully: you write about desire, and it’s lyrical and trembling and wonderful. Fantastic. Then, at the other end, 20 years later, you think: this is repugnant, and actually, the style itself is the attraction.

Martin Amis wrote a very good essay on it where he said, actually guys, there’s no way around it: he's a bit of a monster and the wrong monster to admire. For me Nabokov is a lesson in how to stop before you go too far, about the temptations of style and solipsism. That’s one of the risks of the writer. I'm very interested in how you break out of solipsism in a book and how people finally make connections.

I was in a shop called Books Upstairs in George's Street arcades in Dublin when I found The Bloody Chamber. I read it and thought: Oh, yeah. This is for me. Angela Carter was the first to take those fairy tales and turn them inside out. Disney should be paying her royalties for Frozen. It was just an amazingly simple and brilliant thing to do, and it was all lush, in Angela's kind of Baroque style. Brilliant.

A couple of years later, I went to an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia, and she was my tutor. I’d just had a brilliant time at Trinity College where I really enjoyed being a student. I had a big gang of pals and we were always falling in and falling out. It was very connected. But I had a piss-poor time in UEA. I wasn't really miserable, more sort of incapable. I didn't know what I was going to write. I recognise this today in my students sometimes: they really think they have something, but they can't quite tell what it is yet.

I only met Angela a few times, but later she came to my first ever reading, at the Southbank Centre in 1991. She said afterwards: you must come to lunch, and gave me her number. And I thought, you know, I'm never going to ring Angela Carter! It's just not going to happen. It wasn't a universe I felt I could inhabit, in any way. But she meant it, and then she died a year later. I've never turned down lunch with anyone since.

Anne Enright for Penguin 2020

Photo: Stuart Simpson for Penguin 2020

I read The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje in this horrible little terraced breezeblock room at university. It’s a very hard book to describe, but there’s an astonishing scene at the beginning with a nun who falls from a bridge and by some miracle survives. It’s set in Toronto and it’s about social history, among many other things.

It’s one of those books I read and thought: how did they do that? At the time I was becoming interested in structure and technique, and The Skin of a Lion had a big impact on my first book, The Wig My Father Wore (1995), particularly the use of the present tense.

It made me realise you didn't have to write in a linear way. I've never been able to write a book that happened only in the past tense. It's just too fucking dead to me, you know? If you know all that, why are you writing it down?

Not long before I wrote The Gathering, I went back to Beloved by Toni Morrison and made a chart. On it I mapped out everything she did, page by page: the action, the chronology, the compression, the timeline of the movements. It's really classically well structured. It's hard to see those underpinnings, but they're there and they’re really tough.

I also love knowing that when she finished the book, she knew she had done something. She had brought the world further on, cleared a path for our understanding, capturing something that was self-evident but hadn’t been expressed yet. I mean that is the moment, as a writer, you would live for. Have I ever felt It? No, no. But that is the aspiration: to develop the conversation somehow, the way she did.

I remember all these guys, when she won the Nobel, being annoyed that they haven’t got it. One of them said to me "Toni Morrison?!" And this guy had never brought anything into the world except, you know, antiquity; he’d dug some stuff up and called it a book. And I said: no no, no no, she actually brought things further along.

How do I read now? The first challenge is getting off the goddamn computer and away from a screen. A bath is a great way. But I've also two good chairs with good lights, and you can move from one to the other, either with your back to the window or facing it. And I like reading with other people around. I have always liked that. When I was a child, I remember getting the Narnia books for Christmas and sitting nearly in the fire and reading them all before New Year's Day, with everything else going on around me. I still like that feeling of being privileged by the secret contents of a book. 

Anne Enright's latest book, Actress, is out 20 February.

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