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The Books That Built Me, by Justin Cartwright

Published in the Sunday Times

Sunday Times Books Guest Column

If had to pick out one writer who influenced me most when I started, it would be Saul Bellow. What attracted me was his apparently effortless ability to deal with both the comedy of human life and the serious and intellectual. I found it intoxicating and have – in my own way – tried to do the same thing. There are descriptions in Saul Bellow’s books which are astonishing, and his description of the human face are absolutely brilliant. Very difficult to do with any originality. This too I have tried to emulate.

As a judge for the Canadian Giller Prize last year I was exposed to some excellent writers, among them our winner, Sean Michaels, who wrote Us Conductors. It is based on the true story of a Russian spy who was infiltrated into the US between the wars. But this spy was no ordinary spy; he was also a musician, playing the theremin, and he achieved some fame, before Stalin’s people recalled him and sent him to the gulag. It is a truly wonderful book.

I also loved the Rabbit books by John Updike, whom I knew quite well. The best of these is Rabbit at Rest, intensely moving as Rabbit heads for oblivion. I have written many times of Updike’s realism, his understanding of America and its people with all their idealism and longing, and I think that the Rabbit series are among the finest novels of the last quarter of the 20th century. He is certainly the finest chronicler of the ordinary life of the US in my lifetime.

Oddly enough, perhaps, I owe a lot to Cry, the Beloved Country, because it seemed to suggest to me as a boy that there was a common humanity in our country which was being trampled on. Later, of course, as a student I began to think of it as naïve and sentimental, a cop out, but now I see that it influenced me – and many others – deeply.

Just in passing, I admire the writing of South Africa, from Jonny Steinberg, Mark Gevisser, Ivan Vladislavić, Marlene van Niekerk, Antjie Krog and many others of a new generation; the possibilities will prove to be profoundly liberating.

Up Against the NightJustin Cartwright’s latest book is Up Against the Night

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