“Nabokov’s job in the book is to make you like the monstrous Humbert Humbert,” says the novelist, whose new book is “A Saint From Texas”: “In the 1960s readers were too swinging to see how evil he was and now readers are too prudish to see how charming he can be.”
What books are on your nightstand?
J.M.G. Le Clézio’s “The Prospector,” Christopher Beha’s “The Index of Self-Destructive Acts” and the two volumes of Jean d’Ormesson’s “Une Autre Histoire de la Littérature Française.” I met d’Ormesson when I lived in Paris — the perfect example of a French aristocrat.
What’s the last great book you read?
“The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen.” I’m reading two of her stories every day and Skyping about them with a friend. The best story so far is “Ivy Gripped the Steps.”
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped.” I still have “Treasure Island” to look forward to.
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
Nabokov thought that Dostoyevsky was improved in English. I don’t much like Faulkner, though I found “The Sound and the Fury” better in French. The translator, Maurice-Edgar Coindreau (a Princeton professor), just cut many incomprehensible, “metaphysical” passages and normalized the “Negro” dialect. I’m such a slow reader that for me nothing can overcome bad prose.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
When I was a sophomore in high school I was alone in the apartment during the day because I had mononucleosis and I remember the ecstasy of lying in a pool of sunlight and reading for the first time Pope’s “Rape of the Lock,” which I found beautifully crafted and devastatingly funny.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“The Story of Harold,” by Terry Andrews. It’s a strange book about a bisexual sadist who plans to burn his slave alive (with the slave’s eager cooperation). It reminds us that fiction was much more daring in the 1970s than now.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
“Crime and Punishment” because you can’t tolerate it later. “The Catcher in the Rye” because it will feel like the first book ever written just for you.
What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
“Memoirs From Beyond the Grave,” by Chateaubriand. It’s meant for the bifocal vision that only comes with age. For instance, as an overfed French ambassador in London he recalls the earlier period when he lived nearby as a starving émigré so hungry he’d suck the starch out of the sheets.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Yiyun Li, Rachel Cusk, Deborah Eisenberg, Colm Toibin, Ottessa Moshfegh, Annie Ernaux, Alan Hollinghurst, Andrea Bajani, Andres Barba, Joyce Carol Oates, Tracy K. Smith, John Irving, Richard Powers, Tom Beller.
Do you have any comfort reads?
No, I’m too serious. As a Midwestern public library intellectual, I read only for self-improvement.
Do you think any canonical books are widely misunderstood?
“Lolita.” Nabokov’s job in the book is to make you like the monstrous Humbert Humbert. In the 1960s readers were too swinging to see how evil he was and now readers are too prudish to see how charming he can be.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
That Racine was a rotten fellow.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
They must do both to interest me. For instance, George Eliot and Marcel Proust are writers who understand politics, the history of the arts, moral philosophy but can render the force of the passions.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
Literary fiction and good biographies are my favorite. I don’t read murder mysteries — I’ve always been too nerdish for that.
How do you organize your books?
By chaotic stacks.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
“Who’s Who in Hell.”
Have you ever changed your opinion of a book based on information about the author, or anything else?
Reading his books has led me to admire Somerset Maugham, whom I was too snobbish to look at when I was young.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I read less philosophy, possibly because I move in a less intellectual milieu than in the past. I’ve always read poetry with great interest. I love James Schuyler, Eugenio Montale, James Merrill, Elizabeth Bishop. I’m reading George Meredith’s “Modern Love” right now.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
The three great gigglers: Proust, Firbank and Chekhov. You probably need two or three translators as well.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I love the late novels of Rebecca West, especially “The Fountain Overflows,” but I lost interest in her early “Harriet Hume,” which was too densely written, in which there was no foreground or background.
What do you plan to read next?
All of Henry Green again. Maybe something by Moravia. “Anna Karenina” as I do every year. Maybe something by the fascinating d’Annunzio, whose biography I just read by Maurizio Serra.