Laura Cumming "Books that changed my life

Jessica Lone Summers

Laura Cummings is a renowned journalist and art critic for The Observer. Her recent book, On Chapel Sands, is published by Vintage, £9.99

Rings of Saturn by W G Sebald

I can still remember the universal astonishment when this book first appeared. Apparently the account of a journey through the flatlands of East Anglia, it seemed to meander from eerie stories of lost knights and Chinese empresses to herring fleets, Elizabethan ghosts and submerged villages, taking in poetry, philosophy and art along the way. The writing is hauntingly beautiful, but nobody quite knew whose voice it was, or even who had taken the strange black and white photographs that opened like windows in the text. Is it truth or fiction? Was the narrator, who suffers a nervous breakdown, actually based on the German author, W G Sebald? It changed my idea of what a memoir could be.

 

The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon

Grossmith Charles Pooter is a Victorian clerk at Perkupps in the City. He has just moved into a new house in Holloway. There are upstart tradesmen and mutinous maids to deal with, along with the exploits of his troublesome son Lupin and his oddly unsympathetic wife Carrie. The Grossmiths poke the gentlest fun at Pooter’s suburban pomposity, while walking a fine line between comic absurdity and the most poignant tragedy. The scene in which Pooter paints his bath red to keep up with the latest fashion, and then forgets he has done so, is one of the funniest episodes in all of English literature.

 

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Is there a more perfect short novel than this one? The plot is taken from a real-life story in a tabloid—an enigmatic zillionaire who hosts dazzling parties in his Long Island chateau, yet never seems to appear at them. But Fitzgerald’s tragic romance is a magnificent prose-poem, an elegy to lost love and regret, all set in a gilded Jazz Age America of speak-easies and all-night parties. An unquiet masterpiece whose charm and sadness never fail to hold their power, it has been filmed many times, yet the book always rises above the movies, with its perfect glittering brevity.

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