Olivia Laing: “I’m sorry, but Jane Eyre is a horrible little hysteric” | Olivia Laing
My first memory of reading
Before I could read, I was seduced by Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester. Embroidered poppies and pansies, “Alack, I’m worn to a fray,” and especially the explosion of color when the mayor’s cherry coat is thrown across a table.
My favorite book growing up
The night is coming by Susan Cooper was set a few miles from where I grew up in the Chilterns, a deep country at the time and no doubt now ravaged by HS2. It’s a time-shifting story, in which ordinary 1980s domestic life continually gives way to other eras, and that fueled my obsession with how the story fits into physical locations.
The book that changed me as a teenager
My cousin is 10 years and a day older than me and she took my counter-cultural upbringing very seriously. When I was 15, she sent me Cookie Mueller’s Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black. It was a gateway into a Technicolor world of experimental art and high-risk adventure, a pattern I followed a little too assiduously in my twenties.
The writer who changed my mind
I did A-level media studies in college and had one of those life-changing teachers, Jeremy Points. He lent me Roland Barthes. S/Z flipped my lid. It had never occurred to me that novels could contain so many hidden layers of meaning, or that opening them could reveal secrets about the culture from which they were drawn.
The book that made me want to be a writer
William Burroughs was the first writer I encountered where narrative was totally replaced by something else: a self-contained zone built from language and atmosphere. I didn’t know how it worked, but it got me started writing, first just by copying his hypnotic, disjointed phrases – “Leaves in the pissoir” – onto the wall of my teenage bedroom.
The book I came back to
I just read Paradise Lost for the first time, and other than its world-building majesty, no one ever told me how funny or weird it was. Angelic sex, proto-smoothies, Adam’s dissertation on the importance of keeping the paths clear… I chased it with William Empson’s Milton’s God, which is witty, rigorous and revealing: a model of quality of criticism.
The Book I Could Never Read Again
I was crazy about Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as a kid, but went back to it during the pandemic after re-reading all of Austen, and I’m sorry, but Jane Eyre is a horrible little hysteric. Lock her in the red room! I found the high emotional temperature unbearable. Give me the freshness, the irony, the ambiguity of Austen anytime.
The book that I read
Journal of Virginia Woolf. Floating, multiple, changing, excessive.
The book I discovered later in life
Last summer I interviewed Neil Tennant and he recommended Frederick Rolfe’s Hadrian the Seventh, a novel about an embittered, impoverished writer who becomes pope and has a lot of fun punishing his enemies and disguising himself. It’s one of the most bombastic books ever written, and it’s as hilarious as it is pretty nerve-wracking for anyone with an ounce of exaggerated ego. This led me to The Quest for Corvo, a gripping biography of Rolfe, whose gift for grudge and taste for decadence was unparalleled outside the Roman Empire.
The book I am currently reading
Bloms Bulbs Spring Catalog.
My comfort read
When times get tough I turn to Tom Ripley, especially the later Ripliad novels where he has a huge house in France and there are many long digressions on his dahlias and dressing gowns, before he bumps into another stranger unlucky enough to cross his path. path. Tom is a queer but not a queer, and the books throb with the terrible anguish of being discovered. These are the greatest closet novels that have ever existed.