In the last months of his life, as he lay dying in his hospital bed, my best friend Glyn wanted to read nothing but Agatha Christie. Despite his Oxford education and a brilliant mind, only Dame Agatha would do. Before each visit, I would scour charity shops and grab a bunch (there were always plenty available). “Ah, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” he would say with real pleasure. My mother, on the other hand, in her final months, wanted Alexander McCall Smith. She found them reliably good-natured and his Scotland Street series reminded her of her upbringing in Edinburgh and a particular pleasing Scottish sensibility.
On a much more banal level, a recent cold turned me into a couch potato. Wintry weather made an appropriate backdrop so I had no problem lying on the sofa as the rain beat against the window. I watched old favourites and ones I’d missed, from a couple of Woody Allens (‘Interiors’ still as pretentious as I’d thought it was when it came out in 1978 but the actual interiors still look wonderful) to more violent numbers – the recent Kray Twins yarn ‘Legend’, Spielberg’s ‘Munich.’ I was content, happy to yield to the stories being told and soothed by good performances and interesting locations. It crossed my mind that, were I dying, I’d spend a great deal of time watching films, or possibly lots of boxed sets.
But then I thought of Glyn and my mother, and others I’ve known who are no longer here, and I think books are indeed the final refuge, when the pleasure of snuggling down in your bed isn’t so much an option as a necessity. Opening a book invites you into a new world in a different way from a film. You choose the pace to some extent and certainly how people look, and you become absorbed in other people’s inner lives which no amount of voice-overs and meaningful glances can replicate. At the moment I’m enjoying Egyptian academics in the USA in Alaa Al Aswanyi’s excellent ‘Chicago’ but a few days ago I was totally captivated by Kate Atkinson’s pin-sharp description of wartime London in ‘Life After Life.’ Who knows where I’ll be this time next week (but Sebastian Faulks is sitting on my bedside table).
I’ve been having an odd time with fiction this year. A few times I found myself plodding through novels that weren’t giving me any pleasure. I won’t name them because I know that sometimes you return to a book you didn’t finish and suddenly you find it rather good. It’s the importance of timing. This year I’ve started and NOT FINISHED three novels and that felt rather daring. I’ve always believed you should finish everything, including the food on your plate and certainly every drop of wine in your glass. To not finish a novel feels disrespectful to the author and yet there was a tremendous sense of relief in casting a book to one side and saying, in a rather curmudgeonly fashion, “Just cannot be bothered.”
That’s why, on your deathbed, I’m sure you choose something totally reliable. Not the best books ever written but books that make you feel comfortable, knowing that everything will turn out all right in the end. I don’t want my final days to be marred by umming and aahing over whether or not to finish a novel. I shan’t start Proust if I haven’t already read any. I will be looking for something comfortable, and I suppose that means writers like William Boyd and Ian McEwan who create novels that never fail to invite me in and let me stay until the end. Maybe a Thomas Hardy, but certainly not a Dickens. Then again, it could just be the moment to start Dame Agatha.
A grim thought, perhaps, but what book would be your last?