James Rebanks, aka The Herdwick Shepherd, shares his favourite Penguin Classics exclusively for the Penguin Blog.
The Complete Novels, George Orwell
I left school aged 15 and worked on my family’s farm. I became someone who taught themselves things from books, the radio and TV (they call it being an ‘autodidact’). One day I heard a radio programme about George Orwell. So I bought this book, started at the beginning, and read every word. It took me about a month and I consider it the most educational month’s reading of my life. You see Orwell slowly and jerkily find his own style and voice, becoming a better writer book by book. Orwell taught me that writing is a craft: you need time to become as good as you can be.
The First Man, Albert Camus
Reading my grandfather’s copies of Camus’s books made me want to be a writer. (Though just as importantly back then, he also seemed cool: he was good looking and played football, plus he wrote books. What more could you want?) I didn’t entirely understand what he was saying, but I knew it was something important about human life. I’m still not sure I understand ‘existentialism’ or the ‘absurd’, but I love the decency of Camus. He feels like a man with a good heart. The First Man is his final book, published long after his death. Though it’s a series of fragments, it feels like a hymn of love to the people he came from: poor immigrant families in Algeria with messy, hard lives.
Hiroshima, John Hersey
This is one of the great pieces of factual writing about historical events. It is also seriously grim. As the title makes clear, it is about the aftermath of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima and it leaves the reader graphically aware of what happens to people when you drop a nuclear weapon on them. It is a necessary and vital book, because someone had to record the consequences of such a thing. It is also stunningly crafted, the writing uncluttered and simple. I humbly try to write like Hersey and keep a copy of his book by me when I am working. If I feel my writing’s no longer ringing true, I read a few pages and hope doing so will bring me back to plainer, pared back prose.
How Much Land Does A Man Need? and other stories, Leo Tolstoy
Russian literature takes peasants and peasant life very seriously, and has done since 19th century when several notable writers and artists sought to locate the Russian soul in the working people of the countryside. This focus on the serfs and the culture of the working people of the land became an alternative to simply accepting a western worldview about progress. I believe there are things of great interest in traditional working lives: that looking back is sometimes as valuable as looking forward. So it is Tolstoy’s smaller stories about peasants and serfs that I really love, more than his epic-scale historic stuff. These short stories read like parables, consciously echoing ancient fables, but located in the Russia of the nineteenth century. This particular story is about a man becoming a fool because he doesn’t know when enough is enough. We all make that mistake, so it is a story about all of us. (The answer to the question in the title is ‘about six feet to be buried in’.)
And Quiet Flows the Don, Mikhail Sholokov
Another Russian writer I really like is Mikhail Sholokov. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Sholokov’s reputation took a kicking in the West, because he was a Soviet in-house writer. In spite of this I think he is a great writer and worthy of his Nobel Prize. This novel – and its sequel, The Don Flows Home to the Sea – are gritty, realist stories about the lives of peasants and Cossacks in the early twentieth century. I love the writing about the horses and other livestock, stories full of blood and shit, smells and petty rivalries. I’m not sure anyone has ever written better about such things. Befitting the times they were written about, these stories have an epic flavor: they are about life and death and the choices people make in a revolutionary world: his characters have to choose between being militant revolutionaries or militant conservatives. I think the reader is meant to see the folly in the conservative characters defying the changing world around them, but the writing is so good that you can see them another way, as heroic figures, stubborn to the end.
I love Russian poetry. So this is a book I keep by my bedside. I could talk about lots of the poets in this collection but really I only want to talk about one of them, Anna Akhmatova. If I had to rank the authors I’ve mentioned here, Anna Akhmatova would come out on top.
I find it hard to describe her writing because it is like a pig describing an angel. So just trust me: if you haven’t read her, you should. She writes beautifully epic, dark, haunting poems about the hellish, murderous times of Stalinist Russia, in which she lived. There is one passage in her poetry that sums up why writing really matters. Akhmatova is stood in a queue with the wives of other political prisoners in the freezing cold. They, like her, are queuing for news about their husbands and sons (some of who will already have been murdered by the NKVD, the secret police). A woman comes to her and asks if she is the writer, Akhmatova. Yes, she replies. Then the woman asks, can Akhmatova describe what is happening to them in words? She says, yes. And the woman smiles and goes back to her place in the queue, satisfied that some kind of justice will be done, in poetry if nothing else. That’s what brave, rebellious and dignified writing can do: it gives people hope, even when they are living in the depths of hell, that the world will know what is happening to them; that the truth will come out, that they are not alone.