Eva Hoffman

Eva Hoffman emigrated from Poland to Canada and the U. S. in her teens, and has lived in London since 1993.  She is the author of eight books of fiction and non-fiction, as well as a play, “The Ceremony,”  which will have a staged reading on 21 May 2017, under the direction of Braham Murray, the founding artistic director of the Royal Manchester Exchange. Click for more information. She worked as an editor at The New York Times, has lectured internationally,  and holds a DLitt from the University of Warwick. Her awards include the Whiting Award for Writing, an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and Prix Italia for radio, among others.

“The house of fiction,” Henry James said, “has not one window but a million” – and the house of non-fiction is no less extensive and varied.  My list of books which have been important to me because I’ve found them important as a writer or personally meaningful, could be potentially very long; but here are a few which have become part of my inner repertory, ranging among cultures and genres, as I like to do in both my reading and my writing.

Speak, Memory

Vladimir Nabokov

An iconic book in the literature of exile, Nabokov’s memoir chronicles the story of a fabulously privileged Russian childhood followed by the hardships of political persecution and multiple migrations, with unmatched stylistic brio and without a hint of resentment or self-pity. Proceeding through vivid vignettes and deep probes into particular moments, the book is a wonderfully vivid evocation of a vanished world, as well as a moving meditation on the power of memory to banish loss. Nabokov is sometimes thought of as a coolly ironic writer, but here, the beauty and precision of his prose is informed by the intensity of his attachments and the sheer delight he takes in the world he inhabits – its landscapes, literature, the people he loved – and of course its butterflies. A book which repays close reading, and delivers many pleasures.

Nora Webster

Colm Tóibín

Set in a small Irish town in the 1960’s, this simply written but exquisitely subtle novel tells the story of a young woman who has lost her beloved husband and is trying to cope with her grief, her two young sons, and coming to know who she is or might become. Eventually, Nora’s life expands beyond the confines of provincial existence through her growing appreciation of music; but what holds the reader in the story’s spell, is the way Tóibín follows the movements of his protagonist’s mind step by small step, and without ever hitting a false or exaggerated note -- so that we come to know her from within and are touched by her most ordinary struggles, and her most minute epiphanies. Apparently many years in the making, this is a novel which updates the tradition of realist fiction, and achieves the quality not only of verisimilitude, but a deeper truthfulness.

Primeval and Other Times

Olga Tokarczuk

A discovery when I read it in Polish in the 1990’s – and again, when I read it in English later -- this beguiling, entirely original creates its own microcosm, and its own kind of magical realism, by telling the story of a timeless village named “Primeval” through the voices of animals and angels, rivers and forests -- as well as its many human inhabitants. Mixing myth and modernity, a metaphysical framework with factual context, the novel delineates the turbulent history of Poland from 1914 to the present in short, sharply lyrical chapters; and it gives us a rich tapestry of characters – peasants and aristocrats, pagans and mystics, Poles and Jews – with all the varieties of love, hate, sensuality and brutal violence coursing among them. An example of the new creative energies released in Poland (and other Eastern European countries) by the lifting of censorship in 1989this is fiction which stimulates the imagination to move beyond its usual boundaries. Excellently translated by Antonia-Lloyd Jones, “Primeval” has been published in most European languages.

The Association of Small Bombs

Karan Mahajan

A writer who places current events at the center of his fiction takes a risk – that the real-world drama of his subject may overshadow the interest of his particular story. But in this deliberately unsensational novel, Mahajan, an Indian writer based in the US, manages both to give us insight into the political phenomenon of terrorism, and to bring its effects close to us by creating memorably individual characters and stories. Alternating between the perspectives of victims and perpetrators, Mahajan traces the lasting – and unexpected -- effects of terrible loss in the lives and psyches of two families accidentally caught up India’s terrorist violence; and he boldly shows us the terrifying normalization of terrorism for its perpetrators, for whom it is their daily job and profession. A sensitively written novel on a disturbing subject, and a powerful addition to the new global literature, which expands our understanding of other worlds and other lives.

The Swerve

Stephen Greenblatt

A fascinating book about books, lost and found manuscripts, and the transmission of knowledge from the classical to the modern world. Greenblatt is a literary historian, and at the center of his study is a discovery, in 1417, of a long-lost poem by a Roman philosopher, Lucretius, who had astonishing intuitions about the atomic nature of the universe, many centuries before modern science arrived at similar insights. Greenblatt traces the effects of this discovery on Renaissance humanism, and he follows the devoted, and moving efforts of various scholars to uncover and transcribe other classical manuscripts in Europe’s abbeys and monasteries. Full of riveting details about forms of writing, reading, and the love of knowledge, this excavation of a forgotten cultural history is written with the panache of detective fiction, while throwing an unexpected light on the origins of a transnational European sensibility.