Q: Can you recommend fiction that addresses masculinity and what it means to be a man in Europe today?
David, 29, London
When I was a young man, I spent a lot of time wandering around being melancholic while reading books like Knut Hamsun’s Hunger in which a young man wanders around being melancholic. My preparation for becoming a father was to repeatedly read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and stock up on tinned food and weapons. Looking for some guidance in life, I’d turn to the thoughts of Roman emperors, both real (Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations) and imagined (Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar). The life of a man is, among other things, an absurd one.
Before reaching for the latest Houellebecq, there are some very fine contemporary books that look at the multiplicities of masculinity. David Szalay’s All That Man Is is a superb collection of brutally honest yet sympathetic stories. The more troubled and troubling aspects to being a man are examined in two very different but extremely powerful books: The End of Eddy by Édouard Louis and The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi. I’d place Ben Myers’s excellent recent novels up there too, which lean towards folk horror and northern gothic. If I can cheat a little, I’d recommend the memoir Jolly Lad by John Doran, which is the most painfully perceptive book I’ve ever read about addiction, while still being very funny. It helps to revisit boyhood with beautifully observant books such as Kieron Smith, Boy by James Kelman and Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark (the latter a huge influence, along with the films of Terence Davies, on my book Inventory).
Books outside of our time also have much to say. George Orwell’s Coming Up for Air is an overlooked gem with so many resonant moments of disappointment, change and stoicism. Jean Toomer’s 1923 novel Cane, while focusing largely on racial issues in the US, has some stunning stories that hint at how men see the world and the consequences therein. The Ruined Map by Kobo Abe is a mesmerising book for uncertain times and identities. Masculinity seems a challenge not just a status: it asks us to have the strength to be kind and empathetic, for example.
There is a whole canon of stories about men breaking through, or failing to break through, that allude to something deeper, more truthful and more expansive: Albert Camus’s The Fall, Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea, James Joyce’s Dubliners. If those get too heavy, there’s always the escape of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s flying novels. Or a grim form of solace in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; even in post-apocalyptic Kent, young men are venturing out to find their place in the world.
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