I find books within books a uniquely interesting subject – what better place to explore literature than within literature? Not to be pretentious, but let’s start with the book itself: it’s a story, lived or imaginary, told with 26 letters, which make up sentences, pages, chapters … If you think about it, that’s a pretty remarkable object in itself. In the physical sense, a pile of papers, but also a maze of feelings, emotions, actions. Stories and books are the foundations of our culture. Before we had paper, we had clay tablets. The only thing older than the book is the drawing, but that’s a whole other tale …
And then adding to that another book that lives within that book – a whole new maze!
Novels create an illusion of life. Nothing about them is real, and yet, sometimes I have a feeling that something in my writing haunts me – not least because of the publishing process, which can be fraught.
Every day, hundreds of books by unknown authors make their way to publishing houses around France. So many people write novels and dream of being published, but comparatively few make it. Ever since my first book deal for The Portrait, over 10 years ago, I’ve observed the mysterious and fascinating world of publishing. “Write about what you know,” they say, and so for a long time I’ve planned to write a book about that world, about which stories are chosen to be published, how authors interact with their publishers and with their own books. And then, as The Readers’ Room came together, I thought, what if you were one of the lucky few who has been published … and then you just disappear? You’ve signed your contract, the book’s about to come out – but you’re nowhere to be found! Imagine the panic at the publishers!
The following 10 books – nine novels and one work of nonfiction – offer, I think, an insight into the strange world of creating books, the bizarre job that is being a novelist and the magic that can exist (sometimes literally) within the books that we read.
1. The Dumas Club by Arturo Perez-Reverte
One of Perez-Reverte’s strangest stories. Book dealer Lucas Corso embarks on a mission to find a lost book, printed in Venice in the 16th century. But this book contains engravings that, following a certain ritual can, summon the devil.
2. Lila, Lila by Martin Suter
My favourite of Suter’s books. A shy young man finds a dead man’s manuscript hidden in a cabinet in a market, and decides to pass it off as his own to impress the woman he loves. The novel is published and brings him huge success, but he is of course unable to write a second one. And then threatening letters start to arrive – from someone claiming to be the author.
3. A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne
In a hotel in Berlin, the young Maurice Swift happens to run into the famous novelist Erich Ackerman, who confides in him about his dark past. The unscrupulous Swift quickly appropriates Ackerman’s life story – ruining him, but finally becoming the famous author he’s always dreamed of being. Years later, Swift needs new sources of inspiration … It doesn’t matter whose stories they are, or how he acquires them, so long as they continue to make his name. These stories will drive him to lie, steal and maybe even worse.
4. In Praise of Lies by Patricia Melo
Under various American pseudonyms, Jose Guber shamelessly pitches classic plots to his clueless editor – but increasingly The Stranger and Crime and Punishment are turned down for their narrative weaknesses. Whilst desperately researching what he hopes will be his next bestseller, he meets the beautiful, married snake expert Melissa. They begin a passionate fling – but Melissa, convinced that Jose is a genius, has found the perfect man to plot the murder of her husband.
5. Death by Publication by Jean-Jacques Fiechter
A quite extraordinary crime novel, featuring a particularly subtle literary vengeance. A distinguished publisher’s friendship with one of his longest standing authors has been soured by envy, slights and betrayal. His Machiavellian revenge will convince the author that his latest prize-winning masterpiece is in fact a work of plagiarism.
6. The Surgeon of Crowthorne by Simon Winchester
A true story. In the autumn of 1896, Dr James Murray, the celebrated editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, decides to visit a certain Dr Minor, who lives in Crowthorne in Berkshire, and who for years has been sending him helpful and beautifully written contributions to the dictionary. But quite a surprise awaits him: Dr Minor lives in Crowthorne – in Broadmoor Asylum, where he has been incarcerated for murder.
7. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
Geoffrey Braithwaite, a doctor obsessed with Gustave Flaubert, decides to make a pilgrimage to Normandy, the land of his idol. In Rouen, at the Flaubert museum, he is overcome with emotion to find the very parrot who inspired Loulou from the tale A Simple Heart. But at Croisset, Flaubert’s home, there is yet another stuffed parrot. This is the real Loulou, confirms the curator. But which is the true Loulou? A novel filled with humour and unexpected encounters.
8. Hocus Bogus by Émile Ajar
The novel in which Romain Gary explains the subterfuge that he arranged to allow him to twice win the Prix Goncourt, only supposed to be awarded to an author once, by writing La Vie Devant Soi under a pseudonym and enlisting the son of his cousin to appear as Émile Ajar. A fascinating and thought-provoking meditation about fiction and identity.
9. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Montag is a particular kind of fireman from the future: he burns books. Right up until the day when he decides to read a book instead of burning it, rejects the state-sanctioned happiness and dreams of a world where literature and imagination are not banned. Bradbury’s greatest work.
10. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
A young boy enters the cemetery of lost books, a secret library in Barcelona, where he’s given a book by an unknown author called Carax. Entranced by the book, he searches for more of Carax’s work, and to find out more about the mysterious author. And then his path crosses that of a man who is also searching for books by Carax – but to burn them.
Translated by Sophie Goodfellow
The Reader’s Room by Antoine Laurain is published by Gallic Books. To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com.