Damon Galgut: ‘After reading Roald Dahl, the world never looked the same’

The Booker-longlisted author on the dazzling wordplay of Nabokov, feeling bemused by Haruki Murakami and struggling to finish Dickens

The book I am currently reading
The Day of Judgment by Salvatore Satta. It’s set in a remote Sardinian town at the turn of the last century and has no plot to speak of. Plotlessness is, indeed, the point. The book has been sitting on my shelf for 20 years, which is where I like to leave them till the right time comes. They cry out with little voices and tug at my sleeve when I pass, and one day they say my name.

The book that changed my life
Nah, that doesn’t happen.

The book I wish I’d written
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. His best book, and he wrote it in only six weeks, while working night shifts at a power plant. Such a simple idea carried into fantastic elaborations.

The last book that made me laugh
Probably Pale Fire, which is very clever and very funny. Nabokov’s wordplay is dazzling, but his humour often rests on the difficult trick of conjuring an unspoken gap between how a character sees themselves and how others see them.

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
Not a book, but a Roald Dahl short story. When I was 12, an unusual English teacher introduced our class to some of the dark stories in Kiss Kiss and Someone Like You. He got into trouble for it, but I’ll be forever grateful. After reading “Pig”, the world never looked the same. I just knew that the main character, a little boy called Lexington, was me, and that his terrible fate was mine too. It was the first time I understood, viscerally, that writing didn’t have to soothe and entertain you. It could shake up everything you knew and make you see things differently.

The book I think is most overrated
No need to focus on a specific title, but I don’t comprehend the fuss about Haruki Murakami. I’ve tried a few and remain bemused. On the other hand, why are there no public shrines to Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles?

The book that changed my mind
Big tectonic mind-shifts because of a book? I wish it happened that way. On the other hand, books cumulatively keep your mind evolving, and teach you that the world isn’t made in your own image. Lots of worlds out there.

The last book that made me cry
I’m stony-hearted when it comes to prose, but poetry can sometimes stab me into weeping. I probably last snivelled over Anna Akhmatova. The steady clarity of her eye as it looks on suffering is profoundly moving.

The book I couldn’t finish
I have to confess that I’ve never finished a single Dickens. I hugely enjoy them, but somehow always run out of steam. I had hopes of finishing David Copperfield once while I was travelling in India, but it turned out to have a chunk of pages missing.

The book I give as a gift
I give different books to different people. More consistently, I have given beautiful blank notebooks to various friends, in the hope that they’ll embark on writing poems or memoirs, though they probably get used to scribble shopping lists.

My earliest reading memory
… isn’t about a book, but a moment. As a child, you start out reading aloud, and I still strongly recall the instant when I stopped speaking and yet the voice of the book continued in my head. It felt like magic. I ran to my mother in high excitement to tell her I was reading in my mind. Something of that excitement still remains.

My comfort read
These days it’s probably Elmore Leonard, who does great plot set-ups and brilliant dialogue. It’s also consoling to spend time with characters who are in much worse trouble than you are, but still trying to blast or brazen a way out.

Damon Galgut’s The Promise (Chatto, £16.99) is on the Booker longlist. To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Damon Galgut

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