Olivia Laing: ‘I’m sorry, but Jane Eyre is a horrendous little hysteric’

The British writer on discovering Barthes, channelling Burroughs and appreciating the talents of Patricia Highsmith’s Mr Ripley

My earliest reading memory
Before I could read, I was seduced by Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester. Embroidered poppies and pansies, “Alack, I am worn to a ravelling”, and especially the explosion of colour when the mayor’s cherry coat is flung across a table.

My favourite book growing up
The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper was set a few miles from where I grew up in the Chilterns, deep country then and no doubt now ravaged by HS2. It’s a time-slip story, in which ordinary 1980s domesticity continually gives way to other eras, and it nourished my obsession with how history lodges in physical places.

The book that changed me as a teenager
My cousin is 10 years and a day older than me, and she took my countercultural education very seriously. When I was 15 she sent me Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black by Cookie Mueller. It was a doorway into a Technicolor world of experimental art and high-risk adventure, a model I followed a bit too assiduously in my 20s.

The writer who changed my mind
I did media studies A-level at sixth form college, and had one of those life-changing teachers, Jeremy Points. He lent me Roland Barthes. S/Z flipped my lid. It had never occurred to me that novels might contain so many hidden layers of meanings, or that prising them open could reveal secrets about the culture from which they’d emerged.

The book that made me want to be a writer
William Burroughs was the first writer I encountered where narrative was totally superseded by something else: an autonomous zone built out of language and atmosphere. I didn’t know how it worked but it made me start to write, first just by copying his hypnotic, disarticulated sentences – “Dead leaves in the pissoir” – on to my teenage bedroom wall.

The book I came back to
I just read Paradise Lost for the first time, and aside from its world-building majesty, no one ever told me how funny it was, or how weird. Angelic sex, proto-smoothies, Adam’s disquisition on the importance of keeping paths clear … I chased it with Milton’s God by William Empson, which is witty, rigorous and eye-opening: a model of how good criticism should be.

The book I could never read again
I was wild for Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre as a child but I went back to it in the pandemic after rereading all of Austen, and I’m sorry, but Jane Eyre is a horrendous little hysteric. Lock her in the red room! I found the heightened emotional temperature unbearable. Give me Austen’s coolness, irony, ambiguity any day.

The book I reread
Virginia Woolf’s diary. Fleet, multiple, shifting, inordinate.

The book I discovered later in life
Last summer I interviewed Neil Tennant and he recommended Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe, a novel about an embittered, impoverished writer who becomes pope and has a very jolly time punishing his enemies and dressing up. It’s one of the most grandiloquent books ever written, and is hilarious as well as quite agonising for anyone with an ounce of overblown ego. It led me on to the The Quest for Corvo, a gripping biography of Rolfe, whose gift for grudges and taste for decadence was unparalleled outside the Roman empire.

The book I am currently reading
Bloms Bulbs spring catalogue.

My comfort read
When times are tough I turn to Tom Ripley, especially the later novels of the Ripliad where he has an enormous house in France and there are lots of long digressions about his dahlias and dressing gowns, before he bumps off another stranger unlucky enough to cross his path. Tom’s queer but not queer, and the books throb with the terrible anxiety of being found out. They’re the greatest novels about the closet that have ever existed.

• Olivia Laing’s Everybody is published by Macmillan (£20). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


Olivia Laing

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