If I were stranded on a desert island I’d want to have five enormously long books, all worth reading, so gripping that I’d stop worrying about whether I’d be rescued, books that would cheer me up if I felt depressed about being stranded and that I’d want to read again and again.
I’ve often thought that when I had lots of leisure time I would read Proust, but on a desert island I don’t think I’d want to read about a man lying in bed eating madeleines, so – perhaps mistakenly – I’d leave that one behind.
A lot of my life has been spent in Japan, and when I’m not physically there I’m very often there in my imagination. So I’d want at least one book to keep me grounded in Japan; one favourite book of all time that I could return to again and again; one book which I’ve always wanted to read but never got round to reading; and one practical book of survival techniques.
My five Desert Island Books don’t quite fulfil these requirements but here they are:
The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu, 1008
The Tale of Genji is more than a thousand years old but when I first read it it was like being drawn into the freshest, most gripping of page turners. It’s the world’s first novel and was written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu, a court lady in eleventh century Heian, now Kyoto. It’s set a hundred years before Murasaki’s own time which also makes it the world’s first historical novel.
It’s the story of Genji the Shining Prince – his adventures, travels, love affairs and tragedies. Handsome, charming and prone to falling in love, he’s an adept in the arts of perfume mixing, poetry writing and calligraphy. In his society, court ladies keep themselves hidden inside their palaces. He exchanges poems with women he’s never seen and decides if they’re worth meeting on the basis of their handwriting. It’s a world quite Proustian in its delicacy, beauty and eternal leisure.
Shogun, James Clavell, 1975
People are always shocked when I say I like Shogun. I read it when I was first in Japan more than thirty years ago. Books like Shogun inspired me to want to write historical fiction, to take my readers on a journey into the past.
I now know far more about Japan than I did then and am always impressed at the accuracy of the detail. Shogun is the story of John Blackthorne, whose real name was Will Adams. An Englishman, he was shipwrecked on the coast of Japan in 1600. After many adventures, he became the shogun’s right hand man, was given the rank of samurai and advised him on building a navy. Clavell brings the history brilliantly and boisterously to life, adding in a romance with Blackthorne’s interpreter, Mariko, plus all sorts of colourful detail about the interaction between these men from such extremely different cultures – the Japanese shock at the filthy Englishmen, who bathed twice in their lives whereas the Japanese bathed every day; or Blackthorne’s fury when the shogun, pleased with him, offers him a boy – though from a 2016 perspective I’m not sure if an Elizabethan Englishman would have been that shocked …
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell, 2010
This is David Mitchell’s historical novel and probably the most straightforward of his books. The story is set in the Dutch enclave of Dejima, off Nagasaki, and includes the true story of the British ship that sailed in flying the Dutch flag in 1808, trying to fool the Japanese into trading with the British.
Like all good historical novels you can trust the history and Mitchell brings it hugely to life through his flamboyant style. The language is inventive, colourful, super-charged, often in the idiom of rollicking eighteenth-century novels like Tristram Shandy. The book swings between Dutch, Japanese and British viewpoints and immerses you in a world where you have no idea who you can trust, where everyone but Jacob, the naive clerk, is out to swindle or betray everyone else. It’s funny, persuasive and over the top and the characters – honest Jacob, corrupt overseers, seadogs, cringing Japanese servants secretly spying on their masters, slaves without even a name – are magnificently larger then life.
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1866
I’d want at least one heavyweight Russian novel to lose myself in on those hot tropical island days. There’s War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Pushkin’s Queen of Spades. But in the end for me it comes back to Dostoevsky. And if I can only take one of his novels it has to be Crime and Punishment. That’s a novel that I will keep coming back to throughout my life.
As a teenager I simply was Raskolnikov. As a youngish adult I reread Crime and Punishment and thought I must have been a weird teenager. I came back to it again as a writer and once again was gripped by its madness, its intensity, its evocation of hardship, extreme poverty, people living on the edge of disaster and regularly toppling over. It bursts with unforgettable characters and the intensity is ratcheted up to a level any writer would love to be able to emulate.
The Crimson Petal and the White, Michel Faber, 2002
When I’m writing I have books spread all around me. I read a paragraph or two for inspiration but never allow myself to get caught up in the story. One is Gone with the Wind; I like to think of my novel as a Japanese Gone with the Wind. One which is hardest to pull myself away from is The Crimson Petal and the White. It’s a tongue-in-cheek post-modern historical novel, set in 1870s’ London in thick Dickensian fog. The characters leap off the page – William, the owner of a perfumery, Agnes his crazy wife, his brother the pastor Henry, the Victorian spinster Mrs Fox, Sugar the prostitute with dreams and a brain … It’s Dickens for the twenty first century.
I’m not allowed a sixth but if I were I’d go for Robinson Crusoe. That might give me some clues as to how to survive!
Lesley Downer is the author of The Shogun Quartet, four novels telling the stories of four different women who are caught up in the cataclysmic events when the shogunate collapsed and Japan leapt into the modern western world in the mid nineteenth century. The fourth of the quartet, The Shogun’s Queen, is out now.