There are many I’ve read over the last fifty-five years as an adult. I’ll discuss just seven: Tolstoy, Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Saul Bellow, Anthony Burgess, Malcolm Bradbury and Ian McEwan. I’ll start with Graham Greene, introduced to me as a late teenager by a girlfriend I was trying to impress who was reading The End of the Affair at her convent school. I came to love the Catholic guilt of Greeneland, although I was and remain an Anglican and innocent. Then back to Tolstoy. I did read War and Peace to show off a bit (not in the original Russian), but at a confusing point in my early twenties I read Resurrection which was a powerful testimony to the inner peace of a redemption. Iris Murdoch’s complex novels with a philosophical background became must-reads, The Sea, The Sea being my favourite despite winning the Booker Prize. Saul Bellow’s conversational style of writing and understanding of the male psyche make him a stand-out for me, with Henderson the Rain King perhaps my favourite, although I loved Herzog too. Then I started to lighten up a bit. Anthony Burgess’s rumbustious style with Inside Mr Enderby made me laugh out loud, taking me back to my younger days when J P Donleavy and Joseph Heller had done the same. Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge were very different authors, though both worked brilliantly with the campus novel. Lodge gave me belly-laughs and I’d have loved to have met his character Robyn Penrose. But I’ve listed Malcolm Bradbury for the brilliantly wicked satire that The History Man constitutes. There’s a chapter in my novel where the affluent yet intelligent engineer goes to an academic party and faces similar behaviour. Finally I come to an author younger than myself, Ian McEwan, who is far more serious and earnest in his writings. Saturday is perhaps my favourite but all his books are worth waiting for, as are those of William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks. The McEwan I like least is Atonement, where nothing is atoned, speaking to me the post-modern dilemma in finding meaning. I guess that’s why Tolstoy’s Resurrection is put at the top.
Bob is an engineer. He's a working class Northerner made good, and his origins place him always slightly outside the professional class to which he now belongs. He was inspired by the cultural revolution of the late-fifties and early-sixties, and although he did well out of Thatcherism, his roots have left him with a rebellious scepticism in which corporate greed and leftwing intellectualism are held in roughly equal contempt. Since the failure of his first marriage he has been unable to sustain a serious personal relationship, and still carries a torch for his ex-wife, Jane (a feminist academic who tries to steal every scene in which she appears). His best friend, Richard, is an investment banker with enough doubts about his profession to return a bonus. He partly regrets his decision not to enter the church as a young man, although his younger wife is far from convinced that Christianity holds all the answers. He’s also from the North, with lower middle-class roots.
Now nearing retirement, Bob and Richard are working together for one last time on the flotation of a clean energy start-up company. Against this backdrop, Bob is offered two chances for love, one new, one old, while Richard's apparently idyllic marriage is sorely tested. And all the while, in many different ways, major and minor characters search for some sort of meaning to their lives, from faith to politics to love, all of them in one way or another trying to answer the question the book's title asks, `Where's Sailor Jack?' (Bob's late father): Where do we go when we die? The novel doesn’t preach an answer, but allows different world views, inviting readers to decide their own answer to the book's question. Either way, there is a fundamentally uplifting message, whether taken as Christian or simply Humanist and Existential.