Daniyal Mueenuddin, a graduate from Yale Law School, a former practising lawyer and now an acclaimed author, lives on a farm in Pakistan’s southern Punjab. Some of his earlier works of fiction were published in Granta, Zoetrope and The New Yorker before he decided to leave New York and move to Pakistan, the country of his birth. His debut collection of inter-connected stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, has received laurels the world over. In an email to Lounge, Mueenuddin discussed his five favourite books. Edited excerpts:
By James Joyce
‘Ulysses’ is arguably the greatest novel of the 20th century, both because of its technical innovations and also because of its emotional qualities, its atmosphere. By slowing and speeding up time, by mixing different voices and styles, by mixing and mashing the high and the low, by exploring subjectivity in revolutionary ways, ‘Ulysses’ opened up enormous virgin territories for the writers who followed—it expanded the space in which we write. As a writer, ‘Ulysses’ makes me feel free to do whatever I like—it breaks the chains. As a reader, I love it for its humour, its variety and perhaps, most of all, because it is so tremendously affirmative, accepts life so joyously, embracing dirty linen and disorder, lewdness and the physical body, and slang and vulgar words as much as it does manners and chivalry, and honour, virtue, loyalty and love. It’s totally huge, as the kids say.
The Collected Short Stories of Anton Chekhov
Translated by Maude Aylmer
If I were stranded on a desert island, I would take Chekhov, as many volumes as the (literate and courteous) pirates who left me there allowed. What I love most about Chekhov’s stories is their quiet, affectionate humane portrayals, his willingness to allow the characters their predicaments and petty triumphs. I admire the man (and not just the artist) behind the stories and am glad to spend a few hours in his company. As a writer, I marvel at the sureness of his hand, the firmness with which he approaches his material—I’ve read pretty much everything he wrote, and I can’t remember a single instance where the indisputably wrong note is struck. He didn’t make mistakes, because he wrote naturally, as he breathed.
By Leo Tolstoy
I was tempted to name ‘Anna Karenina’, which is the the more highbrow of Tolstoy’s two greatest works. But the truth is, I enjoy ‘War and Peace’ more, or more viscerally. ‘Anna Karenina’ is a finer construction, but ‘War and Peace’ is enveloping and truer to Tolstoy’s best character—a huge wet hug from this Russian bear. And then, I love battles, epaulettes, flanking manoeuvres, enfilade fire, horses and all that—but here, unlike in most novels that deal with those pre-adolescent toys, I don’t feel embarrassed about it. I don’t feel like a grown man playing with a train set.
By Sigrid Undset
There is a secret society, made up of Kristin’s lovers—they wander the streets, unknown to each other, until a chance word is dropped—and the secret handshake then exchanged. The novel is: one, long and, two, set in medieval Norway—qualities that help to keep the gawkers and day-trippers and bottle-washers away (and quite frankly, the society’s members prefer it that way). Like nightclubs and waterfalls, certain books are best when least known. (Sigrid) Undset, who won the Nobel prize in 1928, manages to make medieval Norway seem as modern as—well, as modern as it undoubtedly was, since human character and society never really change, only the costumes and proprieties transform. It is high drama, intensely and strangely flavoured—a picaresque novel, with a wilful, impetuous, oversized and flawed woman as its questing heroine.
By John Berryman
When I’m feeling a bit down, or full of ennui, I sometimes turn to Berryman’s ‘Dream Songs’, which are simultaneously melancholy and humorous, and which disarm me—the awkward elegiac voice, laughter at the verge of despair. Writers are vulnerable to a species of enervation—known as accidie, the malady of monks—when the world seems very grey indeed, and nothing has any flavour. Berryman is the soundtrack for that mood, and helps to lift it.
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