Welcome to our 'literary figures' section, where we collect interviews focused on particular authors with eminent scholars, biographers and writers.
We have Columbia Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro on Shakespeare's life, while Oxford Fellow Emma Smith and René Weis each share their selection for the best of his plays. If you're after classic authors of the Victorian era, we have a surplus of interviews on nineteenth-century literary figures, from Philip Davis on George Eliot to Catherine Brown on D H Lawrence to Jenny Hartley on Charles Dickens.
Alongside these offerings are other bedside table classics such as the best books of P G Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Agatha Christie, and Muriel Spark. It's never too late to begin reading an author you always missed out on—nor is one ever too old to return to old favourites from childhood. With interviews on literary figures as old as Dante and as new as John Berger, an eager literary reader can't go wrong.
Today it is celebrated as one of America’s great novels, but when it came out, Moby-Dick was received with little acclaim and none of the commercial success of Herman Melville’s first book, Typee. Here, Hester Blum, Professor of English at Penn State, introduces the 19th century American novelist and recommends which books to read by and about him.
Where to start with the novels of the American writer William Faulkner, chronicler of the Old South and winner of the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature? Here, Faulkner scholar Ahmed Honeini of Royal Holloway, University of London, recommends the best books by and about the man who tried to capture “the agony and sweat of the human spirit”.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) has been described as ‘the last true polymath to walk the earth’. A defining figure in German literature, Goethe coined the concept of world literature. And his literary and dramatic achievements are matched by his scientific work. David E. Wellbery, Professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Chicago and recipient of the Golden Goethe Medal, introduces us to the life and work of Goethe. He explores why figures such as Beethoven and Napoleon were magnetised to him, how Rousseau influenced Faust, and why Goethe’s Faust does not sell his soul to the devil.
Virgil is one of the most influential poets in the history of Western literature. Here, another poet, Sarah Ruden, talks about the challenges of translating the Aeneid and why, although we know little about Virgil as a man, his great poem’s take on the violence and power struggles it depicts is deeply ambivalent.
by Franz Kafka (ed. and translated by Stanley Corngold)
by Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka: The Office Writings
by Franz Kafka (ed. Stanley Corngold, Jack Greenberg, and Benno Wagner)
Kafka's Selected Stories
by Franz Kafka
Kafka: The Early Years
by Reiner Stach & Shelley Frisch (trans.)
“When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”—Kafka, The Metamorphosis. This is one of the most famous opening lines in all of world literature, but how ‘Kafkaesque’ was Franz Kafka? What are our misconceptions about his life and work? Professor Stanley Corngold, one of the most influential Kafka scholars, introduces us to an “athlete of anguish”.
His father had clawed his way up into the minor aristocracy, but Fyodor Dostoevsky chose to live the life of an impecunious author. He was sentenced to death, but his execution was stayed and he spent years in a Siberian labour camp instead. His books are about human compassion, but he was a difficult man who had trouble with his own personal relationships. Alex Christofi, author of a brilliant new biography of Dostoevsky, one of Russia’s greatest novelists, recommends five books to learn more about the man and his work—including the novel of which Tolstoy said he ‘didn’t know a better book in all our literature’.
In spite of the huge popularity of her work, Beatrix Potter has often been underappreciated as an artist and a writer, argues Libby Joy of the Beatrix Potter Society. Here she chooses five books to help you appreciate Potter’s life as an author, artist and pioneering conservationist.
Iris Murdoch gained fame as a novelist, a philosopher and, perhaps most prominently of all, for her public and rapid decline (and posthumous immortalization by her husband John Bayley) after an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. But now, a hundred years on from her birth, the attention is returning back to her work: Miles Leeson, Director of the Iris Murdoch Centre at the University of Chichester, recommends what books to read from her canon of 27 novels.
Seventy years on from its initial publication, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is just as resonant in today’s era of misinformation and fake news as it was in the incipient Cold War era. D J Taylor, author of a prizewinning biography of Orwell, takes us through the extraordinary impact of the author’s fiction and reportage.
Letters to a Young Painter
by Rainer Maria Rilke
The Death and Letters of Alice James: Selected Correspondence
by Alice James
Letters to Felice
by Franz Kafka
by Hannah Arendt & Martin Heidegger
Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence
by Elizabeth Bishop & Robert Lowell
The next release in the ekphrasis series from David Zwirner Books is Oscar Wilde’s The Critic as Artist, including an introduction by Michael Bracewell and a colour portrait of Wilde by Marlene Dumas. Head of Content Lucas Zwirner talks to Five Books about the inspiration he’s drawn from literary letters and how they inform the editorial direction of the publishing house.
Troilus and Criseyde
Geoffrey Chaucer (ed. by Stephen Barney)
Oxford Guides to Chaucer: Troilus and Criseyde
by Barry Windeatt
The Double Sorrow of Troilus: A Study of Ambiguities in ‘Troilus and Criseyde’
by Ida L. Gordon
The Tragic Argument of Troilus and Criseyde
by Gerald Morgan
A Double Sorrow: Troilus and Criseyde
by Lavinia Greenlaw
Troilus and Criseyde has a centuries’ old backstory. Long before Renaissance dramas or realist novels, Chaucer wrote a love story set in a besieged city that was a deep psychological exploration of character and human relationships. Jenni Nuttall, author of Troilus and Criseyde: A Reader’s Guide, shares her reading recommendations after over a decade of teaching the poem to Oxford undergraduates.
Emerson: The Mind on Fire
by Robert D Richardson
Emerson: Essays and Lectures
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Emerson in His Journals
Ralph Waldo Emerson and Joel Porte (editor)
Emerson in His Own Time
Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson (editors)
One First Love
by Ellen Louisa Tucker & Ralph Waldo Emerson
Known to many of us as the American Transcendentalist champion of individualism and self-reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson is a much more soulful and sorrowful, brilliant but deeply contradictory thinker than we often give him credit for, says James Marcus, as he recommends the best books by – or about – Emerson.
William Shakespeare has a strong claim to be the most influential writer of all time. But whose works influenced him? And how? Robert S Miola discusses the breadth of Shakespeare’s reading, the vexed question of how we can reconstruct what he read, and the staggeringly innovative ways that Shakespeare shaped his sources
Daphne du Maurier is one of the most overlooked writers of the twentieth century, says Oxford University’s Laura Varnam. As Rebecca celebrates its eightieth anniversary and du Maurier enjoys a critical renaissance, Varnam explores the books which highlight this novelist’s sheer range and brilliance—from biography and fiction to history and horror.
Samuel Beckett remains one of the most significant writers of the twentieth century. Ruthlessly experimental, his plays, novels, and poems represent a sustained attack on the realist tradition. Dr Mark Nixon looks at the mutating nature of Beckett’s literary style and explains why he didn’t choose Waiting for Godot.
Shakespearean scholar Emma Smith picks her five favourite plays of the Bard, and controversially argues that not only are some of his plays just too long, but also that the most moving moments in Shakespeare’s oeuvre are where we might not expect them
This year marks the centenary of the birth of the novelist, poet and essayist Muriel Spark, a singular voice of 20th century literature. Her 22 novels are slim and entertaining says Alan Taylor, author of Appointment in Arezzo, but beneath the jeux d’esprit lies a fearsome intellect. Here he selects five of her key works.
George Eliot is all but synonymous with Victorian realism; for D H Lawrence, she was the first novelist to start ‘putting all the action inside.’ Here, Philip Davis, author of The Transferred Life of George Eliot, selects the best books by or about one of the greatest novelists of all time: ‘If you want to read literature that sets out to create a holding ground for raw human material—for human struggles, difficulties, and celebrations—read George Eliot’
Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy has inspired countless thinkers and writers since it was first published almost 700 years ago. Here, Dante scholar and author Nick Havely picks the best five books on how one medieval poet had such a lasting impact on world literature, and how Dante’s vitality transmits into modern culture.
Thanks to her ability to be many things to many people at once, Jane Austen is one of the vast minority of writers who manage to be both eternally popular and canonical. Here, Austen scholar Devoney ‘Stone Cold Jane’ Looser presents alternative Austens, from subversive youngster to video-game heroine
Although less flamboyantly experimental than his contemporaries Joyce and Woolf, D H Lawrence was a modernist, says literary scholar Catherine Brown. Here, she selects five books that make the case for this most contradictory, and often divisive, of writers—a man whose fictions and ‘philosophicalish’ works were by turns brilliant and bewildering, sublime and ridiculous
He was the most popular novelist of the Victorian era, a convivial family man who always championed the underdog. But he also harboured dark secrets that only came out after his death. Jenny Hartley recommends the best books by and about Charles Dickens and discusses Dickens the phenomenon, past and present.
Often described as the ‘father of science fiction’, H G Wells was a man of extraordinary charisma and vivid imagination. Yet he suffered terribly from class anxiety and subscribed to political beliefs we now find abhorrent, says the editor and author Roger Luckhurst. He recommends the best books to learn more about the life and work of the British writer H G Wells.
In our Shakespeare series, we ask experts to select their favourite plays from the Bard’s oeuvre. Here, preeminent Shakespearean scholar Sir Stanley Wells chooses five plays that best chart the evolution of the Bard of Avon during his 25-year career.
Virginia Woolf was long dismissed as a ‘minor modernist’ but now stands as one of the giants of 20th century literature. Her biographer, Hermione Lee, talks us through the best Virginia Woolf books, novels and essays, and diaries, of Virginia Woolf.
In the second of a Five Books series marking the 400th year since the world’s most popular playwright’s death, eminent Shakespearean René Weis picks his five favourite plays, and explains why King Lear will change your life.
Wilkie Collins, the sensationalist author and inventor of the detective novel, knew precisely how to “make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait”. Jason Hall, Victorian literature expert and editor of a new edition of Jezebel’s Daughter, chooses the five best books from Collins’s extensive oeuvre – and considers the voracious appetites and unorthodox lifestyle of this intriguing Englishman.
The biographer and editor of John Berger reveals how Berger’s self-characterisation as a storyteller is visible across the numerous genres he writes in.
With his books In Patagonia and The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin (1940-1989) reinvented travel literature. Nicholas Shakespeare, his biographer, lifts the lid on a complex life and selects five books that influenced Chatwin’s work.
The Soviet writer bore witness to the horrors of Russia’s World War Two and the Shoah — and deserves a place in literary history, says scholar Maxim D Shrayer. He recommends the best books by and about Vasily Grossman.
The distinguished Austen scholar Patricia Meyer Spacks tells us about the joy of rereading Jane Austen novels and the hidden layers of complexity that emerge from the writing when one does so.
The biographer explores the decadence of the young and rich in 1920s London, and tells us about Evelyn Waugh’s rebellious youth, bullying disposition and later breakdown – as well as just how much (and early) he drank
A prolific writer sometimes oblivious to events going on around him, PG Wodehouse remains so well loved because of his enduring characters and inimitable style, says Sophie Ratcliffe, associate professor of English at Oxford University and editor of his letters.
Paris in the 1920s was a creative melting pot, the haunt of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce. The Yale English professor gives us a feel for what it was like to be there
Though many scholars have done meticulous work and brought to life slices of his life, writing a traditional, cradle-to-grave biography of Shakespeare is impossible, says Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro. Here he selects some of his favourite books tackling aspects of Shakespeare’s life, including the one he most wishes he had written himself.
Agatha Christie wrote some 80 mysteries and short story collections, nearly all designed to entertain and delight readers with their ingenious plot twists. Here, her only grandson, Mathew Prichard, who oversaw her literary estate for many decades, recommends books that give a good sense of the range of her work, from Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot to mysteries featuring neither, and including her best short story.
Bilingual author and translator with his pick of the five must-reads by – and about – Nabokov. Says a revisionist biography of the writer is due, which comes to terms with the Jewish influence on his work
Russian literature specialist Michael Nicholson, Emeritus Fellow at University College, Oxford, talks us through the best books to learn more about the great Soviet dissident and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.