Penelope Lively: ‘Beatrix Potter seemed so exotic, unlike my world of palm trees’ – The Guardian

The author on reading Peter Rabbit in Egypt, the allure of Lawrence Durrell – and the humour of Stella Gibbons
My earliest reading memory
Beatrix Potter, of course. That wonderful, uncompromising prose: “The dinner was of eight courses; not much of anything, but truly elegant”, “the lettuces had been so soporific”, “the dignity and repose of the tea party”. I was in the house where I grew up, outside Cairo, in Egypt. I had never been to England, so Potter’s verdant backdrop of gardens and cottages, in those incomparable illustrations, was exotic and alluring, so unlike my own humdrum world of palm trees, donkeys and camels.
My favourite book growing up
Andrew Lang’s Tales of Troy and Greece. I was hooked on that late Victorian retelling of the Homeric myth. And there was a personal relevance: I was right in there – Penelope – though unfortunately with the wrong part. Penelope is described as wise and good, qualities that did not appeal, whereas Helen is beautiful.

The book that changed me as a teenager
Everything and anything – that period of reading as a beginner, an innocent, from Mazo de la Roche and Margaret Irwin to Charles Dickens. But also the discovery of literary style: Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm. I first read it at face value, though puzzled by a certain tone, and then again a year or so later, and recognised that the book is a satirical dig at a kind of writing: Thomas Hardy and Mary Webb.
The writer who changed my mind
The discovery of writers such as Henry Green, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Bowen did not so much change my mind as show me that the writing I admired was taut, economic, saying most by saying least, unlike the florid writing in fashion when I was young: the Sitwells, oh dear – the Sitwells.
The book that made me want to be a writer
Time and again, I come back to three great novels: Henry James’s What Maisie Knew, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, William Golding’s The Inheritors. Not because I want to write like that, or am capable of doing so, but because they tell me what the novel can do. I met up with them at different stages of my reading life, and each brought me up short: That’s it! That’s how it can be done!
The book I reread
A whole library of history, archaeology, palaeontology – the books that have inspired me, given me a prompt for a new novel. Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic, Sir Thomas Browne’s Hydriotaphia, Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s Montaillou, Stephen Jay Gould’s Wonderful Life – and many, many more.
The book or author I came back to
When I first read The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell I was captivated by the lavish cast, the complex situations, the ornate prose, the sheer indulgent length. Some years later, I revisited, and couldn’t get on with it at all. No, no – obscure, pretentious. Today, I am back there, appreciative. So it goes …
The book I could never read again
Anything by Barbara Pym. And once I enjoyed her. Such is the odd way in which you fall in or out of love with an author – see above.
The book I discovered later in life
I am enjoying writers from the generations after mine – Sarah Moss, Sarah Hall, Evie Wyld. The impressively versatile Adam Thorpe.
The book I am currently reading
Rereading, rather. Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night. Inspirational, omniscient – the book about libraries, about why we have read, why we read, about books.
My comfort read
Narrative poetry: Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, Ted Hughes’s Tales from Ovid.
Metamorphosis by Penelope Lively is published by Fig Tree. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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