The renowned actor, writer and biographer reveals five of his favourite reads
The Pickwick Papers
by Charles Dickens
This was the first book of Dickens’s that I read, thrust into my hands by a kindly grandmother ministering to me while I writhed and scratched during a savage bout of chickenpox. I surrendered to it immediately, and never scratched again. It is Dickens’s first novel and I discovered him as he discovered himself. He went on to write more profound works, and darker ones: here, he is at his most exuberant and innocent. I still laugh out loud as I read it.
On Having No Head
by D E Harding
In my early 20s I became hypnotised by Zen and its promise of living in the present. My guide to that radical philosophy was the wonderfully lucid English writer and former Anglican priest Alan Watts. But my real understanding of it came from this remarkable slim volume which, without recourse to theory or theology, offers a thrilling reorientation of one’s entire sense of being. Lucid, direct, witty, it re-sets the mind at a stroke. I go back to it often.
Mr Norris Changes Trains
by Christopher Isherwood
My first encounter with Isherwood’s limpid prose was with his 1939 masterpiece Goodbye to Berlin. But it is Mr Norris that remains my favourite, a picaresque character study of the wig-wearing, botty-slapping, politically ambivalent anti-hero. The narrator’s William Bradshaw has yet to come out as Good-Bye to Berlin’s Christopher, but his eyes on the coming continental horror are as sharp, and the comedy, though more farcical, as dark.
The Quest for Corvo
by A J A Symons
Biography has always been my favourite of all literary genres. Discovering Corvo, Symons’s 1934 account of the extraordinary life of Frederick Rolfe (aka Baron Corvo), author of Hadrian VII, a novel about a non-existent 19th century British pope, was a revelation. The biographer becomes part of the story, his attempts to track down his elusive quarry the book’s subject. This biography-as-detective-story remains one of the most exhilarating of all Lives.
by Oscar Wilde
As a gay teenager, I spied in a Charing Cross Road bookshop a copy of the only recently published complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. This great fat tome was a leap in the dark, a month’s pocket money gone. I had to have it; I still do, though it’s been superseded by a greatly more comprehensive edition. It constitutes a superb and infinitely complex self-portrait of one of the greatest letter-writers of all time.
Simon Callow is currently writing the fourth – and final – volume of his epic biography of Orson Welles.