I once met someone for whom the European Union opened up the world of literature.
On a wet and windy morning in 1978 I was driving into Dublin from County Wicklow when I gave a lift to a young man who asked if I could drop him off at Dublin Central Library.
On the twenty-mile journey we talked mostly about books. His own story was as gripping as any novel. He told me he had left school at fifteen and begun working in a local factory. When Ireland joined the European Community, he had decided to take advantage of the opportunity to work in a foreign country and had gone to Paris. He spoke no French, but he managed to get a job as a clerk writing letters in English. He learned to speak some French, but he couldn’t read the language. He felt suddenly desperate to read something in English. He was told he might find something in the bookstalls on the quays along the Seine, so he went there to browse.
“Did you ever hear of a fellow called Proust?” he said.
“I did,” said I.
“I found a book about him in English,” said he. “I got so interested, I went looking for something he wrote.”
And that was how almost the first book he read since leaving school – where he had read very little because he hadn’t enjoyed lessons – was the first volume, translated into English, of "A la recherche du temps perdu".
He then went on to read all the other volumes. By this time, he had really caught the reading bug. He returned to Ireland, went back to the factory job he had left, but now spent most of his spare time in the library. No one had told him who to read – or if he’d been told about great writers at school, he’d forgotten who they were. He’d heard of Shakespeare. That was about it. As far as literature was concerned, he was a tabula rasa. So he had begun to work his way through the library alphabetically, taking a book out each week until he reached Z, after which he started again at A. When he found writers he liked, he read all, or nearly all of their books. In this way, he had stumbled upon some of the giants of the 19th and 20th centuries. But he had never heard of others. He had read, for example, J R Ackerley, but not Jane Austen; he’d read Margaret Drabble but not Charles Dickens. He happily expounded on the writers he admired. He was critical of others. In his opinion, D H Lawrence didn’t like women, Charlotte Bronte was melodramatic, John Fowles’ books had great beginnings and middles but tailed off at the end.
I was both captivated and envious. I had long felt that it was impossible to come without preconceptions – or foreknowledge of the story – to much of the literary canon. I remembered the pleasure I had felt on buying Mansfield Park – the only Jane Austen I hadn’t read by that time and about which I knew little – and my disappointment on reading the spoiler on the back: “When Fanny marries…etc” (I won’t spoil it for those of you lucky enough to be able to read it for the first time without knowing the plot.) Now I had met someone for whom every book was an adventure. Lucky man.