Desert Island Books: Mary-Kay Wilmers

Imagine that Primrose Hill is surrounded by water. If you were marooned on that island, what would be the eight books you would want with you? Who better to invite to choose for the first in this series than Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books.

Do you take the eight books that you feel define you? Or do you choose them to look good to the audience of Radio 4? Or to your rescuers? Or to yourself as you get more and more disheartened on the island? Are they to remind you of your former life, or to help you get away from it? And, crucially, is it assumed that you will have read them all at least once before compiling your list?

I thought I wouldn’t say which of the eight that I’ve chosen I’ve read or even reread. Or – just to show off briefly – in what languages. But if I haven’t read them I would very much like to and I’m not likely to get a better opportunity.  Finally, how do I list them? Alphabetically? Chronologically in terms of my life, starting with Little Women? (Though there was a book before that, called Jonny, about a little boy and his nanny – my brother, now in his eighties, still teases me about it.) Or any old how?

OK, here goes. First, Little Women, which in one small way will be a consolation since Christmas won’t be Christmas on my desert island either. As I re-re-re-read it I can spend some time imagining what it would be like not to identify with Jo: what would life on my island be like if I were Meg, say, or Amy? Would I be worrying Meg-like about the other animals, or like Amy moaning about the absence of a mirror or different frocks for different days?

Then shall I alternate the easy books and the difficult ones, moving from Little Women to Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844)? It makes sense to read it while I can still be optimistic enough to think I’ll get back to the mess with my ideas straightened out. My son says it’s very clear. And after Marx, Proust, obviously – a key text that anyone who’s spent a life in literary journalism and publishing needs to read from beginning to end. Being caught up in the day to day of contemporary writing would not be an excuse.

Then a short American novel from the 1970s, lately reissued as a classic: Speedboat by Renata Adler. Semi-plotless, written in disjointed paragraphs, about a young woman who works in publishing in 1970s Manhattan, it’s astute, engaging and – as reported in the New Yorker – ‘not a little self-consciously neurotic’.

You could also describe Grace Paley’s stories as being ‘not a little self-consciously neurotic’ (I ought to apologise: I wasn’t asked for a self-portrait) and although ‘Wants’ in Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, obviously isn’t the best story ever written, it’s the one I like best.

‘Reading Homer for the first time, the historian James Davidson wrote in the LRB, is like watching Athena crack out of Zeus’ skull fully armed or like opening the caves at Lascaux and discovering the Sistine Chapel ceiling inside. He arrives on the field of literature like a meteorite out of a cloudless sky, our very own qibla, our inscrutable Black Stone. That the first surviving Western poetry, born within a generation or two of the alphabet, should also be so well-achieved is astonishing.’ Iliad or Odyssey: you have to read one of them at least before you are rescued.

After that, light relief: Iris Murdoch’s Flight from the Enchanter, the love-ninaone in which the hero, Misha Fox, swings from a chandelier and has one blue eye and one brown eye. At least that’s how I remember him but I haven’t reread it since it came out.

The last book I’ll be taking – this one to keep me company and remind me of better times ‒ is Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina, about my children when they were children and their nanny, when that’s what she was.