Carlo Gebler: My Desert Island Book Collection

Author Carlo Gebler intuitively choses fiction as a mirror unto the self as the World Literature series continues at Queen's University

When I was asked by the Open Learning Programme at Queen's University to discuss, in public, books I might or would take to a desert island, I picked three novels off the top of my head, as they say. I really didn’t think. I really did pick them without thinking.

I picked Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, The Outsider by Albert Camus and So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell. Each book has merit, at least to me. What I discovered, when I sat to prepare what I would say, was that they all share much more than the simple fact that they are all first person narratives, although they are that.

For a start, they are all in varying degrees documentary rather than literary texts. That is to say they’re all texts masquerading as artefacts we’re familiar with.

Goodbye to Berlin is a diary; The Outsider is a death cell monologue or confession; and So Long, See You Tomorrow is the agonized memoir of a guilty man catalysed by psychoanalysis.

I have always been attracted to fiction which has an explanation for its existence, and I have always much preferred to read supposedly ‘found texts’ like these rather than beautifully fabricated novels that have no reason to exist except that a novelist has written them.

So obviously I picked these texts without thinking because they are the type of fictional artefact I am biased in favour of. No surprise there I suppose. We always gravitate towards our preferences.

However, after re-reading and pondering these books I realised that they have something else to recommend them (at least to my unconscious – and it was my unconscious that picked them).

As I settle (slide) into middle age (I am 58) and find that I have started to calculate how much I can achieve in the years I have left (I am starting to think about death), I find I have also started to wonder how I have become what I have become. How did I end up like this? Did I choose this life I’ve ended up living? Was volition involved? Or was it an accident?

What all of these books have in common is that they are concerned with this same problem: they are all about the complicated relationship between character (or psychology) and experience (or fate), and they all explore the impact that the latter (experience) has on the former (character) and the way that interaction determines choices, determines the life lived.

All three books ask why the characters get the lives and fates they get. The characters featured aren't the victims of a capricious fate, rather their lives are a complicated amalgam of choice and fate and geography and climate and happenstance and serendipity and a hundred other factors.

These books don’t offer closed prescriptive explanations or programmes: they’re open and loose and speculative and non-judgmental, and at my age it seems that’s what my unconscious wants to associate with and consult as it tries to work out (or help me to work out) how I’ve got here, how I’ve ended up like this.

So that’s why I picked them. I realised that on my desert island, these books would help me to understand how I’ve got the life I’ve ended up with.

There is an argument that literature makes us better people. A man with a half read copy of Great Expectations in his pocket would never murder you: he couldn’t, not if he’d read Dickens, and opened his heart to Dickens. That’s the rubric: that’s the argument in favour of reading literature.

Personally, I don’t think fiction necessarily improves, or ennobles. What I mean is, I don’t think the transaction is simple and straightforward: I don’t think you read an uplifting novel and as a result you automatically become a moral person.

However, if you are prepared to read fiction with an open mind then novels can (sometimes) help you to understand what you are, where you came from and what you have become, and self-knowledge has to be the foundation on which proper behaviour rests. At least that’s what I think.

The World Literature series of lectures continues at Queen's University, as part of the Open Learning Programme, until March 2013. The next installment features Senior Teaching Fellow, Dr Tess Maginess, discussing the selected poems of Seamus Heaney on November 24.