O magazine, January 2005

Books That
Made a
Difference to

Colin Firth

The eternally watchable costar of Bridget
Jones: The Edge of Reason
goes for
psychological intrigue, moral mud
puddles, and lyrical truth-telling.

When I’m really into a novel, I’m seeing the world differently during that time—not just for the hour or so in the day when I get to read. I’m actually walking around in a bit of a haze, spellbound by the book and looking at everything through a different prism.

I’m paraphrasing terribly from a theory I came across years ago, but there was this idea that everyone leads a kind of secret life. All of these things are going on around us that we don’t process consciously but that stay with us. There’s a school of thought that inanimate objects can make you feel certain things and you don’t know why. You pick up a green mug and you drink coffee out of it and you’re not thinking about anything except whether the coffee is good or bad. About an hour later, you feel depressed and you don’t know why. Perhaps the mug is exactly the same color as your grandmother’s. You’re aware of the emotions but you didn’t know your subconscious went through a whole thing—remembered something, relived something, and fed it back to you.

So a book can pull out responses that would be dormant otherwise. I find that a very valuable thing to have as a possibility. I’m not simply responding to the author’s vision. The joy I take from a book is mine. It comes from me.

Colin Firth next appears in Nanny McPhee, which opens in March.

Colin Firth's Bookshelf
“Most of these books have something of this—how hard love is.”

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Marie Rilke

This is not really a novel at all; it’s sort of a montage based roughly on the experiences of the author as a young man. Certain individual passages are riveting—like his description of Beethoven: “A man whose hearing a god had closed up, so that there might be no sounds but his own.” What a fascinating way to look at the contradiction of a musician who is deaf but hears extraordinary things in his head. Rilke also writes of an illness during which certain absurd fears strike him—that a piece if thread might be as sharp as a steel needle, or that he might start screaming. I don’t think I’ve ever read such descriptions of what it would be like to lose your grip. He has a vision that makes you less sure of your surroundings—and I find that stimulating.

amazon.com or amazon.co.uk

The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene

This is about a man—the whiskey priest—on the run in a Mexican state during a purge of religious figures. The most poignant thing in the story, for me, is that the priest has had a child. He wants to repent, but how can you find salvation when you can’t hate the sin? He’s stuck in that paradox:The one thing that prevents him from repenting is love. That so interests me—the idea of looking for spiritual salvation in what is otherwise an impossibly compromised life.

amazon.com or amazon.co.uk

The Leopard by Guiseppe de Lampedusa

I wouldn’t give a damn about the world of this book were it not for the fact that Lampadusa draws you into it in such an intoxicating fashion. The descriptions of 19th-century Sicily were written with such melancholy, honesty, and lack of sentimentality that I found myself thinking this era was the most important thing. What blew me away, though, were the passages about death. Extraordinary. The prince, whose family is part of the dying aristocracy, says sleep is what the Sicilians want. They don't want anything forward looking. All their magnificent history and the things they worship
their cathedrals and castles and heritage—are things Sicilians love only because they’re dead. It’s a romance with sleep and death—a desire for what he calls voluptuous immobility.

amazon.com or amazon.co.uk

Preston Falls by David Gates

Doug Willis is a man who’s holed up in his country place after his wife and kids go back to town. His marriage is in a bad state, and he’s obviously in some of kind of midlife crisis. I’m so intrigued by how Gates describes the fantasy world of men, and how many of them want to be the kind of guy who can talk about engines, who knows Keith Richards guitar chords—as if that’s going to matter in your 40s. I can see why women might only be able to read this as a science experiment, a sort of “Look what happens to men when you pull their wings off!” But there’s a very tender note struck in the last scene. The couple has decided to split up, and Willis walks out late at night. Gates has taken you to a point where you think their relationship is irredeemable, but he shows there’s that thing you can’t put in the equation: The wife still goes after him. I found that quite moving—that in the end love feels like that, like familiarity.

amazon.com or amazon.co.uk

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

How do you evaluate a deed that has brought catastrophe? Tyler writes about Ian Bedloe, who thinks he’s doing his brother a favor by telling him that his wife is unfaithful, and the brother subsequently drives a car into a wall and dies. Ian is 17 and said something stupid and, as it turns out, incorrect. I’m not a great believer in sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop throughout your life as a spiritual quest. What I find interesting is how an enormous spiritual journey unfolds in the banality of life. When Ian asks a minister how he can redeem himself, the minister replies, “You can raise the kids.” It means throwing away college, throwing away his girlfriend, throwing away everything in order to be a father to these kids. At no point is it ever considered a noble thing, but he takes it on. He lives for something other than himself.

amazon.com or amazon.co.uk

Light in August by William Faulkner

It’s not the sheer art of Faulkner’s literary experimentation that I admire. I’m haunted by the heat he describes, by the smells, which are almost always revolting.  I know that’s a strange reason to be attracted to an author, but I love it when writing is as potent as it is here. This novel is about sexual revulsion, racial revulsion, self-revulsion.  It’s such uncomfortable reading for modern audiences. The problem with racial identity is overwhelming to the main character, Joe Christmas. As a child, he heard nothing but whispering about his mixed blood, and he learns to despise that part of himself. This is a world where every piece of decency is marginalized and suffocated. It’s funny, you know: This is my favorite of these books and the one I find the most difficult to talk about.

amazon.com or amazon.co.uk

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Franzen captures how trivializing a family battle can be and how it can seem to be a fight for survival when, in fact, you’re simply scoring points. Chip represents so much of what I’m familiar with: highly intelligent, educated people who become fractured and cast adrift. You can liberate yourself from the rules, decide you don’t want to be on the treadmill, you’re not going to be Joe Schmo—but once you’ve cut loose from all that, you can be quite lost. Franzen shows how often love between these people is impossible; how hard love is, how it isn’t cozy; how problems aren’t something you can break down by everybody hugging one another and forgiving and making it okay. It just blows up in all their faces.

amazon.com or amazon.co.uk

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