The Philosophy of Bill Murray: The Intellectual Foundations of His Comedic Persona

“Bill Murray is a national, no, an international, no an intergalactic treasure,” said Jim Jarmusch, who directed him in Coffee and Cigarettes and Broken Flowers, when the actor won this year’s Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. But what, exactly, do we find so compelling about the guy? I launched into my own quest to find out after seeing his performance in Rushmore (regarded by most Murray scholars as a revelation of depth at which he’d only hinted between wisecracks before), watching every movie he ever appeared in. Similarly rigorous research must have gone into this new video on the philosophy of Bill Murray.

“Since replacing Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live in 1977,” says narrator Jared Bauer, “Bill Murray has embodied a very particular type of comedy that can best be described as ‘ironic and cooly distant.’” Bauer references a New York Times articleon Murray’s ascendance to “secular sainthood” which describes him as having had “such a long film career that, in the public mind, there are multiple Bill Murrays. The Bill Murray of Stripes and Ghostbusters is an anti-authoritarian goofball: the kind of smart-aleck who leads a company of soldiers in a coordinated dance routine before a visiting general, or responds to the possible destruction of New York City by saying, ‘Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!’”

That memorable line makes it into “The Philosophy of Bill Murray,” as do many others, all of which spring from the actor’s signature persona, which “stands slightly at a distance from everything, enabling him to maintain a dryly humorous commentary about what’s going on around him.” Bauer places this in a tradition of American comedy “dating back at least to the vaudeville days” and continuing through to Groucho Marx’s habitual breakage of the fourth wall. He even connects it to 15th-century Japanese playwright-philosopher Zeami Motokiyo and, in some sense his 20th-century continuation, Bertolt Brecht.

But what influence best explains Murray’s distinctive onscreen and increasingly performance art-like offscreen behavior today? Maybe that of his onetime teacher, the Greco-Armenian Sufi mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, who, as Murray’s Ghostbusters co-star Harold Ramis put it, “used to act really irrationally to his students, almost as if trying to teach them object lessons.” He taught what he called “the fourth way of enlightenment,” or — more fittingly in Murray’s case — “the way of the sly man,” who can “find the truth in everyday life” by remaining simultaneously aware of both the outside world and his inner one while not getting caught up in either. The sly man thus exists between, and uses, “the world, the self, and the self that is observing everything.”

Bauer sums up Murray’s uniqueness thus: “He turns the usual style of American comedic irony against itself, or against himself,” leading us to “identify not with Bill Murray’s character, but with Bill Murray, who distances himself from the stakes of the narrative.” But whether playing a character, playing himself, or something between the two, Murray seems as if he knows something we don’t about the stakes of life itself. “I’d like to be more consistently here,” he once said to Charlie Rose, who’d asked what he wants that he doesn’t already have. “Really in it, really alive. I’d like to just be more here all the time, and I’d like to see what I could get done, what I could do, if I was able to not get distracted, to not change channels in my mind and body.” A universal human longing, perhaps, but one Murray, the ultimate sly man, has come to tap more deeply into than any performer around.


10 Classic Victorian Novels Everyone Should Read

Anthony Trollope, The Warden (1855). This was Anthony Trollope‘s first real success, although he was already the author of a handful of novels. His day job was a senior post at the – well, at the Post Office, and he would rise at 5.30am every morning in order to write his novels before going off to do a full day’s work for the Royal Mail. And he wrote 47 of them! When he wasn’t busy doing things like introducing the pillar box to Britain (something he’d done in the early 1850s, as he was making his way in the literary world), he was writing novels such as this, a nuanced and Dickens3realist account of a fictional case of ecclesiastical injustice, whereby the eponymous warden receives a fat income while the bedesmen in his care receive nothing. This novel also contains a gently satirical attack on Charles Dickens, whom Trollope calls ‘Mr Popular Sentiment’. We recommend this edition: The Warden (Penguin Classics).

Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South (1855). Although it had been the hugely successful Mary Barton (1848) that had kick-started Gaskell’s literary career and brought her to the attention of the world and her contemporaries, including Dickens (whose Hard Times would seek to jump on the ‘factory novel’ bandwagon Gaskell helped to establish), this is often seen as her masterpiece. Margaret Hale goes to live in the fictional northern mill town of Milton, and gets involved with the town’s manufacturing industry. Recommended edition: North and South (Oxford World’s Classics) by Gaskell, Elizabeth (2008). 

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847). This novel is about the titular heroine’s relationship with Mr Rochester, whose first wife, Bertha, has been concealed in a room in his house (though notin the attic, it would seem). Gothic overtones run throughout this classic romantic novel, which some consider the finest by all of the Brontë sisters. Recommended edition: Jane Eyre (Penguin Classics).

Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848). An under-appreciated Brontë novel, this book was Anne’s second (and last) book, and was disowned by her own sister, Charlotte, who thought it had been a mistake to publish it. Anne tried to address the problems of marital law and domestic abuse in the nineteenth century, through the abusive marriage between Arthur Huntingdon and the novel’s protagonist, Helen ‘Graham’, an artist who flees with her young son and becomes – as the title has it – the tenant of Wildfell Hall, where she meets a new man, Gilbert Markham. We recommend this edition: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Penguin Classics) by Bront?, Anne ( 1996 ).

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868). Often called the first detective novel in English (by T. S. Eliot among others), Collins’s novel was, in fact, not the first of its genre (we discuss that issue in our short history of detective fiction). Indeed, this is an unusual and atypical detective novel in many ways: numerous figures play the role of ‘detective’ in the novel (Sergeant Cuff, Seegrave, Bruff, the hero Franklin Blake, and the medical assistant Bronte sisterswho eventually solves the case, Ezra Jennings), but none emerges as a clear, unequivocal figure to fulfil the role. And critics have even argued that Collins was essentially writing a novel of domestic realism, and the ‘detective novel’ plot only gets in the way of his telling a good story. This is a particularly helpful edition: The Moonstone (Oxford World’s Classics) by Collins. Wilkie ( 2008 ) Paperback.

William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848). This novel, which is now the only one by Thackeray which is still widely read (though Barry Lyndon has a few fans), took its name from the fair in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Subtitled ‘the novel without a hero’, Vanity Fair follows the exploits of the heroine, Becky Sharp, during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. We recommend this edition: Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (Oxford World’s Classics) Publisher: Oxford University Press. USA; Reissue edition.

Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847). Emily Brontë shares her birthday, 30 July, with Kate Bush, whose first hit single would be a song based on Brontë’s novel. Brontë’s one novel is told through a multi-layered narrative which resembles a Russian doll, as one narrator gives way to another, and we find ourselves being transported back to the time when Heathcliff, a waif from Liverpool, was brought to live at Wuthering Heights by Catherine Linton’s father. The destructive and all-consuming love story between Heathcliff and Cathy forms the main part of the novel, though the book actually follows three generations in all. The book is even credited with popularising the dialect word ‘gormless’. Emily was also a gifted poet. Recommended edition: Wuthering Heights (Oxford World’s Classics) by Bront?, Emily Reprint Edition (2009).

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) *Woodburytype Photograph *9 1/2 x 7 inchesThomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). This is arguably Thomas Hardy‘s tragic masterpiece (he always preferred the tragic mode, and many of his great novels are tragedies which eschew the happy endings preferred by readers), along with Jude the Obscure (his final novel, which the Bishop of Wakefield publicly burned). The story is so well known that we won’t recount it here (or spoil it for anyone who doesn’t know how it ends); we’ll just add that there’s a dramatic and atmospheric nocturnal finale at Stonehenge, a fair bit of pessimism (who’d expect less from English literature’s master of the tragic novel, and the poet who wrote this great poem?), and a sympathetic and thought-provoking treatment of the ‘fallen woman’ motif first seriously explored in fiction by Elizabeth Gaskell forty years earlier, in her novel Ruth. Recommended edition: Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Oxford World’s Classics).

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853). Of all of Dickens’s finest novels, this is not the most popular in terms of sales (it is outsold, by many millions of copies, by A Tale of Two Cities). Yet it is often chosen as the ‘best’ Dickens novel. Dickens offers a biting and hilarious satire on the farcical nature of the British legal system in the ongoing Jarndyce v Jarndyce case (which may have been based on a real-life legal case that lasted for over a century). One of the most striking things about the novel is its narrative style, with half the novel being told from the first-person perspective of Esther Summerson, the novel’s heroine, and the other half being told in the present tense – unusual in Victorian fiction – by a third-person narrator. We have more Charles Dickens facts here. A good edition: By Charles Dickens – Bleak House (Penguin Classics) (Rev Ed).

George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872). Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch ‘one of the few English books written for grown-up people’. Martin Amis and Julian Barnes have echoed Woolf’s praise, citing it as probably the greatest novel ever written, and A. S. Byatt has argued along similar lines. George Eliot’s novel centres on the fictional provincial town of Middlemarch (which is set in Eliot’s own home county of Warwickshire), with the title of the novel/name of the town pointing up the middling ordinariness of the events and characters it follows. At its core are arguably two central characters, a hero and heroine: Dorothea Brooke, who marries ageing scholar Casaubon and then regrets it (he’s a dried-up husk, with a face that is likened to a skull); and Tertius Lydgate, a young, idealistic doctor who marries an airhead and then – aha! – regrets it. But we won’t tell you how it ends. It’s probably not how you think, though. We’ve compiled some surprising and interesting George Eliot facts here. For the novel we recommend this edition: Middlemarch (Oxford World’s Classics) Reissue Edition by Eliot, George published by Oxford University Press, USA (2008).

If you enjoyed this list, check out our pick of Thomas Hardy’s best novels and H. G. Wells’s best science-fiction novels. You might also like our pick of the best early works of dystopian fiction and our top 10 best Edgar Allan Poe stories.

10 Classic Victorian Novels Everyone Should Read


My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (The first of the Neapolitan Novels)


My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (The first of the Neapolitan Novels)Is this one of the best authors writing today? “One of the great novelists of our time”, says the New York Times Book Review. Adjectives such as stunning, innovative, compelling, inventive, visceral, immediate, enthralling… litter her book covers and the reviews online. In this novel, the first of four novels following the same pair of friends who grew up together in 1950s Naples, she is said to have started an “unconditional masterpiece”. Reviewers marvel at her “unselfconscious and brutal, diligent honesty”, in what is lauded as “the truest evocation of a complex and lifelong friendship”. And yes, the friendship between Elena, the narrator, and Lina is fascinating, compelling and beautifully created. But what is more, this is great writing by someone with lots to say about what it means to be human and get on with life.

The Guardian on Ferrante…

“In a 2003 written interview, Ferrante said, “The true reader, I think, searches not for the brittle face of the author in flesh and blood” but instead for “the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word”. Whoever Ferrante is, in the novel she is free to invent, to fabricate, to play, to revisit old wounds, to be less than beautiful. This is what writing can do: create a space for the savage within, for the contradictory and the wild, and make it real. There may be no consolation except the art itself, but what a pleasure for those of us who get to read it. I would not want to forget what Ferrante herself so eloquently stated in one of her letters: the mystery of literature is in some ways its difference from the person who wrote it, the unfathomable effacement of self that leads to its creation.”

Of the whole series…

“Ferrante’s project is bold: her books chronicle the inner conflicts of intelligent women (professors, novelists) who, having made their way to Florence or Rome and to good jobs, find themselves confronting memories of the crude violence and misogyny of their youth. Shaken by a surprising event, they lose their grip on reality, lapse into a Neapolitan dialect full of obscenities, and are drawn into hallucinatory quests to heal old emotional injuries. The books’ taglines might be “No self can be left behind”: in Ferrante’s world, no character can escape her past.”

“My Brilliant Friend” is a great start to the series. What English authors of this generation are writing so well about so much?

Mr A

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (translated by C H Sisson)


The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (translated by C H Sisson)Considered to be the preeminent work of Italian literature, and one of the greatest works of world literature, Dante’s epic poem is an intimidating prospect. But how might this work of 1300 be of interest to a modern reader? At the very least the text provides an important insight into the medieval mindset: these people who believed in the literal truth of the bible and the full panoply of spiritual beings and places are no longer the religious people of today, who have a more nuanced understanding of the bible and the afterlife. Revenge seems uppermost in Dante’s mind: God is gunning for all those who disagree with Dante, those who do not work towards the same ends he does, which is the return of the law and order of a Roman Empire. Let the church rule the spiritual world; the physical and political world of 1300 Europe needed, apparently, all power concentrated in the hands of the Holy Roman Emperor.


Ending up in hell or purgatory was the fate of all those who did not believe in the Christian god (either because they were born before they had the chance – Plato, Virgil and all those chaps – or born in a distant land), or those who sinned a bit too much and never really sought forgiveness. So Hell and Purgatory are pretty full. Yet heaven is packed to the eaves with blissed out people bathing in the light of the love of God for all eternity. And where does Dante’s journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise take him? Enlightenment. True belief. Faith. This is one of those ancillary texts that feature in every religion, which seem to shape that faith as much, if not more than, the faith’s primary texts, usually what are considered to be the directly revealed words of God.


1300 people are certainly weird. But the main thing that hasn’t changed is the notion of “love”. Dante’s love for Beatrice which informs this work as well as many of his earlier love poems, would be very familiar to the modern reader of cheap romance novels and the modern viewer of sentimental blockbuster romances or corny soap operas: love is the greatest bond between two people, love is all-consuming, love is beautiful, love is a distinct feeling, love is not merely physical (indeed, best stripped of all its physical accoutrements), and love is transcendent: it lasts beyond life. Not much difference between the love Dante feels for Beatrice in 1300 and the love that Heathcliff feels for Cathy in 1847, in Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Funny that.


Mr A



Love, of course, is a fantasy. And the French in particular make a point of maintaining and analyzing this fantasy, from Abbé Prévost’s eighteenth-century novel of love-drunk obsession to Amélie’s quirky quest for romance, from kissing with tongue to Roland Barthes’ structuralist critique of the language of love.

The 19th-century writer Stendhal explored the complexities and depths of love with unmatched enthusiasm, in both life and literature, and while experiencing the highs and lows of it, he declared, “the greatest happiness love can give is the first squeeze of the hand of a woman one loves.” In 1818, Stendhal—then an unsuccessful writer in his mid-thirties named Henri Beyle—met one of the loves of his life, Méthilde, a ravishing and intelligent young woman who’d recently arrived in Milan, having fled her brutal, overbearing husband back in Switzerland. Stendhal immediately became smitten with her to the point of madness. But Méthilde kept Stendhal at arm’s length, and even limited their interactions, only allowing him to visit her once every two weeks, which, in turn, gave Stendhal time to develop and nurture his fantasy of her, to exaggerate his love and admiration to truly grandiose proportions. “This is a love that lives only through the imagination,” Stendhal recorded in his journal. He tried to write about Méthilde in a semi-autobiographical novel, but soon abandoned the project because he found he was much too close to his subject—also, he didn’t have experience writing fiction yet, having only, at that point, published one book of travel writing. Instead, Stendhal kept track of his emotions, and began to think about love with an almost scientific scrutiny. The result of this project was called De l’Amour, in which he described his famous concept of the stages of love. There are seven stages in all—which could conceivably follow like episodes on a season of The Bachelor—evolving in a form of crystallization: “a mental process which draws from everything that happens new proofs of the perfection of the loved one.”

To illustrate these stages of love, here are seven French love poems from the forthcoming New Directions release.


Charles Cros’s verses are filled with affection, praise, and invitation. (Translated by Kenneth Rexroth)


I will not make verses for you,
Lady, blondest of blondes.
You will conquer enough of the universe,
You will be queen of all the worlds.

Your sapphire eyes, wide open,
Restless as the waves
Of the rivers, the lakes, and the sea,
Drive me crazy.

And I am always defenseless before
That mouth, rose of May,
Which says so much without words,

Which says the unmatchable word,
That flower deliciously wanton,
Blooming in Paris in the sun.



“How delightful it would be to kiss her,” Stendhal writes, without further explanation. You feel pangs of physical attraction, infatuation for the body, the lips. Joyce Mansour’s poem depicts this early stage, but with a much more carnal desire. (Translated by Mary Ann Caws)

I Want to Sleep With You

I want to sleep with you side by side
Our hair intertwined
Our sexes joined
With your mouth for a pillow.
I want to sleep with you back to back
With no breath to part us
No words to distract us
No eyes to lie to us
With no clothes on.
To sleep with you breast to breast
Tense and sweating
Shining with a thousand quivers
Consumed by ecstatic mad inertia
Stretched out on your shadow
Hammered by your tongue
To die in a rabbit’s rotting teeth



Observing your lover’s perfections, exploring physical passions: la vie en rose. Marceline Desbordes-Valmore captures this sense of hope and pleasure with this beautiful poem. (Translated by Louis Simpson)

The Roses of Saadi

I wanted to bring you roses this morning.
There were so many I wanted to bring,
The knots at my waist could not hold so many.

The knots burst. All the roses took wing,
The air was filled with roses flying,
Carried by the wind, into the sea.

The waves are red, as though they are burning.
My dress still has the scent of the morning,
Remembering roses. Smell them on me.



This is when things start to get real. Louise Labé gets straight to the point, conveying passion—and its tight grip. (Translated by Richard Sieburth)

Sonnet XVIII

Kiss me, rekiss me, & kiss me again:
Give me one of your most delicious kisses,
A kiss in excess of my fondest wishes:
I’ll repay you four, more scalding than you spend.

You complain? Well, let me ease your pain
By giving you ten more honeyed kisses.
And as kiss with kiss so happily mixes,
Let’s ease back into our shared joy again.

Then a double life to each shall ensue.
Each shall live: you in me, & me in you.
Love, something crazy comes to mind:

I can’t bear living on my best behavior,
And there’s no joy I could truly savor,
Unless aroused to leave myself behind.


The first process of crystallization. Stendhal elaborates: “at the salt mines of Salzburg, they throw a leafless wintry bough into one of the abandoned workings. Two or three months later they haul it out covered with a shining deposit of crystals. The smallest twig, no bigger than a tom-tit’s claw, is studded with a galaxy of scintillating diamonds. The original branch is no longer recognizable.” Paul Valéry’s poem demonstrates this process. (Translated by C. Day Lewis)

The Footsteps

Born of my voiceless time, your steps
Slowly, ecstatically advance:
Toward my expectation’s bed
They move in a hushed, ice-clear trance.

Pure being, shadow-shape divine—
Your step deliberate, how sweet!
God!—every gift I have imagined
Comes to me on those naked feet.

If so it be your offered mouth
Is shaped already to appease
That which occupied my thought
With the live substance of a kiss,

Oh hasten not this loving act,
Rapture where self and not-self meet:
My life has been the awaiting of you,
Your footfall was my own heart’s beat.



Doubt creeps in. Here the lovers recover from their initial spellbound condition, if only momentarily. This is the first hangover from the intoxication of love’s fantasy. Charles Baudelaire was well accustomed with the intoxication and the hangover. (Translated by Graham Reynolds)

You, whom I worship as night’s firmament,
Urn of sorrow, beautiful and silent;
I love you more, because you turn from me
Adorning night, but, with large irony
Rather increase the absolute blue space
Which alienates the sky from my embrace.

I leap to your attack, climb in assault
Like corpseworms feeding nimbly in the vault,
And cherish you, relentless, cruel beast
Till that last coldness which delights me best.


The second crystallization, which deposits diamond layers of proof. The fantasy is complete. One road leads to your lover’s perfection, your ultimate happiness, and the other road leads to the disruption of the fantasy: “the most heartrending moment of love in its infancy is the realization that you have been mistaken about something, and that a whole framework of crystals has to be destroyed.” René Char’s poem depicts the former. (Translated by Mark Hutchinson)


For years now you have been my love,
The vertigo I feel when I lie waiting
That nothing can make old, make cold;
Even that which was expecting our death,
Or gradually knew how to combat us,
Even that which we are strangers to,
My eclipses and also my returns.

Barred like a boxwood shutter,
And extreme and compact fortune
Is our mountain range,
Our compressing splendor.

I say fortune, o my wrought one;
Each of us can receive
Another’s share of mystery
Without spilling its secret;
And the suffering that comes from elsewhere
Finds at last its separation
In the flesh of our unity,
Finds at last its solar road
At the center of our dense cloud
Which it tears and recommences.

I say fortune the way I feel it.
You have raised the summit
That my waiting will have to cross
When tomorrow is no longer there.

The Seven Stages of Love, According to French Poetry

10 inspiring female writers you need to read


1. Doris Lessing (1919 – 2013)

Doris Lessing working at a typewriter, circa 1950.
 Doris Lessing working at a typewriter, circa 1950. 

In my twenties, I was a foreigner in London. Reading Lessing’s subtly brilliant short story Out of the Fountain, I had that Keatsian feeling of a new world coming into view. As I read my way into the books of this fellow exile, her range and depth emerged – from psychological portraits in granular detail, to vast explorations of cataclysm and survival. Class, sex, old age, childhood, the inner workings of politics, the wilder shores of the psyche – she embraced complexity and got under the skin of the human condition with piercing acuity. This was writing from the frontiers of experience and utterly mind-stretching.

The two landmarks, for me, are Shikasta, her monumental portrait of humanity, and The Four-Gated City (part of the Children of Violence series), Lessing’s visionary mapping of London and the no-man’s-land between psychosis and sanity – this book opened doors for me. Her understanding of resilience and transformation in the midst of upheaval is profound. In our obfuscating times, we continue to need that eye. –barbkay.

Start with: The Golden Notebook – “Hailed as one of the key texts of the women’s movement of the 1960s, this study of a divorced single mother’s search for personal and political identity remains a defiant, ambitious tour de force,” wrote Robert McCrum.

Further reading:

2. Toni Morrison (born 1931)

Toni Morrison in a 1982 image.
 Toni Morrison in a 1982 image. 

When we asked readers for their favourite books by women, many replied with “anything and everything written by Toni Morrison.” Here are but a few.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the best book I have ever read. A horror story in every sense. I re-read it as soon as I had finished it. Chilling, difficult, painful, but absolutely brilliant. –afiercebadrabbit

Beloved. It’s odd reading a book at which you are simultaneously repulsed at how you feel and yet you understand exactly why you feel that way. She’s a terrific writer. –getebi

I love every word she’s written, with Beloved at the top of my list. I’m also sad to see few writers from non-Anglo Saxon cultures listed as there are so many superb writers from other traditions. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is my favourite book of all time, and I also adore Elif Shafak, whose fiction and essays as well as her talks are outstandingly fresh and insightful. Read The Flea Palaceand The Bastard of Istanbul. –spraos

Start with: Beloved – “If Beloved represents the terrible pain and suffering of a people whose very mother-love is warped by torture into murder, she is no thin allegory or shrill tract. This is a huge, generous, humane and gripping novel,” wrote A S Byatt

Further reading: 

3. Ursula K Le Guin (born 1929)

The Earthsea trilogy is absolutely magnificent: poetry, wisdom, sadness, satisfaction, fantasy, realism. Far better dragons than Tolkien’s or George RR Martin’s, far better written – the whole shebang, except for humour. But then, Tolstoy didn’t go in for jokes much either. She taught me that there is nothing wrong with life or with death: the one is to be delighted in, the other accepted – Daniel Mccormick in Coatbridge, Scotland

The Earthsea books by Ursula K Le Guin, which as an adult I find have greater moral depth than Tolkien and are better written and more focused than George RR Martin’s. –QuesoManchego

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula Le Guin has been something of a personal bible since I was a child. –punkmonkey

Ursula Le Guin during an interview in San Francisco in 1985.
 Ursula Le Guin during an interview in San Francisco in 1985. 

Start with: The Earthsea series or The Left Hand of Darkness – “they are some of the very few titles which I would be confident enough to name as true classics, novels that will endure well beyond our lifetimes,” wrote Alison Flood

Further reading:

4. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

To the LighthouseThe WavesOrlandoJacob’s Room. Virginia Woolf. Because you can taste every word. –Lope82

Mrs Dalloway, elegant and lyrical stream of consciousness that I prefer to Joyce. –alloleo

Virginia Woolf.
 Virginia Woolf. 

I would like to put in a word for Virginia Woolf, and especially for the under-appreciated Orlando, where the long-lived protagonist starts out as a young nobleman before becoming a wife and mother. The book runs from Elizabethan England to 1928 and says a lot about the position of women while being both clever and funny. Perhaps Woolf is a bit too “literary” for some tastes, but Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse , The Waves and A Room of One’s Own must surely speak to many. I think (hope) she will come to be recognised as one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. –JackSchofield

To The Lighthouse, it had a huge impact on me when I first read it. It really made me consider and reconsider how I think and find direction. I loved Lily Briscoe and that devastatingly matter-of-fact middle chapter/section that splits the novel. There are so many books by women that I love, but TTL is my favourite. –daveportivo

Pretty much all of Woolf, whom I read voraciously during the late 90s and still dip into now and then for a quick dose of writerly inspiration. Hard to pick any one favorite, fiction or non-fiction. But A Room of One’s Own changed my life.–Jenny Bhatt

Start with: Mrs Dalloway – “Woolf’s great novel makes a day of party preparations the canvas for themes of lost love, life choices and mental illness,” wrote Robert McCrum

Further reading: 

5. Clarice Lispector (1920 – 1977)

If a writer such as Clarice Lispector is to be considered significant from a feminist point of view, then it would probably be due to the absence of anything in her work or life which could be said to resemble the stereotype of the “Lady Novelist”. As well as living like a sort of secular hermit, her writing is elusive and mystical, being much less concerned with plot and character than with abstract ideas, such as The Apple in the Dark’s consideration of the nature of artistic creation or Agua Viva’s obsessive focus on trying to isolate single moments in time. Although she could write movingly about women’s experiences (especially in The Hour of the Star), her almost stubborn unworldliness otherwise gives the lie to the awful old cliché that women are somehow deficient in considering the abstract, and shows that women are as unrestricted in subject matter as men. She really is one of the oddest and most individual writers I’ve read. –Jacob Howarth in Oxford

Clarice Lispector
 Clarice Lispector. 

I heard of her just a month ago, from a Korean American friend. All I can say about her at this stage is that she knows me better than I do. I am reading The Complete Stories published 2015, which is full of lovely and shocking surprises. I finish one of her stories with a huge grin that lasts all day, another story may leave me arguing with myself … each one is having an profound impact on me.

She inspires me more than any other author in this second half of my life. Her uniquely fluid style reveals a mind so perspicacious, so permissively poetic … and utterly radical. As a feisty feminist, I find peace in Lispector’s reveries; she defies convention at every level by writing from deep within her psyche, embracing human flaws and foibles as perfectly natural. Her trademark self-acceptance is so refreshingly robust that I have found myself at times interrupting my reading with whoops of awe and admiration for her freedom of thought and spirit. –Mars Drum

Start with: The Hour of the Star – all the Brazillian author’s talents and eccentricities come together in her most famous, final novella about a poor typist in Rio, says Colm Tóibín

Further reading:

6. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (born 1977)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah has moved me like no other in recent memory. I would describe it as transformational because it provided an insight into the reality of what it means to be a young, ambitious, highly intelligent, sometimes single black woman in contemporary America. It’s an honest book about race, identity and the constant longing and nostalgia one feels for this metaphorical place called home. I was also moved by the story because it touchingly describes the loving relationship between the two central characters, showcasing that neither space nor time can erase love.

We usually go back to the same desires and preferences we had as 15-year-olds, and Americanah captures this sentiment. Moreover, it is a transformational book because it portrays Nigeria as a place that is mythical, marvellous, chaotic and slightly dangerous, yet also wildly fascinating, with a magnetic power to attract its brightest emigrés back to its shores. Reading this has made me realise that some of the most powerful narratives in contemporary fiction have been written by young, highly educated female African writers, who are tired of the old clichés frequently bandied around about Africa. Ngozi Adichie is a new, powerful and incredibly talented voice; her novel Americanah is the expression of a different African tale, of a continent and its people that have many more magnetic stories to tell, as well as critiques to raise about the so-called enlightened West. beograd

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, photographed in 2007.
 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, photographed in 2007. 

Start with: Americanah – “a superb dissection of race in the UK and the USA,” wrote Elizabeth Day

Further reading:

7. Margaret Atwood (born 1939)

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. She predicted all that is happening today in that book. –shofmann

Everything about it is scarily easy to imagine. Her descriptions of how women began to be punished for abortions reminds me of legislation happening right now in the USA, for example. –getebi

Start with: The Handmaid’s Tale – “Atwood’s chilling tale of a concubine in an oppressive future America is more vital than ever,” wrote Charlotte Newman

Further reading:

8. Zadie Smith (born 1975)

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith. Could read it over and over again. –Sarah Hassam

Zadie Smith, photographed at the Edinburgh books festival in 2001.
 Zadie Smith, photographed at the Edinburgh books festival in 2001. 

On Beauty by Zadie Smith is absolutely brilliant. Smith is often categorized first by race and gender and thus is never considered the peer of other modern literary fiction writers like Franzen and Rushdie, but she easily beats them at their own style. –emason1121

Start with: White Teeth, a novel on the lives of various multicultural families living in London; “an audaciously assured contribution to this process of staring into the mirror,” wrote Caryl Philipps

Further reading:

  • Fail better: “What makes a good writer? Is writing an expression of self, or, as TS Eliot argued, ‘an escape from personality’?” Thanks to Jenny Bhatt and MildGloster for pointing us towards this 2007 essay.
  • Windows on the Will: Smith’s essay about watching the new Charlie Kaufman film Anomalisa, and Arthur Schopenhauer, was recently published on the New York Review of Books. “I went to see Anomalisa, largely because of how interesting Smith made it seem,” shared MildGloster.

9. Elena Ferrante (born 1943)

Of the many beautifully wrought themes explored in Elena Ferrante’s masterful Neapolitan series, one that especially speaks to me, as a woman, is the question of what it means to attain presence versus what it means to disappear. Lila and Lenú, the central characters, each struggles to not disappear, despite the forces of class, history, and violence conspiring against them as women. Each tries to avoid what Lila loathingly describes as the problem of “dissolving margins,” when “the outlines of people and things suddenly dissolved, disappeared.” Reading Ferrante has led me to wonder: How many times have I, as a woman, faced being erased – in relationships, in career, in the larger social order? How many far less-privileged women, in hostile corners of the world, face the threat of vanishing completely, dissolving into the boundaries of others without a trace? –Veronica Majerol, New York, NY

Start with: The Days of Abandonment, a short novel Ferrante wrote before her famous Neapolitan series – a great taster, and brilliant in its own right.

Further reading:

10. Angela Carter (1940 – 1992)

When I was at university I saw someone give a paper on Angela Carter’s dystopian masterpiece The Passion of New Eve. It was probably another year or so before I got my hands on a copy but I was not disappointed.

The premise alone – a man captured by radical feminists and surgically transformed into a woman so that he may bear the messiah – was enough to pique my interest, but it was Carter’s hallucinatory prose and rich symbolism that made this novel unforgettable. –elbartonfink

Start with: Nights at the Circus – the story of winged circus performer Sophie Fevvers’s travels through 19th-century Europe, that was named the best-ever winner of Britain’s oldest literary prize, the James Tait Black award.

English novelist Angela Carter sitting on a park bench in Paris in 1988.
 English novelist Angela Carter sitting on a park bench in Paris in 1988. 

Further reading:

The Known World by Edward P Jones


The Known World by Edward P Jones

An amazing novel. Profound and beautifully written. A novel that actually says something: stuff like this happens and it shouldn’t. People are like this, the world is such and such, there are these ideas and feelings, the world is creaking with them, and it doesn’t have to play out this way, but it did, it does, and it will again. “One great achievement of Edward Jones’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Known World is the circumscription of its moral vision, which locates the struggle between good and evil not in the vicissitudes of the diabolical slaveholding system of the American south, but inside the consciousness of each person, black or white, slave or free, who attempts to flourish within that soul-deadening system. There are no real heroes or heroines in the populous world of this novel, nor are there unmitigated villains, though there are many who fail to live honourably despite the best intentions.” The Guardian is spot on. “The Known World is not an easy read, but it’s a powerful experience. Through all the furious conflagration there flows the ironic, sympathetic, distant voice of the narrator, a voice that understands the madness of slavery as part of a grander picture, one that begins with bright angels clanging closed the gates on our progenitors, and Satan, cast on to the burning plain, vowing ever “out of good still to find means of evil”. The Miltonic cosmos, in which human endeavour is a battlefield upon which outside forces exploit us to settle an ancient and extraterrestrial score, permeates the atmosphere of Manchester country, and those preoccupied with peace, order and justice will seek them in vain.”


Mr A