Not long ago – I forget where – I read an article in which several writers listed the most influential books of their childhood; books that changed their lives and inspired them to become writers.
Inevitably, I thought back to my own childhood, trying to recall the books, or even one book, that had made a definite impact on me, whether mentally or emotionally. For a long time, my mind was a blank. I was disappointed and somewhat embarrassed. Had I read nothing, as a child? Eventually, memories of swashbuckling novels by Alexandre Dumas, detailed longitudes and latitudes in Jules Verne, the cosiness of Louisa May Alcott’s poor but ever so good Little Women, and the exaggerated to the point of being unrealistic bad luck of Victor Hugo’s characters, began to trickle through. Even so, I can’t honestly say that a book ever inspired me to write.
In many ways, reading was tantamount to homework for me while I was growing up. I started to read at six, in Italian, and was sent to an American school at seven. At eight, my grandmother began teaching me to read Russian. At nine, we moved to France, so it was learn French or get kicked in the shins during recess. No sooner did I get used to reading in one language, than I had to change.
My mother actively discouraged me from reading fiction in my mid-teens. “Novels are for children,” she used to say, leaving on the kitchen table books about philosophy, mysticism, medicine, history and – above all – self-improvement. At least, that’s how I remember it. Then, at high school and university, I read what I was told to read, while an increasingly frayed non-fiction book on some highly-cerebral topic moved from my bedside, to my rucksack, to my desk, to my handbag, then back to my bedside. The bookmark progressed at a snail’s pace…
What did inspire me to start writing, paradoxically, was music.
I can remember every significant episode of my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, as accompanied by music.
According to my grandmother, when I was about three I avidly watched the Italian children’s song contest Il Zecchino d’oro on television, and asked my mother to buy me the record of one of the songs. I couldn’t yet hold a tune but kept repeating a couple of words from the refrain. We went to the record shop but the seller had no idea which song I meant. I just said those couple of words over and over again. He humoured me, and began playing one record after the other. I kept shaking my head. Then, finally, after half a dozen or so, there it was – and with the refrain I’d remembered.
My earliest musical memory was one evening, when I was about four, a new Phillips record player being delivered to our flat. I’d already gone to bed but got up and went into the living room. My mother was trying out the new record player with a 45rpm of “Strangers in the Night”. I stood in my pink pyjamas, transfixed by Frank Sinatra’s voice filling the room.
I always wanted Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 to be played when I built houses with my Lego blocks. When I lost my first milk tooth, I asked my mother to tell the tooth fairy to bring me Swan Lake. We didn’t have much money at the time, so my mother said the tooth fairy was too small to carry the heavy records.
When I was about eight, my mother sat with me on the Persian rug, the libretto of Puccini’s Turandot open on her lap. She played the records and told me the fairy tale about the cruel princess and her three riddles. I was swept away by the power of the music, so violent and yet so tender. Everything about it felt so important, so overwhelming.
A couple of years later, my grandmother allowed me to stay up late and watch The Flying Dutchman on television. The hairs on my arms stood up at the colourful chords in the Overture. I could feel the despair of the wandering Dutchman, and Senta’s devotion to him.
I began writing poems and stories when I was twelve. I’d come home from school, do my homework, then put on a record and, once enveloped in the world created by the music, start scribbling away, trying to convey words on a page the immensity of the emotions music triggered in me. I wrote fairy tales with the mystery and melancholy of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade and Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2. I wanted my words to engage in the haunting, spinning dance of Prokofiev’s Cinderella and Stravinsky’s Firebird.
When, at the age of nineteen, I moved to Cambridge, a nightly helping of Evensong at King’s instead of the dinner I had to skip because my landlady served it at 6 pm, gave wings to my bicycle on my way back up the only hill in Cambridge. Once back in my freezing attic room, I tried to write like the moonbeam trebles that rose and quivered beneath the fan vaulting, like the counter tenors that gave a strange, eerie yet fascinating edge to the responses, like the booming, thundering organ chords pushing against the stain glass windows.
The one and only time I was consciously influenced by advertising, it was because of music. I didn’t know what it was. It accompanied a clip of a pretty French girl with a heart-shaped faced and a dark, glossy bob, walking down the street, taking off her beret, looking back because she thought she heard someone call out her name, Lou Lou. I was twenty-two. I went to have my hair cut in exactly the same bob, bought a beret, and went to the department store to buy the perfume advertised in the spot – “Lou Lou” by Cacharel. The magic of mesmerising music only worked so far, though. Once the sales assistant at the perfume counter produced the baby blue and burgundy bottle – which I found deeply unattractive – and let me smell the fragrance – which made me wince and walk away – I’m afraid I went and spent my treat money on a bottle of “Cabochard” by Grès, instead. Still, the mysterious, longing tune remained in my head for years until, one morning, they played it on BBC Radio 3, and gave it a name – Fauré’s “Pavane”. And so I tried to write words and sentences that would reproduce its wistfulness, its haunting quality, its sophistication.
Even now, I often play a CD to spur me on when I write.
I hear music in my head when I write.
I think I write words because I cannot compose music.