The wish list

Frances Wilson: my five best books

The award-winning biographer and literary critic recommends five of her favourite books

Seven Men by Max Beerbohm (1919)

When Walter Benjamin said that “all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one”, he might have been referring to this, the most unclassifiable book ever written. Five biographical stories about six fame-hungry men from the literary world of the fin-desiècle; the seventh is Beerbohm himself, who wanders among his fantastical creations.

BiblioLife POD £15.99; The Week bookshop £15.99

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark (1960)

The devil, in the form of a Scottish charmer called Dougal Douglas, comes to Peckham Rye, where he wreaks havoc on the love lives of the locals. All of Muriel Spark’s novels operate like small bombs, but this is her wittiest, most off-beat, and utterly startling.

Penguin £8.99; The Week bookshop £6.99

Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (1913)

Paul Morel, the sensitive son of a coal miner, is torn between love for his unhappy and controlling mother and desire for his girlfriend. The first modern novel of the 20th century, Sons and Lovers, or “Oedipus in the Collieries”, is as elemental as Greek tragedy.

OUP £8.99; The Week bookshop £6.99

Madame de Pompadour by Nancy Mitford (1954)

Novelists make the best biographers because they combine the granite of facts with the rainbow of imagination. Madame de Pompadour begins like this: “After the death of the great king, beautiful Versailles, fatal for France, lay empty for seven years while fresh air blew through its golden rooms…” Enough said.

Vintage £9.99; The Week bookshop £7.99

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965)

Capote described his true-crime masterpiece as a “non-fiction novel”, but it is more complex than this. While exploring the impact on a small Kansas town of the murder of a prominent family, Capote became close to the killers as well as the mourners, which turns the narrative into a high-wire act.

Penguin £9.99; The Week bookshop £7.99

Frances Wilson's latest book, Burning Man, a re-evaluation of the life and legacy of D.H. Lawrence (Bloomsbury Circus £25), is out this week

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