I was married (for the first time) in the summer of 1959. I was working on a D Phil in Oxford on 17th-century religious allegory. My supervisor was the great Helen Gardner. I went to see her at the end of the academic year. She said, not for the first time, that the academic life required a nun-like devotion and chastity. She said that when I married my state research grant would be withdrawn as I would be a married woman – a married man had his grant increased. After these blows she made gracious conversation. She was, she said, reading Proust. She gave a little laugh. In English, of course – she wasn't up to reading him in French. In a state of pure rage I walked into Blackwell's, purchased the whole of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu in French, and began reading. I read all summer, across Europe, back in England. That was when I knew I was a writer, not an academic. Every sentence was a new revelation of what language could do. At first I needed a dictionary, and then I didn't, mostly. I had never met so finely woven a tapestry of writing. I began to plan a novel that would be as long as my life, that would make life and novel one. That didn't exactly work out. But that was my very best summer of reading.
In 1997, when my mother knew she didn't have long to live, she spent a good part of her life savings and took her three kids and their families on a cruise to Alaska. I'd been working on a piece of fiction about cruises, and I'd rushed to finish it before getting on the ship, because I didn't want to be influenced by a real cruise experience. But I was ready for a real vacation – unlimited food and drink and coastal scenery – and the book I brought along was Halldôr Laxness's novel Independent People. It's a story about an Icelandic sheep farmer, but it's also a story about everything: modernity, history, freedom, love. Its excellence was almost a problem for me, because once I was hooked I just wanted to stay in my stateroom and read it. Fortunately the northern summer days were endless, and I could read all afternoon and still have hours after dinner to soak up the Iceland-like light and air. The best reading experiences partake of eternity, because we forget time for a while and thereby escape it. When I came to the end of Independent People, I cried like I've never cried over a novel, before or since.