I can heartily recommend reading children's versions of myths as a first stop in a new culture. If I'd started off reading Valmiki, I suspect I would have got bogged down - children's books on the other hand give you the broad outlines of the story. Easy reading, too, for Indian trains, in those couple of hours between sunset and being ready for sleep, when you want satisfyingly big print for the dim lighting, and simple narrative for ease of brain.
Henry James. Wonderful. Long meandering sinuous sentences. Perceptions, misconceptions, cross-purposes. The tragedy of life lived as a misunderstanding. I read my copy of his various stories three or four times, finding something new each time; a word that had seemed innocuous on first reading would sparkle away balefully on second reading, with maleficent or sardonic purpose.
JG Farrell. What a find! The Siege of Krishnapur is a compulsive novel, richly comic despite its bleak subject - there's a lovely scene in which the young raja wants the Englishman Fleury to admire his scientific outlook, while Fleury is more struck by the 'oriental' weirdness that he can't quite explain... Throughout the whole novel, the political and sociological ideas of the Collector and his bete noire the Magistrate are discussed, and yet neither is able to cope with the scale of the historical events actually occurring. And the one thing that he gets absolutely right about India is the huge boredom of the plains landscape - the dusty, muddy, nothingness of the great flat land.
The Siege of Krishnapur is similar to The French Lieutenant's Woman in its range of references - Victorian culture, political philosophy, history. But it seems so very much more readable. And Fowles never had that wicked sense of humour.
From my perusal of Indian secondhand bookshops in tourist destinations, I note that many travellers read travel books about the destination while they're there. I'm not sure that's always worthwhile. Do I want to see Dalrymple's Delhi, Mark Tullow's Great Trunk Road? (It intrigues me that no one ever writes about Kochi or Bangalore - perhaps not picturesque enough, and yet Kochi is such a marvellous city. Never mind the tourist bits, Ernakulam is the most amazing mix of Gulf-Arab, American, Indian, and Christian culture. Where else can you eat shish tawuk and shawarma and then go to a Carnatic music gig with electric guitar and German jazzers, and end the day with whisky chasers?)
I found Chetan Bhagat more interesting than any of the more touted Indian writers. He helped me understand the world of the thirty-something Indian professional, and and the regional differences between north and south. And it was a laugh reading his books. Some days, you can't ask for more.
Meanwhile 'back at the ranch' I re-read Spenser's Faerie Queene and Dante's Divina commedia. Spenser intrigues me, not so much for the allegory nor for the political aspects of his work, but for what I find almost a prefiguring of space opera - a feeling of the universe as dynamic, oozing and seeping and pathless. It comes through very strongly when he talks about the sea, and in the dream-landscapes he creates; and there's a brutality in his tales of hostages and robbery that seems gritty, at odds with the pseudo-chivalric allegorical superstructure. It's very different from what I saw in it when I first read it twenty years ago.
Dante surprised me with his verbal invention and his ripe vein of scatology and swearing. My Italian is good enough to know when the parallel translation takes refuge in euphemism. Dante's Inferno is a marvellous verbal invention - he coins the language afresh as he goes, both in curses and in imagery. And he gives the spirits real life; Ulysses may be cast into darkness, yet his lines about the need to pursue knowledge -
Fatti non fosti a viver come bruti
Ma per seguire virtute e conoscenza -
have the ring of a real truth about them. I think also what I love about Dante is the sheer size of his ambition; his subject is the whole of history, the whole of literature, the whole world on its axis, the creation of an entire mythos and a whole new language.
I also had a mammoth Terry Pratchett slugfest as a result of acting in Wyrd Sisters. I didn't quite manage to finish every one, but I got pretty close. Thank the great A'tuin, Mr Pratchett's infirmities haven't stopped him producing a new work this year, which I really ought to get my hands on. Some of my friends are a bit sniffy about Pratchett, but his best novels are capable of being read on several levels - as a journalist I particularly loved The Truth, full of good in-jokes but also asking questions about what exactly the media is there for. The only thing missing is a phone tapping inquiry...
This year, I'm reading Gibbon and Proust - two very big tomes indeed. I can already tell you that Proust is often extremely funny - like Waiting for Godot - something you're rarely told. Tante Leonie with her self-importance and hypochondria is a comic masterpiece; her maid Françoise cursing at the chicken she's trying to kill would make horribly true stand-up. And since we live an hour or so's drive from Illiers-Combray, I'm going to treat myself to a trip to Combray and Guermantes (Villebon) when I finish the whole seven volumes.
As for travel writers: I've read very little this year, preferring to do the travelling rather than read about it. But I enjoyed Graham Coster's A Thousand Miles from Nowhere, a book about long distance trucks and truckers; not a classic, but a gently quirky and satisfying story. And I also read William Dalrymple's Nine Lives; a work in which he has the tact to remain in the background, letting each of the religious figures in the book tell their own tales of India and their faith. Strangely haunting.