Q: What books will help me to love my enemies?
A keen reader, 60, UK.
A: Julie Myerson, author, writes:
Rather depends on how you define an enemy, doesn’t it? I’m tempted to list books with memorably well-drawn villains I wouldn’t want to come up against – Thackeray’s Becky Sharp in a heated debate, for instance; nor would I want to meet Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell down a dark alley, though both Vanity Fair and Wolf Hall are beacons of complexity, insight and understanding. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what you’re after.
Being more literal, Anger: Buddhist Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, helped me see my own “enemies” for exactly what they were: ordinary, inept and helpless beings who, like me, could be assuaged with understanding and forgiveness.
But if you’re looking for a novel that explores the queasy nature of actual and moral culpability, then look no further than Bernhard Schlink’s deeply disquieting classic The Reader, where what begins as an erotic crossword puzzle blossoms into something altogether more morally daring.
Every bit as unsettling and still chillingly relevant is Athol Fugard’s 1982 theatrical masterpiece Master Harold… and the Boys, which delves into the corrosive and devastating effects of the enemy that is state-sponsored racism.
However, the “enemies” most of us encounter on a daily basis – all constantly demanding that we love them – are members of our own family. Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys are not only works of real stature, but all show siblings terrifyingly in need of forgiveness.
Finally, isn’t the enemy we most fear the weakness, selfishness and loneliness within? Every one of the late, great Anita Brookner’s novels is a sublime meditation on human fallibility, each so astutely observed and sharply, meltingly sympathetic that we are forced to care, to understand and, yes, forgive – and in doing so, hopefully to come to terms with ourselves.