A Swiss Jew born in Corfu, Albert Cohen was always destined to be a literary outsider. Revered in France but neglected in English (not least because of its untranslatable title), Belle du Seigneur tells of a love affair between the engagingly deluded Solal and his paramour Ariane, wife of a colleague at the League of Nations. Forced to confront the reality of life with the person they supposedly want most, the couple drift towards a fate that involves almost literally dying of boredom. The book has its excesses and longueurs, and at 974 pages it requires patience, even in David Coward’s superb 1995 translation. But it is tender, alert to the absurdity of human self-representations, and very funny. I was given this book by a French girlfriend, and its masterful portrayal of the ennui, brittle joys and paranoia of a love affair has never left me.
My fiction reading in my early twenties was fuelled by the one-pound bargains in the remainder shelf at Galloway & Porter’s bookshop in Cambridge. One small gem gave me my first taste of the Ayrshire writer Janice Galloway. Blood (1991) is her criminally underrated first collection of stories, and it showcases a clear-eyed attention to ordinary moments of experience, alongside some exuberant experimentation. At a time when the rest of the world was waking up to the Scottish dirty realism of James Kelman and Duncan Maclean, Galloway was quietly the star.