Game in Heaven with Tussy Marx. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966
The youngest daughter of Karl Marx, Eleanor – nick-named Tussy – looks down from Heaven and discusses what she sees with the narrator and a duchess. Together they follow the fortunes of a young revolutionary, Hereward – his contests with the wily reactionary, George Watkinson; his marriage to a peer’s daughter, Miranda; his betrayal of Miranda and final redemption.
‘Marvellously comic, superbly inventive…Mr. Read’s is one of the most arresting novels to have appeared in recent years’.
‘Now here’s something to cheer about – a first novel which is outrageously funny and wickedly serious, and vibrates with talent on both planes’.
Anthony Hern, Evening Standard
‘Those who feel the English novel is getting technically slack should back Game in Heaven with Tussy Marx’.
Norman Shrapnel, Guardian
The genesis of this novel was my reading of Reminiscences of Marx and Engels in the Seeley Library during my last year at Cambridge. Bored by the dry writings of Hegel and Marx that I was studying for a paper on the History of Political Thought, I was captivated by the accounts of Marx’s personal life, and particularly by the photograph of his daughter Eleanor. With her black hair, plump cheeks and sparkling eyes it was easy to understand why she was Marx’s favourite child: and her suicide after her betrayal by her lover Edward Aveling illustrated the fate of those who trust to love and socialist ideals.
To form this, my first novel, I mixed the story of Tussy Marx with portraits and vignettes illustrating the fortunes of my fictional revolutionary, Hereward. The novel was assembled rather than written when I was living in West Berlin. It shows the influence of the absurdist playwright Eugène Ionesco whose work I had come across when living in Paris, and its plotless structure conformed to the prevailing fashion on the Continent – the German Gruppe ’47, the French nouveau roman, and the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz who was a Ford Foundation Fellow in Berlin.
The novel was rejected by half-a-dozen publishers before being taken by Barley Alison, the fiction editor at Weidenfeld & Nicolson, who was to remain my publisher for the next twenty-four years.to top
The Junkers. Secker & Warburg. An Alison Press Book. 1968.
A young British diplomat serving in West Berlin falls in love with Suzi a German girl whom he first sees in a café on the Kurfürstendamm. She is the niece of a German politician who the narrator, in his role as the political adviser to the commander of the British garrison in the city, has been told to investigate because of his links with prominent Nazis in the past.
The narrative now divides between the narrator’s pursuit of the enigmatic Suzi in West Berlin in the early 1960s, and the back story of a family of Prussian aristocrats, the von Rummelsbergs – the Junkers of the novel’s title. There are three brothers – Klaus, Helmuth and Edward – who react in different ways to the prevailing ideologies of Communism and National Socialism. The reader, like the narrator, is obliged to live through Germany’s `undigested’ past.
Awarded the Sir Geoffrey Faber Prize.
‘Piers Paul Read tells a good story and writes with distinction… The Junkers is full of wit and coldly compelling realism… Mr. Read is one of the most promising writers of his generation.’
William Trevor, Guardian
‘This is dazzling writing and almost a panoramic view of history.’
Isabel Quigly, Financial Times
‘…head and shoulders above most contemporary fiction. He is obviously a major novelist in the making.’
Wilfred De’Ath, Illustrated London News
The Junkers was the fruit of a long-standing curiosity about Germany’s past. I had grown up not just aware of my mother’s German blood, but also the love of Germany that she had learned when studying music in Cologne in the late 1920s. Munza Braunfels, the daughter of her professor, came to live with us in Yorkshire, but also part of our extended family was Leonie Cohn, the daughter of a Jewish lawyer in Königsberg, for whom my father had obtained a visa for entry into Britain in 1939: she had been studying in Italy and was threatened with deportation back to Germany. Her entire family had been exterminated during the war.
It was this curiosity that took me to live in Germany after graduating from Cambridge, first to learn publishing in Munich, later as a stipendiary of the Ford Foundation in West Berlin. It was less than twenty years since the end of the war. Many of those who had lived under the Nazi regime were still active in the community; many buildings remained in ruins; and the ideological imperatives of the period were dramatically apparent in the the Berlin wall.
I wrote the novel after returning to England, living with my parents in North Yorkshire. In my imagination, Ryedale became the template for Pomerania, and dramas in my personal life inspired scenes in the novel: but the main exercise was to attempt to understand, through my imagination, the greatest instance of inhumanity that the world has ever known.to top
Monk Dawson. Secker & Warburg. The Alison Press Book. 1969
Edward Dawson is sent by his widowed mother to be educated at Kirkham, a Catholic boarding school run by Benedictine monks. Conscientious and idealistic, Dawson is persuaded that he has a monastic vocation and joins the community upon leaving school. He soon feels that educating the sons of the rich is an inadequate response to suffering and injustice and so leaves Kirkham to serve as a secular priest in London. Under the eye of an indulgent archbishop, Dawson’s radical sermons and provocative articles in the Catholic press gain him many admirers, but they also persuade him that the solutions to human suffering are to be found in social work, politics and perhaps psychology but not religion.
Dawson leaves the priesthood to work as a journalist. He is taken up by a rich divorcée, Jenny Stanten, and becomes her lover. He enters her circle of decadent, fashionable friends and follows a precipitous Rake’s Progress towards debauchery and disillusion.
Awarded the Hawthornden Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award
‘A remarkable novel. Witty, even cynical, observation leads to a conclusion profoundly moving’.
‘Rare immaculately constructed work…so pleasurable you wish it would never end.’
‘All dark velvet and dry ice… If you are caught up by it, as I was, you will devour it at a single sitting and savour its resonances.’
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, New York Times
After getting married in July, 1967, I went to the United States on a Harkness Fellowship. The first three months were spent in New York where I enrolled in a graduate writing programme at Columbia University. In January, I abandoned the course and we moved to Lexington, Massachusetts, where an uncle and aunt lent us a cottage at the end of their garden. With no excuse not to write another novel, I sat down in front of a blank sheet of paper and Monk Dawson was the result. The monastery and school at Kirkham were not unlike Ampleforth where I had been educated, and Dawson’s dilemma over whether the love one’s neighbour should be expressed through prayer or political activism reflected my interest in Liberation Theology at the time.
Given this preoccupation with politics, and a rather pro forma practice of the Catholic Faith at the time, the novel’s denouement came as a surprise. Of course, it remains open to the reader to reach his or her own conclusion about Dawson’s state-of-mind. A Soviet admirer congratulated me on depicting so successfully the insanity of a religious vocation.to top
The Professor’s Daughter. Secker & Warburg. An Alison Press Book. 1971.
Louisa Rutledge, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a Harvard professor, picks up a stranger on Boston Common and, after a crude coupling in her apartment, throws herself out of her window. She survives and returns to the home of her parents in Cambridge, Mass. – her father a rich, east-coast patrician, descended from a signatory of the Declaration of Independence; her mother the alcoholic mistress of a powerful senator.
After this preamble, the novel tells the story of the Rutledge family – how Louisa’s parents were drawn into Democratic politics with Henry, her father, the political theorist of the party’s liberal wing. But Henry’s ideals are compromised by the corrupt wheeling-and-dealing of his wife’s lover, Senator Laughlin; and at the same time his progressive views are outflanked by the radicalism unleashed by opposition to the war in Vietnam. It is 1968 and, with no clear principles beyond her parents’ fashionable but now discredited liberalism, Louisa plunges into the political and sexual maelstrom of the times.
‘A passionate questioning of American society is welded to a drama of fanaticism, betrayal and doubt. Mr. Read has elegantly and with assurance expressed broad moral and political concerns through a novel.’
‘One of the most shocking and brilliant novels of our time.’
New York Times Book Review
‘Piers Paul Read is undoubtedly one of the most talented novelists of our generation.’
Francis King, Sunday Telegraph
The Professor ’s Daughter was the fruit of my year on a Harkness Fellowship in the United States. It was a momentous twelve months with mounting agitation against the war in Vietnam, the eruption of student revolt led by the Students for a Democratic Society, and the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. One of the stipulations of the Harkness Fellowship is that the fellow should spend three months on the road. We included in our second road trip a stay in Chicago for the convention, and were witness to the desecration of the US flag in Grant Park which triggered the riots.
However, the novel was based less on these dramatic events than on my observations of those we came across in Cambridge, Mass – the bien-pensant liberal academics with their private incomes; the bogus hippies and posturing revolutionaries among the students; and the girls like Louisa persuaded that it was bourgeois to show any sexual constraint. Just as Monk Dawson surprised me by the value it placed on religion, so The Professor’s Daughter came out as a critique of the revolutionary ideals that I held at the time.to top
The Upstart. Secker & Warburg. An Alison Press Book. 1973.
Hilary Fletcher is the son of the vicar of Lasterby, a village in North Yorkshire; his uncle, his mother’s brother, is a farmer, the tenant of Sir Edward Metherall who lives at Lasterby Hall. Hilary is taken up by the Metheralls as a playmate for their children, Mark and Harriet. He is captivated by the upper-class Metheralls, and aspires to become part of their world, but as he enters into adulthood he is rebuffed and a finally humiliated at a Hunt Ball.
Hilary’s rejection by the Metheralls transforms him into a vengeful class warrior, intent on subverting society as a purveyor of vice. With a friend from his school days, an Iranian Quazvini, Hilary becomes a thief, a pimp, a gambler, a serial seducer; but also an artist whose work, initially meant to launder his profits from crime, becomes fashionable, and he encounters once again the friends of his childhood, Mark and Harriet Metherall – and their fourteen-old sister, Martha.
‘A thoroughly evil book reeking with decadence… Read seems to get frighteningly better with each book.’
The Sunday Times
‘Told with such freshness and vitality that it is a joy to read.’
Auberon Waugh, Evening Standard
‘Superb…damned engrossing and a pleasure to read.’
New York Times Book Review
Society in the North Riding of Yorkshire in the 1950s was rigidly class-bound with a land-owning elite, a middle-class of tenant farmers and an underclass of labourers. The upper classes had more money, they spoke with different accents, wore different clothes and ate at different times in the evening – many still wearing a black tie and dinner jacket even when dining alone.
On his return to live close to his birthplace in 1949, my father had found that his profession as a man of letters had estranged him from the world into which he had been born. Since he had moved to Yorkshire to escape the `culture vultures’ in London, and was reclusive by nature, the lack of any social contact with those who lived around him was welcome. My mother, acutely class-conscious, was eager to be accepted by the local land-owners but was never at ease in their company: she found her friends among the monks at Ampleforth. It was left to their four children to cope as best they could in this new social landscape.
Because of the size of our house, and our private education, we were befriended by the children of the local gentry. Having parents who did not hunt, shoot or fish, ponies and the Pony Club were the common ground. Later it was the hunt balls, and the scene in the novel in which Hilary finds himself wearing an ill-fitting dinner jacket at a ball where everyone else (other than the waiters) were wearing white-tie-and-tails is based upon my own experience.
The novel changes gear after Hilary leaves Cambridge and starts his life of crime. I had read and admired Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, and embellished a comparable trajectory for my hero with elements of grand guignol.
The novel was criticised by some for its ending which was considered to be an improbable piece of Catholic propaganda. I had intended to prepare the reader for the denouement with an epigraph from Julien Green’s diaries in which he is told by a priest that a great sinner can turn into a great saint. `The sinner who is converted never starts from scratch. He has made some progress during his life of sin.’
Polonaise. Secker & Warburg. An Alison Press Book. 1976
Jezow, the ancestral estate of the Kornowski family, is bankrupt. The old count has gone mad; his wife is an invalid, his son Stefan is still a school-boy. Krystina Kornowski, the count’s daughter, believes that the bank’s representative will postpone foreclosure if she sleeps with him. She is double-crossed. The estate is sold and the family are evicted from their family home.
Stefan and Kyrstina move to live with an aunt in Warsaw. Radicalised by their sudden destitution, they join the Communist party and Krystina marries a party activist Bruno, by whom she has a son, Teofil. Stefan abandons his study of law and becomes a writer. His avante-garde work is a critical success. He leaves the party, is taken up by the rich Princess Czarniecki and given a room to write in in the Czarnieki palace. There Stefan plans the sadistic seduction of the Czarnieki’s daughter Tilly but, before his plan can be put into effect, he accepts the offer of a promotional free passage on a liner sailing to New York. As the boat reaches its destination, the passengers and crew hear the news that Germany has invaded Poland. All demand to return to Poland to fight in the war. Stefan disembarks and stays in America.
Almost twenty years later, Annabel Colte, the daughter of an English peer, goes to Paris to learn French. She is a paying guest in the flat of Krystina Kornowski, now Madame de Pincey. Annabel meets her landlady’s brother Stefan, recently returned from New York, and her son Teofil with whom she falls in love. The Kornovskis are invited to stay with Annabel’s parents in their large country house in North Cornwall where the innocent love of the young couple is threatened by a predatory roué.
‘A marvellous, absorbing book. You’ll be the richer for having read it.’
New York Times Book Review
‘An experience: it gradually draws you into its complex web, persuades you to identify with its leading characters and leaves you much wiser about a country and its people…a considerable achievement.’
Martin Goff, Daily Telegraph
‘If Dostoyevsky were reincarnated as an Englishman, he might write novels like Piers Paul Read’.
Polonaise, the story of a sexually perverse avant-garde Polish writer, followed my first work of non-fiction, Alive, and was proof of the publishing truism that a writer of a best-seller, if he wishes to prosper, should offer his readers more of the same. The contrast between the two books could not have been greater and any reader anticipating another story of uplifting heroism was undoubtedly disappointed, perhaps baffled, even outraged. However, despite the success of Alive, I saw myself principally as a novelist and Polonaise was a project that I found both challenging and enthralling to write.
Like the von Rummelsbergs in The Junkers, Stefan and Krystina Kornovski are disinherited members of the minor Polish nobility, scattered by bankruptcy, war and revolution. Like Katerina, Krystina is a determined young woman who uses men to ensure her survival.
Stefan, however, is unlike any of the male characters in The Junkers – irresponsible, subversive - determined to go wherever his speculations and perverse desires take him and at whatever cost to others. The model for his character was the Polish writer Witold Gombrowic whom I had known in Berlin: he was a senior fellow in the Ford Foundation Programme and I was notionally his pupil. Just as Stefan jumps ship in New York, Gombrowicz had jumped ship in Buenos Aires, sitting out the war in cafés on the rambla, and only returning to Europe when invited to Berlin. He suffered severely from athsma and I was of some use to him moving his belongings into a new flat. He tried to organise a literary salon at the Café Zunz on the Kurfürstendam but alienated the earnest German authors with his provocations. I am mentioned in his Berlin Diary and the first screenplay I wrote was an adaptation of his short story, Verbrechen mit Vorbedacht, for the German director, Peter Lilianthal.to top
A Married Man. Secker & Warburg. An Alison Press Book. 1979
John Strickland is a middle-aged barrister with a wife, Clare, and two children. Staying with his parents-in-law at their house in Norfolk, he reads Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Illych, and this precipitates a mid-life crisis. What has happened to his youthful ideals to do good in the world? What has happened that has made his marriage go stale? It is the period of strikes, political crisis and the `three-day week’: Strickland determines to stand as a Labour MP. His ambition is mocked by his wife and, blaming her for his life’s stagnation, he starts an affair with another woman.
‘Compelling… A Married Man is a sharp chronicle of England in an uneasy time. It confirms that Piers Paul Read is one of Britain’s most intelligent and disturbing writers.’
Malcolm Bradbury, New York Times Book Review
‘A wonderfully observed study of ambition, money, politics and the legal profession, full of recognisable scandals and skulduggery.’
Paul Theroux, The Sunday Times
‘A story full of suspense and subtleties… Mr Read has outdone himself.’
New York Times
‘A superb novel…an intricate and wholly absorbing portrait of a man in middle-aged crisis.’
The Daily Telegraph
‘Excellent…totally honest, totally absorbing, and says many things which are worth saying.’
Auberon Waugh, The Standard
‘Eminently readable…a novel which is both subtle and powerful.’
John Braine, Sunday Telegraph
‘A Married Man, by Piers Paul Read, was published in 1980. I keep talking about this book, hoping that someone will reissue it; it is out of print. It’s a wonderful novel. It is elegantly plotted and about serious stuff. A lawyer in London who is turning 40 is engrossed with thoughts about the onset of middle age and the decline of Britain. He is drawn into an affair, with calamitous results. Obviously, some of the themes resemble those in my own books, which is probably what enhances my appreciation for it. The book was adapted as a TV movie, also quite good and equally disremembered.’
Scott Turow, Boston Globe and Mail, May. 18, 2012
A Married Man was the first of three novels which portrayed the manners and morals of my contemporaries among the English upper-middle class. The Stricklands had married young, before the onset of the sexual revolution, and John feels smothered by the constraints imposed by his marriage and the tedium and banality of a bourgeois life. Preoccupied with his own mid-life crisis, he fails to realise what is going on in the mind of Clare, his wife.
This is not a novel to be read by newly-weds on their honey-moon, but a Russian woman who had read it in translation said that it had made her understand her husband for the first time; and an English reader said that it had saved his marriage – something that gave as much satisfaction as the favourable reviews.to top
The Villa Golitsyn. Secker & Warburg. An Alison Press Book. 1981
Simon Milson, a divorced diplomat, is asked to undertake an unusual and delicate mission in the South of France. Fifteen years before, a unit of the Ghurkhas, fighting Indonesian guerrillas in the jungles of Borneo, had been ambushed and killed. It was possible that their position had been betrayed by one of two junior diplomats serving in the British Embassy in Jakarta – Leslie Baldwin or Willy Ludley. Nothing could be proved against either but suspicion fell on Ludley when he suddenly resigned from the Foreign Office and went to live abroad.
Now the second suspect, Baldwin, is up for a sensitive post in the Embassy in Washington and it becomes imperative to make certain that Ludley really was the traitor. Milson, a friend of Ludley from his school days, is to ask himself to stay with Ludley who is now living with his wife on the Cote d’Azur and try and extract a confession.
Milson arrives at the Ludleys’ house in Nice, the Villa Golitsyn, with Helen, a runaway sixteen-year-old school-girl whom he has met on the train. Rich, charismatic, Ludley is now an alcoholic – possibly to drown the remorse he feels over his treason – but is sustained by his admirable and attractive wife Priss and another old school-friend, Charlie. Charlie is gay and is still drawn to Willy who had seduced him at school; but Willy falls for the teen-age Helen and Simon for Willy’s wife Priss. Caught in sexual and emotional-cross-currents, Simon does his best not to lose sight of his mission.
‘Exhilarating, powerfully observed and provocatively written.’
‘A gripping story of treachery that holds the attention to the very end.’
The Sunday Times
‘The Villa Golitsyn keeps exploding… Like Graham Greene, Read mixes espionage and religion, dishonesty and faith.’
‘Substantial and vivid. The sexual intrigue reaches a high pitch. Read is able to lead us by the nose on a merry chase.’
The New York Times
The Villa Golitsyn was suggested by a story I heard about a girl who, after running away from school at the age of 17, had become the lover of an aristocratic Englishman living with his sister in on the Cote d’Azur. The Englishman had been drowned in the Mediterranean when his boat capsized in a storm.
On the surface, the novel is a `whodunnit’; the drab Simon Milson comes to the Villa Golitsyn to discover whether or not the louche Willy Ludley was once a spy; but the essential drama is about the malleability of conscience at a time when traditional Christian morality had been swept away following the sexual revolution of the 1960s.to top
The Free Frenchman. Secker & Warburg. An Alison Press Book. 1986
A young high-flying French civil servant, Bertrand de Roujay, from a conservative family in Provence, marries Madeleine Bonnet, the daughter of a free-thinking academic. The mothers of the young couple had been childhood friends, but the differences in outlook of the children are exacerbated by the political polarisation that has come over France at the time. We are in the 1930s with Communists and fascists fighting in the streets. The marriage does not last and France goes to war. Bertrand, now a Prefect, is refused permission to join the army; but after France’s defeat and the armistice with the Germans, he decides that he cannot serve under Marshal Petain. He escapes over the Pyrenees and eventually reaches London where he places himself at the disposal of General de Gaulle.
Bertrand’s life in France has introduced the reader to spies, priests, academics, criminals, politicians, prostitutes, policemen and refugees from the Spanish Civil War. In London, he becomes involved with the English and, when sent back to France by de Gaulle, with the different factions in the French Resistance. Bertrand becomes enmeshed in political infighting and mired in moral paradox as the story proceeds to a dramatic denouement.
Awarded the Enid McLeod Literary Prize by the Franco-British Society
‘A marvellous novel of great scope and understanding.’
Anita Brookner, The Spectator
‘Read has produced the intelligent person’s blockbuster.’
The Times Literary Supplement
‘People, ideas and issues jostle the pages as the narrative unfolds at a vigorous, race pace. Read weaves a tale of moral complexity and richness.’
The Sunday Times
‘An ambitious and audacious novel…a sweeping and gripping narrative… Read is almost alone among our novelists in being bold enough to work on this scale.’
‘A vivid and vigorous story…. It is an absorbing depiction, rich in its old-fashioned attention to human behaviour.’
The New Yorker
Ever since my time in Paris at the age of sixteen, and witnessing the last days of France’s 4th Republic, I had been fascinated by French history, a rich source of moral paradox. Between 1975 and 1976, I spent the best part of a year living in Nice writing The Villa Golitsyn. There, I learned how the Resistance had allied themselves to a mafia gang on the Cote d’Azur. A French friend in London had given me letters of introduction to members of her family living in Provence, some of whom had joined the Resistance, others of whom had remained loyal to Marshal Petain. The most active Resistants were Communists who were working for a Stalinist regime in France; while many of those who supported the Vichy government did so to save France from annihilation by the Nazis.
What became clear was that the history of the period had been written by the victors. My novel was an attempt to redress the balance. It was translated into French as Les Lauriers de la Comédie, a dissembling title, and a proposal to film it for a television mini-series was rejected by one French producer: `It is all true but it should not be said’.
Another company took a different view and the co-production went ahead.
A Season in the West. Secker & Warburg. An Alison Press Book. 1988
Josef Birek, a young dissident writer, escapes from Communist Czechoslovakia to the West. Birek already has a reputation: his work, smuggled into England, has been published by the Comenius Foundation in London, translated Laura Morton, the wife of a banker, who had studied Czech at Oxford University. When Birek comes to London, Laura helps him find his feet, introduces him into her circle of fashionable friends and he becomes her lover. At first Birek is lionised but soon discovers that there is a down-side to life in the free world.
Awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize
‘A Married Man (1980) and A Season in the West (1988) must stand as two of the very best novels of the past decade… He is a profoundly serious contemporary writer whose merits, in an age of instant reputations and mass critical rallying around dubious flags, are consistently underrated’.
D.J. Taylor, The Spectator
‘A Season in the West grows in strength with every page; it is beautifully and minutely observed, by turns waspishly funny and unspeakably sad; and it offends all our prejudices. Who could ask for anything more?’
Stuart Reid, The Sunday Telegraph
‘This is a subtle satire on many false and hypocritical predilections. Like anything else by its author it is exquisitely readable and civilised… The story is sustained by so much elegant and concise irony that it would be a shame to give it away…’
The Financial Times
‘An entertaining and engaging read about the foibles of contemporary London society.’
The Washington Post Book World
It is difficult now to imagine the dilemmas faced by writers in countries behind the Iron Curtain. I had been to Czechoslovakia in 1968 on a British Council Cultural Exchange soon after the suppression of the Prague Spring; and I went again in quite different circumstances in 1987. Learning that young men and women from `bourgeois’ backgrounds were excluded from the universities, the British author Roger Scruton organised an alternative network of higher education provided by writers and academics from the West. I went to Prague and Bruno to hold ad hoc seminars for these young dissidents – and the character of Josef Birek was the result. The novel, however, is not an indictment of Communist totalitarianism but of the superficial values of the British bourgeoisie. The premise upon which the novel was based was lost with the collapse of the Berlin Wall the year after its publication: it was the first of my novels not to find a publisher abroad.to top
On the Third Day. Secker & Warburg. 1990
A distinguished archaeologist, Fr. John Lambert, a member of the Simonite order, returns to London from a visit to a fellow archaeologist in Israel and hangs himself in his cell. His body is cut down by his assistant and pupil, a younger friar, Andrew Nash. Andrew determines to discover the reason for his mentor’s suicide, and goes to Israel to talk to Fr. John’s Israeli colleague, Professor Dagan. There he learns that Dagan has made a discovery that casts doubt on the core belief of the Christian religion – the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Dagan’s daughter, Anna, had been studying with Andrew under Fr. Lambert and dating Andrew’s brother Henry, a cynical womaniser with no belief in God. Anna, too, has a brother – Jake – a zealous Zionist serving in an elite unit of the Israel Defence Force. As Andrew, with Anna’s assistance, comes to realise that possibly Fr. John’s death was not suicide, it also becomes clear that his own life is in danger.
‘Essential reading… There is a moment of suspense so acute that your reviewer had to put the book down and walk around the room before she could turn the page.’
‘Chills the blood and makes the hair stand on end… Gripping and intelligent…confirming Read as one of our strongest novelists.’
‘Beautifully written …the plot unfolds without a wasted word.’
Ruth Rendell, Daily Telegraph
‘Rewarding and exciting… Here the novel as elevated thriller reaches its peak.’The Guardian
‘Has the mastery of a well-constructed detective story…fascinates, entertains and informs…exciting, fast-paced, shrewdly amusing.’
The Literary Review
In November, 1979, I was invited to tour Israel with three other authors – Michael Holroyd, Jacky Gillott and Ronnie Harwood. I was moved by Biblical sites and fascinated by the dynamism of modern Israel. Our hosts were Zionists, keen to impress us with what had been achieved, and ever-ready with arguments to justify their right to Palestine. As a Catholic, I believed that a new covenant had replaced the old by which God had given to his chosen people the land `flowing with milk and honey’; but how would I feel if I was a Jew? I went a second time in 1987 with my son Billy to visit an Israeli friend he had made in London; and for a third and final time in 1989 to gather material for the novel which became On the Third Day.
On this third visit, I had an introduction to Ivan Callan, then the British Consul in Jerusalem through whom I met the great scholar from Jerusalem’s École Biblique, Fr. Jerome Murphy O’Connor, and the chief archaeologist of Jerusalem, Dan Bakat. Bakat took me on a private tour of the archaeological excavations under the Temple Mount. All of this enhanced the verisimilitude of the novel.
Written in the form of a thriller, On the Third Day is also a roman theologique which considers the effect on Christinaity in general and Catholicism in particular of a discovery that proved beyond doubt that Jesus of Nazareth did not rise from the dead. The reaction of an Jesuit scholar and American cardinal were an ironic critique of liberals within the Catholic Church.
Barley Alison, my publisher, died while I was working on this novel. As the fiction editor at Weidenfeld & Nicolson she had bought my first novel, and subsequently had her own imprint within Secker & Warburg. I was greatly saddened by her death but it took time for me to realise quite how much I had relied upon her judgement, loyalty and support.to top
A Patriot in Berlin. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 1995
In the summer 1991, a Russian couple who deal in icons are found murdered in a villa in Berlin. There is evidence that the woman has been tortured before being killed. In Moscow, an officer in the new security service of the Russian Federation is despatched to German to find a rogue agent of the former KGB who has disappeared. Back in Berlin, an American art historian, Francesca McDermott, flies in to curate a major retrospective exhibition of Russian avant-garde art. The exhibition is the brain-child of Berlin’s new minister of culture, Stefan Diederich, a former dissident whom Francesca had known before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Stefan tells her that the price for Russian co-operation in mounting the exhibition is that she work with a Russian art historian, Andrei Serotkin.
Serotkin turns out to have all the qualities of which the liberal-minded, feminist Francesca disapproves – he is a chain-smoking male chauvinist – but after he saves her from rape in Berlin’s Tiergarten she feels an involuntary attraction. He is also mysterious and has some kind of hold over Stefan Diederich. It is a time when Russia is in chaos, its assets plundered by cronies of Boris Yeltsin, and Berlin jittery because of the revelations that are emerging from the Stasi files.
‘Read has produced not just an engrossing and plausible thriller, but also a thoughtful and elegantly written novel – perhaps his best yet. A Patriot in Berlin is an extremely fine novel, and it is a great relief to know that there are still such accomplished storytellers in our midst.’
Philip Kerr, The Sunday Times
‘There’s more skill here, and more intelligence, than in any number of contemporary novels and the attempt to bridge the gap between `serious` literature and mass-market fiction is a laudable one.’
Robert Harris, Daily Mail
‘A novel which is at once a superbly crafted, seamlessly written entertainment but also a catechism of questions, some of which sharpen our focus on its theme of love caught up in betrayal…[an] intelligent, slipstreamed foray towards the midnight chimes of intrigue.’
Tom Adair, The Independent
‘Almost everything about this thoughtful and subtle novel is gripping.’
Mark Lawson, The Guardian
Ever since my stay in Berlin between 1963-1964, I had been fascinated by the ideological divide between Communism and western capitalist democracy. I took any opportunity I could to travel to the Soviet Union or the Communist countries of Eastern Europe. I had been to Prague from west Berlin in 1963, and went again on a cultural exchange in 1968, and for a third time in 1987; to Romania in 1971; and to the Soviet Union in 1974 where The Professor’s Daughter had been published in Russian translation.
In 1990 I made two trips to the former Soviet Union to research my book on the Chernobyl disaster, Ablaze; and in 1992, commissioned to write a treatment for a film about the Stasi, I went to the newly united Berlin and also Leipzig where I talked to former dissidents, some of whom were in now politicians. The film was never made but what I had learned inspired A Patriot in Berlin (The Patriot in the US). There was also some prescience in the character of Serotkin/Ivanov: Vladimir Putin had yet to appear on the world stage.
A Patriot in Berlin was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, the publishers of my first novel, Game in Heaven with Tussy Marx. Two books had come out with Seckers since the death of Barley Alison but Ablaze had not done well. Jane Wood, who had started her career in publishing working for Barley, was now an editor at Orion and bought A Patriot in Berlin, publishing it under the Weidenfeld imprint.to top
Knights of the Cross. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 1997
Michael Latham, once a leading expert on Soviet affairs, finds himself becalmed at the age of thirty-seven transcribing Russian language broadcasts at the BBC’s monitoring service in Caversham. His wife has left him; he is having an affair with a colleague whom he despises; he visits a therapist twice a week. He broods on the worldly success of two friends from his days at Cambridge – Gordon Taylor, the editor of the Sunday Gazette and George Harding, a junior minister in the Ministry of Defence. Both men would like Britain to leave the European Union.
Then Harding’s body is found floating in the River Saar with marks that suggest some sadomasochistic orgy. Taylor, the Eurosceptic editor, suspects that he may have been murdered by a secret freemasonry of fanatic Europhiles – the aristocratic Catholic Knights of the Cross. The Knights run a charity that assists Catholics from the former Soviet Union, and Taylor asks Latham to infiltrate the organisation posing as a priest from a remote parish in Siberia. Bored with his life at Caversham, and attracted by a substantial fee, Latham accepts the offer. At Schloss Zelden, he meets the son and two very different daughters of his host, the Grand Master of the Knights of the Cross. He falls in love with the younger daughter, Monika, and discovers the truth about Harding’s death from her sister Babi who was Harding’s lover. However, imperceptibly Lambert is affected by playing the role of a priest. He returns to London a changed man.
‘Story-telling in the so-called serious novel is said to be a dying art these days; it is triumphantly alive and kicking in this novel.’
‘Extremely well written, this is a subtle, highly intelligent novel, enlivened with a dry, sardonic humour.’
‘Exceedingly clever new thriller…audacious and fast-moving.’Literary Review
‘An intelligent, compelling Eurothriller.’
‘Its intelligence is undoubted and its characterisation magnificent. This is a superior work of fiction at every level.’
‘A man who at the very least has written three or four of the most distinctive and sharply written English novels of the whole post-war period… an account of spiritual awakening that reads like the paciest of spy thrillers.’
Mail on Sunday
‘Read…forces us to think and to feel. He is a very considerable novelist, far better and far more serious than many who receive fashionable attention. This book leaves most novels published this year floundering in its wake. It is serious, uncomfortable, but also continuously entertaining. What more can you ask for?’
In 1988 I become a trustee of the British branch of an international Catholic charity which had its headquarters in Germany, Aid to the Church in Need. A number of my fellow trustees were Knights of Malta. I also had friends among Eurosceptic British journalists and politicians. And my older brother Tom was General Manager of the monitoring service at Caversham, jointly run by the BBC World Service and the CIA.
From these strands of experience was woven a satirical thriller, Knights of the Cross. Some Catholic friends were upset by the insouciance with which my hero, Michael Lambert, masquerades as a Catholic priest – saying mass, distributing holy communion, and hearing the confessions. However, as some reviewers recognised, the inner conversion of my hero was the sub-text of an otherwise heavily plotted novel.to top
Alice in Exile. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 2001
In the summer of 1913, a young army officer, Edward Cobb, recently returned from a tour of duty in South Africa, is invited to a party in Chelsea. Cobb, the son of a landowner, finds himself among actors, artists, writers and young women who drink gin and smoke cigarettes. He is attracted to one of these young women, Alice Fry, and escorts her back to her home on Markham Square. The two fall in love. Alice, raised by her free-thinking parents with a contempt for bourgeois conventions, and confident that she and Edward will marry, sleeps with him. Edward leaves the army to become a politician. A scandal involving Alice’s father persuades him that marrying her would scupper his career. He drops her not knowing that she is pregnant. In desperation, Alice accepts the offer of a Baltic baron whom she meets at Epsom to return with him to Russia as a tutor for his children.
Baron von Rettenberg is a connoisseur of women but when he realises that Alice is pregnant he abandons his plans to seduce her and presents her to his wife and mother as a widow who is bearing her deceased husband’s child. The relationship between the liberated Alice and the reactionary Rettenberg develops first into one of respect, friendship, then love and finally, as Russia is overwhelmed by war and revolution, a dependency in which their roles are reversed.
‘…an enthralling journey…a slim line Dr. Zhivago… his account of the Russian Revolution has a haunting vividness which few authors could ever hope to match.’
Anthony Gardner, Mail on Sunday
‘Piers Paul Read combines consummate storytelling with a readiness to confront fundamental issues such as good and evil… he has never written more colourfully or more convincingly.’
Philip Ziegler, Daily Telegraph
‘Read feels no need to manipulate his characters into consistency; instead, like most of us, they thrive on puzzling self-contradictions, and bare their natures through moments of irrational impulsiveness.’
Helen Dunmore, The Times
‘I confess to having missed a highly advertised fiesta in a Mexican mountain town just so I could stay in the hotel and find out what happened, from 1913 to 1920, to Alice Fry, her ninny upper-class English lover, Edward Cobb, and her aristocratic Russian protector, Pavel Rettenberg, who ends up being the love of her life.’
Caroline See, Washington Post.
The germ of this novel is the true story told to me by a literary agent of a Derby-winning racehorse that was taken to Russia just before the outbreak of World War I. When Russia disintegrated at the Revolution, the English stable boy rode the horse south to Crimea where both were evacuated by the Royal Navy. The agent thought that a fictionalised account would make a good novel and in the event one was written by Duff Hart-Davis. However, it was around this historical fragment that I later constructed the story of my feminist heroine, Alice Fry.
The character of Alice refers back to the heroine of my first novel, Eleanor Marx. She grows up in the same free-thinking circles in London and shares Eleanor’s attitudes towards bourgeois morality. At first she seems likely to be a victim, like Tussy Marx, of a man who will take advantage of her advanced views: but her courage and intelligence impress Rettenberg and her life takes a different course.to top
The Death of a Pope. Ignatius Press, San Francisco. 2009
A young British journalist, Kate Ramsey, follows the trial at London’s Old Bailey of three men charged with conspiring to perpetrate a terrorist atrocity on behalf of the Basque separatists, ETA. The leading defendant, a Basque charity worker, Juan Uriarte, persuades the jury that the Sarin gas he sought to obtain was to deter the Janjaweed in Darfur. After his acquittal, Kate goes to Rome to interview the charismatic Uriarte, and there accepts his invitation to accompany him on a tour of refugee camps in Africa.
Back in London, David Kotovski, the researcher from Britain’s MI5 who gathered the evidence against Uriarte, remains convinced that the jury’s verdict on Uriarte was unsound. His further investigations parallel Kate’s growing emotional involvement with Uriarte. In Rome, a curial cardinal, Cardinal Doornik, awaits the death of Pope John Paul II. He himself is `papabile’ – a possible candidate for the papacy. His liberal views contrast with the traditionalism of Kate Ramsey’s uncle, a Catholic priest, Fr. Luke, and the radicalism of Juan Uriarte. The priest and the cardinal had known each other as seminarians and share a secret which Fr. Luke has inadvertently divulged to Kate and Kate to Uriarte. All the strands come together as the cardinals of the Catholic church assemble in Rome to elect a new pope.
‘If there were any justice in the world of letters, Piers Paul Read would be spoken of with Amis, Barnes, Rushdie and the rest of the dominant literary class wherever the great contemporary British novelists were mentioned… Read is impressive but in some ways jarring in that he's prepared to give some of the best lines to the bad guys…though the author has a taut and trusted morality, he's too sophisticated to make his characters mere conduits for right and wrong. There is complexity here, confusion, a sing-song of lyrical paradox and good intentions leading to colossally evil acts. It's impossible, by the end of the book, to feel smugly satisfied that all is well with the world that Read has just shown us, and I suspect that is precisely what the man wants us to experience.’
Michael Coren, The Afterword, July 11, 2009.
‘The plot's suspense made this book a page-turner, a delightfully fun Read. I could not put this one down’
J.C. Sanders, The Texas Inkling
Since the early 1960s I had been preoccupied with Liberation Theology. At Cambridge, I had subscribed to a Catholic Marxist magazine Slant, but I had later been persuaded by the misgivings expressed by the then Cardinal Ratzinger in The Ratzinger Report published in 1985. His misgivings were confirmed when I went to El Salvador in 1990 for the Independent Magazine to write a piece on the anniversary of the assassination of Cardinal Romero.
Two quotations that I give as epigraphs to The Death of a Pope set the tone for the moral drama in the novel – the first from Josef Ratzinger, by now Pope Benedict XVI, that Jesus was not Spartacus – `he was not engaged in a fight for political liberation’; the other from Polly Toynbee who, in her column in the Guardian in 2002, had stated that `the Pope kills millions through his reckless spreading of AIDS’.
Some Catholic readers complained that the character of Uriarte, who shares the views of Polly Toynbee and plans to follow them to their logical conclusion, is much stronger and more convincing than his adversary, the traditional but largely marginalised and ineffective Father Luke Scott. The battle between the two is for the soul of Kate Ramsey.
On the advice of my literary agent, Gillon Aitken, I did not submit The Death of a Pope to a publisher in Britain. Instead I showed it to the Catholic publisher in San Francisco, Ignatius Press, which had published my collected articles and essays, Hell and other Destinations. Ignatius published the book with panache: I spent a month touring the United States to promote it; and the book sold more hardback copies than any of my previous works of fiction.to top
The Misogynist. Bloomsbury. London, 2010
Geoffrey Jomier is a retired barrister living alone in London. His children are grown-up and he was divorced many years before – something he still broods on because it obliged him to sell his house in the fashionable Holland Park and move to the small dwelling of a Victorian artisan on `the wrong side of Shepherds Bush’. His former wife who married her lover, a rich City financier, lives in a large house in Kensington; his son, also in the City, is mildly embarrassed by his father; his daughter lives ten thousand miles away in Argentina.
Jomier is in demand as a single man, and his gloom lifts when he meets a fellow divorcée, Judith, whom he had fancied as a young man. Can they start over together? Or will the baggage from past hold them down? Their sexagenarian love affair is put to the test when Jomier’s daughter falls ill.
‘At once eloquent and entertaining, intelligent and incisive…Novels don’t come much more diverting or sublimely satirical than this.’
Sebastian Shakespeare, Tatler
‘Read has a plot-twist up his sleeve, as cunning a concoction of sex, medicine and religion as you could wish for. It is a delicious finale to an absorbing book.’
‘Sharply written, mournfully acute on the horrors of twentieth-century London… Brooding, candid and unsparing.’
‘This is a novel that grows stronger and stronger as it develops its portrait of a lost soul trying hard to find peace and purpose… Impressive.’
‘It’s a novel that seems at first plain to the point of being mousy but is actually subtle and alive at every point. It has, too, an unexpected compassion and something akin to wisdom that gradually hits the reader, like the belated recognition that you have been on some road to Damascus, though it’s hard to place the moment when you fell of the horse and how you came to see that Read was one of the better writers alive. I have not read a finer work of contemporary fiction in the past year. It’s a long time since I have been so surprised by a novelist’s ability to represent the tears and laughter of all-too-familiar things.’
Peter Craven, The Age (Australia)
The Misogynist was unpremeditated. I had prepared a proposal for a work of non-fiction which had been accepted by Michael Fishwick at Bloomsbury but the contract was a long time in coming and, unwilling to start without the assurance that the book would be published, I thought I would give a voice to a character who had been gestating in my mind. Jomier embodies the decline of Britain’s upper-middle class. He is John Strickland, the hero of A Married Man, thirty years on – ousted by the sheiks and oligarchs and bankers from the traditional habitat of his class in St. James's, Belgravia and Holland Park; but also disillusioned by the growth in inequality in British society and his own failure to do anything about it. Even as he embarks on a new romance with an old flame, he feels a special bitterness towards the wife who left him for a banker of indeterminate nationality, and feels love only for his children and grandchildren – a love which makes him vulnerable when his daughter falls ill.to top
Scarpia. Bloomsbury, 2015
It is the late eighteenth century, and a young Sicilian nobleman, Vitellio Scarpia, finds himself penniless and in disgrace on the streets of Rome. After leaving home to pursue a military career, his impulsive and undisciplined nature has led to his expulsion from the Spanish royal guard, and he must now seek his fortune in Italy; a fortune inseparably bound up with the ruler of the Eternal City, the Pope.
Scarpia enrols in the Papal army and becomes the lover of an alluring countess who introduces him to Roman society with its blend of religiosity, sophistication and intrigue. Half-enthralled, half-appalled, Scarpia enters the life of the decadent city, learning in due course that as an unsophisticated provincial he is no match for the worldliness of Rome.
Meanwhile, in the Veneto, Floria Tosca, a fifteen-year-old peasant with an exquisite voice, is fought over by a prioress, a bishop and finally a powerful prince who takes her to his palace in Milan and launches her at La Scala. She is a sensation, and becomes famous overnight. In Venice, after performing at La Fenice, she meets Scarpia, on a mission to Venice to assess the military potential of the Serene Republic; for, following the revolution in France in 1789, Italy is in turmoil with Italian revolutionaries plotting to bring down the despotic rulers, and the French preparing to invade the peninsula.
In the dramatic years that follow, the lives of Scarpia and Tosca intertwine, ending in a tragic denouement in Rome at the turn of the century
Piers Paul Read is one of England’s most accomplished novelists, and Scarpia is among his finest novels.Allan Massie, Wall Street Journal
`Read’s always laconic style has…reached a whole new level: cool, detached, plumbing well-nigh fathomless depths of irony while never quite disguising the layers of feeling that lie beneath…. Scarpia is, like everything else he has written over the past 49 years, a pleasure to read.D.J. Taylor, The Guardian
`Always a dab hand at clever historical fiction, Read has chosen the villain in Puccini’s Tosca…as the hero of this wonderful novel.’Kate Saunders, Saga
`You don’t need to know the opera Tosca to understand and enjoy this book about Puccini’s most notorious villain, Vitellio Scarpia.Andrew Barrow, The Spectator
`If you’re expecting the novelization of the opera, Scarpia is something different - and much, much more.Opera
`Born in England in 1941, Piers Paul Read is one of the great writers of our time. His new novel Scarpia is a painstakingly accurate historical reconstruction of events in the late -18th century Italy that formed the basis for the story Puccini put into drama and music in his opera Tosca; but it is also an attempt, at once imaginative and historical, to convey possible dimensions of historical meaning and mora significance not found in the opera.M.D. Aeschliman, National Review Online
At a performance of Tosca at Covent Garden, while listening to Puccini’s music, I remembered a book I had read on the opera some years ago by an American academic, Susan Nicassio Vandiver, which established just how inaccurate and partisan was its portrayal of the political realities of the time. The libretto of the opera was based on a play written in the late nineteenth century by an anti-clerical Frenchman, Victorien Sardou, and his drama is coloured by the political prejudices of the time. The young republicans fighting to dethrone the Pope as the absolutist monarch of Rome and the Papal States are heroes, while the chief of police of the papal states, Baron Scarpia, is a villain. The courageous republicans, Cesare Angelotti and Mario Cavardossi, Professor Nicassio tells us, are based upon historical characters with similar names: so too Scarpia, the sadistic agent of reaction who tortures Cavardossi and barters with Tosca - the surrender of her body for her lover’s life.
Can an injustice be perpetrated against an historical character? We learn from Professor Vandiver that Scarpia was a nobleman and a courtier but also an outsider in an ambiguous social position in Rome. He was a legitimist who had fought to bring down the republic set up in Naples by the French and restore the king to his throne. However, there is no evidence to justify his portrayal in Puccini’s opera as cruel and depraved - the quintessence of evil. Could an English novelist do something to redress the calumny of an Italian by a Frenchman? Could I rehabilitate Baron Scarpia, filling the gaps in what we know with invention? This was what I set out to do in writing this novel.to top