André Alexis: The books that changed my life

André Alexis scooped up both the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for his novel Fifteen Dogs. The modern-day parable about a group of dogs given human consciousness is at once philosophically fascinating and utterly visceral. 

To celebrate his win, we asked Alexis to share the books that changed his life and writing.

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The book that was worth slogging through the first 20 pages

Samuel Beckett's trilogy, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, is one of the single most important books in my life. I discovered the single volume edition (from Grove Press) when I was working in a bookstore. It took me a few tries to get past the first 20 pages of Molloy but once I did, Beckett's writing overwhelmed me. His sentences are beautifully balanced, his cadences musical. But then, too, there was his sense of humour and his eye for the touching detail. (On the other hand, I think I may be the only reader who cried while reading The Unnamable ...)

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The book that shaped his writing

I read War and Peace for the first time at around the same time I read Beckett's trilogy. It has had as deep an influence. More: it is something of a creative counterpoint to Beckett's work. Tolstoy's sweep, his imaginative recreation of Russian civilization, his attention to physical details, the variety of his characters and their thoughts and feelings... all of these pulled me away from the extreme interiority of Beckett's work. I would have been an entirely different kind of writer had I not read War and Peace when I did.

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The book that changed the way he reads

Le chiendent is the third of the three novels - along with Beckett's trilogy and War and Peace - that made me want to be a writer. It too was read while I worked at Prospero Books, in Ottawa. It was funny and strange and, to me, completely fascinating. I read it in nearly one go, staying up late to finish it, amazed at its humour and its unpredictability. Its influence has been twofold. Knowing that it was a kind of adaptation of Descartes' Discourse on Method, I read it differently. Or, to put it another way, it taught me to read all books differently, with greater attention to detail. It (along with Queneau's other novels) taught me to think differently about what fiction is and what it can do.

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The perfect novel (or series of novels)

For me, In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust miraculously combined the interiority of Beckett's work and the social range of Tolstoy's. It is also a work that plays (lightly but brilliantly) with philosophical ideas. In a way, In Search of Lost Time is my ideal novel. It's inexhaustible and inspiring and if it is not the greatest novel written, it's certainly (for me) the greatest one written in the 20th century. It embodies all of my ideals about what fiction can do, what fiction should strive to do. (I don't mean that In Search of Lost Time is unflawed. But I find even its flaws inspiring.)

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I was brought to The Divine Comedy by Samuel Beckett and T.S. Eliot, both of whom admired it. It's a strange work in that I admire the Inferno (part one) and the Purgatorio (part two) while finding the Paradiso (part three) dull. But then, it's the work that has changed most in my imagination. When I first read it (in my twenties), I was bored by the Purgatorio. Re-reading it recently, I almost preferred the Purgatorio to any other part and I found myself moved by the Paradiso. I wonder if The Divine Comedy isn't a kind of test of maturity. I mean, it's hard not to love the Inferno when you're younger. But the great beauty of the soul's striving is something you can only really appreciate when you have lived.

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The philosophy book he goes to for inspiration

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein, with introduction by Bertrand Russell, is a book I've read over and over again for inspiration. Its ideas have influenced me, I guess, but I'm not sure how, because I'm not a philosopher. Meaning: I'm not arguing with Wittgenstein, so I'm not as aware as I might be about the extent of his thinking's influence on me. What I've taken from the Tractatus is, above all, a way of writing, a prose that is wonderfully suggestive while remaining simple, almost painfully lucid. Wittgenstein the writer - as opposed to the thinker - has deeply influenced the way I write.

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The classic that feels contemporary

Like all of the books that I love, Mansfield Park by Jane Austen is thoughtful and amusing and surprising and written in simple prose. I sometimes admire the (as I think it) overwriting of, say, Nabokov's Ada. But ultimately it leaves me cold. Reading Nabokov feels, at times, like watching a circus seal perform with a beach ball. Never so with Austen. Mansfield Park is thinking (about order, about status, about transgression) taken to the height of art. Her work feels contemporary to me, in ways the writing of Martin Amis or Iain Sinclair does not. 

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