Books·My Life in Books

Andre Alexis: The books that changed my life

The author of Canada Reads winner Fifteen Dogs shares seven books that have shaped his life and work.
André Alexis' novel Fifteen Dogs won Canada Reads 2017, where it was defended by Humble The Poet. (CBC)

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. 

Fifteen Dogs won Canada Reads 2017, when it was championed by Humble The Poet. Below, André Alexis shares some of the books that have been deeply meaningful for him in his life.

Three Novels by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1969. (Grove Press)

"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 ...)"

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace was first published in 1869. (Oxford University Press/Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky )

"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."

Le chiendent by Raymond Queneau

Raymond Queneau founded the Oulipo, a workshop for writers in France. (GALLIMARD/Unicorn Press)

"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."

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

In Search of Lost Time contains more than 2000 characters. (Modern Library/Getty Images)

"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.)"

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

Dante's Divine Comedy was completed one year before his death in 1321. (Penguin Classics/WikiMedia)

"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."

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein

Ludwig Wittgenstein finished writing Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus while a prisoner of war during the First World War. (Cosimo Classics/Austrian National Library)

"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."

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Jane Austin's novels were published anonymously during her lifetime. (Penguin Classics/University of Texas)

"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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