From Dostoyevsky to JK Rowling, brothers have provided a rich source for fiction. The author of East Fortune introduces his personal pick of fraternal fiction
James Runcie is an award-winning documentary film-maker and the author of four novels. His latest, East Fortune, is just published by Bloomsbury:
“A long time ago, a friend at a publishing house told me to stop “mucking about” and write about family life. ‘It’s the only real subject. BIG TIP.’ ”
“So I’ve followed her advice and written East Fortune, a novel about three brothers. I did think I was doing something a bit different until I realised there were hundreds of novels about, ahem, brothers and family life. You can’t beat it as a subject: submerged emotions, intense rivalries, unrealistic expectations, differing levels of secrecy, betrayals both major and minor, and the genetic identity we can never escape. And if you then factor in the male ego, and tell a story of brotherly love and resentment then surely you can’t go too far wrong?”
Here are James Runcie’s top 10 sibling sizzlers:
1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The ultimate tale of three competitive brothers and a hopeless father involves love, hate, faith, nihilsm, despair and patricide. Dmitri, the sensualist, Vanya the rationalist, Alyosha the hero priest may be archetypes for pleasure, reason and faith but each character is much more than an allegorical symbol. An intense interrogation of God, human purpose and the nature of suffering, the book is hardly known for its jokes but Freud called it “the most magnificent novel ever written”. Frankly, I’m with Anna Karenina, but this is the gold standard for fraternal fiction.
2. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
First published in 1929, Faulkner created his “heart’s darling”, the beautiful and tragic Caddy Compson, whose story is told through separate monologues by her three brothers: the congenital “idiot” Benjy, the neurotically suicidal Quentin and the monstrous Jason. An intensely passionate novel about loneliness, selfishness, and unreliability, this is, essentially, Virginia Woolf on drugs.
3. The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson
The two-brothers-on-different-sides-of-the-war story. The Durie family make an each way bet on the outcome of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 in order to preserve their inheritance; elder brother James joins Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebels while younger brother Henry supports King George II. The rising fails, James is reported dead, the decent brother inherits and it’s all rather dull and disappointing until it’s revealed that elder brother James isn’t dead at all: he’s a complete shit who plans to ruin them all.
4. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
A double helping of brothers here as Willy Loman mourns the absence of successful brother Ben, and, in a mirrored story, his two sons Biff and Happy, struggle to live up to the burdens of unrealistic parental expectation. The greatest American play ever written.
5. Goodbye My Brother by John Cheever
The classic slow-build story of the sudden outburst of rage that only a family member can provoke. The Pommeroy family gathers at a beach house in Massachusetts. Among the grown children present are the narrator, whose name we never learn, and his brother Lawrence, a “gloomy son of a bitch”. During a walk on the sand the narrator suddenly decides that he’s had enough of his brother and tries to kill him.
6. The Tale of Three Brothers by JK Rowling
One of the tales of Beedle the Bard that also appears in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, this is also a re-working of Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale – a simple, beautifully told parable about the fear of death and our inability to avoid it no matter how many special powers we might have.
7. Four Clever Brothers by The Brothers Grimm
An altogether more incomprehensible fraternal fable. Four brothers leave home, take four different routes away from a crossroads and return, guess what, four years later. One becomes a thief, another a star-gazer, the third a hunter and the fourth a tailor. When they return they perform an incomprehensible trick with five birds’ eggs before rescuing a princess from a dragon. It probably makes more sense in the original German.
8. Blood Brothers by Willy Russell
The nature versus nurture debate captured in song and plotted as a love triangle. Mickey and Eddie, a pair of twins separated at birth, have wildly differing lives but both fall in love with the same girl. Then one of them starts waving a gun about.
9. Pierre et Jean by Guy de Maupassant
The classic “family secret” story. When Jean is left money in the will of Léon Maréchal, but his brother Pierre is not, Pierre becomes convinced that it must be because Maréchal was his mother’s lover and Jean’s father. Plagued by an increasing obsession with his mother’s infidelity, Pierre forces the secret out, tells his brother, and ruins his family. Some secrets are probably best kept buried.
10. Monsieur les Deux Chapeaux by Alice Munro
Simple Ross mends cars and wears two hats at the same time. His brother nearly kills him, feels terrible, and realises that from that moment on he’s going to have to watch out for his brother for the rest of his life. First published in Munro’s collection The Progress of Love, it’s a story that’s both simple and complex and all that really matters is that it’s by Alice Munro and I wish I could write like her. She’s the tops.