Tuesday, May 13, 2008

My top twenty

Jack Ross has listed his twenty favourite novels of the twentieth century (in fact, he's such a well-read bloke that he's made two lists) and invited others to lay down their hands. Here goes, then!

I make no apologies for including several collections of short stories in my randomly ordered top twenty. The novels I like are mostly short and episodic, anyway. I run out of patience easily. For me, a snack of Borges or Bowles or Ballard (whom I'm rereading with enormous enjoyment at the moment) is worth the three course meals of a Tolstoy or Joyce. If you disagree, hit me with your own list...

Jean-Paul Sartre, Iron in the Soul

Why wasn't this epic of French resistance and indifference to Nazi occupation ever made into a Hollywood blockbuster? Because Sartre's main character was an ascetic communist, or because the novel's brusque cuts from one scene and character to another would be anathema to plodding Hollywood directors? Iron in the Soul is that near-impossible thing - a philosophical action-thriller.

BS Johnson, The Unfortunates

BS Johnson was that rare beast amongst novelists - a social realist with an avant-garde technique. This 'book' was actually a box filled with loose pages which could be arranged in any order the reader chose. Stuffy British librarians were outraged, and tried to glue the pages to the inside of the box. The form of Johnson's novel may be unusual, but it is perfectly suited to his story. The protagonist of The Unfortunates is a jaded football reporter who visits Nottingham to record a dull game between two second-rate sides, and finds himself deluged by memories of an old friend from the city who died at a young age from cancer. The fractured, epiphanic form and Johnson's lilting stream of consciousness prose make The Unfortunates a strangely beautiful novel.

Graham Billing, The Slipway

Graham Billing was one of New Zealand's most gifted novelists, but he was also a legendary drunk, and this two hundred page prose poem is an incomparable record of the highs and lows of alcoholism.

Ernest Hemingway, Fiesta

Hemingway before his prose got paunchy. A bunch of American exiles exchange decadent Paris for the pagan energy of Spain in bullfighting season. 'I admired the way Hemingway made drunk people talk', Evelyn Waugh said.

Alun Lewis, In The Green Tree

A collection of stories and letters charting Lewis' passage through wartime India to Burma, where he blew his brains out at the edge of a latrine. Lewis was the most under-rated writer of the 20th century (I know that sounds very bold, but I couldn't really say the second or third most under-rated, could I?)

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

Vonnegut 'stylises his acquiescence' to capitalist culture, Ron Silliman claimed back in the '80s. Phooey.

Brian Aldiss, Manuscript Found in a Police State

Alright, it's more of a long short story than a novella, but I'm putting it on my list because of Aldiss' unique ability to write science fiction and medieval fantasy at the same time.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four

Yes, I know, it's an unfinished and badly flawed book, but that just makes it more fascinating, if you're the kind of person who's as interested in a painter's studio as the works on the gallery wall. Whole academic careers have been made untangling the diverse influences on show here. Is Goldstein Trotsky? Was Orwell satirising America and postwar Britain, as well as the USSR? Does the poorly-formed and thus especially revealing character of Julia prove his essential misogyny? Over to you...

Iris Murdoch, Under the Net

A young man wanders aimlessly round postwar London, getting into a series of scrapes and reflecting, in a stoic English way, on the meaning or meaninglessness of life. Under the Net is like a cross between a Spanish picaresque novel, Sartre's Nausea, and a slightly stuffy English comedy.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

Forget about the film, which favoured plot over the novel's numerous digressions into anecdote and theology. Apart from an intellectual feast, The Name of the Rose was a parable about the dangers of superstition and fanaticism. Eco was writing against the Cold War, but his book is just as relevant to the Bush era.

Don de Lillo, The Names

Hammer-wielding members of a mysterious cult dedicated to unifying the word and the world commit a series of ritual murders in the Mediterranean, the Near East, and India. A self-loathing American businessman investigates, and discovers the complicated linguistic formulae behind each killing. The plot doesn't make a lot of sense, but when you can write sentences as evocative as de Lillo's it doesn't really matter. This is a book saturated with the white light of Greece, the claustrophobic dark of the alleys and passageways of Jerusalem, the smoke of remote Indian villages, and the madness of religious fanaticism. Forget about 24 or Martin Amis' exercises in Islamophobia - if you want to understand Mohammed Atta and his friends you ought to read this book.

JG Ballard, The Voices of Time

Forget about sci fi - Ballard is writing about the visionary present. Read him before you end up marooned for weeks on a traffic island, or hunted through a gated suburb by a demented business exec.

Michael Moorcock, Behold the Man

Neurotic young intellectual Karl Glogauer moves through Judaism to Christianity to paganism, before hopping into a time machine and travelling back two thousand years to find out first-hand about the veracity of those stories in the Bible. Back in sixth form my devoutly Christian economics teacher caught me reading Behold the Man in class and confiscated it. After she made the mistake of reading for herself she had nightmares for weeks.

Michael Moorcock, The Oswald Bastable Trilogy

Oswald Bastable crosses and recrosses the twentieth century, passing through many different timestreams. During his travels elsewhen Oswald encounters Stalin as a Georgain warlord, Mick Jagger as an officer on a Royal British air force zeppelin, and Gandhi as the President of South Africa, which has been renamed Bantustan. Moorcock's trilogy is a series of thought experiments in utopia and dystopia.

John Cheever, The Journals

De Lillo, Cheever...why are all the great American poets of the second half of the twentieth century novelists?

Paul Bowles, The Stories

Forget about those blowhards Kerouac and Burroughs, who were too busy being notorious to write well - Bowles is the only Beat worth reading. Unlike his more fashionable fellow travellers, he understands that extreme subject matter requires extreme verbal control.

Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

The master. Leaving this book off the list would be like leaving Sgt Peppers off the list of twenty greatest albums of all time.

Frank Sargeson, Collected Stories

In an age when Kiwi writers usually fled overseas, lured by the parasitic 'scenes' of London or New York, Sargeson dug in at Takapuna and waited for the world to come to him. The world came.

Michael Henderson, The Log of a Superfluous Son

A young Kiwi bloke lets his militaristic Dad down by refusing to join the slaughter in Nam. Instead, he takes a job shovelling crap out of a ship carrying cattle from New Zealand to the slaughterhouses of Korea, via a string of isolated islands. He keeps a record of the drunken, chaotic journey in an old partially filled school diary, and Henderson skilfully blends together narratives of adolescent and adult brutality. This is a Kiwi Heart of Darkness.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

The best - ie, the least pleasant - dystopia ever written. Fans of John Wyndham's cosy apocalypses will find themselves tested.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

richard taylor say he staying long -
i came in the living room -
he roasted marshmallows beans and sprats
he ate he burp he never say thanks

eatin' up the food that i buy my girl
he just messing up both our worlds
he got problems, yeah, nowhere to go
and when i come in my place all i see is his back in my fridge...

2:55 pm  
Blogger Frank Partisan said...

My favorite books are an embarassement next to yours. Most have been made inro soap operas.

3:09 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

he talk all the time say rhymes i tired of hearing

3:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

would you know what this is all about?


Well, I admit that a lot of that is hard to gauge, and the fact that they claimed to have found Obama's birth time seems to complicate things more. Astrology can be incredibly complex. But it looks like when you sort through everything Hillary still has the Nomination. Also, they did a pretty good job in predicting the Candidate's ups and down. One thing that makes astrology hard in this election is a dispute about birth times. One thing about Hillary is that a lot of Astrologers can't uncover whether she was born at eight PM or eight AM. I have seen relatively accurate charts for her for both times, which makes it even harder. But what I have seen is that most Astrologers are predicting her win, even if her lack of birth time accuracy makes them confused about her motives or personality.

4:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too am a big fan of B.S Johnson. Some years ago I picked up a copy of The Unfortunates - it had been withdrawn from Camden Public Library - and in the interests of facilitating circulation, had been bound into a single volume. Understandable, but something of a loss. As a new artifact though, quite interesting. The prefatory note has been amended by the Librarian to detail as much; added to the binding, inside the back cover, is a report of a football match from B.S. Johnson. Unless this too is part of the text, I never took the time to find out. On a sadder note, the dust jacket of my copy of See The Old Lady Decently includes a message from the publisher stating that contributions to a trust fund set up for his family (after his untimely death) can be paid to National Westminster Bank...

10:50 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I agree with many of the choices here - but I wouldn't put them in this order. Joyce's "Ulysses" is still for me the greatest book of the 20th Century - unquestionable. Joyce perhaps the greatest writer to have ever lived. And I include Shakespeare and Gertrude Stein.

Faulkner is a close second.

Virginia Woolf. Golding. Italo Calvino. Pynchon. Cortazar. Richard Brautigan. Hesse. Kafka. Moravia. Patrick White. (Jack Ross? - maybe not!)...many many others... "The "Power and the Glory" by Graham Greene, "Nausea" by Sartre, and "The Outsider by Camus...

"The Name of the Rose" and "The Island of the day Before" by Eco.

For me there doesn't have to be "political" connection...

de Lillo - I have only read one..I believe Cormac McCarthy is one of the greatest...only read one of his
'The Orchard Keeper' and am not sure about it.

I don't like William Burroughs and am dubious of Acker although she is certainly very interesting.

Silliman in my view actually highly talented and innovative writer altho I have reservations about his prescriptiveness (right word?) etc and his politics) writer - but of course he isn't a novelist - but I also rate Vonnegut quite highly.

My "list" - a bit fragmented is on Jack's Blog - I also rate "1984" very highly.

I also love short stories - Borges, Bartheleme, Joyce Carol Oates, Owen Marshall (of e.g. his story "The Master of Big Jingles" and quite a few in that collection, Mansfield, Sargeson (many Sci writers I read as a teenager). Pace our own Dave Lyndon Brown (strangely the best thing by him I remember was his poetry) I need to read his stories and there are many writers in NZ I have neglected...I wish I had read more of Iris Wilkinson's books.

There are lot of writers "unchampioned"...so to speak...

So many wonderful writers...novels add something that "factual" books don't or cant do - Mailer, W.G.Sebald and Martin Edmond bridge the gap so to speak...

I like Doctorow's "Ragtime" and some of Saul Bellow's books.

For some people the latest from Mills and Boon is the greatest writing - this is of course all going to or could tend towards the Harold Bloom disease of forming a canon or writing about "genius"...
Re Ballard -I came across a book of his art and it looked fascinating - then I got one of his books from a library shelf nearby - read a bit - and decided no - this is just too bizarre...even for me!

Jack mentioned Golding's "Pincher Martin" and decided to read it (I was always a pretty big fan of Golding) - I would rate it as one of the greatest things I have read.
Also I would still have Robbe-Grillet up there. "Jealousy" and "Labyrinths" fascinate me...

Vincent O'Sullivan's "Let the River Stand" is powerful and strange novel.

Also John Mulgan's "Man Alone" (it starts badly but becomes great.

"Death in Venice" by Thomas Mann

"Bellfleur" by Joyce Carol Oates.

"100 Years of Solitude" by Marquez.

"Last Exit to Brooklyn" by Selby.

"Billy Budd" by Melville (it is also a great Opera by Benjamin Brittain.

B S Johnson is very interesting - innovative - pity he committed suicide.

I haven't read that one of Iris Murdoch but I have enjoyed her novels.

Beckett is also for me a great writer... as I say - "so many":

"I had not thought death had undone so many"

12:56 pm  
Blogger Skyler said...

Not a definitive best list but some of my favs:
Laurie Lee, 'Red Sky At Sunrise' - an omnibus volume containing the trilogy Cider With Rosie, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War; Richard Zimmler, 'Guardian of the Dawn'; EM Forster, 'A Passage to India'; Barbara Kingsolver, 'The Poisonwood Bible', and 'Prodigal Summer'; Salman Rushdie, 'Midnight's Children'; Hemmingway, 'For Whom the Bell Tolls'; Orwell, 'Homage to Catalonia'; Doris Lessing, 'The Golden Notebook'; Dickens, 'A Tale of Two Cities'; and just because they are good reads - Colleen McCullough, 'Morgan's Run'; Sara Donati, 'Into the Wilderness'. Lots of books I like are autobiographical/historical/political/travel books.

4:25 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My all-time favourite is the Holy Bible.
How can you beat the word of God?

4:28 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about noir novels?

Don't see any on the lists of Taylor / Maps / Ross / or the other folk who've commented here & at The Imaginary Museum.

Here are a handful of my favorites:

1: American Tabloid by James Elroy

2: The Long Goodbye by Ray Chandler

3: Shame The Devil by George Pelecanos

4: The Getaway by Jim Thompson

7:58 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, christian dickhead - are you saying the Bible is fiction?
youse are sooo stooopid!
long like satan!

10:48 pm  
Blogger Huseph Of Wingacarribee said...

I'd like to give you an extreme long distance hug for the Brian Aldiss inclusion. That's one of my favorite stories ever?

My list? All sci fi that normal people avoid.

bible person stop preaching. I'm resisting the urge to find you and throw a rock at you. fairly hardly.

10:29 pm  

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