The Russians are the big gap in my reading life. I read a handful of the greats when I was a student, but I’ve not tackled them since. Every time I look at Dostoyevsky I think ‘I’ll get round to that when I’m retired’. I’m not quite sure why, as I’m not afraid of long books. So – of the great Russian novels that I have read, Anna Karenina is the one that made the deepest impression on me, probably because there’s a strong central love story to hang all the big social, political and religious stuff on. I found War and Peace heavy going, because of the descriptions of battles; I struggle with description at the best of times, but when it’s something like a battle, I start to skim. I find it quite hard now to separate the experience of reading Anna Karenina from the experience of watching the Greta Garbo movie on my little portable black & white telly around the same time, and clutching my pearls when she appeared through the steam at the railway station. I’d bracket Anna Karenina with Middlemarch as books that made me rethink some of my adolescent moral assumptions; I wonder how both of those books would strike me now that I’ve experienced all the stuff that, back then, I only knew from the pages of novels.
Monthly Archives: June 2012
This is a terrible old chestnut of ‘best novels’ lists, but with good reason. Nobody has ever managed to cram so much political despair into such a relatively short space, and despite the need to create and describe the daily life of Airstrip One, Orwell never forgets that he has a story to tell. Like many of us, I read Nineteen Eighty-Four in my teens – I think it’s a great ‘gateway novel’ for any kid with literary leanings – and it coloured my ideas about art, politics and human nature for a long time to come. God only knows what Orwell would have made of social and political life in 2012 – it’s become a modern cliche to say that his ideas of thoughtcrime and doublethink are truer then ever. I really like Orwell’s social-realist novels too, and if the rules were different there would be room on this list for Keep the Aspidistra Flying or Coming Up for Air. And of course as a teenager I loved Nineteen Eighty-Four even more because David Bowie tried to make a musical out of it, and it turned into my favourite album of all time, Diamond Dogs.
I did this for A level English, and it was the first really ‘difficult’ book I ever read. I had a bit of a Joycean epiphany when it finally fell into place for me – the shifting narrative modes, the stream-of-consciousness passages and so on – and for a long time this was what I thought a ‘modern’ novel should be. I still like it a lot, particularly the hell-fire section in chapter three, but I also think it’s a bit of an artistic dead end. You have to be a real genius to make this level of subjectivity work for the reader (although of course it’s always marvellous fun for the writer). Joyce pulls it off here, but the books it led to – Ulysses and Finnegans Wake – are just ridiculous (please place outraged comments in the space provided). The only reason they’re so revered is because they’re completely impenetrable, and are held up as a badge of intellectual achievement. Reading should, above all, be a pleasurable experience, even if the subject matter is horrific – and I struggle to believe that anyone can honestly enjoy reading later Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist is as far as I go with him, and at my age I think I’m allowed to recognise my limitations.
For a long time, I thought Villette was the greatest novel in the English language. I loved the narrative style, the European setting, the oddball romance at the heart of the story and above all the spinster heroine, Lucy Snow. I used to get particularly excited about the ending, which (spoiler alert) completely undermines the reader’s expectations by killing off the romantic lead and dooming the heroine to loneliness. And then, oh dear, I re-read it in middle age, after 20 years in which I’d knocked about a bit – and I was horribly disillusioned. Now I find Lucy’s self-denial nauseating, and her prim disapproval of anyone whose life isn’t as tidy as hers really depressing. The love story with M. Paul seems implausible, and I find myself liking all the characters we’re supposed to condemn. I still think it’s a great literary achievement, far more interesting and complex than Jane Eyre, but I’ve completely changed my ideas about what fiction should do. And life, for that matter. There’s quite enough misery and loneliness in real life without revelling in it. I almost left it off the list altogether, but obviously Villette is still a masterpiece – even though I personally don’t much like it any more.
OK, I’m cheating here, because I’ve just finished reading this and it’s been washed into the Top 100 on a tidal wave of enthusiasm. London Belongs to Me is exactly the sort of novel that I dream about discovering, and so rarely do. It’s a big busy book about the residents of a south London boarding house during the Second World War, and it’s written in an elegant, conversational tone that disguises the superb craftsmanship of the narrative. Collins (a hugely successful author who went on to become one of the most important post-War TV executives) handles his large, diverse cast with a juggler’s skill, and manages to juxtapose sentiment, comedy and hard-boiled action without ever striking a false note. There’s a camp old retired actress living upstairs, a phony Spiritualist medium in the basement and all human life in between. They eat disgusting food, smoke a lot of fags and trundle around streets that we are still familiar with. The fact that it’s set in Kennington, just down the road from my house, makes it a special joy. Oddly, the introduction to the Penguin reissue goes to great lengths to tell us that London Belongs to Me is a second-rate novel, ‘just a soap opera’ etc, which is absolute bollocks. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
‘Wanted, wanted: Dolores Haze./ Hair: brown. Lips: scarlet./ Age: five thousand three hundred days./ Profession: none, or “starlet”.’ That sinister little jingle has been going round in my head ever since I first read Lolita in the early 80s. Back then I thought it was exciting and taboo-smashingly controversial – which it is – but over the years I’ve found it harder to go along with Humbert Humbert’s horribly seductive persuasions. And that, of course, is exactly what Nabokov was up to, pinpointing what was to become one of the biggest anxieties of our times, paedophilia. Lolita is without doubt one of the greatest masterpieces of C20th literature, and the only reason it’s not higher in this list is because I find it really gruelling to read these days, even though it does all the things I want novels to do. It’s funny, it’s got engaging, pacy narrative and an unmistakeable voice, that of HH himself – likeable, plausible, pitiful. Just typing about him makes me feel uneasy. I love all the Nabokov I’ve subsequently read, particularly the magnficient Despair, but Lolita towers over the lot of them. Footnote: I never knew until now that there had been an ‘acclaimed but failed’ musical Lolita, My Love by no less a team than Alan Jay Lerner and John Barry. What were they thinking?
This, for me, is the 90s novel, and one of the very few attacks on ‘Thatcherism’ that I find convincing. I read it when it first came out, and spent most of the time either crying with laughter or nearly throwing up, particularly over the stuff relating to factory farming. The plot is deliberately, ludicrously complicated, but Coe steers the reader through multiple shifts in narrator, fictions-within-fictions and all the other postmodern devices that, in other hands, are so horribly hackneyed. One of the reasons I love it is because it’s a ‘biography novel’, about someone trying to write the life story of an ambiguous and elusive character; that’s always appealed to me, and you’ll find quite a few fake biogs on this list. From the moment you open What a Carve Up! you know you’re in the hands of a supremely skilled artist; it’s a bit like undergoing surgery from the top man in his field. Coe’s jokes are right up my street, and the sequence in which his novelist hero attempts to write porn still ranks among my all-time funniest reading experiences ever.