68. The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler (1903)

Another of those books that forms the ‘alternative canon’ of Eng Lit. For some reason Butler’s masterpiece was barely mentioned when I was a student except as an influence on Joyce, and to this day remains slightly obscure – never even been done for telly. It doesn’t fit in with ‘modernism’, because it’s a good old-fashioned Bildungsroman with a straightforward narrative style, but the content is absolute dynamite. The Way of All Flesh traces the young life of Ernest Pontifex, a late Victorian who struggles to break free from his oppressive family through religion, sex, marriage and crime, and eventually finds liberation and independence as he reaches adulthood. Each phase of his life is brilliantly, vividly depicted, and Butler’s rage against the strictures of society is so intense that he dared not publish the book during his lifetime. Generally speaking, I don’t like ‘importing’ biographical details into my reading of novels, but it’s fascinating to know that Butler himself was homosexual (in theory, if not in practice) and that Ernest’s journey to liberation can be decoded in that light.

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2 Comments

Filed under My top 100 novels

2 responses to “68. The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler (1903)

  1. here’s another interesting samuel who you’re maybe/probably already aware of…but just incase…….

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