Monthly Archives: September 2012

11. A Room with a View, E.M. Forster (1908)

Forster’s novels were one of my early enthusiasms – I think I’d read them all by the time I was 17, spurred on by the pervasive whiff of lavender. And I love them still, unlike many of the books I devoured at that age. A Room with a View is his greatest achievement: it’s got the perfect balance of minute social observation with big sweeping themes, it contains a great love story which Forster observes like a fond aunt, and it’s very, very funny. I could happily spend a year analysing how he pulls all this off, and I’d probably be no nearer understanding his magic. Nobody nailed pretentiousness and repression like Forster, and despite all the politeness and tea cups there’s a real understanding of sex and its place in the world. Some people prefer the more obviously ‘big’ novels like Howard’s End and A Passage to India, and I love them too, but nothing matches the comic genius of A Room with a View. Incidentally, I also love Maurice, although it seems to be the done thing to say it’s terrible.

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12. Myra Breckinridge, Gore Vidal (1968)

If I had to choose one book that sums up what you might call ‘the gay sensibility’ it would be this, the story of a power-hungry transsexual rampaging her way through a dismal American college, ravishing hot jocks and referencing 40s films on every page. I was so obsessed by Myra Breckinridge in my 20s that I actually started writing my own diary in her voice. The sequel, Myron, is just as good. I was absolutely horrified when, after Vidal’s death earlier this year, serious literary commentators suggested that he would be remembered not for his novels but for his quips and chat-show performances. This is just good old homophobia rearing its ugly head, of course – never mind that he was one of the most entertaining analysts of C20th America, let’s just dismiss him as a camp laugh. I’d say that his comic novels (particularly the Myra diptych, and Duluth) are his greatest achievement, but come on – Burr? Julian? Williwaw? Lincoln? I wish Myra herself would return to settle a few scores with her ‘art-deco lamp base’.

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13. The Silver Chair, CS Lewis (1953)

I’ve probably read this more than any other book on the list, and I guess I’ve read the entire Narnia series every couple of years since I was nine. I love them all unreservedly, but for various reasons The Silver Chair was always my favourite. I think it’s the subterranean-ness of it that appeals – the idea of a strange dark world that runs in parallel to the one we live in, but which might break out at any time. I loved the evil Lady of the Green Kirtle, and even when I was very young I was excited by the character of Prince Rilian, the sexy blond captive who gets tied to the chair every night and starts raving. That scene, complete with the witch turning into a serpent and so on, remains one of the most thrilling things I’ve ever read. I’m also very keen on Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, and sometimes I’d like to run away and join him in his little teepee.

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14. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons (1932)

Another strong contender for ‘funniest book ever’, Cold Comfort Farm is a gleefully silly parody of the highly serious rural novels that were popular in the 30s. If that’s all it was, it wouldn’t have lasted – but there’s something about Gibbons’s attack on ‘simple working folk’ that strikes a deep chord with those of us who are amused by the fetish for ‘authenticity’, ‘working classness’, ‘not coming from London’ etc. Cheerful, practical Flora Poste leaves her pleasant London life to investigate a mysterious legacy in deepest, muddiest Sussex, where she quickly gets involved in the elemental passions of her Starkadder relatives, who are constantly ‘mollocking’ with each other, especially when the sukebind is in flower. I always used to think ‘what a pity Stella Gibbons never wrote anything else good’, because the sequels to CCF are pretty weak, but last year I read her great novel of wartime London, Westwood, which is totally different and highly recommended.

 

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15. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole (1980)

First things first. If you haven’t read this book, do so immediately: your world will never be the same again. It is without doubt one of the funniest, most original and cleverest novels ever written, and its strange path to publication only renders it more fascinating. In a nutshell, A Confederacy of Dunces is the story of Ignatius J Reilly: slob, misunderstood genius, Mummy’s boy, glutton, fantasist. His dead-end life in New Orleans with his redoubtable mother and on-off girlfriend Myrna Minkoff is more or less without incident, but Ignatius manages to turn every setback, disappointment and non-event into a berserk epic of which he is always the hero. His attempts to earn money (eg as a hot-dog salesman) are all doomed to failure (he eats all the hot dogs), his relations with his employers are an inspiration to us all, and his struggles with his digestion are nothing less than heroic. Toole committed suicide in 1969 at the age of 31; it was only his mother’s determination that brought the book to publication.

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16. The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy (1886)

Where do I begin with Hardy? And how can I possibly make a serious decision about what position this comes in the chart? I love every single thing Hardy ever wrote, even Jude the Obscure, which is without doubt the most depressing book of all time. I think The Mayor of Casterbridge is the masterpiece, because it just seems to be the most wide-ranging of all the novels – in a way, the most Dickensian, with a large cast and a broad social spectrum. There are few characters in literature as compelling as Michael Henchard, and his relationships with the women in his life are at the core of the story. Tragedy broods over the book from the first drunken disaster all through Henchard’s rise and fall, and his nemesis, the slippery Donald Farfrae, is a compelling rural Iago. There – literary enough for you?

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17. The Old Wives’ Tale, Arnold Bennett (1908)

I consider Arnold Bennett to be the most underrated of all English novelists, and The Old Wives’ Tale to be one of the great undiscovered (or ‘underdiscovered’) masterpieces of twentieth century literature. Bennett was despised by the Bloomsbury group, particularly Virginia Woolf, who thought him conservative and vulgar; his popularity made him a figure of envy and ridicule amongst the Modernists. Obviously he’s got much more in common with Trollope, Thackeray and Dickens than he does with Joyce or Woolf herself – but he was also very much influenced by French writers, particularly Maupassant, and this the ‘Frenchest’ of all his books, with some of the most powerful sections set in Paris. The Old Wives’ Tale is the story of two sisters, Sophia and Constance Baines, their contrasting characters and destinies, their estrangement and final reunion in old age. In the course of the book they run the whole gamut of experiences open to women of that period, and the final section is deeply moving. The prose is breathtakingly good, the characterisation powerful and the subject matter (particularly in the Paris sections) unflinching. Bennett will never be fashionable: he represents a type of prosperous, worldly-wise English gentleman, and obviously that’s just not very cool. But only a fool would dismiss him for that –and it’s worth pointing out that Bennett, unlike the pampered denizens of Bloomsbury, actually wrote to make a living.

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