Tuesday, 25 September 2012


Allison & Busby, 1984
ANTHONY BURGESS Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 (1984)

The author of A Clockwork Orange (1962) and the underrated masterpieces Nothing Like The Sun (1964) and Earthly Powers (1980) offers his selection of the best novels published in English between the start of World War Two and 1983.  Each book is discussed in a pithy one page essay which explains the key points of its plot (without giving it away) and why, in Burgess' view, it rates inclusion on his list.  While the majority of his choices –– Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls, Elizabeth Bowen's The Heat of the Day –– are works which now form the cornerstones of modern Western literature, at least half the book is devoted to books – Saul Bellow's little read 1947 second novel The Victim, Erica Jong's 1977 bestseller How To Save Your Own Life – which might best be described as 'Literary Oddities' or what's now sneeringly dismissed as 'Middlebrow Fiction' (ie. not 'literary' enough to win the Booker Prize and not sadomasochistic enough to become a record-breaking bestseller).  Burgess' style is erudite but entertaining, while his own work as a novelist ensures that his insights are never anything less than incisive, intelligent and consistently thought-provoking.  

As far as I know, Ninety-Nine Novels has been officially out of print for years.  The good news is that copies were recently available online from The International Anthony Burgess Foundation and various 'bookfinding' companies like the Amazon-owned ABE Books.  You might even find a copy in your favourite second-hand bookstore or your local charity shop if you're prepared to visit them.  Your local public library might have a copy too.


Carcanet/Millennium Ford edition, 1997
FORD MADOX FORD The English Novel (1930)

This brief guide to the development of the English novel was written by one of its finest practitioners, the author of The Good Soldier and the World War One tetralogy Parade's End (which has recently been adapted for BBC television by playwright Tom Stoppard).  Ford was at the forefront of literary Modernism – he collaborated with Conrad, knew Stephen Crane and Henry James, advised Joyce and Ezra Pound and 'discovered' DH Lawrence, Hemingway and Jean Rhys via his editorship of The English Review and its Paris-based successor the transatlantic review (its title was deliberately printed in lower case to emphasize its role as the unofficial journal of Modernism).  Ford's book is a delightfully biased explanation of the development of the English novel as he saw it, beginning with Samuel Richardson's Pamela and ending with Henry James and Conrad and covering most things in between, all packed into just 142 easy to read, generously spaced pages.  It's an eccentric, idiosyncratic book and, at times, a very illuminating one as Ford flits from one author to another and back again, not forgetting to include a few of his own literary (and not-so-literary) reminiscences along the way –– something he was to do at greater length in his equally fascinating memoirs Return to Yesterday (1932) and It Was the Nightingale (1933).

Dalkey Archive Press, 1998
Nine years after The English Novel Ford published an infinitely more ambitious work titled The March of Literature (1939) –– his attempt to trace the development not only of the novel, and not just of the English novel, but of the entire course of world literature from Ancient Egypt up till what was then the present day.  It was a mammoth undertaking and it's a mammoth book although not, by any means, a dauntingly portentous or tediously academic one.  Ford's aim in writing it –– it was his last published work and his eightieth book since 1891 was to identify and celebrate the literature of every continent and culture, written, in his words, by 'an old man mad about writing.'  Its composition also represented an astonishing feat of memory on the part of its sixty-five year old author.  It had been years, in some cases decades, since Ford had last read many of the books he discusses and he supposedly wrote The March of Literature entirely from memory without once referring to notes, making his achievement (if the story is true, something which can't be automatically assumed in Ford's case) that much more remarkable.  

The March of Literature is still available from the Dalkey Archive Press, as is The English Novel via its UK publisher Carcanet. 

Vintage Classics/Random House UK, 1999
GRAHAM GREENE Collected Essays (1969)

This book is worth seeking out if only to read The Lost Childhood, its incisive introductory essay written in 1947.  Few writers have written so eloquently about the role that reading and the discovery of books play on the emotional development of an impressionable child.  But that's far from being the only reason to seek out this collection.  Greene writes just as eloquently about the authors –– Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, Rudyard Kipling, W Somerset Maugham, Georges Bernanos, François Mauriac and RK Narayan, among others –– who influenced his own work as a novelist and, in the cases of Mauriac and Narayan, were also his literary contemporaries.  Nor is he ashamed to cast a critical eye on the work of so-called 'minor' writers – Frederick Rolfe, George Darley and Simone Weil to name just three –– whose books, in his opinion, deserve to be more widely known than they are.  Collected Essays also includes his famous 1933 essay about the work of Beatrix Potter, in which he analyzes the literary techniques she used to create classic children's tales such as Squirrel Nutkin and The Roly-Poly Pudding.  Potter hated the essay and sent him a letter saying so, explaining that the 'emotional disturbance' he claimed she'd been suffering from while writing The Tale of Mr Tod sprang from nothing more serious than a severe headcold.  

Collected Essays is currently out of print but, as with Ninety-Nine Novels, you might find a copy online (try ABE Books again), lurking in your local charity shop, second-hand bookstore or even on the shelves of your nearest public library. 


Penguin Books UK, 2006
NICK HORNBY The Complete Polysyllabic Spree (2006)

The author of Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and About A Boy writes about the books he buys (too many), the books he reads (not enough) and why both activities are so important to him and ought to be to you and I as well.  These pieces, which originally appeared as a regular column titled 'Stuff I've Been Reading' in the American magazine The Believer, cover everything from Blake Bailey's biography of Richard Yates to books about Issac Newton and how to stop smoking to the (then) latest novels of Jonathon Lethem and Lionel Shriver.  They aren't so much reviews as attempts to prove, in an amusing and refreshingly honest way, his theory that what we read plays a vital role in making us who and what we are.  Hornby never shies away from controversy either, happily debunking modern literature's 'obsession with austerity' and the commonly-held belief that it's 'wrong' to read things like graphic novels and sports biographies because they're not 'serious' enough to merit the attention of a so-called literate adult.  But his best advice is that life's too short to waste even a tiny part of it slogging your way through a book you're not enjoying, whether it be a universally acknowledged 'classic' or a pop star's trashy warts 'n all autobiography.  He's obviously saying what a lot of people want to hear because his new book, published in August 2012, is another collection of his latest 'Stuff I've Been Reading' pieces titled More Baths, Less Talking.   

The Complete Polysyllabic Spree is still available from Penguin Books, as are the individual volumes it collects from the US-based publisher McSweeney Publishing.

Vintage Classics/Random House UK, 2001
W SOMERSET MAUGHAM Ten Novels and their Authors (1954)

This book came into being because the editor of Redbook magazine asked Maugham to name what, in his opinion, ranked as the ten best novels ever written.  The subsequent article –– in which Maugham suggested that it was perfectly acceptable, even advisable, to skip the boring parts of so-called 'great novels' if doing so made them more enjoyable to read –– resulted in him being approached by a publisher who wanted to reissue the ten books he'd selected in new editions he had personally abridged.  

Thankfully, Maugham declined this offer to 'reinvent' the classics but, intrigued by the idea of what makes a great novel truly 'great,' decided to expand his original comments into ten individual essays in which he discusses, in his usual clear-sighted way, Tom Jones (Henry Fielding), Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen), Le Rouge et le Noir (Stendhal), Le Père Goriot (Honoré de Balzac), David Copperfield (Charles Dickens), Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert), Moby Dick (Herman Melville), Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë), The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoyevsky) and War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy) –– all, with the exception of Tom Jones, classic nineteenth century novels which can still be read today by anyone willing to visit a library, a bookstore or their preferred eBook download site.  What makes Ten Novels and their Authors unusual is Maugham's insistence that the circumstances of an author's life directly influence their style and his fearlessness in citing what he sees as being the major defects of the works he places under the microscope.  He never allows his obvious admiration for the ten novels in question or the novelists who wrote them to blind him (or the potential reader) to the fact that the aim of fiction should be 'not to instruct, but to please.'  

Along with the majority of W SOMERSET MAUGHAM's novels and his collected short stories, Ten Novels and their Authors is still available as a Vintage Classics paperback. 


Simon & Schuster first US edition, 2008
LARRY McMURTRY Books (2008) 

Books is Larry McMurtry's reflection on his lifelong love of reading and virtually every type of book (not just fiction), beginning with the 'bookless' childhood he spent on his father's ranch in Texas and continuing into his student years at Rice University and his eventual emergence as a popular novelist and screenwriter who, in later life, successfully combined these seemingly incompatible professions with a new career as a secondhand bookseller.  He shares many fascinating anecdotes about his book-loving habit along the way – how not owning or having access to many books as a child fuelled his need to buy so many (and even steal a few) as an adult, his then-unfashionable interest in collecting erotic comics and other examples of frowned-upon 'mass market writing,' the many 'scouting' trips, successful and unsuccessful, he undertook over the years to find stock for his stores (which he was forced to close in August 2012 as the soaring popularity of the eBook continues to decimate the retail book trade).  Written in an easygoing confessional style, without a trace of either apology or self-consciousness, McMurtry makes you feel like you're listening to an old trusted friend tell you why books still matter and why finding the time to sit down and read one is something we should all be doing a lot more often than we do.  

Simon & Schuster first US edition, 2009
In his second volume of memoirs, Literary Life (2009), McMurtry relates his love of books and reading to his development as a writer, explaining how certain books and authors influenced his desire to become 'a man of letters' and informed the choices he made about his work and even in his day-to-day life.  Like its predecessor, Literary Life is a must-read for anyone concerned about the imminent demise of the traditionally printed book and everything –– the publishing industry, the bookselling trade, the world's literary heritage and perhaps the very idea of authorship itself – that we as a society are so blithely discarding in our relentless pursuit of ever newer, ever shinier technology.  Books and Literary Life are now both available in paperback, but if you want to buy them – in fact, any new traditionally published book –– my advice is to hurry.  The literary memoir is a rapidly vanishing beast and certainly won't be able to compete for shelf space with the likes of EL James' Fifty Shades of Grey (now the bestselling paperback of all time) and what will no doubt be her inevitable avalanche of imitators for very much longer.  

The third volume of LARRY McMURTRY's memoirs, titled Hollywood and dealing primarily with his time as a screenwriter, was published by Simon and Schuster in 2010 and is still available via your local bookstore or favourite online retailer. 

Book Club Associates, 1972
JB PRIESTLEY Literature and Western Man (1960)

What can the author of the 1929 bestseller The Good Companions and the 1945 humanist play An Inspector Calls possibly tell us –– the ultra-hip users of Twitter and Instagram –– about the history of Western literature that we don't already know?  And why should we care that he went to the trouble of writing such a book on such a dull and irrelevant subject anyway?  The answer to these questions is, respectively, 'A lot' and 'Because the past never stops being part of or influencing what happens in the present and the future.'  

For decades JB Priestley was one of the English-speaking world's most popular authors, a novelist, playwright and essayist who unashamedly wrote for 'the common man' instead of for the highbrows and the intellectual snobs.  His exhaustive survey of the development of Western literature (not unlike Ford Madox Ford's in The English Novel), beginning with the invention of the printing press and ending with a sympathetic examination of the work of Thomas Wolfe, is written with the same mixture of intelligence and unpretentious, plain-spoken common sense that characterized every word he published for close to sixty years.  

Priestley's aim, I think, was to demystify literature and eliminate the fear that names like Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Zola, Faulkner and Virginia Woolf provoked (and still do) in the minds of so-called 'ordinary readers' who feel –– wrongly, in his view (and mine) – that they lack the brainpower required to investigate and appreciate their work.  Priestley was a lifelong believer in the ennobling power of literature (in a time when people still believed that books and the people who wrote them actually mattered) and felt it had a crucial role to play in restoring the hope and dignity crushed by the invention of the atomic bomb and the post-war world's ongoing love affair with mindless consumerism.  While he's not always fair or accurate in his assessments –– he claims, for instance, that Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim and John Osborne's groundbreaking 1956 play Look Back In Anger are about nothing but sex –– even his mistakes are interesting for the light they shed on his belief that literature was one way 'to challenge the whole de-humanizing, de-personalizing process, under whatever name it may operate, that is taking the symbolic richness, the dimension in depth, out of men's lives, gradually inducing the anaesthesia that demands violence, crudely horrible effects, to feel anything at all.'  Helping the reader to feel something, Priestley wants to remind us, is every bit as important as finding new ways to keep them beguiled and entertained.  

Literature and Western Man has been out of print for decades, although there are plenty of secondhand copies to be found online if you're prepared to search for them.  The small UK publisher Great Northern Books is also in the process of reissuing several of PRIESTLEY's best-loved novels and shorter non-fiction works in new commemorative editions featuring specially-written introductions by people like MARGARET DRABBLE, BARRY CRYER and JUDI DENCH.

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