Those lists of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century are maddening and fun. I usually score between 70-80. So, to better this, I read some titles that regularly crop up. As many of the lists are American the books are too. This year I filled in a few of the gaps.
- The Shining, Stephen King. My first Stephen King novel. I was surprised at its readability and quality to be honest. I liked its depiction of a family dynamic warped by alcoholism and general spookiness, including a spooky kid.
- The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles. Having failed to read this twice before, this year I completed its harrowing journey into alcohol, fracturing relationships, sickness, death and personal identity eroding (in the face of all these pesky foreigners) into madness. I read it with schadenfreude hating all the tiresomely neurotic characters – but in no way sorry that I had persisted.
- Cannery Row, John Steinbeck Fun enough, with its ramshackle characters in a community of marginalised drunks and mavericks. Heard it being discussed on BBC Radio 4’s A good read. Did little for me, finding it less funny than other people seem to have found it.
- Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck Short. A perfect little tragedy, clearly wonderfully crafted, but for some reason not my kind of thing as I found it a bit dull.
- A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy O’Toole Lots to like here, and it made me laugh out loud once or twice. It was episodic, theatrical set pieces made it all seem rather artificial. But one of my favourites of the year and in Ignatius Jacques Reilly an unforgettably repulsive antihero.
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee I loved this book, and wondered how I had never read it before. Deceptively simple, traces of Bradbury style magic, morality, race relations, standing up for what is right in the face of adversity. A jewel of a novel, and probably my favourite read of the year.
- The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner. I was barely able to finish this novel regularly cited as one of the best of the twentieth century. Innovative stream of consciousness techniques enabling us to see events and a family in wildly different ways. Again (maybe this is something going on with me as a reader this year) I felt indifferent to the fate of the characters, partly because how it was written seemed to dwarf what it was saying. And how it was written irritated the bejaysus out of me. But nevertheless a sense of achievement to have completed it.
- The Remains of the Day, Kasuo Ishiguro After the Faulkner, I felt the need to get off the American locomotive. This deft, understated book was a perfect antidote. Really enjoyed the portrayal of a emotionally buttoned up English butler. This is only the second Ishiguro I’ve read, and I love the space he leaves for suggested meaning – an writerly ability that perfectly matched his subject matter. I am a fan.
- The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes One of those books I read with enjoyment, but having finished it even a few months later, I have to fight to remember anything about it. A group of ambitious boys, who have to deal later in life with the fact one of them committed suicide.
- The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion Not a great work of literature, but a perfect holiday read, which is what it was. I enjoyed it. Read it in a day. It made me laugh.
- Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust A guilty read, after speed reading about 50% of it when at university. Maddeningly slow at times, but also quite beautiful. Makes me want to read the other six volumes of the series. The bits I did read when I was at University, concerning involuntary memory, still stay with me as some of the profoundest writing I have read. The opening, Combray, section I find amazing even if it is about a spoiled little milksop crying for his mother. I saw parallels to how I feel about Guernsey.
- The Zone of Interest, Martin Amis Still not sure how I feel about this book, dealing with the lives of people running a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. I may have to read it again. It certainly brings to life the idea of the banality of evil. Left me feeling uneasy and with a bad taste in my mouth. But that’s surely the point.
- The Guest Cat, Takashi Hiraide Bought me as a gift as I like Japan and cats. The story was understated, using the domestic to stand for bigger things. Helps that I have visited Japan twice so find it easy to imagine the scenes described.
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami A birthday present from my wife. I’ve read the majority of Murakami’s books and like millions around the world have fallen under his spell. While I sometimes get the sense that the novels are one vast and continuous work, I consumed this new book in a couple of days and loved it. There is a directness about his style, despite the weird and wonderful subject matter, that hooks me every time.
- The Outsider, Albert Camus The sort of thing takes me back to being a philosophy undergraduate. I was expecting it to be a let down, but found it surprisingly easy to read and the new penguin translation, by Sandra Smith seems very well done. The central character of this book is living a life in bad faith, unable to make any decisions and as a consequence he exists in a limbo state, unable to connect emotionally to anything around him to the point that he can shoot someone dead without understanding why. Exit puffing on Gitanes.
- Hangover Square, Patrick Hamilton depicts west London and Brighton in the 1930s, and given that I used to live in West London and now live in Brighton I found it interesting for this reason alone. But as a depiction of functioning alcoholics, frittering their time and money away with people they despise it is unrivalled. Seedy and pathetic, their pathetic lives are mercilessly depicted. A great book.
- The Fall, Albert Camus Back to existentialism. The monologues of a lonely drinker in an Amsterdam cafe harping on about how terrible life is and what a terrible man he is. In the end it turns out his mutterings have been addressed to himself, or at least to his double. Weird and strangely great.
It occurs to me, looking at this list (something I’ve never done before) that as a reader you are constantly in flux. I wonder if I would have felt differently about each book if I had read them in another order so that what was going on in my life as I read a book was different.
So that was the novels. Next post, non-fiction and autobiography.
Below Harper Lee.