Another Best 100 Novels

So McCrum’s listing of the best 100 novels (written originally in the English language by people who belong to an Anglo-American culture, with only one per author) finally comes to an end, and what a remarkably predictable list it is. Even in its occasionally unpredictable choices (Hadrian VII in particular came in for a lot of criticism; he should obviously have chosen The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole) it felt to me thoroughly predictable. Who, save those just starting out, doesn’t know all this already?

A commenter voiced my own desire: for another list of 100 worthy books (in English, though extended perhaps beyond that narrow Anglo-American culture), which contains none of these writers. But when I say that, I am not (please) considering a list which is made up of Galsworthys and Bennetts; I don’t want the second-raters who didn’t qualify for the first list (particularly since I’ve already read and dismissed them); I want a leftfield list; a list of writers I should read but don’t know about, because they’ve accidentally fallen by the wayside.

Of course, having already “exhausted” the first list (which is not to say I’ve read them all – I haven’t; only 44 of them, or thereabouts – there’s actually a few books on there I’m not even sure whether I’ve read or not (Wells’ The History of Mr Polly, for instance); – just that I have noted them), for many years now I’ve been seeking out these leftfield writers (English language, I remind you) – a fairly thankless and for the most part unrewarding task (one book I am reading at the moment is Rex Warner’s The Professor – and really, it’s not that good).

A list of such books which I can see on the shelves from where I’m sitting but which I’ve not yet read and which were mentioned (neither writer nor book) I think by nobody (neither McCrum nor his commenters) during the entire elucidatory exercise:

  • Bid Me To Live, by HD (Hilda Doolittle)
  • A Grain of Wheat, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
  • Nothing to Pay, by Caradoc Evans
  • Travels to the Enu, by Jakov Lind (unlike WG Sebald, he actually turned to writing in English)
  • The Book of Ebenezer Le Page, by GB Edwards
  • The Blaze of Noon, by Rayner Heppenstall (bought day before yesterday)
  • Pilgrimage, by Dorothy Richardson (on-going)
  • The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles (may have been mentioned at some point)
  • Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler (ok, I’m kind of suprised this wasn’t on the first list – someone bought it for me)
  • Something by the perennially underrated but nonetheless wonderful stylist and still much read Lawrence Durrell
  • Snooty Baronet, by Wyndham Lewis
  • Come, The Restorer, by William Goyen
  • The King, by Donald Barthelme
  • The Brook Kerith, by George Moore
  • The Mighty Atom, by Marie Corelli (I do like Corelli, against all my better judgment)
  • An Adultery, by Alexander Theroux
  • Novel on Yellow Paper, by Stevie Smith
  • The Hearing Trumpet, by Leonora Carrington
  • Kanthapura, by Raja Rao
  • Sartor Resartus, by Thomas Carlyle
  • In Parenthesis, by David Jones
  • Marius the Epicurean, by Walter Pater
  • Once Upon a Time, by John Barth (no one ever mentions John Barth)
  • The Complete Works of Ronald Firbank
  • Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes
  • My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by Amos Tutuola
  • The African Trilogy, by Chinua Achebe
  • (even) English Eccentrics, by Edith Sitwell (I’m undecided so far on its fictional status)
  • and the book which, spurred on by McCrum’s list, where it wasn’t mentioned, I’ve just started, All About H Hatterr, by GV Desani

As I say, just what I can see, without moving too many books around – and all things I’ve not yet read (or only partly); which is all just to reiterate an on-going project (which I call reading), – but I do feel I’ve been neglecting English novels over the last few years (though not plays), so maybe I should incline back to them a little more – and also because I need your recommendations (in this all too dangerous area, where you have to base your recommendation on quality, not what you’ve been told, or on spurious ideas like originality (it wasn’t) or influence (it was entirely forgotten)) – the very recommendations which I didn’t garner from Robert McCrum. (Is, for instance, the book I saw the other day but didn’t buy by Nigel Dennis any good? Who anyway is Nigel Dennis? I’ve got this far in life never hearing of him.)

But then there’s lots of non-English books I want to read too.

(Rest of the month though will be Spanish-language reviews).



11 thoughts on “Another Best 100 Novels

  1. I can’t speak for any of them though, since I haven’t read them – though I may have read other books by the same author. I know you like Barth, but I wouldn’t particularly recommend Once Upon a Time: it is autobiographical, and so far (about 100 pages in) is a curious blend of dull subject matter and brilliant style.

    On the subject of Nigel Dennis (whose books Wikipedia claims has a cult following), I find myself very much put off English writers, particularly in the first half of c20th, simply by their names: – they just don’t sound like writers worth the while reading. Oliver Onions? Rex Warner? Basil Bunting?

  2. For a long time I thought that Oliver Onions was a Wodehouse character, and Basil Bunting a detective, or not a detective but perhaps a detective’s sidekick.

    McCrum’s list was utterly predictable – like one I might make – for it’s first 3/4s and then practically random as it moved towards the present. And to the extent that I sampled any of his essays along the way, well, no need to flatter myself – many amateur book bloggers have better insights and write as well.

    Have you read Galt? The Entail is a terrific book. The Provost quite good too. Galt would fit on your list, even if he was quite original.

    Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born would fit, too. I thought it was better – stranger, at least – than Things Fall Apart.

  3. I agree, aside from the exact choice of book per author, 50% of my list would be no different to McCrum’s – in fact, looking at my own list of favourite novels (which is not restricted to English) I have 18 of the authors, and only 5 who are not (Barth, Gray, Moore, Lewis and Tutuola). Though your claim about some amateur book bloggers being as good as professionals who write in newspapers – well, I just don’t know.

    I have downloaded some Galt. Ayi Kwei Armah I often see around in secondhand shops, so will buy some and read.

  4. The idea that my stack of unread books at home is made up of better books than the list from the Guardian article is appealing, and maybe even true.

    Mildly alarming is that the list of books I made up yesterday has a good number of novels in common with McCrum’s list, though that’s partly a function of when I read what I read, and not how I feel about literature in a more general way. Maybe. Though I read a lot of dead white European authors, too.

    I keep confusing Edith Sitwell and Favell Lee Mortimer.

  5. I’ve been away all week and so missed this hubbub about McCrum’s list, but I too want to read this list, especially since a couple of favorites (The Hearing Trumpet, The Book of Ebenezer LePage) are already on it. But Bennett a “second-rater”? Oh no! I recently read a couple of his works and thought they were terrific, completely contrary to the “second-rater” reputation I’d assumed he deserved.

  6. Scott B: I think from your list, I should read Rebecca West and Flannery O’Connor; a few others, like Angela Carter and Nadine Gordimer, I’ve tried and not thought so much of.

    Scott W: Yes, I think I recall you defending Arnold Bennett before. I read Anna of the Five Towns a long time ago, and intend to go with my opinion from back then.

    I’ve been wondering if the main problem with this listing 100 great English language writers isn’t that in truth there are only about 20 of them – and after that everything is much of a muchness. After all, if the rule of one novel per author were lifted, the majority of the list would be taken up by just a handful of writers – because they’re better.

  7. I enjoyed Novel on Yellow Paper; nicely written. In Parenthesis is a stunning achievement – one of my favorite books of any genre. I think Jones would have baulked at the idea of it being a novel, though – not that that need stop you from regarding it as one.

  8. Yes, I’ve been told before that In Parenthesis isn’t a novel. To be honest, another thing which has annoyed me about McCrum’s list is that it is merely novels, and has no plays or poetry in it. This seems to narrow one’s views of literature a little too much: after all, for most of the early part of the period discussed, plays and poetry were of far greater significance than novels.

    I’ve twice read the first 80 pages of Novel on Yellow Paper, and thoroughly enjoyed it to that point; but on each occasion, picking the book up again after a pause, I’ve completely lost the thread and given up. I’ve got Stevie Smith’s other two novels around somewhere too.

  9. The problem with all these lists is that I am a slow reader, and there’s no way I’d get through even a small fraction of all the books I know i am supposed to have read. I don’t actually mind McCrum’s list being predictable: what annoys me more that he had absolutely nothing of interest to say about any of them.

    If we are compiling a list of left-field choices, would Joyce Cary’s “The Horse’s Mouth” be considered sufficiently left-field? What about “Mister Johnson” then?

  10. I read Mister Johnson years ago; I remember the idea of it quite clearly, but can make no judgement any longer about its quality. I suppose I should read The Horse’s Mouth.

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