Sunday, 26 February 2012

100 novels everyone should read

I scored 43% in the Sunday Telegraph's list of 100 novels everyone should read. Many duds on this list: Frankenstein; Cranford; Passage to India; Miss Jean Brodie; Lord of the Rings; 100 Years of Solitude; Under the Net; Unbearable Lightness; etc., etc. 

The Hound of the Baskervilles I suppose everyone SHOULD read though it is not a great book. Sherlock Holmes is a great character and that is the best of the novels and better than any of the short stories. Thank God the pulp novel Dracula was not included. 

Thank God too The Scarlet Letter is not on this list - one of the worst written, dullest, thinnest novels I ever read. America probably needs a F.R. Leavis. Missing too are various other worthy bores that are in the canon like Vanity Fair. 

I have read all E.M. Forster's novels and some of them two or three times and I am sure he was right that he was not a great writer. Passage to India is one of his worst though not nearly as bad as the awful Maurice.  Dozens of Indian civil servants threw their copies over the side of the ships taking them back from leave and they were right, even though they belonged to the world of telegrams and anger. But P.N. Firbank's life of Forster is a great delight and Forster's philosophy - always connect - betray your country for your friend - has a warm adolescent passion that reveals his essential immaturity and which spoke to me when I was an adolescent of 26. (Is his immaturity linked to his being a homosexual or are there better novelists who were homosexual?) His atheism also somehow makes his characters thinner and flatter than had he believed in God. 

Balzac was certainly very immature. No-one over the age of 26, as Gide said, can read Balzac and I read Goriot too late (I simply loved Eugenie Grandet in my early teens). 

I always looked forward to loving Tristram Shandy. After all I had loved the Sentimental Journey by Sterne and that was just a chip off the Shandy block. But on two attempts TS withstood me. But I know the fault is mine not Sterne's. By the way, I always treasure Dr. Johnson's unprophetic remark: 'Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.'

I imagine Don Quixote, as someone said of Wagner, has great moments and truly terrible half hours. Do people read Clarissa? Should they? I must admit I did not try either. I did love  a collection of short picaresque novels from 16th century Spain.

The best on this list are The Scarlet and the Black (but Charterhouse of Parma is even better) and the 1001 Nights, which is not a novel but I suppose the longer tales are. Aladdin and Ali Baba are sublime as are most of the tales. I read Sir Charles Johnson's translation of Eugene Onegin which is very enjoyable and I recommend it  with the caveat that THERE IS NO POINT IN READING POETRY IN TRANSLATION.

And if novels in verse are allowed then the best by far are Chaucer's Troilus and Cresseyde closely followed by Don Juan by Byron.

I am ashamed I have never read Jane Eyre. I have not read Mme Bovary or War and Peace either but they are foreign and therefore not compulsory. Maybe Ulysses and Sons and Lovers are by now compulsory and I have not read either.

Which novels would I add to the list? Confessions of a Justified Sinner, which must be in my top half dozen, Humphrey Clinker which is marvellous, Emma, of course, The Nigger of the Narcissus and Typhoon which are much better than Heart of Darkness, Under Western Eyes ditto and Pushkin's novella The Captain's Daughter, which reminds me to mention a lovely novel called The Rector's Daughter, by F.M. Mayor. Also Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake, The Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford or any of her other novels except Jigsaw -  and the first novels of all, The Satyricon and The Golden Ass of Apuleius The Golden Ass is still funny, sexy and hard to put down. I doubt if the same can be said for Don Quixote or Clarissa.


  1. Every once in a while I like to say that the novel is dead. Nowadays, novelists complain about how the royalties are shrinking in much the same way that booksellers who remember the days before the internet with nostalgia and bitterness.

    Film seems to be in triumph everywhere, a gesamtwerk that combines all artistic media and combines them.

    What better way to challenge the status-quo established by the Liberal bourgeoisie in the nineteenth century than by restoring the heroic, the good and the divine to works of art?

  2. Mmmm. I have read only one-fifth of the novels on the list. Though I did read Ulysses twice - does that give me some bonus points? I read one James Baldwin novel, which was forgettable; but his short story 'Sonny's Blues' is one of my all-time favorites.

  3. Did you read the Lord of the Rings cover to covet before pronouncing it a dud? If so, I salute your remarkable patience...!

    I meant cover to cover. But covet sounds more Middle Earth. Christopher Fletcher

  4. Yes bonus for Ulysses twice - I came to 26 and then recounted and it was 43 - some I didn't enjoy and did not finish. I didn't think you 'had to 'read books written after 1900 and so have not read Joyce except The Dead or Laurence or 1984

    I misspoke - Lord of the Rings is not a dud, was very enjoyable hokum when I was in my Form 1W - but it is not one of the 100 novels everyone should read - it is not comparable with children's stories like Treasure Is or Alice or Huck Finn etc

  5. You crushed me. I have only done 15.

    My duds on here were On the Road and Catcher in the Rye. Both of these are just adolescent fantasies.

    I would ask where is Uncle Tom's Cabin?

  6. I also struggled several time with Moby Dick and gave up. Couldn't count it unless I finished it...

    And no Hemingway?

  7. I counted books I got some way into and then gave up on. We did Catcher in the Rye at school, meaning I didnt read it, just bits of it, but it looked good. I had no idea CITR and On The Road were classics. Is Uncle Tom's Cabin any good? I would have assumed it would be dead as a doornail by now. I am glad they included Raymond Chandler in the list.

  8. Who dares tell us what we should read? Our choice of reading is entirely subjective and there is no intellectual or artistic template that we should follow.

    There are several books on this list that I like and several that nothing could force me to open. No Hemingway, as someone has already said, and no Nabokov. Pah!

  9. Must is not a word to use to princes. I don't approve of the dictatorship of relativism and think a canon is invaluable. Too hell with everything being subjective. Pope is objectively better than Patience Strong or Jane Austen than Shirley Conran. Better in the sense of more readable and more worth reading.

    It does seem strange to me that writers after 1900 are now ones you 'have to' read but of course they are. I can remember my shock though when Dracula and Sherlock Holmes got into Everyman when I was an undergraduate. But it is, luckily, commerce that decides what are classics, not dons - if it still sells after the copyright expires it is a classic. No one tells you to read Trollope but he outsells Henry James massively.

    You can quarrel over all lists - which is the point of them - but this one is a lot less silly than most I have seen (which include enormous amounts of absolute rubbish written in the last 50 years).

    Is Hemingway still read? I read To Have and To Hold because I went to Cuba and found it good in many ways - very hard work, hard to understand his prose despite the short words and simple sentences. I wonder if he is as good as Chandler whom he begat. I find it hard reading Americans - they use our language but with utterly different souls and English language novels without the underpinning of our (or any discernible) class system seem slightly strange too.

  10. And what about Ayn Rand? If this is a list of the 100 greatest novels - then no. But if it is a list of books you should read then I think she deserves a spot...

    I do like Hemingway or at least think he should have a spot.

  11. Steve, remark about Ayn Rand was a joke, right? She was a psychopath, her 'philosophy'(in fact she was no lover of wisdom) pure psychopathy. How come she is coming back into fashion in the USA - and, weirrdly, with Christians?


  13. I scored 80, but I should point out I read many for my degrees in English Literature, and taught Eng.Lit. for thirty years. -- Harry Corrin, Ottawa

  14. Harry do you have a list of books you want to read? I find lists great fun but useless but I must read War and peace, Ulysses and reread Shakespeare and the poets. I'd like to read Gibbon and Pickwick (I stuck on p 55 in 1974)

  15. Read 'Dream of the Red Chamber' by Cao Xueqin. It is THE most underrated novel.