Friday 3 April 2015

Who are the best prose writers in English?


A friend of mine and I have just exchanged these mails. He wrote first.

Sat at home, sombre, listening to St Matthew's Passion. Thought some more about the best prose writers I can think of. 

Amis - Kingsley and Martin. Martin brilliant, complex, sometimes convoluted. Kingsley polished. 
Waugh - often brilliant and economical writing. 
Hitchens - very consistent, punchy, funny. His brother also good. 
Rana Dasgupta - superb long form journalist, wrote a brilliant essay on the ills of modern Delhi 
Jonathan Sumption - his books on 100 years war are exquisite although he sometimes meticulous to the point of dull. 
Russell Brand - ignore his Revolution twaddle. His autobiography is one of the funniest books I've read and he sets the scenes of his misdemeanours superbly. 
Kenneth Tynan - brilliant, funny, uninhibited.

My reply:

I forget it's Holy Week. Of course I should have listened to the Bach Passions. It doesn’t help that everyone here thinks Easter is in ten days’ time.

I would rate Jeremy Taylor very high but I brought Holy Living with me when I came here in 1998 and only dipped into it. The King James Bible is better if that counts. Robert Burton is fun.  I never quite went loopy about Sir Thomas Browne but he is good - all the early 17th century writers wrote great prose. And I love of course John Aubrey's unfinished Brief Lives that had he finished it would have lost much of its charm.

I must read Coleridge's prose. I am atrociously badly read in some areas. But without ANY doubt my favourite prose writer is Macaulay. I haven’t read Ruskin. Not much Newman or Carlyle. 

Of the 20th century I love Harold Nicolson’s diary, my favourite diarist (along with Macaulay). Sybille Bedford is wonderful. I like Belloc’s essays and The Path to Rome though not his novels. I like Eliot’s prose better than his poetry, much better. Churchill was very good. I also love William Dalrymple. Yes, I love Tynan very much. And Hitchens wrote great polemic – although I only read a 2 or 3 of his pieces.  This in particular sticks in my mind as great prose. 

I love Macaulay’s letters enormously, my favourite letter writer. Also Lady
Diana Cooper's letters, in her autobiographies and in Philip Ziegler's biography. I love The Faber Book of Diaries. Not a fan of Pepys unlike my beloved Dad, but Pepys is more fun than Evelyn.

My favourite sentence in English is by Landor. Quoted in '84, Charing Cross Rd', that enchanting play, then book and then film.

There are no fields of amaranth on this side of the grave : there are no voices, O Rhodope ! that are not soon mute, however tuneful : there is no name, with whatever emphasis of passionate love repeated, of which the echo is not faint at last.
Oh and I almost forgot perhaps the best prose writer of the 20th century was Raymond Chandler. I love Evelyn Waugh very much and rate him higher than Graham Greene but as a prose stylist I prefer Graham Greene. Greene's book reviews are wonderfully written as are Philip Larkin's.

Here is the best thing Macaulay ever wrote.
There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustin, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila. The number of her children is greater than in any former age. Her acquisitions in the New World have more than compensated for what she has lost in the Old. Her spiritual ascendency extends over the vast countries which lie between the plains of the Missouri and Cape Horn, countries which a century hence, may not improbably contain a population as large as that which now inhabits Europe. The members of her communion are certainly not fewer than a hundred and fifty millions; and it will be difficult to show that all other Christian sects united amount to a hundred and twenty millions. Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.

I blogged about the best opening lines of books here but actually I think the opening lines of Graham Greene's The Honorary Consul might be best of all. 
Doctor Eduardo Plarr stood in the small port on the Paraná, among the rails and yellow cranes, watching where a horizontal plume of smoke stretched over the Chaco. It lay between the red bars of sunset like a stripe on a national flag. Doctor Plarr found himself alone at that hour except for the one sailor who was on guard outside the maritime building. It was an evening which, by some mysterious combination of failing light and the smell of an unrecognized plant, brings back to some men the sense of childhood and of future hope and to others the sense of something which has been lost and nearly forgotten.


  1. I would add, from this side of the Atlantic, Henry Adams, whose histories are endlessly quotable, and whose letters have gems in them, Abraham Lincoln, as much in his letters as in his speeches, and U.S. Grant in his memoirs. Among those who are writers or critics by trade, I would mention Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway (when not falling into self-parody), Randall Jarrell, Guy Davenport. (This is judging purely on the qualify of the sentences and paragraphs.)

    Some winters ago, I reread Yeats's Autobiographies for the first time in many years, and found myself stopped now and then by particular sentences that struck me as simply perfect. I do not prefer Yeats's prose to his poetry, but he is a master of prose.

  2. The article below by Hitchens on Galloway is excellent, thanks for passing on.

    I could quote practically all of it, but this is sublime:

    TO THIS DAY, George Galloway defiantly insists, as he did before the senators, that he has "never seen a barrel of oil, owned one, bought one, sold one, and neither has anybody on my behalf." As a Clintonian defense this has its admirable points: I myself have never seen a kilowatt, but I know that a barrel is also a unit and not an entity. For the rest, his defense would be more impressive if it answered any charge that has actually been made. Galloway is not supposed by anyone to have been an oil trader. He is asked, simply, to say what he knows about his chief fundraiser, nominee, and crony. And when asked this, he flatly declines to answer. We are therefore invited by him to assume that, having earlier acquired a justified reputation for loose bookkeeping in respect of "charities," he switched sides in Iraq, attached himself to a regime known for giving and receiving bribes, appointed a notorious middleman as his envoy, kept company with the corrupt inner circle of the Baath party, helped organize a vigorous campaign to retain that party in power, and was not a penny piece the better off for it. I think I believe this as readily as any other reasonable and objective person would. If you wish to pursue the matter with Galloway himself, you will have to find the unlisted number for his villa in Portugal.

    1. He is a great prose writer. My favourite bit is this.

      When estimating the propensity of anyone to take money or gifts, one must also balance the propensity of a regime to offer them. I once had an Iraqi diplomat contact in London, who later became one of Saddam's ministers. After inviting him to dinner one night, I noticed that he had wordlessly left a handsome bag, which contained a small but nice rug, several boxes of Cuban cigars (which I don't smoke), and several bottles of single malt Scotch. I was at the time a fairly junior editor at a socialist weekly. More recently, I have interviewed a very senior and reliable U.N. arms inspector in Iraq, who was directly offered an enormous bribe by Tariq Aziz himself, and who duly reported the fact to the U.S. government. If the Baathists would risk approaching this particular man, it seems to me, they must have tried it with practically everybody. Quite possibly, though, the Saddam regime decided that Galloway was entirely incorruptible, and would consider such an inducement beneath him.

      But many journalists who read wonderfully in magazines or newspapers don't translate between hard covers or do not last. Everyone thought Bernard Levin the great prose stylist and I read one of his books - but when he died people said his stuff had dated. I confess I have not checked.

    2. Agreed, the skill is not always transferable, either to longer form non-fiction or even novels. Hitchens himself described journalism as a craft, perhaps like making a beautiful table rather than a Monet.

    3. Actually I read several of Bernard Levin's books, now I recall, and thought them well written. I love Patrick Leigh Fermor's Roumeli - I do not think I want to read his diaries.

    4. Re-reading Lucky Jim, again. It's as near a perfect novel as I can think of. Do read at least the first chapter! M.

    5. Have you read Titus Groan? My favourite novels are Charterhouse of Parma, The Red and the Black, The Captain's Daughter. I must give Tristram Shandy another try. For laughter and joy and beauty read The Silence of Col Bramble.

    6. I read Titus years ago and really liked it, especially compared to Tolkien. My perennial favourites are Brideshead, Lucky Jim, Scoop, From Russia With Love and the first 8 chapters of Moonraker. Then a little way behind are Anna Karenina, London Fields and Towards ‎the End of the Morning, although I've only read them once each.

    7. Scoop is so so wonderful - read Waugh in Abyssinia. I reread Black Mischief a few years back and liked it found it funny but books that are written to be funny somehow lack depth. Is Ian Fleming worth reading? you do surprise me - I love Buchan but can only read him when i have flu. Though I read him at 20 with gusto. I ADORED Martin Amis but couldn't get through London Fields and since then have given up on him. Bought and tried to read Lionel Asbo but just couldn't. I got half way through Anna Karenina in 1990, put it down to read the Balkan Trilogy because i was about to pay my first visit to Romania and didn't go back to Anna, alas. Peake is infinitely infinitely above 'fantasy' writers but on the third reading a couple of years ago Gormenghast didn't seem as wonderful as it had, though good.

    8. Forgot one more: The Woman in White - I must have read the confrontation between the hero and Count Fosco 100 times.

      I disagree that jokey books and poems lack depth, rather the opposite. Byron, Pope and Chaucer are great poets, and Waugh and the Amises better novelists than most. The funny parts of Dickens are also some of his best. I found a lot of tragic books dull, especially Hardy and Gaskell. Having said all that, the most powerful writing I've come across is probably Dostoevsky ("The Idiot" and "Notes From the ‎Undergound" and "The Gambler") and The Great Gatsby.

      Fleming - he is uneven and I find his books start better than they finish. But the 8 chapters or so that kick off Moonraker are brilliant. "M" takes Bond to the most exclusive gentleman's club in London to expose the villain Hugo Drax's cheating at bridge. Bond does it all while getting drunk on vodka, champagne and amphetamine. It's even better if you play bridge, to understand how Bond does it.

    9. I have read almost all of Collins' novels and enjoyed every one. I like The Woman in White very much indeed but it is entertainment rather than a very great book, though any book that is very readable after 150 years is a great book. Cramming for the Cambridge exam the only relaxation I allowed myself all week was to listen twice a week to the Radio 4 serial of The Moonstone which was fab. If only I had worked as hard when I went up. Do you know Sheridan Le Fanu, all of whose novels i read at Cambridge when I should have been reading better books? I remember liking more than Collins The Quincunx by Charles Palliser - which I described as like Wilkie Collins on cocaine. I remember I, who usually put down any book after 30 pp, stayed up all night reading almost all the 1000 pp in one go in 1990 and then forced myself reluctantly to go to bed with 50 pp left so that I would not wake up the next day having finished it.

    10. I quoted Scoop here.

    11. Yes comedy is better than tragedy - agree re Dickens. I suppose I mean as one grows older one finds Waugh's comedy could have done with more darkness - which is why I like Decline and Fall - poor Lord Circumference - and like best Handful of Dust, the blackest of comedies - remember the fate of the hero when he goes to the Amazon?
      I was very disappointed by Notes from the Underground when finally 25 years after buying it I read it recently. I read Gatsby at 11 which was foolish - should reread it. Chaucer is my favourite poet.

    12. I sort of see what you mean about Notes. D can be rambling and offkey until you get to a series of passages that you won't forget for the rest of your life. In Notes it's when he invites himself to an old boys' dinner, in The Idiot it's the vigil scene at the end. I couldn't stop thinking about it for days afterwards.

    13. It was partly my fault. Because of the net I rarely read books and when I do I do so impatiently. War and Peace is very good so far - have reached 6% on my kindle. I have reread The Death of Ivan Ilyich - partly contains my philosophy of life as does - very much - John Fowles. Who came from my home town or just about and hated the place and all it stood for.

  3. The opening of The Honorary Consul is the perfect illustration of how indebted Graham Greene was to Joseph Conrad, but we have spoken of this before…Happy Easter.