Monthly Archives: October 2014

100 Greatest Novels (Nos 60 to 51)

60 The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1982)

Although set in wartime, the war is an almost incidental backdrop to the characters which is the real focus of the book. It reveals by degrees the truth behind the eponymous patient and the emotional turmoil caused by his love affair with a married woman. This in turn leads to reflections by the characters who are around him on their own lives and feelings. It has an intensity arising out of the empathy the reader feels for the characters who face their own limitations in a moving and believable way.

59 Trainspotting by Irvine Welch (1993)

Written largely in the dialect of the Edinburgh underworld the characters inhabit, this is a hard book to read not only due to the language but the subject matter. The lives it describes are chaotic and to a greater or lesser extent fuelled by heroin addiction and violence. It is uncompromising and forces the reader to endure the many degradations the central characters put themselves through. Not for the faint hearted.

58 The Hound of The Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (1901)

This, the most famous Sherlock Holmes tale, was the first writtten by Conan Doyle after a hiatus following the killing off of his detective character and his nemesis Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem. However, this story is set before those events and it was not until the later Adventure of the Empty House, that Holmes returns and explains how he survived the fight at the falls and what he has been doing in the interim. The plot is suitably complicated but Holmes’s deductions do not rely on too much information withheld from the reader. What sets this apart from many Homes stories, which are in essence puzzles to demonstrate his brilliance, is the way the Devon moor becomes almost a character in its own right and brings an atmosphere of menace and foreboding that is not often found in the shorter stories.

57 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke (1968)

An extended version of an idea first seen in Clarke’s short story The Sentinel published in 1951. Focuses on getting the science right and thereby creating a sense of the ordinariness of space travel, making it a day to day routine, which makes it more credible. It introduces artificial intelligence and talking computers that have since come to be part of our lives. It has epic scope – taking man on the evolutionary journey from pre-human through to the near future.

56 The Collector by John Fowles (1963)

A disturbing novel in which the reader hears both sides of the story – the kidnapper and the kidnapped. It ends with the kidnapper deciding that he will kidnap another victim. The plot has been rehashed many times to the point of being a cliche but it is rarely pulled off with quite such insight into the psychology of both people.  Read in the light of subsequent psychological theories around Stockholm Syndrome (the events which highlighted this potential bonding of kidnapper and victim took place in 1973 after the book was published) the victim appears more objective than might be expected about her fate but it is nevertheless a compelling read.

55 I Am Legend  by Richard Matheson (1954)

A pulp horror fiction novel that, although ostensibly about vampires, is a clear precursor of the zombie genre with a lone man fending off the hoards of undead following a devastating plague that has wiped out the human population. However, it is for its portrayal of loneliness that I find this novel so remarkable. It addresses not only what would the last man do but what might he feel, what might he be going through.

54 The Day of The Jackal by Frederick Forsyth (1971)

This novel pulls off two separate tricks successfully. It maintains tension in a cat and mouse tale of an attempt to assassinate the French President de Gaulle when the reader knows that de Gaulle was not assassinated. It also manages to create sympathetic characters of both the assassin and the detective attempting to foil him and have the reader rooting for both. Meticulous research gives the book the air of authority which makes it credible.

53 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)

A fantasy story with fantastical, imaginative characters. Although written for children, the book contains many logical and humourous quirks which appeal to adults. Not the least of the puzzles the book offers is that of identifying who within the author’s circle of friends, and famous figures of the age, including politicians, might be represented by each of those characters.

52 The Jewel In The Crown by Paul Scott (1966)

The first, and to my mind, the best of Scotts Raj Quartet. This book is sympathetic in its treatment of Indians and unflinching in its portrayal of the racist attitudes and prejudices of the English – both the colonial aristocrats and the working class – the latter personified by the central character Merrick. It is not lost on the reader that the irony in the fate which befalls the Indian Hari Kumar is self-inflicted by his adherence to principles of honour that are grounded in his English upbringing.

51 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

Although on the face of it a science fiction work, it was more a satire of contemporary life, industrialisation and the dumbing down of culture. The humour is not easy for readers of a later era to follow and so it is on its more philosophical consideration of themes about fairness in society or the lack of it that are now seen as more important. As such it has an important status that may outweigh the author’s original intentions.  He described it as a “little gentle leg-pulling” of HG Wells for his idealised Utopia novels.

 

 

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Trollope Society AGM and Annual Lecture this evening

This is just to serve as a quick reminder that The Trollope Society AGM and Annual lecture takes place today at The National Liberal Club, Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2HE, starting from 6pm. The lecture is by Professor Steven Amarnick, co-editor of the new extended edition of The Duke’s Children scheduled for publication in 2015.

For more information and tickets for the buffet supper that follows, contact: Susan Cooper (email: susan.cooper@talktalk.net ).

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Dylan Thomas Centenary

It is hard to imagine two more different British writers than Dylan Thomas. Born nearly a century apart, they both enthralled their readers.

To mark the centenary of Thomas’s birth the BBC broadcast a new radio performance of Under Milk Wood. Is it as good as the classic Richard Burton broadcast? Judge for yourselves.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04mlkqp

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Trollope Society AGM and Lecture this Thursday

This is just to serve as a quick reminder that The Trollope Society AGM and Annual lecture takes place this Thursday, 30th October at The National Liberal Club, Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2HE, starting from 6pm. The lecture is by Professor Steven Amarnick, co-editor of the new extended edition of The Duke’s Children scheduled for publication in 2015.

For more information and tickets for the buffet supper that follows, contact: Susan Cooper (email: susan.cooper@talktalk.net ).

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Forthcoming book on Trollope and Ireland

We are delighted to learn that John McCourt, Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Roma Tre, is to publish the first book-length study of the Trollope’s relationship with Ireland, the country which became his second home and was the location of his first personal and professional success. It offers an in-depth exploration of Trollope’s time in Ireland as a rising Post Office official, contextualising his considerable output of Irish novels and short stories and his ongoing interest in the country, its people, and its always complicated relationship with Britain.

Entitled, Writing The Frontier: Anthony Trollope Between Britain and Ireland, it will be published by Oxford University Press in April 2015 to coincide with the Trollope bicentenary.

http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/academic/literature/fiction/9780198729600.do

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100 Greatest Novels (Nos 70 to 61)

70 The Murders In The Rue Morgue by Edgar Allan Poe (1841)

OK – this is really just a long short story but its impact on novel writing is immense.  It is arguably the first detective story.  Its detective, Dupin, is the role model for all those rational observer-interpreters who followed whether it be Sherlock Holmes or Poirot. It is a classic locked room mystery – creating that sub-genre of crime fiction with the opening shot in the field. The narrator is a Watson cum Hastings figure and the police are bumbling idiots when compared to The Detective. The denouement has the detective demonstrating his brilliant deductive method only after revealing the “guilty” party. So many traditions set in place by this one tale. A truly original work.

69 Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)

A children’s book but with some very adult nuances.  The morally ambiguous character of Long John Silver is one of the finest creations in literature. His willingness to bend with the wind, to lead when it suits him or follow when it doesn’t, and looking out for number one may be the result of Stevenson falling in love with his own creation and not wanting him to face the justice he richly deserves – and would normally receive in the black and white world of children’s books. But it is a realistic portrait of a rounded human being with both good and bad in him.  This makes it all the better as an instructive lesson for children that adults will prove a very unreliable moral compass. All this in a rollicking good yarn that cracks along from one adventure to another.

68 Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)

The subject matter is deeply controversial.  Written in the first person from the perspective of a paedophile, its narrator therefore makes excuses and provides self-justification for his actions. By doing this, we are given insight into the mind of the man in a most disturbing way. It also runs the risk of appearing pornographic in that the narrator describes the girl who is the object of his desire in a highly sexualised way.  And true to the narrator’s distorted mindset, he has the child eventually “seduce” the man, consistent with the way that such abusers refuse to take responsibility for their actions. For this alone it would be a brilliant work of fiction, but it does so in a novel that is virtuoso in its use of language to pun and create comic effects in a manner that might be traced back to James Joyce.

67 The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)

Wyndham wrote a number of post-apocalyptic science fiction novels, focussing on the efforts of small groups of survivors to combat the threat that has overwhelmed the rest of humanity. Clearly it owes much to Wells’ War of The Worlds in both theme and approach.  It is also “of its time” – written during the Cold War when the threat of Soviet attack was felt to be credible and imminent. What sets this apart is the imagination – the carnivorous mobile plants should be laughable but their menace is real and palpable.  So they have become prototypes for any number of monsters in subsequent sci-fi and horror genre stories – even in Doctor Who. The central protagonist is also more than a mere Bulldog Drummond, firm-jawed cardboard cutout hero, which lends greater depth to the story and engages me more as a reader through the empathy it creates.  It makes being a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind seem to be a very dangerous and lonely experience.

66 The Spy Who Came in From The Cold by John Le Carre (1963)

Another Cold War novel but this one dealing with the espionage world in realistic way that shows the amorality necessary to be effective in this world.  There are more twists to this story and in the way that the reader’s sympathy is flipped from one person to another. There are no clear cut good guys or bad guys.  Both sides do what is expedient. Truth is a casualty. Loyalty is bought. Personal interest outweighs principles. Through this early novel, Le Carre’s long-running character Smiley moves, the more effective because he does not let his emotions get in the way of his clear thinking that will serve him well in many subsequent novels. In its downbeat portrayal of this murky world, it provides an antidote and alternative approach to James Bond that will be much imitated.

65 The Outsider  by Albert Camus (1942)

Regarded as a classic of existentialism, Camus, always rejected this interpretation. He said that it was about how society expects people to conform to certain conventions and, when they do not, it cannot understand them and misinterprets them because it views them through the prism of its own expectations.  Thus, a man who fails to demonstrate the outward signs of grief at his mother’s funeral is thought to be an inhuman monster and therefore is punished without mercy when he commits a crime. It is difficult to engage with the central character precisely because he is, by conventional standards, indifferent to the feelings of others, which makes him unsympathetic. It is only by prolonged exposure to his mind, through the book, that the reader is drawn into an understanding of him and his way of thinking and being. But it is never an easy read.

64 The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)

A fictionalised autobiographical collection of short stories, each self-contained but all following a chronological narrative arc of the central character’s life, growing up as a Jew in Italy and training to be a chemist in the run up to and during the Second World War, when he was a member of the partisans fighting the Germans as an occupying force and was captured and sent to Auschwitz. The author has set himself the formidable task of relating each story in the sequence to a chemical element and to characteristics ascribed to that element. Brilliantly conceived and executed, this artificial constraint becomes the springboard which launches the imaginative leaps of the author. One can read it for signs of his future depression and death – officially recorded as suicide though some have expressed doubts about this finding – but to me it feels full of life.

63 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  by Philip K Dick (1968)

Another take on the post-apocalyptic world, this time involving androids – somewhere between robots and real people/animals. At one level it is a straight adventure story or thriller in a sci-fi setting – will the central character be able to track down and “retire” the group of androids he is seeking or will they get him. It could just as easily have been a western on that basis. But there is more to it than that.  The androids lack empathy but don’t want to die – the reader starts to question the moral premise of the central character’s occupation. And so does he. Which is where the fun for this reader really starts. It poses more philosophical questions than it answers but, I think, asserts that these may be essentially unanswerable.

62 The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

This is simply harrowing to read.  The unremitting struggle of a poor family in the Depression of 1930s is almost unbearable. They suffer and have almost no hope. Its realism is its key strength. The reader feels everything that this one small family group goes through, even down to their loss of faith in the human spirit. There is no doubt that this was Steinbeck’s intention.  He wanted to shame the people who prospered on the back of the suffering of the poor. Not an easy message to put across in the USA and especially not when it was very fresh in people’s minds. Politically motivated? Maybe but more, I would say, motivated by a humane nature appalled at what he had witnessed.

61 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

This book spawned a whole genre of horror stories few of which approach the philosophical questions that Shelley does, albeit through a gothic lens and a romantic/enlightenment belief in the progress of science (carried out responsibly).  I have always seen the villain of this piece as Victor Frankenstein who creates the “monster” – let’s call him that for clarity’s sake. He does this then takes no responsibility – the abdication of science’s role in progress according to the enlightenment view.  His creation is traumatised by this rejection by his creator and goes off the rails. The “monster” is clearly a medical marvel – if not aesthetically so – and learns quickly, going from a dumb creature at his creation to an articulate man through self-study in a matter of months. He, rightly in my opinion, holds his creator responsible for his suffering and sets out to punish him. The result is a psychologically more complex novel than the host of imitators that came along after her. Shelley even writes one of the first “open or ambiguous endings” which would pave the way for sequels  rather than tying up the story neatly as was customary at the time – so another innovation much imitated thereafter.

 

 

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The Jupiter is not a Murdoch title

220px-Rupert_Murdoch_-_Flickr_-_Eva_Rinaldi_Celebrity_and_Live_Music_Photographer

Trollope’s portrayal of the press was never very flattering, whether it be Quintus Slide of The People’s Banner or The (Daily) Jupiter (from which we take our name), which featured the articles by John Bold that criticised the financial arrangements of Hiram’s Hospital in The Warden. The Jupiter was taken to be a thinly disguised fictional counterpart to The Times that now is a cornerstone of the Murdoch Empire.

Trollope might therefore have been amused to find that the founder and owner of that media empire is the subject of a play to be performed next year in London.  Written by Australian David Williamson, the play, Rupert,  has already been staged in Melbourne and Washington DC.

We shall await the production with interest.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-australia-29609854

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