And here it is, just in time for Christmas, the Top Ten countdown…
10 The Name of The Rose by Umberto Eco (1980)
For me the central character in this book is the library in which the detective monk and the murderer act out their respective roles. To me the great tragedy of the book is the destruction of this great library and the loss of its contents (thereby accounting for the real life loss of Aristotle’s Book on Comedy which was available to scholars in the middle ages). Thus fact and fiction are hopelessly intertwined.
I imagine the library as like an Esher drawing with shifts in perspective and hidden rooms that have a labyrinth-like quality – indeed, Eco deliberately references Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentinian writer of Labyrinths, in the character of the blind librarian-monk.
Unashamedly modernist and self-referencing I think this is way better than anything Eco has written subsequently. He manages to be both engaging and entertaining for a mass audience and brilliantly witty for a more exclusive audience of scholars of the classics and literature. That it works on all levels is its mark of greatness.
9 Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1861)
Unusually short for Dickens but packed with immortal characters – elderly spinster Miss Havisham in her faded wedding dress and convict turned rich benefactor Abel Magwich, for example. The Kentish coastal marshes also assume a character of their own and permeate the novel with their dangerous miasma giving it a great sense of place.
And thankfully the heroine with whom the hero Pip is hopelessly in love throughout the novel is not the usual bland, virgin angel that Dickens, never a good writer of real female characters, usually resorted. Instead she is a stronger and less like-able person altogether so that you wonder why Pip never sees her as she is, with all her flaws, and devotes himself to a less unattainable ice maiden. Which begs the question, what did Dickens mean with that ambiguous revised final sentence? Is this the happy ending his publisher asked for in place of the, arguably, more realistic, and unabashedly downbeat ending Dickens originally wrote?
8 Sons and Lovers by D H Lawrence (1913)
Less controversial than his more lauded The Rainbow and its sequel Women in Love or the infamous Lady Chatterley’s Lover (in whichever of the three versions you prefer – my vote goes to version one), I prefer this because it is less self-consciously dramatised. It is patently semi-autobiographical with the central character Paul Morel being a thinly disguised self-portrait, as, indeed Mrs Morel is clearly based on his own mother and their fractious relationship is described perfectly.In this, it is an early modernist take on describing life as it is lived by a writer – or would-be writer, that has subsequently become such a cliche. It deserves to be read without all that subsequent baggage and recognised for the ground-breaking role it had. Lawrence was in relatively uncharted territory.
I must confess to blowing hot and cold with Lawrence’s use of language. He so obviously loves his own way with words and sometimes I find myself irritated by his over-writing. It is as if the grammar school boy cannot help but marvel that he is reckoned alongside public school educated writers and has to show off his precocious talent. But then I read it in a different mood and am swept away by the exuberance and brilliance of the words.
7 Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938)
If Greene had written nothing else but the final page of this novel he would still feature here, so powerful is the impact of that closing paragraph. I go cold at the thought of it even now.
There is also a tremendous sense of place about the novel. I recognise the Brighton racecourse from the pages. It is as familiar to me as the actual place. It is here that some of the most gripping scenes take place with such a sense of impending doom and such inevitability. There is that skill in creating a sense that there is no way out, when of course there must have been, because the character cannot see it and we, the readers, who are caught up in the moment and the characters also are carried along with the flow to the anticipated destruction.
It is also tremendous writing that can evoke sympathy for such a patently nasty – Greene would have said evil – young man as Pinkie, who is amoral in its profoundest, most Catholic, sense. Yet we are never spared anything of his nastiness and are revolted by it at the same time we are fascinated. A brilliant achievement.
6 Emma by Jane Austen (1815)
Written the year Trollope was born, this, but for the number 4 entry, is the funniest book in the 100. I mean laugh out loud funny. The central character is so sure of her sagacity and her matchmaking skills and is so, so wrong. She is blind to the obvious. The reader sees the way the land really lies hundreds of pages before she scales finally fall from her eyes and she recognises that she has been trying to set up her friends with completely the wrong men and, to boot, is in love herself with the man whom she has said ought, by rights, to remain a bachelor.
I have a suspicion that secretly most male readers will fall in love with Emma and so forgive her sins, however exasperating she is along the way, whereas female readers will simply hate her constant muddle headed meddling in things that she had better leave well alone. I hazard this guess based on a small sample of readers of the book in my local book group where opinions on both the central character and the book itself were divided on strictly gender lines.
What I think redeems Emma, in my eyes, is her being without malice. She mucks things up because she is clever but not so “emotionally intelligent” as we would call it now, as she likes to think she is. But her efforts are genuinely for what she believes to be the best (even though she has appointed herself the sole judge of what is best and fails to recognise the naivety and hubris of this).
5 The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868)
Just pips The Woman In White by virtue of its plot being watertight, unlike the latter’s if you check the dates carefully, and because of the breathtaking brilliance of the execution of this multi-perspective novel. The same events are described from the views of different characters with each shedding a little extra light on matters such that the detective is able to solve the mystery.
The detective himself, Sergeant Cuff, is a stroke of genius. He prefigures Sherlock Holmes with his ability to sift the evidence and divine the gems hidden in the midst of the misdirection.
If Collins did not invent the genre, that honour probably goes to Poe with his Murders in the Rue Morgue, he effectively codified many of the classic features of the detective novel, including the use of red herrings, the incompetent official police investigation compared to the “detective”, the reconstruction as denouement and the use of the least likely suspect among a plethora of potential perpetrators.
It contrives to be both sensational and to focus on the significance of the mundane and the ordinary in coming to the solution.
It also shows a remarkably modern lack of concern with class in an English Victorian setting where class differences were huge. Here the servants are afforded equal space and their characters are as well-developed as those of the gentry for whom they worked. If the butler did it, it was because he was just as much a rounded human being as his master. In this, as in so many other aspects, this was a novel that was years ahead of its time while being very much an accurate lens through which to view that time.
4 Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
“It’s some catch, that Catch 22.” The funniest and, from another perspective, arguably the saddest, book about war that you could ever imagine. I laugh out loud just thinking about some of the scenes and the characters in this satirical poke at all things military. If it didn’t ring true it wouldn’t be half as funny.
The link between war and profit is explicit and prefigures much later conspiracy theorists. The airfield at which the characters are based is bombed by the enemy not for military reasons but because the raid is paid for to raise the profits of the company run by one of the US personnel , Milo Minderbender.
It pays re-reading because it is not written in chronological sequence. Jokes have punchlines delivered many chapters before the gag is set up. Events are described repeatedly from different perspectives with conflicting accounts and inconsistencies that are left unexplained but for the illogicality of war (in this way the complete antithesis of The Moonstone where the inconsistencies are what reveals the truth).
In the end it descends almost into madness and despair. I have never got over it. Even thirty plus years on I remain in its thrall.
3 The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875)
No writer has ever understood money better than Trollope. Here he shows what people will do for money. How they will delude themselves and allow themselves to sacrifice self-respect and decency for it. How they will gull or dupe the innocent and the worldly with equal facility and willingness.
Yet the characters who do this are all so carefully portrayed that we sympathise with even the most worldly and devious of them all and find ourselves (almost) rooting for him and his scheme to succeed at the end so much have we been seduced by Melmotte’s charm and by our knowledge of his personal understanding of his own vulnerability. He is no ogre. He is flawed but has the potential to do good things and is hurt – deeply hurt – by his ultimate humiliation. This makes him one of my favourite characters not just in Trollope’s oeuvre but in all literature. I would a hundred times rather dine with Melmotte than with some bloodless sanctimonious nonentity who would no doubt purse his lips and denounce his passing.
Of course the title demands contemporary reconsideration as every generation is taken in by its own version of the Ponzi scheme – here Melmotte’s South Central Pacific and Mexican Railway.
Indeed, the good guys are, if anything, more flawed than the ostensible bad guys. Their personal morality is more open to question and there is a strong sense of them getting a little of what they deserve for their greed and willingness to turn a blind eye – even when their hand is forced by the inevitable momentum of the scheme in which they allow themselves to become embroiled. It all sounds so achingly familiar and real.
For me this novel is the author’s greatest achievement – ranking above even the sustained creation and populating of the worlds of Barchester and Westminster across 12 novels. It shows the truest insight into the human condition ever committed to print. Bar none.
2 The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)
Reading this novel I am left breathless as if I am myself on trial in the stuffy yet airless attic courtroom at the top of the labyrinthine and massive tenement building in which it is housed. It is for everyone who has ever felt powerless in the face of a bureaucratic machine which grinds on relentlessly, consuming them without even so much as noticing. And who has not felt that at some time?
It is so clear and accurate a picture that to say the word Kafka-esque is to conjure up all the connotations described.
The book creates so successfully the feelings of frustration, impotence and guilt that an accused person must face where they and their persecutors both know they are innocent but that this is irrelevant to proceedings. It could have been written of Soviet or Nazi regimes though, of course, it predates them. I imagine it reflects something of the experience of being in the Habsburg empire in its terminal decline.
For such a surreal, imagined creation, it is also remarkably grounded. I always feel when I am in Prague, Kafka’s home, that he is writing of the city in this book. I imagine turning a corner and being confronted by the building in which the court resides.
If a single book could be said to have inspired me to write then this is it.
And so, with appropriate fanfare of trumpets we come to…
1 Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
I love it that this book plays games with your head.
It is so structured – every stage is multi-layered in accordance with schema concocted by Joyce more or less for the hell of doing it. He was of the view that by pinning his creativity down with rigid frameworks he liberated himself to write more freely.
Thus Homer’s Odyssey is reproduced in a day long perambulation around Dublin by Leopold Bloom (in the character of Odysseus – or Ulysses in Latin) providing an episodic structure. Each episode has its own writing style and consciously mimics other authors and works including Dickens, Shakespeare and the Bible.
It is a monumental jigsaw puzzle of a book. You are not allowed to stop thinking for a moment and it demands a huge vocabulary, in several European languages of the reader to follow events properly. Even then, Joyce may be playing tricks with you so you cannot be sure of anything.
You could accuse Joyce of being clever for clever’s sake and showing off his virtuosity. Which is probably true. But he is also funny, ribald even in a picture postcard at the end of the pier kind of way. The jokes are dirty – which is in part what got him into trouble in the first place and meant that publication in the UK was delayed for many years – the first editions came out in much more liberal France.
It takes stamina and (mental) courage to tackle and this has to be summoned up again for any subsequent re-reading. But it does make me laugh at the sheer exuberance of the intellect infecting it when I summon up that courage and once more attempt to scale its heights. An that’s why it is, for me, the Greatest Novel I have ever read.