Sunday, March 08, 2009

`When Stuck Between Books'

David Myers lives up to his reputation as chief agent provocateur of the literary blogosphere with his list of “the greatest English novels published since the era of Dickens and Eliot.” On Friday he posted his top 50, with the next 50 promised soon. His apologia is simple:

“These are my favorites—the best-written, the most provoking and memorable, the titles I am likeliest to reread when stuck between books.”

Such lists are as idiosyncratic as our genetic arrays. Few dedicated readers would produce identical lists and no list is wrong, though some are more interesting, intelligent and honest than others. None is definitive or unchanging, though some are more worthy of respect. One can already hear howls of outrage, of course (“Only two blacks?”), but literature, like all art, is not democratic, is eminently unfair and doesn’t practice affirmative action.

List-making is a parlor game, one I would play only with so deeply read a reader as Myers. Let the quibbles begin: For The Portrait of the Lady I would substitute The Golden Bowl; for The Secret Agent, Nostromo; for A Handful of Dust, Sword of Honour; for Light in August, The Sound and the Fury; for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Memento Mori; for Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Herzog; for An American Pastoral, Sabbath’s Theater. At this level of accomplishment I could easily endorse other titles by the same writers. Some choices are almost too close to call, particularly with a novelist like Spark who never wrote a bad or mediocre book, but we’ll stick to the sensible ban on double-dipping. I’m tempted to substitute Parade’s End for The Good Soldier, but let it stand.

Myers includes some writers I can’t abide – Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Greene, Murdoch, Salinger – and some whose books I haven’t read – Janet Lewis, C.S. Lewis, Forbes, Taylor, Garnett. But let’s thank him for the writers he didn’t include (as yet): D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, John Updike, Toni Morrison and so many others.

Some of my alternative nominees, of course, may show up in Myers’ second 50: Beckett’s trilogy (Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable), Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, Henry Green’s Loving, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time and John Williams' Stoner. For me, the warm heart of Myers’ list is the handful of novels by writers whose reputations have faded or were never more than modest – Farrell, Bowen, Jarrell, Anderson, Powers, Stead and O’Brien. In fact, The Man Who Loved Children would float somewhere in my Top 5, near Ulysses and a notch or two higher than Loving.

ADDENDUM: Thanks to David Myers and other readers for pointing out my obliviousness. I missed Ulysses on Myers' list. No excuses.


Anonymous said...

Isn't number 4 Ulysses?

Mark said...

But "Ulysses" IS in his list, at No. 4.

D. G. Myers said...


I listed Ulysses as the fourth greatest English-language novel since Dickens and Eliot—after Lolita, The Portrait of a Lady, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and ahead of The Great Gatsby, which you can’t abide.

By the way, I have never been able to work my way into Henry Green. And do Beckett’s novels after Murphy, the only one originally written in English, count as English-language novels?

r kringle said...

I think the one-novel-per-author rule a bad one. Of course, you need some such restriction, or your favorite ends up owning all the top 10 spots. But there is value in indicating that an author produced more than a single work of genius, which is to say, the list should be able to demonstrate a telling difference between, say, Joyce and James. For my own list, I would limit authors to 3 entries. Thus Portrait of a Lady and The Golden Bowl.