Retrospectively, 1953 represents a pivotal era. Consider the novels. Saul Bellow, absent from Smith’s book, published The Adventures of Augie March that year. Anthony Powell is represented by Afternoon Men (1931) and From a View to a Death (1933), though he had already published the first two volumes in his twelve-novel cycle A Dance to the Music of Time. Kingsley Amis, also a no-show on Smith’s list, would publish Lucky Jim in 1954. Lolita was two years (and more) away. Ralph Ellison, absent, gave us Invisible Man in 1952. No Beckett. Muriel Spark was not quite on the scene. Smith does include Barbara Pym’s first novel, Some Tame Gazelle (1950), four novels by Elizabeth Bowen and five by Ivy Compton-Burnett (“upper-middle class characters who all obey the law of the jungle in conversation”), but no Stevie Smith, Flann O’Brien or Eudora Welty. He is sufficiently inspired to include John Collier’s His Monkey Wife (1930), Raymond Chandler’s first two novels, four titles by P.G. Wodehouse, Allen Tate’s The Fathers (1938) and Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey (1947).
Smith recommends three novels by Henry Green – Living (1929), Loving (1945), Nothing (1950) – and comments, rather bafflingly: “Examples of the work of a gifted writer with a Gallic touch and individuality. The last named [one of Green’s lesser creations] is a beautifully written and proportioned comedy of middle-age and youth in 1948. Owing nothing to easily aroused excitement [?], but everything to craftsmanship and talent, it yet achieved a considerable popularity amongst discerning readers who appreciated the enjoyment of a difficult piece of work finely done.” Sad to think Green would live another twenty years but had already published his final novel.
Smith’s taste can be amusingly dubious. He recommends seven titles by Evelyn Waugh but then says Thomas Wolfe’s novels are written “with almost overwhelming power and realism, full to the brim with a wild, exulting sense of the tragedy of life.” Defending the inclusion of so many recent books, as yet unevaluated by Time, Smith says:
“In the past…there is enough and more to occupy the leisure of most of us. But the present has pressing claims, too. It is sometimes more important for us to read a current book with no claims to immortality or to life beyond its copyright, than to have read Urn Burial, or Martin Chuzzlewit. For most of us the matter must be one of balance and compromise.”