part of the reason i’ve not been a regular blogger lately
is that a year ago i committed to compiling a list of the 50 best novels written in the last 50 years. of course, i hadn’t read everything written since 1963, so i’ve been filling in my gaps by reading work by nobel, booker or pulitzer prize winners as well as the novels on other people’s “best” lists and the favorite books of writers and readers i respect. here’s what i’ve been reading (instead of blogging) lately:
i love the way nadine gordimer writes. her cadence echos in my head and colors my thoughts long after i’ve closed one of her books. in the pickup (2001), a privileged white south african woman seduces a man from a nameless middle eastern country. as he’s about to be deported, she marries him and moves with him to his family home in the desert. this is a meditation on “otherness” and only secondarily, love. it’s terrific.
also about what it means to be an outsider, mohsin hamid’s second novel, the reluctant fundamentalist (2007), tells a story of seduction by and subsequent alienation from american culture. it’s a classic “story within a story” in which the narrator relates his tale to a stranger in a coffee house in pakistan. the tension lies in the ambiguity about who the stranger is and why he’s there. i liked the novel for its perspective… one of the things i’m looking for in any art form is access to a place or time or way of thinking that i wouldn’t otherwise have. but fundamentalist lacks the emotional depth and arresting prose of hamid’s first novel, moth smoke (2000). this one is worth reading, but not going to make my list.
i’d read the blind assassin and cat’s eye by margaret atwood, but hadn’t read the handmaid’s tale (1985). it blew me away. nearly thirty years after it was written in feels prescient. and terrifying. it’s a gorgeously written book about subjugation and survival. a must read.
philip roth’s american pastoral (1998) was a runner-up in the new york times 2006 list of the “greatest work of american fiction in the last 25 years.” like delillo’s underworld, another of that list’s runners-up, pastoral was a big disappointment. the story of a working-class jewish kid from newark, blessed with athletic talent and “all-american” good looks, it’s about the impossibility of cultural assimilation, the lie of social mobility and what a great place america was in the 1940’s and 1950’s but how screwed up it was by the late 20th century.
i hated american pastoral even more when i later read joan didion’s a book of common prayer (1977) and realized roth had stolen her plot device. didion’s novel is fantastic. two upper-middle class american women meet in a central american country (el salvador?) so perpetually in the midst of revolution that nothing ever changes. one of the two, grace, a scientist who married into the preeminent political family, tells the story of the other in an attempt to understand the motivations behind her bizarre behavior. didion’s prose is masterful — spare, dead-pan, yet incredibly evocative.
after that. i read didion’s play it as it lays (1970), the story of a hollywood starlet’s unraveling life. again, amazing writing and characters so well pieced-together, so timeless, that they could be the current crop of tabloid personalities. didion is genius.
next was milan kundera’s brilliant the unbearable lightness of being (1984). it describes the romantic and erotic lives and relationships of four people — two women and two men — in czechoslovakia during the prague spring and subsequent soviet occupation. it’s a playful telling of a poignant story — charming, poetic and astute.
the transit of venus (1980) by shirley hazzard, may be the most beautifully written novel i have ever read. just look what she can do in a single sentence:
two chandeliers had been carefully cleaned; but a third, in a basket in the attic, was a hailstorm of dismantled crystals.
the book is full of gorgeous description that hazzard fashions into metaphors for characters or the social situations she’s describing. her writing is brilliant at a shakespearean level. the narrative centers on the relationships of five people — two orphaned sisters and three men — and the irregular paths they take in their search for love.
deciphering the ending is not easy — hazzard makes you work for it — but it is so worth the effort. this is one of my all time favorite novels.
in contrast, william styron’s sophie’s choice (1979) is probably the worst prose ever published, though it’s a page-turner of high caliber. a young southerner living in brooklyn is charmed by a beautiful, polish concentration camp survivor and her self-destructive,jewish lover. they take him up and sweep him along in their dysfunctional domestic wake as sophie’s back story is revealed bit by bit until the eponymous choice and a tragic conclusion. in addition to being poorly written, it’s misogynistic. yuck.
christina stead is on a lot of author’s “must read” list, but the man who loved children, which is supposed to be her masterpiece, was written in 1940. so first i read dark places in the heart (1966). interestingly written, it’s more like a play than a novel, and is a glimpse into the private lives of a working class british family. it’s a story with no beauty, no kindness and no hope… possibly the bleakest thing i have ever read. next i read her the little hotel (1973), which is as emotionally complex as dark places, but the tone is softened with some comic relief.
edmund de waal’s hare with the amber eyes (2010) is the story of the author’s family — an incredibly wealthy european banking dynasty — whose wealth was stolen by the nazis, except for a collection of japanese netsuke. that hoard provides the narrative thread of this irritatingly whiny story.
v.s. naipaul won the nobel prize in 2001. the novel he is most famous for, a house for mr. biswas, was written in 1961 — two years before my cut off — so i read the enigma of arrival (1987). it’s not so much novel as snippet of autobiography, but a strangely impersonal one. moving to rural england from trinidad and tobago and subsequently to new york, then oxford, naipaul describes the physical place and inhabitants of his new domiciles in an effort to understand his emotional locus.
his half a life (2001), which isn’t as literally autobiographical, but is also clearly about naipaul, continues his themes of dislocation and alienation in a more traditional form. i have to say, i didn’t love either of them.
i did love the vivesector (1970) by patrick white. the story of the life of an artist — in this case a painter — and a description of how an oeuvre develops. ok, so the romanticized view of the tortured painter is a little trite. but the character development is perfect, his imagery is so well-realized and his insight into the artistic process is so spot-on that i could get past that one flaw.
kazuo ishiguro’s artist of the floating world (1986) is a very different type of story about an artist. in post-world war ii japan, an aging painter attempts to come to terms with the decisions he’s made and the enormous shifts in japanese culture during his lifetime. while the novel addresses the purpose of art, it’s much less about art that about self-awareness, or the lack thereof.
i cheated and listened to ishiguro’s remains of the day (1980) during a long trip in the car (which maybe isn’t cheating, since the story is told in a series of flashbacks while the narrator is on a road trip). in it, another unreliable narrator recalls his life as a butler in a grand english country house. ishiguro’s talent is in revealing his narrators’ personalities through their descriptions of the reactions other characters have to them. two very good novels.
william golding’s to the ends of the earth – a trilogy made of rites of passage (1980), close quarters (1987) and fire down below (1989) — by the nobel prize winning author of lord of the flies (1954) — is also recounted by someone whose concern about his own appearance skews his description of the events and people around him. written in the form of the journals of an aristocratic, british, young man, the novels describe the relationship between the passengers and crew on a ship from england bound for australia at the beginning of the 19th century. like a lot (most?) of british fiction, this novel is primarily concerned with understanding the role social class has in the character of the british… and it’s often not pretty.
pat barker’s trilogy – regeneration (1991), eye in the door (1993) and the ghost road (1995) is one of the great literary accomplishments of the late 20th century. the story is set in britain during world war i and deals with mental illness, sexuality, the pointlessness of war and (not surprisingly) social class.
in iris murdock’s the sea, the sea (1978), the main character, a pompous, womanizing playwrite/director — one of the least appealing characters in literature — retires from london to a cottage by the sea. when in the local village he accidentally meets his childhood sweetheart, his idiosyncrasies blossom into mania and tragedy ensues. a great novel.
gabriel garcia marquez’s memories of my melancholy whores (2005) is a lovely, moody novella. in it, a 90-year-old man, determined to have sex with a very young girl, finally learns to love.
josé donoso’s novel, the obscene bird of night (1970) is, like most of the settings in his novel, a labyrinth. it’s about our primal fears and doubts, alienation and isolation and loss of self to societal pressures. it’s a wonderful, magical book.
i loved zoe wycomb’s david’s story. david is a political activist in apartheid south africa (though the story is more about the women in david’s life than it is about david). it’s a novel that took me to a place that was culturally and politically foreign, but the strength of wycomb’s character development made comprehensible.
joyce carol oates’ black water (1992) is her thinly-veiled telling and re-telling of the chappaquiddick incident from the point of view of the young woman. most of the short chapters reveal, through flash-backs, aspects of the girl’s personality and short life, and end as the stinking, black water fills the car.
elena ferante — wow! i read two of her short novels — troubling love (1999) and the lost daughter (2008). what a voice! both books are narrated by women whose lives are spiraling out of control. ferante describes what it’s like to lose it better than anyone (other than joan didion) that i’ve ever read. both are great, but lost daughter is my pick.
ok… i’m close. four more novels to read and i promise to publish my list of the 50 best novels here by the end of february.