Friday, 23 January 2009

1000 Novels - State of the Nation

I like Ian Jack's columns usually, but he's ever so slightly wide of the mark with the following generalisation about the Kitchen Sink writers:

Northern England was not on its way to producing Nabokovs and Roths. These writers approach their subjects without any originality of form or language. To them, as to the reader, what mattered was the thing described rather than the means of description.

Fair enough as applied to Barstow and Braine, and perhaps to Sillitoe, but I think David Storey deserves a little more credit than that. This Sporting Life is a very strange work, and marks Storey out more as a descendant of the Brontes (and, to be a little more contentious, a contemporary of Camus) than as a chippy Stuckist.

Elsewhere, Ruth Scurr gets it right regarding Zola, whilst glossing over the sheer, Coriolanus-like, oddness of both novels. Mark Lawson puts GB84 in some illustrious company, seemingly, however, using it as a mere counterpoint to Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty. At least he doesn't do as he threatens and include The Northern Clemency.

Answers on a postcard for Rowan Williams's non-selection of The Brothers Karamazov?

In the lists, there's one Elizabeth Bowen (where the 'nation' is Ireland, but I think The Heat of the Day might be an English SOD novel), lurds of Dickens, a misplaced (to my mind) Sentimental Education, a blast from the undergraduate past with Theodor Fontane's Effi Briest, far too many modern American novels, nae James Kelman, a shoehorned Of Love and Hunger, The Magic Mountain, pleasing recognition for The Radetzky March, a wonderful Roth (P.) with American Pastoral, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (adapted for radio last year featuring Johnny Vegas, who seemed to be playing himself), Rebecca West's haunting but slightly patronising The Return of the Soldier, Trainspotting (which only accentuates the lack of Kelman), and usual suspects such as Stendhal, Wharton, Wolfe, and Thackeray.

Only question: how does one define 'state of the nation'? How far is this state allowed to be communicated allegorically? If Of Love and Hunger is a novel which does the state of Britain in the Thirties by metonym, surely Henry Green's Party Going does the same but better?


Jon said...

Brothers Karamazov is yet another book that would keep your average down.

Does Flaubert count as a realist? I find that he's as slow or slower than Proust to read.

Joe said...

Sentimental Education is fast, I think, and Bovary is slow. The latter is a definite score-represser.

Jon said...

I would also include Germinal as a score represser.

Is there a handicap for reading in more one language? Ie do books in a second language count as two in a first language (as it takes roughly twice as long to read them)? I guess there probably isn't.