Best of times worst of times – The 100 best novels in English


I am working my way through the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels in English, enjoying it, but not because these novels really are the best of all time.  This is just a way of reading things I might not otherwise think of.  Rather than putting books in a special box, it’s a way of getting outside the box of my own preferences. I think it is important to approach the list in this way, because efforts to create best of all time lists have always caused problems. For example, back in the Asia of 2000BC, medical progress ran up against the sanctification of ancient medical texts.  Written in Asia around 2000BC, The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Canon of Medicine, and The Divine Husbandman’s Materia Medica, had the status of scripture.   In the face of these unchallenged medical authorities, no research or progress was possible.  A similar thing happened when Renaissance scholars sanctified the medical writings of the ancient Greek world.

Another example of a “Top 100” gaining untouchable status is The Bible.  For centuries, it wasn’t even possible for most people to read the stories collected in The Bible, written in Latin and protected by a possessive Church hierarchy.   The sixteenth century brought the Bible-reading enthusiasms of Protestantism, and large scale printing technology, but The Bible remained set apart, a situation that continues to this day.  I remember on one of my first days at university in 1983, going into the University Bookshop to buy books for my course.  Aware that The Bible was the most influential book in English literature, I added a copy to a pile of other books.

“You won’t find that on any reading list,” said an assistant with airy superiority.

He really did not want to sell it to me, seemingly offended to see this fat, brown paperback perched on top of The Iliad.  I thought this odd and said so.  He was right though. My university did not include the most influential book in English literature on any literature course. The Bible was something different, something other than “normal” literature, too special for students to read in the same way.

While The Bible sat in its little box, writers got on with the business of exploring life in more lowbrow forms, such as plays performed in unfashionable parts of London, in novels or poems.  Inevitably, however, over time these literary forms themselves gained a level of sanctification.  The nineteenth century poet and schools’ inspector Matthew Arnold decided in a famous essay called Culture and Anarchy that literature could work with religion as a “social cement”. With Arnold’s enthusiastic support, “English literature” really came into being as an adjunct to official religion. The poet William Blake saw The Bible as the work of poets, usurped by the Church for its own purposes. He feared a similar fate for the poetry of his own time.  The influential views of Matthew Arnold, and others like him, meant that in many ways those fears were realised. A sad result of official veneration was to make literature, by definition, difficult, the opposite of “easy reading”. Hard labour was required if English was to seem a respectable academic subject, and in this way literature was taken away from the people it was written for. Literature became something different, set apart, just like The Bible.

I am enjoying the Modern Library Top 100, but in conclusion, it is worth noting that one of the books I have read so far- The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy suffered a ban when first published.  This book was clearly on someone’s “Worst Novels of All Time” list.  This just goes to show that throwing up a wall around certain writing is impossible.   Good writing tears down walls, mines the depths beneath them, or jumps mischievously over them.  It does not build them.


The Mystique of Music in the Age of Streaming

I’m reading Sophie’s Choice, William Styron’s famous novel about Stingo, a struggling writer who meets a beautiful concentration camp survivor in the New York of 1947.  Stingo has learnt about Sophie’s terrible ordeal during the Second World War. Sophie has also described her experience of reaching America, where two things define a better life – plentiful food and music.  Following a doctor’s advice not to gorge herself on food, Sophie revels carefully in all the gastronomic variety that New York has to offer.  In the same spirit of heightened appreciation, she goes to hear Yehudi Menuhin play the Beethoven Violin Concerto at Lewishon Stadium in Manhattan.

The day after I read this section, I put Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, played by Yehudi Menuhin, on my phone and took it to work.  I tried to imagine what it would sound like if I hadn’t been able to listen to music for years.  Rather than existing in glorious isolation, music is also a product of the situation of the listener, a situation often engineered to increase the power of the musical experience. In the case of orchestral music, there’s the buying of an expensive ticket, the dressing up, entering a beautiful hall, the cacophony of many musicians tuning to a single reference note, the tapping of a baton on a podium to bring the orchestra to attention. This all has the effect of shutting music away behind a ritual.  Listeners have to approach carefully with a sense of reverence for the importance of what they are to experience. Other genres had their tricks, from the artful secretiveness of Prince, to the courting of controversy by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, which leads to a ban serving only to boost sales.

In some instances, this wrapping of the musical experience has amounted to an art form in itself.  Take for example Miserere Mei Dues written by Gregorio Allegeri around 1640. Religious authorities literally kept this piece locked away, securing all copies of the sheet music in the Vatican vaults.  There was only one performance a year, at the Sistine Chapel, no less.  In 1770, however, a young musical genius called Amadeus Mozart heard Miserere Mei Deus, immediately memorised every note, carried them home in his head and wrote them down.  Mozart’s theft was part of a chain of events, making music ever more accessible, eventually allowing me to take Beethoven’s Violin Concerto to work on my phone. It is wonderful to have this easy access to music, but even imagining years empty of music made it sound better.



Since music streaming cannot offer unlimited access and the denial of access at the same time, I suggest attempting to imagine a world where music is hard to find.


The Heroism of Antiheroes


An early Superman story, self-published by high school students Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in 1933

People like to identify with a central character in a story.  Often they want to identify with someone strong and powerful.  Most people, however, are sensible enough to realise that we are not all world-conquering heroes, not every day anyway.  It then makes sense for antiheroes to shuffle out of the shadows – characters who we can identify with in their weaknesses.  There are examples going all the way back to ancient Greece.   The Iliad, dating to around 700BC, is generally peopled with gods and supermen, but there is a minor character called Thersites, lame, round shouldered and ugly, who speaks unpalatable truths and gets shouted down for it.  Aesops Fables dating to around 600BC contains many unlikely heroes, including a tortoise who wins a running race against a hare.  From the time of ancient Greece onwards, less than epic characters continued to make various apologetic, ill-mannered or clumsy appearances.  There was the delusional Don Quixote in the seventeenth century,  Lawrence Sterne’s mischieveous Tristram Shandy in the eighteenth century, and the helpless, beaten down, twentieth century protaganists of Beckett, Kafka, Camus, and Jean Paul Sartre.

So, what happened when antiheroes shambled diffidently over to America, land of winners?  Like the ancient civilisations of the Mediterranean, America following World War II, was the world’s leading power  It made sense that post-war America created modern versions of Greek and Roman heroes.  Building on the costumed adventures of the Scarlett Pimpernel (1903), Zorro (1919) and Shadow (1930) the superhero leaps into existence to save the world as Superman in 1938, with Batman coming to help in 1939.  The link with ancient heroes is made obvious in Wonder Woman.  Debuting in 1941, authors William and Elizabeth Marston conceived Wonder Woman as a demigoddess, a new Diana with powers conferred by old Greek and Roman gods.  So are these the heroes of a society considering itself so powerful that it can turn its back on failure and smallness?

The answer to this question has to be, no.  Crucially, modern superheroes have an antihero behind the costume, an ordinary alter ego.  Superman out of costume is mild mannered Clark Kent, a reporter working for the Daily Planet.  Batman is the crime fighting incarnation of eccentric and emotionally damaged billionaire Bruce Wayne.  Wonder Woman hides in the identity of Diana Prince, a United States Army nurse.  This duality would become a typical feature of superheroes, a particularly telling twist coming along in 1962 with the arrival of Spider-Man, the alter ego of orphaned adolescent Peter Parker who faces problems of rejection, inadequacy and loneliness.  These non-heroic alter egos parallel many American literary and movie antiheroes  – Dean Moriarty in On The Road, Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye,   Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause and Johnny Strabler in The Wild One.  While these characters are an inversion of Superman, they are actually exploring the same territory from the opposite direction.  Their primary identity is as ordinary people, who search for heroes hiding inside themselves.  Holden Caulfield is not so different to Peter Parker.  Johnny, the motorcycle gang leader in The Wild One, even dons a kind of superhero outfit, the black leathers which make him into a different person during his weekend road trips.

The different sides of heroism then come together with an almighty bang in the hugely successful modern tale of good and evil, Star Wars.  In Star Wars, the mystical Force gives strength to both the heroic Jedi, and to the Jedi’s dark enemies.  The Force is vague enough to encompass heroes and villains, and people like Han Solo who are neither one nor the other. Star Wars crystalises the suggestion that amidst the primary colours in Marvel comics, and the black and white of Obi Wan and Darth Vadar, there is no easy division of the world into hero, villain and ordinary person.  The endless struggle of people to see a better version of themselves, while still accepting their humble, imperfect reality, reaches a contemporary high point in the multifaceted heroes of American culture.

As writers, we can learn from this. There are two kinds of protagonist- a hero with an ordinary person inside them, or an ordinary person hiding a hero.