Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce (1916) is a fabulously constructed coming of age novel about a young man growing up in 1890s and early 1900s in Ireland, coming of age both as a young man and as an artist (the novel is as autobiographical as one of Vincent van Gogh’s self-portraits is a portrait of the troubled painter). Also, the book is of interest in terms of the history of literature because this is a novel written at the dawn of 20th century modernism, this [Joyce’s Portrait], Picasso’s work and the poetry of Ezra Pound and Robert Frost, for example, constitute the output of a generation, which, in retrospect, become elevated to the status of ‘an Age’ (the Age of Modernism).
At Swim-Two-Birds, by Brian O’Nolan (1939), is an exceptional comic masterpiece; a novel [and exceptionally novel it is too] about a university student staying in his uncle’s house in Dublin who never goes to college at all (to his uncle’s chagrin) but instead stays in his room most of every day composing a novel about a man who is writing a novel which involves a very strange mix of characters, a group of whom get together at night when the novelist is sleeping and start rewriting the novel so that havoc is unleashed on the novelist (i.e. the novelist in the student’s novel: there are at least 3 levels of story in At Swim-Two-Birds, the university student, the novelist in the in the university student’s novel, and then the insane world within that novel, which is the novel the fictional novelist in the university student’s novel is creating). I reread this every five years or so and each time I reread it I find it funnier than I remember it. Of all these books, a la ‘Desert Island Discs’, if a great wave came and swept away everything I possessed save one thing, this is the one thing I would want to save or retrieve if I could.
Troubles (1970) or The Siege of Krisnaphur (1973), by J.G. Farrell. Both of these are Booker Prize winning novels, and they are just fabulous in every way. All of Farrell’s great novels are about the decline and fall of the British Empire: Troubles is about the last days in the south of Ireland and The Siege of Krisnaphur is about the so-called ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857 (in which can be seen a foreshadowing of the end of the British empire in India less than a century afterwards). If forced to pick one of these, however, I would go for Troubles, I think, just because of its comic dimension (there are a number of really brilliant comic moments in Troubles, particularly when the Brits from the Big House go down into the village pub and sing the British national anthem [‘God Save the King’] just to show the local yokels who’s still boss, and the locals just stare at the lunatic party of elderly, feeble clowns thinking “What in the name of fuck is the matter with these people?”).
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro (1989). Love this book, so taut and polished. Story about an old school English Big House butler and his painful blindness to the woman who loves him (the worst pain of all is to feel nothing). Tessa and I read this book to one another (each a chapter, turn by turn) in my bedroom in Edinburgh one weekend when it first came out. As I was reading it I remember being struck by how easily it read; because of the way it was composed and polished no sentence tripped you up, it was the smoothest read I’d ever encountered, and yet the power of it, the emotional hit of it, was immense.
Life of Pi, Yann Martel (2001). This is a wonderful book, a wonderful story, wonderfully well managed. An Indian family who live in a part of India that was not British but French (Pondicherry) and who make their living by means of their ownership of a zoo (or at least some zoo animals) decide to leave India (where they do not fit in so well in Indira Gandhi’s India) and immigrate to Canada. They charter a cargo ship and load up all their stuff onto it along with all their animals and set off. However a storm blows up and wreaks havoc on the junky cargo ship and everyone and everything is tossed out onto the unforgiving blue-green deep. Pi (who is about 13 or 14 years old) is the son of the owners of the zoo animals; he is nick-named ‘Pi’ because he is clever and curious boy who loves riddles and puzzles and mysteries and learning and so forth, and he is especially good at maths (the precocious kid is also interested in religions and, although a Hindu, experiments with various other creeds). Anyway Pi ends up in a life boat with a 450-pound Bengal tiger, a zebra, an orangutan and a hyena, which, as anyone can imagine, would be a super difficult menage to manage at any time, but especially when you’re in the middle of the Indian Ocean with no food and no water.
A John McGahern novel, The Dark or The Barracks. As I progress with the composition of this post I realise that rather than being a list of the best novels I’ve read (which is what was originally intended) this is actually a list of the books which for one reason or another mean most to me, which is not the same thing at all. Howsoever, what of it?; such things are inevitable (and I’m sure the same is true of the movie and music lists I’ve posted in recent weeks). These two books, which I read when I was young (I read them in the early 1980s so would have been 18, 19, 20, that sort of age), had a profound effect on me. Man they NAILED some key aspects of the experience of growing up in Republic of Ireland (especially rural Ireland). McGahern may have been writing about the 1940s and 50s but they were still super relevant viz the 1960s and 70s (The Barracks was first published in 1963 and The Dark in 1965; and, ironically, given that they are about repression in conservative and authoritarian Catholic Ireland, they were banned! [and McGahern lost his job as a school teacher because of them, because the church disapproved of them, pushed out of his position by church pressure] and I think when I first read them Irish publishers were challenging the ban by ignoring it and simply reissuing them and inviting the authorities to take whatever action they dared, which of course they did not, that time being the age of the Boomtown Rats and Moving Hearts and many other forms of saying “Fuck you and your peasant Catholic bullshit state”). Coming of age novels again; autobiographical too, apparently [which if read closely are even more shocking than they might appear at first].
Tobias Wolf’s This Boy’s Life (1989). OK, so there are a disproportionate number of coming of age stories in this list! This is cracker, however. It’s the story of a troublesome but likeable kid, Jack, in a one-parent family; Jack’s mum goes from one abusive relationship to another until she simply gets tired of moving and reestablishing herself in various places [the story moves from Florida to Utah to Washington state] so she stays with this dreadful clown, Dwight, who is mean and stupid and petty, and is especially cruel and abusive to Jack (“One day you’ll learn that I know a thing or two about a thing or two” is one Dwight’s idiot refrains, which is especially funny given that the guy basically knows nothing at all, and the only way he can prop up his sad-sack manhood is to dominate and bully a 13 year old boy). Jack withdraws into a private world where idiot Dwight cannot reach him, so much so that Jack gets lost in his own make-believe world and, as a result, is able to present himself as a first-class student and athlete (forging and fabricating whatever documentation is needed) and so successfully cons his way into an elite school on a scholarship (which of course he fucks up because he is not the person he pretends to be at all; but he escapes Dwight, which is all he really wanted to do, and, later, as testified to by this book, becomes a writer, and an especially good one too).
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote (1966), is regarded as the original non-fiction novel (others would dispute this, pointing to one or two earlier examples, but what cannot be disputed is that this was one of the first and one of the most successful of this type of book). It tells the story of a horrific slaughter of a family in rural Kansas in 1959 by two sad-sack no-goods low-lifes. Capote tells the story of the slaughter, of the impact it has on the community, and of the investigation and trial, and also how these two killers came to do this terrible thing (i.e. their backstories). After their conviction the two killers fought off the death penalty for five or six years with appeals and so forth but eventually they are executed, and Capote follows this part of the story too. It is a really chilling, terrific, excellent piece of work, powerful and compelling, and, evidently, it took a lot out of the author too (who spent years on it) for he never really did anything of any significance afterwards. But, no matter, this is a masterpiece.
Success, by Martin Amis (1978). I’m surprised to learn that this was published as early as 1978 (I read it in the mid-1980s); I would have guessed that this novel was later because I always regarded it as a critique of what came to be called ‘Thatcherism’, however, Mrs Thatcher was elected to the premiership in 1979, and moreover what became known as ‘Thatcherism’ was constructed after that (from about 1981/82 onwards). Success tells the story of two brothers [actually half-brothers] who share a flat in west London. Terry, the younger of the two, is less well educated, less fashionable, less successful with women, and works in what his posh brother refers to as “the blacking factory”, which is actually to do with finance in the City of London. Gregory, the posh guy, has the better bedroom in the apartment (the master bedroom), works in an art gallery and goes to all the desirable parties and so on. (Terry is grammar school educated and Gregory is private-fee-paying-parkland-school-educated polished off with three years in an Oxford college.) For the first third of the novel Gregory has all the authority and credibility. But then Terry begins to become credible, and slowly but surely Gregory is revealed to be less than credible. And, of course, by the end of the novel Gregory is fully revealed as a fraud and a fantasist and a rather sad character while Terry has become all-powerful. Except that Terry, who we root for all through the first half of the novel, turns out to be a monster (who at one point kicks a homeless person to death just because he can, because he’s in a bad mood, and because he has come to despise weakness). I read this book as a sort of reflection of the struggle between the so-called grandee ‘Wets’ in the Tory party and the up-and-coming Thatcherites who all seemed rather Terry-like to me (Norman Tebbit versus Francis Pym, for example). Real Amis fans would choose Money or London Fields or The Information, of course, but, while I also like these Jon Self novels, I was really struck by the simplicity and elegance and humour of Success.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel (2009), tells the story of the rise of Thomas Cromwell, who in the 1530s and early 1540s was Henry VIII’s chief secretary (Henry, son of Henry VII, second generation of the House of Tudor which wrestled the the crown of England from the great Plantagenet line in the 1480s and held on to it until the death of Elizabeth, Henry VIII’s daughter [by Anne Boleyn], in 1603). Cromwell came from a lowly background (his father was a former soldier and sometime blacksmith and alehouse owner in Putney, a hamlet on the muddy riverbank of the Thames west of London), so to rise so high was a huge deal in what was still a super-aristocratic world. But, actually, quite a few of the people brought through by the Tudors were non-standard socially, Cardinal Wolsey, who first identified Cromwell’s talents and schooled him in the arts and craft of serving a prince, was the son of a butcher from Ipswich (Wolsey was Henry’s chief minister before Cromwell), the Boleyns made a huge proportion of their money in (and first came to prominence in that world because of their role in) iron foundries (especially viz the making of cannons), and then, later on, under Elizabeth, you had the Cecils and Walter Raleighs and so on. This was partly because the old aristocracy had destroyed themselves with half a century of warring in the so-called War of the Roses but partly also because the Tudors themselves were essentially outsiders (their claim on the crown was questionable, to say the least) and never fully trusted the old order and so had to bring new men through in order to run the system. In fact, class and the changing order of Renaissance Europe is one of the main themes in this fabulous read, as exemplified in this passage here (below) where Thomas Cromwell sits down with an aristocratic brat, Harry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, (who thinks he has power because of his title and his castles and his men-at-arms) and puts him straight on a few things (p. 378):
‘How can he explain it to him? This world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of a promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.’