Friday, 5 February 2010

Best novels

My brother's sent me a link to a discussion on the Guardian website about what the best British post-war novel is. Apparently Philip Roth nominated le Carre's A Perfect Spy. I can't decide what I'd choose, but not that - it's a good book, but I have loathed le Carre ever since I heard him suggest that he was attracted by the idea of becoming a traitor when he was a spy - he saw it as just one more adventure, as far as I could make out. Loyalty and all the rest didn't seem to be factors for him. Perhaps I misunderstood his point, but in my mind he is now chief of the slimy relativists.
Talking of my mind, such as it is, it always go blank when I'm asked to rank things anyway. Each of my children went through a stage where their only conversational gambit was to ask us to nominate our favourite food or telly programme or country or person or house or car or weather or record or colour or politician or song or plant or - I think I've sketched out the scenario well enough. It must have been some developmental moment where they learned about how the world was ordered or something. I'm surprised they ever emerged from it as I could never come up with a clear answer on any topic at all.
But to return to the question of best British post-war novel, I would nominate any of Penelope Fitzgerald's. Her books are probably not hefty enough to be considered great, but I like short books - and she has the added advantage of being quite funny. I'm glad Riddley Walker got a mention in the Guardian discussion. Lucky Jim did too, which I'd have agreed with until a couple of months ago when I settled down to read it, thinking I'd love it once again and found instead that it wasn't as good as I'd remembered (Three Men in a Boat is now alone as my favourite comic book, whereas before it shared the pedestal with Lucky Jim [which shows I can pick favourites after all]). I would nominate Jane Gardam too - I like her very much and Crusoe's Daughter is a particularly original book. David Lodge wrote some amusing books, but I suppose they can't be called great (although perhaps that's part of the problem with finding an answer to the question - how are we defining what great in the context of a novel means? For what it's worth, I think a novel must be both entertaining and intelligent, providing some original perspectives on life [whatever I mean by that] as well). I don't like McEwen or Amis or Rushdie much. Coe is good but only about Lodge level good. I like Nadeem Aslam too, but most people think his writing is too flowery and anyway he offends Muslims. I like Memento Mori by Muriel Spark. Poor old Angus Wilson's gone totally out of fashion, probably rightly, and although Daphne du Maurier has enjoyed a renaissance of interest and has provided many readers with lots of pleasure, she is not great in the sense the Guardian means I think. The Birds is a pretty good short story but perhaps she is what Somerset Maugham said he was: In the first rank of the second rate (or something like that). I like AS Byatt's Still Life and The Virgin in the Garden and her new one, The Children's Book. Poor pompous old Julian Barnes doesn't get a look in, either from me or the Guardian. Tibor Fischer is good, especially Under the Frog - and he is British, even though that book is set in Hungary. Maybe in the end the choice has to be Dance to the Music of Time - apart from anything else, Powell conjured up so many memorable characters and then managed to imagine them not just through one book but through a whole long series, without ever stumbling. It is a great achievement.

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