Archive for November, 2010

The 100 books you can’t live without: my choice

Recently, I commented on a rather absurd list that was doing the rounds, and which called itself “100 Books You Can’t Live Without”. Since the best way to respond to a list one doesn’t like is to make up one of one’s own, I thought it might be fun to have a go. 

All lists are a bit silly, and my list below is no exception. The problem with making up any list such as this is, of course, all those items one has to exclude. But for all that, the list below does provide, I think, an accurate reflection of my literary tastes and values. 

But first, one has to make a few rules. I decided to exclude reference books (dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and the like). And I decided to exclude art books: I have in my library a number of beautifully illustrated books on art and architecture, but since this list is intended to reflect my taste in literature rather than my taste in the visual arts, I have decided not to include them. 

And I decided to exclude also the “Collected Works” – although it seemed reasonable to make exceptions for collections of short stories, and of poems. One could easily find omnibus volumes packed full of the collected works of favourite authors, but selecting such volumes does not indicate which of those works are the most valuable to me. If I were to choose, say, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, then I’m putting The Two Gentlemen of Verona on much the same level as Twelfth Night in my preferences – and that’s just silly. 

Of course, one has to be careful not to pack the list with too many works by the same author: it would be all too easy, for instance, to include some twenty or so of Shakespeare’s works. But a list such as this should ideally give some indication of the range of one’s literary interests. 

And finally: I have only chosen books that I have read; or, in the case of collections of poems or of short stories, books that I have read at least in part. There are many books I haven’t yet read, but think I’d like as and when I come round to doing so: these books I have not included. 

For books in translation, I have indicated the translation I have read; or, in cases where I have read more than one translation, I have indicated my preferred version. 

Well, that’s enough of a preamble: let’s get started! 

Classical literature: 

  1. The Iliad by Homer (Translated by Robert Fagles)
  2. The Odyssey by Homer (Translated by Robert Fagles)
  3. The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides (Translated by Benjamin Jowett)
  4. The Oresteia by Aeschylus (Translated by Michael Ewans)
  5. Oedipus the King by Sophocles (Translated by Gregory McCart)
  6. The Bacchae by Euripdes (Translated by William Arrowsmith)
  7. The Aeneid by Virgil (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald)
  8. Sakuntala by Kalidasa (Translated by Barbara Stoller Muller)

I haven’t had a classical education, but one can’t take a serious interest in literature without at least some knowledge of the Classical world. The three great epics – The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid – are surely mandatory reading.

I have been particularly taken by Greek tragedies, and collecting (and reading) different translations of the Oresteia of Aeschylus has become something of a hobby. 

Alongside these tragic dramas, I had to pick the Peloponesian War of Thucydides, which is as great a tragic masterpiece as any written by the dramatists. And, from a very different classical culture, I have picked Sakuntala by Kalidasa, a play whose vision penetrates beyond the tragic world, and imagines – much as Shakespeare was to do in his late plays – a world in which all losses are restored, and sorrows end.

 (I have read three translations of this play – by Barbara Stoller Muller, by Michael Coulson, and by Chandra Rajan, and have picked the first of these as it comes in a splendid volume, supplemented with essays by Romila Thapar, discussing this play in its cultural context.)

Shakespeare and the Bible

 9. The Authorised Version of the Bible

10. Henry IV, 1 & 2 by William Shakespeare

11.Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

12. Othello by William Shakespeare

13. King Lear by William Shakespeare

14. Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

15. The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare

16. Sonnets by William Shakespeare

No, I haven’t read all of the Bible. But I do intend to. And I have chosen the Authorised King James version. I am not too keen on using this version as a stick with which to beat the more modern translations, as many of these modern translations seem very fine to me. But for all that, it’s the King James version that lovers of literature tend most often to turn to. 

 As for Shakespeare, I had to limit myself to only a few.

A bit of poetry

 17.The New Penguin Book of English Verse (edited by Paul Keegan)

18.The Prelude by William Wordsworth

19.Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (Translated by Tom Beck)

20.Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins

21.Poems by Rabindranath Tagore

22.Poems by W. B. Yeats

23.Poems by T. S. Eliot

I’d probably nominate Wordsworth and Yeats as my two favourite poets in the English language (Shakespeare excepted, as ever!)  But perhaps the most indispensable volume of English poetry is a good anthology. I grew up with the New Oxford Book of English Verse edited by Helen Gardner, but the anthology selected above by Paul Keegan is bigger, and more comprehensive.

 The only poetry I have chosen in translation (apart from the classical works mentioned earlier) is Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, a work of Mozartian wit and elegance, and which, also like Mozart’s music, is sad even when it seems happy and playful.

(And before anyone mentions it – yes, I know, I do need to read more American poetry.)

A few plays

 24.Volpone by Ben Jonson

25.The Critic by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

26.Brand by Henrik Ibsen (Translated by Michael Meyer)

27.Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen (Translated by Michael Meyer)

28.Rosmersholm by Henrik Ibsen (Translated by Michael Meyer)

29.The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen (Translated by Michael Meyer)

30.Little Eyolf by Henrik Ibsen (Translated by Michael Meyer)

31.The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

32.Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov (Translated by Michael Frayn)

33.The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov (Translated by Michael Frayn)

34.Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw

35.Long Day’s Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill

36.Mother Courage and her Children by Bertolt Brecht (Translated by Eric Bentley)

37.The Caretaker by Harold Pinter

I do love reading plays, and, as can be seen from the list above, am a particular fan of Ibsen’s. But quite apart from the doom and gloom – I love comic drama, and wouldn’t think of leaving out such comic plays as The Critic, The Importance of Being Earnest, and something by Shaw, who, for all his fads and for all his highly dubious politics, couldn’t write a dull line even if he wanted to.

 Short Story Collections 

 38.Short Stories by Anton Chekhov (Translated by Ronald Wilks)

39.Ghost Stories by M. R. James

40.The Sherlock Holmes Stories by Arthur Conan Doyle

41.“Red Cavalry” Stories by Isaac Babel (Translated by David McDuff)

42.Short Stories by Flannery O’Connor

43.Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges (Translated by Andrew Hurley)

44.The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories (edited by Michael Cox & R. A. Gilbert)

 I love ghost stories. Ideal reading for the dark, winter nights, especially with the icy wind howling outside, and the bedside lamp throwing weird shadows around the room.

 And, of course, the volume of Sherlock Holmes stories, which is a permanent fixture on my bedside table.

 Novels from Britain and Ireland 

 45.  Roxana by Daniel Defoe

46.  Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

47.  Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

48.  Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

49.  Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

50.  Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

51.  Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

52.  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

53.  David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

54.  Bleak House by Charles Dickens

55.  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

56.  Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

57.  Middlemarch by George Eliot

58.  Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

59.  Dracula by Bram Stoker

60.  Nostromo by Joseph Conrad

61.  Ulysses by James Joyce

62.  The Code of the Woosters by P. G. Wodehouse

63.  Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

64.  Royal Flash by George Macdonald Fraser

I have excluded Austen because I do not feel myself to be quite on her wavelength; and I have included five titles by Dickens because he is one of those writers to whom I find myself feeling very close. 

I’d have liked to have included more by Defoe, as I think he is seriously underrated as a novelist. Many, I imagine, are put off by the sheer length of Richardson’s magnificent Clarissa, but the neglect of James Hogg’s demonic Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is more difficult to understand.

 There is quite a bit here that qualifies for the label “light literature” – from the childhood favourite Treasure Island (has there even been an adventure story better written than this?) to the splendid Gothic excesses of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Sadly, I have had to limit Wodehouse to one, so I chose what I think is one of the best. I also had to limit George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman series to just one title, and I picked Royal Flash, his re-working of The Prisoner of Zenda, which, if anything, improves on its model.

 And I couldn’t resist including W. Somerset Maugham’s delightful Cakes and Ale, which manages to be warm and cynical at the same time.

A Few American Novels 

 65.Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

66.Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

67.The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

68.The Ambassadors by Henry James

69.The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

70.Light in August by William Faulkner

71.Absalom, Absalom! By William Faulkner

72.Double Indemnity by James M. Cain

73.The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

74.The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

75.Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

 Given my love of ghost stories, I had to include The Turn of the Screw, which is possibly the finest of the lot; and, also, a more substantial Henry James novel.

Generally, I find myself attracted by Southern authors. I have already picked the weirdly compelling short stories of Flannery O’Connor, and I had to pick Mark Twain, William Faulkner and Carson McCullers. Faulkner, especially, is a great favourite of mine, although I appreciate he won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

 Some Spanish and German Novels 

 76.Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (Translated by Tobias Smollett)

77.Fortunata and Jacinta by Benito Pérez Galdós (Translated by Agnes Moncy Gullón)

78.The Trial by Franz Kafka (Translated by Willa & Edwin Muir)

79.The Castle by Franz Kafka (Translated by Willa & Edwin Muir)

80.Joseph and his Brothers by Thomas Mann (Translated by John E. Woods)

 In recent years, there have appeared two highly acclaimed modern translations of Don Quixote – one by John Rutherford, and the other by Edith Grossman. The next time I read Don Quixote, I will try out one of these. But for now, my favourite translation is that by Tobias Smollett, who was, of course, a fine novelist in his own right, and whose Humphrey Clinker very nearly made this list. His translation has about it a vigour and an energy that I have not found in any other.

Speaking of translations, John E. Woods’ recent translations of Mann have been revelatory. I had previously considered Mann humourless and overly Teutonic, but now he emerges in a completely different light. I have been told that the German prose of Joseph and his Brothers is extraordinary; not knowing German, I cannot comment on how well or otherwise Woods has captured the quality of that prose, but his rendition is extraordinary in its own right. Time after time, I found myself re-reading passages for the sheer delight of experiencing once again the quality of the writing. The novel itself – or, rather, this tetralogy of novels – is a re-telling of the Biblical myths of Jacob and of Joseph, and is a vast meditation on the nature of mythology, man’s aspirations towards the divine, and the emergence of what we recognise as human values. It is among the most magnificent works of fiction I have encountered.

 Kafka’s two novels are, once again, automatic choices. And that leaves Fortunata and Jacinta by Benito Pérez Galdós, which possibly ranks with James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner as European literature’s best-kept secret.

Russian Novels

 81.Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (Translated by Robert Maguire)

82.War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Translated by Rosemary Edmonds)

83.Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude)

84.The Death of Ivan Illych by Leo Tolstoy (Translated by Lynn Solotaroff)

85.Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy (Translated by Vera Traill)

86.Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy (Translated by Paul Foote)

87.The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Translated by David McDuff)

88.Petersburg by Andrei Bely (Translated by Robert Maguire and John Malmstead)

89.The Master and Margarita by Mihail Bulgakov (Translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Conor)

90.Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (Translated by Robert Chandler)

91.Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (Translated by Manya Harai and Max Hayward)

 And I couldn’t even find space for Turgenev!

 The tremendous flowering of the Russian novel wasn’t, I think, restricted merely to the 19th century, as, I think, the above list amply demonstrates.





French novels 

 92.Candide by Voltaire (Translated by John Butt)

93.The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (Translated by Lord Sudley)

94.Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Translated by Alan Russell)

95.Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert (Translated by Robert Baldick, revised by Geoffrey Wall)

96.Bouvard and Pécuchet by Gustave Flaubert (Translated by A. J. Krailsheimer)

97.L’Assommoir by Emile Zola (Translated by Leonard Tancock)

98.In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (Translated by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, revised by Terence Kilmartin and by D. J. Enright)

Proust’s cycle of novels is normally ranked with Joyce’s Ulysses as the greatest of the last century – although, personally, I do think Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers belongs to this company. Having only read through Proust once, I can’t say I’ve done much more than to dip my toes into it, but what little I got out of it left no doubt of the work’s stature. It is something I need to soak myself in once again, and get to know better.

A couple of Indian novels to finish with 

 99. Mr Sampath, the Printer of Malgudi by R. K. Narayan

100. Pather Panchali by Bibhuthibhushan Banerji 

 Ideally, I would like Pather Panchali in Bengali, although there does exist a very fine translation (if you can find it!) by T. W. Clark and Tarapada Mukherji.. Unaccountably, this translation stops at the point where Satyajit Ray’s famous film stops – i.e. it omits the final fifty or so pages. We desperately need a new translation of this masterpiece – or, at least, a translation of the final chapters to complete the earlier effort. (The sequel to Pather Panchali, the almost equally masterful Aparajito, is available in an excellent translation by Gopa Majumdar.)

 Narayan is still, for my money, the best Indian writer of English. Somehow, he makes novel-writing seem so very easy. And, no matter how serious the themes he deals with, he is never less than elegant and charming. Out of the many novels of his I could have chosen, I have gone for Mr Sampath, the Printer of Malgudi, one of the best.

 By my reckoning, I make it:

 –         6 collections of poetry

–         2 long poems

–         7 collections of short stories

–         1 history

–         3 epics from the classical world

–         24 plays (one of them in two parts)

–         1 collection of scriptures

–         56 novels

The count is a bit misleading, since a single page of poetry can require as much reading as a full-length novel.

The writer who appears most often on this list is Shakespeare, with 7 titles, followed by Ibsen, Tolstoy and Dickens with 5 each. But it’s hardly a reasonable measure, as virtually the entire works of a poet can usually be contained in a single volume.

I am aware of all the omissions on here, but while there are many more books I’d love to include, I really can’t think of any from those listed that I’d be happy to take out. So, for what it’s worth, this is my list. And I’d encourage anyone else out in Blogland to create their own list, and put up a link here.

Thank you very much for indulging me – it’s been great fun.

A Karamazov Diary: 3 – Hysteria

…being the third of an occasional series of posts containing random thoughts that occur to me during my latest reading of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

Much that had struck me on my first reading as dramatic and exciting struck me on the second as mere hysteria. But that isn’t really a fair judgement. Dostoyevsky knew how to depict hysteria convincingly: he often took us into the character’s mind, and depicted the hysteria as it develops and grows. An obvious example of this is Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment: there, the feverish delirium into which his mind descends is entirely believable. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri’s growing hysteria in Book Eight (“Mitya”), or Ivan’s descent into delirium in Book Nine (“Brother Ivan Fyodorovich”), are, once again, believable and frightening in equal measure. But what are we to make of cases where characters are introduced already in a state of hysteria? Where we do not observe the development of the hysteria,as such, but are presented with the hysteria from the very beginning as a sort of fait accompli? For Dostoyevsky does that as well.

In the first half of the novel, Katerina Ivanovna appears twice, and in both scenes, she is, not to mince words, off her rocker. Her behaviour is not that of a normal person. And, since she is brought on stage already in this hysterical condition, the effect can be somewhat risible. One is reminded of Sheridan’s The Critic, when, after a mad scene in his play, Puff asks in triumph: “Now, could you wish to see anyone madder than that?”

But I wonder: could it be possible that comedy is Dostoyevsky’s intended effect? He was, after all, a skilled comic writer. If comedy is the intended effect, I am not really sure what purpose it serves, since Katerina Ivanovna does play a dramatic role in the proceedings. Why present her as a sort of Gogolian grotesque? I can’t say I know the answer to this, but I am fairly certain that whatever comedy there is in those scenes involving Katerina Ivanovna, it was not unintentional. Dostoyevsky could judge his tone better than to create unintentional effects. But to play serious, dramatic scenes for laughs in what is, after all, a dramatic novel does seem, to say the least, rather eccentric.

Books you can’t live without: a top 100

There seems to be one of those “Blog Memes” going round both in Blogland and on Facebook, where one is presented with a list of 100 books, and one has to say how many of them one has read. I am not sure where the list comes from (although the earliest reference I could find to this list is here) or what the criteria are: looking through them, there are a great many books there I’d be quite happy to live without. Totting up a high score on here is hardly indicative of being well-read. But what the hell! – here goes

(I’ve marked in bold the ones I’ve read):

 1 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

Fine novel, I’m sure, but as I said in another post, I’m not really the greatest fan of Austen. I don’t dispute her stature – but I’ve never managed to enjoy her works. Says more about me than about Austen, I know.

2  The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien

I did read the first part a long time ago, but found it a slog. I do not feel any attraction for the fantasy genre at all, I’m afraid.

3 Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte

It goes off the rails a bit toward the end, I think, but for all that, it does hit upon a number of archetypes, and the childhood chapters are particularly good.

4 Harry Potter series –  JK Rowling

Very good children’s literature, I’m sure, but it’s not too high on my personal reading list.

5 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

One of those books everyone is supposed to have read – but I haven’t.

6 The Bible

What – all of it? I’ve read bits and pieces of it, and will get round to all of it some day, I’m sure.

7 Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte

Magnificent novel.

=8 Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell

Yes – full of remarkable images and ideas, if a bit short, perhaps, on characterisation.

=8 His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman

10 Great Expectations – Charles Dickens

One of the old boy’s finest. See here, and here. 

11 Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

12 Tess of the d’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy

I have very ambivalent feelings about Hardy the novelist, but yes, this is a fine novel, if not necessarily amongst my personal favourites.

13 Catch-22 Joseph Heller

Terrific stuff!

14 Complete Works of Shakespeare William Shakespeare

Yes – see here. (I have read the sonnets and poems, but don’t know them as well as I should.)

15 Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

16 The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien

17 Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

18 Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger

I’ve long thought of this as a minor masterpiece. It seems to me primarily to be about an adolescent, on the threshold of adulthood, who cannot come to terms with his grief for his dead brother. The reputation of this book has suffered badly, I think,because  it is often seen as a sort of handbook of teenage rebellion. I really don’t think it is.

19 The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

20 Middlemarch – George Eliot

Magnificent novel.

21 Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

22 The Great Gatsby F Scott Fitzgerald

I read it as a teenager, and at the time, it didn’t make much of an impression on me. I must tackle it again.

23 Bleak House Charles Dickens

One of my top three novels – along with Ulysses, and the next novel in the list, which is …

24 War and Peace Leo Tolstoy

See here.

25 The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

26 Brideshead Revisited Evelyn Waugh

I can’t say I feel too strongly about Waugh either way.

27 Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I re-read this last year, and found much that was jawdroppingly brilliant side by side with much that seemed to me crude. At its best, though, it is magnificent.

28 Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck

Wonderful novel. And, if anything, John Ford’s film version is even finer.

29 Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll

Marvellous whimsy.

30 The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame

As charming a children’s book as I can think of.

31 Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy

How can one choose between Anna Karenina and Warren Peace?

32 David Copperfield Charles Dickens

No other novel I know is so crammed full with so many memorable characters. The early section, especially, is possibly the finest re-creation in fiction of a child’s mind.

33 Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis

I came to Britain aged 5, not knowing any English, and, by the time I knew enough English to be able to read books in the language, many of the children’s classics had passed me by. This is one of them.

34 Emma Jane Austen

Marvellous novel, to be sure, but once again, I must plead a blind spot when it comes to Austen.

35 Persuasion Jane Austen

The warmest of Austen’s works. To my surprise, I quite enjoyed this. But no – I don’t think I’ll ever make the grade as an Austenite.

36 The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis

I thought we have already had The Chronicles of Narnia! How strange!

37 The Kite Runner –  Khaled Hosseini

I know some fans of this book, but it has never really attracted me for some reason.

38 Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis de Bernières


39 Memoirs of a Geisha  – Arthur Golden

And ditto again.

40 Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne

Unlike The WInd in the Willows, which seems to me charming, this has always struck me as being a bit twee, and I have never felt the urge to read it.

41 Animal Farm – George Orwell

A simple idea, perfectly executed. I found it a very sad book the last time I read it.

42 The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown

No comment.

43 One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel García Márquez

I am not a fan of magic realism, I’m afraid. García Márquez if obviously a quality writer (I loved Chronicle of a Death Foretold) but I’m sorry to say that this one frankly bored me.

44 A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving

45 The Woman in White Wilkie Collins

Marvellous Gothic thriller – one of the best.

46 Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery

47 Far From The Madding Crowd Thomas Hardy

Yes, a fine novel, but for Hardy, I think I prefer The Mayor of Casterbridge, or Jude the Obscure. But then again, I’m not really a Hardy fan.

48 The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

49 Lord of the Flies William Golding

I read this a long time ago, and the memory is vague. But I have read it – I know that!

50 Atonement – Ian McEwan

51 Life of Pi – Yann Martel

52 Dune – Frank Herbert

53 Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

This one’s high on my reading list, as I’ve been told it’s hilarious.

54 Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen

As with other novels by Austen, I admire it more than I like it.

55 A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth

56 The Shadow of the Wind Carlos Ruiz Zafon

A pile of shite.

57 A Tale Of Two Cities Charles Dickens

Fine for what it is, but I find it disappointing that a great novelist at the peak of his powers should take on a subject such as the French Revolution, and make no more of it than a historical romance.

58 Brave New World Aldous Huxley

As with Nineteen Eighty-Four, full of memorable ideas and images. I prefer Huxley’s earlier novels though – the brilliant comedy of Crome Yellow, Antic Hay and Point Counter Point.

59 The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon

Written from the point of view of a boy suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, this is cleverly done, but, perhaps, too much has been made of what is in essence a rather slight work.

60 Love In The Time Of Cholera Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I loved that first half, but the second half seemed no more than a list of sexual encounters, and very quickly outstayed its welcome.

61 Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck

A classroom favourite, as it is a pretty good novella that is easy to read and easy to understand.

62 Lolita Vladimir Nabokov

A masterpiece.

63 The Secret History – Donna Tartt

64 The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold

From what I know of this, I’d have to be paid a lot of money to read it.

65 Count of Monte Cristo Alexandre Dumas

This is about as good as the art of storytelling gets. ( The Three Musketeers is just as good, by the way!)

66 On The Road – Jack Kerouac

67 Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy

Probably my favourite Hardy novel.

68 Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

69 Midnight’s Children Salman Rushdie

The Western literati’s idea of the archetypal Indian novel – even though the writer has lived in the West for virtually his entire life; writes exclusively in a Western language; does not, by his own admission, know any Indian language well enough to read it, or to write in it; and whose principal literary influences are the Western writers Gabriel García Márquez and Gunter Grass. This is representative of Indian literature in the same way that chicken tikka masala is representative of Indian cuisine. None of this necessarily makes this a bad novel, as such, but I personally found it meretricious.

70 Moby Dick Herman Melville

Huge work, full of flaws, but the marvel is that it was written at all. Magnificent.

71 Oliver Twist Charles Dickens

Early Dickens – full of colour and vitality. Readers looking for depth, or depictions of the characters’ inner lives, may be disappointed, but the novel does convey a powerful sense of menace. And there is no other novel, surely, that contains so many iconic scenes and images.

72 Dracula Bram Stoker

A great favourite of mine – ideal bedtime reading for the dark winter nights. The opening section compising Jonathan Harker’s diary is genuinely frightening.

73 The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

No, thank you.

74 Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson

75 Ulysses James Joyce

Was ever a novel of such stature such great fun? Ranks with War and Peace and Bleak House as my personal favourite.

76 The Bell Jar -Sylvia Plath

77 Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

78 Germinal Emile Zola

I have loved just about everything I have read by Zola. I probably don’t rate this one quite as highly as, say, L’Assommoir or Nana, but it’s a superb novel all the same.

79 Vanity Fair William Makepeace Thackeray

Wonderful, sparkling work. Becky Sharp is among fiction’s great characters, and more than makes up for the dullness of Amelia Sedley and of Dobbin.

80 Possession – AS Byatt

Once again, I know admirers of this novel, but I don’t get the impression that this will be my kind of thing.

81 A Christmas Carol Charles Dickens

One of the great modern myths. No matter how frequently it is parodied, or derided for alleged sentimentality, it never fails to delight and to move.

82 Cloud Atlas David Mitchell

OK, I suppose. (Oh – the enthusiasm!)

83 The Color Purple – Alice Walker

The film bored me to tears, but it’s obviously unfair to judge a book from the film adaptation.

84 The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

85 Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert

This one rather unfairly overshadows Flaubert’s other work, but is a great masterpiece all the same.

86 A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry

87 Charlotte’s Web – EB White

88 The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom

89 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Oh yes, please! What would I read at bedtime if I didn’t have the Sherlock Holmes stories?

90 The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton

91 Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad

A very short novel, but it packs a huge punch. I went through a bit of a Conrad phase about a couple of years ago: this one is among his very best.

92 The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

93 The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

94 Watership Down – Richard Adams

95 A Confederacy of Dunces John Kennedy Toole

I was a bit disappointed with this. The characters could have come out of Viz – which is fine, but it doesn’t really allow much scope for development.

96 A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

97 The Three Musketeers Alexandre Dumas

Splendid stuff. I could read the adventures of d’Artagnan & co all day.

98 Hamlet William Shakespeare

We have already had the Complete Works of Shakespeare! Who compiled this list?

99 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory –  Roald Dahl

I read this when our children were growing up, and it’s easy to see its appeal.

100 Les Misérables –  Victor Hugo

Another book I must get around to some day.

So how many is that, then? I make if 53. But what a strange list, to be sure! Well – if you don’t like a list, there’s only one thing to do about it: make up your own! I’ll try to compile my own list of “100 books I can’t do without” by this weekend – and I’d encourage others out in Blogland to do the same. Watch this space, as they say!

The Karamazov Diary: 2 – A Depiction of Grief

…being the second of an occasional series of posts containing random thoughts that occur to me during my latest reading of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

Quite early in the novel, in a chapter entitled “Women of Faith” in David McDuff’s translation, Dostoyevsky gives us a striking depiction of grief. A peasant woman has come to speak to Father Zosima. She has lived through the death of all four of her small children, and the last of this series of tragedies has broken her completely. She cannot think of anything, she cannot do anything: she has given herself over completely to grief. Father Zosima tells her what we would normally expect a religious person to say – that her dead child is an angel in heaven. But, the woman asks, what good is that to her? She wants to see him here, on earth. Zosima understands that there is nothing he can say to alleviate the woman’s grief: this, he knows, is “Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, for they are not”.

At one point in this scene, the woman draws from her breast “a gold-embroidered gold sash that had been her little boy’s”, and, at the mere sight of it, begins sobbing yet again. From my previous reading, I remember this motif being repeated in a passage towards the end of the novel where a father, returning from his son’s funeral, sees his dead son’s shoes, and breaks down in tears, clutching the shoes to his breast. Of course, such passages are not mere digressions in a novel whose central theme is that of human suffering, but I doubt too many other writers would have depicted so overpowering an emotion with such disconcerting directness.

But Tolstoy, I think, would. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are often held to be extreme opposites, and, in many ways, they are, but at points such as this, they seem to touch. For Tolstoy, too, depicted human emotions with a disconcerting directness.

The scene between Father Zosima and the peasant woman could easily have been written by Tolstoy. Neither Turgenev or Chekhov, I think, would have allowed themeselves a scene of such open and overwelmingly powerful emotion. True, Tolstoy would not have made Zosima a monk: Tolstoy hated established religion, and would, most likely, have made Zosima a wise peasant. But at points such as this, I wonder if Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky really are as far fromeach other as they are often made out to be.

“Great Expectations” and “L’Education Sentimentale”

Authors are often drawn to the story of growing up, and its not hard to see why. For one thing, this is one area where everyone may write from their own experience; and this naturally attracts lesser writers who lack imagination to enter the minds of those very unlike themselves. But many writers of quality also find themselves drawn to this theme. Some are unashamedly autobiographical e.g. Wordsworth in The Prelude, the first part of which describes how the poet had rejected various grandiose themes for the one that interested him most – himself. Others are more loosely autobiographical. But one suspects that there are reasons for the popularity of this theme beyond mere self-regard.

For one thing, the growing-up story allows the author to explore the theme of developing perceptions. It also allows the author to explore the values of the world, of the society in which the protagonists are expected to take their rightful part. It offers the author the opportunity to view the world, as it were, afresh, and contemplate the very nature of life itself.

We find all of these, and more, in two remarkable novels written within a few years of each other in the 1860s: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and L’Education Sentimentale by Gustave Flaubert. Dickens and Flaubert were, temperamentally speaking, poles apart, and the two novels, as may be expected, are very different in all sorts of ways. But beyond the differences, what is remarkable are the similarities. The titles may quite easily be exchanged: Flauberts protagonist, Frédéric Moreau, certainly has great expectations, while Dickens’ Pip undergoes a sentimental education. The plot elements are also remarkably similar. In each case, a protagonist who has little to look forward to beyond a dull, mediocre future unexpectedly receives a legacy; and in both cases, they set out to enter society, with all sorts of dreams of what the future holds for them. Both act foolishly, and even meanly; and for both of them, the dreams collapse, leaving merely disillusion. There are further similarities: both protagonists invest the best part of themselves in love for a woman – a love that is destined from the start to be unconsummated; and in both novels, long after the main action, the protagonists meet once again, in scenes of almost unbearable poignancy, the objects of their still unquenched passion. And both novels end with a clear-eyed picture of the lives that we lead, and with a great sadness that things must be so.

Although Great Expectations was written earlier, it is very unlikely that Flaubert knew about it. And even if he did, one may hardly accuse him of plagiarism: for all their similarities, the two novels and the two novelists are very different. Dickens’ imagination tended towards the Gothic: the unforgettable description of Miss Havisham in her faded wedding gown, shut away from the sunlight amidst the crumbling remnants of her aborted wedding feast, is perhaps the last great flourish of the Gothic tradition. Flaubert’s outlook tended more towards naturalism, although his insistence on the solidity of the here-and-now barely hides the profound yearnings of a Romantic spirit. Dickens was interested in the moral growth of his protagonist, of the search for values in a society that judges human worth purely in terms of wealth and of social status; Flaubert, on the other hand, focuses on the impossibility of achieving happiness, or even contentment, in a world where moral values are too elusive even to be worth searching for. Pip, eventually, redeems himself morally; in Flaubert’s world, even that is not possible.

But Great Expectations is no mere morality tale. No matter how badly Pip behaves, we suspend our moral judgment because, under the circumstances, it is hard to imagine him behaving otherwise. He longs to be a gentleman for one reason only: Estella. There is nothing to indicate that he enjoys leading the life of a gentleman. When he had been a boy, Estella had referred to him as common, and had expressed distaste for his lowly social status. If Pip is ever to win Estella, he must first become a gentleman; and if he cannot become one, he must remain profoundly unhappy and unfulfilled for the rest of his life. Of course, Pip is not to know then that Estella is incapable even of responding to him, let alone of returning his love. So, when the opportunity to become a gentleman presents itself, and when, further, it seems deliberately designed as a step towards the winning of Estella, Pip, naturally, jumps at it: he could hardly have done otherwise. But there is a terrible twist to it all – a twist I shall not reveal here in case anyone reading this is in the fortunate position of still having a first encounter with this wonderful novel to look forward to. The terrible irony at the heart of the novel is contained in this twist, and it turns all Pip’s expectations to ashes. But it is from this collapse that Pip has to raise himself once more, not in terms of wealth or of social status this time, but in terms more fundamental than that: Pip must redeem himself morally. But there can be no happy ending: the final scene of this novel is uncertain and ambiguous, and leaves Pip’s love for Estella hanging still in the air. Perhaps no other novel has depicted with such immediacy the terrible pain of unrequited love.

We’re in a different world entirely with L’Education Sentimentale. Strictly speaking, it isn’t really a novel about growing up, as its protagonist Frédéric Moreau, is already a young man when we first meet him. But, as the title suggests, he is still to be educated about the realities of life. In the first scene of the novel, he sees for the first time and falls in love with Madame Arnoux, a married woman older than himself. And, through all else that happens, this love, unrequited though it is, stays with him. Indeed, he views it at times with a sort of religious awe, afraid even to push it towards its much desired consummation for fear that this, too, might collapse in disillusion like everything else.

But, apart from his feelings for Madame Arnoux, there is little else to recommend Frédéric to the reader, or to encourage empathy, or even sympathy. Indeed, Flaubert seems to do everything he can to alienate the reader from Frédéric. Frédéric welcomes his legacy because he is too indolent to wish to carve out his own path in life. And once he has the money, he gives himself up to mere hedonism, with little sense of aspiration. He is, further, weak-willed, untrustworthy, selfish, and lacking any sense of purpose or dynamism. He is, in short, lacking virtually any quality we usually consider heroic. The one factor in his favour is his love for Madame Arnoux, that one element of honour and altruism in his character.

There is no sudden revelation here, no dramatic event. (At least, the drama does not occur in the foreground: in the background, we are presented with various political upheavals culminating in the revolution of 1848, and its subsequent collapse. But, with a technique that is as brilliant as it is unobtrusive, Flaubert never allows the background to eat up the foreground.) Above all else, Flaubert presents life as drift: the characters merely drift from year to succeeding year, and this passage of time does not make them wiser: merely older. And even this change creeps upon them imperceptibly. And whatever hope for happiness they may have harboured in their youth comes to nothing, because happiness is not possible. It is a vision of utter futility that would be quite unbearable were it not for the exquisite beauty of the writing, a beauty that survives even translation. But the novel does not leave us with a sense of despair. Rather, it ends on a note of what some may consider gratuitous cynicism. In the very last scene, Frédéric, now in his middle age, is with an old school friend, and they reminisce about the time when, as young teenagers, they had ventured into a local brothel, only to take fright at the last moment and run away. And that, they agree, was the happiest time of all.

What did Flaubert mean by ending this novel on such a cynical note? One would be hard pressed to think of any ending further removed from the heart-aching uncertainty we find at the end of Great Expectations. By my reading, Flaubert seems to be saying that we are at our happiest when we are still to cross the threshold, before we have gone in to taste the pleasures; for, once tasted, we realize only how far from our expectations these pleasures really are. The only true happiness lies in the future, or in the past. It is a deeply pessimistic outlook on life, and it seems to me the pessimism of a yearning Romantic spirit who has realized that there is nothing really to yearn for: the apparent cynicism is really an expression of a deep sorrow.

It is hard to imagine a time when Great Expectations will not be a deeply loved novel. It is equally hard to envisage a time when L’Education Sentimentale will hold a similar place in readers’ affections, although its extraordinary literary qualities will guarantee it at least a small band of devotees. But it may confidently be said, I think, that these two supremely great novels, written only a few years from each other, so similar and yet so different, will continue to be regarded as two of the greatest peaks of the novelist’s art. And those who write semi-autobiographical novels about growing up simply because they find it hard to move beyond contemplation of their own navels would be well advised to read these two novels, if only to learn what masters of the art can make of such themes.

The Karamazov Diary: 1 – The Setting

…being the first of an occasional series of posts containing random thoughts that occur to me during my latest reading of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov

The setting of The Brothers Karamazov is a familiar one in Russian literature. It is a provincial town, unrelievedly dull and grey, mean and nasty; at best mind-numbingly monotonous, at worst filthy and evil; peopled by eccentrics and madmen, mean, venal, and petty –  people whose souls are dead.

People whose souls are dead. Indeed. This town was first depicted by Gogol in the play The Government Inspector, and then, in the novel Dead Souls. In this novel, Gogol quite explicitly painted this town as Hell. Dead Souls was intended to be a tripartite work which, like Dante’s poem, was to depict Hell in he first part, Purgatory in the second and Paradise in the third: the third part was never written, and much of the second part was destroyed by Gogol himslf in what appears to have been a fit of insanity before his death: the only part we have left is the first part –  Gogol’s vision of Hell. And this vision of Hell appears to have haunted Russian literature ever since.

We see it repeatedly in Chekhov’s works. It is this Hell from which those three sisters longed so to escape to Moscow; it is this Hell that appears through so many of his short stories – “Ward No. 6”, “Ionych”, “In the Ravine”, and the novella My Life. In the wonderful novella Three Years, Yulia does manage to escape: she escapes to Moscow, as the three sisters had longed to do. She doesn’t quite find there the happiness she had hoped for, but she knows well what her fate would have been had she remained.

This town is also the setting for Saltykov-Schedrin’s remarkable The Golovlyov Family, where it seems that the only possible escape from this soulless desert is the grave: it is possibly the darkest and most despairing novel I have come across. This town is the setting, too, of Tolstoy’s last full-length novel, Resurrection, in which he looked in horror at the conflagration that was raging under his readers’ very noses, and at the enormity of the suffering human beings inflict on each other as a daily matter of course.

And this town appears in Dostoyevsky too – in The Devils, and also here, in The Brothers Karamazov. That grey, grotesque Hell Gogol depicted never seems far from the Russian literary imagination.

“Doctor Zhivago” & “The Blind Beauty”: Pasternak’s last testament

It’s been some two weeks now since I finished reading Doctor Zhivago and The Blind Beauty (the latter being the play Pasternak left unfinished when he died), and I have been delaying writing up my impressions because, despite allowing some time for these impressions to settle in my mind into some kind of coherent order, they refuse resolutely to do so: they are in as confused a state as ever, and I am frankly at a loss to know what to make of these works.

The first publication of Doctor Zhivago in the West, back in 1957 (the people of Pasternak’s own country had to wait till 1988), very sharply split critical judgement. Such eminent novelists as Vladimir Nabokov and Graham Greene were less than impressed; and yet, on the other side of the scale, such people as V.S. Pritchett, Stuart Hampshire, Isaiah Berlin – all people of incisive intellect and discerning taste – were ecstatic. Edmund Wilson, not a man given to gushing, described it as “one of the great events of man’s literary and moral history”. And yet, one can see why the likes of Nabokov and Greene remained unconvinced: Pasternak was a poet rather than a novelist, and it is perhaps not overstating the case to say that, judged purely as a novel, Doctor Zhivago is a mess. The narrative is episodic and disjointed, the pacing often badly judged, the long-term development of character at best crude, several important characters disastrously undercharacterised, the plotline all over the place, and so on. And yet – and it’s a big “yet” – I can think of very few novels I have read that have moved me quite as intensely as this. By any analysis – at least, by any analysis of which I am capable – it shouldn’t move: and yet it does. And I’m not sure why.

The whole picture becomes further confused by David Lean’s film, since, like it or not (and those who love the book probably don’t), it is this film that forms most people’s impressions of Doctor Zhivago. The film focuses on the romantic element of the novel, and sentimentalises it. It can be argued that there are elements in the book also that, at least, come close to being sentimental, but there’s nothing in the book that can justify the overdose of sugar Lean provides in the film. (And neither are matters helped by Maurice Jarre’s sickly-sweet score, or by two incredibly wooden performances at the centre from Omar Sharif and Julie Christie.) However, one aspect of the film that is, it seems to me, an accurate reflection of the novel is its visual beauty: Freddie Young’s cinematography is majestic, and extraordinarily beautiful, and this sense of the sheer beauty of nature, of the world, is also, it seems to me, an integral part of the novel. I hesitate to make this point, as it sounds like what I tend to call a “penny-in-the-slot” criticism – i.e. one of those comments that can be made without having to think too deeply: Pasternak was a poet, therefore he had poetic gifts, therefore his novel is poetic and lyrical … and so on. But the beauty of the world, reflected in the lyricism of Pasternak’s prose (which comes through strongly in the translation by Manya Harari and Max Hayward, if not necessarily, I gather, in the more recent and more literally correct translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), is not an incidental aspect of the novel: it is central to it. Pasternak was writing in a time where even the description of the beauty of a tree was a political statement, a statement against totalitarianism.

For this novel is, inevitably, a political statement. This made it rather suspect during the Cold War: of course, behind the Iron Curtain, it was banned altogether, but many in the West suspected the extent to which the ecstatic reactions to the novel were shaped by appreciation purely of its literary qualities, or merely by approval of its politics. Now that the Cold War is behind us, we may, perhaps, judge this issue more dispassionately, and, in my admittedly confused judgement, it seems to me that its aesthetic qualities and its political content cannot be separated: the lyricism of Doctor Zhivago is not merely that of a poet being poetic; rather, it constitutes the very essence of this profoundly anti-totalitarian novel. It is a celebration, or, if not a celebration as such, at least an affirmation, of everything that totalitarianism attempts to suppress – human feelings, human emotions, the human sense of beauty, human individuality, the apprehension of love, the need for companionship, for affection … indeed, the novel is an affirmation of everything that is human.

Not, of course, that Pasternak’s politics were in any way simplistic. If, after the Revolution, the Mad ruled the Lunatics, Pasternak had no illusion about the times when the Lunatics used to rule the Mad. Radical social change, Pasternak knew, had to come: indeed, it was to be welcomed. (Ironically, given that this novel was long regarded as a Cold War propaganda tool for the West, one of the reasons Nabokov disliked it was that, in his opinion, it was too sympathetic to the October Revolution!) Pasternak goes out of his way to depict the sense of joy, of hope, that attended the advent of the Revolution – “The Advent of the Inevitable”, as one chapter title has it.

In their different ways, both Yuri Zhivago and Pasha Antipov – the two men Lara loves – epitomise that sense of hope. On the surface, it would appear that Zhivago is the poet and dreamer, while Pasha is the practical man, but the surface is deceptive: Zhivago, as well as being a poet, is, as the title of the novel emphasises, a doctor. It is Pasha who is the wide-eyed idealist, and Pasternak knew as well as did Ibsen how dangerous such idealists are. But Lara continues to love Pasha just as much as she loves Yuri. This is so even when Pasha metamorphoses into General Strelnikov in the brutal Civil War – the brutality of which, incidentally, Pasternak does not underplay: some passages were so horrendous, I could barely force myself to read them.  Pasternak seems to emphasise that Pasha does not become Strelnikov because he has been corrupted: rather, he merely does what has to be done to keep his ideals alive. Later, of course, after the Civil War, Pasha himself falls out of favour: there is no room for idealism in this Brave New World, any more than there had been in the Brave Old one. And, in one of the most moving scenes I think I have read in fiction, Yuri and Pasha, the two men who had loved and have lost Lara – two men, indeed, who have lost everything, even any reason for continuing to live – meet and speak to each other. It is true that at certain points in the novel, there has been a naivety touching on the sentimental: but there’s no naivety or sentimentality in that passage where Pasha tries desperately to picture Lara as a living, physical presence, and questions Yuri on exactly how she used to shake the rug.

But the enigma remains: if there is so much wrong with the novel – and there undoubtedly is – then why did it affect me so profoundly? It could just be that I’m merely sentimental, and I’d be happy to accept that answer were it not that other people very far from being sentimental have been similarly affected by it. This is where I find myself at a loss to explain myself. I could offer the usual “penny-in-the-slot” observations – Pasternak’s lyricism; his ability to evoke precisely states of mind, of pain, of loneliness; his use of imagery, and so on – but these are but banal observations, and I find it very difficult to delve deeper. Take, for instance, that image of the rowanberries: this image is first introduced in a folk song Zhivago hears, in which the rowanberries are associated with a longing for one who is absent; it reappears in different contexts, and, the last time it appears, it describes the drops of blood of a suicide on the snow: these drops of blood, Pasternak tells us, looked like “iced rowanberries”. For reasons I cannot quite explain, my heart seemed to give a leap at this point, and I found myself temporarily unable to read on further. How many better constructed novels, I wonder, could affect me in quite such a manner?


Despite being primarily a poet, Pasternak had intended Doctor Zhivago, a novel, and The Blind Beauty, a play, to be his final artistic testament. Of course Doctor Zhivago ends with a sequence of poems purportedly written by Zhivago himself, and, despite the modest claims of translators Harari and Hayward of having provided merely literal translations of these verses, without any attempt at being “poetic”, the translated versions do give at least some impression of the poetic quality of the originals. But for all that, Doctor Zhivago is a novel, and, in the non-Russian speaking world, at least, it is the prose narrative rather than the collection of poems at the end that is most highly valued.

But The Blind Beauty is a work that is barely known at all. I myself had not heard of it until I found it, purely by chance, while browsing through that lovely little bookshop in Clitheroe. Perhaps it is little known because it is unfinished: only about half of its projected length was completed, and in its current state, it is, I’d imagine, unperformable. But more than that, I suspect it is little known simply because Pasternak was even less of a playwright than he was a novelist.

The opening two scenes forms what Pasternak calls a “Prologue”. The first of these scenes is a very long one, and is set on a Russian estate during the days of “serfdom” – or, not to mince words, “slavery”. The master and the mistress are away, because they can’t bear the wailing and the howling that occur when serfs are forcibly impressed into the army. And there are memories of even crueller times, when a former mistress of the estate used to murder serfs – hundreds of them – just for fun. (Apparently, this was no mere invention on Pasternak’s part: a certain real-life person called Saltykova who lived in the latter part of the 18th century did actually murder an estimated 140 or so of her serfs just for the sheer pleasure of it.)

But things are not well with the Master and Mistress either. In the midst of all the cruelty, the suffering, the birchings, the starving, in this country estate surrounded by forests filled with cut-throat robbers, Master has been mismanaging his finances, and, much to the Mistress’ chagrin, wants to sell off her jewels. And the Mistress isn’t going to stand for this. So they fiddle along while all around them seems to be in flames. The first scene develops nicely enough into a series of big climaxes with attempted murder, robbers breaking in, shooting, the blinding of a serf housemaid, and so on, but it is often dramatically crude, and one wonders where it can all be leading to.

The first act proper is set on the eve of the emancipation of the serfs. We find ourselves in a posting station in which a traveller is stranded. This traveller hears from the locals about what has been going on in the neighbourhood: he hears of the events we had witnessed in the prologue, and of their terrible aftermath, as an entirely innocent man was found guilty and whipped till all his skin hung loose, his flesh all mushed and bloody.

It is, of course, quite a common dramatic device: to bring in a stranger, and to let the audience pick up the back-story from what the stranger is told. The only odd thing about it here is that this stranger, for no obvious reason that I could discern, happens to be Alexandre Dumas. Yes, it is true that  Dumas did travel across Russia at this time, but exactly what point is served by bringing him into the play I really can’t imagine.

And that is how Pasternak left it at the time of his death. He had made it clear in his correspondence that he intended this play, along with the epic Doctor Zhivago, to be his final  artistic testament; and that he intended the play to have a scope comparable to that of the novel. But, to judge purely on the unfinished text left behind, it is best described, I think, as an “enigma”. In other words, I don’t have the first idea what to make of it, and any thoughts anyone has on this matter would be much appreciated.

How the Owl and the Pussycat Met

The Owl (it is said) took as given (or read)
His drinking was second to none,
When out on the town he could easily down
Twelve pints with some chasers for fun.
Ev’n rum he drank neat, a remarkable feat,
Red wine he could drink by the gallon,
The state he got in even bottles of gin
Would scarce wet his beak (or his talon)
(his talon)
(his talon)
Would scarce wet his beak (or his talon).

One night at the bar after many a jar,
He proudly declared loud and clear,
“Should anyone think they can match me in drink
They’re welcome to prove it right here.”
In awe of the bird, for a while no-one stirred,
They stayed on their seats where they sat,
Till – would you believe it? – well, take it or leave it –
There stepped out a mangy old Cat
Old Cat
Old Cat
There stepped out a mangy old Cat.

The booze flowed all night as this trial of might
Continued till night turned to morn,
Left nearly for dead, at last the Owl said,
“I wish I had never been born!”
His head hurt like hell, he was retching as well,
The Cat stood in triumph o’er the bird,,
“Great heavens above!” thought the Owl, “I’m in love!”
“Please marry me!” “OK” she purred,
She purred,
She purred.
“Please marry me!” “OK,” she purred.

(Please note that the story of how the Owl and the Pussycat first met is subject to some controversy. Alternative versions of the story may be found here, and here.)

Dostoyevsky and me

It was love at first sight: the first time I read Dostoyevsky, I fell madly in love with him.

Like, I suspect., most instances of love at first sight, the subsequent romance hasn’t entirely been smooth sailing: my feelings about Dostoyevsky now are ambivalent, at best. But it’s hard to forget that impression that those novels made on me in my teens. First, when I had just turned fifteen, there was Crime and Punishment; and then came The Brothers Karamazov; and, then, as a young university student, in between my physics textbooks, there were his other major novels – The Idiot, and The Devils. I greedily lapped up everything else by Dostoyevsky I could get hold of – Notes From Underground, From The House of the Dead, The Gambler, The Double, and so on.

What impressed me, amongst other things, was that here was a writer who was obviously dealing with big themes – the nature of morality, the problem of suffering, the immortality of the soul, and all those other things Russian novelists address without the slightest hint of embarrassment; and yet, these ideas were presented in so feverishly dramatic a manner! At each page, everything was either exploding, or threatening to explode. I have fond memories still of Christmas Day in 1975, when I was fifteen: after Christmas dinner, as we were all digesting the turkey, I remember making some excuse to go up to my room for an hour or so to get my Karamazov fix for the day: I just couldn’t keep away.

As years passed, I, perhaps inevitably, became less wide-eyed, and more sceptical. What had appeared to me dramatic now seemed, more often than not, merely hysterical. And, as I found new literary perspectives opening up, I began to wonder whether, in my youthful naivety, I had not been taken in by the older ones. I would look back on some of the passages that only a few years earlier had thrilled me, and find, instead of the brilliance that I had seen with younger eyes, merely an exaggerated and contrived straining for effect. Had I really been taken in so badly? I wondered.

It was a long time before I had the courage to revisit the works, and this I tried to do with as open a mind as was possible. I was in my mid-thirties when, tentatively, I tried re-reading The Brothers Karamazov, and, then, The Idiot. And, to my surprise, I found once again something of that excitement I had felt as a teenager, but now, only intermittently.

The Idiot, I felt, was full of superb things: that long set-piece of Nastasya  Filipovna’s name-day party, with its slow but inexorable build-up to a series of breathtaking climaxes; Ippolit’s journal; the wild, grotesque humour – often reminiscent of Gogol; the sense of foreboding when Myshkin first visits Rogozhin in his huge, rambling old house; that virtuoso passage where Myshkin and Rogozhin trail each other through the streets; that unforgettably intense finale; and so on. And yet, for all that brilliance, the novel seemed to me very badly compromised by the under-characterisation of Aglaya, one of the principal protagonists of the drama. I got the impression of the author as a brilliant improviser – a writer who could invent the most astonishing and powerful scenes, but whose long-term planning could go badly off the rails.

This impression was deepened by The Brothers Karamazov, which seemed to me only intermittently to catch fire – although when it did catch fire, it was breathtakingly good. I don’t think there’s anything in all of literature quite like those three chapters where Ivan talks to Alyosha, and explains to him why he cannot accept religion. This sequence climaxes with the quite extraordinary chapter “The Grand Inquisitor”, and reading the whole thing after so many years, even with a mind less willing to be impressed than previously, I found myself quite blown away by it all: it was like a hammering inside the head.

I tried Crime and Punishment again last year, and once again, I was impressed, but only intermittently. The virtues of this novel are too well-known to be rehearsed yet again, but alongside writing of the greatest imaginative intensity were passages that seemed to me merely crude, or even mawkish. And in the meantime, I read the book Dostoyevsky by Rowan Williams: however, the Most Reverend and Right Honourable the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury, despite being an acknowledged expert on the theology of the Russian Church, did not strike me as the most lucid of writers, and the book mystified at least as much as it enlightened.

I do acknowledge, though, that my own very limited understanding of theology may well have contributed to the mystification: for Dostoyevsky is, it seems to me, a profoundly religious writer. This doesn’t mean his novels are proselytising works: they are exploratory in nature rather than declamatory. But the themes explored are religious themes. Looking back, I think point this rather escaped me when I first gobbled up those books in my teenage years: then, I imagined Ivan’s arguments against God were unanswerable, and that, as a consequence, one had no choice but to accept them. My last reading indicated that while it is true that Ivan’s broadside against religion is never answered, his is by no means the last word. The novel is, after all, primarily a work of the imagination, and is not a formal debate in which the argument that cannot logically be answered necessarily wins.

So now, some fifteen years or so after my last reading, I return to The Brothers Karamazov. Perhaps I knew all along that I had to read it again: as on that Christmas Day some thirty-five years ago, I still cannot keep away from it, not even with my adult reservations. What will I make of it this time round, I wonder? I have decided to keep a Karamazov Diary here on my blog: not a regular summary of What I Read in The Last Few Chapters – that sort of thing would be a bit boring, rather like those War And Peace synopses I put up here not so long ago: no – what I had in mind were irregular pieces in which I put down whatever thoughts come into mind as I am reading. A bit like thinking out loud, I suppose.

For, whatever reservations one may have about Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov is one of those handful of works, one of those towering masterpieces, against which the reader is measured. Its stature is beyond dispute: but what I can take out of it is another matter.

“Mansfield Park”: a grudging appreciation

First of all, let me apologise in advance to all fans of Austen out there: I really do not intend to indulge in Austen-bashing – that is not the purpose of this post. It seems pointless and childish to be arguing along the lines of “My taste is better than yours”: it’s far more interesting to try to understand why one responds well to certain things, and not so well to others – why it is that our responses may legitimately differ. And I must confess, I have never responded favourably to Austen. I don’t dispute her stature as a major novelist, but I have never, for all that, felt drawn to her works, and find the greatest difficulty in attempting to incorporate her view of life into my own. 

This is not because she is essentially a “woman’s writer” (whatever that means), or because her novels are, as is often claimed,  forerunners of chick-lit. Despite all the wit and sparkle on the surface, only the most obtuse of readers could overlook her mastery of craft, the sharpness of her insights, and, indeed, the essential seriousness of her intent. No – what I find difficult is a certain coldness:  reading through her works, I am constantly reminded of Charlotte Brontë’s criticism: Austen’s works, she said, were “bloodless”. Of course, it may be said that just about anyone’s work is “bloodless” compared to the novels written by the Brontës, but the criticism strikes me as particularly apt. In Austen’s novels, human emotions seem to be held at arm’s length, and powerful passions are well beyond limits; furthermore, the author seems not to like too many of her characters: most are there to be looked down upon, to be sneered at; and there seems never to be an open laugh, as there is so frequently in Dickens: all the laughs here are at someone’s expense; and so on. These novels of Austen seem to me the works of someone very deeply censorious of human behaviour, someone who prefers to look down on human behaviour from an exalted height rather than to descend to their level, someone who likes to keep a decorous distance because she prefers not to be sullied by the sheer messiness of human affairs.

This is no doubt a very unfair and one-sided picture of a great novelist: it may rightly be said that, as with all great novelists, there are many aspects to Austen’s art, and that to characterise them in such terms as I have done above is no more than to caricature them, and, in the process, to misrepresent them. I plead guilty to all that. And yet, try as I might, I can’t get over a general sense of dislike. And I keep coming back to this dislike because my failure to enjoy the works of an author of such obvious quality is very clearly indicative of the way I perceive literature, and, perhaps, of the way I perceive life itself. 

For many years, I thought that I just didn’t get Austen, but nowadays, I feel that I do get Austen, but I don’t like what I get: her perspective is far too alien to my sensibilities. To complicate matters, I find myself increasingly attracted to the works of Flaubert, who, at a cursory glance, may seem very similar to Austen in many respects: both view humanity with an ironic detachment; both are censorious, and harsh in their judgements; both look down on many of their creations; both are lacking in warmth, preferring instead to view humanity with the clarity of a cold and unsentimental light. And yet, for all that, they are different: were they not so, I could hardly dislike the one and love the other. If I can react so differently to these two writers, there must be differences – very significant differences – between their writings. And it’s these differences that I am trying here to untangle. 

A few years ago, in an attempt to come to terms with Austen, I read through all her novels again. To my surprise, I found that I rather liked her last written novel, Persuasion: towards the end of her brief life, she shows evidence of tolerance of human foibles, of warmth, and even of geniality – all those qualities I find so conspicuously lacking in her earlier works. Possibly she was thawing out with age, and, had she lived longer, we may have seen further evidence of this. But if Persuasion was the novel I liked best, the novel that intrigued me most was Mansfield Park.

Having read some critical responses to Mansfield Park, it seems that my reading of the book is somewhat idiosyncratic, as, against the critical grain, its principal themes seem to me to be displacement and identity. Fanny is displaced very dramatically at the age of ten – taken away from her parents, from her siblings (to at least some of whom she is particularly attached), and transported far away to an entirely different environment, with no prospect of seeing again the only world she has known. This, at any age, is traumatic: at so impressionably early an age, it must be shattering. To make it worse, the world into which she is displaced is cold and loveless. How does a mere child deal with this?

And it gets worse. Soon after Fanny moves to Mansfield Park, a brother to whom she had been particularly attached dies in her absence. One can but imagine the emotional trauma this must have caused. Indeed, one has to imagine it, because not only does Austen not depict this trauma, she doesn’t even bother mentioning the death until much later in the novel.

I think the reason for this is that Austen wants to discourage any sympathy for Fanny that mention of this might occasion in the reader. We may remember the depictions in the early chapters of David Copperfield or of Jane Eyre of the profound emotions that a child may experience. But Austen has no desire to go in that direction. Now, this suppression of the brother’s death seems to me as emotionally manipulative as anything in The Old Curiosity Shop, but from the other side: where Dickens wants to involve the reader emotionally (to the extent of forcing false emotions in the particular instance of The Old Curiosity Shop), Austen manipulates the reader into feeling as little emotion as possible. I certainly can’t think of any other reason why Austen should suppress so momentous an event as the death of Fanny’s brother. I can’t say I find this emotional distancing particularly endearing, and, given the choice, would personally prefer Dickensian sentimentality even at its worst to such emotional coldness.

This is not to suggest an artistic failure on Austen’s part: on the contrary, she achieves exactly what she aims for. Emotional coldness is very characteristic of the whole ethos of Mansfield Park (the novel and the place).  But Mansfield Park is a place to which Fanny becomes, over time, closely attached.  People who are unsure of where they belong feel more strongly than most the need to belong – to belong somewhere; and, since the only realistic option in Fanny’s case is Mansfield Park, she embraces its ethos wholeheartedly, and becomes, as it were, more Mansfieldian than the Mansfieldians.

Later in the novel, when Fanny’s brother William appears, we sense a certain warmth of feeling between brother and sister – a remnant of past times. But we observe no such warmth in the Bertram family, no sense of affection between parents and children, between sibling and sibling. The symbol of Mansfield Park is the cold, fireless room in which Fanny likes to sit on her own: it is here she feels most at ease.

Into this environment come the Crawfords, who infect the grey coldness of Mansfield Park with their glittering brightness and vivacity. Fanny, wedded to Mansfieldian values, disapproves of them, as she disapproves of the very un-Mansfieldian moral laxity into which she perceives her cousins being led; but, as a ward, she knows better than to give open expression to her disapproval. Given the various layers of irony characteristic of Austen, it is hard to see whether she approves of Fanny’s moral rectitude, or whether she sees Fanny’s censoriousness as merely prissy. Perhaps it doesn’t matter: if Austen had felt it important for the reader to know where she herself stood on the matter, she would, no doubt, have told us: any ambiguity on this point is surely deliberate. But what we surely sense – and are intended to sense – is that for all the outward differences, the Crawfords are emotionally shallow, and as incapable of depth of feeling as are any of the Bertrams (except, possibly, for the rather serious-minded Edmund).

In the climactic chapters of the novel, Fanny is sent back to her family in Portsmouth for a while, as a sort of punishment for refusing what the Bertrams would have considered a good match for a penniless ward. It is here that the strand involving Fanny’s sense of identity – the principal thematic strand, I think, of the novel –  is resolved. For Fanny’s Portsmouth family is everything the Bertrams aren’t. I’d describe them as Dickensian were it not that this novel preceded Dickens. And Fanny is horrified. She is horrified by the clutter, the noise, the crowdedness. The same lassitude that Fanny had accepted without comment in her Mansfield Park aunt she now finds intolerable in her Portsmouth mother. And she realises, once and for all, that it is Mansfield Park, with all its coldness, that is her true spiritual home: she is now certain of her identity, of who she is.

And yet, this resolution is highly problematic. Fanny chooses Mansfield Park over Portsmouth because her own origins disgust her, and to feel ashamed of one’s origins is not a particularly likeable trait (it’s what I tend to call the VS Naipaul Syndrome): speaking for myself, I find it rather distasteful. But in this context, it is entirely believable. The disgust Fanny feels on seeing her Portsmouth family is not too far removed from the disgust Gulliver feels on seeing the Yahoos: no Houyhnhnmn ever felt as strong a sense of disgust at the Yahoos as Gulliver feels, and this is because, unlike the Houyhnhmns, Gulliver is afraid that he may be a Yahoo himself.

There is one scene in particular that sticks in the mind. When Henry comes to visit Fanny in Portsmouth, the two of them accidentally come across Fanny’s father, who has had a bit to drink. And Fanny is dreadfully ashamed that Henry should know this drunken man to be her father. But why? It’s not as if her father is completely inebriated, and is making an exhibition of himself; and one would be very surprised if Henry were himself to be a stranger to alcohol. And in any case, is not Fanny convinced of Henry’s un-Mansfieldian unworthiness? Why should she care what he thinks of her father, and, by extension, of herself? But for all that, Fanny is mortified by the mere thought that a person with some association with Mansfield Park, her adopted spiritual home, could judge her, Mansfieldian Fanny, as belonging to that world her father inhabits. I find this a deeply distasteful scene, and all the more so because it is so very believable.

In the end, of course, after a series of off-stage events (which, if my reading is correct, do not constitute the resolution of the principal strand of the novel: that resolution takes place very much on-stage in Portsmouth), Fanny finds herself exactly where she wanted – married to Edmund, and mistress of her spiritual home. It is hard to read through the layers of irony to discover what Austen wants us to feel about it all. Is this the vindication of Fanny’s moral rectitude? Or is it something more ambiguous than that? However one reads it, one may note Fanny’s unyielding censoriousness: even when Sir Thomas wonders whether it was right to have married his daughter Maria off to someone she clearly did not love (feelings such as love not having much value in Mansfieldian currency), Fanny remains, as ever, unbending, more Mansfieldian than the Mansfieldians.

All this makes for a perceptive novel, indeed, a great novel, but not, as far as I can see, a particularly likeable one. Admittedly, it’s not the most representative of Austen’s novels: although many rate it as her greatest and her most profound work, it is generally seen to lack the charm and the surface brilliance that Austenites so value. However, it does exhibit what I see as a typical Austenite trait – an emotional coldness, an unwillingness to engage with deeply felt emotions (even when the content may seem to demand such an engagement), a reluctance to get too close to human passions.

Let us now move on to Flaubert, who at first glance, may appear similar. But there is, it seems to me, one major difference: Flaubert was deeply attached to Romantic values.

It has long seemed to me that the novel as a form could not accommodate the soaring qualities of Romanticism. It seems to me, further, that this was the reason the novel as a form went into a sort of decline during the late 18th century and the early 19th centuries (the only indisputably major novelist of that era, Jane Austen, being decidedly un-Romantic); and that when the novel reasserted itself once again as a major literary form, it could only do so because, with a few notable exceptions, novelists had, by and large, turned their backs on Romanticism. This is not to say that they all embraced realism: some of the greatest of novelists – Gogol, Dickens, Dostoyevsky – had no interest at all in surface realism, and presented highly stylised fictional worlds. But there’s little in the great 19th century novels that can truly be called Romantic. (I’m speaking in very general terms here, and am, inevitably, generalising quite crudely.) And this turning away from Romanticism is, itself, one of Flaubert’s major themes.

Madame Bovary, as any student crib notes will tell you, is about the futility of life. It tells you how pointless everything is. This is true up to a point, but if we only see up to that point, we miss virtually all the riches. Because merely to say that life is futile is neither particularly interesting nor profound – even if it should happen to be true. Anyone can say that. But Flaubert goes deeper.

Somerset Maugham once wondered why Flaubert made Charles Bovary die of grief after Emma’s death. Surely, Maugham argued, if he’d got over it and married again, that would have added another note of futility. I think this is why, despite his talents, Maugham could never be anything other than a second-rater compared to someone like Flaubert. Because in Flaubert’s vision, one cannot dismiss humanity with a casual shrug of the shoulders, and a cheerful “What does it matter anyway?” That is far too easy. It does matter – it matters because these characters, absurd and stupid though they may be, are nonetheless sentient beings capable of depth of feeling. And that can’t be shrugged away. Even a figure as absurd and as stupid as Charles Bovary cannot be dismissed, because, despite everything, he is capable of feeling deeply. The scene where he and Homais stay up together after Emma’s death is almost unbearably moving – all the more so because Charles’ understanding of the situation is so inadequate.

Emma Bovary is not the brightest of people: her Romanticism is merely sentimental. To have presented her as a pure representative of Romantic ideals who is crushed by a philistine world would have been far too formulaic and crude for an author as subtle as Flaubert. Emma’s Romanticism is just as stupid and as insipid as Homais’ philistinism: the rebellion is just as flawed as that which it is rebelling against – and therein lies the profound sadness of it all.

We may or may not sympathise with Emma, but that, I think, is perhaps beside the point. The emotions we sympathise with – or at least, the emotions that I find myself sympathising with – are the author’s. And these are emotions of deep sadness – sadness that life should be like this, when those ideals that he still can’t bring himself to discard tell him it should be so much more. Romanticism urged us all to aspire towards something great and noble, and the sorrowful awareness that humanity is not capable of this is at the heart of just about everything Flaubert wrote.

Austen knew this too: of course humanity could not strive towards the transcendent as the Romantics urged them to do! The very idea! But where Flaubert found this tragic, Austen found this merely amusing. And there, I think, lies the difference. Where Austen refused to take human beings too seriously, Flaubert took them very seriously indeed. While Austen regarded human inadequacy with an amused smile, Flaubert shook his head in sadness.

It is this that accounts for Flaubert giving Charles Bovary depth of feeling, and Austen keeping from any strong emotion a decorous distance. In an Austen novel, a character such as Charles would have been no more than a laughing stock: unlike Flaubert, Austen seems temperamentally incapable of taking seriously a figure as absurd as Charles. Take for instance Austen’s representation of Miss Bates in Emma: Austen knows that despite her absurdity, she is a harmless lady, and that it is ungentle and unkind to poke fun at her. Mr Knightley says all this quite openly. And yet, Austen herself  just couldn’t resist poking fun at this harmless creature; and she didn’t (or couldn’t) depict any aspect of Miss Bates that gives her any sort of depth. She couldn’t, in short, make of her what Flaubert had made of Charles Bovary: at no point is Miss Bates depicted as anything other than a tiresome old bat.

Ultimately, what one does or does not respond to is a matter of individual temperament, and I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy Austen’s amused detachment. It is Flaubert’s deep sorrow that continues to attract me, and, indeed, to move me.