Monday, October 03, 2011

Eight Great Books!

Well! In your silent multitudes, you have made your voices heard! I confess, I'd totally forgotten the email response I got the last time I posted a book-list here on Stevereads - I'd certainly forgotten the enthusiasm, and I shouldn't have: after all, who doesn't love a good list? Perhaps I forgot because I'm busy preparing the Mother of All Lists, that annual Stevereads gotterdammerung, the Best (and Worst) Books of the Year, but in any case, I immediately set aside my planned week's worth of Taylor Lautner posts in favor of another list for you all. Last time, I gave you eight very good novels - this time, I've moved to a slightly higher weight division: these are eight novels that are better than very good, eight novels that are richer, more ambitious, and more rewarding than your average very good novel ... eight great novels. They're all contemporary ('eight great novels' from the canon being perhaps a tad predictable), and unless I'm very much mistaken, they'll all be venerated by posterity in due course!


Eustace and Hilda by L. P. Hartley (one-volume published in 1958)

This fat volume contains three long chapters - The Shrimp and the Anemone, The Sixth Heaven, and Eustace and Hilda - that come together Lord of the Rings-style to form one enormous narrative, the life-story of the two main characters, weak and squishy Eustace and forceful take-charge Hilda. Through them and their evolving relationship, Hartley is able to present the reader with almost the entire picture of his warped, incredibly complicated view of human relationships, and as if that weren't fascinating enough, the books are also chock-full of glittering tossed-off bits on subjects ranging from Hartley's beloved Venice:
Lady Nelly came out from the cool, porphyry-tinted twilight of St. Mark's into the strong white sunshine of the Piazza.

The heat, like a lover, had possessed the day; its presence, as positive and self-confident as an Italian tenor's, rifled the senses and would not be denied.

To his equally-pronounced love of sharp dialogue:
"I wish I was a writer," said Heloise earnestly, before Eustace had time to think out a reply. "Then I could let everyone know what a wonderful time Lady Nelly's giving us."

Even Eustace, whose conversational approaches were fairly guileless, felt this to be an unsophisticated remark.

"She wouldn't thank you," said Lord Morebambe. "She likes her affairs kept private."

But Lady Nelly did not seem to agree.

"Nonsense, Harry," she said. "I'm only too pleased to know that Heloise is enjoying herself. How could I know if she didn't tell me?"

"Well, you could see if she was crying," said Lord Morecambe.

The reader cares about poor Eustace and even cares about less sympathetic Hilda, and this is one of those novel-sequences that manages to capture the feeling of time's passage so effectively that readers will feel they've lived an entire life with these two characters and their fascinating supporting cast. The subject matter is resolutely Jamesian in its tight domestic focus (comparatively little actually happens in the course of the story), which makes it all the more mysterious to me why this big volume isn't better known and more properly venerated. Nice that the NYRB people reprinted it, however.

The Car Thief by Theodore Weesner (1987)

Weesner's cult novel is nominally about juvenile delinquent Alex Housman, the young car thief of the title who gets caught and sent away to a boys' reformatory outside a city a lot like Detroit in its gritty desperation:
Another time, walking on the stadium field just after the game, Alex had seen a white man with a red-and-black ribboned badge on his jacket, flushed and very drunk - he might have said something - wiped out in seconds by a black handkerchief-head in a red-and-gray jacket, wearing leather gloves. The black kid, a bullet, suddenly danced and struck, hit the man in the jaw and knocked him bodily from where he had been walking. The man, fleshy and middle-aged, stumbled back a few feet, and the black kid moved after him, his leather fists flashing, hitting the man's face s if throwing a flurry at a body bag, splattering blood from the man's mouth and nose, until the man, as if already out and only needing room to fall, collapsed from the knees to the ground, as the black kid slipped away.

The city. Alex felt little desire to go there any more.

But really the book is about the fractured and oddly noble relationship between Alex and his hard-drinking father, who remains in the reader's mind long after the details of Alex have begun to blur. This is a beautifully written but jagged-edged book, as painfully honest a depiction of the father-son dynamic as anything I know in 20th century fiction.

Paradise Postponed by John Mortimer (1985)

Despite its illustrious competition (Nadas!), I myself consider this lush, sharply ironic novel to be the single best item on our list today. On one level, it's the story of the saintly and ultimately enigmatic rector Simeon Simcox, and his two sons, but in its sprawl and intelligence and compassion, it's really about the perilous comforts of postwar England. Critics at the time of its original publication made inevitable comparisons to Brideshead Revisited - not only because the plot involves old properties and rich people, but also because Mortimer was well-known for his brilliant screenplay adaptation of Waugh's book for the BBC mini-series. And there are plenty of moments where the comparison seems apt, both in setting:
Rapstone Manor is an old house on a hill a little way out of the village and has been, since Edward IV rewarded a steward with a sense of humour with the gift of a manor and the estates of Rapstone, the home of the Fanner family. The house was begun in the middle ages, added to under the Tudors and extended at the Restoration, when the Fanners received their reward for continued loyalty to the Royalist cause. An eighteenth-century Fanner built a new facade and a Victorian Fanner put on the ostentatious portico which gives the house the disconsolate air of a small city railway station set down in the middle of the countryside, with no trains. It's a house shaded by large trees, approached up a long drive, set in a park where the deer are constantly on the look-out for ways of escape from death at the hands of Tom Nowt.

And in the snatches of ethos behind the novel's many theological scenes, as when one old friend of the family muses:
"You can't change people. You know that. You can't make them stop hating each other, or longing to blow up the world, not by walking through the rain and singing to a small guitar. Most you can do for them is pull them out of the womb, thump them on the backside and let them get on with it"

But every time I read this incredible novel (incredible also that Mortimer wrote it at all - it's like finding out that "P. G. Wodehouse" was actually a pen-name for Louis Auchincloss), I'm more firmly convinced that it's a response not to Brideshead but to A Dance to the Music of Time - it's equally full of quite ordinary characters getting caught in the rain and living their lives, and it's got even better zingers. The two other things the books have in common, alas, are that a) they're both amazing works of 20th century fiction, and b) they're both not exactly well-loved by the reading public. But there's always hoping.

The Memoirs of Christopher Columbus by Stephen Marlowe (1987)

This book is the funniest on our list - no mean feat, when that list is shared by John Mortimer! - and unlike with some of these other authors, it's no mystery at all why Stephen Marlowe never became a household name: he wrote an early novel about Xenophon's march to the sea, and he called ... The Shining. If that isn't enough to get you buried by the Fates, I don't know what is - and it worked: Marlowe's great novels (including that one) are all unknown.

This one is his best: Christopher Columbus narrating his own lavishly detailed life story, told with impeccable comic timing and, much like in Joseph Heller's God Knows, a paradoxically full awareness of the centuries that passed after his death. In this novel, it's no mistake to find our hero excoriating poor Washington Irving, nor is it unusual for him to take the long view of history while he's scene-setting:
A warning about the pages to follow. The language may daunt even the stout of heart. But the English in those days, isolated on their island and unaware of the strides toward refinement and culture made by the Renaissance in Italy and elsewhere on the Continent, spoke as they lived - crudely.

They may to some degree be excused. Everyone knows what happens after a war, say your average four-or-five-year war - carpet-baggers, Lost Generations, Iron Curtains, etc., etc. But suppose a country fought a war continuously for a hundred years and LOST?  This was England's predicament at the end of the Hundred Years War, as it's called, and I got there less than twenty years after the final battle at Castillon and the retreat from Bordeaux in 1453, which settled the conflict in France's favor. Following a century of casualties, privation, uncertainty, Joan of Arc, plague and finally defeat, the English wallowed in a kind of joyless carnality, and this was reflected in their speech.

Columbus is also alive to the many ironies of his subsequent veneration:
...this narrative is full of perverse twists because it mirrors life. Take John Cabot's place in history. Here's a real Italian, born in Genoa but a citizen of Venice even though he would be sailing under charter to England's King Henry VII when he made landfall in North America on Midsummer Day of 1497. And here am I, born at sea of recently converted Spanish Jewish parents, an accidental Italian who went almost everywhere but sailed exclusively for Spain. And how do the historians write it? They make me out to be the authentic paisan'  and call him plain John Cabot. Maybe one man in a hundred knows Giovanni Gaboto's the real paisan', not me, and all he did was discover North America where an Italian population almost as large as Italy's would eventually hold annual parades in my honor.

The novel is a sustained feat of high-spirited lampoonery, with plenty of deeply-felt emotion sneaked in while the reader is laughing. Most of those readers, seeing its portentous title on the spine (often mis-shelved in the biography section of used bookstores), might pass this book by - don't be one of those readers!

Fool's Errand by Louis Bayard (1999)

Bayard has since gone on to write curiously forgettable historical novels and light fantasias, but he started out writing this utterly charming and painfully heartfelt gay novel about a young man named Patrick who takes a nap in a little room while visiting some friends and is awakened by a gorgeous man in a bright sweater made of something that looks like vaguely Scottish (Shetland?) wool. The man disappears, and once Patrick is fully awake, he asks his hosts who he was - only to be told they don't recognize the description. In a surreal fashion, Patrick becomes obsessed with finding the dream-man he dubs Scottie (he's aided by his nebbishly friend Seth, for reasons the reader will guess long before Patrick does) and who he considers the perfect balm to the failure of his relationship with his long-time boyfriend Alex, who still occasionally twinges his regrets:
Alex was handsome - the remembrance came to Patrick with a little pang as he contemplated the mass of medium-brown hair not yet sacrificed to fashionable salon cuts, the bright hazel eyes, the intense regularity of the features - that clean, wholesome profile and the perfectly straight nose, the kind of nose a plastic surgeon would build templates from. Suddenly it seemed perfectly sensible to Patrick that someone who looked so - so ordered would need to impose a little order on his surroundings, would feel obliged to be the world's organizing intelligence.

Why had Patrick never allowed himself to be organized?

And why had he never really looked at Alex before? While they were still together? It seemed, in retrospect, they had always believed in avoiding each other's glance. Why was that?

Somewhere, he thought, Somewhere Seth is lurking.

The ending of Fool's Errand is unabashedly sentimental, and by the time they reach it, all but the most cynical readers will have felt they've earned it.

Lempriere's Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk (1991)

I've praised Norfolk many times here on Stevereads and elsewhere - I consider him one of the least-known great novelists working today, and although I'm personally partial to his idiosyncratic masterpiece In the Shape of a Boar, I, like many readers, first became acquainted with him through this novel, the febrile, hugely inventive re-imagining of poor hapless John Lempriere, eventual compiler of one of my favorite and most-consulted reference works, Lempriere's Dictionary. The novel by that name reads like a far, far more intelligent version of Katherine Neville's The Eight crossed with the historical fiction of Patrick O'Brian, and all of it compulsively overlaid with a classical patina:

The carriage wheels come to a slow halt, intruding more subtly into his daydream now, the two merging as John Lempriere watched the image of Aphrodite descended from the aether to earth in the guise of Juliette Casterleigh. The sun-burnt Cyprian, eyes wide and fishing nets forgotten at the sight of the goddess's birth, had his counterpart in the young Lempriere. His gaze unreturned, he watched slack-jawed at the vision of Venus Epistrophia in a spume of cream linen placing a delicate foot on the cracked foot-plate of the Casterleigh carriage.

This is a very intelligent, very, very strange novel - you won't have read anything quite like it, and if it prompts you to read more by Lawrence, so much the better.




A Book of Memories by Peter Nadas (1997) (1986 as Emlekiratok konyve)

This is the great big novel (700 pages) that was so egregiously over-praised when it first appeared that readers back then could be forgiven for thinking it was actually no good at all (Harry Mulisch's great 1992 novel The Discovery of Heaven suffered much the same fate, and you should read it too). But Nadas can't be blamed for feckless critics, and the reverse is true: this is a great novel, nominally set in 1970s East Berlin but, in typical Nadas fashion, narratively wandering everywhere and indulging in a low-key delirium of shifting perspectives - even, as in this virtuoso morning-after moment (Nadas being by far our best, most interesting writer about sex), a scene where brain and skin give almost conflicting accounts of the same sensations, each mitigating the other almost to a nullity:
The tiniest move could have broken this peacefulness, so I didn't even feel like opening my eyes; I was hanging on to something that had become final between us then, in the shared warmth of our bodies, and I didn't want her to see my eyes, to see how frightened I was of what was to come - it was good like this, let fear be mine! - of my body I felt only the parts her body could make me feel: under the rucked-up silk dress the moist surface of her skin touching mine - that was my thigh; at the level of her neck my own breath mingling with the whiffs of stifling odor rising from her armpits; I felt the hard edge of a hip that may have been mine, its hardness the hardness of my bone; I felt my shoulder and back even when my shoulder and back still felt the arm, for somehow even the receding weight left an impression in the flesh and bones; and when she also raised her head a bit to take a better look at the bite mark on my neck, I was glad to be able to watch through barely raised eyelashes, not exposing my eyes; all she could see was the quiver of the lids, the flutter of the lashes; she couldn't imagine how scared I was, and we hadn't even begun, but I could see her in almost perfect clarity, looking at my neck, yes, I could fool her so easily; she looked at it long, even touched the spot with her stiff finger; her lips parted, edged closer, and kissed it where it still hurt a little.

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane (2008)

Lehane is of course famous for his anemic Boston-based murder mysteries, so this big, rich historical novel - centering around the 1919 Boston police strike but broadening to encompass, Dos Passos-style, the entire first half of the 20th century - came as a big surprise to me. Lehane writes about everything in this overstuffed book with real, practiced knowledge and a sharp trust in the intelligence of his readers, and although Babe Ruth steals the show, it's only natural that the book's many scenes featuring the police (and their corrupt, conniving bosses) should have an extra crackle to them:
Commissioner Curtis sat behind his desk with a revolver lying just to the right of his ink blotter. "So, it's begun."

Mayor Peters nodded. "It has, Commissioner."

Curtis's bodyguard stood behind him with his arms folded across his chest. Another waited outside the door. Neither was from the department, because Curtis no longer trusted any of the men. They were Pinkertons. The one behind Curtis looked old and rheumatic, as if any sudden movement would send his limbs flying off. The one outside was obese. Neither, Peters decided, looked fit enough to provide protection with their bodies, so tehy could only be one other things: shooters.

"We need to call out the State Guard," Peters said.

Curtis shook his head. "No."

"That's not your decision, I'm afraid."

Curtis leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling. "It's not yours either, Mr. Mayor. It's the governor's. I just got off the phone with him not five minutes ago and he made it very clear, we are not to engaged the Guard at this juncture."

"What juncture would you two prefer?" Peters said. "Rubble?"

Lehane works in racial unrest, bare-knuckle boxing, and even a fairly convincing love story, and he does it all with a no-nonsense honesty reminiscent of Elmore Leonard, and he makes you believe every word of it. Tough to go back to reading his South Boston whodunits, after this.

And there you have it! Eight great contemporary novels to satisfy your cravings, should you be in a used bookstore and be in the mood! And as always, keep in mind the full Stevereads guarantee: I'll not only recommend these books to you, I'll send you copies of them if you can't find any yourself. Each one of these is certain to please.


Rohan Maitzen said...

Great list of 8 great books by men! Next up, your top 8 books by women to be venerated by posterity, please! We know you are an equally opportunity enthusiast. :-)

Rohan Maitzen said...

Er, an "equal opportunity" enthusiast. (Oh, for an 'edit comment' option on our blogs.)

Steve Donoghue said...

Well, of course I was hoping the first thing readers of this list would do would be to appreciate the 3000 words of enthusiastic, book-loving prose - not immediately check for the genders of the writers! In all honesty, I didn't even notice my brutal act of male hegemony until it was (copiously!) pointed out to me in emails this morning.

So, coming up: eight great novels by women!

Rohan said...

That was the first thing! But then along came the second thing, as it inevitably does. We were twitted about this onTwitter and I just knew nobody picks up a thrown gauntlet with more gusto than you, so I figured I'd toss it your way. Looking forward to another wonderful 3000 words!