Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My “How Have I not Read this Novel? List” Part Two – the 20th Century

Unlike my list of a couple week’s ago, when it comes to novels from the 20th Century there is no need to even pause and think about those I haven’t read. Harder is to decide what to list. When I read the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, I think either I’ve got a lot of living left to do before I die, or I’m in trouble.

But it doesn't mean a heck of a lot to say I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow or Finnegans Wake, let alone any by Nabokov (tried Pale Fire – got bored) or the entire seven volumes of In Search of Lost Time. Hardly anyone has read all of those. I own a copy of Swann’s Way; have tried it twice, and both times I stopped as though in a slumber at around page 120. I once chatted with a friend of mine who was doing a PhD in English Lit and she said exactly the same thing. Maybe page 120 is just really dull?

So what I shall list is those novels which one would just assume that someone who loves books as much as I do would have read by the time of reaching the age of 37.


1. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings

Year in year out, The Lord of the Rings comes first in reader polls on the favourite book of all time. It is possibly my wife’s favourite novel (or at least squarely in the Top 5). And yet I have read only about 160 odd pages of this huge fantasy tome. I have read The Hobbit – and enjoyed it quite a lot, and so I started TLOTR with great enthusiasm. But around page 160 in the first volume, I hit Tom Bombadil, and I got bored very, very quickly. There is absolutely no surprise that Peter Jackson left him out of the films, and even less surprise than hardly any of the fans of the books really cared all that much.

Maybe I’ll try it again, but to be honest, I enjoy the films so much (well the first two and half of the third), that I probably won’t, instead I’ll just get the DVDs off the shelf and settle in to watch the 9 hours of Frodo and Sam trouping off to Mount Doom (and trying to ignore thinking why doesn’t Gandalf just give it to one of those big eagles to fly it over the volcano and drop it in?).

Obviously I’m not a fantasy lover (you couldn’t be and not have read these books), but I have to admit thinking I should have given these novels more of a go.


2. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye

OK, this one is just dopey! How does someone who was a wannabe angry young man in a hurry in his late teens get through life without having read about the exploits of Holden Caulfield?

When I was in Year 10 we were given a choice, we could read this, or we could read Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. I chose The Chocolate War. I think I chose it because I had no idea what the title” The Catcher in the Rye” meant and I thought the novel would be about someone in a rural setting involving farms and harvesting rye (yes I know…). As it is I have no need to read the novel now because I have read enough parts of the novel while studying other novels, that I don’t feel any need to go back and read every page. I even quoted a line Caulfield says about his brother D.B. in an essay I wrote at uni – “He’s out in Hollywood… being a prostitute”. I figure, if you’ve cited a novel in a uni paper, that absolves you of not having actually read it!

And anyway, it’s a novel that should be read before you turn 20. I’m well past that.

Some argue this is the greatest coming of age novel, it has been my contention that all such novels are mere shadows of the brilliant Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I’d much rather re-read about the frenzied mind of Raskolnikov.

lord of the flies

3. Golding – Lord of the Flies

Another that is almost impossible to get through High School without reading. And yet I did it. This time I’m not sure which novel I read instead it may have been To Sir With Love (yep, it’s actually a novel), or possibly it was The Chocolate War (it’s getting a while ago now!) but as with The Catcher in the Rye, this one now seems pointless for me to go back to. I have a couple Golding novels on my shelf – The Spire and Rites of Passage I’ll give those a go first.

Anyway this story, much like Robinson Crusoe, is known so well that it is known to those who haven’t even read it. It’s a metaphor now. It’s so well known that The Simpsons did a whole episode parodying it, and I knew what parts they were actually parodying, and I haven’t read it or even seen the film versions of it. Some books are like that – they become so well known they seep into your consciousness. They are part of our world now. Lord of the Flies, 1984… in Australian literature I’d say A Fortunate Life has almost reached that stage. I haven’t read that one either, and yet through TV, and various bits of it gathered through my life I would probably feel like I had already read it were I actually to open the pages and read.

I once was the fiction editor of a literary journal, and the plethora of short stories written by retired people hoping to be the next AB Facey certainly put me off ever wanting to read it.

But as to Lord of the Flies? If you should read Catcher by the age of 20, this one almost requires being read by 16. 


4. Rushdie – Midnight’s Children

OK, this one is perhaps a bit more “literary” than the others. But Rushdie is one of perhaps the great bought but not read authors of the last 30 years, and I admit I’m in that camp. I have this and The Satanic Verses (bought would you believe for $5 from a bargain bin in Woolworths!).

I started reading it a few years back, but a few pages in I got sick of the attention paid to the noses of the characters, and I thought - “ah it’s one of those “magical realism” tricks where a character has a special trait – similar to The Tin Drum where the character stops growing at the age of 5 (or whatever it is). And so I thought “pass”. I don’t mind magical realism – I love One Hundred Years of Solitude and I think Jorge Borges is one of the true geniuses of 20th Century Literature – but I wasn’t in the mood for it at the time.

I will get back to this one though one day – a number of people have told me it is fantastic, and it did win the Booker of Bookers, so it must have something going for it. But to be honest, Rushdie is lauded by so many critics, that I almost have a subconscious resistance to his work. It is almost that because he is so highly regarded that I refuse to be impressed and am put off reading his novels (that and none of the blurbs on the back have ever interested me).

Which brings me to Number 5…


5. Winton – Cloudstreet

I haven’t read any Tim Winton. The fact that he has just won his fourth Miles Franklin makes me even less inclined to read this (his oft called best work) or any others of his novels.

They just don’t appeal to me. They all seem to be about the beach, the connection with the environment, Western Australia… It just doesn’t interest me.  I must admit The Riders seems interesting – and a good friend of mine highly recommended it. But the rest? Meh.

To be honest, I could have also included any number of novels by Peter Carey as Number 5. I have read Bliss and The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith and I hated them both. Tristan Smith I found particularly awful – such a waste of a good premise. But Oscar and Lucinda, Jack Maggs, the True History of the Kelly Gang? Haven’t been tempted. OK, I have thought about reading Jack Maggs, but to be honest, I’d rather re-read Great Expectations. Maybe I don’t like how Carey comes across in interviews; perhaps I hate how Australian critics seem to have made every effort to praise him to the skies in some attempt to get him the Nobel Prize. Whatever the reason, he just doesn’t do it for me.

In fact there is a lot of Australian literature I haven’t read – Kate Grenville, Janet Turner Hospital, Thea Astley… Looking at the winners of the Miles Franklin Award since 1980, I have only read David Foster’s Glade Within a Grove (really, really hated it), Christopher Koch’s Highway’s to a War (did enjoy) and Bliss. Clearly I have a big gap in my reading history here. The only Australian author I could say I have read extensively is Thomas Keneally – Confederates is a great novel.

Will I read more Australian authors in the future? Possibly – I enjoyed last year’s PM’s Literary Award winner The Zookeeper’s War and I am interested in a few of the novels by Steven Carroll. But I don’t read out of any patriotic sense of duty. Recent Australian fiction – as with all contemporary novels from the US and Britain – have to compete for space on my “must read list” with the likes of Solzhenitsyn, Lawrence, Dickens, Mann, Eliot and Hardy. It’s a tough list to crack, and it needs more than to be about the freedom of the countryside and the incandescence of the coast to pique my interest.


So that’s my list. I will probably do another one – a more “literary” one, because a lot of this list just looks like a skipped a few lessons of Year 10 English; although perhaps it’s time to write about books I actually have read…

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