More of the Best Novels Since ‘Ulysses’
The Times of London’s list was far from complete. We offer some additional, and maybe even better, choices.
On August 13, the Times of London presented the results of a poll of 16 writers and critics asking them to list what they consider the greatest novels written in English since the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922. The diverse respondents include eminent names in the literary world such as Sebastian Faulks, Colm Tóibín, and Diana Evans, and with a few exceptions, their judgment is sound. George Orwell’s 1984 is number eight on the list, just below Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Australia is represented (Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves), along with South Africa (J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace). The top spot goes to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
But, as the Times acknowledges, “our jury is not infallible,” and the list is miles from exhaustive. Reading it, you would never know that a great novel of the black American experience came out of Chicago in 1940 or that the manias of Hollywood played out more than eight decades ago on the fictional canvas of a brilliant young New York transplant, Nathanael West. Here is a look at ten novels, some well known and some sadly forgotten, whose omission seems inexplicable, followed by a longer list of equally competitive titles that we would analyze if space allowed.
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1925)
Does the American dream bring out the best in people? This sprawling novel, adapted for the screen in 1951 as A Place in the Sun with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, is based on a real case. Dreiser’s protagonist, Clyde Griffiths, has the same initials as Chester Gillette, a twenty-four-year-old man who went to the electric chair in New York State on March 30, 1908, for the murder of a woman named Grace Brown. There are many affinities between the book’s protagonist and his inspiration. You will find no more brutal depictions in an American novel of striving, yearning, and desperation for success as conventionally defined.
Deeply unsatisfied with his humble lot in life and jealous of the advantages that others take for granted, Clyde grows romantically entangled with a factory hand named Roberta Alden. Then, after meeting a rich girl named Sondra Finchley, who takes to him, he becomes convinced that the fabulous wealth and prestige that seemed destined always to be the domain of others are within his reach, if only he can do something about the nagging problem of Roberta. Dreiser is interested in moral and ethical complexity.
Clyde contemplates the unthinkable—taking Roberta out in a canoe on a lake in upstate New York, then causing her to drown in an “accident”—and plans for it with a callousness that will freeze your blood. But, at the moment of crisis, subtle questions of intent, agency, and responsibility arise. Clyde works hard to bring about the circumstances of Roberta’s death, hopes for it, yearns for it—but then stops short of pulling the trigger, as it were. Is he a murderer?
Dreiser’s most memorable character may be the prosecutor, Orville Mason, who goes after Clyde in the courtroom with relentless fury. Mason is the enforcer of a rigid caste system that rewards the meritorious for their talent and skill, while consigning anyone who dares question or challenge it, or try to lie and cheat his way upward, to the torments of hell.
The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (1939)
Just in case you didn’t know, Hollywood is a messed-up place. That message may sound trite, but in the hands of a writer as expert as West, who changed his name from Weinstein to survive in a 1930s milieu rife with anti-Semitism, it is anything but. West is one of those writers who can evoke unease and sustain it for many pages without gore happening before your eyes.
Tod Hackett, an artist who studied at an elite school before the siren song of the studios drew him to California, works hard to realize his dreams of success while making friends with a rogue’s gallery of drunks, freaks, losers, has-beens, and hangers-on at the outer fringes of accomplishment and fame. These include Abe Kusich, a dwarf with a hot temper, Harry Greener, a failed salesman obsessed with his mortality, Faye Greener, his amoral daughter, who has dozens of scenarios in her head that will never make it to the screen, Homer Simpson, who has come out from Iowa to Hollywood for his health and whom West describes as similar to a plant, neither happy nor unhappy, and Earle Shoop, a big shambling parody of a cowboy.
The devil’s in the details, and West captures the hell of Hollywood through small, finely observed scenes, as when Tod and friends stand in someone’s yard and a woman comes along with her little boy, dressed up in a miniature sailor’s outfit and pulling a boat on a string, and asks him to perform a song and jig for the spectators. It becomes painfully clear that the boy has no talent but that won’t stop the mother from taking him around to auditions all day, and the next day. For every Shirley Temple, you’ve got armies of failures like this one. The climactic scene, where all the “locusts” descend on the studios in the hope of spotting a star, erupts in one of the most brutal depictions of mob violence in any novel. In a world where nothing is right, there are only gradations of depravity and horror.
Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
Nearly eight decades before Jordan Peele’s movie Get Out, a gifted African-American novelist portrayed the suffocating condescension that members of a wealthy family, eager to assert their progressive bona fides and pat themselves on the back, may visit on a black houseguest.
In the novel, the guest is a chauffeur, Bigger Thomas, hired by the Daltons of Chicago. Wright goes to lengths to contrast the cramped and squalid South Side apartment of Bigger’s family with the Daltons’ elegant abode. One of Bigger’s first duties is to take young Mary Dalton out for a ride with her boyfriend, Jan, who runs around with militants and mouths all the approved left-wing sentiments on race, yet manages to help alienate Bigger. There’s something artificial and condescending about the politeness of those around him, feeding his sense that his hosts view him as a stereotype with a pre-formed identity, not a person deserving of the real work it takes to become acquainted.
When a tragedy occurs early on for which Bigger is only partly responsible, the novel rolls out a series of poignant, expertly written scenes, each more painful to read than the last. Bigger’s kid brother wants to hear all about the new gig and asks if Bigger will take him out in the limo. Only Bigger, and the reader, know that nothing can be as before and he is living on borrowed time. Few novels portray a desperate character as convincingly and powerfully.
Wright ratchets up the suspense until a climax where Bigger tries to hide out on the roof of a water tower as cops close in all around, picking up smoke grenades as they land and lobbing them back at the pursuers. In the ensuing trial, his lawyer delivers a profound speech about history and race. But this is not a tale of good guys and bad guys. You won’t root blindly for Bigger when it emerges during the trial that he bashed his girlfriend Bessie in the head and tossed her down a shaft and that she tried to claw her way out of the shaft, bleeding profusely, after he left her for dead. In contrast to the derivative Jordan Peele, Wright’s subject is the complexity of lived experience and real people.
Arrival and Departure by Arthur Koestler (1943)
At the height of the Second World War, Peter Slavek stows away on a vessel leaving one of the Axis ports and dives into the sea late at night in the hope of making it to a nearby island and thence to a territory in the Allied camp. In Koestler’s analogy, the fascist nations are hell, the Allied countries are heaven, and the island where most of the novel takes place is purgatory.
Before he can get his paperwork straightened out and find a way to move on to his destination, Peter has a deeply troubled past to plumb on this waystation with the aid of a psychotherapist, and no small number of terrible sins to atone for, including the maiming of a close relative in a burst of rage. Complicating things is the presence of pro-German agents on the island. Not as well known as Darkness at Noon (1940), another curious omission from the Times list, Arrival and Departure stands out as an inventive, morbidly fascinating updating of the Divine Comedy to a modern geopolitical context. Try to imagine hell, purgatory, and heaven today.
A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin (1947)
Written by one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, who is reviled today for his politically incorrect views, A Girl in Winter is worth reading for the exquisiteness of its prose alone. Katherine Lind is a young German woman living and working in a library in a small English town, haunted by the memory of a fling with a young man back during a sunnier time of life. Many of the people in Katherine’s world, including a girl she has to oversee on an outing and a stern middle-aged librarian, make no secret of their dislike for her, but Larkin holds out the possibility that sensitive Katherine may end up reunited with the boy whose enlistment in the British Army has kept them apart for so long.
Then when he does turn up, drunk, at her flat near the end, Larkin forces the reader to rethink whether it is possible to reclaim happier moments and, more importantly, whether they were ever really the way we like to imagine them. A Girl in Winter is deeply sad, yet its final lines have a strange paradoxical affinity with a poem that Dylan Thomas wrote in the year of the novel’s publication. The book’s ending may motivate you to rage against the dying of the light.
The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing (1950)
Doris Lessing came of age in what used to be called Southern Rhodesia, then Rhodesia, and is now Zimbabwe. Few writers have captured the beauty of the land, and the tensions that flared into civil conflict, with a vividness and verisimilitude approaching Lessing’s. The Grass Is Singing is the story of Dick and Mary Turner, a white couple who run a farm where they employ, and frequently mistreat, scores of native workers. It gives nothing away to say that one of them grows so enraged at the abuses and indignities that he murders Mary, for a newspaper clipping announcing the crime appears on the first page.
The killer is a farm hand named Moses. As befits the scope of her literary ambition, Lessing has chosen a grand analogy for the tragedy whose causes unfurl as the narrative moves along. You may recall what the biblical Moses did to an Egyptian slavemaster whom he found whipping a fellow Hebrew. Lessing’s sympathies are plainly with the tribespeople, but much like Richard Wright, Lessing is interested in complexity. Moses and others on the farm have more than their share of grievances. But if you know a bit about Rhodesia’s bloody civil war and the economic troubles that plague Zimbabwe to this day, you will be aware that, tragically, no one led the oppressed into the promised land.
The Time of the Assassins by Godfrey Blunden (1953)
Decades before Russian director Elem Klimov made Come and See, his harrowing 1985 picture about the war between partisans and Nazi occupiers in Belorussia, Australian journalist Godfrey Blunden drew on his experience as a correspondent to write one of the most unjustly neglected novels of the Second World War.
Don’t read this book if you are queasy and need narratives where the good guys are morally pure and win in the end. The novel spares the reader nothing at all its depiction of atrocities on both sides. If it can be said to have a hero, that would be Fomin, a boy partisan with an iron will forged in the cruelties a war that never allowed him the innocence of early youth. Awful situations come up where characters must sacrifice one or a few people to keep others from dying, and when put to the test, Fomin does pretty terrible things to survive. The conflict spares no one’s humanity, but what saves Blunden’s novel from obviousness is the expertness of the writing and an insistence, matched by few other writers in a century of horrors, on indicting the authors of each and every atrocity.
Leaven of Malice by Robertson Davies (1954)
Imagine if someone published a fake wedding notice, involving two people no one thought could ever be together, as a prank. Then imagine that, a few hundred pages later, the two subjects of the bogus announcement ended up proving it correct by getting married. The clever and playful Davies sets out to envision the tissue of wild and improbable events that might lead from the first development to the second.
Leaven of Malice has a largely academic setting, and one thing that Davies captures to a fault is a certain type of academic, brash, arrogant, abrasive, and hot-tempered—in short, not a very nice person—forced by the conventions and customs of his profession to find outlets for an anger that might otherwise express itself in still nastier ways. If not as well known as his 1981 opus The Rebel Angels, Leaven of Malice is cruelly, impishly funny and superbly written from the first page to the last.
The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Brian Moore (1965)
Not wishing to aid Great Britain in her hour of need, Prime Minister Eamon de Valera ignored repeated pleas from the Allies and kept the Republic of Ireland neutral throughout the Second World War. Though some Irish joined the British Army, the sovereign state avoided a bulk of the devastation and bloodshed. Not so Northern Ireland, which became the target of horrific bombing attacks by the Luftwaffe in April and May 1941. This work by novelist and journalist Brian Moore, who came of age in Northern Ireland before moving on to a dynamic career in Montreal, has little in common with the Wallace Stevens poem from which it takes its title.
It is the story of a boy, Gavin Burke, who lives among the people of Belfast as they try to go about their lives in the shadow of the coming Blitz. The adults in Gavin’s world are pieces in a carnival of incompetence and buffoonery. An official named Clarke tries to train others for the hardships of an air raid by tossing sand in their faces and bashing them over the head. When the raid comes, Moore depicts the horror, destruction, despair, and heroic efforts of the responders in a sequence of sustained brilliance with few parallels in any book about the war.
Affliction by Russell Banks (1989)
Wade and Rolfe Whitehouse may be brothers, but they are about as different as two young men can be. Wade is a blue-collar worker who drives a rusted, beaten-up old truck in the bleak and depressed New Hampshire town of Catamount, and has toothaches so bad they give pain new meaning, while Rolfe is a professor living in a pleasant Boston suburb. One has little hope of personal or professional advancement, while the other is pretty contented. Wade is a mean drunk, irritable and frequently cruel to men and women. Rolfe, the narrator, discloses that he used to live just as badly as Wade, but then, “with excruciating difficulty,” managed to change.
Obviously, the two brothers are variants of the same guy, alter egos born of a drunken and abusive oaf of a father. Wade is the man whom Rolfe would have grown into had he not gotten out of the dead-end milieu of Catamount, which nurtures failure and haunts Rolfe as he reflects on it from the safety of his suburb. Catamount is not a real town, but a synthesis of places that exist in a part of the country others find it convenient to ignore, a setting that Banks has evoked throughout his long career in novels like Hamilton Stark and The Sweet Hereafter and story collections such as The New World, Trailerpark, and Success Stories.
Often harrowing, Affliction feels relevant in 2022 and has something to say to people like Rolfe Whitehouse wherever they may live. That’s if you are willing to believe that what happened in November 2016 and nearly happened again four years later was not a revolt of the stupid so much as an expression of deep and long-muffled discontent, resentment, and rage on the part of residents of flyover states belittled by the coastal elites.
The Times list also inexplicably omits the following:
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930)
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938)
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo (1939)
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (1948)
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
Voss by Patrick White (1957)
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (1962)
The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (1967)
Impossible Object by Nicholas Mosley (1968)
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré (1974)
The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer (1979)
In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje (1987)
Libra by Don DeLillo (1988)
2 thoughts on “More of the Best Novels Since ‘Ulysses’”
Good lists. I always like to put in a word for Charles Portis. These past few years
he has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance and is more and more in the discussion of the
the best American novelists. “The Dog of the South” and “Masters of Atlantis”
are special as is, of course, “True Grit”. The common description of Portis; “like Cormac McCarthy
but funnier”, approaches but doesn’t quite capture his talent. Even Portis’s description of putting a
handful of salted bar peanuts into a smudged glass of Pepsi can be mesmerizing.
Thank you, sir. You’ll be quite pleased to know that the Library of America is bringing out a volume of Portis’s novels next year. I agree, Portis is very, very funny.