October 22nd, 2005


There was a meme going round the other day (it's probably still going round) which presented us with some officially-arrived-at list of great 20th century novels and invited us to highlight the ones we'd read.

I like to think of myself as well-read, but I backed away from this one in shame and confusion. I'd read the two Evelyn Waughs, the two Woolfs, one of the Nabokovs (not the obvious one) and Lord of the Rings and that was about it. Oh and the Faulkner- but only because it was a compulsory text for one of my university courses.

Some of the novels on the list I'd never heard of. Others I feel I've read even though I haven't (Animal Farm for instance.)

And am I going to go away and put things right? No, I'm afraid not. The thought of all those big, fat, worthy tomes stretching into the far distance like tombstones inspires in me nothing but lethargy.

I think the novel was a 19th century form and the 20th century form is the movie. I can't think of any 20th century novelist as good as Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or Stendhal. Or, alternatively, as good as Bergman, Fellini, Bunuel, Welles or Powell. For me Lolita isn't a novel by Nabokov, but a movie by Stanley Kubrick with towering performances from James Mason and Peter Sellers.

I read novels systematically in my teens. Since then I've been more picky. Now, like Charlie Chaplin in old age, I find the only novelist I can really be doing with is Dickens. He's bigger, funnier, darker, more inventive and involving than anyone else. You've read the best, why bother with the rest? This year I've already re-read Bleak House and Little Dorrit and, with a fair wind behind me, intend to polish off Our Mutual Friend by Christmas.