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Author Topic: What was the greatest English-language novel of the last century?
Reed
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Was "Heart of Darkness" actually written in this century? If so, I've learned something today. If I had to guess, I would have said 1880's.
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The Quiet Man
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1902.
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macocha europy
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Here's a shortlist. I'm definitely not as widely read as most here (not being a native speaker), but I did read Ulysses at university, well had to.

- DeLillo, Underworld
- Conrad, Nostromo
- Updike, Rabbit Redux (basically the whole tetralogy)
- Morrison, Beloved
- Rushdie, Midnight's Children

Hmm. None England-born. Strange.

I think 1984 is terrifying as an anti-utopia, but its plot has grave flaws. Orwell was much better as an essayist than as a novelist. Both Catalunya and Animal Farm are wonderful books, but they're not novels.

[ 14-01-2003, 09:15: Message edited by: abedi ]

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The Quiet Man
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I don't understand that last sentence. Homage to Catalonia is not a novel. Animal Farm is a novel. What am I overlooking?
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Tubby Isaacs
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I suppose that its primarily a satire of real life events. But that doesn't mean its not a novel.

Great though Orwell's essays are, I don't agree that he couldn't write novels. What are these flaws in the plot of 1984?

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macocha europy
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Animal Farm is a novel according to most definitions (there are some who say it's too short). To me and some others (I'd have to check) it's a fable rather than a novel. Not only do animals speak and act like humans, but there is a clear moral teaching in it, central to fables too.

1984 is great in its description of that totalitarian system and in what it does to Winston towards the end. The whole Julia part though, which is critical as a counterpart to the bleak 1984 world, is not very convincing to me. Neither is the golden country dream, which I almost dare to call kitschy.

I must admit here that I didn't read all his novels. Apart from those I have mentioned, the only fiction work of his I have read is "Coming Up For Air", which I, in a seminar paper, compared to Wells' History of Mr Polly". So "Down and Out might be a fantastic novel. I just never read anywhere it is.

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The Quiet Man
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This is not too surprising, as it's not a novel....
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Mat Pereira
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See, I think that questions much easier to answer with regard to the 19th Century because novels then tended to attempt to be *big, all-encompassing sweeps of contempory culture* like 'Vanity Fair' or 'Bleak House' or 'Middlemarch' rather than the mainly first person narratives or individualistic point of view of the vast majority of 20th Century novels where that kind of Condition-of-England thing was left to journalists, film directors and historians.

I mean the best example I can think of is the way 19th Century writers treated the Napoleonic Wars when they came up in their fiction and the way World War Two was often treated. I mean not just the way say Hugo - yeah, I know he was French -went into explicit detail in 'Les Miserables' with his account of the events on the field of Waterloo taking up about thirty or so pages, but the fact he thought big, he placed the novel at the centre of things. It wasn't just a story, it was supposed to chronicle and accurately reflect the times.

Then compare that with say Evelyn Waugh's 'Sword of Honour' trilogy or Graham Greene's 'Ministry of Fear.' The war is still there but the actual events don't matter, the story is set away from the centre of things on the periphery. there's no pretence at describing an exact picture of the times just a personal one.

So for me, it'd have to be a novel that told an absolute, personal truth about the last century and in a completely original way. It would have to be bleak, because looked at as a chronicle the twentieth century is about as bleak and horrible as it gets, but it would have to have loads of kinetic thrills too: it couldn't just be a war novel.

I can't think of one though to be absolutely honest.

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Diggedy Derek
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That's like the classic Matt P post, starting with "See,", followed by an insightful and well thought out thesis on literature, then ending with "but I dunno to be honest". Top stuff.

By the way, Matt, I finally got around to reading Mishima's Temple Of The Golden Pavillion, which was absolutely fantastic. Beatifully written, and you get the impression like Proust that the narrator is both an extraordinary individual and a total nutcase. Disturbingly beautiful stuff.

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Mat Pereira
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Ha ha! Cheers Derek!

I was kind of half thinking about 'A Clockwork Orange' to be honest, seeing as it was based on an incident that happened to Burgess and his wife during the war, seems to predict everything that follows World War Two with both a real sense of joy and horror and in a wierd kind of way both the book and the film seem to have a resonance with almost every artistic and social movement of the last hundered years.

But again, I dunno, 'A Clockwork Orange' is only the greatest book of the 20th Century in the way that 'Frankenstien' is the greatest of the 19th: you know a highly realised and incantatory cartoon.

And i've never, ever read 'Catch 22' either. I saw the film though. It had Orson Welles in it. I couldn't make head nor tail of it.

Mishima is fantastic though isn't he? I love the way the whole thing feels so cinematic with it's really intense imagery and language, but so much a personal chronicle. Your man does have a fair bit of the Travis about him too doesn't he: much less worldly though.

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The Quiet Man
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quote:
And I've never, ever read 'Catch 22' either.
You can borrow my copy if you remind me.
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Mat Pereira
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Oh, cheers yeah, that'd be great thanks.
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The Quiet Man
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Remind me on Saturday or something then. Otherwise, given the state of my memory, you've probably got no chance.
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Max Bialystock
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If that's what you're after Matt you've got the right author but the wrong book. Try 'Earthly Powers'.
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Wyatt Earp
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A great posting from Matt, and one I think I completely disagree with. See [it's catching], I think Pride and Prejudice has a good claim to be the book of the 19th century, despite the fact, or perhaps because of the fact, that it manages almost to ignore the Continent-wide struggle for supremacy that was taking place exactly when it was set--using it only as a device for ensuring a regular supply of eligible officers for the Bennett girls, as the regiments move about the country. Novels like Middlemarch, with their far broader sweeps, are great too, but I wouldn't want literature to consist of them. (Vanity Fair I'm just reading. Good, innit?)

In the same way, any list of great 20th century books in English would have to include Ulysses, which treats great themes all right, but does so through a relatively uneventful day in a neutral, and culturally somewhat becalmed (at the time, like), city. My own choice, The Great Gatsby, treats the whole question of America and what it is and what it means, which has to count as another of the century's great issues, but does so sidelong, through the lives of a rather dreary and irrelevant group of people.

For a great book that does take notice of the century's bloodiness in every sense, you could do worse than Brideshead--although no political lesson Waugh ever draws is going to be a sensible one, and the novel therefore has to succeed on other levels, which I think it does.

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