james joyce

THE TOP TEN NOVELS OF ALL TIME

 

1. IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME BY MARCEL PROUST

[FRANCE, 1913-27]

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“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

2. WAR AND PEACE BY LEO TOLSTOY

[RUSSIA, 1869]

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“We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

3. THE CASTLE BY FRANZ KAFKA

[CZECH REPUBLIC, 1926]

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“Our winters are very long here, very long and very monotonous. But we don’t complain about it downstairs, we’re shielded against the winter. Oh, spring does come eventually, and summer, and they last for a while, but now, looking back, spring and summer seem too short, as if they were not much more than a couple of days, and even on those days, no matter how lovely the day, it still snows occasionally.”

4. THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV BY FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY

[RUSSIA, 1880]

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 “I love mankind, he said, “but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular.” 

5. BLEAK HOUSE BY CHARLES DICKENS

[ENGLAND, 1852-53]

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“I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to Harold Skimpole what it concedes to the butterflies.”

6. THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN BY THOMAS MANN

[GERMANY, 1924]

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“He probably was mediocre after all, though in a very honorable sense of that word.”

7. UNDER THE VOLCANO BY MALCOLM LOWRY

[ENGLAND, 1947] 

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8. INDEPENDENT PEOPLE BY HALLDOR LAXNESS

[ICELAND, 1934]

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“It was pretty miserable wretches that minded at all whether they were wet or dry. He could not understand why such people had been born. “It’s nothing but damned eccentricity to want to be dry” he would say.”

9. THE STORY OF THE STONE BY CAO XUEQIN

[CHINA, 1868-1892]

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“Truth becomes fiction when the fiction’s true;
Real becomes not-real where the unreal’s real.”  

10. THE LEOPARD BY GIUSEPPE TOMASI DE LAMPEDUSA

[ITALY, 1958] 

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“As always the thought of his own death calmed him as much as that of others disturbed him: was it perhaps because, when all was said and done, his own death would in the first place mean that of the whole world?”

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ULYSSES BY JAMES JOYCE

James Joyce was going to give us back our precious English language one day, but he died, unfortunately, and so his reputation as an obscurist, overtly difficult, almost humanity hating [thanks Henry Miller, for that one], writer was cemented. For me, one of the prevailing problems with Joyce is other people’s perceptions of him, rather than the work he actually produced. There seems to be, increasingly, two types of Joyce reader amongst the general public: there are those who want to convince us they exited the womb with a copy of Ulysses in hand, read and understood [every single word, sir!] while entombed in their mother’s bellies and those who read him because they think they have to [self flagellation isn’t usually an enjoyable experience]. These two groups, then, shout the loudest and sometimes succeed in putting other people off.

My advice, for what it is worth [which is probably very little] is to try and approach him, and his work, with an open mind, if you can. I am not saying he wasn’t sometimes a contrary ol’ sob, but he did [and here’s the important bit] write some of the warmest, most beautiful, enlightening, and funny prose one is ever likely to encounter. Joyce was, above all, a humanist [cobblers to you Miller]; he was an anti-dramatist; he wanted to put every aspect of human existence on the page, including the mundane and the indecent, but, luckily for us, he wrapped these things, tinsel-like, in poetry.

So what of this particular book? Some have criticised it as plotless, and it does certainly meander aimlessly most of the time; and it does almost completely lack dramatic tension. But [and I am almost cringing writing this] does life have a concise and satisfying plot? Because that is what Ulysses is about: life, in all its unstructured and whimsical glory. A genuinely moving experience.

OMENSETTER’S LUCK BY WILLIAM GASS

I first read Omensetter’s Luck about four, maybe even five years ago, not long after reading Gass’ other major novel The Tunnel. While it is fair to say that I harboured some reservations about The Tunnel, on the whole I really enjoyed it. The novel is so long and so dense and challenging, and the rewards potentially so great, that my doubts seemed almost churlish. However, as I came, a while later, to read Omensetter’s Luck those niggling doubts came with it, by which I mean that what I did not like about The Tunnel, what bothered me about that novel, was also evident in this one. And with that my patience with Gass, which had seemed almost endless before, ran out. So much so, in fact, that some of his finer qualities, such as his use of alliteration and his similes, started to grate on me too. It’s just The Tunnel, in a new setting, was my overly dismissive response; everyone speaks and thinks in the same way, Gass’ way, and Furber [the clergyman, to whom a large portion of the book is dedicated] is simply a Kohler of the cloth. The silly thing is that I was pretty much convinced that Omensetter’s Luck was the better of the two books, but it didn’t matter; as my experience of it did not feel original I no longer found the Gassean style exciting.

Perception is a weird thing. Have you ever met up with a girl or guy, a few months after breaking up with them, and wondered what in the hell you saw in them? It’s a pretty standard experience, but it boggles my mind. I’m not talking about their foibles suddenly grating on you – quirks that probably irritated you at the time too, but which you chose to overlook for the sake of the qualities you admired and enjoyed – I’m talking about how their face, their physical appearance, no longer attracts, may even repel you. Why is that? Why is it that at one time you fawned over that face, were happy to have it glued to your own, and now you’re at best indifferent to it, and, in some cases, find it quite ugly, and would, in all sincerity, be thoroughly turned-off were it to come within inches of your own? You must have been through this; I certainly have. The fact of the matter is that you are a different you, literally, and so it is a different you looking at that face, and it works on this you in a way that it didn’t before. Well, it’s the same with books too.

So, here I am, a different me. A different me who just read Omensetter’s Luck, a me who loved it. The man who read Omensetter’s Luck for the first time was looking for something else, something this work could not provide. In the same way that one can look at a girl or guy, for years even, can spend lots of time with them, and at no time feel attracted to them, and then it happens, the circumstances are right, it’s the right you doing the looking. So, while I disliked Omensetter’s Luck for its Gassiness the first time, I loved it for its Gassiness the second time.

Having said all this, I’m going to sound a note of caution here, because there was a 40-50 page section of the book that I thought was awful. If I remember correctly, my response to this section on first read was one of irritation, and perhaps confusion; I certainly don’t remember so passionately disliking it as I did on this occasion. You might be thinking there is some shocking content, some nastiness maybe in those 40-50 pages? Well, there isn’t. It is merely the point that Gass’ novel transforms into Joyce-aping bollocks. And, man, is it bollocks. There’s always that danger with a certain kind of writer, especially when they are utilising a stream-of-consciousness technique. Those 40-50 pages, in which Gass has Furber in his garden thinking were as much of a chore as anything I’ve ever read. We’re meant to be getting some sense of his thought processes, this man Furber, this individual, but what we actually get are the thought processes of Leopold Bloom or, by extension, James Joyce. It’s Joyce’s template, it is not actually how people think. To illustrate, let me put part of this paragraph into a stream-of-consciousness style a la James Joyce et William Gass:

A part. A portion. A note of caution.  C-c-c-c-. See. Sea. Tad um tad um ta dee. Awful. Like my lawful bedded wife.

Thankfully, if you grit your teeth you can get through it and the rewards are plentiful. First of all, the opening 100 pages of Omensetter’s Luck are flawless, are profoundly moving. Israbestis and the auction, Mossteller’s cat, Omensetter’s arrival, Henry Pimber [Henry-goddamn-motherfucking-Pimber!]  and the fox and…oh everything. The first part of the book, which I have actually read 4 or 5 times now, is up there with anything you could name; were it to stand alone as a novella it’d be strolling into my personal top ten. But it is Furber who follows, and, well, you know how I feel about that stuff. Fortunately, as acknowledged earlier, Gass doesn’t fish from Joyce’s stream for too long, and once the story picks back up again, although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of those opening 100 pages, it is wonderful. The fate of Henry Pimber? I’ll never forget it.

“He could have set fire to it, the garden was dry enough, and burned it clean—privet, vines, and weeds; but he waited in his rooms through the winter instead, weeping and dreaming.”

David Foster Wallace described the novel as a religious book, which is an exquisite example of stating the fucking obvious. More interestingly, I’d say it is about pettiness, about jealousy, about our dislike or suspicion of things or people that do not accord with our experience of the world. Omensetter appears to be a fellow of good fortune, and, yes, that seems to rub some of the locals up the wrong way, but I think the tension between the man and these people goes deeper than their jealousy, their resentment of his luck. Omensetter is a wide and happy man, is happy-go-lucky, he doesn’t sweat the small stuff [or the big stuff either, really], and it is this, this apparent lack of cares, that really pisses these people off and, ironically, fascinates them and draws them to him. I have experience of this myself; while I am not necessarily a lucky person, I am laidback, I take everything that sidelines many other people in my stride; which is not to say I am always happy, I just don’t let the things that bother a lot of people I know bother me, I can’t relate to their emotional preoccupations; I generally find human existence absurd, my own included, and therefore hilarious. And this mysterious resistance to the petty day-to-day miseries that so needle certain kinds of people does seem to get under their skin.

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[A street in Ohio, where the book is set, in the 1890s]

On this, consider two of the novel’s key scenes, the fox and the hat. In the first, a fox falls down a well, and Omensetter is happy to leave him there, declaring that if he is meant to get out he will. Que sera sera! What will be, will be. This, however, this casual attitude, is what so unnerves Henry Pimber, who can’t just let whatever will be, be; Pimber needs to act, needs to impose his will on the situation. On the surface his need to deal with the fox is an act of kindness, but it isn’t really that; it is actually Omensetter’s attitude that he can’t bear, that he needs to obliterate. Then, there is the scene with the hat, Omensetter’s hat, which is blown off, and to which his dog gives chase. Will Omensetter try and save his hat? His dog? No, on both counts. And the watching Furber is deeply disgusted, because he, like Henry, is a man not in control of himself, who cannot, with apparent mindlessness, without bitterness or anguish, submit to the vicissitudes of life, who cannot merely let nature take its course.

And that’s it, that’s my love-letter to Omensetter’s Luck. You were always there Omensetter, you were always you; I just couldn’t appreciate you in the way that you deserve before now. Whose fault was that? It was me, all me. Or should I say, it was him. Blame him, that other [P]. The bastard.