the complete review Quarterly
Volume I, Issue 1   --   February, 2000

Books o' the Ages:

(page 2)

A:    I think an evaluation -- a valuation, if you will -- of our literature can be of use.
B:    But if you are interested in, for example, determining the significance of literature in our time, then surely the populist lists are the most revealing.
A:    Why not stick to the bestseller lists -- people putting their money where their mouths are ?
B:    Why not ?
A:    I don't believe the spur of the moment judgement of the masses can be accepted wholesale. The masses are short-sighted sheep, swayed by advertising, promotion, availability, accessibility, the latest fads, the newest thing (which is forgotten by tomorrow).
B:    Sounds awfully elitist.
A:    Does it ? I don't think the masses are wrong -- but their opinions must be considered with care, taking into account that the new is often valued higher than the old simply because it is new, the simple valued higher than the difficult because it requires less effort and so on. Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen are all instances where they got it right fairly early on.
    Popularity does and should count: I agree that an unread book can not be considered a great book -- or only be considered such if the definition is more closely and limitingly defined.
B:    Ulysses ?
A:    I am convinced it is widely read, well understood, enjoyed. The Wake, as I said, is another question.
B:    So go about making your best-book lists ! Book of the year is premature, you say ...
A:    And a year is perhaps entirely too brief a period. Decades are already more interesting spans. I suggest that it is possible to argue that Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities was the defining book of the 1980s.
B:    Book of the decade ?
A:    It is not solely a qualitative assessment. I believe there are better -- far better books -- written in the 1980s. But Wolfe's novel captured the age -- at least in the United States, perhaps even in most of the industrial world. In part, in fact, its success (an aesthetic success, as well) derives from the fact that it is not a particularly good book.
B:    I'm a bit confused by that. How about another decade ?
A:    The 1970s are tough. Gravity's Rainbow suggests itself. A work that I believe will leave a more lasting mark, published in three volumes between 1975 and 1981 already presents more of a problem: Peter Weiss' Die Ästhetik des Widerstands (see the complete review's review). It has, to date, not been fully translated into English, its mark in the English-speaking world is extremely limited in nature. A hundred years from now it will certainly be regarded as a seminal text of the second half of the twentieth century.
B:    So there is always the geographic and linguistic limitation .....
A:    No, over the long term these are slowly erased. Some can't be, but both Wolfe's and Weiss' books will survive as representative of a period.
B:    What about the 1990s ? Any judgements yet ?
A:    I have not perused enough of the international literature. A few titles do come to mind as among the most significant. Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting ...
B:    You must be joking !
A:    An accomplished work, and an excellent portrait of a specific time and place -- while transcending both, in part.
B:    It's near unreadable. Just language-wise.
A:    Actually it's nae so demanding. Just have to give it a try. My only concern in that regard is that it might nae have translated well -- i.e. it might be uniquely an English, perhaps even a British book.
B:    Didn't the US film version come with subtitles ?
A:    In the United States the Harry Potter books are published in "translation". But I think Trainspotting captured a point in history near perfectly. Its success as a film, even as a musical ... well, alright, the West End production wasn't something to brag about, but the novel was in many respects iconic.
B:    You said there was another book ... ?
A:    Yes. Juan Goytisolo's 1993 Saga de los Marx (The Marx Family Saga, see the complete review's review) is the best novel addressing the fall of communism I have come across. It is still too early to tell whether it is the definitive fictional commentary on the decline and fall of Marxist ideology; it is certainly a brilliant book. It remains, for the time being, underestimated in the United States, for example, because there is little awareness of the issues addressed in the book. It must, however, be considered one of the books of the decade.
B:    Any others ?
A:    Martin Amis' 1991 novel, Time's Arrow ? A remarkable achievement, though less marked as of that specific time, as a book of the nineties.
B:    Any other Amis books you favour ?
A:    No. He's an interesting case, actually. Good books, more or less, all around, but so far only Time's Arrow strikes me as exceptional. His other works might even do what they do better, but they are still lesser works. Amis is sort of a modern Aldous Huxley .....
B:    So there are good books which fail in some larger regard ?
A:    Indeed. A similar case is William H. Gass' remarkable novel, The Tunnel (see the complete review's review). It's exceptional, but I don't know if it can make its mark. It's an odd work, published in the 1990s, but reading like it was written in the 1960s (when he started it). It stands so apart from most of the fiction of the decade, and I worry that it is not quite great enough to survive that.
B:    What about centennial books ?
A:    There it gets very complicated, though I believe a number of books qualify simply because they both represent and transcend a particular era. Mishima Yukio's The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. Hermann Broch's The Sleepwalkers. García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. Mesa Selimovic's Death and the Dervish (see the complete review's review). Grass' The Tin Drum. Proust. Some Kafka, some Thomas Mann -- though I'll be damned if I could judge what. Joyce. Borges. Nabokov. With a number of authors the selection of specific works gets difficult. Döblin. Céline. Arno Schmidt.
B:    Not a clear list.
A:    No. "Best" would have to be more clearly defined to create a list. Parameters set -- ten or a hundred or a thousand books. And so on.
B:    No stabs at books of the millennium then ?
A:    In some ways that might be easier. There are canonic books. Don Quixote defines Spanish literature. Shakespeare -- a dramatist, but what is drama except acted fiction ? -- defines all of English-language fiction. Goethe's Faust and Werther are the pillars for all of German literature. Tolstoy, Pushkin (a novelist in verse), Dostoevsky stand for the ages. Balzac and Flaubert. The Tale of Genji. The Story of the Stone (see the complete review's review).
B:    And does the list, do any of the lists change with the times ?
A:    Less than one might think, I believe. The sudden availability of a book that has been suppressed or forgotten might make a difference. Few titles are superseded. Some, I grant, might wear out their welcome, might no longer have anything to say to a new generation -- but most often these will be texts that were unworthy in the first instance.
    Perhaps most influential is the question of translation: certain books -- and many of the so-called classics -- are only available in translation, and it is that reworked text, not the original, that is considered, lauded, or dismissed. New translations can shift standings. This, however, I would argue to be a false problem. Translations are always weak shadows of the originals, and while some may be great in their own right they can not be substituted for the originals. A true list would consider all the classics only as they were written.
B:    I can not believe that you have read even the few books you have named here in the original.
A:    True.
B:    And yet you confidently include them ?
A:    Some shadows shine so brightly that even hack-translators can not obscure their brilliance.
B:    So are you for this game of annual and centennial and millennial lists of the great and not so great ?
A:    I am. I rather enjoy the game. I regret that the lists are so limited -- best English-language this, best female author that -- but I think there is some value in reexamining what we value, and why. There should be a greater awareness of the inherent limitations of the lists -- as in who makes the decisions and what their biases are. That goes for both the short-term memory of the voting public as well as the politically incorrect make-up of the Modern Library board, as well as more obvious biases -- such as the fact that certain people deciding on what to include on these lists have not read certain books (and thus can not consider them).
    Contemporary populism does not need to be pandered to (though, of course, it generally is) -- in fact it is specifically the older works, forgotten, out of print, as yet unread that we must be reminded of. The recent is still well-remembered, but there are many texts that have faded and deserve to be read again and still. That, I would imagine, is the main use of these "best of" lists -- to remind us of past works of importance. That, too, is why I prefer lists extending farther back in time than just the past year or so.
B:    Almost a shame then that with the end of the century and the millennium there will be less such list-making.
A:    Almost.


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© 2000 the complete review Quarterly
© 2000 the complete review