Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran

The Heart of the Matter

Graham Greene is a writer who never disappoints.  Nevertheless, of his many novels published in the 20th century, only one—The Heart of the Matter—makes the Modern Library’s list at #40.
            Written and published at the tail end of World War II, set in Africa with British characters, this is a story about moralism. It involves a main character who commits acts against his core beliefs and then makes an ultimate decision that he understands to be a generous one designed to set things right again. The paradox is, however, that it represents a special kind of self-absorption: the superior notion that he has the right to determine what is best for others.  This is the attitude of the so-called “white man’s burden” espoused in tandem with imperialism.  This man, therefore, is a metaphor for the British in Africa.
            This novel is more than a fable or allegory.  A signature style of Greene’s is that his novels tend to have a detective-story feel, and also have something of an O. Henry twist to them. The story unfolds as if a mystery was presented to be solved. He writes with the sensibility of a filmmaker: the stories present themselves visually and viscerally. They are easy and engaging reads, while also intellectually and morally involved. 
            Greene published between the early 1920s, when he was himself only in his 20s, and the early 1980s, within a decade of his death.  His stories are contemporary to his time. This makes him truly a writer of the 20th century. Greene is a go-to writer for me.  Each of his novels is fully absorbing, of the kind that you’d rather not break from until it’s done, and then rather not have it done.  There is a similarity to them that borders on formulaic (like a detective novel), but his eye for detail and the depth of his compassion save them from being mere entertainments (though they can be that as well).  The End of the Affair, The Quiet American, and The Third Man top my list of favorites from Greene’s hand.  But The Heart of the Matter was singled out for acclaim, perhaps because of the overt moral argument it presents. Like The Bridge of San Luis Rey (reviewed in the previous column), this novel is one about Catholicism. The dogmatic ethics contrast with the seemingly unruly native society, allowing the story to explore the nature of adherence and accommodation.
Some of the ideas that arise from this story are these: Pity has erosive effects. Sticking to rules doesn’t work in the real world, not for everyone at least, not when the society is heterogeneous and imbalanced, when some people are privileged and some are not. Rules-following might be a luxury of privileged people.  Religious dogma, particularly Catholic tenets, might be suffocating, unsuited to real life by real people.  Life is unpredictable, and a single person cannot know what is best for other people or even for himself, even when his faith in himself is unshakeable.  People are intriguing.  Those we have to live with are baffling.  People might not get what they deserve; they might well just continue on in a life unburdened by the demands of consistency. 
Mostly, though, this novel falls in the category of a good read. Greene’s writing is flawless. His characters are believable while also representing a new world for the reader. The themes make you think and the plots keep you engaged. And because of his prolific output, one Graham Greene can lead to another, which is a good habit to have.  


Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons ofBlack Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

The conceit of The Bridge of San Luis Rey (by Thorton Wilder, #37 on The Modern Library’s list) is that it’s written by a scholar 200 years after an incident—the collapse of a rope foot bridge—that had been explored and recounted at the time by a monk whose work was subsequently largely (but not entirely) lost.  Five people died when the bridge collapsed and the monk’s exploration of these lives was meant to reveal the meaning behind their deaths. Why these five people? Why together on this bridge?
            The monk, as would be expected, approaches from the premise of Catholicism, and with that bias seeks to confirm that God’s hand guides all events. The question he wants to answer is whether death is foretold in a person’s life. The questions the narrator (and the writer) seeks to answer are a bit more complicated.  One is, can we in this modern age accept the relatively easy premise of the first scholar’s work? 
            The novel is constructed in five parts. The first explains the circumstance of the story and the intent of the narrative. The next three tell the stories of the five people. The last examines the scientific inquiry that the monk brought to his analysis of the event. 
            There is something in the tone of the first and last sections that seems to be baiting our skepticism.  Even the titles of each section convey this: “Perhaps an Accident,” and “Perhaps an Intention.” The middle sections read as short stories in their own right, each standing on its own.  They are old-fashioned in style, not of the style of the modern short story, but in the style of an old tale of people and events that are of interest to later generations.
            The five people who died are connected in various ways in life. There are family relationships among some of them, and mentorship and patronage relationships among others.  Their stories are largely sad and plagued by dissatisfactions, but in the telling of them, they are all normal human stories, with nothing melodramatic to them. They are not overtly pointed toward the support of the monk’s theory, as might be the temptation in a less skilled writer’s hands. This collection of stories builds a philosophical inquiry told in considered and gentle prose. The key to this story is expressed in the last section:  “The discrepancy between faith and the facts is greater than is generally presumed.”
Why read this book?  Like Willa Cather’s Death Comes to the Archbishop, this novel presents an intriguing view of Catholicism not just as a religion but as a cultural influence in the New World. The story takes place in Peru, and some of the characters are natives while others still have ties to old Spain. The characters span a range of classes.  The novel presents a world that is in setting, customs, and time foreign to American readers.  It keeps its distance with its overlay of modern perspective, but at the same time immerses the reader in the telling of the victims’ lives.  It is linguistically rich without a word going to waste. It is a tiny book, easy to read, readable in one sitting, that leads us into a state contemplation, pondering questions of cosmic significance.


Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons ofBlack Inka Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran

Books for Boys and Other Humans

There are two novels on the Modern Library’s list that are credited with turning generations of adolescent boys into readers of literature.  One is Lord of the Flies (#41, William Golding) and the other is Catcher in the Rye (#64, J.D. Salinger).
            To be sure, the primary appeal is that the characters themselves are adolescent boys, with their myriad confusing, angry, wild and joyful impulses, trying to make their way through to adulthood, that boring, concession-filled state.
            Both of these novels are extremely well known.  Lord of the Flies is a fantastical story of what would happen if a passel of boys were left to govern themselves (spoiler alert: it doesn’t end well).  Catcher in the Rye is a realistic story of a boy more or less alone in New York City and in life, or so he fears.
            With their being so well known, the question is, how did they achieve their status? What qualities have made each not only reach successive new generations of readers—or, more importantly, reluctant readers—but also endure as classics of literature with the ability to touch adult readers as well? These novels do not have a lot in common with one another on the surface.  What they do have in common is something that is a pillar of good storytelling: character.
            Think of Catcher in the Rye and you think of Holden Caulfield.  Holden could be your little brother, and with trepidation you watch him as you watch your brother struggle through his preternatural cynicism, knowing that he is unreachable, hoping he’ll make it okay to the other side. You understand his anger and confusion, his disgust with everything ordinary. You get a charge out of his foul-mouthed mode of expression, though you are supposed to disapprove.  You feel the undercurrent of his vulnerability. 
            If you are the little brother, you see in Holden a reflection of your own inner self.  Holden articulates for you what you’ve always felt to be impossible to articulate.  You love him, and thus love yourself.
            Your little brother could also go the way of the boys in Lord of the Flies. They are so ungovernable, yet longing for governance. They are unformed creatures sorely in need of a firm adult hand, that guidance that in this story is literally absent and in the lives of so many young people lacking in essence if not in body.
            Without someone to teach them and control them, they create their own hierarchies.  They play out the naturalness of the human animal in society. Their approach is a mix of instinct—for self-preservation, for dominance—and the inborn inclination to form a structure around themselves in order to create meaning beyond mere basic need.  Both instincts are equally human.  You can see how easily your little brother might become one of these archetypal members of society: the strong, the bullied, the wise, the incapable. And again, if you are the little brother, here is a range of characters you could mold yourself after, as well as those you secretly fear you are.
            Even as adults we struggle with these fears and aspirations: Who can I become, and what idiocies and unacceptable futures must I face down on my way?
            Thus both novels achieved something extraordinary.  They speak directly to the adolescent sensibility, particularly the male one (which is not so well served as the female).  And they embed themselves in the reader’s mind, so that the adult can read with a kind of duality, simultaneously as a wild adolescent and as the person he did eventually become.


Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons ofBlack Inka Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran

The Great Gatsby
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterwork, is one of those books that is so well known, it’s tempting to believe you don’t actually have to read it.  You do, though.  Or at least you’d be depriving yourself of a tremendous experience if you did not.  This novel is #2 on the list of Greatest Novels of the 20th Century for good reason.
The plot of the story is based on some classic themes: love triangles, infidelity, class conflict, crimes of passion.  It is a morality tale and it is quintessentially American.  It is also a work of art. 
Many attempts have been made to turn this book into a movie, which is to say, to turn this piece of writing into a piece of cinema.  The temptation is obvious, what with all the costumes and the music and party scenes.  But film rendering fails.  The book has things going on that film cannot do justice to.  For instance, the structure:  Nick narrating; Nick orchestrating meetings; Nick running into people out of scene (as it were, who “are” or “were” end up being key players to Gatsby’s story); Nick philosophizing; Nick hypothesizing; Nick remembering; Nick observing. A successful film translation might leave Nick out, and have the filmmaker be Nick’s eyes and thoughts. But why bother? The book is perfect.
The art of writing allows a person’s experiences—Jay Gatsby’s—to be seen and also to be remarked.  To be noted through the eyes of people who do not know his story fully.  To be interpreted through the experience of the observer—Nick Carraway.  The art of writing allows the reader to layer upon the narrator’s interpretation of the character’s life his or her own experience and philosophies and attitudes. To shift points of view along with the narrator and also along with the characters in opposition to the narrator.  The art of writing allows a story to be told that is burdened and layered with philosophies existing outside the narrative.  The art of writing allows words to be collected in one place that not only create a scene, describe a character, evoke an atmosphere, but also in themselves create rhythm and sound as in the last line of the novel: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessy against the past” has the hard beat of the repeated “b” and the liquid pull of the repeated long “e”.  The trio of phrases and the doubling up of “against” create a lyricism that is actually unnecessary for the conveying of the core idea of the sentence.  It is a metaphor bordering on senseless that manages to evoke an image of hard human labor and brings to mind, if only subconsciously, the myths of ancestors.  It captures the essence of the story just told and stands in poetic juxtaposition to the prosaic (though also eloquent) first line of the story: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since,” which introduces us, quite efficiently, to our narrator and the stance from which he approaches the story he is about to invent.
This story is about Jay Gatsby, the Great Gatsby, with his social climbing and ill-placed obsessive love, his need to receive admiration and create wealth and exude philanthropy, who is the pulse of the Jazz Age, that great cultural upheaval, but it is a story invented by Nick Carraway. Another character as narrator would have told a different story. As written, this story is a novelist’s story. Nick is a novelist. He is tolerant and unjudging but engaged and sensitive.  He needs to attach meaning to these scenes he witnesses and participates in, even the parties, which in themselves have no meaning whatsoever. He makes Gatsby a tragic figure, where someone else might have made him a pathetic one, or a throwaway news item. Through Nick, we readers see Gatsby’s story as the Great American Story. And in the end, Nick makes melancholic poetry of Gatsby’s traumas but leaves Gatsby and his world behind and moves on to something else. He goes on with his own life.
Nick is not Fitzgerald.  It would be a simplistic mistake to assume he is. Fitzgerald is the great creator of Nick and of Gatsby and of West Egg and of the whole glorious beautiful thing we readers get to enjoy.


Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons ofBlack Inka Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran


The Ginger Man

Number 99 on the Modern Library’s list, The Ginger Man, is a very interesting and somewhat problematic novel by the Irish-American writer, J.P. Donleavy.

I count this novel, along with On the Road, as falling outside the norm of novel writing established by the other novels on this list. It is a startling piece of prose, the kind that demands a leap of readerly faith, both because of the style of the narrative and because of the treatment of its female characters. Read by a lover of literature, it is new and exciting in style. Read by a woman, it is objectionable and hard to take. The problem comes when the reader is both.

This is not the only novel on the list in which the female characters get treated badly, but it is realistic enough and unrepenting enough that from the vantage point of 2015, a reader might find it frustrating to see the women put up with such treatment and not walk out on their own and make their own lives. (Admittedly, Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls—a stupendous and groundbreaking novel from the mid-1960s that did not make the list— raises the same feelings, though with different effect.) What it comes down to is intention. The object of the novel is not to make a story of the struggles between the sexes for equal voice (as Country Girls does) but to tell of the adventures of a roguish, charming, exasperating young man.

Sebastian Dangerfield is the young man, a character, like his creator, with feet in both America and Ireland.  This peculiar inborn duality of Irish-Americanism is one of the compelling features of this book. Sebastian and his companion live simultaneously in two cultures that are historically so closely connected as to create a unique culture. They are men of the post-World War II era, affected by it but not owning up to the effect.

Sebastian is a ne’er-do-well of the first order. He is a man with no civic responsibility. Everything he does is for his own pleasure, although that pleasure is of a damaging and nihilistic sort. The damage is overtly done to his wife and child, less obviously to himself.  He is a charmer and an abject bastard, and he doesn’t care. Or does he? A telling line in his voice comes in the last pages of the novel: “I think I am weary of my terrifying heart.”  It is that uncommon glimpse of self-awareness that saves Sebastian from having the book slammed shut on him by an unsympathetic reader. 

This is a “picaresque” novel, which is a term I myself, reader though I am, had not heard until well into adulthood. It means a narrative in which the character moves through life from one adventure to the next, and it is used effectively to paint a scene of a time, as it allows the character to encounter a wide assortment of people and places that are not necessarily logically connected (logical in the literary sense, that is; life itself is rarely logical). It is a technique that releases the narrative from the obligation of cause, effect, and resolution. 

The novel relies heavily on dialogue, and the dialogue is naturalistic and vernacular.  Therein lies another compelling feature. These voices are amusing and moving. We enter into their conversations mid-stream, and they don’t let us go through their whole raucous life.

In the end, The Ginger Man is an enjoyable ride, hitting all the emotions in the range from exuberance to melancholy.  Maybe we can leave the solving of social ills to other writers. 



Annette Ferran lives in Philadelphia where she works as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.