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. 

Monday, September 28, 2015

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran

A Room with a View

There is nothing like falling in love, although when it goes smoothly it can be quite boring to outside observers.  Luckily for fiction, it rarely goes smoothly.

E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View (#79) is the nicest romance on the Modern Library’s list.  Nevertheless, it is a romance with issues and impediments, and in Forster’s masterful hands a compelling tale that travels back and forth between sensuous Italy and farcical Britain.

Lucy is a well-bred, obedient young woman with something smoldering inside her.  Through the coincidences of British upper-class travel she twice crosses paths with a father and son who might be well-bred but are not necessarily obedient, at least not to British propriety.  The father, Mr. Emerson, is romantic and philosophical.  His voice is the foil to the reliable expectations laid out before Lucy, which she had readily bought into.  It isn’t that Lucy is not allowed to be herself; it’s just that even as herself she hadn’t felt any inclination to rebel against her predictable, respectable future. 

But Lucy has a passionate soul. We can see it in her piano playing: she plays Beethoven with a particular, almost unsettling degree of feeling. We even see it in her relationship with her younger brother Freddy, who is at the age between boyhood and manhood and is overflowing with impetuous life, tolerated and indulged by his mother and his sister.  Lucy has a certain something, which is perceived by Mr. Emerson’s son, George, but not at all by her chaste beau, soon fiancĂ©, Cecil.  And therein manifests Lucy’s conflict.

The older people in this story are very interesting, and an examination of their characters and their relationships could fill pages.  There is Mr. Emerson, Lucy’s mother Mrs. Honeychurch, Lucy’s cousin and chaperone Charlotte, a romance novelist named Miss Lavish, and the local vicar Mr. Beebe.  They have created little families for themselves among one another, but each is without a life partner.  There is fun and sociability in their lives, there is friendship and companionship, but there is no romance.  If Lucy and Charlotte hadn’t encountered the Emersons on their Italian sojourn in Florence, Lucy might have grown predictably into the same enjoyable but non-romantic life, and she might have been satisfied with it.  But she did meet the Emersons, and each of these older people, in his or her own way, encourages the young ones toward love, which in this novel is synonymous with life.

A motif is the celebration of the nude male as the symbol of art, passion, and freedom.  In Florence, this type of art surrounds the British visitors and challenges their aesthetics and their morals (as does the sometimes violent passion of the Italian people).  Back in England, it is echoed in a spontaneous, playful swimming outing with Freddy, George, and Mr. Beebe (representing three ages of a man), which is accidentally seen by Lucy, Cecil, and cousin Charlotte.  They are scandalized, mostly on behalf of the young, pure women, but maybe they are only very slightly scandalized.  Maybe at least two of them are also awakened to the beauty that life contains.

The tone and the structure of this novel are like a piece of Beethoven’s music – the “Moonlight” sonata comes to mind.  The novel is melodic, with a somewhat brooding undercurrent punctuated by bright notes of joy and also with discordant notes that sit a moment and then resolve themselves.  This is what falling in love, real love, is like as well: the uncertainties induce extreme unhappiness, even sparks of irritation and anger.  But then the merest appearance of the object of one’s infatuation is like shafts of sun, like a snatch of song in perfect harmony. The real love between Lucy and George illuminates the inadequacies of the supposed love arrangement between Lucy and Cecil.  Once that light is shined, it can’t be turned off again.

The message of this novel is an exuberant one, celebrating happiness.  Mr. Emerson says it best:  Do we find happiness so often that we should turn it off the box when it happens to sit there?” he asks a conflicted Lucy.  And: “By the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes--a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.”


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. 

Monday, August 31, 2015

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran


As I Lay Dying

To me, one of the most satisfying novels on the Modern Library’s list and one my favorites from its prolific author, William Faulkner, is As I Lay Dying (#35).  Its chief appeals are its black humor and modernist experimental style. “As I lay dying,” you can hear the unfortunate Addie Bundren say, “Just look what all these idiots around me were doing.”  In the seriousness of their endeavors, they succumb to ludicrous situations. And in their ridiculousness they unveil a great world.           
The story is told as first-person narrative from a rotating cast of about 15 characters.  Their intellectual acumen is varied.  Some are very young. Some have a loose grip on sanity. Some are obsessive. Some are fairly wise and grounded at moments. Some are selfish. Some are always striving to do the right thing. Some have big secrets. Some have a marvelous way with words.  Many of the characters we learn about through others before hearing from them directly. 
The dying woman, though the story pivots around her, appears in her own voice in only one passage more than halfway through the book.  Her passage is, among other things, a meditation on words.  It is a poetical articulation of what Faulkner does in this novel through strings of words, dialect, punctuation and italics that add up to repeated immersions into other people’s consciousnesses – like mind-melding sometimes, or like half-drowning in psychology, and sometimes like sensory overload, or like watching a high-rise being built or a sculpture emerge from a lump of clay. The story builds persistently. Understanding grows and blossoms.  It comes back around to that note of black humor: after everything everyone has been through, the father shows up at the end (I won’t say in what circumstance) and you want to say on their behalf, “Are you kidding me?!”
The basic outline of the plot can be gathered only after a full reading of the book.  Addie married Anse years ago and had several children. She lived with them away from where she grew up, and they understand that she wants to be buried back where she came from.  So once she dies, they undertake to transport her body in a casket one of the sons made, in a wagon pulled by mules across some miles of landscape, including wild waters. They make it after several days, with the decaying body still in the wagon in the casket. What they’ve lost in the journey, and what they’ve contended with during it and before it are the juicy meat of the story.
Faulkner was a virtuoso and became a cultural icon.  As cultural icon, later in his life, he was critiqued for not knowing personally enough of the actual people from whom the Civil Rights movement grew and around whom it swung.  His astoundingly profound understanding of people, and his equally astounding ability to bring that understanding to life through words earned him that stature and with it the unreasonable expectations not bestowed on other writers.  He wrote of the South; therefore, he should have been, in his writing, a political activist – like Steinbeck, perhaps.  He fell short, in some eyes, of the obligation of a cultural contributor.
Faulkner as novelist is obliged only to know his own characters.  In this aspect of the duties of novel-writing, Faulkner is the ultimate role-model.  He has no peer in American literature thus far.  His novels are fundamentally character studies, and this one is the prime example.  The world is created by individual people and their individual stories meshing together even where the characters themselves pass each other by in communication and comprehension.  It is, as an added bonus, funny and poignant and stylistically magical.  It has a rhythm that rushes and slows and turns back on itself and rushes again.  Each word, and each missing word, paints the landscape in which these people dwell. Each expression serves to fill out their living portraits. 
Faulkner wrote to write, and this novel should be read to be read. 


Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia 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.