Monday, February 9, 2015

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran 


On the Road

Read enough novels and you start to develop the notion that there is such a thing as “the novel,” that there is a norm, differences in style, voice, attitude, and structure notwithstanding.  And then pops up a novel that subverts this notion. One on the Modern Library’s list is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (#55).
             This novel occupies a place on another list of mine: the 10 books that have most influenced my life. (Naming your top 10 books is a challenge active in the social media realm right now. Try it; it’s interesting and amusing. Also, by exchanging lists with friends, you’ll surely get some more titles for your must-read list.)
            Kerouac is, like Hemingway, an exhaustively discussed and analyzed American author, with himself as an artist as much the topic as his work—and with good reason, as Kerouac is the type of writer whose own self is inseparable from his creative output. On the Road is a piece of writing that comes straight from the gut. I believe if you read this book for the first time at the wrong age, it will land like a lump or pass right by you. But if you read it at the right time, it will lift you high.
            The premise of the plot is a trip by car across the United States. The car is supposed to be delivered from the West coast to the East coast; the young men driving it are hired to complete this job. What happens in the course if this trip is an exultant meditation on just about everything in life, in the language of jazz.  Jazz music at that time was crazy and heretical. It had entered an era of experimentation that exploded it out of its shell of “America’s classical music.”  It was, depending on the listener’s stance, impossible to listen to, hardly resembling music at all, or a portal to the greatest aesthetic and spiritual experience ever. The magic of On the Road is how the writing captures the essence of this music. The language and rhythms of this writing are the typewritten equivalent of bebop jazz. Read one, listen to the other, and you have in your possession the spirit of that time in American life.
            These people in this novel are outsiders, of course. They are not the norm. But they portended the great upheavals that the country was about to face. They were the avant-garde of the generation gap that itself became a norm. And this is why the novel is so influential.  Through the courage, the rebellion, the rogue nature of Kerouac comes a work of semi-fiction that lets a young reader of a certain inclination know that other things are possible. Other lifestyles, other ways of viewing the world, other—more esoterically—aesthetic experiences exist for the curious, the restless, the disenfranchised, the creatively driven citizens of the world.  There are paths to fulfillment through art that haven’t yet been forged.
            Kerouac’s own life is not one, perhaps, to be emulated. He himself did not quite break free of the conventions to which he was born. He stayed with his mother, he stayed with his wife, he stayed tied to the small town and to the ethnicity of his origin.  He carried in his psyche all the conflicts of all of the above and then some, and they ended up killing him young.  But what he left behind, creatively speaking, rises to the level of the religious, in this reader’s humble opinion.

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 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, January 12, 2015

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran

Tobacco Road
A recent New Yorker article about paperback book publishing reminded me about Erskine Caldwell’s entry on the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the 20th century, number 91, Tobacco Road, as well as his other well-known work, God’s Little Acre, which is more memorable in my experience.  Caldwell’s writing straddles that thin line between literary writing and pulp fiction.  It is possible that Tobacco Road makes the list while God’s Little Acre doesn’t because Tobacco Road is somehow less pulpy, somehow more elevated.
            Like many novels on this list, Tobacco Road was considered obscene when it was published because of its depictions of sex and sexuality, in particular.  Also like many of the list’s novels, it remains shocking in some of its scenes and themes, though not always the same ones that earned it obscenity charges originally.  It is the story of an abjectly poor white family in Georgia in the era of the Great Depression. They are share-croppers growing increasingly poverty-stricken while adhering stubbornly to their notion that they are independent and can fend for themselves. The story includes weird physical afflictions, weird romances, weird phobias and obsessions, and a starkly realistic style with no romantic overlay to give these people any nobility in their down-trodden state. There is something almost clumsy about the writing at times. 
Caldwell is said to have meant his writing to be a form of social and political protest.  He wrote what he knew of his own Southern American society to bring attention to the terrible circumstances in which people were living.  Steinbeck did the same thing, but with a desire to ennoble his characters that Caldwell doesn’t seem to capture.  Or perhaps Caldwell didn’t have the same kind of starry-eyed faith in humanity that comes through as a Steinbeck characteristic.  Both write with a style that is somewhat raw and anti-lyrical.  Caldwell’s is more brutish, even, like the German expressionists’ paintings. 
            Another comparison Caldwell has to endure is with his fellow Southerner, William Faulkner.  “Southern gothic” is the label commonly applied, an unfairness to each of them (and countless other writers) that betrays the prejudice and bias still present in the American literary world.  Unfortunately, Tobacco Road is built on a premise that is hard to reconcile with open-minded reading: that the protagonist family is especially pitiable because they are white, not black, but are living at a level “worse than” or “lower than” the black families around them.  This is supposed to be an added injustice to this family, as if being white alone entitled them to a better standard of living.  Putting this offensive premise aside (with difficulty), the depiction of this family is refreshingly unflinching.  They are not nice people; they are not innocent victims of circumstance. Through their ignorance, they make things worse for themselves. They are ridiculous and frustrating to an onlooker.  Yet this picture of a sector of America is appalling, and Caldwell’s writing style makes it impossible to look away.
Where Faulkner also depicts blacks and whites living side-by-side in a broken society, where Steinbeck also depicts people brought lower than low by poverty, they both do so with empathy and with careful story construction, which allow their characters to have humanity.  Caldwell goes for luridness. This work is more similar to The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, a muck-raking call-to-arms-against-injustice, which is apparently what it was meant to be.  It is more similar to pulp fiction than to literary fiction or even to intentioned protest fiction because of the luridness and the feeling that comes across that the story is meant to titillate and engross rather than reveal and edify. However, Tobacco Road does all of these things.  (Likewise God’s Little Acre, with a bit more tawdriness.) 
There are, in the end, multiple ways to take this novel.  Caldwell doesn’t have the power and skill that the other writers mentioned do, but he gets the job done.  This novel leaves a gritty taste in the mouth, or maybe more aptly, an irritation in the consciousness. 


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 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, December 8, 2014

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran

Why Conrad?
Number 1 on the Modern Library’s list of best novels (and on many other similar lists) is Ulysses, by James Joyce. Number 3 is A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and number 77 is Finnegan’s Wake, both also by James Joyce.  I have no intention of reviewing these novels (well, maybe Portrait of the Artist), but bring them up only to point out that this well acknowledged best English-language novelist ever is represented three times on a list of 100 entries. D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and Henry James also appear three times each.  The powerhouses of American literature—Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck—appear three times, three times, twice, and once, respectively. 
            Joseph Conrad appears four times (The Secret Agent, #46; Nostomo, #47; The Heart of Darkness, #67; and Lord Jim, #85).  This strikes me as an overrepresentation. 
            Not that Conrad doesn’t belong on this list.  The Heart of Darkness, in particular, is without question a great novel.  Likewise Lord Jim.  Conrad has a distinct style, unique among his contemporaries or, really, any other writer on this list.  He wrote in English, which was a foreign language to him.  He creates in his writings indelible atmospheres and profound depths.  With The Heart of Darkness you get sucked into the very mire of the scene, captured and entwined into the stinking, cloying natural elements of the journey.  In all of the novels you come away with the sense of having been absorbed into an impenetrable mystery—what is it all about? Part of this is his way with the language.  Part of it is the exotic and oppressive settings of the stories. Part is the plots. “Squalorous” is a word aptly applied to any of his novels.
            Conrad left his mark on the history of literature throughout the 20th century.  The four novels of his on the list were published in 1899, 1900, 1904, and 1907 (the first, The Heart of Darkness, was published serially first and then in a volume in 1902, which presumable qualified it for this list). The dark themes of his novels are harvested by subsequent writers—see Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.  See—it hardly bears mentioning—Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece film, Apocalypse Now.  His contributions unquestionably enriched our literary canon. 
            But who reads Conrad now?
            An admittedly small and informal survey reveals a generational pattern to Conrad’s inclusion on required reading lists, applying not only to age but also to the educational ideologies of schools.  The generation above mine remembers reading several of Conrad’s novel.  The generation below seem never to have heard of him (with the exception of those whose schools follow a classical education).  All those surveyed recall a less than enjoyable experience.  If we only get 100 slots, why do some (albeit great) writers show up so frequently while others are passed over completely?  Where is The Golden Notebook (Doris Lessing), or Waiting for the Barbarians (J.M. Coetzee), or The Awakening (Kate Chopin)?
            The Heart of Darkness is worth reading.  It is an enthralling and disturbing—perhaps even disturbed—novel.  It is worth reading because it delves into the deepest reaches of the human psyche and experience through the metaphor of journey through a dark and challenging landscape where people are metamorphosed from socialized humanity to something raw and frightening though none the less human.  It is also linguistically challenging and dark, edifying from a writerly standpoint.  Read The Heart of Darkness and you may feel inclined to explore Conrad’s other works for the draw of their strangeness.  But you don’t need The Modern Library to lead you there with four—count ‘em, four—entries.


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. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran


I, Claudius
Number 14 on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century is I, Claudius, by Robert Graves, published in 1934. This novel purports to be the autobiography of Tiberius Claudius, a member of the Roman ruling family in the time of Julius Caesar.  From this basis, Graves gives us a historical novel with the intimacy of a first-person eye-witness account.
            Why is I, Claudius a great novel? Let’s start with the character Claudius.  In contrast with his family, friends, and rivals, he is a poor physical specimen: he stutters and he is half-crippled. This means he is considered weak and stupid, dismissible at best, abusable.  But as we come to find out, Claudius is far from stupid and far from weak.  He uses these perceptions as a cloak to hide his actions and manipulations, and he becomes a great man in the context of his time.
            More than this, Claudius is a great literary character.  His personality is so fully formed by this author, Graves, that he is as if real—living, breathing, thinking, feeling.  He is clever and funny, likeable, sympathetic, and, finally, shockingly ruthless.  Of course, he was real; his life is a historical fact, after all. It took place approximately 2060 years ago, and in a language long dead, but in Graves’s hands, Claudius and his contemporaries could be our contemporaries.  He lives on the page and he continues to live after the back cover of the book is reluctantly closed.  (In fact, Graves went on to write a sequel, Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina.) 
            First-person narration tends to do this: to create an indelible character whose story has immediacy and intimacy. It conveys a different style of truth than another attitudinal approach would. Certainly, it provides a more visceral experience, a kind of juiciness, than a historical recitation does.
            Next what makes the novel great is the material Graves has to work with.  Countless literary works have been harvested from Roman history, rich as it is in drama.  The intricacies of relationships, the political and social rules dictating behaviors and fomenting rebellions right down to the very personal; murder, mating, elevation and debasement, loyalty, remorse, betrayal, grief; all of the most intense emotion-rousing, reaction-inciting aspects of humanity bubble in the stew of this history.  And we devour and nourish ourselves from that stew to this day.
            And finally there is the artistry.  The Romans left behind a remarkable body of literature and primary-source history themselves.  But what imagination it takes to construct fiction out of this ancient heritage!  Other authors have done it before and since, but of the 20th century novelists, Graves’s work merits its place among the best of fiction.  Read I, Claudius and see if you don’t yearn to know more about this man and the men and women around him.  (If you do, go to Edith Hamilton, The Roman Way, and then see if you can resist her previous work, The Greek Way.  These are not fiction; they are very strictly nonfiction, history-teaching, scholarly works but imbued with the novelist’s spirit.)  And consider that this novel was written and published during a revolutionary time in the history of the English-language novel, when the contemporary, the ordinary were the topics of choice. 
            Could Claudius stand tall beside John Dowell (The Good Soldier), Jake Barnes (The Sun Also Rises), Charles Ryder (Brideshead Revisited)?  He could.  Could he stand alone?  He does.


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 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 13, 2014

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran


Kipling and London

Rudyard Kipling and Jack London are both writers I’ve always associated with adolescent boys’ adventure stories and therefore have not felt the need to acquaint myself with.  It turns out that Kipling’s Kim (#78 on the list) and London’s The Call of the Wild (#88) also inhabit the category of “pleasant surprises.”
            They are very different novels, written by two people in very different circumstances, but they have several things in common as well.  Kim conveys surprisingly incisive views of cultural difference seen through the eyes of a young boy.  The Call of the Wild contains a surprisingly incisive view of the workings of the canine mind. (For two other examples of a human writer getting convincingly into the mind of a dog, read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski, which is fiction, and The Hidden Life of Dogs, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, which is nonfiction.)  These two novels also fulfill that most wonderful promise of literature of transporting you, the reader, to a new and foreign place you will never have the chance to experience first-hand.
            Both writers write about events and settings they know very well, being made of them.  Kipling was British, raised mostly in India in that peculiar cultural and ethnic environment of the British Raj, which figures frequently in British literature of the early part of the 20th century.  London was American, some would say quintessentially American, being of the West of the late 1800’s, a land of challenge and opportunity often presented as the embodiment of the American spirit.
            Kim’s protagonist is a young boy; The Call of the Wild’s is a dog.  Each is in his way a displaced person: Kim the son of Irish and English parents abandoned to the streets of India, passing as an Indian boy; Buck a farm dog stolen and pressed into service as a Yukon sled dog.  Each is forced to live a life outside the expectations of his “breed” and each survives by the strength of his own core being.  These characters, thrown against their wills into their present circumstances, go from incident to incident, encountering new strange and influential characters at every turn, only to be shoved in a new direction and never to see them again.  They grow along the way, gaining experience and control through hardship and near misses of both the dangerous and safe, affectionate kind.
            Kim was published in 1901 and The Call of the Wild in 1903, making them both novels not truly belonging to the 20th century (similar to Henry James’ novel), more so because they were stories intended to entertain and illuminate with no pretensions to prescience. Both were originally published serially and they have that cliff-hanging, bated-breath pacing and tone that can be so enjoyable when done well.  These are done very well.  The writers’ mastery over their craft is plain.  They are both contemporary novels, so written in the real time and on the real experience of the writer and yielding a satisfying immediacy.  They each convey wisdom of the kind that grows out of culture clash—old cultures against each other, or a new culture establishing itself.  And each is, fundamentally, an adventure story: exciting and suspenseful, the kind of reading that might make you miss your train stop.
            Prejudice, as we all know, is not admirable.  It also carries with it the risk that you might miss out on some good reading. 


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.