Monday, February 10, 2014

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran

Brideshead Revisited and others

Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh, #80 on the Modern Library’s list) is a very well known novel of great reputation.  Also on the list of 100 Best Novels, by Evelyn Waugh, is Scoop (#75), a slight and satirical novel about the newspaper business, and A Handful of Dust (#34), a substantial novel that starts in familiar territory and then takes a surprising and disturbing turn.
            I don’t know why Scoop made the list, especially when so many outstanding novels of the 20th century were left off.  Part of the fun of reading through this list is trying to surmise what the criteria for “best novel” might have been.  Scoop is amusing but lightweight.  Any greater significance it might have had is lost on this reader.
            Brideshead Revisited, on the other hand, is a novel that should always be described as “marvelous.”  Long after you’ve read it, the character of Charles Ryder will stay with you, as if he had been your own childhood friend, witness to your family’s private disturbances, or as if he were you, absorbed into a friend’s family, learning to ignore the little pangs of doubt about where you belong.  Brideshead Revisited is a straightforward narrative of the most comfortable sort, a quality that no doubt contributed to its successful translation to film, but a quality also that leaves plenty of room for diving deep into feeling.  This is a novel of depth and substance, an appealing and engrossing read, a story that sticks.
            What is going on in A Handful of Dust is more puzzling. The story takes a horrifying turn at a certain point in the protagonist’s adventuresome life, and his fate is hard to reconcile with the novel’s attitude at its outset.  He starts out a typical Englishman of the upper classes who because of various dissatisfactions decides to go on a journey.  He ends up in a place that seems like it has been lifted from a Joseph Conrad novel.  I have not read any critical analysis of this novel.  I like to connect with a book on its own merits, though there are some for which the experience is enriched if you have an understanding of the author’s intentions or the social or political context.  Maybe scholars have better insight than I do into this novel—is it meant, for instance, to be allegorical? Perhaps a statement on British imperialism? Or good old human hubris?  This story sticks, too, but for different reasons. In fact, it doesn’t so much stick with you as haunt you.
            This trio of novels demonstrates not only the range of this talented novelist but also the range of the novel.  All three are recommended reading:  a variety of books for a variety of moods.

Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also an editorial assistant 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.