Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
Lightweights and Other Disappointments
Among the many stellar works of literature on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century lurk several mediocre examples. Some come across as insubstantial—perfectly enjoyable reads but lacking depth. Some are over-rated: they may have made a splash at the time of their publication and are considered important in the history of literature, but their ripples are long since dissipated. They don’t stand on their own merits. Some are merely forgettable.
Ironweed (William Kennedy; #92) is fine as a novel. Likewise, The Moviegoer (Walker Percy; #60) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Murial Spark; #76). It’s just that, read in the context of the other novels on the list, they don’t measure up. They lack the depth of insight, or stylistic verve, or brilliance in language. They are each good stories, but they’re lightweight.
In the case of Ironweed, the fault lies perhaps in their being written out of time. They are interesting backwards looks, but their significance for the time in which they were written, and for this current time, is weak. They are entertainments, which certainly has value. They have a kind of artificiality that makes them second-rate on this list.
In another category are the three D.H. Lawrence novels that made the list (Sons and Lovers, #9; The Rainbow, #48; Women in Love, #49) as well as Tropic of Cancer (Henry Miller; #50) and Under the Volcano (Malcolm Lowry; #11). Each of these carries a reputation for having broken boundaries. D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller were supposed to have been shocking in their depictions of sex and sexuality. From this vantage point, those boundaries now long broken, they are boring.
Under the Volcano falls in a slightly different subcategory. It is one of those novels that defines a generation; it is held as a life-changing book for some people, some of them being close friends of mine. Its impact doesn’t necessarily hit other generations, though. What was breathtakingly illuminating as new fiction to a certain group of people at a certain age of their lives, in the atmosphere of a certain era of time coinciding with that tender age, might not come across to other readers in other times. I found this novel long and chaotic, its character degenerated in a drug craze that, like the sex degeneration of the other novels, becomes tedious. The language, imagery, tone, and pace are compelling and keep the novel moving for a time. Plot and character bring it down.
Point Counterpoint (Aldous Huxley; #44) and Under the Net (Iris Murdoch; #95) are, each in its own way, forgettable. Point Counterpoint purports to be philosophical but is also pedantic and fails to plant roots. Under the Net flits by and leaves no mark.
No doubt this is sacred ground I’m despoiling but I leave you with these thoughts: Life is short. The number of books available to read is vast and getting vaster by the day. And after you’re out of school, there is no such thing as “required 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 10,000Tons 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.