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