In this article for Trinidad’s Guardian, Simon Lee responds to The Daily Telegraph‘s selection of the 100 best novels of all time.
That infallible organ of British conservatism and classism, The Daily Telegraph recently published a list of The 100 Best Novels of all Time.
I had to review the list several times, before first laughing and then shaking my head in disbelief. Even though the paper addresses a particular English constituency some of the choices, and more significantly the omissions, both of which I’m coming to, are disturbing indicators of insularity and ignorance.
While I’m happy to see personal favourites like Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy or Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment on the list, I’m still astounded that major modernists like the American William Faulkner (The Sound and the Fury) or the Irish Samuel Beckett (Malone Dies) have been left out in the cold—unlike Brit John le Carré, who makes it with his Tinker Tailor spy classic.
Joining the unplaced are such other notables as Nobel literature laureates: the Americans Ernest Hemingway (1954), Saul Bellow (1976) and the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa (2010).
Obviously not every Nobel laureate can make it but the inclusion of decidedly minor English writers raises the question of the criteria involved in exactly what is “the best of all time.”
I agree that Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim and PG Wodehouse’s Code of the Woosters are amusing in the context of pre-multiracial England, although the farce in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop is compromised by racism.
These titles, like the delightful panegyric of English country life Cider with Rosie, Iris Murdoch’s Under the Net, Conan Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles and Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland recall the days of the British Empire, a comfortable world, where people knew their place from the squire in his mansion to the peasant in his cottage.
Undoubtedly these are well crafted texts but if the criterion is “best of all time” how can they be included while excluding those I’ve already mentioned and others, who you might have guessed are not English, or old style white male English.
Missing in action are Anglo-Japanese Kazuo Ishiguro (whose Remains of the Day is a brilliant analysis of the fault lines in English society in the days preceding World War II), the Anglo-Chinese Timothy Mo, along with other more recent ethnic minority (but English) female writers Zadie Smith, Andrea Levy and Bernardine Evaristo.
Once we shift our focus from England the exclusions become more glaring. The only two African texts on the list are Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart) and Coetzee’s Disgrace. Inexplicably the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s scathing satire on neocolonialism Devil on the Cross is absent, as is Nigerian Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Zimbabwean Dambudzo Marechera’s avant garde The House of Hunger and any one of South African-born Botswanan writer Bessie Head’s novels.
There’s no excuse for not including what is arguably Japan’s greatest twentieth century novel: Yukio Mishima’s Sailor who Fell from Grace with the Sea, or indeed the more recent Kafka on the Shore by Hari Murakami.
Notable European omissions include the hysterical satire The Good soldier Schweik, by Czech Jaroslav Hasek; French Jew Andre Schwarz-Bart’s holocaust classic The Last of the Just and the scatologically erotic Story of the Eye by another Frenchman, Georges Bataille.
The Telegraph list skirts diversity, experiment, globalism and the postmodern, how otherwise could it have overlooked the infamous American junkie William Burrough’s The Naked Lunch, or any of Henry Millers books. Right on the doorstep however is Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey, but then Oscar was both gay and of dubious Anglo-Irish extraction.
I’ve saved the worst for last. The Caribbean has only two nominations—Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Naipaul’s Bend in the River (why not Biswas?). As I explain at the beginning of the Comparative Literature course I teach at Costaatt, the judgement about what constitutes universal texts depends on one’s position.
The Telegraph resolutely entrenches itself in a blinkered past, ignoring the fact that the Empire has long been writing back, or that anywhere else exists beyond its cultural frame.
Here are just some of the Caribbean novels that should be included on a list of the 100 best novels of all time.
Haitian nominations would have to include Roumain’s classic peasant novel Masters of the Dew, Marie Vieux-Chauvet’s chilling anti-Duvalier trilogy Love, Anger, Madness, Rene Depestre’s vodou novel Hadriana in all my Dreams, Edwidge Danticat’s Farming the Bones and Dany Laferriere’s How to Make Love to a Negro. Anyone with pretensions to knowing about world literature would choose Cuban Alejo Carpentier’s Kingdom of this World (1949), that extraordinary take on the Haitian Revolution, which also happens to be the first magical realist text-and not Marquez’s 100 Years.
Another Cuban novel, the mammoth baroque Paradiso by Jose Lezama Lima is unmissable, as are any of Cabrera Infante’s novels. Even if the English haven’t heard about it, Patrick Chamoiseau’s oral history of Martinique Texaco impressed the French enough for them to award it the prestigious Prix Goncourt.
In the English Caribbean we’d have to include Lovelace’s The Dragon Can’t Dance, Sonny Ladoo’s No Pain like this Body, any Jamaica Kincaid and Wilson Harris’ Palace of the Peacock.
For the original report go to http://www.guardian.co.tt/lifestyle/2015-03-18/worst-best