In Competition for the Best Novel of the 20th Century

Remains of the Day film Location

Sometimes it’s fun to join the argument.  The 20th century was an amazing time for the novel.  It was a mature form even as the century began, so practitioners weren’t having to make it up as they went along, so we didn’t get bogged down with things like the epistolary narrative in supposedly great literature.

This means that the century got off to a running start, but the truth is that it really hit its stride in the 1920s, which is where the lost generation comes in. Though Hemingway might not be in play for the greatest novel of the 20th century, Fitzgerald most certainly is, and prior to reading the subject of today’s post, I would have said that The Great Gatsby beat everyone else in the running by a few lengths.  It is, after all, a nearly perfect book.  It still has a partial lock on my vote.

There are generally a couple of other books that appear on every top ten list you can find: Lolita and Ulysses I’ve spoken about Ulysses elsewhere, so let’s discuss the Nabokov.

Lolita is an extremely well-written work, of course, but I do believe that the subject matter–a key part of its fame–lets it down slightly.  While most of us can relate to the characters in the Fitzgerald (in fact, other than the near-mythical Gatsby himself, it’s easy to imagine being any of the others), it takes a little more imagination to put oneself into old Humbert’s shoes.  Advantage Gatsby.

And then, after Lolita, the great works appear to have dried up.  Sixties rolled into seventies, rolled into eighties, rolled… wait a minute.  In 1989, a book came out that maybe, just maybe, could topple the king.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (Folio Society Edition)

That book is The Remains of the Day, by Englishman Kazuo Ishiguro, which won the Man Booker prize in the year it was published.

I normally don’t pay too much attention to the Booker, but man, this time they absolutely nailed it.

Half social commentary, half elegy for a simpler world, the story is absolutely taut and perfect. You feel for the character, feel for what he is going through, and understand that what seems monstrous to us is perfectly normal to the main character of this book, which acts as a multiplier to the emotional effect of the novel.

Where a book such as Brideshead Revisited (which, structurally is surprisingly similar–it looks back at many of the same things from approximately the same place in time) approaches the loss of innocence through the lens of youth, The Remains of the Day does so out of a place of maturity and by looking at a sense of duty and of the inevitable process of aging.  The understatement, the ambiguity and the fact that the writer lets us come to our own conclusions just makes the story all that more powerful.

The fact that I read the Folio Society edition of this one might have helped me enjoy it even more.  Some books require a beautiful edition while others–I’d put Neuromancer in that list–are better enjoyed in a smudged and broken mass market paperback.

Is it best of the 20th?  Only time will tell.  Gatsby has had nearly a hundred years to age, to consolidate its leadership and to fight off the Nabokov’s of this world.  Ulysses is a novel that defined its philosophical movement. The younger novel, on the other hand, ignores postmodernism to return to a more ancient state of the novel.  This makes it a stronger book, but it might also contribute to a failure to impress the critics as the last century fades further into the past.

It might be passed over, but I hope Ishiguro’s Nobel prize means that it won’t.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His book Outside deals with humanity and post-humanity in a world where almost nothing is quite what it seems.  You can have a look here.

 

 

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4 comments

    1. That is an excellent question. From my list it doesn’t look that way. Do you count Breakfast at Tiffany’s as melancholy? I find it celebrates life, even if the ending isn’t quite a happy one. Lolita is more unusual and disturbing than melancholy, although it does go there.

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    2. But that only counts for the 20th century. The 19th (Vanity Fair, Pride and Prejudice, David Copperfield) was full of non-melancholy (albeit only if you ignore the Russians…

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