|The problem of predicting what will last|
|4 January 2000|
As our Book of the Century series concludes, Allan Massie compares the list with one published by The Daily Telegraph 100 years ago
EACH WEEK for the past two years The Daily Telegraph’s literary editor has asked a contributor to name and describe his or her "Book of the Century", and today the series concludes with Arthur C. Clarke’s choice. The full selection invites comparison with a list drawn up by The Telegraph a century ago; we print both here.
The comparison cannot, however, be exact. All the books chosen in 1899 were fiction - the paper offered its readers the "100 Best Novels in the World", selected by the editor "with the assistance of Sir Edwin Arnold, K. C. I. E, H. D. Traill, D. C. L, and W. L. Courtney, LL. D.".
The modern list includes poetry, plays, history, diaries, philosophy, economics, memoirs, biography and travel writing. It is certainly eclectic, ranging from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, selected by David Sylvester, to The Wind in the Willows, chosen by John Bayley, and Down with Skool, Wendy Cope’s Book of the Century.
The 1899 list, on offer at the time in a cloth-bound edition at nine guineas the lot (easy terms available), is homogeneous, as the modern one is not, not only because it consists entirely of works of fiction but also because the selection was made by a small group. And since they were picking the 100 Best Novels, they were able to include books that nobody might name as a single "Book of the Century" but which many might put in their top 20 or so.
The difference in criteria between the two lists is instructive. That we today have asked our contributors to make personal choices may reflect our less deferential society. We are less willing than the Telegraph editor was in 1899 to deliver "ex cathedra" decrees and offer a list of "best books" that is not only prescriptive but splendid in its self-assurance. That said, one should bear in mind that the 1899 list was offered as a commercial proposition; ours is not.
Some of our contributors have chosen books for their influence, or for the way they have reflected or shaped our times, rather than for their literary merit or entertainment value. Perhaps if the selection committee of 1899 had prepared a list of the best books of their century, rather than of the best fiction, they would have included Hazlitt, Macaulay, Carlyle, Darwin, Arnold, Newman, Pater and Ruskin among their authors. And their list would have been much richer in poetry than ours is, for who can doubt that, say, Wordsworth, Byron, Keats, Tennyson and Browning all mattered more to 19th-century readers than any poet has to readers in our own century?
The 1899 list was not confined to the 19th century. It included also Tom Jones, Joseph Andrews, Tristram Shandy and two Smollett novels, Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle. They had all enjoyed more than 100 years of life already, and have all a lingering, shadowy existence still.
Few foreigners were then included: only Balzac (Père Goriot), Dumas, Hugo (each with three novels), Eugène Sue and Tolstoy, but with Anna Karenina and not War and Peace. So, no Stendhal, no Flaubert (thought immoral?), no Turgenev, no Dostoevsky. To be fair, Dostoevsky was then available to English readers only at two removes, in translations made from French versions of his novels. But we may fairly guess that he would not in any case have appealed to the editor of The Daily Telegraph then. Scott, with seven books, is the novelist best represented. Dickens has five, Thackeray three and Austen two. In each case, however, the selection will appear strange to modern taste. The Scott list omits Waverley, The Heart of Midlothian and Redgauntlet, which most of his modern admirers would rate among his best. (The Prime Minister’s favourite - Ivanhoe - is also missing.)
Early Dickens is preferred to the now much more admired late: the two masterpieces, Bleak House and Great Expectations, are absent. The Thackeray trio does not, astonishingly, include Vanity Fair, while Sense and Sensibility would be thought by few today superior to Emma and Persuasion. Some Victorian novelists whose books are still read were not thought worthy of inclusion. George Eliot, admittedly, scrapes in, but with Scenes from Clerical Life, not Middlemarch. There was no place for Emily Brontë (although there is for Charlotte), and Hardy, Henry James and Stevenson are also missing.
There are good novelists who have fallen out of fashion, but whose names at least still signify something: Harrison Ainsworth - I loved The Tower of London in my youth; Captain Marryat and Charles Reade - both admired by Orwell, himself in so many ways a man of Victorian tastes; and also Ouida, whose Under Two Flags (included) is not as fine a novel as her The Massarenes.
But many of the names ring only a faint tinkle, and some not even that. Their presence here stands as a reproach to the vanity and aspirations of authors. Hands up, those who have read, or even heard of, The Atonement of Leam Dundas by E. Lynn Linton, or Valentine Vox by Henry Cockton. Do I see no movement? I calculate that about 40 of these novels have vanished so completely that only academics or those in search of an unexplored subject for a PhD thesis will ever now come across them.
Sad, really. Once, evidently, they gave much pleasure, may even have seemed, in that word so carelessly thrown about by us reviewers, "important". And now? "One with Nineveh and Tyre," to quote Kipling, the only writer to appear in both the 1899 list (with Soldiers Three) and the modern one, with Kim, chosen by Barbara Trapido.
Given that each contributor was asked to nominate only one outstanding book, there is a chance that fewer of our selection will be forgotten. But some certainly will. Others may be known by name, but little read. Even now few people pore over Wittgenstein or curl up with Mein Kampf (Tony Benn’s choice). Its significance is unquestionable, but already faded. In 100 years it will be meat only for professional historians and the occasional lunatic zealot.
Journalism has a short lifespan. Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, chosen by Michael Shelden, no longer retains urgency. Artemis Cooper’s choice - Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring - which mattered when it appeared, is perhaps commonplace already.
Though humour often dates, I think, and trust, that Wodehouse will last: John Mortimer picked The Inimitable Jeeves. But while, like Philip Ziegler, I delight in 1066 and All That, I wonder what it means, even now, to a generation that learns almost no history before that of the 20th century.
As for the poetry and the fiction, much should fare better. Three people (William Boyd, Penelope Lively and Auberon Waugh) chose books by Nabokov (one his memoir, Speak, Memory). They may be right to bet on his survival; but 100 years ago many would have bet on George Meredith. Who reads him now? Nabokov, like Meredith, is a mannered writer, likely to seem tiresomely so in the future.
Richard Holmes selected Kerouac’s On the Road; a tribute to his own youth, one may suppose, rather than to that confused and ultimately empty book’s message. It is almost as dated as Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, although that was written almost 40 years before.
One of the pleasures of the list, though, is the strongly individual and surprising nature of some selections. Penelope Fitzgerald chose A. E. Housman’s Last Poems. Sixty years ago Orwell thought Housman finished: "it just tinkles", he wrote. Well, not for Penelope Fitzgerald, and not for me either. Housman lives, no doubt about it.
It is good that David Profumo selected William Trevor’s Collected Stories; sad that no one went for V. S. Pritchett’s. Two extraordinary travel books are here: Jan Morris’s choice of Charles Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta - nothing else like it in our language - and Claudio Magris’s Danube (Nicholas Shakespeare’s selection), an exploration of Mitteleurope.
Some writers here do seem to have their tickets booked for such immortality as books may enjoy: Proust, Joyce, Ford, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Waugh, Powell, Thomas Mann. Faulkner? Perhaps. Lampedusa - for art and nostalgia? Henry James - yes, but not perhaps The Golden Bowl, which Grey Gowrie chose. A Passage to India? - surely not. Sons and Lovers, chosen by Claire Tomalin, may be read as a historical curiosity only.
There are authors not represented here with a chance of survival: Conrad obviously, Camus, Mauriac, Bassani, Cheever, Simenon, Greene, Kingsley Amis, Angus Wilson, Spark; the list runs on . . . And what of the literature of, for want of a better word, entertainment? Conan Doyle has lasted more than 100 years, Buchan 70 or 80, Chandler 60. Will readers a century hence still delight in Holmes, Hannay and Marlowe? Or will they all be dead as Queen Anne?
Somerset Maugham used to put down those who babbled of undiscovered geniuses - and console himself? - with the observation that enduring books are chosen from those that are successes in their own day. On the whole the old boy was right. The 1899 list shows that, but it also shows that even a lasting success in your own century does not guarantee that you will be read in the next.
But what of Maugham himself? At least we can say this: as long as English is the international language, there will be a market for his short stories - since there is no easier text offering such entertainment.
1899 100 Best Novels
1999 100 Books of the Century