Ulysses tops great novel poll

Saturday, September 5, 1998
By Martin Levin

As Monica Lewinsky is to newspaper front pages, so the Modern Library list of the 100 "greatest" English-language novels of the 20th century is to the literary pages. Both have provided fodder for gossip, speculation, indignation and scandal. And both are -- though we have only intimations that this is true of Lewinsky -- considerable fun.

Certainly Globe and Mail readers seemed to have plenty of the latter, as some 200 of you responded to our request to name your own 10 greatest English-language novels of our fading and star-crossed century (though a few of you bridled at being restricted to only 10 choices, and one respondent sent in but one, owning that he could think of no novel other than Pat Conroy's The Prince of Tides that he has thought memorable).

Well, to business. Though you submitted a total of 688 different titles (a great gain upon Modern Library's own longlist of 400 or so), the clear and unsurprising winner was James Joyce's Ulysses , which scored far more first-place votes (23) and appeared on more ballots (39) than any other novel. In fact, 30 of Ulysses ' votes were for first or second place. Others, though, confessed either to never having read it or to having stopped reading before Leopold Bloom even gets to lunch (the novel takes place from the early morning of June 16, 1904, to the wee hours of the following day).

Scoring was tabulated as follows. A first-place vote earned 10 points, a second 9, a third 8 and so on, through one point for 10th place. A number of respondents specified that their choices were in no order; in that case, each book was given five points. Not a foolproof system, but a sight better than the Modern Library's haphazard method, about which even many panel members were unclear.

So what, besides pleasure, is to be gleaned from this exercise? Herewith a few observations, some of them from our contributors.

Three books by women in the top 20 may not seem like much, but it's better than the Modern Library list, which placed only To the Lighthouse that high. It seems fitting that one of our elite books, A. S. Byatt's Possession , is by the only woman on the Modern Library panel. In addition, there was strong support for Canadians such as Alice Munro, Carol Shields and the Margarets Laurence and Atwood, both of whom were hurt by having votes split among several titles, as well as for such women as Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and Muriel Spark.

If you seek a place among literary immortals, get yourself a set of initials. A. S., E. M., J. R. R., P. G., J. D., E. E. and D. H. are among those already taken, but there are any number of combinations that would serve. (How about X. X.?)
The thoughtfulness of so many respondents. Michael Oliver wrote of the judgments as "statements of a person's innate taste developed through experience." Carol Eisenberg noted the importance of emotional impact on the reading experience. Ron Charach, John Porter and G. E. Campbell (more initials!) provided eloquent rationales for their choices.

Although the final result yields a mostly not-unpredictable list (Irving, Mistry and Byatt are mildly surprising, as is Robertson Davies's high standing), the range of books and authors was wonderfully wide and eclectic. G. Rocchi offered several criteria, including the freedom "to make gloriously unbalanced lists." That this was the case is clear not only from the 688 titles, but from the idiosyncratic, often eccentric choices. Rowland Morgan (of Eel Pie Island, London, England) gave us a list composed entirely of short novels, "since I am visiting B.C., which is being rapidly deforested by 40 pulp and paper mills." Others sent lists heavy on fantasy, science fiction or southern novels. Among the offbeat choices for number one: Russell Banks's Continental Drift , James Dickey's Deliverance , Tom Robbins's Skinny Legs and All , Rudy Wiebe's The Temptations of Big Bear , John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces , Mark Helprin's A Winter's Tale , Flann O'Brien's (quite wonderful) The Third Policeman , George Moore's The Brook Kerith , Douglas Coupland's Microserfs , Jack Kerouac's On the Road , Rebecca West's The Birds Fall Down and Keri Hulme's The Bone People . The playful Ron Charach sent an alternative list, including such titles as Finnegan's Rainbow and Lord of the Rings and Flies.

I was surprised by the lack of support for some writers and the near ignoring of others. Nabokov's Lolita , at 16th, was below what I expected, but almost nobody chose Pale Fire , Pnin or Ada . Henry James, usually thought of as belonging to the last century, nonetheless produced some of his greatest work in the early years of this one. There was some support for The Golden Bowl , The Wings of the Dove and, especially, The Ambassadors , but not nearly enough. Two writers who would be represented on my list, V. S. Naipaul and Philip Roth, received only very scattered support: Not a single vote for A Bend in the River or The Counterlife .

Apparently, my directions for submission were not entirely clear. Several 19th-century novels appeared, as did as a few plays and non-fiction titles. One reader put Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek first. It's a great book, but it's not fiction. Others simply wanted to stray from the English-language restriction. There was support for GŁnter Grass and Alexander Sol-zhenitsyn, but especially for Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera .

The thirst for lists remains unslaked. Nathalie Atkinson and Elizabeth Vavasour, among others, would like to see lists of novels in translation, or Canadian novels. Alex Pugsley called the Modern Library list a "tawdry marketing scam" and proposed a Canadian list where Atwood would "hook Mailer in the eye" and Richler "pound the tar out of Tarkington." Anthony Kalamut sent in a list composed entirely of baseball novels and 10-year-old David Campbell confined himself to children's books. Libby Scheier lamented the fact that "we are so dominated by the novel."

The thing is, once you start this game, it could go on forever. How about the century's top 100 poems? Mysteries? Biographies? Cookbooks? What about the 100 greatest books of all time? As for us, we await Monica Lewinsky's -- sorry, M. L. Winsky's -- own first novel. Too bad the title Fall on Your Knees is taken.
Here are the top 20 vote-getters (first-place votes in parenthesis after total number of votes):
Votes Points
1. Ulysses , by James Joyce 39 (23) 343
2. The Great Gatsby , by F. Scott Fitzgerald 31 (2) 204
3. The Lord of the Rings , by J. R. R. Tolkien 30 (6) 185
4. The Catcher in the Rye , by J. D. Salinger 30 (2) 164
5. Heart of Darkness , by Joseph Conrad 20 (3) 142
6. For Whom the Bell Tolls , by Ernest Hemingway 23 (4) 140
6. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man , by James Joyce 20 (7) 140
8. To the Lighthouse , by Virginia Woolf 23 (1) 135
9. 1984 , by George Orwell 22 (1) 129
10. Fifth Business , by Robertson Davies 21 (3) 114
11. Sons and Lovers , by D. H. Lawrence 17 (1) 107
12. Catch-22 , by Joseph Heller 16 (2) 103
13. A Passage to India , by E. M. Forster 18 (1) 95
14. A Prayer for Owen Meany , by John Irving 15 (3) 92
15. The Sound and the Fury , by William Faulkner 13 (1) 86
16. Lolita , by Vladimir Nabokov 14 (2) 79
16. Possession , by A. S. Byatt 12 (4) 79
18. A Fine Balance , by Rohinton Mistry 15 (1) 74
19. To Kill a Mockingbird , by Harper Lee 14 (0) 69
19. Midnight's Children , by Salman Rushdie 12 (1) 69

Just missing the cut were: Orwell's Animal Farm, Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano, Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet (there was support for other series too, such as John Dos Passos's USA and Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time), Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day and Forster's Howard's End.

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