A year or so ago I was at a literature event celebrating the Granta Best Young Novelists. I asked the panel to name an author whom they thought also belonged in the anthology, but hadn’t been selected. Two of the panelists were more than happy to name people, but one of them, Adam Foulds, didn’t. Instead, he claimed that he didn’t bother reading modern fiction, that there really, was no point to it.
Will Self said something similar in a piece for The Guardian earlier this year. It has been bastardised and misquoted all over the place, but one section in particular stood out for me.
“The saying is that there are no second acts in American lives; the novel, I think, has led a very American sort of life: swaggering, confident, brash even – and ever aware of its world-conquering manifest destiny. But unlike Ernest Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald, the novel has also had a second life. The form should have been laid to rest at about the time of Finnegans Wake, but in fact it has continued to stalk the corridors of our minds for a further three-quarters of a century. Many fine novels have been written during this period, but I would contend that these were, taking the long view, zombie novels, instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down.”
I have managed to get a lot of reading done this year, more so than most other years. Probably thanks to a longer commute, and reviewing demands amongst other things. Looking back at my reading list for the year – you can find it here on my website – I’ve noticed that I have been well and truly embedded in the second life of the novel. The oldest books I’ve read (The Gunslinger, ‘salem’s lot and The Drowned World) date back merely to the 60’s and 70’s. The newest books – some of them haven’t even been published yet.
Now, I don’t buy the essential argument of Foulds that modern literature is pointless. I don’t even really believe that we’re in the death throes of literature, as Self suggests. But, what has concerned me is that I might be missing out on some cracking pre-war literature.
So – I’d like suggestions please. What books, pre-1945 should I have read? There’s a lot of classics that I’ve trawled through over the years, but there’s a great many undiscovered gems out there that I bet will be new to me.