This wasn’t an easy post to write. When the idea of a personal canon was first suggested to me I thought it would be straightforward to work out what mine was. I was wrong. More than that though the task raised questions for me about what I read and the choices I make.
What first struck me is how much my idea of canon has changed over the years. That’s why I decided to have two posts: one of my canon as was and one of it as is.
That first post proved quite fun. I’d forgotten that even as a teenager I’d mixed genre fiction with literary (though the proportions then and now are very different). There was an undeniable nostalgia in remembering writers most of whom I wouldn’t read today but who I do still have a place in my heart for.
This post though? This post raised questions. I expected to put it up about a week after the first. In fact it’s over a month. I’ll talk about why that was shortly, but first…
Here’s my current personal and utterly subjective canon:
The three survivors from my previous list, to save the need to check back, are Chandler, Lovecraft and Runyon. Chandler because he remains the king of hardboiled and shows that genre writing needn’t be bad writing; Lovecraft because I still get a thrill from his best tales even though I’ve read them many, many times; and Runyon because he is just a tremendously good writer with a style so accessible it makes it easy to miss how much skill it takes.
Lem should really have been on the last list. He just got missed. He’s a Polish SF writer of remarkable skill most famous for writing the book Solaris (which became a film by Tarkovsky and was later remade by Soderbergh).
Lem wrote SF unlike any other I’d read then (or indeed since). In one story a spaceship at the edge of the solar system sees an ancient alien ship, humanity’s first proof of life beyond the Earth. The crew however are drunk and costcutting means that the ship’s recording equipment is out of order. In another story a signal is picked up from space, but nobody can agree whether it is alien or natural in origin. His work is full of complex considerations of faith, of the knowability of the universe, human fallibility and a great deal of black humour.
In case it’s unclear Lem is one of those few SF writers that I regard as also being a literary writer. Interestingly he had little regard for for SF as a genre, viewing it as generally poorly written and unambitious in terms of language and form. He rated Philip K Dick but sadly it wasn’t reciprocated and Dick denounced him to the FBI claiming that Lem was in fact a Soviet collective masquerading as a single writer with a view to bringing down American SF.
The new canon
I’ve been lucky with Ballard. He has a tendency to write the same books over and over. I’ve skipped enough of his output that each book of his I’ve read was fresh and interesting, and not as others have complained a tired retread of the immediately preceding novel.
Ballard is an author whose success is at the level of the overall work. He’s not a naturalistic writer – few of his dystopic visions are particularly likely in terms of their own facts. He is however a writer who captures a profound sense of quotidian brutality and of the savagery lurking beneath the surface of urban civilisation.
Over at The Asylum John Self has mentioned that he’s found Ballard’s work slightly boring (as damaging a criticism as any I can imagine). I can see that, but it’s never been my experience. I don’t read Ballard for the prose. I read Ballard for the imaginative impact and I think his recognition is well deserved.
Sticking to comments by John Self, he once wrote that Hamilton was not a major writer but that he was an excellent minor one. I don’t quite think in terms of major and minor, but I know what he means.
For me Hamilton is a master at drawing out a world of now largely lost Englishness. His is an England of seedy pubs, down-at-heels boarding houses with overinquisitive landladies, the drone of fascist sympathisers holding forth to a captive audience over a G-and-T. It’s territory Julian Maclaren-Ross knew well too of course.
Hamilton has had something of a revival in recent years and for me it’s very well deserved. Through him I was introduced to Jean Rhys whom I adore and to other lost English writers like Gerald Kersh. That’s one of the tests for who gets on my list – did they broaden my reading? Did they push me forward? Hamilton did.
Sticking with the Brits for a moment I’ll turn to Ann Quin. I was introduced to Quin by Lee Rourke (author of The Canal). I’ve only read one novel by her, Berg, and I’m not quite sure if it entirely merits being included in this post. It’s good, there’s no question for me about that, but I’m not sure it’s a masterpiece. I’m not sure it’s not though either which I find interesting.
Regardless of the status of Berg itself (a mesmerising mix of modernism, English seaside humour and Ortonesque black farce) what’s undeniable is that like Hamilton Quin pushed my reading forward. After Berg I found myself wanting to explore different kinds of books. I wanted more challenge and less reliance on straighforward narrative tools. Quin made me think about what fiction can do, and that on its own justifies her place on this list.
Jean Rhys is an easy inclusion. The image I have when I think of a Jean Rhys novel is of a woman sitting alone in a bar nursing a drink while the other patrons glance over, disapprovingly.
Rhys’s work captures isolation, longing, the marginalisation of women (often by other women) and a host of other profoundly difficult emotions. In terms of language and structure I think she’s exceptional, but hard to pin down. With some writers I can say why they’re good. With Rhys it’s more that I just see that she is.
Moving on, Wharton makes her way onto the list because of the sheer precision and quality of her prose and structure. I’ve read just one Wharton, which is troubling because The Age of Innocence is a masterpiece and it begs the question why I’ve not read more. I’ll come back to that question.
Nabokov, Flaubert and Proust need no explanation.
I’m a recent convert to Pynchon. For me he’s a quintessentially American author. His work (such as I’ve read of it) bubbles with a seemingly undisciplined mass of ideas, characters, riffs and diversions. It’s intoxicating, and for many alienating, stuff. Pynchon isn’t an easy read by any means but he’s pushing form and ideas in the way I think Lem would have liked science fiction to do (I wonder if Lem would have liked David Mitchell? Possibly…).
Pynchon makes me work. When I read him I wallow in uncertainty and am lost. It’s only with hindsight I can make some sense of the territory, and that shifting and ambiguous. On top of that the mix of high philosophy and low culture is one that with my joint loves of literature and pulp I can’t really help but respond to.
That just leaves Joseph Roth and Arthur Schnitzler. I’ve read over the last couple of years a lot of early 20th Century Central European fiction. Zweig, Weiss, Musil, Kosztolanyi and of course Roth and Schnitzler. For me that body of work is among the best literature has produced.
These writers were adept both at the level of the sentence and the novel. They were concerned with acute psychological insight. Freud, whom I have little regard for ironically, is a major influence as is the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire. They wrote at a time when the world was in flux and the human psyche seemed finally to be revealing its secrets.
What they also have in common of course is that most of them, one way or another, were killed by the Nazis. Thankfully their work survived and thanks to publishers like Pushkin Press it’s now available again.
Joseph Roth is a superb writer. Had he written in the English language I have no doubt he’d be widely recognised as one of the world’s greats. Sadly many literary readers aren’t open to reading literature in translation. Schnitzler has a more psychological focus than Roth and at his best shows a remarkably subtle insight. I like Zweig, but for me Schnitzler covers the same territory and does so ultimately with greater skill.
I mentioned earlier that writing this post raised questions for me. That’s because what became apparent as I was thinking about what might make up my present day canon was that in many cases the writers I rate highest I haven’t actually read that much of. I’ve read one Wharton. I was so impressed by it that she remains notionally among my favourite writers. A favourite writer though that I’ve read nothing else by.
The works that most excite me tend to be either modernist/experimentalist ones or pre-war Central European fiction. Why then haven’t I read more of them? Why haven’t I read The Unfortunates yet? Why is there so much Roth left for me to read? Why haven’t I tried Marai?
Those are tough questions. Partly of course the answer is that like most of us I have a range of interests and limited time. It’s hardly surprising that there are gaps in my reading. Partly though it’s because I hadn’t been through this exercise.
What strikes me about my list is that I like small books that push boundaries. I like complexity and challenge (like most book bloggers I imagine). I also like Robert E. Howard but nobody’s wholly consistent.
Thinking about this post caused me to reevaluate my reading habits. I’m interested to hear what writers like Amis, McEwan, Franzen and so on are up to but none of them are on my list nor are any writers much like them. That’s not my territory. It’s not what best speaks to me.
Where that leaves me is with a fresh desire to engage with modernism and its descendants. The novel is more than omniscient narrators telling chronologically bound stories. That’s not knocking that form (Madame Bovary is just such a novel and is as good as fiction gets) but there’s a lot more out there.
Equally, I want to read more of those authors I truly rate. If I haven’t read enough Joseph Roth, enough Wharton, enough Flaubert then the fault is mine. Nobody is preventing me.
As a final note, there were for me some odd omissions. I suspect if I get properly engaged with it classic Russian literature will contribute a great many names (Lermontov springs to mind for a start – but if I read more Russian fiction what do I pass up on?).
Given how much of it I’ve read I was also a little surprised that there wasn’t any Japanese literature (still, ask me on another day and perhaps there would have been). That may change when I get to the Makioka Sisters as Tanizaki only got left off at the last moment.
Equally, Berger and Salter should probably both be on the list. I only realised they weren’t on finishing this post. Their absence shows how partial any list of this kind must be.
On the whole though the list made sense to me. What didn’t was how many of them I hadn’t read that much by.
In the end the utility of this exercise for me is that it’s caused me to think. I like to pick books almost at whim – I finish one and read something similar or something in complete contrast. That’s worked well for me, but I have to wonder whether it’s also leading to my preferring range to depth and whether I might not be better served by a little more depth.
For anyone who’s made it this far through what is ultimately a deeply self-indulgent post, are there any writers you’d suggest I read? Since finishing the list I’ve bought some Beckett, McCarthy’s Men in Space, some Josopovici, Burn’s Pocket Money, Berger’s Ways of Seeing and Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing. If you’ve read through all the above, are there other books or authors that I should be paying more attention to than perhaps I am?