Last time I posted, I said Middlemarch is the greatest English novel of the Victorian era. Katherine replied, and said on the strength of that recommendation she'd gone and bought it. Wow! Power! Who'd have thought it? It's an anxiety making thing, being taken notice of like that. Well, it's a great book, and if she's the sort of person who can settle into the century old language, and can handle big ideas cropping up on every second page, she'll absolutely love it. It's big, rich, intelligent; a work filled with great characters and an intriguing plot. But, even so, what a thing to say - the greatest novel. In whose opinion, exactly? Mine that's all. Oh yes, and the guy who wrote the lead review at Amazon.com. And a few others. Read on Katherine, I'd love to know what you think.
Novels are a form of entertainment but they are so much more than that. Novels and films are the two principal ways in which our society deals with ideas. Philosophers are not heard by anybody but other philosophers. Theologians speak to a narrow subset of a narrow subset of our culture. The ideas of the philosophers and theologians may leak into our politics and commerce over the course of a few decades, and when they do, it will be the novelists and film makers who are the vehicle for those ideas. It is in novels and films that most of the good stuff is gathered, prepared, cooked and served up for the public to digest. If you are not watching movies and reading novels you are out of touch with the culture; so the good books and the good flicks are crucially, life changingly important.
All over the internet there are lists of 'The [insert your favourite number here] Greatest Novels'. The Modern Library's list features, surprise surprise mostly books published by the Modern Library. Another popular list, the Readers' List, features books voted on by internet users; it is filled with stuff that computer nerds read, so there's lots of science fiction and lots of books books by the objectivist Ayn Rand and the founder of Scientology, L Ron Hubbard. Some of the lists are really very strange, even stranger than The Readers List. This one, for example, includes Roald Dahl's The Big Friendly Giant but leaves out War and Peace. 'Nuff said.
Which novels move us is largely a matter of personal preference, and the fact that we like a particular book doesn't necessarily make it a great book. To be great, a novel has to handle all the characteristics of narrative well. These are:
1. Time and Place. The environment has to be accurately and consistently presented in such a way that the reader can imagine herself there.
2. Characters. The people must be realistically portrayed, have points of identification for the reader, and show some sort of personal growth/development in the course of the novel.
3. Narrative Tension. The tensions of the story must be ones that are in some way present in the lives of readers. They must be expertly balanced to keep the right amount of tension in the plot to keep it moving ; too much tension and the novel becomes histrionic; too little and it's a bore.
As well, the novel has to treat with ideas that are worth thinking about, and be written in a style that is aesthetically pleasing. All this must be conducted with such artistry that while reading, the reader is so drawn into the created universe of the novel that s/he is scarcely aware that s/he is reading at all; s/he is, rather, living vicariously the lives of the protagonists.
To be considered great a novel must also be able to speak across cultures and over time. My twenty year old daughter, for example, voraciously reads Jane Austen, who speaks to her from the other side of the world and across two centuries. I doubt whether her great great great grandchildren will be reading Harry Potter in the twenty third century, for all the boy wizard's contemporary popularity.
There are novels I have read which I enjoyed immensely, and which helped shape my thinking, but which are probably not great novels. The HitchHiker's Guide To The Galaxy for example. There are Great novels, such as Ulysses and The Ambassadors which I couldn't plough my way through. Moll Flanders and Pamela, are amongst the great novels which I read purely out of a sense of historical curiosity. I've never much enjoyed Dickens although I recognise the greatness of his work. There are some very popular and well regarded novels which are touted as great but which I thought were absolute crap. The Power of One and Birdsong, for example. There are dozens of excellent novels which I have enjoyed and which time may one day reveal as great. The Life of Pi and Ridley Walker for example
So what would I say are the greatest novels? How should I know? I haven't read them all. Of the few that I have read however, I would list the following as the greatest. Or at least, as the great novels which meant the most to me.
1. War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy
2. Middlemarch - George Eliot
3. The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoevsky
4. Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy
5. Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoevsky
6. The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
7. The Magus - John Fowles
8. Possession - A S Byatt
9. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
10. Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut Jnr.