What is a modern classic?

A modern classic

In a a review in the TLS, D J Taylor sort of discusses what a modern classic is. He quotes the blurb on the back of current Penguin Modern Classics – It begins with an adjectival spotter’s guide (“Contemporary . . . Provocative . . . Outrageous . . . Prophetic . . . Ground-breaking”, etc) before moving on to some diffidently expressed first principles. There is talk of such items possibly leading to “great movies”, of the breaking down of “barriers”, whether social, sexual, or, in the case of Ulysses, the “boundaries of language itself”, even of something described as “pure classic escapism”. He does not like these ideas and nor do I. For a definition of classic, Stefanie at So Many Books turns to the dictionary and comes up with A work of literature, music, or art of acknowledged quality and enduring significance or popularity. Both Stefanie and D J struggle not only with classic and with modern. Rightly or wrongly, I do not have too much difficulty with modern. I have defined modern as the period approximately (I stress approximately) from the beginning of the 20th century. You may disagree with that but it works for me. At least as far as the novel is concerned, there is a distinction between Victorian novels and twentieth century novels. It may not suddenly change on 1 January 1901 (which is when the twentieth century started) but it is starting to change a bit before that and the change accelerates after that. Some may argue that the big change comes post-World War I, which is a valid argument. Others may claim that it has not changed. In an article in the Transatlantic Review, J G Ballard said Something like 5000 novels are published every year and the great majority show no advance in vocabulary, technique, style on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. However, I think many critics would agree that the modernist movement may well have started in the 19th century but really took hold in the twentieth century. I am sticking with my view on this.

Not a classic?

Both Stefanie and D J struggle with classic. In literature, of course, the classics tend to be the works of Ancient Greece and Rome. The picture at right shows the cover the Finnish version of Mika Waltari’s Sinuhe the Egyptian but the original on which it was based was written around 1900 BC, i.e more than a thousand years before Homer. I am not sure whether it would be considered a classic nor whether Waltari’s novel (first published in 1945) would be considered a modern classic. But let’s look at music. We all know what classical means. The OED says of, relating to, or characteristic of a formal musical tradition, as distinguished from popular or folk music; spec. of or relating to formal European music of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, characterized by harmony, balance, and adherence to established compositional forms. They say nothing about quality, and state that it specifically occurs in the late 18th and early 19th centuries though, of course, it can refer to music from both earlier periods and the modern era. So this does not help us. In rock music classic refers to rock music that is at least twenty years old. Again nothing about quality. This sense is not included in the OED. Classic blues can, of course, mean the older blues but, at least amongst aficionados, it means blues with female singers from an older era, such as the great Bessie Smith. None of this seems to help us much.

A modern classic

D J gets quite hot under the collar about what is and is not a modern classic. Stefanie does not know what it is. So let me try and ease their pain. Firstly, from the Penguin point of view, it is a marketing ploy. They want to flog books (that’s their job) so they think by labelling some books Modern Classics we may well buy them when we otherwise would not have done so. They are probably right. But how can we – readers, critics, reviewers, bloggers – define them, at least as regards the novel? I think that it is relatively easy.
1. It is a book first published at least twenty-twenty-five years ago
2. It is a book that has, to a certain degree, stood the test of time.
Ha ha, you counter. What do you mean by to a certain degree and stood the test of time? I mean that there are people who consider that the book still has a certain literary quality. And what are these books?

Not a modern classic?

Many of them are obvious. You will find numerous on my site. We may disagree on some of them, which is fine, and I may have omitted many that you consider a modern classic and that is also fine. Your modern classic may not be mine and vice versa. But what about Philip K Dick (see picture at right)? Or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? Or Love in a Cold Climate? I own, I think, virtually every Philip K Dick novel and would say some of them are definitely modern classics, including the one pictured here. I have not read either the Christie or Mitford and am unlikely to do so but I think they have stood the test of time, that certain people do consider them as having some quality and that they could certainly be considered modern classics. D J hums and haws about London Belongs to Me and Blaze at Noon. People in glasshouses… D J is also an author of novels, such as Secondhand Daylight which is not a modern classic though may well be one day but London and Blaze are, even if he does not think so. It is not a particularly helpful term but if we define it as I have above, it means we can accept that it is primarily a marketing term while, at the same time, perhaps pointing us to books that could be of some interest. And we can still decide for ourselves whether the book really is a modern classic.

Not the Nobel Prize

Last year’s winner Tomas Tranströmer

No, I am not going to talk about the Nobel Prize, except that I am. I was determined not to but I am essentially weak-willed. Michael Orthofer at Literary Saloon has now had a long(for him) post on it and The World Literature Forum, Fictional Woods, Goodreads and even The Game of Thrones forum have all put in their ten cents. The following speculations are entirely mine though I may well have read and been influenced by others but they are not to blame for my misjudgements.

Yaşar Kemal

Firstly, let me say that, as far as I can recall, I have never accurately forecasted the winner. I am probably not alone there. For years I predicted that Yaşar Kemal would win. He never did but when Orhan Pamuk won in 2006, I realised Turkey’s chances of getting another one were slim to none. I thought the French might get one but I forecasted Tournier or Butor would get it and not Le Clézio (few people predicted Le Clézio, it must be said). I should have seen Vargas Llosa but I thought that Fuentes would be a more likely Latin American choice. And, of course, I never had a clue that Tranströmer would get it. Of course, I have followed with some bemusement the fact that Adonis and Ko Un are perennial nominees. I say bemusement because I am completely unfamiliar with their work and, indeed, know no-one who has ever read them. This is not to do them down – I am sure that they are both first-class poets – it is just that they are not on most people’s radar.

Elfriede Jelinek

So I am going to try and look at this logically. I am going on the assumption – probably incorrect – that the Nobel Prize committee is going to be relatively consistent, in that if they have given the Nobel Prize to a Swedish poet recently, they are unlikely to give a Swedish writer or, indeed, any Scandinavian writer in the near future. Of course, this does not always work out. In 2004, they gave it to a German-speaking novelist and then did the same again in 2009. Günter Grass had already won it in 1999. Admittedly, Jelinek is Austrian and Müller German-Romanian but still… However, assuming they don’t break these rules again, I think we can discount the following:

  • A poet. A poet got it last year so I think that it is unlikely one will get it this year. So that leaves Adonis and Ko Un out. It also leaves Bob Dylan out, who once again is quoted at 33-1. Some commentators think linking Dylan with the Nobel prize is a travesty. I disagree. While I certainly don’t think that he should win it, I think that his lyrics are superior to the work of some writers who are perennial favourites.
  • A Scandinavian. See above.
  • A Latin American. Vargas Llosa won it deservedly two years ago. The other major candidate from Latin America would have been Carlos Fuentes and he sadly died this year.
  • A German-speaking writer. See above.
  • A French writer. See above.
  • A Turk. See above
  • A Brit. Lessing in 2007 and Pinter in 2005 means probably all Brits (and that would almost certainly include Scottish, Welsh and Irish writers, to their disgust) are out.
Maybe Thomas Pynchon

So where does that leave us? The last US writer to win was Toni Morrison in 1993, i.e. nearly twenty years ago. Of course, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury famously damned US writers but that was, frankly, somewhat silly. There are loads of possible candidates, in addition to Bob Dylan and Philip Roth. Ladbrokes has Roth and Cormac McCarthy at 16/1, Pynchon at 20/1, De Lillo, Joyce Carol Oates and E L Doctorow at 33/1, Maya Angelou at 50/1, Ursula LeGuin, William Gass and John Ashbery at 66/1 and Auster, Marge Piercy, Jonathan Littell (misspelled), Louise Glück and Franzen at 100/1. Most of those, Roth excluded, would be worthwhile winners, though Oates and Pynchon would be my choices. There are also several Canadians on the Ladbroke list, who could also be considered.

The last Indian winner

Unless you count Pamuk and Naipaul, which you might, there has not been an Asian winner since Gao Xingjian in 2000. The last Indian winner was ninety-nine years ago. Apart from Tagore, one Chinese, two Japanese and a joint Israeli pair does it for Asia. Ladbrokes has Murakami as favourite. Good choice but a bit too populist. Mo Yan is in joint second place. Adonis and Ko Un are, of course, both Asian, giving, in Ladbrokes’ view, Asians four of the top six top choices. Unless you count Chang-rae Lee, whom I would consider US, other Asians are Amos Oz, Bei Dao, Mahasweta Devi, A B Yehoshua, Azar Nafisi, Dai Sijie, Hanan Al-Shaykh, Salman Rushdie, F Sionil José, Atiq Rahimi, Elias Khoury, Shlomo Kalo and Rajendra Bhandari. The first four are, of course, all good bets but I would have thought Rushdie would be the most likely one.

Chinua Achebe

The last African winner was a white South African. The previous African winner was…a white South African. Two very fine writers and well deserving of the Prize but… The two other African winners were Soyinka and Mahfouz. Ladbrokes offers Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (also misspelled; spelling does not appear to be a strong point at Ladbrokes), Chinua Achebe, Assia Djebar, Nurridin Farah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Ben Okri and Leila Aboulela. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o would appear to be an interesting choice but, though he is a fine writer, his recent work had tended towards the satirical, not necessarily a vote-winner. I would consider Chinua Achebe an excellent choice and long overdue though I would add Syl Cheney-Coker to the list.

The last Australian winner

Australia has one Nobel Prize winner and the other Oceania nations none. David Malouf, Les Murray, Peter Carey, Gerald Murnane and Tim Winton are all on Ladbrokes list. Not a bad bunch but I am not sure that this is their year. No-one from New Zealand or elsewhere in the continent. Lloyd Jones might not be quite ready, though there is always Patrick Grace.

The last East European winner

Which brings us to Eastern Europe. Excluding Herta Müller, whom we should consider as primarily German as that is the language she writes in, the last Eastern European winner was Imre Kertész. A quick look at the Eastern Europeans shows that they win it just over once a decade – Wislawa Szymborska in the 1990s, Joseph Brodsky and Jaroslav Seifert in the 1980s, Singer and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in the 1970s, Mikhail Sholokhov and Ivo Andrić in the 1960s, Boris Pasternak in the 1950s, Ivan Bunin in the 1930s, Wladyslaw Reymont in the 1920s and Henryk Sienkiewicz in the 1900s, with only the decades of the two world wars missing. So it is time for another Eastern European. At fourth equal, Ladbrokes offers the writer with the most books reviewed on my site – Ismail Kadare. He did win the Man Booker International Prize in 2005, the first one. None of the other three winners of this prize has won the Nobel Prize but I do not think that disqualifies him. He has produced an outstanding body of work, his books are readily available in English and, particularly, in French. And he is one of my favourite living authors (though the Nobel Prize Committee may not consider that an important criterion.)

The next Nobel Prize winner?

So there you have it. My pick for the next Nobel Prize for Literature. But don’t forget that I have never picked a winner. So it will probably be Adonis. Or Philip Roth. Or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Or Murakami. Or Yaşar Kemal. Or somebody else no-one guessed. One thing is for sure. Ladbrokes are not getting any of my money even at odds of 14/1 for Kadare.


An English country cottage

I have just added a list of novels featuring Englishness to my site. I have been considering this for a long time but have hesitated for a number of reasons. Firstly, it smacks of jingoism and excess nationalism, which I am not too keen on. Secondly, it all looks a bit nostalgic and hearkening back to an England that probably never existed, except in the minds of novelists, while avoiding the grim reality that many people have to face, which may represent the real England more than churches, cricket matches and tea with the vicar. Thirdly, it is difficult to say that this novel represents Englishness while this other one does not. Despite all that, I have gone ahead and done it, partially (though only partially) prompted by the Olympics enthusiasm, though I am sure many people will disagree with my choices.


Like, I suppose, many people, my idea of Englishness is coloured by the standard picture postcard of England – churches, meadows, teas on the lawn, pre-Raphaelite paintings and Downton Abbey. In short, the usual stereotypes. This is not the England that most people live in and while most people do not live in slums (as in the drawing on the right), they do not live in Downton Abbey or snow-covered country cottages either. But if Englishness is middle-class dreariness, semi-detacheds, Tescos, boring office jobs, watching the football on telly while eating crisps and takeaway curries, then my list would not be very interesting. Albion magazine has a view of Englishness which both covers the traditional view but also takes a certain detached approach. Isabel Taylor, for example, in the first of the series Exploring Englishness looks at the idea of the rural myth, which informs our traditional view of Englishness (churches, cricket matches and cream teas).


Nonetheless, I have done my Englishness list and will stick with it for now. What about other -nesses? French has the concept of francité, the equivalent of Frenchness. So what goes there? The stereotypes of the Eiffel Tower (at left), Napoleon, French bread, an onion seller? And which authors? The Parisians like Proust, Colette, Cocteau and Gide or the rural ones like Bosco, Giono and Mauriac, who I have yet to put on my site? Is it the nouveau roman or the more conventional novel? And, as for Deutschtum, we foreigners are probably inclined to think of German military action and the Nazis as our stereotype which, I am sure, modern Germans would not welcome. WWAD (What Would Angela (Merkel) Do)? I have no idea. She has mentioned Emil und die Detektive (Emil and the Detectives) as one of her favourite books from childhood, and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as two of her favourite authors, neither very German. Apparently, when she went on holiday two years ago, she was going to read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar (a gift from Ulrich Wilhelm, the then Government spokesman). Apart from a certain fascination with Russia, this tells us nothing about Germanness. I would be hard put to suggest any book as representing Germanness. So I have done my Englishness list, albeit with some trepidation at wandering into the murky waters of stereotyping but I shall leave it at that and there will be no Frenchness or Germanness or anything else-ness.

Novels with a political background


Fall of the Berlin Wall

I have just uploaded a list of Wende novels (i.e. novels about the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification in 1989-1990). If you look at the lists of books I have created, you will see quite a few are novels with political/historical backgrounds. Clearly the Wende, as I shall now call it, was the most important event in German history since World War II and it is not surprising that it has preoccupied German writers, particularly those from the former East Germany. It does not, however, seem to have preoccupied writers from other countries, as D G Myers points out in his blog, at least as regards the USA (and I think that few other countries have bothered much with it in their literature). Interestingly enough, the events of 11 September 2001 have preoccupied both US novelists and those of other countries though it would seem to me that die Wende was more important politically than 9/11. C Max Magee, of the Millions blog stated I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a “9/11 novel”, presumably either meaning every US novel or being just supremely arrogant about the importance of the event to the world. If 9/11 is assessed purely in terms of number of deaths, it pales with other events in recent US history. To give just one example, far more Palestinians have died (at US taxpayer expense) than were killed in 9/11. I could also mention the Korean War (which produced several novels) and the Vietnam War (which produced lots more novels), not to mention US support of dictators from Mobutu to Pinochet, from the Shah of Iran to Trujillo, few of which produced any US novels of significance, the Vietnam war excepted. However, the point of this post is not to indicate the relative importance of historical events in terms of death or destruction but how a political event influenced novelists

Aunt Sarah and the War – one of the first WW1 novels

World War I is probably the event of the past 100+ years that most influenced novelists and poets and, of course, produced many first-class novels, from all the major participant countries. These novels were not just about the conflict itself – though many dealt with the grizzly business of fighting – but also about the social and political consequences of the War, with novels such as Parade’s End, Die Schlafwandler (The Sleepwalkers), The Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight and Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago). World War I gave us the Russian Revolution, the end of the Ottoman Empire, the beginning of the end of the British Empire and the end of the beginning of the rise of the US Empire, the conversion of countries such as the UK from being primarily rural to being primarily urban, the creation of several new countries and, as many novelists have indicated, a loss of innocence, which may be more imagined than real but was still potent for these novelists. In Britain, at least, it indirectly led to Irish independence, the rise of the Labour Party and women’s suffrage.

The best WWI novel

I have always thought that politically and historically World War I was more important than World War II, though I am well aware that World War II led to the creation of the Soviet Empire and other huge consequences. However, purely from the literary point of view, I do feel that WWI produced better novels than WWII. I have started a list of WWII novels but it is a long way from completion and I do not know when or even if I shall complete it. There are many other lists out there, such as World War II in Fiction. See my Historical fiction – specific periods for more (towards the bottom of the page). As the picture on the left, a bit above, shows, I consider The Underground City to be one of the best WWII novels, better than, say, The Naked and the Dead or From Here to Eternity. However, there are several other fine WWII novels, such as Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), Catch-22 and several Japanese novels such as 野火 (Fires on the Plain).

The best American Civil War novel?

A quick look at my My Lists page will show that I have something of a mild obsession with civil wars. This is certainly the case. I have traipsed over many civil war battlefields in the USA and read numerous books on the subject, fiction though mainly non-fiction, as well as studying in some detail the civil wars in Mexico, Spain, Ireland and Russia. If you twisted my arm I would say that The Fathers is my favourite American Civil War novel and I think that Mazurca para dos muertos (Mazurka for Two Dead Men) is a wonderful novel of the Spanish Civil War that deserves to be better-known. Not only is there an English translation but it is amazingly in print in the US and readily available second-hand in the UK. The fascinating thing about civil wars and the literature associated with them is that they are still being fought and written about. Any foreigner who thinks that the American or Spanish or Mexican or Irish civil wars are over is sorely mistaken. All of these civil wars still produce a stream of novels. Indeed, despite the fact the Spanish Civil War ended seventy-four years ago and, therefore, most of the participants are either dead or nearly so, it almost seems that, as a Spanish novelist, at least one civil war novel is obligatory.

What a Carve-Up!

A friend commented on my list of Thatcher novels, knowing that my views were not exactly pro-Thatcher. Many of these novels are anti-Thatcher, as she clearly attracted a visceral hatred. The picture at left shows the cover of What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy). The UK title comes from the title of a film mentioned in the book (as does the photo on the cover), which, of course, is a play on words, as the book is about the Thatcherite carve-up of the UK. US audiences, for some odd reason, are clearly not considered able to make this link and given an anodyne and meaningless title. This book and the brilliant Running Wild show that a novel can take a strong political view and still be a first-class book.

The film, not the book

Of course, there are many political novels not covered by these lists, from Swift, Trollope and Dickens to Orwell and the recently deceased Gore Vidal. Tim Pears has an interesting list while Christian Science Monitor starts with a writer I plan to read soon, Robert Penn Warren (I have seen the film though!). Margaret Lenta gives a South African perspective, showing that political novels are not limited to Europe and North America. I remember reading Cry the Beloved Country many years ago.

The Euro’s crashing

I don’t think that there is any doubt that the political movel will be here for sometime and, while some may infuriate us either because they are so badly written or simply do not reflect my (or your) political point of view, clearly many of the great novels of the past are political. Events like the Wende or our next favourite civil war will produce more interesting novels. I am already looking forward to the great Euro crash novel. Probably in Spanish.