The reader’s response to Gordon Comstock’s behaviour will depend upon whether the reader has ever tried to live a “self-sufficient” life free from bourgeois respectability, or seriously pursued an artistic vocation with stubborn single-mindedness. Orwell’s novel is pretty one-track plot-wise—what happens when a person renounces money and its interminable grip?—but Comstock’s obsessive pursuit is a societal conundrum of universal proportions and makes for a frustrating and bone-deep trip to the depths. In my own case, my mother abandoned college ambitions to support her parents, and my two siblings have ditched artistic ambitions in favour of reasonably stable and well-paid occupations—as the third child, with this history of “selling out to the man,” I felt a strong need to have convictions as an artist manqué, privations being part of the plan on the road to obscurity. Comstock’s artistic drive is not strong enough to triumph over his money worries, suggesting his desire to write poetry is nothing but an excuse for rebelling against a predetermined bourgeois society (more horrible in the 1930s than it will ever be again). As with all Orwell’s fiction: it burrows into your conscience and lays eggs there.
10. Hubert Selby Jnr. — Song of the Silent Snow
HSJ’s only story collection, released in 1986, lacks the power of his novel work—those books thrive on slow-building doom and the repetitive grind of addiction and madness, whereas these vignettes can’t attribute their weaknesses to style. Selby’s affinity and loyalty to the down-and-outs of New York never relented, unlike Lou Reed, who switched from bourgeois reformist to street-smart wiseguy in the space of two albums (listen to New York then play the laughable The Blue Mask to see my point). Like Reed’s 80s lyrics, some of the material here is nigh-unreadable: Selby makes Writing-101 mistakes in stories like horror schlock ‘The Sound’ or the diabolical mess ‘Liebesnacht.’ A more direct approach suits the form, with the epistolary ‘Im Being Good’ and ‘Indian Summer’ among the stronger hits—surprising shocks of reality from lives barely held together with lint-fluffed sticky tape. But Selby’s style (and inability to advance beyond that style) simply doesn’t satisfy in the same way as those masterpieces, and Selby’s standards are lightyears beyond the writing in evidence.
11. Anthony Burgess — One Hand Clapping
Burgess’s 1961 satirical jeu, “dashed off to make a hundred pounds or so,” concerns that evergreen of topics: “The cheapness and the vulgarity and silliness and brutishness and nastiness of everything and everybody.” Is there any other topic worth writing about? Narrated by typical northern lass Janet Shirley, the novel uses the quiz show as a metaphor for the above commentary—how the Great Poets & Writers remain unread and unappreciated, relegated to trivia questions and fodder for fact-vacuums like hubby Howard. As the novel progresses, a dark tension unravels as Howard experiences the hollowness of a consumerist universe and takes drastic steps to escape the futility of it all. Despite its plainly improvised plot, and occasional slapdash phrasing here and there (tut tut, Anto), for a novel completed in a month for a cynical buck, it is a pleasingly fine product of Burgess the contrarian lunatic mastermind and one-man book-shitting machine. I intend to read this man raw.
12. Vladimir Nabokov — The Enchanter
The Enchanter is the blueprint for Lolita, there’s no dancing around that fact. The story concerns a middle-aged man-of-private-means who falls for a twelve-year-old nymphet and marries her unappealing mother, later bumping her off to satisfy his crazed libido. The slinky prose wonderment of Lolita is here in miniature too, minus the distinctive lyricism of HH and pervading darkly comedic tone. In true [P] style, all that remains is to tell a 2000-word anecdote about my early years and in some wildly tangential way try to relate it to the novella. Try this on for size. I was working as a travelling salesman in Dundee, selling old paperbacks door-to-door when this foxy teenage delight swung back the door and asked for the latest Louise Bagshawe. She had beautiful cheekbones and silky astral-dark manes of luscious hair, not to mention two of the pertest prehensile dugs this young farmboy had ever seen. But because she chose repulsive chick-lit written by a Tory dragon I slammed the door in her pretty face, despite the come-to-bed eyes she was making and the lusty lip-licking she did in response to my manliness and scholarly power and standing as 5th most popular reviewer on UK Goodreads. Integrity is integral in this reading game—nymphets don’t read at my speed.
13. Guy de Maupassant — Bel-Ami
A rollicking tale from Flaubert’s protégé chronicling the inexorable rise of social climber Georges Duroy. Translated by Douglas Parmée, who rendered A Sentimental Education into irresistibly sumptuous English, Bel-Ami is powered by electrifying dialogue and a terse descriptive prowess Flaubert seemingly overemphasised to Maupassant—the prose is so compact you could park it in your driveway. Duroy is a misanthropic schemer and exploiter, but something of a “working-class hero,” if we understand the term to mean someone who manipulates the money world to his advantage and tramples upon bourgeois society to achieve his fortune—you can’t be content as a poor-rich person without pissing on the little people who helped you up. Far from being a satire, the novel is a comedic romp that somewhat revels in the machinations of upper-middle-class society—clearly Maupassant was not averse to a little strategic foreplay in his career (but he died in the nuthouse, so don’t worry) and the moral lesson is only there if you imagine it to be. Most importantly Bel-Ami will remind you how much naughty sexy fun French classics can be, and still make you feel cultured and refined for reading them.
14. H.G. Wells — The History of Mr. Polly
Everyone at some point in their lives will suddenly realise in their naive exuberance they made a colossal mistake that now has its python-like grip around their cowardly little necks, and that the only solution is to burn the shop and down and become a country hobo. Or maybe only the first part of that sentence. Life in the early 1900s was uniformly dreary for the working classes, but at least they were born and raised to expect nothing—nowadays we are taught from the womb to reach for the stars and dream big dreams and made to feel like failures if we haven’t achieved everything by the age of twenty-eight, when we are still young and sexy enough not to be worn down by bitterness and remorse to take some pleasure in our achievements. Mr. Polly is like you and me—witty but not witty enough and clever but not clever enough to escape the humdrum, drummed into a predetermined life of oafs, clots, lollygaggers, pissants, pipsqueaks, miscreants, toadies, bores, whiners, haters, tyrants and psychos. The only rebellion in this sprawling penitentiary we call civilisation used to be the pursuance of personal pleasure at all costs, so at least when you dropped dead at thirty you could do so with very happy memories, but nowadays such revolting self-interest is the reason our civilisation is quickly rotting from the inside and heading for a swift and painful annihilation by the time our grandchildren hit forty. Books like this one provide a necessary anatomisation of our repugnant species, and do so with a breathless passion for change.
15. H.G. Wells — The Island of Doctor Moreau
The Island of Doctor Moreau? Please! Who among us hasn’t gambolled in fields with apecats, badgies, cockpigs, donrets, elephocks, ferrats, gerbats, horsharks, iguanomones, jagutans, kookakeys, llamoles, monkelots, narwhelks, ostringos, pandicoots, quaileeches, rhinilgais, shaardvarks, tigeels, uintapmunks, volemice, wombulls, xanthraffes, yakapes and zebrams? In your back garden (or if you live in a city, in the countryside—a mythical place where grass exists), trillions of micro-organisms are cross-breeding right now to introduce even more wondrous deviations and half-breeds to the planet, twice as splendorous as the cloned sheep and spliced deer-penguin hybrids being created in underground labs by Evil Docktors and their hunchback locums. Nature is a language, can’t you read?
16. William H. Gass — Fiction and the Figure of Life
First, an admission. Gass’s first collection of essays is lightyears beyond my intellectual level. Switching between heavy philosophical investigations to poetical and opaque literary meditations (by way of book reviews), the essays here lack the same layman’s entrypoint as in later collections Finding a Form or A Temple of Texts—two stronger, more musical and spellbinding books. So my three-star verdict is a partly a reflection on my own shortcomings and partly because Gass has not fully mastered the masterful nonfiction prose style in evidence in later books—this one behaves like something of a unified manifesto of sorts, with strange footnotes scattered in each essay directing readers to other essays, in a mostly distracting way. The second part contains my favourite pieces on Stein (surprise), Coover, Barthelme, Borges and Nabokov, and later a waspish one on Updike. ‘The Concept of Character in Fiction’ and ‘The Medium of Fiction’ are fascinating insights into Gass’s fictional world (and future) and contain the purdiest writing. Later pieces on Henry James and Wittgenstein are less my literary bag and sent me into a pleasant snooze to the music of a superior brain. For Gassheads only.