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Classics: John Sutherland

read century classics’ fiction

However well-read, one always feels ill-read. There are familiar ways of dealing with nervousness on the subject. ‘Have you read the latest Salman Rushdie?’ someone asks. ‘I know it’, one replies, without specifying whether that means ‘I've scrutinized the text from cover to cover and could go head-to-head with Magnus Magnusson’ or (more likely) ‘I've seen it on display in Waterstone's window’. With classics, as the Italian writer, Italo Calvino, notes (in Why Read the Classics?, 1999), one never says one is ‘reading’ War and Peace, or whatever. One is always ‘rereading’ the work. Too shame-making to have reached adult years and still not have got round to Tolstoy. For all its fame in academic circles, David Lodge's parlour game ‘Humiliation’ (you win by not having read as many classics as your competitor) has never caught on. We lie about drinking, sex, but most of all about the good books we've (not) read.

The canon of classics will endure, whether we read them or not. Unlike best-sellers, they do not depend on our fickle tastes. What then can the classics do for us? Reading them will not, depend on it, make us healthy, wealthy, nor even wise (least of all wise, forget that Leavisite fantasy). Calvino offers the barest of inducements: ‘the only reason that can be adduced in their favour is that reading the classics is always better than not reading them.’ It's as good a starting-point as any.

‘Classic Fiction’ is not a literary genre as such. It is best understood as a publishers' and retailers' category, dependent, at a pre-commercial level, on cumulative critical judgements confirmed over long tracts of time. The best that has been written anywhere, at any time. Incontrovertibly great books. All-time winners. Books every educated person should have read. Take your pick.

The history of classic reprints in England can be conveniently begun with the Aldine series of reprints in the early nineteenth century. It continued with Henry Bohn's mid-century ‘Standard Library’ of cheaply produced ‘British Classics’ and culminated at the end of the century with Ernest Rhys's ‘Everyman Library’ imprint (marketed with great success in the twentieth century by the publisher Dent). In the twentieth century, the brand leaders were ‘World's Classics’ (eventually an OUP line) and, in the 1940s, ‘Penguin Classics’. What all these ‘cheap luxury’ lines aimed at was to mimic, at a cost ‘Everyman’ could afford, the eighteenth-century English gentleman's library.

The most recent mutation in classic reprinting began with the ‘Penguin English Library’ (now ‘Penguin Classics’) in the early 1960s. These were budget-priced paperbacks, pictorially jacketed, complete with introduction, textual and explanatory notes. Penguin's innovation was strikingly successful and inspired in the 1970s the revival of a similarly formatted ‘World's Classics’ (now ‘Oxford World's Classics’) from OUP. Later still, in the 1980s and 1990s, came rejuvenated ‘Everyman’ lines (soft- and hardcover) and the ultra-cheap ‘Wordsworth Classics’. The British consumer of the third millennium enjoys a veritable Aladdin's Cave of classic reprints. At least five competing editions of Jane Eyre (1847), to take one example, will be found in most well-stocked bookstores—all under a tenner and most under a fiver. Click onto Amazon and you will have your choice of a dozen competing editions of most of the works judged by our culture to be ‘classic’.

There are many such works; the Penguin and Oxford World's Classics catalogues list some 600–700 titles. Selecting the dozen best books from so many best books is necessarily a captious exercise. I have used as my criterion or filtering device books by authors who have achieved epithetic status. That is to say, literature which has given us useful adjectives whose meaning we grasp even if we have never read the works in question. They are: Austenish, Dickensian, Flaubertian, Homeric, Jamesian, Lawrentian, Quixotic, Rabelaisian, Swiftian, Tolstoyan, Trollopian, Wertherian.

What does the term ‘Austenish’ evoke in the mind's eye? Charlotte Brontë's observation about the author of Pride and Prejudice (1813) creating her miniature and perfect designs on two inches of ivory (or two reels of Merchant–Ivory); ‘Janeites’ rereading the six novels once a year; Gwyneth Paltrow's neck. Start with Emma (1816), the most Austenish of them all. If you haven't read it before, I envy you the delights of the first reading.

‘Dickensian’ has been much invoked by politicians recently to describe the condition of the homeless in London streets—a scandal given added poignancy by the fine revisionary Oliver Twist (1837–9) created by Alan Bleasdale and shown by ITV in December 1999. How gloomy the Great Inimitable would be to discover human beings still sleeping rough under Hungerford Bridge. Read Oliver Twist and judge for yourself whether we have progressed as an urban civilization over the last one hundred and sixty years. Dickens's ‘social problem’ fiction remains painfully topical.

‘Flaubertian’ invokes for most of us the novelist's masterpiece, Madame .Bovary (1857). A fanatic stylist (something that can be apprehended even in translation), Flaubert considered it a good day's work if he inserted a comma into his narrative in the morning and removed it in the evening. Emma Bovary, who discovers in adultery all the platitudes of marriage, is a twenty-first century woman before her time. Flaubert's scathing satire of rural-provincial life is a welcome antidote to Ambridgean sentimentalities about country life.

‘Homeric’ recalls Troy—love, war, heroism. The Iliad and The Odyssey record the hero's pilgrimages to battle and back home again. Which are useful (though certainly not essential) preparation for James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), a book which every person in our unheroic age who considers him/herself civilized should read—even if, as Joyce threatened, it requires a lifetime to do it properly. If you finish early, you can get started on Finnegans Wake (1928–37).

‘Jamesian’, like ‘Flaubertian’, invokes ideas of virtuosic technique. For James, ‘how to tell it’ was the great issue confronting the novelist. The subtlest and most accessible exercise in his mastery as a narrator is found in What Maisie Knew (1897), a story of great complexity refracted through the innocent eye of a little (but sophisticated) girl. Short as a novella, it is rich in texture as grand opera. A classic to be sipped, like old wine.

Until Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928) was acquitted in November 1960, the Penguin Classics The Iliad and The Odyssey were Britain's bestselling postwar paperbacks. Lady Chatterley outsold Homer in two years. Doubtless many early purchasers were disappointed by Lawrence's ‘erotic classic’. But Lady Chatterley's Lover contains the essence of ‘Lawrentianism’ (the novel as the ‘bright book of life’), and marked out new boundaries for post-1960 English fiction. The classic ‘landmark’ novel.

‘Quixotic’ is, of all these epithets, the one most commonly used by those of us who could know nothing of the novel other than that the hero is driven mad by reading romances, tilts at windmills, and has a fat servant called Sancho Panza. Yet the archetypal forms of all British comic fiction can be traced back to the anti-romance of Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605) and his misadventures. Own it, even if you don't read it. Who knows, you may get washed up on a desert island.

‘Rabelaisian’ (like ‘Chaucerian’) evokes pre-puritan, medieval bawdy. The notion of the hero in François Rabelais's Pantagruel (1533), is ‘a being who induces thirst in others’—thirst for strong liquor, that is. Rabelais creates fiction that satisfies our animal appetites. This book and its sequel Gargantua (1534)—the story of Pantagruel's father—are sometimes incredibly filthy, but always clever and—even after four hundred years—side-splittingly funny. Classics from what Henry James would call the enfance of European literature.

Swift is funny too, but ‘savage’ and lean in his narrative forms (the rogue never hazards a metaphor, as Dr Johnson observed). Savagery and civilization are the theme of his masterwork, the fourth book of Gulliver's Travels (1726), the quintessence of ‘Swiftianism’. Read it, but do not expect it to enhance your love of your fellow man. You may even wish you were a horse.

‘Tolstoyan’ suggests a kind of super-green ‘back to nature’ earthiness of the author's late-life philosophical treatises. The fiction is something else. Read Anna Karenina (1873–7), a story of loveless marriage and unhappy adultery besides which every English and most French novels of the century look juvenile. A classic for grown-ups.

Nothing is more English than the Barchester sequence of novels. The ‘Trollopian’ world is safe, insular, comic; as appetizing as a side of British beef, as a contemporary American admirer put it. (In those days, the world admired British beef—and Trollope.) The necessary work for those coming to the 47-strong Trollope œuvre is Barchester Towers (1857). Mrs Proudie's ‘Unhand it, sir!’ remains the funniest line in all Victorian fiction.

Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) was the first true European best-seller, precipitating a sales and imitative mania. Young men adopted ‘Wertherian’ yellow trousers, in tribute to their hero, moped horribly, and committed suicide like lemmings (many, like Werther, botching the job badly). Half-way between a curio and a classic, the novel earns its place in any list of favourite classics.

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