A Fictional Dozen: my book choices

I have set myself the task of listing a dozen pieces of fiction that I really like.

The items given here are not necessarily my favourite pieces of writing, but I have an affection for them for a variety of reasons.

It will be seen that I have (mainly) excluded the great works that are usually labelled as “classics” – from Jane Austen to Charles Dickens to Fidel Dostoyevsky.  I have also restricted myself to prose narratives at the expense of poetry or plays.  My aim has been to focus on the personal: to produce a list the contents of which are generally well-known (in some cases, exceptionally so), but which, as a collective, it is unlikely anyone else would generate in a similar exercise. 

This is a list that will be amended over time.  The current line-up is presented here in the chronological order of publication. 

I hope that the catalogue demonstrates a catholicism of tastes – by date and genre and origin.  It is noticeable that, in several cases, I make reference to the first chapter or the first page or even the first line.  This is no surprise, of course – it is usually the fiction’s immediate impression that decides whether or not we will stay with it.

Do let me know what your own list might be.

  • The Parable of the Good Samaritan.  The Gospel According to St Luke, 10, 30-37.  King James Bible (1611).

This is my favourite short story – just over 200 words describing how Jesus Christ answered the question asked of him by a lawyer: “And who is my neighbour?”  It contains travel, crime, rescue and love as well as exposing the hypocrisy of the Priest and the Levite who “passed by on the other side”.

There was mutual hatred between Jew and Samaritan in the First Century CE.  But the lawyer is able to answer his own question, responding “He who showed mercy on him” when, having heard the parable, he is asked by Christ in turn: “Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?”

“Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise’”.  And so ends an unfailingly uplifting Biblical passage.

  • A Scandal in Bohemia, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1892).

This is the first of the Sherlock Holmes short stories and introduces not only Holmes and Watson, but also Irene Adler, who, on this occasion, outwits the great detective and thereby gains his everlasting respect.  The very first line of the story is: “To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman”.

I was awarded a complete set of the 56 short stories as a school prize and it remains a treasured possession; the distinguished BBC TV series (with Peter Cushing as Holmes) was running at the same time.

I was attracted to Holmes at this early age by his use of logic and analysis as well as his aloofness and single-mindedness and he remains one of my favourite fictional characters.  In addition, the stories provide a fascinating portrayal of Victorian society – or, at least, Conan Doyle’s perception of it – with its predictable postal service, detailed train timetables, street urchins and, it appeared, a significant propensity for ambitious characters to make their fortunes in America or the Colonies only to reap their bitter harvest at a later date.

  • Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1902).

The darkness that the seaman Marlow encounters in Africa on his search for the enigmatic Kurtz is dark indeed.  Joseph Conrad’s short novel paints a bleak picture of the effects of turn-of-the-century imperialism and the blackness that can enter man’s souls in this powerful description of the harrowing river journey to the heart of the continent.   It is astonishing that English was Conrad’s third language: he was born in the Ukraine to Polish parents. 

  • Winnie-The-Pooh, AA Milne (1926).

I was given this book when, as a child, I was lying in bed recovering from an illness and generally feeling sorry for myself.  In the opening chapter, I read: “Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday…” and I was immediately hooked by what I thought was the funniest line I would ever come across.

The later The House at Pooh Corner contains my favourite sketch: EH Shepard’s rear view of Pooh, Piglet and Christopher Robin playing Pooh Sticks.  How many of us are invariably tempted to play the same game when crossing a bridge on a country walk?

AA Milne’s original manuscripts are in the library of Trinity College, Cambridge, near to those of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica.  Quite right too.

  • Alone in Berlin, Hans Fallada (1947).

In the Berlin of the early 1940s, an elderly couple conduct a low-level campaign of resistance to the Nazi regime by discreetly placing a series of critical postcards around the city.  They know that the penalty for being caught would be a charge of treason and certain execution.

Fallada’s narrative, which is based on a true story, takes us into a time and place that is not only fraught with physical danger – from food shortages and Allied bombing – but characterised by the continuous psychological torment of the totalitarian state.  However, amongst the cast list of the vicious and the villainous – the Gestapo, the police, the petty thieves – are the occasional beacons of light and our spirits are lifted, albeit only briefly, by the actions of an elderly judge and a tubercular prison chaplain. 

The novel asks some difficult questions.  What can the individual do when confronted with the oppression of the monolithic mighty?  What would we do under similar circumstances?  The answers are to be found – perhaps – in respect and self-respect and, given the knowledge that nothing lasts forever, sowing the “good” seeds for the generations to follow.

  • Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1955).

In the first chapter, the central character Yossarian, lying in a military hospital on the Mediterranean island of Pianosa, is given the task of censoring the letters home written by fellow patients.  He takes to the task with enthusiasm, eventually redacting whole addresses and everything in the letters except the definite and indefinite articles. 

The absurdity of this initial situation sets to the tone for the whole of this brilliant book and its rich cast of characters.  A particular favourite is the entrepreneurial Milo Minderbinder who, at one stage, buys some things for three cents each and sells them for seven cents and makes a profit of “four per cent”.  And who can forget Major Major Major Major?

But this is the Second World War.  The rich seam of black humour is juxtaposed by sudden and horrible death.  On occasion, our apparently cosy read is brought to a crashing halt by the loss of a friend.  As a result, our senses are continually on edge when progressing through this masterpiece of war-based literature.

  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960).

The lawyer Atticus Finch is one of the heroes of American literature.  Not only, with the odds heavily stacked against him, does he attempt to defend a black man charged with raping a white woman in the Deep South of the 1950s.  In addition, he is the father of the precocious young Scout and it is through his daughter’s eyes that the realism of the violence and intolerance in the small town of Maycomb is fully identified.

The power that the book has in its own right is somehow exacerbated by the subsequent near-total reclusiveness of its author.  The fact that Harper Lee based another of the young characters – Dill – on her childhood friend Truman Capote only adds to the novel’s interest and the scope for conjecture.

  • This Sporting Life, David Storey (1960).

“He presses his fingers round my mouth and his thumbs roll back my lips.  ‘Christ, man’ he says.  ‘You’ve broke your front teeth’”.  Welcome to the world of professional rugby, as (on the first page of the book) Arthur Machin learns from his trainer of the damage that an opponent has inflicted on him with an errant shoulder into the jaw.

Storey had briefly played rugby league himself, so he knew what he was talking about in terms of the no-holds-barred brutality on the pitch and the social milieu – dominant club chairmen, hungry wives, faithful retainers – of the bonded players off it.  Interestingly, relatively little of the action takes place on the field of play: the real drama is in the relationship between Machin and his landlady and lover, Mrs Hammond. 

The setting of the grey, rain-swept north of England was, at this time, increasingly familiar in British literature as the new thrusting wave of novelists – John Braine, Keith Waterhouse, Shelagh Delaney et al – wrote dramatically and effectively about the real worlds in which they lived.

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967).

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice”.  The dramatic spoiler in the novel’s opening line (which turns out not to be a spoiler at all) introduces the story of seven generations of the Buendia family in the small town of Macondo.  Through a rich combination of family dynamics, political reality and magical fantasy, the Nobel laureate provides an exhaustive and devastating portrayal of the history of his native Colombia.

  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John Le Carre (1974)

Le Carre’s spies ply their trade within the real post-war world of Oxford dons, unfaithful spouses and career-hungry civil servants, as well as “scalp-hunters”, “lamp-lighters” and KGB-trained Soviet cultural attaches.  The story of George Smiley’s hunt for the “mole” at the top of the British Establishment has been impressively adapted in its screen versions on television and film, but it is in the novel form that its dense complexity is best enjoyed.

  • Austerlitz, WG Sebald (2001).

In slight contradiction of the remarks made in my Introduction, I include Sebald’s final work because he is my favourite writer of the late 20th Century. 

In many ways, to include this book simply in a list of fiction does it an injustice because – as with earlier The Rings of Saturn (1995), which is based on a journey on foot through the flat lands of East Anglia – it also draws on his skills in beautifully evocative travel writing and poignantly presented historical analysis.  Sebald was a master at describing a specific (often forgotten) location – say, an abandoned fort or an overgrown graveyard – and identifying its past significance.

The narrator meets Jacques Austerlitz in Belgium in the 1960s and maintains an irregular contact with him for many years.  Gradually, we learn of Austerlitz’s origins and backstory – as Austerlitz himself does – as part of the Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia to England in 1939 and of the likely fate of his parents.  In his distinctive style – the whole novel comprises a couple of enormously long paragraphs interspersed with some haunting photographs – Sebald weaves a rich tapestry of recollection and discovery.

  • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel (2009).

At the core of this first part of Mantel’s trilogy about the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell is the relationship between the central character and his mentor, Thomas Wolsey.  After Mantel provides a succinct obituary for the Cardinal – “What was England, before Wolsey?  A little offshore island, poor and cold” – Cromwell seeks to ensure that those responsible for Wolsey’s humiliating downfall pay a bitter price. 

Whilst the book conveys the brutality of life in Tudor England in compelling and unsentimental detail, it also reminds us that – in addition to the privileges enjoyed by the royal lines and the noble families – there was also a meritocracy of sorts.  I find it intriguing that Wolsey was the son of a butcher from Ipswich and Cromwell’s father was a blacksmith and publican in Putney.

© JR Alexander 2020

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