Some of the obituaries for Gabriel Garcia Marquez (my favourite writer) have suggested that One Hundred Years of Solitude is the greatest novel of all time. I can admit it is my favourite. This provoked me to ponder, and then I raised the question on Facebook. Further reflection seemed merited.
So, sitting here in my library and gazing upon my own collection, I will give some reflections on the novel in this effort to address what might be greatest.
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, what many consider to be the first novel, is clearly a monumental work of world literature. I found it exotic and compelling, and it held my interest through its hundreds of pages. (I speak as if the volume were here, but, tragically, it was one of those borrowed and never returned.)
Is Don Quixote a novel? If so, it is clearly among the greatest, though I often found it boring and drawn out and then suddenly interesting and exciting again. I have not read all of the second part.
The early English novels are fun to read, but I wouldn't consider any of them the greatest.
I couldn't get through Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy.
Austen is enjoyable and also a profound philosophical thinker. Though I confess that her novels are not among my personal favourites (I've read three), she is clearly one of the greatest of novelists, even if no individual work is the greatest of novels.
Though Hugo's works have been sitting here on my shelf since high school, I have never read them. I am not aware as to why. Dumas I enjoyed thoroughly, however.
Dickens is fun and insightful, but I would not list among the greatest.
Now Wuthering Heights, that's a contender. Narratives embedded within narratives and the use of the unreliable narrator make this novel well ahead of its time, in my opinion.
Do you think that the greatest American novel is Moby Dick or Huck Finn? I'm a huge fan of both and believe they are clearly the two greatest we've produced. I do not think, however, that they are better than One Hundred Years of Solitude. Moby Dick is not as immediately engaging or entertaining (a necessary trait in my book), and Huck Finn is neither broad enough or deep enough in its subject matter nor do I think that Twain is as great a stylist as Garcia Marquez. Melville was as great a wordsmith, but lacked the joy and humour of Garcia Marquez.
The Russians are the greatest novel writing people, it seems. I confess that I have not read War and Peace nor Anna Karenina. I have read three of Dostoyevsky's novels. The Brothers Karamazov is a clear contender for the greatest novel ever written. It is not as immediately readable as One Hundred Years of Solitude but is even broader and deeper in content. Dostoyevsky is a great wordsmith and storyteller.
Madame Bovary is marvelous, of course.
I'm saving Henry James for later in life. Yes, I have intentionally decided that. Though I did read Washington Square in my twenties.
There are so many enjoyable American novels in the 20th century, but none that rise to the level of Melville's and Twain's masterworks. Maybe a separate post on the greatest of American novels is merited?
Is Remembrance of Things Past a novel? Either way, I have not read it, though it sits on my shelf awaiting a future effort.
The only Thomas Mann I've read is Death in Venice, so I cannot judge whether The Magic Mountain should be a contender.
I love the novels of Galsworthy and Forster, but don't think that they are contenders.
I could not make it through Ulysses. I understand that many believe it to be the greatest novel ever written, but for me readability and storytelling are essential criteria.
D. H. Lawrence has so far bored me.
Now, Lolita is definitely on the list. Nabokov is a great wordsmith and humourist, though the novel lacks the depth of One Hundred Years of Solitude. For some weird reason, it never seems like an "American" novel to me, though it so clearly is.
Okay, maybe Their Eyes Were Watching God can compete with Moby Dick and Huck Finn?
I've read three novels by Naguib Mahfouz. Midaq Alley was probably the best and featured some of the same traits as One Hundred Years of Solitude. But when I read the latter (and when I re-read it), there was this immediate sense of something wonderful and beautiful, something magnificent. I don't remember the same with Midaq Alley.
I'm currently reading Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. While I cannot judge it in its totality, I know that it is not as beautiful a work as One Hundred Years of Solitude.
I would include Things Fall Apart among the greatest ever. And it is probably the simplest in breadth and style of those I would so judge.
What of Toni Morrison? Beloved is among the most powerfully overwhelming books I've read. The Song of Solomon is my favourite of hers. Let's include Beloved with the four American greats I've identified.
Naipaul has amazing perception and can craft such fine sentences and paragraphs. Of the six Naipaul novels I've read, Guerillas is my favourite and The Enigma of Arrival is probably the greatest. Though his novels lack the magical, captivating charm of Garcia Marquez.
What of Cormac McCarthy? I did not enjoy Blood Meridian, though I recognized its power and should probably return to it. The Border Trilogy I did enjoy on almost every level. The Road was the best novel I've read from the Aughts. McCarthy is similar in perspective and use of words to Melville, without being as great.
Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversation in the Cathedral is a triumph. It is ambitious in its breadth and style, borrowing some techniques from Joyce and carrying them off better, in my opinion. But, for me, it lacked the magic, the wonder, and the imagination that remain essential to the greatest storytelling. Clearly for me, something must inspire these childlike responses to be great. Yes, as a child a great story set one's imagination aflame and filled you with adventure and delight. That, for me, remains a requirement.
Coetzee lacks that as well in the two I've read. Nor do they rise to the level of Naipaul, in my opinion.
Midnight's Children does contain that childlike sense of imagination and delight and much like when I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, reading it sent me in search of other Rushdie novels. I admire Rushdie's use of words, phrases, and images; he is among the greatest current stylists in the English language. Plus, he tells fascinating stories. This is also a novel of ideas. I find it difficult to say why I think it falls short of One Hundred Years of Solitude and some of the others I've listed, but I do think that. What about you?
I've read two Haruki Murakami novels and have yet to understand his international reputation.
2666 by Roberto Bolano is an enigma. Immediately praised as among the greatest things ever written, I definitely felt so while reading part one, "The Part About the Critics." Then parts two and three were less than satisfying. Part four was imporant, or was it only trying to be? Part five was an interesting and enjoyable novel of its own. I can make no sense of how they are supposed to hang together. Yes, there are connections of place and character, but altogether what are they doing? I am unsure.
And no other recent novel I own or have read do I think merits our consideration for this prize, even those I have enjoyed.
Clearly there are great international authors who are missing from consideration because I have not read them.
So, I'm left with these as the five greatest Americans novels:
- Moby Dick
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- Their Eyes Were Watching God
And it is probably my American bias to include those five on any list of the greatest.
Then, there are these four:
- Wuthering Heights
- The Brothers Karamazov
- One Hundred Years of Solitude
- Things Fall Apart
It seems to me to be between Dostoyevsky and Garcia Marquez. And I'll give the award to the latter because of the reason I identified in the process of this exercise--the ability to generate childlike imagination and delight. On all the other criteria they match one another, but on that one One Hundred Years of Solitude triumphs over The Brothers Karamazov.
At least in my mind, on April 23, 2014.