Unexpected Delight and Unceasing Pain: Reading the Modern Library Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century

I’m done! Woo-hoo and thank God. With the last page of Finnegan’s Wake, I have now read every book on the Random House Modern Library list of the Best Novels in English in the 20th Century. Sure, it took me over 17 years (from the moment I first heard of it in 2000, at which time I’d read 13) but I am finally finished. Along the way, I discovered some wonderful books I wouldn’t have read otherwise, was surprised by certain books, and occasionally found myself just wanting to give up (and I don’t just mean give up reading: some of these books made want to slit my wrists).


Wonderful Discoveries

One of my best
discoveries from the list

One of the crucial advantages of following a list is that you discover books you never would have read otherwise:

  • John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. Trilogy – From the same “lost” generation as Ernest Hemingway (with some parallels with Hemingway’s life) and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but far less known, Dos Passos used a variety of experimental techniques in this trilogy (consisting of The 42ndParallel, 1919, and The Big Money). Incorporating newspaper clippings, biographies of people famous and unknown, and his own upbringing and development, he created a sprawling, Jazz Age story of people trying to get through the early part of the 20th century. I devoured this on a two-week trip to the Greek Islands.
  • Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier – My introduction to the concept of the unreliable narrator as the flaws, affairs, and emotional turmoil of two different couples are slowly revealed in a rambling, non-chronological narrative. A bit frustrating at first but ultimately a very satisfying read.
  • Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time (series) – Not just a series but a 12-novel series! I was dreading this one, but it turned out to be one of the most interesting and enjoyable reads on this list. The 12 novels (all written in the first-person point of view of Nicholas Jenkins, a member of the British upper middle class) perfectly capture the life of the upper stratum of British society from World War I through to the post-World War II period. It’s social history in fictional form.
  • Walker Percy, The Moviegoer – A novel of searching and questioning existence that manages not to get dragged down by its own weighty subject and retain an almost poetic, lyrical feel
  • Sinclair Lewis, Main Street – Published in 1920 but as relevant today in its razor-sharp observations of smalltown life – and funny as hell.
  • Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose – A brilliant Western novel that’s worth it not only for the vivid descriptions of Western life in the late-1800s and early-1900s (I was particularly taken by the chapters covering the couple’s journey through Mosquito Pass to Leadville, and life in the town during its boom period), but for the finely honed characters, particularly Oliver Ward, a man who’s too honest to succeed.

“Make It Stop”

The flip side of the above is that some of the books were painful to read, even occasionally causing me to stop reading anything off the list for long periods of time.

Henry Miller
You dirty bastard…
  • Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer – Ok, I can appreciate why this novel is on the list: the radical approach to autobiographical fiction, the “diamond and dirt” aspect of flowing, lyrical narrative interspersed with absolute gutter language. But every time I read it, I felt like I needed a shower.
  • Philip Roth, Portnoy’s Complaint – See above
  • Henry James, The Golden Bowl – He opened the tome and idly flipped through the pages. He thought about the author and what he was thinking when writing. Where was he sitting? What was he wearing? Had he recently survived an unhappy love affair? He began to read but found the book wanting. His mind kept wandering to other topics, other desires, other needs, other questions, such as “Why is there so f’ing much internal monologue?”
  • Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy – The writing is superb and Dreiser’s realism comes through on every page, but it was like watching a train wreck (or really several train wrecks) in extreme slo-mo.
  • James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake – So it’s a work of genius but it took me seven weeks to read it a few pages at a time as I simply didn’t understand anything. It contains portmanteaus and adapted words from dozens and dozens of languages, and supposedly captures the dream state but let’s face it: I don’t want to read about my dreams. They’re frightening enough on their own. On the other hand, I’m no longer intimidated by Infinite Jest

Pleasant Surprises

I liked it! I actually liked it!
  • James Joyce, Ulysses – With the exception of Finnegan’s Wake, this is the novel I most dreaded tackling. And while I can’t claim I enjoyed every minute of it, I was surprised at how (relatively) easy it was to read, particularly when I stopped trying to follow the plot and just let the marvelous, musical language wash over me.
  • Everything on the list by William Faulkner – Like Joyce, I was intimated by Faulkner, and didn’t help myself by starting with The Sound and the Fury. But once I caught on, I was completely hooked on Faulkner’s Southern Gothic world.
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita – Although I felt a bit like I did with Tropic of Cancer and Portnoy’s Complaint (i.e., a bit dirty), I was surprised and impressed by the narrator’s many spot-on observations of the U.S.
  • Lawrence Durell, The Alexandria Quartet and John Fowles, The Magus – Radically different ways of looking at the same events, experimental yet eminently readable

Categories: Fiction and Writing

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