Sunday, November 05, 2006

The Sea, and 1000 Other Books

Ellis Sharp has gotten around to reading John Banville's Booker-winning novel, The Sea, and admits that he must agree with Tim Sterne that it "remains a listless, lifeless exercise in aesthetic pretension" and that "[t]hematically, the novel is tired and unoriginal". When Banville's novel won the Booker Prize, there was much ado in the British press about it about how it was a horribly snooty selection, proof that the Literary Establishment is out of touch with regular readers, or some such nonsense. But, comparing it to Ian McEwan's Saturday, Sharp observes that The Sea is basically plot-driven: "It lures the reader on to the end, to find out how everything resolved itself. And finally the pieces all click together, like a jigsaw. There is nothing, at the end, to furrow the reader’s brow. Both novels aspire to be serious literature but supply the sweet-tasting delights of a certain type of genre fiction."

I enjoy reading Banville's prose, and I enjoyed reading The Sea, at the surface level. However, it definitely felt slight in comparison to his other work, and the writing itself, unusually for him, I thought, was occasionally awkward. I've now read the six novels published immediately prior to The Sea, and I must conclude that it's by far the weakest of the bunch. I think Eclipse and the loose trilogy comprising The Book of Evidence, Ghosts, and Athena are all excellent novels (all "engaging the mind", too).

This is as good a reason as any to mention that ridiculous 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die business several others have noted. Both The Sea and Saturday are on it, which perhaps tells you all you need to know, but I'll bore you some more about it. Steve Mitchelmore expressed annoyance about the list because it resists "randomness; as if all one has to do is read the 1001 and you're done." He also noted its typical wrongheadness, where this book places over that one, etc, which is inevitable in any such large list. Of course, I agree with him about the random appeal of learning about books via blogs and the like, yet I like to look at lists; there's usually something interesting on them, something random, in its way, that I hadn't come across before. But this one is so huge it defies that kind of effect. And its particular wrongheadness is worth noting. It's almost as if the compilers couldn't be bothered to make decisions on what to include on their own list. Nearly half of it is taken up by books since 1960. It's actually kind of nice to see contemporary fiction get shown such regard, but this is pretty silly. And it's pretty heavily weighted towards British Commonwealth writers (generally Booker-eligible). I haven't read the vast majority of books on it, but I remain skeptical that many of them are truly "essential", that I simply MUST read them before I die. It's as if the compilers simply raked in a whole bunch of award-winning and/or generally well-reviewed novels and left it at that (and maybe they claim no different, and maybe the introduction to the book says just this). And yet they still managed to leave off Richard Powers and William H. Gass, just to name two very highly regarded writers. Meanwhile, there are ten (ten!) J.M. Coetzee books on the list, seven Philip Roth, eight Ian McEwan... Coetzee, Roth, and McEwan are all writers I have enjoyed, but their books that appear on the list are damn good indications that the criteria for what might constitute "essential" are rather lax, if not missing altogether. Once again: Roth has written some books I would call essential, but The Plot Against America and The Human Stain are not among them (Sabbath's Theater is). And Ian McEwan has written some very fine novels (I'm partial to Atonement, Enduring Love, and The Child In Time, though even among these three I don't know that all of them are quite essential), but Saturday and Amsterdam are bullshit. With Coetzee, it's like they couldn't decide at all, threw up their hands, and listed nearly his entire published works. Etc.

I find I've pretty run out of interest on this one. Glad I could share!


jwer said...

I've read, like, 23 of those... apparently I shall live forever!

Richard said...

Turns out I've read around 160 of them. Combing through the list just now to count just reinforced the bizarreness of it. There are quite a few interesting selections--books that are often overlooked--along with some books that are just plain garbage. Blah blah blah.

Tim said...

You'll doubtless be thrilled to hear that there is now a 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. Just in time for Christmas!

Richard said...