Books: Old masters and dry Martinis

Whatever happened to Okri, Isherwood, Durrell and Shields? Peter Parker counts the bodies not in the Library

According to the subtitle of their book, Carmen Callil and Colm Tibn have selected "The 200 best novels in English since 1950". This is the sort of project that always causes arguments since, as almost any poll of best books will quickly show, one person's top 200 is another's slush-pile. Having once edited a similar book, which attempted to take on the whole 20th century, I started reading this one with some sympathy.

I know all about the sheer volume of fiction from which selections must be made, the difficult choices, the inclusions and omissions that readers and reviewers pounce upon. Callil and Tibn assure us that their collaboration has been reasonably harmonious. "We chose these books together on the basis that the idea of two people disputing - hotly at times, not at all on other occasions - is always preferable to one person laying down the law," they tell us. In only two cases were their differences left unresolved, when each editor fought for different novels to represent Saul Bellow and V S Naipaul. These two writers get two entries each; in every other instance authors are represented by a single work.

The Modern Library was embargoed and reviewers' copies arrived in jiffy- bags labelled: "Confidential. To be opened by addressee only". Not unnaturally, though as it turns out quite unreasonably, this raised expectations that the book would be highly controversial. Attitudes are struck in the introduction, where the editors (one Australian, the other Irish) state they both come from what they are pleased to call "the Free World" (incorrectly defined as not England or America). They also claim to have "not the slightest interest in political correctness", but neither circumstance seems to have impinged upon their choices or their comments. They have put together a disappointingly dull and inoffensive little book.

"Any list such as this is entirely personal," Callil and Tibn acknowledge. This is undoubtedly true, so it was perhaps unwise of them to give so slender a volume so authoritative a title as The Modern Library. Any modern library that does not include work by the following authors cannot help looking a little depleted: Peter Ackroyd, Paul Auster, Paul Bailey, Nicholson Baker, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, William Boyd, Malcolm Bradbury, Brigid Brophy, Truman Capote, William Cooper, Lawrence Durrell, John Fowles, Jane Gardam, Georgina Hammick, Han Suyin, Susan Hill, Christopher Hope, John Irving, Christopher Isherwood, Dan Jacobson, Ken Kesey, Hanif Kureishi, Laurie Lee, Penelope Lively, Alison Lurie, Rose Macaulay, Shena Mackay, Hilary Mantel, Candia McWilliam, Nicholas Mosley, Joyce Carol Oates, Flann O'Brien, Ben Okri, Barbara Pym, Bernice Rubens, Vikram Seth, Carol Shields, Paul Theroux, Barry Unsworth, Gore Vidal and Angus Wilson.

This is to list only the most obvious omissions. An equally long roll- call could be made of writers who may not be in the mainstream of English- language fiction but might have hoped for a place in a book which promises to unearth "hidden treasures".

But, it is all too easy to carp about omissions, and the editors deserve our gratitude for drawing attention to a number of writers whose work may be unfamiliar: Sam Hanna Bell, Margaret Laurence, Jessica Anderson, Balraj Khanna, Kaye Gibbons, Bapsi Sidhwa, Norman Rush, Eugene McCabe. In any case, we need to judge the book less by who's in and who's out than by what we learn about those novels the editors see fit to endorse.

Each entry runs to around 250 words, with a supplementary couple of lines about the writer. This is about the length of a publisher's blurb on the dust-jacket of the average novel, and many of the entries do not aspire much beyond that level of recommendation. The book is determinedly - indeed, sometimes noisily - anti-academic, and while this populist thrust is generally welcome, it would have been helpful if more of the novels discussed had been put into some sort of historical or biographical context.

On the whole the editors are content to give us a few lines of plot followed by a burst of uninformative enthusiasm. "This is a most sympathetic novel, full of ideas, endearing, full of gusto," they write of Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda. Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is "the sort of book that you would stay up all night to finish"; East of Eden is "hugely credible, readable and vivid"; Catch- 22 "is a dark and disturbing anti-war book as well as a great comic novel".

Some comments are absurdly inappropriate: it is neither useful for the reader nor flattering to Muriel Spark to be told that The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is "laced with mother's wit and wisdom". Other judgements are nonsensical: On the Road "has all the importance of a classic rock album or road movie". When the editors write that reading Alan Hollinghurst's The Folding Star is "like contemplating one of the great paintings of the Flemish Old Masters", or that in The Little Disturbances of Man, "Grace Paley adds greatly to the joy of life, each story like sipping a very strong, very dry Martini", we want to ask: How, precisely?

Precision, it seems, is not something that troubles the editors greatly. Far more disturbing than the banality of some of their judgements, however, is the quality of much of their prose. We have no reason to expect a former publisher - even one as distinguished as Callil - to be able to write well, but Tibn is a critically acclaimed novelist and a fine literary journalist.

Since the entries are unattributed, we cannot tell who is responsible for such sentences as: "Raymond Carver chose this selection of his stories before he died, a permanent deterrent to the rash of imitators who have since appeared. Fortunately his writing is inimitable." Who or what is a deterrent? Carver? His tautologically chosen selection? The fact he made it before rather than after his death? If his writing is inimitable, who are these imitators? It is particularly unfortunate that a novel such as Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's Heat and Dust should be described as "gracefully written, finely constructed" in a sentence that continues: "it fascinates both as a love story, and as a sensuous evocation of what the English lost most in India - the soul and feeling those sent out to rule her longed for, yet feared the most."

The book is at its most embarrassing when its authors aspire towards what is presumably intended to be "colourful" writing. Our attention is drawn to "the verbal rainstorm that Amis pours through Self's repellent mouth" in Money; a character in Henry Green's Nothing is depicted "manipulating malice like a sten gun"; Khanna "laughs with his chorus of fools, while his sharp eye makes subtler mincemeat of religious differences and useless taboos."

When the editors write that "The classic English detective story has inveigled readers all over the world into the mysteries of English life", one can only suppose that they think that "inveigle" is a posh word for "introduce". Another attempted synonym for "introduce" is "chivvy", as when they tell us that the words of an "unmistakable" sentence from one of V S Pritchett's stories "chivvy us into the Pritchett world".

You finish The Modern Library reflecting on the irony that a book trumpeted as "Everyone's essential guide to the world's greatest pleasure: Reading" provides so little of that pleasure for its own readers.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

    Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
    Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Pop-up hotels filling a niche

    Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
    Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

    Feather dust-up

    A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    Boris Johnson's war on diesel

    11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
    5 best waterproof cameras

    Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

    Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
    Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

    Louis van Gaal interview

    Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
    Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

    Will Gore: Outside Edge

    The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series