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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.