I’m not a big reader of series so it’s been a challenge to reach the magical 10 for this week’s Top Ten Tuesday topic: Authors I’ve Read the Most Books By.
Maybe I made it too difficult by setting a threshold where in order to make the list, I decided I would limit myself to authors I read as an adult. Plus I had to have read at least five of the author’s works. I ended up with just eight names.
They are a mix of contemporary authors and those from the literary canon of past centuries. Some are authors whose full body of work I would love to read. Others are favourites from past years that have not lasted the course because my reading tastes have changed. I wonder whether this list will change again in the future. Maybe I should repeat the exercise five or ten years from now .
One important thing to mention however. This list is simply a record of authors I’ve read most often, not the authors I consider my favourites. There’s no George Eliot for example. Putting the list together I realised I still have three of her novels to read: Daniel Deronda, Felix Holt and Romola. I sense a little reading project might be in the offing.
By the time I came across Louise Penny’s crime fiction she had already published eight titles in her series set in Quebec. Her setting in the tiny village of Three Pines won me over, as did her protagonist, Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. She’s published a total of 15 books in the series – 16th is due out later this year – of which I’ve read eight. My favourite? That’s a hard one. I think I’m going to go for How The Light Gets In.
My first experience of Atkinson was via her debut novel Behind The Scenes at the Museum which chronicled the lives of six generations of women. I’ve since gone on to read six more of the the 10 books she’s had published. Some of these were not to my taste (I couldn’t finish Life after Life and really disliked Transcription) but when she’s on form, she’s highly enjoyable. Her Jackson Brodie series of detective novels (adapted into the BBC series Case Histories) is first class and like her many other fans I was delighted when she returned to this series in 2019 after a 11 year gap, with Blue Sky.
There was a time when I lapped up everything written by McEwan. But in recent years my interest has waned significantly. The turning point was Saturday published in 2005 which I found tedious and pretentious. I’ve read seven of his novels. From his early years, I enjoyed Black Dogs and The Innocent. Of his more recent works, my all time favourite is Atonement.
Another author I no longer enjoy as much as I did. I’ve read six of his novels. The best of those from the twentieth century is I think Brazzaville Beach which tells the story of a woman who is in Africa researching chimpanzees. This century, the outstanding novel has been Any Human Heart, a tremendous story of one man’s life; his attempts at a literary career, several marriages and meetings with a host of famous people. Nothing Boyd has published since has come anywhere close to the quality of that novel and the most recent one I read, Love is Blind, was just awful.
If you’d asked me in the 1980s whether Graham Greene was one of my favourite authors, you’d have been met with an unequivocal answer in the negative. He’d been on the syllabus for my final English literature module at university and I had unwelcome memories of having to rush through his books. But time has moved on and I’ve come to more deeply appreciate his work, particularly those labelled his “Catholic novels.” My favourite is The Heart of The Matter which portrays a fundamentally decent man taken down the path to a crisis of conscience and despair.
I’ve barely touched the surface with Zola’s work. I’ve read seven of his novels; Thérèse Raquin, a dark novel of murder and adultery and six of the 20 titles in his Rougon-Macquart cycle. I’ve yet to read one that hasn’t impressed me with its multi-faceted portrayal French society and life in the nineteenth century and its undercurrents of passion and ambition. My favourite is the novel I read first, Germinal, but L’Assommoir, the story of a working class woman in Paris, is a close second.
Like so many readers I was introduced to Dickens at an early age via Oliver Twist. It took me a few decades to warm to him. Yes he can be frustrating (he does so like to digress) and yes his plots are highly dependent on coincidences, but boy can he tell a good yarn. I’ve failed to finish two: Bleak House (I’ll return to it one day) and A Tale of Two Cities). Of the eight novels by him that I have finished, my favourites are Great Expectations (the first encounter by Magwitch and young Pip is unforgettable) and Dombey and Son (especially for its breathtaking scene involving a train).
When I read Jane Austen as a teenager I was puzzled by descriptions of her as a supremely ‘witty’ author. I couldn’t see anything approaching wit in what I was reading. It wasn’t until I read her as an adult that the penny dropped and I fell in love with her writing. I’ve read all her novels bar one, Lady Susan. Last year I read one of her unfinished works, Sanditon, when a new Oxford World Classics edition was published to coincide with a TV adaptation. She’s an author I feel I can return to again and again and still find something new to enjoy. My favourite? I never tire of Pride and Prejudice but the quieter, more thoughtful Persuasion, has the edge.
I’ve only just woken up to the fact that we’re a few days away from the end of a decade. It wasn’t until I saw Simon’s post on his favourite books of the decade that light began to dawn that soon we’ll be in the Twenty Twenties.
That got me thinking what I would include in my list of favourites.
I thought initially I’d choose one book for each year but that plan didn’t last long. Until I started this blog, I never kept track of what I was reading so there’s a black hole before 2012. There are a few books I’ve recorded in Goodreads for 2010 and 2011 but that’s probably guesswork on my part.
So instead I’m going to build a list of the 10 books I’ve enjoyed most from across all the years. Just one point to clarify though– they were not necessarily published this decade, just that I read them over the last ten years. My favourite book of 2019 may be in among the ten – but it might not be…..
I’ve gone for books that are not simply good, but outstanding. The principal test was whether it was a book I would want to re-read.
Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel
2012: Bring Up The Bodies is the sequel to Mantel’s terrific award-winning Wolf Hall, a book that breathed new life into the well-known story of King Henry VIII and his marital problems. It is the second part of her trilogy charting the rise and fall of the King’s right hand man Thomas Cromwell. I was blown away by Wolf Hall but Bring Up the Bodies is even more powerful. Now I’m counting down the weeks until the third episode The Mirror and The Light is published in March 2020
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
2013: For years I thought I wouldn’t like John Steinbeck. Cannery Row changed my mind. The mixture of humour, the warmth and affection for his characters and lightens what is a fairly bleak tale of a motley gang of down and outs. I know this is not typical Steinbeck but it’s still encouraged me to give his more famous novels a go.
Harvest by Jim Crace
Another novel I read in 2013, the year in which it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Harvest is an exquisitely written novel about the threat to a village and a way of life. Grace doesn’t sentimentalise the countryside but he does shine a light on the human consequences of a rupture in a traditional way of life resulting from a pursuit of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise”.
L’Assommoir by Emile Zola
No surprise to find my favourite novelist making an appearance on this best of the decade list. L’Assommoir is a dark story; stark and emotional; that traces a woman born into poverty and how she tries to find happiness. She succeeds but this being Zola, you know it can’t last. It has some tremendous set pieces set in the working class district of Paris.
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
I read The English Patient in 2015 and it remains one of my favourite Booker Prize winners to date. Set in Italy during World War 2, it features four people who are scarred emotionally and physically by the war. They come together in a deserted villa, hoping there to find some peace. This is a novel to read slowly and to savour.
Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien
Canadian author Madeleine Thien takes us to China to show the effect of the Cultural Revolution on ordinary people, in this case three talented musicians. Thein covers a vast swathe of history but it never feels like she’s forcing the facts onto you. The book ends with the horrific standoff between the state and its citizens in Tianenman Square. It makes a great companion read to Wild Swans, Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang,
Cove by Cynan Jones
It’s hard to put into words just how special this book is. From the first page it hypnotises you with an intense and closely observed tale of a kayaker struck by lightning. Injured and adrift all he wants is to get back to to land and to his pregnant girlfriend.
The Vegetarian by Hang Kang
This was the most memorable book I read in 2017. It’s a really disturbing novel set in South Korea focusing on a young wife who decides she will no longer eat meat. It’s a decision that will lead to her mental disintegration. The final section of The Vegetarian is unforgettable.
The Salt Path by Raynor Winn
This is the only non fiction book to make it only my list. At the age of 50, Raynor Winn and her husband Moth lost their business and their home. Moth was diagnosed with a serious brain condition. With little money and no prospects they decided to embark on a 600 mile walk along a coastal path, sleeping under the stars. The Salt Path is a lovely blend of observations on nature and attitudes to homelessness but if the latter sounds bleak, rest assured that Raynor Winn has a great sense of humour.
All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West
Older people often get stereotyped in fiction so it was a delight to come across a novel that rejects the idea you lose your ability to know your own mind when you age. The main character is a recently widowed 88 year old who rejects all her children’s plans and sets her own course. Its such a beautiful, elegant and thoughtful portrait I look forward to reading the novel all over again.
If you were asked to think of a court case involving the thorny question of censorship and fiction, what books or authors would come to mind? D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover perhaps? Or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary?
Coming more up to date, how about the 1933 obscenity trial concerning James Joyce’s Ulysses or the 1961 case involving Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer which went all the way to the US Supreme Court?
No less significant, yet less well known, is the 1888 prosecution of Henry Vizetelly, the elderly head of a family publishing business in London.
His crime: publishing English language editions of some of the most provocative and “vile” novels written by Emile Zola. His punishment: prison, the collapse of his health and the ruin of his business.
Zola and the Victorians by Eileen Horne is a fictionalised account of the history of this case. Using court and Parliamentary records, letters and newspaper reports, Horne weaves a narrative showing how Vizetelly became the target of the National Vigilance Society – a group of moral vigilantes who wanted to rid England of “vile literature”.
According to the society young girls were being led to prostitution because of cheap translated versions of books by Emile Zola. In 1888 they launched a prosecution for obscene libel against Henry Vizetelly, Zola’s British publisher.
Three titles from Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series were used as evidence in the subsequent Old Bailey trial: Nana, The Soil (La Terre) and Piping Hot! (Pot Bouille). They were books, the court was told, that featured rapes, pregnancies, menstruation, nudity and women’s sexuality.
Against such an attack Vizetelly’s argument about the artistic merits of these work by “a great French writer”, held no sway.
Emile Zola’s book La Terre “is a filthy book from end to end,” the chief prosecuting counsel tells the jury. “I will not call what I am about to read literature. There can be no question of literature with regard to this garbage.”
He and his sons were ordered to cease publication and sale of the offending books. Faced with financial ruin, they tried to ‘soften’ the translations to make them more acceptable. But even that wasn’t enough – Vizetelly was hauled back into court and this time, the result was a prison sentence.
Naturally Horne devotes a large proportion of the book to the legal case but doesn’t drag her narrative down with exhaustive details of the legal arguments used in the Old Bailey trials.
Her approach is rather to focus on how the whole saga affects the people involved, particularly Vizetelly and his son Ernest who was translator of Zola’s texts. Horne takes us into the heart of the family, ‘listening in’ to their conversations and their differing views on how to respond to the accusations. Vizetelly comes across as a proud man who believes right is on his side and will not listen to his son’s voice of caution.
By the time he finishes his sentence he is a frail old man.
He is a free man but he is broken. The many weeks of poor hygiene and haphazard medical attention in insalubrious quarters have ruined him physically as surely as the court’s verdict ruined him financially.
The sections of the book that take place in France were actually more interesting than the court case. Most of these are set in Zola’s home, a very large country villa expanded to include a “Nana tower” and a “Germinal Tower” and reveal much about his process of writing.
Apparently after a daily walk, Emile Zola would change into his writing clothes – a version of “peasant’ clothes chosen so they didn’t cause itches and thus distract him. He knew exactly the trajectory of the book he was currently working upon. He had done a preliminary plan and research (often that took him longer to complete that did the actual writing). His pace was so measured that he could predict how long each book will take him to write.
Emile Zola didn’t emerge from this book as a very likeable man. He never lent any support to the Vizetelly, instead actually telling a journalist that he would be pleased if the prosecution succeeded. He would prefer, he said, that people read his books in the original French instead of being sold in “wretchedly done translations to the uneducated who cannot comprehend me.” Ouch…
Zola and the Victorians reveals a fascinating episode in British publishing history. It pitted moral outrage (and more than a dash of hypocrisy) against literary merits, a clash which continued right through to the watershed trial of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960.
Less engaging is the way in which Thorne tells the tale. The mixing of present and past tenses irritated me enormously, the reported conversations among the family seldom sounded authentic and the characters came across as one dimensional. I’m not regretting reading this book, if for no other reason than it’s given me an appetite to read those three Emile Zola novels for myself.
Zola and the Victorians was published in hardback by Maclehose Press in 2015. American-born Eileen Horne worked as a television producer for twenty years before setting up her own production company. She now combines writing adaptations for television and radio with teaching and editing.
Since reading Zola and The Victorians I’ve heard of another book about Zola that sounds interesting: The Disappearance of Emile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case by Michael Rosen. It deals with a period in 1898 when Zola fled France because of hostility around his intervention in the Dreyfus case.