No time to read the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century? Or even six of the very best? Then mug up with these extracts from John Crace’s new book, Brideshead Abbreviated
Compiling a list of the 100 classic reads of the 20th century to digest is an arbitrary task. As it is more rewarding to parody books with which people are familiar, my own selection has been conservative, reflecting the consensual view of the western literary canon rather than trying to reshape it. I limited every author to a single book and each decade to 10 books. Inevitably there will have been omissions. Here I edited the list still further. But surely no one would quibble with Swann’s Way, The Age of Innocence, Brave New World, Lolita and Midnight’s Children, would they? Would they?
Marcel Proust (1913)
For a long time, I went to bed early. For a very short time, I fooled people into believing I wrote in short sentences, yet then as I hovered in that indeterminate space between sleeping and waking, as after metempsychosis thoughts of an earlier existence are unintelligible, the memory of my bedroom in Combray came flooding back, which is more than the servants did, whose absence seemed to emanate from a Merovingian past, leaving me to wonder whether Mama would come to kiss me goodnight before M Swann, whose prolonged absences with M de Charlus you might have chosen for yourself before embarking on this book, arrived for dinner, a dinner of madeleine cakes from which still clearer memories of my childhood, though refracted through a very adult voice, came racing back.
Combray is no location for a writer steeped in the semiotics of Bergotte, whose desire to recreate through a memory that informs our comprehension of ourselves and yet somehow obscures it, creating an epic, some say endless stream of consciousness that reminds me, as the fragment of the Vinteuil sonata I caught through the very window that some years later I was to overhear the violinist’s daughter and her woman lover, while walking along the way by Swann to observe the church’s steeple, of the devotion of Françoise to Aunt Léonie, whose frailty more than matched my own, for it was her very hypochondria, not that one would ordinarily stoop to such a term, for the illnesses in our memory were of the gravest nature, hastened her passing and at whose funeral I was shocked to notice that the Duchesse de Guermantes was not quite so radiant as I had first imagined, and yet less time had passed between the imagination and the memory than I had thought, though that may not be how it feels to you.
Through the fissures of memory seeped knowledge of Swann’s love affair, a passion that occurred some 30 years previously and which you might have imagined out of place within the narrative, yet such is the distortion of memory, a subject to which I will return until the present memory is unrecognisable from the original, a derangement that will even allow you to imagine you are following this, that I find myself remembering the petit-bourgeois gatherings of the Verdurins, observations of which, to the uninformed reader, will seem like the minutiae of social climbing, yet which to the literati is a wonder of intricate remembrance, where Odette secured an invitation for Swann, despite his Jewishness, for the Verdurins liked nothing more than people they could patronise, and at that point they had no cognisance of his friendship with the Prince of Wales, for as yet also Swann had not fallen for Odette, but when he noted her resemblance to Bellini’s Zipporah, he believed himself in love and that love was at first reciprocated, yet within months his visits went unanswered and strange were his jealousies that he could not accept she had betrayed him with the Duc de Forcheville, and it was only when the doctor’s wife explained that he came to his senses, while wondering how he could have been attracted to such a woman.
The aural accretion of the Vinteuil sonata offered another soliloquy on the subjectivity of memory, and I recalled that summer when I travelled each day to the Champs-Elysées, rapt in the desire to see Gilberte, and lost in the solipsism that would mark my writing, unable to see she did not love me, and, on those days she chose not to come I felt the quotidian sense of futility I now experience in the Bois de Boulogne, a pointlessness with which you are surely now familiar, n’est-ce pas?
The Age of Innocence
Edith Wharton (1920)
When Newland Archer arrived, the curtain had just gone up. “Darn it,” he thought. “I am 10 seconds early.” At least New York society had not witnessed his faux-pas.
He gazed towards the divine May Welland, seated in the Mingott box, and frowned when he saw her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, sitting next to her. What would New York think of the reintroduction of the scarlet woman into society? He and May looked into one another’s eyes and Newland knew she had understood he wished their betrothal to be announced that very night.
The engagement would normally have been the talk of New York, yet it was the return of Mrs Mingott’s other granddaughter, the Countess Ellen, that dominated salon conversation.
“I hear she left her husband,” said Mr Sillerton Jackson. “How scandalous these Europeans are!”
“How dare you, sir!” Newland exclaimed. “She left her husband to escape his beatings.”
“A New York wife would take a beating in private,” replied Mr Sillerton Jackson. “I find myself compromised by our acquaintance as you are to be married to a Mingott.”
These sentiments echoed throughout New York until Mrs Archer persuaded her cousins, the Van der Luydens, New York’s most powerful family, to invite the Countess to tea.
“Thank goodness for that,” New York society sighed.
Newland was irritated to be summoned to see his employer, Mr Letterblair. Newland had more pressing things to occupy his mind than work; how was New York wearing its waistcoats this season? “Mrs Mingott has requested your assistance,” said Mr Letterblair. “The Countess Olenska is seeking a divorce.”
Archer understood the delicacy of the situation. “New York will expel the Mingotts from society if you pursue this” he said, “and my engagement to May will also make me an outcast.”
A maelstrom of emotion coursed through the Countess’s bosom. “Very well,” she said. “Come and see me for 10 minutes in a few months’ time when I am staying in Skuytercliff,” she whispered, overwhelmed by feelings that could not be expressed in New York society.
Newland urged his horses on. “Sorry I’m a bit late,” he said, though both he and Ellen knew that what he was really saying was he loved her deeply, yet did not want to compromise her by making her his mistress.
“I’ve got to go,” Ellen replied, though both she and Newland knew what she was really saying was that she loved him deeply, yet did not want to compromise him by becoming his mistress.
Newland went to visit May. “We must get married this year,” he begged. “I am aware you once had feelings for a Mrs Rushworth,” May replied. “If you have any outstanding obligations to her, then I release you.” Newland felt a surge of love for May. Particularly as she didn’t seem to have guessed his feelings for the Countess.
“Why do we have to honeymoon in Europe?” May inquired. “Because it is our Henry James moment,” Newland replied.
Locked in the loveless marriage decreed by New York, Newland was tormented by his passion for Ellen. He hurried to Boston. “It’s been two years and I wanted us to spend another five minutes together,” he cried. They kissed, a kiss that signalled they might have intercourse some time in the next few years.
“I’m pregnant,” said May, having secretly been aware of her husband’s feelings for Ellen all along.
“I am returning to Europe,” Ellen announced, and all New York breathed a sigh of relief at such a satisfactory conclusion.
Twenty-six years later, Newland stood outside Ellen’s Paris apartment with his son, Dallas. May had died some years earlier and Dallas had suggested they visited.
“Come on up,” said Dallas.
“No,” said Newland.
Brave New World
Aldous Huxley (1932)
“Welcome to the Hatchery and Conditioning Centre,” said the Director. “Here the ova are fertilised. The Alphas and Betas remain in incubators while the Gammas, Deltas and Epsilons are taken out after 36 hours. Each embryo is budded to create 96 identical twins. It’s one of the great instruments of social stability .
“Ah, Mr Foster,” he continued, spotting a manager of indeterminate age as it was impossible to tell how old someone was in the year After Ford of 632. “Would you explain the rest of the process?”
“The expectations of the drones are lowered by feeding them less food and training them to hate flowers and music,” Foster said. “It makes them fulfilled in their stupidity.”
“Marvellous,” said the Director, yawning.
“Then we teach them erotic play. In the days when Our Ford was still alive, children used to form abusive monogamous relationships. Long live Mustapha Mond, Resident Controller for Western Europe. To consume is to live, old is bad . . .”
“Quite so,” the Director interrupted. “If I’d wanted a thesis on eugenic dystopias and 1930s consumerism I’d have asked for it. But we’re in a novel, fool. So introduce some characters.”
“Er . . . This is Lenina.”
“You’ve been going on too many dates with Henry Foster,” Fanny told Lenina. “Too much feeling can make you unstable. Why don’t you go out with Trotsky?”
“Good Ford, no,” Lenina replied, “but I might go on holiday with Bernard Marx to the Savage Reservation. He’s a bit ugly but nothing soma can’t put right.”
Even after soma, Bernard couldn’t let himself enjoy the Orgy-Porgy of the Solidarity Circle. He felt different to everyone; he just wanted to be alone with Lenina.
“If you maintain this attitude you will be sent to Iceland,” the Director said. “Be more infantile at the Savage Reservation. I went there once with a Beta Minus girl about 25 years ago. She got lost and I never saw her again.”
Bernard remembered just what a heavy-handed piece of plotting that speech had been when he and Lenina met two Savages who were somehow different from the others.
“I may be an old crone but I was once a Beta Minus Beauty,” said Linda. “I was left for dead here by my Alpha Plus and gave birth viviparously to John.”
“To be or not to be,” John cried. “I am her son who is of Nature and have drunk deep of the forbidden mystical texts of Shakespeare and the Bible. I long to be crucified.”
“Your condition speaks to me,” Bernard replied.
Bernard was content. Women wanted to sleep with him now he was Celebrity for bringing the Savages back to London and getting the Director the sack. Tonight he would introduce John to the Arch-Community Songster.
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow I’m not coming out,” said John, suddenly springing into life after taking a back seat for 50 pages.
“Your moody silences have thrust me into raptures of lust, John,” Lenina declared, removing her zippicamiknicks.
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be I love you too but I want foreplay, you strumpet,” he shouted, before watching his mother die of old age.
“You’d better go to the Falkland Islands, Bernard,” said Mond eventually. “But what about you, John?”
“I’d like to have a dreary chat about Shakespeare, science and religion before going to live on my own in a lighthouse in Surrey.
He was tormented by visions of Lenina, visions of intimacy, and flagellated himself ceaselessly. Yet still the tourists flocked to visit. “I don’t know about you,” he cried, “but I’ve had just about enough of this book.” With that, he hung himself.
Albert Camus (1942)
Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday. Bof. Who cares? The old people’s home is 50 miles from Algiers, so I asked my boss for two days off. He didn’t seem pleased. It was very hot.
“Mrs Meursault was happy here,” the warden said. “She was bored living with you.” It was true. That’s partly why I never went to see her. And also because it was too much effort. The undertaker began to unscrew the coffin lid. I stopped him. “Don’t you want to see the body?” he asked. “No,” I answered. “Why not?” “I’m not bovvered.” “Was she old?” I shrugged. “Maybe.”
I went swimming the next day. In the water I met Marie Cordona, who used to be a typist in the office. I told her Mother had died. She wanted to know when. “Whenever.” Afterwards she came back to my place. When I woke up the next morning, Marie had gone.
On my way home from the office the next day I met my neighbour, Raymond. Locals say he lives off women. He’s always seemed fine to me. He’d been in a fight with his Moorish girlfriend’s brother. “He was upset I’d beaten her up,” he said. “But she had been deceiving me. Is that not fair?” I’d been smoking Raymond’s cigarettes so I said yes. He asked me to write her an unpleasant letter. He was pleased I agreed.
Marie and I were disturbed by dull thuds. People banged on Raymond’s door. “He hit me,” the woman said. Raymond asked me to be a witness. He told me to say she had cheated on him. I agreed and he asked if I wanted to go to a brothel. I refused as it was far too tiring.
The following week Raymond invited me to his chalet. I asked if I could bring Marie. That evening Marie asked me to marry her. “If you want,” I replied. “I ain’t really bovvered.” Did I love her? Bof. Maybe yes, maybe no. Probably not. I asked her if she wanted to eat. She said she was doing something. She looked at me. “Don’t you want to know what?” I did, but I couldn’t be bothered to ask.
The sun was very hot. I walked along the beach with Raymond and his friend, Masson. We came across his former lover’s brother sitting with a group of other Arabs. There was a fight. Masson got cut. The Arabs ran off. Later Raymond handed me his gun. I walked down the beach. I met the Arab. It was even hotter now. I shot him once. Then I shot him four times more.
“Why did you shoot him?” the magistrate asked. “It was too hot.” “Do you miss your mother?” “I’m not bovvered.” “Do you believe in God?” “I said I ain’t bovvered.”
Marie came to visit me once. “Would you have got married to anyone who asked you?” she asked. “Probably.” Apart from missing cigarettes, I quite enjoyed my time in prison.
It was very hot in court. “Did I love my mother?” “Whateva.” “Had I picked up a girl the day after the funeral?” “Whateva.” “Had I deliberately gone back to shoot the Arab?” “Whateva.” It was still hot when the guilty verdict was read out. The judge told me I would be decapitated in a public square. Did I have anything to say? “Not really,” I said. “I ain’t that bovvered.”
The chaplain begged me to hand my soul over to God. I grabbed his cassock in frustration. I’d lived in a certain way. I’d done some things and I hadn’t done others. I’d been happy. All I needed was a crowd at my execution saying they weren’t bovvered either.
Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
It has been my task to edit the pages left by “Humbert Humbert”. “Mrs Schiller” died in childbirth. In no way do I intend to glorify “HH”, though if others do so in their enthusiasm to place themselves within my orbit, I won’t complain. John Ray, PhD
Lolita. Light of my life. Lo. Li. Ta Very Much. If you wonder where my peculiar interests came from, I should have to say it started when I was 13 with Annabel Leigh, who died of typhus just as we were sur le point de la jouissance. On the issue of my pedanterosis, I should stress it is not just any old 12-year-old girl that attracts me, but only “nymphets”. And how Humbug Humbug tried to be bon.
I arrived alone in New York and joined an expedition to the Arctic. Eskimo women were too fishy, so I moved to New England to start work on a book that would never be written. Oh, the conceit, reader!
Charlotte, my landlady was a woman of unbearable drabness, with whom I would not have stayed but for her 12-year old daughter, Dolores. Dolly. Lo. L. My downy nymphet. How I mourned when she went out for fear she would be too old for me on her return. Imagine, then, how I felt when her mother declared herself in love with me. On the one main, it was normal, mais sur l’autre, it put me in an impossible situation.
Reader, I married her. I acted the mari parfait, but then Charlotte read my diary. Her rage was incandescent; I was steeling myself for righteous fury when she was knocked down by a car. I had palpated Fate. I collected L in my Humber Humber and took her to a hotel where Lolita, aux yeux battus, seduced me. “I’m a derlickwent, Dad,” she replied. I was soon bored by her tales of Sapphism but magnetised by her nymphaea. Thus began our Baedeker travels through the States. Lo. Li. Ta Ti Tum. You may sense the book entering longeurs as I recount how my pubescent concubine enjoyed sessions of gentle sodomy. But we were walking in a winter Humbertland, where critics would conflate the belles lettres of my transgression with artistic genius.
In truth, I found Lo’s obsession with comics ennuyant, but peut-etre she felt the same way about me poivring mes sentences avec Français. We argued over a school production of a Clare Quilty play and my jealousy became obsessive. Sometimes I imagined we were being followed and wondered why L didn’t abandon me. Then she did. I was told she had left hospital with her uncle and I fruitlessly tracked her kidnapper in a cryptogrammic paperchase.
For three years I sought traces of my Lolita in a boyish woman and wrote poems. Oh my Lolita/ I long to meet yer. Then I got a letter from a Mrs Schiller. “Dear Dad, I am married and having a baby. Please send money.”
Humpty Dumpty took his gun, ready to kill the man who had taken his darling. But Schiller was innocent; Lolo had conspired in her own kidnapping with Clare Quilty and had left him when he asked her to star in a pornographic movie.
In Quilty, I recognised a pentapod monster like myself and Chum the Gun and Engelbert Humperdinck staked out his house. “She was really just a bit too repressed,” Quilty drawled. I wrestled with him, shooting him 52 times before he uttered his last words. “Ooh that hurts.”
So now I sit here, wondering if I will be given the death sentence. And whether, for all its show-bateauing, this livre isn’t really a load of aurochs.
Salman Rushdie (1981)
I was born on 15 August 1947 at the stroke of midnight, the precise instant of India’s independence. I, Saleem Sinai, later called Snotface and Too Pleased With My Own Brilliance, had my destinies tied to my country. I have so many stories – too many you may think – to tell to save my myself from crumbling into dust. For I am the Arabian Knight.
My grandfather Aadam Aziz lost his faith. Blood fell from his not inconsiderable nose, solidified into rubies and I could already sense I had the critics by their post-colonial balls.
Aadam trained as a doctor and Mr Ghani asked him to examine his daughter, Naseem, through a hole in a sheet. Notice the metaphor for the partition that is to come? Ah! You do.
I see I have forgotten to explain my Padma, my chubby dung-lotus. She is the woman who will marry me. “Do I have to keep listening?” she yawns. “Of course. Otherwise my allegory of the 1001 nights is ruined.”
Aadam finally married Naseem, the Reverend Mother, and they had three daughters, Alia, Mumtaz and Emerald and two sons. The stories I could tell. And will. How Aadam hid Nadir – such an appropriate name. How Emerald fell in love with Major Zulfikar. Stories of mercurochrome and snot.
“Go on,” says Padma, painting her nails. Mumtaz changed her name to Amina and married my father Ahmed Sinai. At last; mine and India’s time has come. Tick-tock. Yet my mother was not Amina. She was Vanita, the poorest of the poor. Nurse Mary, toying with destiny, switched the babies.
I can feel myself disintegrating. “Don’t confuse yourself with the plot,” Padma replied. I inherited the enormous nose of my grandfather. I hear you say, “How can this be, if you were not Amina’s child?” You understand not the possibilities of a Salman’s leap of the imagination.
My mother refused to speak to me so I dwelt in silence and began to hear the voices of the 1001 – that number again! – children born at the same time as me. I convened a Midnight’s Children Conference across the ether with Parvati-the-Witch and my nemesis Shiva, the child with whom I was swapped.
When my parents discovered I was not their son, the future of India hung in the balance. But the Reverend Mother bade my parents love me and we moved to Pakistan to live with General Zulfikar, with whom I unwittingly planned a coup. My nose succumbed to snot; my telepathic powers replaced by a sense of smell that could sniff out bullshit.
“Except your own,” Padma pointed out.
My grandfather’s spittoon crashed on to my head at the very moment when West Pakistan went to war against the East. My memory was erased.
“So how do you know what happened next?” asked Padma.
Questions, questions. Reduced to a Buddha Dog, I roamed the jungle, quelling the independence movement. The horror. I fled to a cave and lived with Parvati-the Witch while Bangladesh rose from the ashes.
Parvati-the-Witch fell pregnant with Shiva’s child. My nose twitched with the stench of Indira Gandhi’s corruption as her gladiator, Shiva, slew Parvati-the-Witch and herded me into the vasectomy camp. The Midnight’s Children had been neutered; the magic destroyed.
India was in a pickle. With a heavy heart and an even more heavy-handed metaphor, I, Saleem, went to work in a pickle factory. There, Vishnu, I met you, Padma. My story is at an end, trampled by the whirlpool of the multitudes to come. “Not a moment too soon,” said Padma.
Brideshead Abbreviated: The Digested Read of the 20th Century by John Crace is published by Random House (rrp £12.99). To order a copy for £9.99, including free UK mainland p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 68467