Monday, July 14, 2014

The 10 best novels of the 1940s

New York Post critic Kyle Smith’s series over at PJ Media on the best films of the decades has been entertaining to follow, especially when you disagree with the choices. Smith’s latest, an inventory of the best films of the ’forties from Double Indemnity (#10) to Citizen Kane (#1), got me to thinking. What are the best novels of the ’forties?—a decade that lies just outside my critical expertise. What follows is a preliminary listing: not a ranked order, but a chronological one.


Richard Wright, Native Son (1940). Not only the classic fictional treatment of race relations in America, but a novel that is more compelling for its very contradictions. The ’forties were a great decade for discursive fiction—novels that discuss ideas which are embodied in men’s obligations and commitments—and Wright’s was one of the decade’s great examples.


Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children (1940). More recently praised by the novelists Jane Smiley and Jonathan Franzen, Stead’s novel owes its fame to the 1965 reprint edition with an introduction by Randall Jarrell, who called it “one of those books that their own age neither reads nor praises, but that the next age thinks is a masterpiece.” It remained neglected in Stead’s native Australia until 2010, when it was finally reprinted with an introduction by the more fashionable Franzen instead of the more distinguished Jarrell.


Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1941). The classic fictional treatment of Moscow show trials and one of the great works of anti-Communism. A member of the German Communist Party for seven years, Koestler wrote the novel in Paris while his lover Daphne Hardy translated it into English. She smuggled her translation out of Paris just ahead of the Nazis and published it in England in 1941. It was not released in Germany until 1948.


Janet Lewis, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941). If I were going to rank these books in order of greatness, Lewis’s novel, only slightly longer than a novella, would be my first choice. I have written about it elsewhere. The Wife of Martin Guerre is the perfect historical novel. Lewis understands Bertrande de Rols, her heroine, wholly in the customs and conventions of 16th-century provincial France. Unlike later retellers of Martin Guerre’s story, she does not permit modern values to stain her closely woven fabric.


Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisted (1945). In my recent Books & Culture essay on the young Catholic novelists William Giraldi and Christopher Beha, I said that the “greatest religious novels are written out of a religious discernment much the same way that surrealistic poetry is written out of a particular vision of reality: it soaks the work from top to bottom.” Brideshead Revisted is the model for this approach. The account of Charles Ryder’s conversion to Catholicism is so subtle that many readers fail to notice that it is happening.


Ivo Andrić, The Bridge on the Drina (Serbo-Croatian, 1945; English, 1959). Anyone still interested in the former Yugoslavia must read two books—Rebecca West’s magisterial two-volume travel book Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941) and the masterpiece of Serbian literature, published four years later. Compared to One Hundred Years of Solitude for its multi-generational sweep, Andrić’s novel is a hundred pages shorter, scrupulously avoids the magic in magical realism, and might be more accurately described as The Painted Bird with a conscience.


Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (1946). The ’forties were a decade for political fiction, but none of the decade’s political novels is like any of the others. One of America’s greatest poets, Warren wrote a lyrical account of an American populist demagogue modeled upon Huey Long (and played by Broderick Crawford in Robert Rossen’s 1949 film version). The novel is narrated by an onlooker whose own corruption is restrained by his prose style, which is Warren’s promise of something better in the American polis.


Hans Fallada, Every Man Dies Alone (German, 1947; English, 2009). One of the decade’s best novels had to wait sixty years for an English translation. In the New York Times, Liesl Schillinger called its long deferred publication in English the “signal literary event of 2009.” A harrowing account of two German anti-Nazi resistance fighters, based on the actual experiences of Otto and Elise Hampel (pictured above), Fallada’s long 500-page novel is as exciting as anything by Eric Ambler or Alan Furst, with the added dimension of a powerful vision of human freedom.


Albert Camus, The Plague (French, 1947; English, 1948). While The Stranger seems a product of its time (and confined to it), The Plague remains as fresh as any of Amazon’s recommendations for this month. Marina Warner has testified to how much more she saw in the novel when she read it again years later than when she first read it as a young ’sixties woman, basking in “existential disaffection.” If you think you already know this novel, reread it and think again. What never molds is the purity of Camus’s style.


George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Perhaps the most obvious book to include on this list. With the rise of a new style of totalitarianism in our time to rival Nazism and Communism, Nineteen Eighty-Four remains timely—even thirty years after the dystopic future in which it was set. Readers who are more animalistically political than I will never tire of Emmanuel Goldstein’s “Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism.” But I, I will need free my mind of Winston Smith’s greatest horror, which finally breaks him down into helpless love for Big Brother.

Honorable mention: William Faulkner, The Hamlet (1940); Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941); Joyce Cary, The Horse’s Mouth (1944); Saul Bellow, Dangling Man (1944); Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus (German, 1947; English, 1948); Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano (1947); James Gould Cozzens, Guard of Honor (1948); Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter (1948).

Reader recommendations: Eric Ambler, Journey into Fear (1940); Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940); Rex Warner, The Aerodrome (1941); Wright Morris, My Uncle Dudley (1942); Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (German, 1943; English, 1949); Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers (German, 1943; English, 1948); Jean Stafford, Boston Adventure (1944); L. P. Hartley, Eustace and Hilda (1944–1947); Henry Green, Loving (1945); William Maxwell, The Folded Leaf (1945); R. K. Narayan, The English Teacher (1945); Eudora Welty, Delta Wedding (1946); Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (1946); J. F. Powers, Prince of Darkness (stories, 1947); Yasunari Kawabata, Snow Country (Japanese, 1948; English, 1956); Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm (1949).

13 comments:

RT said...

I wonder if anyone has taken a look at novels written during years of war versus those written during years of peace. Do thematic and stylistic singularities dominate certain years? In any case, as always when you offer such lists, I enjoy reading your comments.

RT said...

Postscript: And your postings of lists seem to come when I am "stuck between books" (which is a phrase you once used), so now I had my "syllabus" for my upcoming reading. Thank you, good sir.

Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Having read almost no novels from the 1940s - about 20, including just five of the above - I will nevertheless suggest putting Delta Wedding, Loving, and Titus Groan in there somewhere.

Fred said...

I am surprised to find that I have read seven of the ten. Normally I find myself staring at such lists in dismay, wondering what I have wasted my time at instead of reading the the X best of X. I've even read two the honorable mentions.

BMC said...

Your listicle includes a couple of foreign language titles I hadn't heard of before - thanks. One 1940 book that certainly deserves a place in your list is The Master and Margarita, completed in 1940. It is an imaginative escape from a very dark place. The 40's had this distraction placed right at the beginning that kept people from dwelling on literary matters for several years. (Wasn't it Joyce who resented all the attention that the war got?) I wonder how different things would have been for literature if we'd just been allowed to drift on through the 40's in economic depression? It's probable nothing good would have come of it.

scott g.f.bailey said...

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, 1940.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Also Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, 1948.

editor said...

Excellent choices, reflecting more consideration that one usually sees in "best novel of ..." lists. Although I'd probably bump "All the King's Men" in favor of "Guard of Honor." Warren's prose didn't age well when I reread the book--the lyricism goes overboard and distracts from the politics. "Guard of Honor," on the other hand, gets better with age. I've yet to find another novel its equal at portraying the dramas that get created in the somewhat artificial environment of a workplace.

Anonymous said...

I loved The Bridge on the Drina. Elected to read it during a college course on World Literature where we were allowed to read a ton of books from a region of our choice. I was 22 when I read it and was struck by how much "truth" I found in this book. It seemed really concerned with truth, which seemed new to me at the time. Beautiful, and I still think about it now and then.

Frank Gibbons said...

I would like to suggest "Doctor Faustus" by Thomas Mann. A dazzling tour de force if I may use a cliche. I have to admit, though, that the sections on music theory are a pretty tough haul.

The Untranslated said...

Six out of ten by English-speaking authors. A bit too anglocentric. I'd add "The Invention of Morel".

humblehappiness said...

This post is a great idea well executed. Let me add:
Graham Greene: The Heart of the Matter
Alejo Carpentier: The Kingdom of this World
Naguib Mahfouz: Midaq Alley
Dino Buzzati: The Tartar Steppe
Erns Junger: Heliopolis
Hermann Broch: The Death of Virgil
Robert Musil: The Man without Qualities (the final part of the book was published posthumously in 1943 by Musil's widow)
Jean Genet: Our Lady of the Flowers
Boris Vian: Froth on the Daydream
Antoine de Saint-Exupery: The Little Prince

roger said...

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles tops my list of 1940s novels