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).