A Little Greatness, Every Week

The editors at the Sueddeutsche Zeitung cobbled together a list of 50 great novels of the 20th century. With postwar German modesty, they don’t claim that it’s exhaustive, definitive or representative. Just 50. And great.

The newspaper’s publishing house has been bringing one out every week since mid-March, and they’ll finish the run next February. (By the way, if anyone among our readers can tell me how they make the economics work at EUR 4.90 for each hardback book, I’m keen to hear more.) They’ve used some wit in the schedule – their Joyce choice published the week of Bloomsday, the last selection, for deepest February, will be If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveller…

I see the edition’s distinctive design all over town. With only fourteen issued so far, it’s still possible to tell almost at a glance which book someone is reading. The Hotel New Hampshire? The Name of the Rose? The Unbearable Lightness of Being?

And they’re conversation starters, too. I was reading Voices of Marrakesh, by Elias Canetti, and my doctor’s receptionist remarked that she had just gotten as far as the camels. I had it out at lunch a few days later, and another person at the cafe said it was quite a good book, wasn’t it. Unfortunately, he was leaving, so that was as far as we got, but I imagine many more, fuller, discussions taking place across town, and beyond.

I hadn’t read Canetti before, but had bumped into him in Peter Conradi’s biography of Iris Murdoch. Reading German is enough of an effort that I prefer short books, and Voices of Marrakesh is helpful here. It’s also apparently simple, a series of sketches of the city from Canetti’s stay while vaguely attached to a film company. The sketches start short, and outside the city’s gates. Each grows a little longer and moves to the heart of the city. One of the longest passages concerns a visit to the Jewish cemetery where none of the gravestones remained standing.

But in this desert cemetery for Jews there was nothing. It is the unvarnished truth, a moonscape of death. The beholder does not care in the least who lies where. He does not stoop to look, and he does not try to solve the riddle. They are all there like rubble, and one wants to scurry away like a jackal. It is a desert of the dead, where nothing ever grows, the last, the ultimate desert.

Camus came to mind, but a Camus in which the plague does not recede. Gradually, Canetti works his way back out, the sketches shortening again, echoing the first pieces in subject but refracted by his experiences in the heart of the labyrinth.

A great novel, and one I would not have read without the Sueddeutsche‘s list. I’ve been similarly pleased with Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story, which became a movie you’ve heard of, and Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser.

The list is full of books like these, not the heavyweights you would expect from the 50 greatest novels of the 20th century, but the delights you can find when you’re just looking for 50 great novels. Thus the Joyce choice is not Ulysses but Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Steinbeck is not here with Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden, but with Tortilla Flat; Gunther Grass with Cat and Mouse instead of The Tin Drum.

This approach doesn’t always pay off. Kafka’s Amerika is not just unfinished, it’s also not nearly as good as either The Castle or The Trial. I don’t know enough about Faulkner to say for sure, but Sanctuary is just as likely to be an off choice as a quirky one.

The list as a whole is both objectively interesting, and interestingly objectionable. I don’t think such an exercise would be any fun at all if it didn’t produce objections, and mine are more about omissions than anything else.

First, though, the things I like: It leans heavily on writers whose mother tongue is German. That is as it should be; Le Monde‘s list would be different, so would the Asahi Shimbun‘s. Eclecticism beat out snobbery – among English writeres, Patricia Highsmith and John Irving rub shoulders with E.M. Forster and James Joyce. There’s a slight bias to shorter works.

Some things I missed: Asia. Africa. Anything even remotely science fiction or fantasy – surely Stanislaw Lem has enough literary credibility, even if the editors haven’t heard of John Crowley. (And except for its length, Little, Big would have been perfect for the list: surprising, beautifully written, great.) Berlin Alexanderplatz.

Here’s the whole list, for comment and edification. (Not all of the titles may match exactly, as in some cases I’m translating into English the German title of a work originally written in a third language…) This is alphabetical order, not order of publication.

Paul Auster – City of Glass
Jurek Becker – Bronstein’s Children
Thomas Bernhard – The Loser
Italo Calvino – If on a Winter Night a Traveller…
Elias Canetti – Voices of Marrakesh
Bruce Chatwin – The Dreamlines Songlines
Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness
Julio Cortazar – The Persecutor Pursuer
Marguerite Duras – The Lover
Friedrich Durrenmatt – The Judge and His Executioner
Umberto Eco – The Name of the Rose
William Faulkner – Sanctuary
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
E.M. Forster – Howard’s End
Max Frisch – My Name Was Gantenbein
Gunter Grass – Cat and Mouse
Julien Green – Leviathan
Graham Greene – The Third Man
Peter Handke – The Keeper’s Fear of the Penalty Shot
Herman Hesse – Under the Wheel
Patricia Highsmith – The Talented Mr Ripley
Peter Hoeg – Smilla’s Sense of Snow
John Irving – The Hotel New Hampshire
Uwe Johnson – Speculations about Jacob
James Joyce – A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Franz Kafka – Amerika
Eduard von Keyserling – Waves
Wolfgang Koeppen – The Greenhouse
Milan Kundera – The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Siegfried Lenz – German Hour
Primo Levi – The Periodic Table
Somerset Maugham – The Magician
Carson McCullers – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Ian McEwan – The Cement Garden
Harry Mulisch – The Assassination Assault
Cees Nooteboom – All Souls All Souls Day
Michael Ondaatje – The English Patient
Juan Carlos Onetti – The Short Life
Marcel Proust – Swann’s Way
Rainer Maria Rilke – The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
Arthur Schnitzler – Dream Story
Jorge Semprun – What a Beautiful Sunday!
Georges Simenon – The Man Who Watched Trains Go By
Clade Simon – The Acacia
John Steinbeck – Tortilla Flat
Botho Strauss – Couples, Passers
Andrzej Szczypiorski – The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenmann
Martin Walser – Marriages in Philippsburg
Oscar Wilde – The Picture of Dorian Gray
Marguerite Yourcenar – Coup de Grace

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About Doug Merrill

Freelance journalist based in Tbilisi, following stints in Atlanta, Budapest, Munich, Warsaw and Washington. Worked for a German think tank, discovered it was incompatible with repaying US student loans. Spent two years in financial markets. Bicycled from Vilnius to Tallinn. Climbed highest mountains in two Alpine countries (the easy ones, though). American center-left, with strong yellow dog tendencies. Arrived in the Caucasus two weeks before its latest war.

9 thoughts on “A Little Greatness, Every Week

  1. That was interesting. There were a lot of authors there I’ve never heard of. I suppose it would have helped if I spoke German. Thanks for the post!

  2. Yeah, I would’ve definitely expected at least one Heinlein or Bradbury book, if not Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. Especially since most English nuts tend to refuse to admit that Bradbury is science fiction. I don’t know anything about German science fiction or fantasy to mention an author from there – or did it never get a very strong hold in Germany? which might help explain its abscense.

  3. Very interesting and valuable as a list – but the only books that are valuable themselves are those originally written in German. You *don’t* read a work of literature in translation if you can possibly help it – i.e. if you can read it in the language it was written in – because if you do, in effect you’re reading another work entirely, and not the one the author originally wished to present. Clearly this is true for poetry – in fact, poems in translation are not the original pieces of art themselves, but rather entirely new pieces of art – but it’s also true for prose.

    You Faulkner and Joyce connoisseurs out there, consider what I mean – consider accepting this S?ddeutsche Zeitung publishing project at face value and actually bothering to read either “Sanctuary” or “Portrait of the Artist” in German! The very thought! It’s not just what the author says, but how he says it, meaning the language, diction, syntax, etc. that he uses. I use these two just as extreme examples to illustrate the point, but there’s no doubt the principle applies to all serious literary authors. Clearly, then, the Faulkner-auf-deutsch exercise is only for those German-speakers who haven’t learned to read English. Otherwise, it’s a waste of paper and time – reach for your original English-language editions instead, whoever may have been the publisher. The newspaper’s editors therefore might have considered sharpening their focus, sharpening the value-added that they really can provide, by restricting this book series to German literature only.

  4. I so disagree with you on Kafka. Amerika is his best novel, and maybe the best novel I’ve read at all. Yes, it’s immature, incomplete and fragmentary, and maybe if it had been finished it would be worse. What is the greatness in Kafka’s writing? [Nice question for a blog comment to answer] The illustration of the simultaneity of the conventional/familiar with the abyss. For me, in Amerika Kafka is more hesitant and transparent, and therefore more touching, in approaching his horrifying topic than in the two impenetrateable ‘big’ novels.

  5. MAO, I’m not sure that I can dismiss the translator’s art so completely, or be so certain about something as slippery as “author’s original intent.”

    Georg, it’s been dog’s ages since I read the three Kafka novels. The first time I was in Prague, I tried to get from the river to the castle without a map. After some considerable time failing to get very high up on the hill, I thought Kafka was more of a realist than people give him credit for. With Amerika, I thought he was grasping at postcards, rather than describing convincingly. Also the other title – The Vanished – isn’t quite as menacing in this context. The protagonist may very well have just joined the circus.

  6. Russkie, yeah, I thought that was odd, too. Maybe they’re figuring everyone has already read Thomas Mann? And I can see not wanting to put Magic Mountain into a book-a-week reading program, but surely Death in Venice or Tonio Kr?ger is up to these standards. Or maybe they were courting controversy.

  7. why do you speak without listing a series of children’s classics? Surely Ernest Hemmingway is a great author. Did you know that Juan Carlos Onetti was once the editor of Marcha, in Uruguay.

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