TOP 10 NOVELS
- Anna Karenin. Leo Tolstoy: (1874-6) (Trans. Rosemary Edmonds 1954)
Extraordinarily powerful account of the doomed love affair between the married Anna Karenin and the playboy aristocratic soldier Vronski played off against the innocence and humility of the courtship, marriage and family of Levin and Kitty and the troubled and forgiving relationship between Stiva and Dolly Oblonsky. This lengthy novel had me spellbound when I read it in 1967 and I have read it twice since as well as enjoying several film versions
2. Voss. Patrick White (1957) Although I much enjoyed Tree of Man this account of a fictional explorer challenging the vast spaces of an Australian outback unknown to white Australians is gruelling, heroic, intense and enthralling. Inspired by the story of Ludwig Leichhardt who died in the Australian desert in 1849 I remember being exhausted by the narrative but totally captivated and unable to put it down. Both of these novels gave me a life-long love for the writing of Patrick White.
3. Women in Love. (1913-1917) D H Lawrence. I read and badly misunderstood The Rainbow in my first year at Melbourne University as a relatively immature student in the English Faculty. I could not understand a thing about the writing. Reading Women in Love in my 40s i was stunned by Lawrence’s sensitivity to male/female emotions, interactions, misunderstandings and love making. The sophistication, clarity and deep emotion of this writing I will never forget.
4. The Ancestor Game. (1993) Alex Miller. Alex Miller is my Number 1 modern Australian/English/writer although Geraldine Brooks runs a close second. This complex three generation account of a set of Chinese and Australian relationships mesmerised me and I have now read this novel twice. The use of works of art as a thread and the contrast between the wondrously and fragilely delineated ancient China and the rather less entrancing modern China as well as the very familiar Australian teaching background and locations held me enthralled. Alex Miller’s Autumn Laing, loosely based around Sydney Nolan’s life also captivated me as it will anyone who has spent time at Heidi in Bulleen Victoria. In fact Alex Miller has not written a novel I haven’t devoured with deep pleasure.
5. Ulysses. (1922 text edited with an introduction and notes by Jeri Johnson). James Joyce. Joyce’s account of one day in the Dublin love life of Leopold Bloom and the intellectualising thought life of Stephen Dedalus was a text I deliberately left until I was in my fifties and had spent a few days wandering around in Dublin, drinking my first guiness and visiting the Joyce museum there. I also did not read it until I found an excellent Oxford notated edition with over 200 pages of carefully edited explanatory notes! The sheer genius and breadth of Joyce’s vast (over 500 on my count) literary associations, the Shakespearian authorship debate subplot, the Biblical/Hindu/buddhist/Jewish interactions, the philosophic/poetic/literary duels and even the Madame Blavastki spiritualism adventures are all rich sauce on a story of a delightful and thought provoking day in Ireland. A tough day at the office but an unforgettable experience. (I don’t think I could do it again!)
6. All the Light We Cannot See. (2014) Anthony Doer. I am not much of a fan of war novels as a rule but this complex and beautifully written World War 2 fictional story set in France involving a young blind girl and her museum curator father and a young German lad growing up and enlisting under Hitler is spell-binding. In the short time since its publication I have met so many people who talk about this book as one they cannot forget. This novel grips you by the throat and does not let you go until the very end, then stays in your mind as a heart-warming and redeeming experience emerging from the most atrocious horror of war.
7. Middlemarch. (1871-2) George Eliot. This is again a novel I have read twice and watched as a movie. Maybe it is because I see something of myself in the desiccated scholar and pedant Casaubon and his creative, luminous and deeply understanding wife Dorothea that I enjoy this novel so much. The ultimately doomed Dr Lydgate and his spendthrift wife Rosamond is a wonderful subplot but above all this is a deeply thoughtful novel which engages both emotion and mind to a very significant depth indeed. This is a book that adds something to the texture of a reader’s life forever.
8. Wolf Hall. (2010) Hilary Mantel. I have to put this novel into my top ten because for the first time in my life I simply could not stop turning the pages of this novel. It is the ultimate page turner. We were in Canberra with a big day ahead but I stayed up I think until 3.00am reading this beautifully written factional account of the life and influence of Thomas Cromwell during the early years of the Protestant reforms begun by Henry VIII’s all consuming desire for a divorce from his Catholic wife Catherine of Aragon. Mantel is a fine historian but more so a fiendishly clever novelists who traps readers into personal relationships with her characters to the extent that we simply have to keep reading to find out what happens to them. A not before time? reassessment of the role of Thomas More during the frantic years of the English Reformation. I consider the sequel Bring Up the Bodies as part 11 of the same novel and equally fine.
9. Wuthering Heights. (1847) Emily Brontë I took this novel which I regarded at university as the greatest love story of all time on my honeymoon and did not get very far reading it to my wife! We left it under the bed and remarkably a mate of mine from Melbourne University hired the same holiday unit, found the book with my name in it (what was he doing under the bed?) and returned it to me! I still think the spiritual and physical bond between Heathcliff and Catherine which overcame physical death is the ultimate statement of passionate love. I have since visited the beautiful village of Haworth with its vicarage high on a hill and right next door to the parish graveyard…fertile ground for deep emotional writing. I am still moved by this novel and I think I would be a different person if I had not read it.
10. The Songlines. (1987) Bruce Chatwin The enigmatic Bruce Chatwin has made more sense of indigenous Australian culture for me than anything else I have ever read. The unique nomadic relationship Aboriginal communities and individuals have had with the landscape of the great South Land is complex and spiritually alien to white Australians. This beautifully written tale of actual encounters with real people, complex notebook gleanings from cultures all around the world and all periods of history. Chatwin’s creativity and research has left an indelible mark on me. (His novel On the Black Hill is also a thoughtful and powerful read!)