Books of the century

<strong>Malcolm Bradbury</strong>, <strong>Martyn Bedford</strong>, <strong>Gillian Beer</strong>, <

Malcolm Bradbury on Saul Bellow's The Victim

Sometime at the beginning of the 1950s, when I was starting to write, and also beginning to haunt the second-hand bookshops of Charing Cross Road, I came across a copy of a novel by a new American writer I had no more than faintly heard of. The book had been published in Britain in 1948 by John Lehmann, editor of Penguin New Writing, who had his own small imprint, mostly of European titles. The dust jacket, by Edward Bawden, describes the book as "the second novel by the young American author of Dangling Man", and celebrates it as "an altogether more ambitious and compelling work, a drama of human relationships, of guilt and punishment, which establishes Saul Bellow as one of the most talented novelists writing in English today". Though this sounded hopeful, the copy I bought had - it seemed from its appearance - already been remaindered.

I knew of Bellow only through stories and reviews in various American literary periodicals - Partisan Review, Kenyon and so on - that circulated in postwar austerity Britain with a heavy subsidy from the Ford Foundation (and, as it now turns out, the newly fledged CIA). Like most writers trying to emerge in the postwar generation, I was growing up in a society decisively shaped by the global power and the cultural force of superpower America. I was engaged with American books and magazines, as friends were with American jazz or film. My reading and my writing had been much affected; from adolescence I was reading American moderns - Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Steinbeck - along with native heroes like Lawrence, Orwell, Forster and Waugh.

Bellow, though, was the first to strike me as a genuine contemporary; and The Victim still seems to me the most memorable book I ever read. That has everything to do with the time when I read it: a time when British and European fiction was in postwar crisis, American literature in the process of becoming world literature - and when I, as a hopeful writer, was hungry for literary guides whose work sang with a postwar voice and a flavour of contemporary moral truth. Bellow's book, the first by him I had read, felt like the voice of a new American generation, and was flavoured with a new kind of conscience. These were bitter, morally troubled years, a post-Auschwitz era of existentialism, angst and alienation. It was the intimate attentiveness of the new Jewish-American writers to this crisis, their feelings of the perils of humanism, that made their work important.

The Victim tells a simple anxious story. Asa Leventhal, Jewish, ill-tempered, serious and insecure in his economic and ethnic position in America's tumultuous social order, is a lonely man in a New York sweltering in summer heat. He has a bitter sense of society, as an endless rising and falling, a scene of victimisation, an indifferent Darwinian struggle in a crowded mass. Whatever you wanted, a hundred million others were after too. "Who wants all these people to be here, especially for ever?" he reflects, considering the endless competing hordes of the living and the dead, "Where're you going to put them all? Who has any usefor them all?" No one knows his proper place, no promises have been made in advance.

When, in an explosion of temper brought on by his own sense of victimisation, Leventhal indirectly causes an office colleague, emblematically called Allbee, to lose his job, the crisis comes. Allbee appears, confusingly, from the crowd to confront him, demanding he take responsibility. Leventhal sees no social or moral connection between them. Allbee is a Gentile, and has always had all the favours and natural advantages; the Jew is generally the victim. Allbee challenges Leventhal's Jewishness, and his key ideas of justice and deserved or undeserved suffering.

To Leventhal, Allbee becomes an unwanted, threatening and eventually even dangerous double, his grossness and intrusive insistence unforgivable. When Leventhal gives ground, Allbee takes advantage, and nearly ends up killing both of them. Yet by the end, aided by the sense of a Jewish friend, Leventhal does come to a wider notion of responsibility, the common duty, the nature of what it means to be human. His determinism is nihilism; and his duty towards Allbee goes at least as far as commonly sharing the obscure intricacy of life, the universality of death, and a need to nourish the human in the world of mechanical competition.

In Britain, The Victim disappeared more or less without a trace. When Bellow's next novel, the epic, picaresque Adventures of Augie March, appeared in 1953, it was widely seen as a first novel. His style had changed and acquired a glorious, often comic largeness; by 1976, following book-jacket prophecies, he became the first postwar American to win the Nobel prize. By now he had quietly half-repudiated his first two novels - Dangling Man (1944) and then The Victim - as apprentice work, written in a closed style and limited space.

The Victim is an enclosed book, like a long Dostoevsky story. But it is a work of moral vision, illuminated by one of Bellow's most important powers: a vividness of prose that brings alive suffering human characters and the moral life of humanity: for, as Schlossberg says, it is our task to seek and observe in life an understanding not of what is more or less than human, but what is human exactly. That is the prose, vernacular, playful, fresh, yet securely intellectual, that has drawn many other British writers - Martin Amis included - to Bellow, and made him one of the great influences on the temper of modern fiction. I found him early; it was a key moment in my life as a person and a writer.

Martyn Bedford on Jack Kerouac's On the Road

The bloke wore a Godspell T-shirt and purple jeans, his hair fixed in a ponytail. Australian. I don't recall his name or what we talked about in the parched hours at the roadside, although I have a sense - an atmosphere - of the conversation's philosophical intensity. One of those backpacker dialogues that seems at the time to distil some essence of the human condition but which, in fact, is mostly bollocks. I was 24, four months into a 13-month round-the-world trip; I'd been reading Kerouac, had a copy of On the Road in my pack, and found myself hitch-hiking alongside a stranger who, for a Jesus freak, did a cool line in Buddhist detachment. I felt an epiphany coming on.

We were in Queensland, on a shadeless stretch of road where oncoming cars liquefied in the heat shimmer. Traffic was light and by late afternoon we'd had only two short lifts. This fetched us up in a place called Tully. By nightfall we were still there. We had no tents, there was no accommodation to be found, no buses, trains, or cash for a taxi. Around nine, a car pulled up with four young guys inside, one of them leaning out the window to invite us to a party. The Aussie asked if we could crash there afterwards. They said: "Yeah, sure, jump in." He looked at me. I shook my head. I was thinking: robbery, violence, rape, and being flown back to England in a bodybag. So I stayed put and my hitching mate went with them.

I know what Kerouac would have done. He would have gone to the party. He would have thought: booze, bop, girls. He would have said yes, yes, yes. I felt like a coward, an impostor. There I was reading his book, wowing at his lifestyle - trying to imitate it in my travels and in my introspective journals that one day, I was sure, would form the raw material of my own hip fiction. In my wallet I had a fold of paper containing this quotation: "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn . . ." (Jack Kerouac, On the Road). And yet a truly Beat, Kerouacian moment had come my way and I'd passed.

I am 40 now and haven't hitch-hiked in a decade. I no longer aspire to be Jack Kerouac - dead at 47 with a liver the size and texture of a bicycle saddle. I no longer wish to write like him, although even now I find the ghosts of his prose haunting mine: long chains of words strung together by ands and buts and tumbling over one another pell-mell in a race to the end of one crazy rollercoaster sentence; a weakness for luminescent imagery that, when analysed, means sweet zip, and for incoherent, inconsistent metaphysics. I read On the Road again this week, for a fourth time, alienated by its objectification of women, its deifying of the voracious, selfish lunatic Neal Cassady, alias Dean Moriarty. Reading it in my teens and twenties, all I saw was the seductive advocacy of freedom without responsibility, and of the reckless and heroic - hero-worshipping - pursuit of adventure.

I have discovered better books and greater writers since then, but for all his flaws Kerouac was, and remains, my inspiration. I travelled because of him, I wrote because of him. He was the first author to make me see that literature, and life, require energy as well as sophistication if they are to be endurable. Reflecting on that night in Queensland, I retain a residue of disappointment in myself. Alone, I made for the railway station at Tully, intending to sleep in the waiting room. Just before midnight, a freight train pulled in - a dozen skip wagons coupled with an empty, unlit guard's van. There was no one about and the van door was unlocked, so I climbed aboard. By morning, I was 200 kilometres further south, in a goods yard in Townsville - stiff, filthy and ravenous, wondering if I'd missed the party of my life.

Martyn Bedford's most recent novel is "The Houdini Girl"

Gillian Beer on Sylvia Townsend Warner's Mr Fortune's Maggot

Sylvia Townsend Warner had a way of inventing fiction 50 years early. Had Mr Fortune's Maggot appeared in the late 1970s instead of 1928 it might be made to fall in line as a post-colonialist text or an example of queer theory. This story of a missionary coming to a Pacific island to convert its people and himself undergoing conversion of a sort through his love for his single convert, the boy Lueli, could be satisfyingly vengeful or satisfactorily sentimental. It is neither. Instead, it is droll and catastrophic at once.

Townsend Warner writes with serene and implacable humour about the fortunes of her timid hero, Timothy Fortune. Mr Fortune at first believes himself to be the bearer of good news for the islanders. Then he hopes he can become at one with them. Both hopes founder. At the end of the book he leaves the apparently timeless island to enter the time zone of the first world war, harassed by salacious gossip of disaster from the missionary who comes to pick him up.

Mr Fortune believes the best. And on the island of Fanua perhaps he encounters it. He is warned that the islanders have no word for chastity or gratitude. He learns to live without such words and to feel joy. But whereas Lueli is blithe, Mr Fortune is anxious, seeking ways to bind Lueli chastely to God and so to himself. Then Mr Fortune comes not to believe in God. "It had all happened quite quietly, just like that. Once he put out his hand as though to arrest something that was floating away out of reach, but in a moment it dropped again. And there it was before him, resting on his knees, the hand of a man who didn't any longer believe in a God." The calm of this realisation releases and crushes: "Forever is a word that stretches backward too, he explained to himself." What might be written as crisis is written here more as mathematics, what she calls "thoughts in just intonation". For Townsend Warner, the body and music are both transporting. Mr Fortune loves Lueli's beauty and she writes that love. Her writing is full of the melodic skills she learnt in her first career as a musicologist, working on Tudor composers. It allows her rhythmically to evoke the speaking voice, so that the humdrum and the exotic can lie close alongside. Her sentences move like talk between intimates. Perhaps that is why this quizzical tale is so intensely moving.

It is also very funny. As it goes along, it catches up into itself vestiges of utopias and idyllic island stories and gravely watches their absurd collapse. Mr Fortune is often bored and irritable. The islanders are resilient, and incalculable to him. Lueli is pleased with himself. The book includes an earthquake, an apparent drowning, the destruction and making of idols, a good deal of fun about Crusoe and Paul et Virginie, and an implacable concentration on the vagaries of emotion, nicely notated without emphasis. Townsend Warner is the mistress of the "and" - that permissive connective that refuses hierarchy, stretches connection, and unsteadies proper attachment.

Breaking all the rules about genre and authorial detachment Townsend Warner adds an "Envoy", which reads: "My poor Timothy, good-bye! I do not know what will become of you." The loneliness of the writer and the disappointment of the hero have produced extreme pleasure for the reader; this rupturing cry addresses us, and accuses us, too. Like Timothy Fortune, the reader is a "single spy" bearing 20th-century misfortune to the islanders, misfortune that will come - has come - since the book ended.

Professor Gillian Beer was chairman of the 1997 Booker judges

John Gray on Georges Simenon

It goes against the grain to believe that anyone who published nearly 400 books could be among the 20th century's most important writers. When it is added that, like his other books, each of his masterpieces was written in a couple of weeks, incredulity turns into disbelief. Works of genius cannot be produced - so we like to think - with the methods of a hack. If we are then told that the writer in question is best known for his crime fiction, no more needs to be said. It is impossible that he should have been the author of some of the century's greatest novels.

Yet in the case of Georges Simenon, the impossible is true. In his lifetime, the creator of Maigret was recognised as the author of some of the best psychological novels ever written. Andre Gide described him as "the greatest of all, the most genuine novelist we have had in literature". Gide may have exaggerated, but he was not mistaken. The best among Simenon's romans durs - the "hard books" whose subject is the dissection of character rather than the detection of crime - belong with the few dozen novels that have defined the human condition in the 20th century.

Simenon's masterpieces have only one theme. Ordinary people are unsettled - by accident, impulse or boredom - and in what follows, their lives become illegible to them. In Monsieur Monde Vanishes, a wealthy man suddenly decides to disappear. He is married, not unhappily but without feeling. He envies those who live on the fringes of society. Life in the demi-monde seems to have a freedom and intensity he lacks. So one day, without warning, M Monde takes the train to Marseilles and begins a new life. He picks up a girl through whom he gets a job in a nightclub. He feels that, perhaps for the first time, he has tasted life. The colours and smells of his new existence delight him. But the people he meets, living outside respectable society, are not free. They are trapped by circumstance, just as he had been - but they have less money.

M Monde's new life ends as abruptly as it began. His wife walks into the nightclub, and he finds she has become a morphine addict. He takes her back to Paris, arranges for her to be given treatment, and returns home, a man "who had laid all ghosts, who had lost all shadows, and who looked you in the eyes with cold serenity".

Monsieur Monde Vanishes has all the features that mark out Simenon's best work. It is a psychological novel with very little psychology in it. M Monde's moods and motives are rarely described and never analysed. They are shown in what he does and in his responses to the details of his surroundings. In that it deals with someone who "for a long time had endured man's estate without being conscious of it, as others endure an illness of which they are unaware". It is also a metaphysical novel. Yet Simenon does not describe the search for meaning in the terms of religion or morality. Instead, he gives the reader a series of precise and sensuous vignettes of M Monde's everyday existence, which leave it looking new and unfamiliar. Few writers have conveyed so well the mysteriousness of ordinary life.

Simenon's view of life is definitively post-religious. He has nothing in common with Albert Camus or Graham Greene, half-believers or Christians manques, whose work is haunted by themes of guilt and redemption. He refuses to put any religious or moral gloss on the lives of his characters. One of his loveliest and most desolate tales, The Man with the Little Dog, is the diary of a once successful man, now ruined and a virtual recluse. Alone except for his dog, he works as an assistant in a bookshop. In his diary he recounts the events that brought him to his present circumstances, and records without emotion his decision to end his life. By the end of the book he has decided to close his diary and go on living. A postscript tells us that a few weeks later he was killed in a traffic accident while walking his dog. Simenon seems to be saying: this is human life; there is nothing hidden.

There are few heroes in Simenon's novels. The most celebrated of his romans durs, The Stain in the Snow, concerns a collaborator in an occupied country, a thief who acts as an informer and kills for pleasure. He is one of Simenon's most sordid characters, but when he too is arrested and interrogated he accepts torture and execution rather than answer questions. He does this not out of any moral feeling, but from a peculiar sense of pride. Written and published in the late 1940s, The Stain in the Snow is perhaps the supreme example of a 20th-century novel that looks, without pathos or false hopes, at what ordinary life becomes when it is overtaken by power.

Although many of his Maigret stories are in print, none of Simenon's masterpieces is currently available in English. The bleak singularity of his work may be at fault. It has little of the warmth of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and none of the intellectual energy of Borges - writers whose contributions to the distillation of the 20th-century experience are equally canonical. But the obstacle in the way of recognising Simenon's achievement probably lies elsewhere. We seem unable to accept that the writer who invented Maigret in order to entertain us was also the author who succeeded in showing us human life laid bare.

John Gray's most recent book is "The Crisis of Global Capitalism" (Granta)

Phil Whitaker on J G Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur

Novels become personal favourites for any number of reasons, but there is usually an element of identification involved somewhere. It may be that the book has spoken directly to you at a particular stage in life; in some cases fiction inspires a different way of living. For myself, as a reader who also writes, the novels I love best are the ones that actually affect the way I want to write.

One such is The Siege of Krishnapur, published when I was aged seven, in 1973. I would probably never have discovered it were it not for a recommendation on one of those "cracking good read" radio programmes a few years ago. It is set during the 1857 sepoy rebellion in India. In the fictional town of Krishnapur, trouble, when it starts, is bloody. The native troops massacre their British officers. The rest of the white community - men, women and children - hole up in the Residency and conduct an increasingly desperate fight against the besieging sepoys and the ravages of disease and malnutrition.

Farrell's handling of all this is, paradoxically, a joy. He employs a perfectly pitched ironic tone and demonstrates a brilliant eye for the absurd. He is fascinated by the confidence - in scientific progress, in Christian morality, in being custodians of a great civilisation - that prevails among his Victorian characters at the start of the novel. Through the attrition of the siege - in which the largely civilian defenders have rapidly to learn new, brutal, military roles - Farrell gradually strips away their complacent superiority, returning his characters to a condition of raw being. Facing a gruesome fate at the hands of their erstwhile Indian subjects, the besieged British discover painful truths about themselves and about which things are ultimately important in life.

What impresses about Farrell's style is the subtlety with which he suggests his themes. The Siege is at heart an examination of western imperialism and the sense of shame that changing attitudes towards the imperial project have brought to British self-perception. In contrast to many lesser novels, however, these themes are never allowed to dominate the human story. Early in the siege, huge marble busts of Plato and Socrates are plundered from the library to provide cover from enemy fire. During a subsequent assault on the Residency, the bewildered surviving sepoys stare through the cannon smoke and dust to see "the looming shape of the banqueting hall and, startling in their clarity, two vast, white faces, calmly gazing towards them with expressions of perfect wisdom, understanding and compassion".

The enlistment of these busts as shields for the besieged British sets up all sorts of delicious resonances - not least the contrast between the oppressive imperial edifice and the high-minded philosophies which it ostensibly promotes. But these are never explicit.

Above all, The Siege of Krishnapur is great fun to read. Farrell knows that what really captivates readers is character. He never allows the mechanics of the conflict - dramatic as they are - to become the central plank of his narrative. Always he foregrounds how the events of the siege affect his subjects, how they change, triumph and succumb. And although the authentically portrayed conceits of the Victorian world view appear preposterous and amusing to a modern eye, Farrell bends to even the least appetising of his subjects, seeking out the pathos inherent in their plight.

The Siege of Krishnapur, which won the Booker in 1973, is not without flaws. The styles and concerns of fiction have moved on since then. The pacing can be a little slow for the contemporary reader, who might also be interested in the point of view of the rebel sepoys, which is certainly a story that deserves to be told. Yet Farrell's study remains supremely engaging. From a personal perspective, it has strongly influenced my own fiction through being a model of subtle characterisation and thematics, as well as a fine example of how humour and irony are used to explore and understand characters with whom the writer might have little natural sympathy.

Phil Whitaker is fiction critic of the "NS". His most recent novel is "Triangulation" (Phoenix House)

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery