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The List of Great Novels: Read It and Weep

By Jonathan Yardley
Washington Post Book Critic
Monday, July 27, 1998; Page D2

One reader wonders why "Gone With the Wind" didn't make what is rapidly becoming known as The List. Another asks about the omission of Evelyn Waugh's "Sword of Honor" trilogy, several bring up the names of Flannery O'Connor and Eudora Welty, while yet another complains that, even though he is scarcely an ignoramus or a buffoon, the very top of the list is reserved for a book he simply cannot read.

So here's my dirty little secret: I can't read it, either. "It" is "Ulysses," which a panel of judges laboring on behalf of the Modern Library has chosen as the greatest novel of the 20th century in the English language. Like Russell Baker slaving away each summer at "Remembrance of Things Past," I have made more attempts at "Ulysses" than Charlie Brown has made at Lucy's football, and not a one has connected. For me, as doubtless for millions of others, "Ulysses" is a monument not to literary greatness but to mystification.

This is not as it was meant to be. "Ulysses" has been required reading among the American illuminati for two-thirds of a century because my great-uncle, U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey, overturned a federal proscription against James Joyce's novel, permitting its publication by Random House and writing in an opinion of notable wit and eloquence that the novel "is not pornographic," that "whilst in many places the effect of 'Ulysses' on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac."

Uncle John's opinion, a work of literary criticism as well as legal scholarship, was published in 1933. In the intervening years "Ulysses" has been subjected to Talmudic investigation by graduate students too numerous to imagine, but the great man's not-so-great-nephew has been left cold by it over and over again. I recognize its genius, its originality and its humanity but cannot engage myself with aspects of it that some readers love: its word-playfulness, its obscurity, its literary Chinese box. Some years ago I decided that life is too short and other pleasures far too sweet to expend any more time on it.

Still, it is hard to imagine that this or any other group of people faced with the impossible assignment of choosing the century's major works of English-language fiction would come to any other conclusion. "Ulysses" may or may not be the greatest novel of our time but it is unquestionably the most influential, "the watershed novel of the 20th century from which all modernism flows," in the words of one of the Modern Library's judges, the novelist William Styron.

Indeed, influence in its various forms seems to have swayed the judges at least as much as true greatness. How else to explain "Catch-22" in the seventh (!) position on the list, or "Darkness at Noon" in the eighth, or "The Grapes of Wrath" in the 10th, or "Slaughterhouse-Five" in the 18th? These books are not without their merits, but their main distinction is that in their different ways they affected popular attitudes toward war, communism and poverty. They are on the list not because of what they are but because of what they say: their morally impeccable thematic content as opposed to their actual literary quality, which as it happens in all four cases is rather negligible.

But when you appoint a committee to make literary judgments, you are going to get compromises, miscalculations and mistakes; I know this from having served all too often on prize committees, where barter is the main order of business. How on earth could the judges have placed Saul Bellow's "Henderson the Rain King" in 21st place while waiting 60 – 60! – more places before getting around to the same author's "The Adventures of Augie March," the great American picaresque novel? What in Heaven's name led them to conclude that by the difference between 42nd place and 45th, James Dickey's "Deliverance" (!!!!) is better than Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises"?

Lunacy, sheer unbridled lunacy. Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes" is ignored yet "Portnoy's Complaint" and "Ragtime" are included! No Welty or O'Connor, but "Ironweed," by William Kennedy! No Peter Taylor, but "The Naked and the Dead," in 51st place! No Bernard Malamud – a list such as this that omits "The Assistant" is beyond imagination – yet "Go Tell It on the Mountain," by James Baldwin, and "The Ginger Man," by J.P. Donleavy!

Some of these omissions are understandable if not pardonable: Welty, O'Connor and Taylor were masters of the short story, as were too many others not to be found on this list, and no room – quite stupidly – was left for short stories. Others are beyond rational explanation: Only three Faulkners, none of them "Absalom! Absalom!" The great American novel of the postwar years, "Invisible Man," is relegated to 19th place. Theodore Dreiser's incomparable "Sister Carrie" gets No. 33, 17 places below his flabby "An American Tragedy." There is Dashiell Hammett but no Raymond Chandler, and no Conrad until "The Secret Agent" in 46th (!!!) place.

On and on it goes. The temptation to rant into the night is extreme and must be resisted. Needless to say the managers of the Modern Library had just such temptation in mind and did all they could to encourage it, including appointing a panel only a few members of which have discernible qualifications for the job. The idea was to stir up controversy and entice readers to the Modern Library, which, you will not be surprised to learn, publishes many books on the list and aims to add still more. It's all good fun and if it gets you into the bookstore, all the better. Just don't take it seriously. Please.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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