Style | Swellboy

Swellboy on… contemporary fiction

There is, after all, such a thing as 20th-century literature

Swellboy on… contemporary fiction

Image: Brijesh Patel

February 22 2011
Nick Foulkes

I find that a properly chosen holiday library is almost as important as a good holiday wardrobe and I usually tend to fill my bag with a few 19th-century novels: at least one Dickens, one of the lesser-known works of Wilkie Collins’ oeuvre, a Balzac and occasionally something dangerously contemporary.

I seem to remember that when I arrived at university to read English, a much cherished part of the apocrypha of the place concerned the relatively recent addition of 20th-century literature to the syllabus, whereupon one of the dons waggishly riposted that he did not know there was such a thing. Anyway, I may not have been a particularly attentive student, but I seem to have imbibed a suspicion concerning anything published after the death of Edward VII. There are of course exceptions: Somerset Maugham, Waughs Evelyn and Bron, and of course the supreme English prose stylist, PG Wodehouse, who does things with the English language that leave one slack-jawed in wonder and, what is better, carries off said literary pyrotechnics with great ease, wearing his brilliance lightly. I have always been suspicious of people who suffer for their art; when all is said and done, there are very few books that actually change the course of civilisation, and those that do, for example Das Kapital, are not always noted for their literary qualities (whereas Francis Wheen’s biography of Marx is a hoot).

The majority of human creative output is, more or less, entertainment, in that it manipulates our feelings, enabling us to indulge in a bit of emotional tourism, causing us to feel frightened, sad, happy, etc. Take another sphere of human endeavour, the motion picture, and this year’s must-see film, The King’s Speech. It is an endearing movie about a little-known and fascinating aspect of the abdication crisis, with some truly outstanding acting by thespians at the top of their game. Yet subtract the performances and I wonder whether its impact will be as profound as, say, that of Jaws, Star Wars, Easy Rider, Citizen Kane, or, for that matter, the Carry On oeuvre. Time alone will tell.

That is why I like my literature to have stood the test of the sternest critic, time, before I wade into it. However, I am lucky enough to have a pilot to navigate me through the waters of contemporary literature: my sister, who from time to time puts me on to a good thing. It is through her that I first came to know the work of Miklós Bánffy, and I am now romping through The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. Having a sister like mine is a little like having your own personal literary concierge, who takes the liberty of reading recently published novels on your behalf and then decides which ones to pass on. It is a superb arrangement for which I am suitably grateful, but one that I am not sure would have met with much approval at my alma mater: you see, not only do her recommendations tend to be of the 20th and even 21st centuries, but the authors invariably tend be from beyond the shores of our island home.

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Literature, People