Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky
When I finished reading Crime and Punishment for the first time my foremost thought, amongst many, was to be surprised how such a long, introspective, dense and fundamentally Russian novel could stand up so well as a thriller. Right from the start, we know who did it. We’re vaguely sure why he – Raskolnikov – did it, at least as sure as he ever is. What then keeps the story so gripping? I wish I knew. The array of incidental characters, each precisely created and conveyed, out-Dickenses Dickens, but they are not essential. It’s something in the character of Raskolnikov, both in its make-up and its realisation that makes the novel. But in trying to describe it, all I feel is an increasing desire just to go and read it again. So I’ll stop writing and do that, and recommend anyone else to do so too.
War and Peace – Lev Tolstoy
Despite being written almost contemporaneously, and despite both being concerned, by very different routes, with the impact and legacy of Napoleon, War and Peace is an incomparably different novel fromCrime and Punishment. War and Peace sprawls – across a decade, across a continent and across a plethora of major and minor characters, any one of which could have made an entire novel for a lesser author. I recently read the ‘Original Version’, which is an earlier, and much shorter, draft than the generally accepted one. And when I came to the end of its 884 pages, I couldn’t help feeling that it needed more – perhaps even the 500 odd pages more of the final version. Having said that , the full text is too long – by precisely one chapter, the final chapter which is a polemic on the nature of war and free will, featuring none of the characters from the novel. It’s about the people, Lev!
The Magus – John Fowles
The Magus is one of those novels that succeeds in having a similar effect on its reader to that being experienced by its protagonist. As Nicholas Urfe learns to distrust Maurice Conchis, so the reader learns to distrust the author. It’s a cunning and difficult relationship for the author to establish, whilst vitally still maintaining the reader’s desire to carry on through the book. There are plenty of authors I mistrust, simply because I doubt the thoroughness of their research or the consistency of their imagination. Fowles achieves something different, making the reader revel in their confusion. And I’m still tempted to go and get a nice teaching job on a Greek island.
Brighton Rock – Graham Greene
As in several other of his novels (and as Dostoevsky does in Crime and Punishment), Greene creates a thriller which hinges not on what characters do, but on how they perceive the innermost thoughts of others. To an extent, this is true of every detective story – the detective perceiving the guilt of the killer – but here that takes a back seat to a far more complex set of questions concerning the perceptions of Pinkie, Rose and Ida. The ending is the most savage twist I have ever read, destroying Rose’s world (we presume – we don’t see it) with just a few words. Even Greene couldn’t face repeating it when he co-scripted the film, and gave Rose a get-out. But we know what really happened.
The Mating Season – P.G. Wodehouse
The specific novel is one of my favourites, but in truth each of Wodehouse’s works is so insubstantial that none can be claimed a great novel of itself. Really I’m picking Wodehouse as an author. He is simply the best writer of English in the twentieth century. There is a degree to which I see Greene and Wodehouse as two sides of the same coin. Both wrote prolifically and brilliantly over a similar period, yet where Greene is almost always dark, Wodehouse is uplifting. If I had to choose, I would have to live in Wodehouse’s world. Tinkerty Tonk!