THE very first novel, Robert McCrum argues, was a protest by a puritan dissenter written from inside prison, Pilgrim’s Progress, in 1678. Fifty years later a pamphleteer and sometime spy Daniel Foe (he would add the De before Foe as an affectation) introduced the conversational story teller as a first person in Robinson Crusoe. In 1726 the satirist Jonathan Swift dreamed up Gulliver’s Travels and then Samuel Richardson wrote the cruel downfall and shame of Clarissa in 1748. Richardson though was not a writer as such but a printer, looking for a profitable use for his machinery.
The little, scholarly background vignettes – the dramas behind the dramas – to each of these books, most of which we already know, and also to other books – at least another 500 which get a mention in passing – present almost as a thesis in themselves. Straightaway McCrum draws a link between John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Charlotte Bronte, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck and even Enid Blyton. The story of a man in search of the same kind of a truth can also be found, he holds, in modern works as disparate as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or even Portnoy’s Complaint.
Great novels share, he suggests, the story telling, the characters, the use of English here as a first language (no translations) and dialogue that moves the narrative along.
The list is cleverly arranged chronologically ending in 2000 with Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang.
Each author only gets one mention so Jane Austen gets Emma, Thomas Hardy has Jude the Obscure. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Danoway appears ahead of the Lighthouse while DH Lawrence earns a mention for the Rainbow rather than the more populist Lady Chatterley. The device sidetracks arguments as to which might be their best work (that is another discusion). In that sense it is a list about authors to be explored further, but it also manages to detail how and why the books were written and published at all, some to pay debts, some out of professional jealousy, some politically inspired. The first to be actually commissioned, it seems, was Little Women by Louisa May Alcott in 1868. Alcott had a local reputation around Boston as a “bit of a scribbler”.
The first American work comes from Edgar Allen Poe in 1838 as the Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Many early books had such long, lavish titles. David Copperfield had no less than six monikers before its first, rather splendid, incarnation as The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield, the Younger of Blunderstone Rectory (Which He Never Meant to be Published On Any Account).
There are are half forgotten classics like the first detective writer Wilkie Collins (‘the godfather’) for Moonstone in 1868 but that does not preclude the presence of Dashiel Hammett’s Maltese Falcon nor Raymond Chandler’s Big Sleep.
Of course, any list is there to be disagreed with, but McCrum makes light of even trying to be definitive.
(What? No Forsyte Saga? John Galsworthy won the Nobel Prize? Albeit he was published in the same year as James Joyce’s Ulysses, as was the not so often mentioned Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis which McCrum concedes has a difficult opening 50 pages).
The choices have been bitchily criticised for the lack of women writers but given that he is spanning 400 years perhaps he was just reluctant to artificially redress a balance. The earliest female writer is Jane Austen with Emma in 1816 followed by Mary Shelley with Frankenstein in 1818. In fact four of his preferred top 10 books are by women.
He also makes an interesting point that since the arrival of Amazon, sales of books overall have increased, as has the number of books published which makes this road map more relevant (as it does this blog) and essential for anyone who thinks they have a novel in them.
Most of all McCrum encapsulates in one place the great triumph of imagination that is fiction writing and which as Harari argues is a cornerstone of our civilisation and our species.