There is much to be said for godfathers. They offer the wisdom of maturity without the complications of direct filial ties. Likewise there is much to be said for 21st birthday celebrations, the last relic in our ossified, post-industrial society of the adulthood rituals of traditional peoples. However, it is the fusion of these two noble quantities that gives the most pleasing outcome.
The godfather’s 21st birthday present to his godson marks a notable point in the annals of gift giving, unmatched since the general demise of dowries and Danegeld. The occasion suggests gifts with an Edwardian tone, badger hair and ivory shaving tackle or rawhide hand luggage; stout apparatus that will last a lifetime of abuse and eventually be passed on to the next generation. However, I proffer an alternative. The ultimate godfather’s 21st birthday present should be books.
There should be 21 of them, self-evidently. Clearly they must be paper editions, ideally hardback, nothing digital here. In a truly perfect world they would be presented in a piece of bespoke shelving, a construction in aromatic cedar, obeche or other exotic lumber in which titles fit at varied angels into recesses specifically designed for their spine size. Together, the 21 mounted books might form the design of a circle or a star. An engraved brass plaque bolted to the centre would name both recipient and donor. Spring-loaded batons in brushed aluminium would hold the books in place should the case be lifted during transit.
But these mechanics of presentation are essentially secondary. The selection of books is key. These following are the 21 titles I would give to a hypothetical godson on the occasion of his accession to manhood. The principle is that the books, taken together, should provide some guidance for a lifetime. The subsidiary intention is that they should be titles that a 21-year-old reader might not otherwise have encountered, books that, whether through novelty or unfair neglect, lack institutional sponsorship.
We will start with novels and among that genre we will begin with Blood Meridian (1985), Cormac McCarthy’s account of banditry on the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-nineteenth century. I was lucky enough to receive a copy on a birthday slightly later than the hypothetical celebration here (I was 24) from the American writer Emily Witt, and since then Blood Meridian is the title I have myself given most often. McCarthy’s baroque prose redefined what could be accomplished within the confines of the novel. Blood Meridian is also superior to both McCarthy’s later, more widely read work (notably The Border Trilogy and The Road) and also to 1979’s Suttree, the 30-year-in-the making text that shows the development of his extraordinary style but lacks the brutal discipline he could achieve when that epic apprenticeship was complete.
In a similar vein of authorial high water marks comes our second selection, Martin Amis’ Money (1984). Amis' most recent novels, The Pregnant Widow and Lionel Asbo, appear to have lifted his reputation from the Yellow Dog slump, but to my mind we have to turn further back for his best. In Money, monstrous, pill-chomping, pornography-seeking film director John Self marauds across London and New York in search of rapid gratification. There is a type of car called the Autocrat and a character called Martin Amis appears within the text. Money is one of precious few supposedly comic novels to have made me laugh out loud (the other that does so reliably will come later). Its inclusion here is also, like McCarthy’s, a function of its age. Money and Blood Meridian are 1980s novels, and that decade is still too recent for its cultural hierarchies to have settled. Despite the Penguin Modern Classics edition Money is not yet canonical, though it surely will be. Hence we include it here.
We turn out of English now. I am opposed to the idea that ‘diversity’ must be manifest in an act of literary selection like this one. Better, I think, to acknowledge the inherent subjectivity of any such act of choosing, and to admit that it is essentially a reflection of individual taste. I make that point to underline that Naguib Mahfouz’s originally Arabic-language Cairo Trilogy (1956-7) is here purely on merit. Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street merge a narrative technique inspired by European realism (comparisons are valid with Galsworthy, as well as Dickens and Tolstoy) with Egyptian subject matter. The result is a telling of the other side of British colonialism that has rarely been bettered and the rendering of a foreign world that is both accessible and sympathetic in the genuine sense of that word.
If Mahfouz establishes a precedent that a multi-volume novel can be treated as a single entry here, then the inclusion of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975) is also a must. The twelve-volume cycle seems to moving out of the backwaters of neglect; nine years have passed since Max Hastings, reviewing a new biography of Powell in the Telegraph, said 'nobody whom I know under forty reads his books.' Earlier this year I had supper with an undergraduate cousin and her edgy boyfriend in a student flat in Cambridge; he said all his friends are reading the Dance now. Still, the cycle remains sufficiently off the general radar, and sufficiently good, for us to include it. Sixty years of English life, a panorama that stretches far beyond Powell’s Eton-Oxford milieu to the great drunkards of late forties Fitzrovia and the bureaucratic machinations of wartime Whitehall. It may not be quite the English Proust but Powell’s is a great novel.
Great length is no immediate justification for inclusion here. As I have said there are no formal rules at play. We do not seek to equip my hypothetical godson with the maximum number of pages that can be found within 21 titles. But we must make space, even though it may challenge the bespoke bookshelf maker’s design, for one other very long work, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996). I am profoundly sceptical of the asymmetrical-haircut-and-pointy-shoes New York subculture that lauds Foster Wallace. I feel wan youngsters who tote his books in Brooklyn cafes should get out and see more of the world if they wish to write about it. But, somewhat infuriatingly, Infinite Jest belies its unsavoury acolytes. Its tale of two institutions at the bottom and top of a hill in Boston, a halfway house for recovering addicts and an elite tennis academy, is only the starting point for a triumph of the abstract imagination and a musing on addiction that is genuinely moving. At 480,000 words Infinite Jest is still over long (for those in the know, I believe much of the Marathe-Steeply dialogue could have been cut without loss), but it is a fine thing.
Infinite Jest is 17 years old this year, younger than the two 1980s novels we have already picked, though due to Foster Wallace’s death at his own hands in 2008 it has already acquired greater canonicity (As Gore Vidal pointed out, for a writer death is a always a career move). For our next selection though we must come much closer to the present. At the start of 2011 two chunky new American novels dominated new hardback arrivals in British bookstores. The first was Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a title far too well hyped to make this list even before any discussion of it merits. The second was Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn (2009/2010). 35 years in the making, Matterhorn’s tale of a benighted group of US marines in 1969 in Vietnam is crack-like in its intensity, but also unsparing in its depiction of that much-debased quantity, the pity of war. Only someone who was there could have written this novel, and it will endure with The Deer Hunter as a monument to a particularly futile conflict.
We stay with Vietnam for the moment (indeed we will return a third time later, once we are done with novels) with Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997). Roth’s oeuvre is wide, but Portnoy’s Complaint has aged and Zuckerman never really made much of an impression on me in The Ghost Writer. Hence the inclusion instead of American Pastoral, which cemented the writer’s late, great resurgence: in 1997 Roth was 64, and Portnoy’s 28, years old. We see Vietnam here through domestic protest in that perennial Rothian territory, New Jersey, and we see domestic protest itself through the impact of a teenage girl’s firebombing of a rural post office and subsequent flight underground on her father, one time high school sporting hero and blue-eyed Jew Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov. There is similarity here with another American novel that almost made this selection, John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Both examine dramatic individual choices (for Roth terrorism, for Updike male flight from marriage) less through the protagonist of that action and more through the consequences of the deed on the protagonist’s intimates. Rabbit, Run, Updike wrote in a later foreword, was his response to Kerouac’s On the Road, to show what happened to Sal Paradise’s people when he left them behind. American Pastoral, published 24 years after the Paris accords, shows what the most violent responses to the violence of Vietnam did to the families of groups like the Weather Underground.
Novels, to my mind, are a fundamentally parochial art form. For them to succeed they must depict a place at a certain time. Reputations are defined by geography too. If this were a list for an American godson A Confederacy of Dunces (1980) would probably not win a place; the fact it won the fiction Pulitzer in 1981 makes it too famous. But in Britain, in my experience, John Kennedy Toole’s novel is much less known. Its publication history is tragic; Toole killed himself when he could not find a publisher and only his mother’s posthumous lobbying brought it to life. But, as I have made clear, no one is on this list out of sympathy. A Confederacy of Dunces, chronicling enormously fat Ignatius J. Reilly’s picaresque progress around New Orleans, is Money’s twin in comic novels that actually make me laugh. In it goes.
From America we head now both north and south simultaneously, to a novel largely written in Canada yet set in Mexico, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947). In probably the greatest book ever written about another key 21st birthday activity, drinking, Geoffrey Firmin, erstwhile British consul in the town of Quauhnahuac has run very much to seed. Firmin is a man whose 'whole frame was so neuritic with alcohol' that he is unable put on his own socks. Under the Volcano also extends the narration of a single day to 276 pages, constantly scratching further into the past in its palimpsest storytelling style. It therefore gives our godson an object lesson in the possible modulation of time in fiction, without making him read Ulysses.
The penultimate novel we will include here is John Le Carré The Honourable Schoolboy (1977). The old argument about whether Le Carré is indeed a major literary novelist or merely an accomplished genre hack seem to be settled now. The handsome new Sceptre editions of his works, with their Stuart Bache cover designs, and the Bodleian library’s acceptance of his papers are proof that the first opinion has justly prevailed. As with Philip Roth the real question is which part of a prolific output to include. If I were writing two years ago I would unquestionably choose Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but the 2011 Tomas Alfredson film has given the novel a lease of life with a younger generation unfamiliar with both its 1974 publication and the BBC dramatisation from 1979. Another plausible choice would be 1986’s A Perfect Spy, which is the closest we are likely to get to a Le Carré biography until the appearance of Adam Sisman’s authorised version next year. But after some thought I would go instead for The Honourable Schoolboy. The novel follows Tinker, Tailor and precedes Smiley’s People in the loose Karla vs Smiley trilogy, but can be read as a standalone piece; I did so when I received it as a child as a gift from an aunt who was an accomplished book picker. The Honourable Schoolboy paints the east, notably Hong Kong, with considerable panache and as well as espionage contains one of the best depictions of journalists in fiction, up with Waugh’s Scoop and much above Michael Frayn’s considerably overrated Towards the End of the Morning.
The final novel we will include here is Pale Fire (1962). As justification I would say that reading Vladimir Nabokov’s text is as close an experience as I have ever come to pure intellectual awe. It may not be the most powerful novel I have ever read, but Pale Fire is undoubtedly the cleverest. Structurally it purports to be a long poem published complete with academic critical apparatus; a preface precedes the verse, explanatory notes append it. Yet in fact Pale Fire is a story of obsession and rivalry between the author of the poem John Shade and his self-appointed editor Charles Kinbote, political machinations in the land of Zembla and much else besides. And all this, astonishingly, is carried off in English, Nabokov’s third language after Russian and French. Lolita is too well known to include here, Speak, Memory is an unutterably beautiful memoir but remains slight, but Nabokov is well served by Pale Fire.
The second installment of this list will be published tomorrow.
Simon Akam is a British writer. His work has appeared in publications including the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist, the Literary Review and the New Republic. He tweets @simonakam. His website is simonakam.com