17 MARCH 2007, Page 49

One of the worstest

Sam Leith

What’s the bestest book in the world ever? What a silly, vulgar, philistine question — and what an irresistible one. According to J. Peder Zane’s researches, the answer is Anna Karenina. It is followed, in order, by Madame Bovary, War and Peace, Lolita, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hamlet, The Great Gatsby, In Search of Lost Time, Chekhov’s collected stories, and Middlemarch.

Forgive me if that sounds like a spoiler, but since Peder Zane proudly publishes his titular list in a black box on page 17, I think it’s forgivable. His method has been relatively straightforward: he asked 125 ‘leading writers’ to name their ten favourite books. Then he crunched some numbers, totted up the votes, and drew up various lists. In addition to the overall Top Ten, there’s the list of books that received only one vote; the list of authors ranked by votes earned or by works mentioned; the Top Ten Works By Living Writers, and so on.

Every book mentioned gets a wee capsule summary, and the original lists of ten selected by each writer are duly published. The odd question remains about the Peder Zane methodology. Some of the 125 leading writers who contributed are distinctly more leading than others. Stephen King, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Annie Proulx are creditable scalps to have bagged. But who, for example, is G. D. Gearino — the four-time novelist and, it appears from his biography, colleague of J. Peder Zane at the Raleigh News and Observer in North Carolina?

How did Peder Zane arrive at the figure of 125? How many writers did he originally approach, you want to know — and who? I yearn to believe that, in order to select his 125 leading writers, he canvassed 1,250 less leading writers to ask them who they considered most leading among their contemporaries; selecting the initial 1,250, of course, with reference to 12,500 . . . and so backward. Did he notice, too, that David Foster Wallace — who names two novels by Thomas Harris and one by Tom Clancy — was almost certainly taking the piss?

No matter. The thing is, even when you take into account Peder Zane’s incredibly naffly written introduction (‘The Top Ten is not the only book you’d want to have on a deserted island. But it can help you navigate the literary floodwaters of our Golden Age, when books seem to drop from the sky like raindrops’); even when you wince at Sven Birkerts’s similarly clumsy essay (‘From the massed juggernaut paragraphs of Tolstoy and Proust, to the sable-brush verbal nuances of Flaubert, Nabokov, and Fitzgerald, our writers picked writers unsurpassed in their craft performance’); even when you discount the manifest laziness and stupidity of the whole project — it still can’t help but be fascinating. It will sit in my downstairs loo, I suspect, for years. As, consequently, will I.

If Peder Zane’s project is to give some suggestions as to the what, John Mullan’s How Novels Work is much more an approach to the why. His book is, in effect, a layman’s introduction to the business of literary criticism, aimed at the growing number of book groups around the country: ‘I am not trying to recommend a canon of contemporary fiction, but to show how a critical vocabulary can make our opinions lucid.’ Based on his long-running Guardian column ‘Elements of Fiction’, it’s a terrific little guide to form and technique. ‘Elements of Fiction’ was arranged by book — he’d spend four weekly columns discussing different elements of a particular novel (always available in paperback, for book group purposes; generally more or less recent).

Mullan has rejigged and expanded his material for the book. Now it is organised thematically. Chapter by chapter, he goes through issues of style, diction, narrative voice, structure, genre and so forth. He begins with a chapter called ‘Beginning’ and ends with one called ‘Ending’ — it’s straightforward like that. The effects of the rearrangement are less awkward than they could be. There’s a certain amount of repetition as a novel is reintroduced to serve as an example in a later chapter, but the examples Mullan chooses are usually so appropriate that it’s minimally disturbing to the concentration.

Mullan — across books ranging from Ian Fleming, through A. S. Byatt and Orhan Pamuk to Zadie Smith — quotes expertly, and evinces a scholar’s knowledge worn with a journalist’s lightness of touch. How fascinating to learn, for example, that a quirk of German grammar in the opening sentence of The Trial signifies free indirect discourse — so marking the presumption of innocence as being Josef K’s, not the narrator’s. And what a great quote, describing the Graham Greene character, from John Banville’s The Untouchable: ‘He was genuinely curious about people — the sure mark of the second-rate novelist.’ Mullan is knowledgeable, sensible and attentive, sharp but seldom ungenerous in his judgments, just the sort of critical reader you’d like to have over your shoulder.

I have saved the best for last: having passed through the what and the why, we come to the how — Milan Kundera’s luminous seven-part essay on the novel. In his opening pages he writes: Fielding was one of the first novelists able to conceive a poetics of the novel. Each of the 18 books of Tom Jones opens with a chapter devoted to a kind of theory of the novel (a light, playful theory, for that’s how a novelist theorises — he holds jealously to his own language, flees learned jargon like the plague).

As with Fielding, so with Kundera. The Curtain is light and playful, elliptical, aphoristic, sometimes contradictory, and in its fewer than 200 pages contains multitudes. Kundera talks suggestively about the difference between the history of a nation (which contains its failures) and the history of an art (which does not). He talks fascinatingly and with real passion about the failure of critics properly to see the connections between the literatures of different languages, and distinguishes deftly between what he calls the provincialism of large nations and the provincialism of small nations. He sets the literature of the European 20th century in a political context. He asks ‘What is a Novelist?’ and comes close to an answer. A fresh idea or insight sparks here on the turn of every page.

Kundera’s jumping-off points are Rabelais, Cervantes and Fielding; the sea in which he swims contains Broch, Musil, Kafka, Flaubert. The ‘curtain’ of his title is the curtain of prior perceptions, of fixed ideas about the world, which, as he sees it, the novelist breaks through to reach the actual. (Many academic theorists, it should be noted, will hate this book.) The curtain of illusions belongs to Don Quixote; Cervantes, with his ‘destructive art’, tears through it.

Kundera’s central idea, if it can be summarised, seems to be to set the novel (what Fielding called ‘prosai-comi-epic writing’) at the opposite pole from the self-absorption of lyric poetry: what defines it is its constantly standing at one side of itself. The effect of this is to cast something benign over the characters, what Kundera calls ‘the soft gleam of the comical’.

He quotes a brilliant example from Flaubert — whom, he says, had to go through an ‘anti-lyric conversion’ before he was able to write his great work. As Emma Bovary goes to her death, she encounters a beggar who emits ‘a sort of muffled howl’.

She instantly ‘flung him a five-franc coin over her shoulder. It was her whole fortune. She thought it quite fine, tossing the coin like that.’ Kundera continues: It really was her whole fortune. She was coming to the end. But the last sentence, which I put in italics, reveals what Flaubert saw very well but Emma was unaware of: she did not merely make a generous gesture; she was pleased with herself for making it — even in that moment of genuine despair, she did not miss the chance to display her gesture, innocently, wishing to look fine for her own sake. A gleam of tender irony will never leave her, even as she progresses toward the death that is already so near.

Just treat yourself. You’re unlikely to read an essay this year full of more knowledge, more wisdom and more love.

The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favourite Books edited by J. Peder Zane (Norton, $14.95, pp. 352, ISBN 9780393328400) How Novels Work by John Mullan (OUP, £12.99, pp. 346, ISBN 9780199281770) The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts by Milan Kundera (Faber, £12.99, pp. 168, ISBN 9780571232819)