Favourite Fiction, Post-1960

Open up the questions to the audience at almost any literary  event, and someone, sooner or later, will ask you to name a favourite author – one who has influenced you, perhaps – or a favourite book. A question which throws my already wavering memory into shut down or something close to it. But no more. The following list of the novels and short story collections published since 1960 and that I’ve enjoyed and admired most will supply the answer. Several answers. As long as I remembered to take it with me. And please take into consideration this list is current as of July, 2019, and there are gaps I can see already. Where, for goodness sake, is the Don DeLillo? The Willy Vlautin? But don’t let’s get started – this will do for now.

John Updike
The Rabbit Quartet (1960/1971/1981/1990)

Thomas McGuane
Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973)
Nothing But Blue Skies (1992)

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A. S. Byatt
The Virgin in the Garden (1978)
Still Life (1981)

William Maxwell
So Long, See You Tomorrow (1979)

 

Larry McMurtry
The Last Picture Show (1966)

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Donald Barthelme
Sixty Stories (1981)

Toni Morrison
Beloved (1987)

Carol Shields
Mary Swann (1990)

Tim O’Brien
The Things They Carried (1990)

Denis Johnson
Jesus’ Son (1992)

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Michael Cunningham
The Hours (1998)

John McGahern
That They May Face the Rising Son (2002)

Alice Munro
Runaway (2004)

Kent Haruf
Eventide (2004)
Benediction (2013)
Our Souls at Night (2015)

Marilynne Robinson
Gilead (2004)
Home (2008)
Lila (2014)

Colm Toibin
The Master (2004)
The Testament of Mary (2012)

Raymond Carver
Where I’m Calling From (1989)

Richard Ford
The Lay of the Land (2006)

Jon McGregor
So Many Ways to Begin (2007)
Even the Dogs (2010)

Maile Meloy
Both Ways Is The Only Way I Want It (2009)

Kevin Powers
The Yellow Birds (2012)

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Zadie Smith
N-W (2012)

Tom Drury
The End of Vandalism (2014)

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Maggie Nelson
The Arganauts (2015)

Anne Enright
The Green Road (2015)

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Claire-Louise Bennett
Pond (2016)

[A separate list covering crime fiction can be found elsewhere on this blog]

 

 

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Books of the Year, 2018

Much of my reading time this year has been spent working my way through a two-volume edition of D. H.Lawrence’s Complete (?) Letters. Currently, I’m up to page 945, November 1926. 301 pages and four years to go. Other large works that have happily taken my time are Thomas McGuane’s Collected and New Stories, Cloudbursts, weighing in a 556 pages and two books about Abstract Expressionism and the art world of New York in the middle of the last century – de Kooning: An American Master by Mark Stevens and Annalyn Swan and Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women, which concentrates on five women artists who kept their heads above water in an otherwise all-male tide: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler. Pretty much the subject matter of the PhD thesis I never got around to writing, in fact, save that I would have concentrated more on the work and less on the biography. I think.

I was pleased that Robin Robertson’s noirish The Long Take won the Goldsmiths’ Prize for fiction that “opens up new possibilities for the novel form”. As far as I can see it’s a long poem sequence hemmed together with occasional sections of prose: a poem in the form of a novel – new possibilities, indeed. Also short-listed for the Goldsmiths’ was Gabriel Josipovici’s enigmatic and beautifully written The Cemetery in Barnes – at a fraction over 100 pages more (less?) a novella than a novel and, in these days of overblown fiction, all the better for it. The Long Take was also on the short list for this year’s Man Booker Prize, which was won by Anna Burns’ Milkman, which I found oddly compulsive in parts – chilling and funny – but by my take overly repetitive and just, yes, too long. I haven’t yet read the Daisy Johnson, but intend to as I very much enjoyed her short story collection, Fen. After greatly admiring Sarah Baume’s A Line Made By Walking, I began Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither with considerable anticipation which the first section, Spill, did nothing to allay – quite superb, in fact – but after that … oh, dear, what a falling away …

Amongst the crime fiction I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed new novels by Eva Dolan, Kjell Ola-Dahl,  Mick Herron, Attica Locke, Garry Disher and John Lincoln (Williams), as well as rereading Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series and Jamie Harrison’s delightful The Edge of the Crazies. Best of all, Ross Thomas’ 1984 novel, Briarpatch. So good I read it twice.

And, overall, the book that impressed me most this year – and one that I went back to with no little trepidation – was Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Even better than I’d remembered.

 

Jim Harrison 1937 – 2016

Back in 1992, I was pleased to be invited by Geoff Sadler to contribute a couple of entries to the encyclopaedia of Twentieth-Century Western Writers he was compiling and editing for  St. James Press. One of these was Thomas McGuane, the other, his friend Jim Harrison.

Here are the first five paragraphs of my piece, along with the last (the middle section mostly deals with another of Harrison’s fine novels, Dalva).

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I first became aware of Jim Harrison’s writing during a visit to California in 1981. A friend, thinking, no doubt, that my own efforts would benefit from some stiffening of style and elevation of purpose, presented me with the Delta paperback edition of Harrison’s Legends of the Fall and having, as it were, lit the touch paper, tactfully withdrew. I read the three novellas in the books with greed and widening amazement, part on a Greyhound bound from Sacramento to San Francisco, more in a cabin in PointLobos, within earshot of Big Sur. When I’d finished them through once and my companion had done the same, I read them again. When the British hardcover edition was, sadly, remaindered in conscpicuous quantities, I bought enough to give to most of my friends and not a few of my enemies.

Rereading Legends of the Fall before writing this piece, my reactions to the first story, “Revenge”, and the last, the title story, were scarcely less effusive. What is audacious is Harrison’s ambition – there is no getting around either the narrative scope here, nor its extreme seriousness and emotional intensity – and the control of material and style, which never seems to desert him. Apparently, Harrison was told by a regretful publisher that if only he’d written Legends of the Fall to around 600 pages instead of a mere 80, the New York Times Best Sellers List would have been theirs for the taking. He was right, of course – it’s all there: generation, war, unforgetting love and unforgiveable lust, insanity, individuality, honour and betrayal. But at that length it would have been another fat epic, better than most. As it stands it’s as close to perfect as you can get without falling off the edge.

This is how it begins:

Late in October in 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana, to Calgary in Alberta to enlist in the Great War (the U.S. did not enter until 1917). An old Cheyenne named One Stab rode with them to return with the horses in tow because the horses were blooded and their father did not think it fitting for his sons to ride off to war on nags. One Stab knew all the shortcuts in the northern Rockies so their ride traversed wild country, much of it far from roads and settlements. They left before dawn with their father holding an oil lamp in the stable dressed in his buffalo robe, all of them silent, and the farewell breath he embraced them with rose in a small white cloud to the rafters.

Much of the style and substance of Harrison’s writing is contained in that opening paragraph. The language is direct, the world is primarily a masculine one with its own rituals and codes, and that ritual quality is achieved through the language and structure. The influence, I would guess, is Hemingway, but there’s a weightier, almost a biblical cadence here that is Harrison’s own. The land – specifically the land of the mid- and north-west – and the journeys from that land to take part in foreign wars, are integral to much of his work, as is the relationship between the descendants of white European settlers and the surviving Native Americans. The graceful muscularity of the prose and the normally unsentimental presentations of the natural world enable Harrison (in my contention) to get away with the final description of the father’s farewell breath here, allowing it to take on a metaphoric, almost mythic quality, rather than subsiding towards bathos and sentimentality.

There are links between Harrison and an informal Montana-Key West group that includes fellow-writer Thomas McGuane, the painter Russell Chatham, singer Jimmy Buffet and actors such as Peter Fonda and Harry Dean Stanton. All of the U.S. editions of his books have reproductions on their jackets of Chatham’s work – two of them with the permission of their current owner, Stanton. It was McGuane who gave Harrison an important, early push and the two have collaborated together on at least one original screenplay, Cold Feet. Harrison, it seems, writes screenplays to keep his head above financial water while concentrating most of his creative energies on poetry and fiction …

… Harrison’s work is a world away from the self-regarding ironists so fashionable in New York literary circles. In that sense, he is a regional, a Western writer. As he said in an interview in Publishers Weekly: “I like grit, I like love and death, I’m tired of irony … I would rather give full vent to all human loves and disappointments, and take a chance on being corny, than die a smarts.”

He certainly avoided that.

You might also want to take a look at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets blog , where he writes about Jim Harrison and gives a link to the Harrison obituary he wrote for the Guardianhttp://irresistibletargets.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/jim-harrison-guardian-obituary.html

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