Wednesday, 21 May 2014

A History of the World in 50 Novels

Several of my friends received from me, last Christmas, a copy of Neil MacGregor's A History of the World in 100 Objects. One of these friends subsequently commented to me that, if MacGregor can tell the history of the World with 100 objects, I could surely tell it through 100 novels.

The idea was sufficiently intriguing for me to start drawing up a list, but the first conclusion I reached was that, with novels, a list of 100 would simply be too long. It takes far longer to digest a novel than it does to appraise an object. 50 might be a more manageable number.

My first draft was altogether too predictable (how could one not include Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Great Expectations, War and Peace), with too many books that people are likely either to have read, or already have on their "to read" list, or have decided are not "for them." There could be little interest in sharing such a list and, in any case, what could I possibly say about War and Peace that has not already been said? One could, of course, tell the history of the novel in fifty examples (a list that might run from The Tale of Sinuhe via The Satyricon, Don Quixote and Ulysses to If, on a Winter's Night, a Traveller...), but that would be a very different exercise, and one which, at least for the moment, I will leave to others.

A focus on historical fiction seemed to offer more possibilities, but I decided at an early stage to allow the ancients and our contemporaries, on occasions, to speak for themselves (the former because I think there are some ancient "novels" which offer fascinating windows into the civilisations that produced them, and which are not nearly so well known as they might be; the latter because nobody else has yet had the opportunity to write about them).

Here, then, is the list that I came up with, and I will be exploring each of these works in turn over the next few years (perhaps four or five years, certainly not the forty years that Frank Delaney is dedicating to the consideration of just one novel, James Joyce's Ulysses), interspersed with my other blog-posts. To make it easier to follow the discussion, I will tweet links to my postings using the hashtag #HW50Novels on Twitter. Since this is not a promotional exercise, I have excluded my own novels from the list, together with those written by my friends or published by my publisher:

1. William Golding, The Inheritors
2. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Reindeer Moon
3. Jim Crace, The Gift of Stones
4. Naguib Mahfouz, Khufu's Wisdom
5. Anon, The Tale of Sinuhe
6. Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
7. Mary Renault, The Last of the Wine
8. Ursula Le Guin, Lavinia
9. Amita Kanekar, A Spoke in the Wheel
10. Petronius, The Satyricon

11 Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian
12. Apuleius, The Golden Ass
13. Gore Vidal, Julian
14. Alfred Duggan, Conscience of the King
15. Margaret Elphinstone, The Sea Road
16. Wu Cheng'En, Journey to the West
17. Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake
18. Amin Maalouf, Samarkand
19. Umberto Eco, Baudolino
20. Akira Yoshimura, Shipwrecks

21. Marguerite Yourcenar, The Abyss
22. Orhan Pamuk, My Name is Red
23. Lawrence Norfolk, John Saturnall's Feast
24. Sjon, From the Mouth of the Whale
25. Andrew Miller, Pure
26. Toni Morrison, A Mercy
27. Wu Ming, Manituana
28. James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers
29. David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
30. Jo Baker, Longbourn
31. J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur
32. Sylvia Iparraguirre, Tierra del Fuego
33. A S Byatt, Angels and Insects
34. Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain
35. Eleanor Catton, The Luminaries
36. Yangsze Choo, The Ghost Bride
37. E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime
38. Pat Barker, The Ghost Road
39. Mariano Azuela, The Underdogs
40. Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago
41. Adam Foulds, In the Wolf's Mouth
42. Michelle Roberts, Ignorance
43. Gerard Woodward, Vanishing
44. James Michener, Hawaii
45. Brian Castro, Birds of Passage
46. Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, A Grain of Wheat
47. Anthony Burgess, Earthly Powers
48. Chinua Achebe, A Man of the People
49. Rebecca Hunt, Everland
50. Sebastian Faulks, A Week in December.

There is, needless to say, nothing "definitive" about this list, any more than there is about MacGregor's choice of objects. The "history" told will not be the conventional history of kings, queens and battles: it will be, in Fernand Braudel's terms, much more focussed on "La Longue Duree" than on "L'Histoire Eventionelle," and it will be intentionally subjective, reflecting the distinct contribution that fiction can make to our understanding of the human past. I hope, however, that it will be a shared journey in which everyone has something new to discover in the world of fiction.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

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