I'm an admirer of the writing of Somerset Maugham, as I've mentioned before. Plus I'm always a sucker for top-ten type lists. But what really clinched this book for me was the cover art — it's part of the Penguin series with ravishing still-life photographs by the great Harri Peccinotti.
Once I'd finished admiring the cover, though, I got down to considering Maugham's list of "the ten best novels in the world". Here they are:
Tom Jones, Pride and Prejudice, Le Rouge et le Noir, Le Père Goriot, David Copperfield, Madame Bovary, Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace.
Okay, so what do I think of this list? Well, I've only read Madame Bovary, Moby Dick, Tom Jones and Pride and Prejudice. Tom Jones is a bit vague, I admit. In fact, am I thinking of Joseph Andrews instead of Tom Jones?
All right — let's say I've definitely read three out of ten. And Madame Bovary is an absolute masterpiece. I was stunned by how modern and vivid and gripping it was. It read like a 20th Century noir novel — something by James M. Cain perhaps, with its character in the grip of a ruinous passion. But far better written than Cain.
Pride and Prejudice I regard with a sort of mild fondness. I remember being impressed that Austen's prose sometimes recalled Raymond Chandler's in its succinctly evocative descriptions.
Moby Dick was an experience I don't want to repeat. I got through it, but it was a long, hard slog.
Of the ones on Somerset Maugham's list that I haven't read, I'm in no hurry to get to David Copperfield. Hard Times made me wary of Dickens. Wuthering Heights I took a crack at once, and maybe I'll try again...
The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace are unlikely because I've got this thing about Russian novels... the characters have too many god-damned names, which are used indiscriminately and interchangeably. I can never keep track of who they're talking about.
But War and Peace has the Napoleonic wars going for it. So maybe...
That leaves the French novels. I'm such a chump I thought The Red and the Black was by Zola. But it's by Stendahl. And Le Père Goriot? What the hell is that? Ah, it's Balzac.
I might give that one a spin. I think of Balzac as being in the same school as Zola, and de Maupassant, whom I revere.
But what of Maugham's own book, about these ten novels? In his characteristically lucid introduction, he addresses the obvious arguments about how any such list must be arbitrary and partial (in both senses of the word — incomplete and biased).
Then he says this astonishing thing:
"The wise reader will get the greatest enjoyment out of reading them if he learns the useful art of skipping"
I suppose this explains why Moby Dick could make Maugham's list.
Because for the all the brilliance of parts of that book, it's way too
long and way too meandering.
But let me emphatically say two things here.
If a book requires that you skip chunks of it to enjoy it — or worse yet, simply to manage to get through it — then it has no place on any list of the ten best. The books which do qualify are those which can be read, and enjoyed, in their entirety without skipping.
And, equally important, if you have skipped parts of a book you haven't read it. And you can't claim to have read it. You've only read a book if you've read every word.
I think both of these assertions are perfectly fair.
But, to get back to Maugham and his introduction...
It gets worse. Much worse. He goes on to say how, after reading his comments about skipping, an American publisher approached him with a proposal. Why not reissue the ten books on his list, with the cuts done already, by Maugham? In other words, abridge them, and give each one an introduction by Maugham. The old word butcher himself.
And, horrifyingly, Maugham didn't tell the guy to get lost. He thought it was a perfectly valid idea. "There is nothing reprehensible in cutting," he says.
Though he does at least concede,"I cannot think that a single page could be omitted from so enchanting a novel as Pride and Prejudice, or from one so tightly constructed as Madam Bovary."
"Some... will exclaim that it's a shocking thing to mutilate a masterpiece," he concludes.
Well I have to confess that I'm shocked, for that very reason.
And I think considerably less of Maugham after reading that introduction.
(Image credits: The Penguin with beautiful Harri Peccinotti cover photo is scanned from my own copy. The Pan edition is from ABE. The green Heinemann hardcover is from My Maugham Collection, an interesting site which is well worth exploring. The other covers are from Good Reads.)