Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you’re having a good break.
Back in December 2015, I joined the Classics Club, a group of bloggers and readers who wish to share their views on the “classic” books they read. (If you’re not familiar with the Club, you can find out all about it here.)
In essence, new members of the Classics Club are invited to put together a list of at least 50 classics they intend to read and write about at some point in the future. The structure allows for some flexibility – each member can set their own end date provided it’s within five years. Also, the definition of what constitutes a “classic” is fairly relaxed – as long as the member feels the book meets the guidelines for their list, he or she is free to include it. All the books need to be old, i.e. first published at least twenty-years ago – apart from that, the definition is pretty flexible.
At the time of joining, I put together my selection of 50 books (playing rather fast and loose with the definition of a “classic”) with the aim of reading and writing about them by December 2018. Since then, I’ve been working my way through that list on a relatively steady basis, running the books alongside my other reading.
So, now we’ve reached the year-end, how have I been getting on? Well, I’ve read and written about 46 of the 50 books on my list – pretty good going, really, considering I took a break from blogging for the first three or four months of last year.
This was always going to be a three-year project for me, so I’ve decided to draw a line under it now as December 2018 feels like the natural end-point. While I could carry on, I don’t actually have physical copies of three of the four remaining books on my original list – and given that my current focus is to read the books in my existing TBR, I probably won’t get around to buying them any time soon. The three books in question are James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, Nella Larson’s Passing and Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy – all of which I may get at some point, just not in the foreseeable future.
The final book is The Leopard, which I own and tried to read a little while ago but couldn’t get into at the time. One for another day, perhaps, but not in the immediate future.
You can see my original list below, together with suitable replacements for the four books I didn’t read. In each case, I’ve substituted something relatively close to my original choice (also read in the last three years), e.g. Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel for Joseph Roth’s Hotel Savoy; James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk for Nella Larson’s Passing; and Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis for Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Okay, I know I’m cheating a little by doing this, but hopefully you’ll cut me some slack here. Virtually every book I read these days could be considered a “classic” of some description, so a little swapping here and there doesn’t seem unreasonable.
- Pitch Dark by Renata Adler
- They Were Counted by Miklós Bánffy + an additional post on the politics and history
- A Legacy by Sybille Bedford
- The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
- Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (replaced with Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze)
- The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares
- My Ántonia by Willa Cather
- The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate
- Our Spoons Came from Woolworths by Barbara Comyns
- Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
- An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov
- The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
- Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton
- The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley
- Vain Shadow by Jane Hervey
- Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith
- In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
- The Hunting Gun by Yasushi Inoue
- The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata
- Mr Norris Changes Trains by Christopher Isherwood
- We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
- The Adventures of Sindbad by Gyula Krúdy
- The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (replaced with The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani)
- Passing by Nella Larsen (replaced with If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin)
- The Doves of Venus by Olivia Manning
- The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
- The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
- Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara
- One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
- Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
- Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys
- Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth (replaced with Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum)
- A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan
- Improper Stories by Saki
- The Widow by Georges Simenon
- I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
- The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
- The Gate by Natsume Soseki
- Love in a Bottle by Antal Szerb
- A Game of Hide and Seek by Elizabeth Taylor
- A View of the Harbour by Elizabeth Taylor
- Spring Night by Tarjei Vesaas
- The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
- Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson
- Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
- The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
- Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams
- Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates
- The Burning of the World by Béla Zombory-Moldován
- Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig
As for what I’ve learned or gained by participating in the Club…well, I’ve met some new bookish friends who share an interest in older books, always a good thing. I’ve discovered some terrific *new* writers, some of whom have gone on to become firm favourites: Barbara Pym, Dorothy B. Hughes, Olivia Manning and Françoise Sagan to name but a few. Plus, it’s given me an excuse to delve into the backlist of some established favourites: writers like Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Yates, Patrick Hamilton, Edith Wharton and Patricia Highsmith, all chosen for this very reason.
On the downside, my experience of the books in translation has been somewhat mixed leading to some winners and a few losers. Looking back at my list, I don’t think I made the best choices in this area as my tastes have shifted somewhat in recent years — towards books by British, Irish and American writers, mostly from the mid-20th century.
Books in translation I really enjoyed or appreciated include Béla Zombory-Moldován’s remarkable WW1 memoir, The Burning of the World Miklós Bánffy’s epic Transylvanian Trilogy which began with They Were Counted, Natsume Soseki’s novel of urban angst, The Gate, and Françoise Sagan’s effortlessly cool A Certain Smile – all of these come highly recommended.
Less successful for me were The Invention of Morel (Bioy Casares), Spring Night (Tarjei Vesaas) and The Adventures of Sindbad (Gulya Krúdy). While the Krúdy worked well in small doses, the book as a whole just felt too samey and repetitive. A pity, really, as the writing was wonderfully evocative at times.
So, that’s pretty much it, a very rewarding experience all told. I’ve read some terrific books over the last three years, and I think it’s given me a better feel for the types of “classic” writers and books that are most likely to work for me in the future.
Please feel free to share your thoughts on any of these books in the comments below. I’m also interested to hear about your experiences of the Club if you’ve been involved with it. How has it been going for you? What have you gained from participating? I’d like to know. (Naturally, comments on my own experiences are also very welcome!)