A House for Mr Biswas

(by V. S. Naipaul)                   With Transparent Things, the best nihilist comedy ever: a long, lovely, sad, frustrating look at defiant failure Mohun Biswas.  Full of ‘amazing scenes’ and family strife in Trinidad.  When Biswas daubs brightly coloured spots of zinc cream on his face and goes out onto the footpath to watch the world go by, it is hard not to laugh till you cry. The notoriously scratchy Mr Naipaul has produced an impressive oeuvre down the years, but this is certainly his best book.  He has written that it is…

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The Green Man

(by Kingsley Amis) The landlord of “The Green Man” pub has an alarming drinking problem and wandering hands.  Also, there is some monolithic horticultural product about, that could cause further alarm.  Amis senior’s famous book, Lucky Jim is superior to this slight work but this novella is so weird and perverse it is almost decadent.

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Franny and Zooey

(by J.D. Salinger) (1961) This perfect little novella (actually, a short story published in The New Yorker in 1955 and followed by another a couple of years later, then combined as a diptych) is a personal favourite. One would not wish to go on a houseboat holiday with any member of the Glass family (maybe Les) but their mood storms are always worth getting caught in. Frances Glass, the baby of the family, has discovered a little book called The Way of a Pilgrim (in real life purchased from Brentano’s by Salinger’s bride-to-be and reputed Gestapo staffer, Claire) which she…

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Doctor Faustus

(by Thomas Mann) Formidably long and deep, Mann’s novel was written from 1943 to 1947 and represents his “F.U” to Germany for feting Hitler and forgetting Mann. Still, Mann was right and this work is his masterpiece, one of the most authentic studies of genius.  Roger Scruton called it “Mann’s great valediction to Western culture.”

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Dead Souls

(by Nikolai Gogol) Gogol was no Dante. He could not legislate in his novels. But he pinned sinners more lethally than most and the wild scheme to buy and sell the dead, today, looks a lot like dealing in derivatives. The dead souls were peasants who had passed on between official census, and hence you incurred their holding costs (tax) till they were officially designated as dead at the next census. The protagonist, Chichikov, would acquire those dead souls, thereby assuming the tax burden of them, but he would mortgage them as live souls till the next census. Priestley wrote “On…

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