Best of the Year: Modern Classics

I have read over 150 books this year, and there is no way I am going to be able to select just ten for a ‘Best Of’ list, especially since I enjoy so many different genres of books. So I am dividing it into categories and this second category consists of modern classics (written in the last 1`00 years or so but before I was born). They have been among my favourite reads this year. No ifs, no buts. I love older classics too, but the 20th century is where my heart lies.

The Old British Library Reading Room in the British Museum, which I loved with all my heart and where I wrote most of my Ph.D. thesis.

Karel Čapek: War with the Newts [unclear who the translator is unfortunately]

Wonderful opportunity to read this book for the #1936Club. I was by turns amused and disturbed by this book. The satire, to my mind, is fierce – so accurate, so funny, even though it tries to attack too many targets at once. At the same time, the book left me quite despondent, because it still sounds remarkably current. We humans have not resolved any of these issues, we still behave like that, and we still don’t seem able to take a good long critical look at ourselves.

Max Blecher: Adventures in Immediate Irreality

I compared three English translations of this book to the original in Romanian, which I also read for the #1936Club. Although I took issue with some of the translations, I loved Blecher’s impossible to define work.

Blecher was ahead of his time in many ways, and will probably always be an acquired taste. This book will never become a bestseller, but it is remarkable for its unflinching look at the increasingly slippery borders between the real world and the interior (or, nowadays, the virtual) world. How the real world holds us back, imprisons us, never quite lives up to our imagination, how we forever sense there is something beyond its ‘petty passion for precision’. How the imaginary world can seduce us with its infinite promise, but is ultimately empty.

Naguib Mahfouz: Palace Walk, transl. William Maynard Hutchins and Olive E. Kenny

The kind of family saga that I adore, as it also contains political and social issues, a portrait of a country at a time of great changes.

The omniscient narrator who tells rather than shows us a character and the  ‘head-hopping’ between different points of view in the same scene are techniques that are frowned upon nowadays in the English-speaking publishing world, but it simply reminded me of 19th century novelists… Balzac or Tolstoy in the detailed description of the domestic and the social, with a large cast of interesting, complex characters. Of course, it has a languorous pace and style all its own.

Celia Fremlin: The Hours Before Dawn

A disquieting, beautifully paced book, which could have been written by Shirley Jackson (no higher praise, in my eyes), although the thriller and detection part of it does rely on a spot of coincidence that feels implausible. One of the best descriptions of unequal domestic division of labour that I’ve ever read, and, as the author says herself:

Although I am assured by some that nowadays everything is quite different and that modern young couples share and share alike when it comes to child-raising problems, I am not convinced. My own observation tells me that there are still many, many couples who believe, and certainly act, as if the babies and young children are the mother’s responsibility entirely.

Brigid Brophy: The Snow Ball

How could I not love this book, with its references to my favourite composer and opera (Mozart and Don Giovanni), as well as a masked ball, and a very sexy battle of the wits? A polyphony of joy, yet with a tinge of melancholy, like all the best things in life.

22 thoughts on “Best of the Year: Modern Classics”

    1. But those just came out this year, so can’t be considered modern classics yet, although they might become so in time. I have another category for newly released…

  1. I like this category, Marina Sofia, not just because of the books you’ve chosen (although, as always, you’ve chosen well), but because of the way you’ve teased out books like this, that are considered classics, but aren’t necessarily older books. I’m looking forward to seeing what other categories you choose.

  2. At first I read “written in the last 1`000 years or so but before I was born”, which seemed a bit odd.
    The one review I don’t remember reading in this list is Naguib Mahfouz. I’ve been wanting to read him for quite a while but I’ve used up all my library quota this side of Christmas so it won’t be jumping the queue, alas! Next year, hopefully.

    1. I just bought two other Brophy novels that come highly recommended: Flesh and The King of a Rainy Country. But with Mozart being such a huge favourite of mine, this book was the perfect fit for me!

  3. Wonderful and much needed category! (great list as well BTW) I love the idea of separating 20th century classics from those of earlier periods, as the books meet such different needs.
    Mahfouz’s Palace Walk/Cairo trilogy has been on my TBR for years. I really must bump it up a bit. I also have a copy of Brophy’s The Snow Ball; the attraction for me, as for you, is the Mozart tie-up. Don Giovanni is one of my very favorite operas!

    1. And yes, I had to distinguish between classics (although I am not sure I have read enough in the pre-20th century classics this year to have a ‘best of’ list)

  4. The Snow Ball is wonderful, isn’t it? The perfect read for New Year’s Eve. I suspect I missed some its subtleties due to my lack of familiarity with Mozart, but it was most enjoyable nonetheless.

  5. Good definition of modern classic – something I’ve always found hard to define! I enjoyed Palace Walk too, but still haven’t gone on to read the rest of the trilogy… *sigh*. Maybe next year…

  6. My brother’s not a great reader but he was just telling me this week that he’s enjoying Shirley Jackson. His birthday is soon so thank you for the Celia Fremlin tip – I always exhaust my present ideas for Christmas!

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