Good Fiction Guide

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Good Fiction Guide

edited by Jane Rogers Consultant Editor Hermione Lee Assistant Editors Mike Harris, Douglas Houston OXFORD UNIVER

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Jane Rogers Consultant Editor

Hermione Lee Assistant Editors

Mike Harris, Douglas Houston



Great Clarendon Street, Oxford 0x2 6DP Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University's objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide in Oxford New York Athens Auckland Bangkok Bogotá Buenos Aires Calcutta Cape Town Chennai Dar es Salaam Delhi Florence Hong Kong Istanbul Karachi Kuala Lumpur Madrid Melbourne Mexico City Mumbai Nairobi Paris Sâo Paulo Singapore Taipei Tokyo Toronto Warsaw with associated companies in Berlin Ibadan Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and in certain other countries Published in the United States by Oxford University Press Inc., New York Introduction © Jane Rogers 2001 Compilation © Jane Rogers and Oxford University Press 2001 Text © Oxford University Press 2001 The moral rights of the author have been asserted Database right Oxford University Press (maker) First published 2001 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press, or as expressly permitted by law, or under terms agreed with the appropriate reprographics rights organization. Enquiries concerning reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above You must not circulate this book in any other binding or cover and you must impose this same condition on any acquirer British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data Data available Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Data available ISBN 0-19-210021-1 13579



Typeset in Minion by Graphicraft Limited, Hong Kong Printed and bound by TJ International, Padstow, Cornwall

Contents Introduction vii Contributors xiii SUBJECT ESSAYS I

Adventure Robert McCrum


Ireland Patricia Craig


Africa Anthony Chennells


Magic realism Carol Birch


Australia and New Zealand Jane Rogers


Romance Elizabeth Buchan


Russia Lesley Chamberlain


Black and white Rita Christian


Science fiction Livi Michael


Canada Aritha van Herk


The sea Tony Tanner


Caribbean E. A. Markham

23 27

Sexual politics Maureen Freely


Childhood Jan Dalley Classics John Sutherland


Short stories Lesley Glaister


Crime Michael Dibdin



Family saga Sherry Ashworth

Social issues Valentine Cunningham


Fantasy Tom Shippey

Spy Michael Shea



Film adaptations Mike Harris


Supernatural Michael Cox


France Michèle Roberts

Teen Adèle Geras 51


Germany Michael Hülse


Thrillers Val McDermid


Glamour Kate Saunders


United States of America Richard Francis


Historical Boyd Tonkin


War Mike Harris


Humour Nigel Williams


Western Lee Clark Mitchell


India Shirley Chew




Introduction fane Rogers This is a book for anyone who likes reading fiction. The aim behind it is to offer information—and enthusiasm—about over a thousand authors, and overfivethousand books. We've set out to do this in two ways;first,in thirtyfour short essays introducing different areas or genres offiction,each by a different writer with a special interest in that field. And secondly, in the longer part of the book, by one thousand-plus individual author entries which aim to give aflavourof each writer's work, recommendations of which books to read, and suggestions about other writers whose work is similar. Books are promoted to us endlessly, through adverts, reviews, adaptations, through glossy attention-grabbing covers in bookshops, and wild claims on jacket sleeves. They are set texts for exams; they are hyped by prizes and awards; or they are written by celebrities. But in the end, every reader knows, probably the single most compelling reason for picking up a book which is new to you, is when a friend tells you, 'Read this, it's really good.' This guide sets out to do exactly that. Each of the essayists has picked out their twelve favourite fiction books (in all the world) in their particular area—in order to explain and pass on their passion for those books. Many of the essayists are themselves novelists in the field they describe—Michael Dibdin writes on Crime, Nigel Williams on Humour, Michèle Roberts on France, E. A. Markham on the Caribbean, Aritha van Herk on Canada; others are novelists writing about branches of fiction which they know and love as readers rather than practitioners (Livi Michael on Science fiction, Robert McCrum on Adventure). In all the essays, and indeed the individual author entries, the notion of one reader recommending books to another is central. I should make it clear from the start that this is a.fictionguide, encompassing both literature and popular fiction. There are a number of excellent literature guides already in existence; the best of course being Margaret Drabble's peerless Oxford Companion to English Literature. There are several good guides to contemporary literature available, my personal favourite being Peter Parker's thorough and fascinating The Reader's Companion to 20th Century Writers. But this book aims to cover popular and genrefiction,as well as classics and contemporary literaryfiction.It aims to cover (sketchily, I admit, but to my knowledge there is no other guide that even makes the attempt) international fiction, not

just the classics like Dostoevsky and Flaubert, but more recent foreign-language writers in translation—Süskind, Sebald, Calvino, Fuentes, Maryse Condé, Naguib Mahfouz, Venedikt Yerofeev, and many more. We are attempting to cover the full range offictionbecause most readers love different kinds of books at different times. Or at the same time, come to that. A bag of holiday reading might happily contain Tolstoy, Georgette Heyer, Elmore Leonard, Frank Herbert and Nadine Gordimer. Snobbery in reading is the most pointless thing. And we don't buy or borrow books according to the nationality of the author—if they're available in English and we like the sound of them, we read them. For a general fiction guide to cut out fiction in translation seems arbitrary and narrow-minded. Most of this book's contributors are writers; I am a writer. Before I was a writer, I was a reader. Being a reader, an obsessive devourer of books, an honest critic, and a passionate defender, is part of the make-up of most writers, and for this reason I think they write well about books. I have worked hard to free the guide from academic jargon and critical theory. I have sometimes bullied contributors into using plainer language, and stating things more straightforwardly, than perhaps they would have liked. This is because books are for everybody. I dislike the mystique some academics create around literature; and on written English, my guiding star is Orwell: 'Good prose is like a window pane.' Each essayist's 'top twelve' is entirely his or her own choice, and as the essays have come in, I've had first-hand experience of how this Guide should work: I've rejoiced to find favourite books recommended, been outraged by omissions of equally good writers, and been tempted into entirely new areas of fiction by the enthusiasms of essayists. (I had never read a Western in my life before, but Lee Clark Mitchell has shown me what I'm missing. Then there's recent Russianfictionto tackle . . . ) Many readers will want to pick a quarrel with these 'top twelves'—as those of us editing the essays have frequently done. I was horrified to find that in Richard Francis' wonderfully concise and eloquent overview of fiction from the United States, he made no mention of lohn Updike—who in my view is the best living American writer. Well, Richard doesn't rate him so highly. (And you can always turn to the Updike author entry, which I have written myself.) Consultant editor Hermione Lee, upon reading Lesley Glaister's particular and lovingly described choices in Short stories, noted in the margin, 'Heartbroken no Elizabeth Bowen!' Bowen did, as a result, find her way into Lesley's essay, but often authors that were argued over did not. I was disturbed to find no Camus or Stendhal in France, but utterly seduced by Michèle Roberts's delightful reader's meander through


the country's history and geography. Assistant editor Mike Harris wanted to know what Angela Carter was doing in Social issues when Elizabeth Gaskell and George Gissing were missing—but Valentine Cunningham's wide-ranging essay has its own agenda. And Camus, Stendhal, Gaskell, and Gissing, can all be found in the author entries section. The point about the subject essays is that they are based on personal taste—they are here to lead readers to new books by putting those books in a context and explaining why the essayists rate them so highly: and, of course, the essays are here to be argued with. How, in a list of twelve books, can you cover a genre, a country, a continent? Which brings me to the whole vexed question of which authors are featured in the author entries, and which are not. Battles have raged over which authors should be included here, but the selection process has been guided by certain principles. Authors are in if their books are well known; they must be still in print, or must be so seminal to the development of a genre, or so dear to a particular contributor's heart, that they have won me over by sheer passion and persistence. (Any out-of-print titles recommended here are titles which contributors hope and believe should be brought back into print; and most of them are still available through libraries.) Authors are in if they have been particularly strong sellers over the years, or if they have featured recently within the Public Libraries list of most-borrowed authors—that seemed to me to be a pretty good guide to popularity. That doesn't mean we've been prepared to recommend any old rubbish; there are popular writers who have been excluded on the grounds that no one involved in this project could find it in their heart to recommend them (the best example being Mills and Boon romances). I hope and believe that readers of Romance will find suggestions to interest them in Elizabeth Buchan's wide-ranging essay, and by reading on from the writers she recommends. Another difficulty in deciding who to include is the question of new or only recently established writers. When I drew up the original author list, Arundhati Roy was unpublished—now she is a Booker Prize winner. There will be other rising stars whom I've missed, who will seem to be glaring omissions by the time this guide is published; and there will, sadly and inevitably, be writers here whose books disappear from print and library shelves with horrible speed. Established authors covered here continue to produce new novels; many of them, inconsiderately, not long after entries on them have been completed. Keeping up to date on a project like this means running to stay on the spot; in the end, I think, with all its defects and omissions, this must be regarded as a snapshot of fiction in English at the opening of the twenty-first century.

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The scope of the book is also deliberately limited because it had to be possible to get it into one volume. A decision was taken early on not to cover children's fiction, which is well covered elsewhere. But it seemed important


work also pushes at the boundaries between interior and exterior worlds, and cf explores madness with a forthright, often humorous, energy; and yet also with §T a heart-breaking acceptance of the powerlessness of those judged (as she at g^ times has been) insane. ^ Elizabeth Jolley is an interesting Australian writer; born in England, she N didn't even move to Australia till she was 36. But her work is self-avowedly £L Australian, and it shows in the confidence and self-confessed insecurity of her jL heroines, both when treated humorously as in Foxybaby (1984), or in darker V tone, in a book like The George's Wife (1993) where the narrator circles her £, life in search of meaning. Jolley herself, when asked to typify an Australian 3

outspokenly uncomfortable with her troublesome country. The Piano Teacher -< (1983) explores the love-hate relation between Erika Kohut and her mother, and


Kohut's fascination with the seamy side of Vienna. The West German is Patrick


Süskind, whose Perfume (1985), a murder story set in eighteenth-century France,


is a stylistic and imaginative tour de force. The best-selling German novel



worldwide since The Tin Drum, it symbolized the arrival of a new generation of German writers more concerned to tell a powerful story than to examine the nation's historical guilt or the teething troubles of democracy through the years of student revolt and of terrorism. Andfinally,the German writer long resident in England is W. G. Sebald, whose idiosyncratically melancholy narratives, a teasing blend of fact and fiction, won a wide readership either side of the Atlantic as the century closed. His masterpiece, The Emigrants (1993), is among many other and more important things an unspoken rebuke to those German writers (and others) who would consider reunification in 1990 as setting a triumphalist full stop to the probing of the painful past. It consists of four brief lives of Jewish people who left Germany, and through the re-creation of the circumstances of those lives it evokes bygone times that can never return. Arresting for its graceful language, its elegiac compassion, and its meditative sensitivities, it marks a mature and responsible closing to a century of writing from a troubled and troubling nation. Top Twelve Buddenbrooks (1901)



Caspar Hauser (1908)

The Castle (1926)


Quiet on the Western Front (1929)

Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929)


The Man without Qualities (1930-43)


The Tin Drum (1959)


Man Appears in the Holocene (1979)


Place on Earth (1981)


The Piano Teacher (1983)


Perfume (1985)

W. G. SEBALD, The Emigrants (1993)

Glamour Kate Saunders The Glamour novel, at the time of writing, is in eclipse. The Zeitgeist is inner fulfilment rather than outer show, and this particular sub-genre of romantic fiction deals in breathtaking excess. Stakes are always high here, and emotions searing. There should be moments of pure melodrama—for instance, the central scene in Shirley Conran's Lace (1993), in which a young model asks the four heroines: 'Which one of you bitches is my mother?' Unwieldy tracts of history must be skimmed for the juicy bits, and recast in tabloid headlines. It is more than putting the plums at the top of the cake. The point about Glamour fiction is that it is all plums. Fame is global, fortunes are massive, passions are volcanic —and my dear, the clothes—'At a state dinner at the White House she was the most resplendent figure there, only 22 years old, wearing pale lilac satin from Dior and emeralds that had once belonged to Empress Josephine' (Judith Krantz, Scruples, 1978); 'The men looked much more glamorous than the women this evening, gaudy peacocks in their different tail coats, red with grey-blue facings for the West Cotchester Hunt, red with crimson for the neighbouring Gatheram Hunt, dark blue with buff for the Beaufort' (Jilly Cooper, Rivals, 1988). Krantz and Cooper are, for my money, the queens of this genre. Krantz, whose ground-breaking Scruples appeared back in 1978, can be said to have invented it, or at least set the boundaries. The Glamour novel rode high in the 1980s, when 'aspiration' was an acceptable euphemism for old-fashioned greed. Female readers in search of escapist entertainment wanted more than the feisty kitchenmaids and mill-girls of Catherine Cookson; more than the virginal young things in the typical Mills and Boon romance, which traditionally kept the bedroom door closed. We wanted it all—love, money, success, clothes, jewels, houses, cars. And if a writer had taken the trouble to invent an incredibly sexy hero, we wanted to see him put through his paces. Where could we sigh over fabulous descriptions of designer sex, before Judith Krantz ripped the bedroom door off its hinges, and made sexual passion a vital element of the feminine best-seller? Women had written explicitly about sex before, but Krantz arguably invented aspirational sex, where orgasms are always seismic and men are rendered helpless by desire—sex, in fact, as part of a whole, desirable lifestyle package. 'Life-style' was itself an 1980s concept, and the Glamour novel belongsfirmlyin the era of Reagan and Thatcher.

Judith Krantz followed Scruples with the equally successful Princess Daisy (1980), a glittering farrago of Russian aristos, old money, and hidden twin sisters. In Britain, the above-mentioned Lace rode high in the best-seller lists. The journalist Celia Brayfield, who claimed to have assisted with large sections of Conran's book, successfully went independent with her own piece of Glamour fiction, Pearls (1998). Sally Beauman, also a journalist, famously sold her novel Destiny (1988) for £1 million. These books, of a type popularly known as 'Shopping and Fucking', attracted enormous advances from glamour-hungry publishers, and this fact took the glitzy mythology a stage further. As far as an aspiring female public were concerned, writing about incredible amounts of glamour had admitted the authors themselves to the charmed circle they were writing about. There was a teasing hint, when you bought one of these gaudily packaged paperbacks, that some of the hyperbole might rub off. No publishing phenomenon is entirely new, of course, and the Glamour novel is a direct descendant of the so-called 'Silver Fork' novels of the 1830s and 1840s; conventional marriage-broking dramas in which plots are drowned in luxurious detail. Then as now, they were widely regarded as ludicrous by the literary establishment. Dickens parodies the genre in Nicholas Nickleby (1839), when he has the virtuous Kate Nickleby reading a novel called The Lady Flabella to her snobbish but vulgar employer, Mrs Wititterly: At this instant, while the Lady Flabella yet inhaled that delicious fragrance by holding the mouchoir to her exquisite, but thoughtfully-chiselled nose, the door of the boudoir (artfully concealed by rich hangings of silken damask, the hue of Italy's firmament) was thrown open . . . two valets-de-chambre, clad in sumptuous liveries of peach-blossom and gold... presented, on a golden salver gorgeously chased, a scented billet. It was an easy style to send up. 'There was not a line in it,' comments Dickens, 'which could, by the most remote contingency, awake the smallest excitement in any person breathing.' As the author of The Lady Flabella might have said, plus ça change. Then as now, Glamour fiction was critically despised because it was specifically aimed at women, and usually written by women. It is still broadly true that novels catering to female fantasies have a lower intellectual status than escapist fiction for men or children. At its best, however, the Glamour novel has an extravagance, gusto, and richness of invention that is very appealing. It is a form without pretension— the one exclusive enclosure it does not aspire to join is the canon of Western Literature. It is significant that its leading exponents, including Krantz and Cooper, began as successful journalists. The form demands a high gloss of

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professionalism. As novelists, they never lose sight of the fact that they are in the business of entertainment.


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For Krantz, in herfirstand best novel Scruples, the main attractions are obscene amounts of money, and Hollywood fame discussed with gossipy intensity. For


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Cooper, over on the other side of the Atlantic, the headline is social class—the reader is invited to admire houses and objects that money alone cannot buy, because they have a patina of poshness several centuries deep. The stark cultural differences between these two novelists, however, are only highlighted by their similarities. The Glamour novel sticks to a time-honoured romantic template. The heroine must still end up in the arms of the right hero. No matter how much Bollinger has been licked out of her navel by Olympic-standard studs along the way, true love is still monogamous and eternal. Krantz's Bostonian beauty Billy Ikehorn ends Scruples married and pregnant—her husband's Oscar is only the cherry on the cake. Cooper's dewy Taggie O'Hara wins and tames the handsome beast of a hero, Rupert Campbell-Black. The road to romantic fulfilment has remained basically unchanged since Jane Eyre fell into the arms of Mr Rochester, but the Glamour novel placed new landmarks along the way. A Glamour heroine ought to be a successful businesswoman in her own right, before winning the man who will free her from the burden of making her own money (fun for a while, like making your own chutney—but who wants to do it for ever?). Art is about conflict, and the heroine's progress should not be too easy. There should be a Cinderella-ish element in her meteoric rise. Krantz's Billy Ikehorn starts out not povertystricken, like one of Cookson's poor girls, but enormously fat. Cooper's sweet Taggie O'Hara is dyslexic, and despised by herflightymother. In its heyday, the Glamour novel understood and defined the new demands of the 1980s female escapist. Fantasies change as time passes, and the bestsellers of the late 1990s are far more likely to concern struggling single women, in more ordinary jobs, worrying that they will never get a husband until they are too old to have babies (see Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones' Diary, 1996, and Jane Green's Mr Maybe, 1999). This sharp move away from Glamour is neatly illustrated by the subsequent careers of Judith Krantz and July Cooper. In the early 1990s, Krantz produced Scruples Two, a sequel to her masterpiece. In the first book, Billy Ikehorn seeks fulfilment by starting a Beverly Hills shop called 'Scruples' which sells the very best that money can buy. The sequel, rather sadly, finds her selling style to the masses via a catalogue. How are the mighty fallen —from Harrods to Next. Jilly Cooper, with her teeming plots and exuberant humour, is still riding high in the best-seller lists. But as her most recent book, Score! (1999) shows, she is retreating further into the absurd. The sheer silliness

of the antics (murderers in underground tunnels, beloved dogs appearing as ghosts) masks a realization that conspicuous consumption alone will not grab

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the reader's interest.


When writers of Glamour fiction survive and prosper, it is because they


have the intelligence to adapt the form to contemporary tastes. Rosie Thomas

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which the Devil, a man called Woland, appears in Moscow with his familiars, a monstrous cat and a naked girl. All hell breaks loose, literally. Inexplicably, in the midst of the madness Woland takes under his wing the Master and Margarita, a writer in an asylum and the woman he loves. Mikhail Bulgakov wrote this under Stalinist oppression between 1928 and 1938. It was not published till thirty years after his death. The symbolism is clear when one learns that Stalin for some reason protected Bulgakov at a time when writers were being persecuted. Chaotic, garish, and violent, The Master and Margarita is a dazzling nightmare. Similarly unrestrained and energetic is Salman Rushdie, who uses magic realist techniques to express the mingling of east and west. Saleem Sinai, in Midnight's Children (1981) epitomizes the post-colonial voice. One of the thousand and one children born at midnight on the dawn of India's independence, Saleem tells stories which teem and multiply in an anarchic cocktail of history, myth, and popular culture. As a liberating device for the writer, magic realism is wonderfully efficient; any law can be broken. A master lawbreaker is Gabriel García Márquez. Like Rushdie a born story-teller, Márquez is humorous, gentle, and humane. One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) relates the history of the mythical Colombian shanty town of Macondo, home of the mystical Buendia family, for whom ghosts are real and time exists as in dreams, obeying no laws. Chilean writer Isabel Allende is often compared to Márquez. The House of the Spirits (1985) tells the Trueba family saga up to the period after the Chilean coup in 1973, in which Allende's own uncle was assassinated. Patriarchy here is represented by the conservative Esteban Trueba, spirit and intuition by his telepathic wife Clara. Allende's perspective is staunchly feminist and deeply romantic, qualities found with darker, more sinister tones in Angela Carter's work. Carter loved fairy-tales and retold them lushly and brilliantly in The Bloody Chamber (1979). Melanie, the orphaned adolescent heroine of The Magic Toyshop (1967) is also in a fairy-tale, though it masquerades as 'melancholy, down-on-its-luck South London'. Sent from the country to live in the house of her frightening Uncle Philip and his bullied family, dumb Aunt Margaret and two red-haired Irish brothers, Melanie's sexual awakening takes place in a quaint, nightmarish world, rich in Gothic and Freudian tints. Eroticism is well

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served by magic realism. Leopold Bloom's sado-masochistic fantasies in Ulysses (1922) are essentially magic realism, as is the scene that concludes Carlos Fuentes' Terra Nostra (1975), in which the sex act becomes a startlingly literal fusion of


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two bodies, and exaggeration overflows into an image of cosmic procreation that sends us spinning back to Genesis. In fact, if you are at all interested in magic realism, Terra Nostra is crucial reading. It is a vast erudite book, rich, poetic, and mystical. Here time has thrown



off all constraints. History is scrambled: Philip II of Spain marries Elizabeth Tudor, a boy falls into the Seine and is washed up on a beach in the past, the past invades the present, and all stages of history coexist. Not surprisingly, given the vivid fairy lore and troubled history of Ireland, a dose of magic realism seems to run through its writers' veins. Joyce certainly has it, as do James Stephens, and Samuel Beckett of course; but perhaps one of the most sublime pieces ever is Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman, completed in 1940 but, in a scenario familiar from Bulgakov, not published for another twenty-seven years and then only after the writer's death. Quite unlike anything else, The Third Policeman is a comic nightmare set in a recognizable rural Ireland, in which such banal entities as bumbling village policemen are keepers of the secrets of infinity, watchers at the gates of a cosily familiar but skewed hell. O'Brien had already tampered with time in At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), in which a rag-bag of characters from Irish folklore, Hollywood, and the Dublin pub scene set off together on a hilarious ramble. This is the book in which the narrator's own characters turn upon him and demand autonomy. O'Brien and others strike at the very foundations of fiction, the distinction between the creator and the creation; they assume the right of the created to fight back, the creator to appear as a character and participate in the action, much as the Word became flesh. Other writers who have played this game are John Fowles and Paul Auster, but the Italian writer Italo Calvino took a sideways step with the conceit in If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (1979). From the first line he involves the reader as a participant along with himself: 'You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel' It is a book about You, the reader of books. Intrigued, you follow into a chilly possible spy story which dumps you abruptly, as the fictional You, the Reader, finds that his book is defective and returns it to the shop. There the Reader meets Ludmilla, who also has a defective copy of the book If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. The plot thickens as you follow the obviously attracted but circumspect pair on a quest through the repeatedly frustrated beginnings of ten separate novels, the first lines of which, when put together, make Zen-like sense.

Calvino's sophistication anticipates the short fictions of the Argentinian


writer Jorge Luis Borges. Magic realism readily combines the scientific and


the spiritual, and Borges is the prime example of this. He can appear dry at


first, mathematically measured and academic in style, formidably intellectual


in tone. Closer attention, however, reveals a liberated imagination, a gently


ironic eye, and a profound spirituality. Borges is ideal for browsing. Dip in


and come up with a delicate alchemical gem such as The Rose of Paracelsus


(in Shakespeare's Memory, 1983), or a disorienting theological riddle like Three


Versions of Judas (in Labyrinths, 1953). Borges presents life as a labyrinth, a fermentation of endless conundrums, unknowable but ineffably beautiful. If magic realism is story-telling freed to be as playful and profound as it likes, then Borges is its ultimate practitioner. But it's a broad church and this is only a little of what's out there. Try also Luisa Valenzuela, Mario Vargas Llosa, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Emma Tennant, Juan Rulfo, Peter Carey, Günter Grass . . . the list goes on. See also CAROL BIRCH Top Twelve FRANZ KAFKA,

The Trial (1925)


The Kingdom of This World (1949)


Labyrinths (1953), or his Collected Fictions (1998)


The Master and Margarita (1966-7, in full in


One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)


The Magic Toyshop (1967)


The Third Policeman (1967)


Terra Nostra (1975)

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (1979)


Children (1981)

The House of the Spirits (1982) The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984)

Romance Elizabeth Buchan 'Reader, I married him.' In perhaps one of the most quoted (and misquoted) offictionalresolutions, Charlotte Brontë brings to a close a novel which an interested publisher had requested to be 'wild, wonderful and thrilling'. It is the finale of an emotional and physical journey brought to a conclusion by that most prosaic of rites of passage: marriage. Yet it is one which we perceive (and romantic fiction still tends heavily to this view) as a logical consequence of the erotic and spiritual experiences of passionate love for another human being—feelings which, incidentally, are absolutely democratic, for love is universal and available to all. 'For some of us, love will be the great creative triumph of our lives . . . and can lead the lover to transcending truths', suggests Ethel Spector Person in Love and Fateful Encounters. In this respect, romantic fiction could be seen as offering a template for personal resolution and a proponent of social order. This is certainly true of Jane and her Mr Rochester. More than a century and a half later, Jane Eyre (1847) is still wild and wonderful—'one of the oddest novels ever written,' argues Angela Carter, 'a delirious romance replete with elements of pure fairy tale, given its extraordinary edge by the sheer emotional intelligence of the writer, the exceptional sophistication of her heart.' A romance then, leavened by intelligence, intense emotion, psychological acuity, a passionate sense of natural justice, counterbalanced by Gothic thrills and a galloping narrative, it is a novel that educates the reader in the workings of the human heart and in the continuing battle between the individual's wishes and society's hypocritical and treacherous demands. Jane is abused by a so-called 'aunt', starved in the name of philanthropy at Lowood School, nearly led into the sin of bigamy by a man who professes to love her, and asked, in the name of religion, to sell herself in marriage to a zealot. Her struggle to find her place as a woman and a member of society is a profound and difficult one and nearly costs her her life and sanity. Despite the Gothic embellishments— thefire,the madfirstMrs Rochester, Jane's dramatic flight across the moors— the author has a shrewd grasp of social injustice. 'Do you think', cries Jane to Mr Rochester, 'because I am poor, plain and little, I am souless and heartless?' In one of the great affirmations in literature, she adds, 'You think wrong—I have as much soul as you—and full as much heart.'

Jane Eyre is the quintessential romantic novel with enduring appeal. Only a g5 quick glance at the best-seller lists is necessary to reveal that romantic fiction g dominates the market with novels such as Catherine Cookson's (who disliked 3 being categorized as romantic in the narrow sense), The Horse Whisperer (1995) gl by Nicholas Evans, Rosamunde Pilcher's phenomenally selling The Shell Seekers g. CD

(1987) or even, Sebastian Faulks' Charlotte Gray (1998), whose heroine con-


trives to have herself parachuted undercover into France in order to find her g shot-down lover—a selfless/selfish gesture which underlines how intimately g linked private concerns are to great historic events. Romantic fiction has had an interesting, protean history, and not a few rough patches. In its early evolving form, a romance—usually written in verse —was an adventure. It was meant to entertain (and still does) and took as its subject courtly love and chivalry, often incorporating myth and fantasy. Those characteristics clung to it, via the story-cycles of King Arthur, the lays of French courtly love, and the early German poets. Chaucer paid it the compliment of satire in his Tale of Sir Thopas (in The Canterbury Tales, around 1387) and, during the English renaissance, both Spenser and Philip Sidney elaborated on the pastoral romance, but, with the development of the novel, the focus shifted and narrowed. In his dictionary, Samuel Johnson defined romantic as 'wild landscape'. This offers a clue to romantic fiction. For evident in the best novels is the wild landscape of mood, emotion, and psychology and the strange, and sometimes terrible, power of love—a heightened, altered consciousness which is not necessarily directed at another person but which always has the power to effect change. Of course, authors pick and choose and borrow elements. Jane Austen gave us Pride and Prejudice (1813), arguably the best romantic comedy ever. Here we see the form developing but with an ironic style which is in direct contrast to the lively but preachy thrills of her contemporary, Maria Edgeworth. Boy meets girl, they encounter obstacles (in this case their own natures), overcome them and, thus, the way is open to the altar. But inserted into the bright and sparkling prose, there is a debate about the nature of love and marriage and also anger and terror. To be poor, unconnected, and female in this society was doom indeed. Later in the century Thomas Hardy observed much the same formula in Far From the Madding Crowd (1874)—the story of a young, headstrong girl and her relationship with three men. 'Romance', he tells us, taking leave of the chastened Bathsheba, 'grows up between the interstices of reality.' However, if we are to judge by the fatalistic, coincidence-strewn events and the haunting nostalgia and lyricism of his stories, he is not quite convinced.

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The statement is better applied to F. M. Mayor's neglected classic, The Rector's Daughter (1924), a deceptively quiet novel of burning passion and renunciation. During the 1930s, in a dull East Anglian village, Mary, the rector's daughter, falls in love with Mr Herbert the curate. It goes wrong, and he marries another woman. But her love does not end and the one adulterous kiss she experiences


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irradiates the rest of her short life. This is an unforgettable and unerring portrait of duty observed at immense cost and of suffering. Whether consciously or unconsciously, a natural justice—which can be interpreted as a kind of feminism—was creeping into the pages of these novels. The far better known Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier is tougher, showier, and heavier handed. A shy virgin marries an older man and he takes her to live in his beautiful house on the Cornish coast. Soon we are in dubious territory. Jealousy, sexual domination, cruelty, and murder, plus a gripping narrative with Gothic thrills, keep the reader glued to the page. But with whom does the power rest in the end? The answer lies in the overnight maturation of the shy virgin into the woman who chooses complicity for the sake of love. Quite properly, romanticfictionhas its murky side. 'Women', wrote Stendhal, 'are hungry for emotion, anywhere and at any time.' During the twentieth century the market place fell over itself to feed this hunger. A huge industry for light, escapistfictionflourished, offering readers relief from the realities of living with Mr Right and the struggle to work the night shift. In Friday's Child (1944), the peerless Georgette Heyer gives us a template for stylish elegance, a lesson in the ridiculous, and a masterpiece of subversive satire on the literary form—not to mention the sheer pleasure of being made to laugh. Today it is true that these novels, whose increasingly effective heroines can either dominate boardrooms or, à la Bridget Jones, battle to lose weight and find a boyfriend, are written and read by women. In this respect they provide a key to the female psyche. Here are dramatized the increasing conflict between biology and career, the desire for revenge on an unequal society, and, in direct counterpoint, the recognition of a female eroticism which responds to the freebooting, but ultimately tameable, male—the myth of Beauty and the Beast has not remained fresh without reason. In the age of equality, the phallic, plundering male is no longer acceptable and the challenge is to redefine those erotic truths within a rapidly changing context if only by presenting a contrast. Arthur Gulden's Memoirs of a Geisha (1997) relies on a meticulously detailed pre-Second World War background of a sexual underworld whose entrapment was total. His story is of a female captivity, but it is also the one of the maiden immured in the cave, emerging with the help of love and self-knowledge—and the chivalric Chairman—into freedom.

As ever, the best writers are untrammelled by rules or formulas. Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847) envisages a transcendental love. In Not That Sort of

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Girl (1987), Mary Wesley slots a lifelong love-affair between Rose and Milo in