Famous for the wrong book
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Famous for the wrong book

It's not necessary that an author's most popular work is also his finest, writes John Self.

india Updated: Jul 21, 2011 22:50 IST
John Self
John Self

Why is it that the book for which an author is best known is rarely his best? If history is the final judge of literary achievement, why has a title like Louis de Bernières' Captain Corelli's Mandolin risen to the top, overshadowing his much better earlier novels such as Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord? It's not, I hope, the simple snobbery of insisting that the most popular can't be the finest.

If someone reads Kurt Vonnegut's most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five, and doesn't like it, I'll want to shout to them, "But it's rubbish! Cat's Cradle is much better!" It's not just me, I'm sure. Geoff Dyer takes the view that it is John Cheever's journals, not his stories, which represent his "greatest achievement, his principal claim to literary survival". Gabriel Josipovici says that it isn't Kafka's The Trial or 'Metamorphosis', not any of his novels or stories, which "form [his] most sustained meditation on life and death, good and evil, and the role of art", but his aphorisms.

So I am going to list a few instances of a writer being famous for the wrong book, and my suggestions for where their greatest achievement really lies.

Joseph Heller: Catch-22 is too long, messy and takes 100 pages to get going. Heller's second novel, Something Happened, took even longer to write and justified the time. From its opening line - "I get the willies when I see closed doors" - it is a supremely controlled and meticulous masterpiece, grounded in the horror of daily living. The first time I read it I was overwhelmed. The second time I thought it was hilarious. The third time - getting closer to the age of the horribly honest narrator Bob Slocum - it was terrifying. It's the book that keeps on giving.

Kazuo Ishiguro: Hard to say exactly which book is his most famous these days. Is it, bafflingly, the inchoate Never Let Me Go, probably his weakest novel? Or the reliable The Remains of the Day, a lovely book to be sure, but really just a refinement of his first two novels? The big one, surely, is The Unconsoled, his bold and brilliant epic of one man's anxiety, via family expectations, dream-logic, and growing up and growing old. It's always been a controversial novel, to be sure: one writer called it "unreadable", while another said it was "one of the few readable English novels of the 1990s". Still, when The Unconsoled was featured on Late Review (as it then was) on publication in 1995, Tony Parsons called for copies of it to be burned. What greater recommendation do you need?

Evelyn Waugh: In the preface to Brideshead Revisited, written 15 years after its first publication, Waugh comments that the book was written in the "privation" of wartime, and that "in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony, for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language which now, with a full stomach, I find distasteful." Quite so. Waugh's strength is as a humorist, the blacker the better, and so A Handful of Dust must be his best work. This is the novel which, in a pivotal scene nobody will forget ("Oh thank God"), taught me what Isaac Babel meant when he said that no iron can pierce the heart with the force of a full stop put at just the right place.

Jeanette Winterson: Heaven knows Jeanette Winterson has had her literary ups and downs - Gut Symmetries or The PowerBook, anyone? No, didn't think so - but she's always an interesting writer in an age when a willingness to experiment is rarely welcomed. It's sad then that her most famous work remains her only mildly ambitious debut, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Despite the fairytale insertions and Winterson's revisionist application of a "spiral narrative" to it, it's a straightforward and warm autobiographical novel. For me her finest work - before those "difficult" but still rewarding mid-period novels - is Sexing the Cherry. Written at the disgustingly young age of 29, it's funny, lyrical, clever and surprising, features the massive and memorable Dog Woman, and not incidentally, is very short.

The Guardian

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jul 21, 2011 22:13 IST