I am holding in my hand (courtesy of Cincinnati’s Mercantile Library) a first edition of Great Novelists and Their Novels, in which author W. Somerset Maugham names his 10 greatest novels of all time.
Maugham published the book in 1948. He turned 74 that year. He had been writing novels for 50 years, since Liza of Lambeth in 1897, so presumably he knew what was what in novel-writing if anyone did. Hemingway was a slacker compared to Maugham, and Fitzgerald (born in 1896) was already eight years dead.
Here’s how Maugham describes the book’s birth:
“One day, while I was still in the United States, the Editor of Redbook asked me to make a list of what in my opinion were the ten best novels in the world. I did so, and thought no more about it.”
(Aside: Redbook is still around. Its cover articles for March 2010: “Feel Sexier Tonight”; “Is Your Face Older Than You Are?”; “79 Instant Makeovers.”)
“Some time later, an American publisher put before me the suggestion of reissuing these ten novels… with an introduction to each one written by me. The suggestion interested me, and I set to work.”
Great Novelists and Their Novels is Maugham’s collection of those 10 introductions, with his thoughts and gossip on the lives and working habits of each of the 10 authors.
So what are the ten books?
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
THE RED AND THE BLACK
OLD MAN GORIOT
Honore de Balzac
WAR AND PEACE
THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV
Now then: if you have read all ten of these books, I would like to hear from you, and possibly shake your hand. One title — Old Man Goriot — I have never heard of at all, and another — The Red and the Black — I know only because Maugham speaks of it in other essays on the writer’s art.
Last week I’d have bet serious money that I would have at least heard of every title on any list of the 10 greatest English novels. But Maugham has made a monkey of me — twice, really.
He calls The Red and The Black “truly an amazing book.” Stendhal borrowed the plot from a famous trial of the day, according to Maugham. It’s the tale of a religious student who seduces the wife and daughter of two successive employers — and who, because of his debaucheries, is then refused the chance to become a priest. He takes violent revenge on his old employers with a gun.
So perhaps there’s a reason The Red and the Black isn’t an Oprah selection these days.
As for Old Man Goriot, I see that other translations render the title as Father Goriot or simply Old Goriot. The plot isn’t described by Maugham, who instead spends two dozen pages marveling over Balzac’s quirks. Here he is on Balzac’s longtime love, the wealthy widow Eveline Henska, and why she hesitated to marry him:
“Balzac was a notorious spendthrift; she may well have feared that he would play ducks and drakes with her fortune. He was always wanting money from her. He did not dip into her purse, he plunged both hands into it. She was rich and herself extravagant, but it is very different to fling your money about for your own pleasure and to have someone else fling it about for his.”
“Play ducks and drakes with her fortune” — heh!
Maugham doesn’t rank his books 1-10, but he does say this: “I think Balzac is the greatest novelist the world has ever known, but I think Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the greatest novel.” In this, at least, Maugham proves himself conventional. War and Peace is the Citizen Kane of novels, widely beloved and widely unread.
But no matter. Mainly I’m fascinated that two books Somerset Maugham regarded so highly in 1948 have dropped off the radar so completely. Or am I the only reader who’s never heard of Old Man Goriot?