The Books that Built the Blogger with John from The Modern Novel


This week on The Books that Built the Blogger, I’m delighted to welcome John from The Modern Novel. John’s website celebrates the world-wide literary novel since  the beginning of the twentieth century, arranged by nationality and is a fascinating acrchive of his  personal but extensive survey of literary fiction since around 1900, which will continue to grow. A translator by background, John’s posts features well over 1000 authors writing in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish and are a fantastic resource.

My name is John and I have a website – The Modern Novel– and an associated blog – – on the worldwide literary novel since the beginning (more or less) of the twentieth century.


A couple of weeks ago, I saw a revival of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties.  The play is set mainly in Zurich in 1917 and revolves around Henry Carr, a minor British consular official (who really existed) and his relationship (real or imagined) with three residents of Zurich at the time: Tristan Tzara, Lenin and James Joyce.  The play is a very funny post-modern romp but also has something of a message. Carr, Tzara, Lenin and Joyce all express their view on the role of art. For Lenin, art must serve the people.  Tzara has a nihilist point of view. Art can be what you want but it is also intended to subvert the bourgeoisie.  Joyce (and, to a certain extent, Carr) state that art is meant to beautify and enhance our lives, though there are many different views of how this could be best done.

As a child, I read voraciously and, naturally, I read for the stories that books could tell. In my teens, eager to discover my Irish heritage, I started exploring Irish literature, with many of the obvious choices such as Yeats, Synge, O’Casey, Lady Gregory and, of course, the Irish myths and legends, with the Cúchulainn legends being a favourite.  It is through this Irish exploration that I came to Joyce, rather than by the more conventional route.

I naturally started with Dubliners, Portrait of an Artist and Stephen Hero but when I received a book token as a birthday present, I bought Ulysses at the (to me) expensive price of 10s 6d (for the younger generation, that is around 53p).  I knew nothing then of the controversy about the text and bought the only available hardback, the Bodley Head 1964 edition, based on the Bodley Head 1960 edition.  (See for the various editions of Ulysses).


It took me some time to work my way through but I read Stuart Gilbert’s study (very helpful) and Ellmann’s biography did aid me. You have either read the book or consciously rejected it. Obviously, if you are reading this blog, you are well aware of it, whatever your views, so I do not need to tell you what it is about.

For me, as a teenager and, indeed, in later life, what Ulysses showed me that there is a lot more to a novel than just telling a story.  I still very much enjoy novels that tell a good story and have read and reviewed a lot on my website but, post-Joyce, readers and reviewers of literary novels know that the novel can do so much more.

In Travesties, Tzara stated that Ulysses, which he clearly did not particularly like, though admired, was a mixture of Homer’s Odyssey and the Dublin Street Directory for 1904.  This was, of course, a tongue-in-cheek remark by Stoppard.  Joyce (in the play) says But it is we who stand enriched, by a tale of heroes, of a golden apple, a wooden horse, a face that launched a thousand ships – and above all, of Ulysses, the wanderer, the most human, the most complete of all heroes – husband, father, son, lover, farmer, soldier, pacifist, politician, inventor and adventurer … It is a theme so overwhelming that I am almost afraid to treat it. And yet I with my Dublin Odyssey will double that immortality.  And, indeed, he has done so.  For what Joyce achieved was the ability not only to tell a tale, which of course, he did, but to give to his city of Dublin and to his main characters, in particular, Leopold Bloom, his Ulysses, an immortality that increase Homer’s contribution and goes well beyond, for example, that of Joyce’s forebears, such as Cúchulainn.

I enjoy reading books from elsewhere at least partially because they show me lives lived in a way very different from my own. I have, of course, been to Dublin but not to the Dublin of 1904 and it is Joyce’s skill to show not just the street directory of Dublin in 1904, as Stoppard’s Tzara states, but a unique, Joycean Dublin of 1904, just as Stoppard showed me an imagined Zurich of 1917 and an imagined Tzara, Joyce, Lenin and Carr, in a way that  a more conventional work would not.  Joyce, Stoppard and the many other writers I read have enriched my life, while I sit in sofa in England’s gloomy winter.

Many thanks to John for that fascinating post about how literature can transport us to a very specific time and place. Do you have a favourite book that transports in this way? Remember, if you would like to take part in The Books that Built the Blogger, just drop me an email at!

Frank O’Connor and The Lonely Voice

A great story is not necessarily short at all, and the conception of the short story as a miniature art is inherently false. Basically the difference between the short story and the novel is not one of length. It is a difference between pure and applied storytelling.

Frank O’Connor

Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer and critic died on this day fifty years ago. Born Michael O’Donovan in Cork in 1903, he went on to wrote plays, biographies and essays and has become known as one of the twentieth century’s greatest short story writers. His book The Lonely Voice, based on lectures he gave at Stanford University in the 1960s is now considered to be one of the first in depth and most influential examinations of the short story form.


Raised in relative poverty by his mother in Cork, O’Connor had little in the way of formal education. He joined the Irish Republican Army in 1918 and was briefly imprisoned in the 1920s. He ended up working as a librarian in Dublin and became a member of the Irish literary scene, working with WB Yeats at the newly founded Abbey Theatre and eventually serving as Director of the theatre in the 1930s. During World War II he worked as a broadcaster for the British Ministry in London while publishing his essays and short stories.

Many of his stories appeared in The New Yorker in from 1945 – 1960 and his popularity in the United States led to work as a visiting professor at several American Universities, Stanford included, where his students included Larry McMurtry and Ken Kesey.

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He published numerous volumes of short stories throughout his life and his Collected Stories, which includes his most famous works – Guests of the Nation, My Oedipus Complex and Crab Apple Jelly – was published in 1981 fifteen years after his untimely death following a stroke and heart attack.

The short story remains by its very nature remote from community – romantic, individualistic, and intransigent

The Lonely Voice – his study of the short story – is often considered the seminal critical work on the art form. He discusses the short story – a form where ‘a whole lifetime must be crowded into a few minutes’ and looks at the work of his favourite short story writers including Turgenev, de Maupassant, Chekhov, Joyce and Katherine Mansfield.


His main theory is that the best short stories focus on ‘submerged groups’ – marginalised people who live at the fringes of society and have no effective voice.

That submerged population changes its character from writer to writer, from generation to generation. It may be Gogol’s officials, Turgenev’s serfs, Maupassant’s prostitutes, Chekhov’s doctors and teachers, Sherwood Anderson’s provincials, always dreaming of escape.

I recently heard Donal Ryan speak about his new collection of short stories, A Slanting of the Sun (which I shall review later in the week) and he said that it was nearly impossible to name a happy short story. O’Connor too believes that the best short stories are focused on the loneliness of an individual rather than the individual as part of the community of a novel.

…there is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not often find in a novel – an intense awareness of human loneliness. Indeed, it might be truer to say that while we often read a familiar novel again from companionship, we approach the short story in a very different mood. It is more akin to the mood of Pascal’s saying: Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie

The Cork International Short Story Festival was set up in 2000 to celebrate O’Connor’s work and passion and the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award is awarded yearly to the best short story collection published in English anywhere in the world in the preceding year. Previous winners include Miranda July, Haruki Murakami, Edna O’Brien and Jhumpa Lahiri

You can read My Oedipus Complex, one of Frank O’Connor’s most famous short stories here.

 If one wanted an alternative description of what the short story means, one could hardly find better than that single half-sentence, “and from that day forth everything was as it were changed and appeared in a different light to him”








Top Ten Tuesday – Debut Novels

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Top Ten Tuesday, the weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, but I enjoyed thinking about this week’s topic, Top Ten Literary Debuts. I actually made a list of about 25, so culling it down to 10 was hard. Special mentions should obviously go to classics such as The Pickwick Papers, Wuthering Heights, The Invisible Man and Sense and Sensibility but in the end I went with some of my favourites!

1. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
Published in 1992, The Secret History is a murder mystery about a group of classic students at a privileged New England college who attempt to evoke a new way of thinking and living outside the boundaries of their lives. From the opening page, Tartt lets us know that they have taken their experiment too far and have murdered one of their group, making this striking novel a why-dunnit rather than a who-dunnit. The Secret History was a literary phenomenon and has since become a literary classic. Has she been able to follow it’s success? That is another argument, but there is no mistaking that The Secret History is a remarkable achievement. Smart, readable, gripping and one of my favourite books of all time.

2. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye in 1970 while teaching at Howard University and raising her two sons as a single parent. The story is about a year in the life of a young black girl named Pecola Breedlove, who dreams of being a beautiful, blond, blue-eyed child was conceived during a writing workshop and propelled Morrison to literary fame. With it’s themes of racism, abuse and familial love, it is a complex and striking first novel packing as much power as Morrison’s Pulitzer prize winning Beloved.

3. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
It takes courage to call your debut novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but courage is not something Dave Eggers is in short supply of. When he was in his early twenties, his mother and father died within months of each other, leaving him as sole guardian of his 8 year old brother Christopher. This part autobiographical and part fictional novel charts their journey, both geographical and psychological to move on from their parents death. At times it may be arch and self-conscious (particularly as it charts Eggers attempts to star on MTVs The Real World) but it is an emotional tale of how we deal with loss and navigate our lives toward adulthood. Eggers has gone on to found McSweeney’s journal and publisher and his most recent novel was The Circle.

4. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
American writer and poet Sylvia Plath’s debut novel The Bell Jar was also the only novel she wrote. Originally published under the pseudonym “Victoria Lucas” in 1963, the novel is semi-autobiographical as it charts it’s protagonists descent into clinical depression. Plath committed suicide a mere month after its first UK publication and under the wishes of both Ted Hughes and Plath’s family, was not published in the US until 1971. To read The Bell Jar is now almost a rite of passage and it remains a searingly honest and beautifully written book.

5. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Before his untimely death, Scottish writer Iain Banks was as well know for his science fiction novels as his literary fiction. However he wrote his debut novel The Wasp Factory in an attempt to be more mainstream as his science fiction novels had not been accepted for publication. His story of Frank, a teenager with anger issues and violent tendencies living on a remote Scottish island became an instant classic and allowed Banks to write full time and excel in both genres. Banks often said that he envisaged The Wasp Factory as a SF novel, with the island standing in for a planet and Frank as the alien. It is certainly an unforgettable and remarkable debut.

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6. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
In 1964, Harper Lee talking of To Kill A Mockingbird said that ‘I didn’t expect the book to sell in the first place’. But sell it did. Lee’s debut novel about a little girl called Scout and her father Atticus Finch, has sold over 40 million copies, been turned into a classic movie and regularly tops the list of the worlds best loved books. Regardless of your thoughts on this year’s follow up Go Set a Watchman, there is no denying the power and strength of what was, for a long time, Harper Lee’s only book.

7. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
In 1816, following the loss of a baby, Mary Shelley came up with the idea for Frankenstein at the behest of Lord Byron who suggested all in his company should write a ghost story. Aged only 19 at the time, Shelley’s debut novel has become a gothic classic and is often cited as the beginnings of the science fiction genre. Early reviews may have been mixed, but the classic tale of the doctor who creates life is an archetypal story that has captured readers imaginations for years. Without Frankenstein, could there have been Dracula or Jekyll & Hyde? Who knows, but Frankenstein has entered the public consciousness to become one of our most recognisable monsters.

8. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson
The story of the publication of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo may go some way to explaining the astonishing success of Steig Larsson’s trilogy. A journalist and editor, Larsson died at the age of 50 and left three (now four?) unpublished thrillers now titled the Millennium series, featuring journalist Mikeal Blomqvist and expert hacker Lisbeth Salander. Scandinavian crime was just beginning to take off in the UK when The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was published and Larsson became the poster boy for that particular genre. The book may not be the greatest thriller ever written, but there is no doubt that it’s popularity is in most part due to the fascinating character of Lisbeth Salander – the damaged, tough and smart protagonist. Two movie adaptations and over 30 million copies later and the fourth in the series has just been published.

9. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Carson McCullers was only 23 when the publication of her debut novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter made her an overnight literary sensation. It is a hauntingly beautiful tale of the deaf-mute John Singer and the social misfits that inhabit the town in which he lives. Often cited alongside Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor as one of the main authors of the literature of the American South, McCullers debut is a novel of psychological depth and social insight and remains a masterpiece to this day, giving voice to the lonely, the forgotten and the unloved.

10. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
A Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man began life as Stephen Hero in 1903, with a planned 65 chapters. Joyce reworked and condensed his novel, introducing his now famous use of free indirect speech but still struggled to find a publisher. At the behest of WB Yeats, he sent the manuscript to Ezra Pound who initially serialised it in The Egoist literary journal before it was finally published in New York in 1916. The publication of his novel earned Joyce a place in the canon of great writers and contains all the techniques he developed in his later works Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses


So, aside from the classics I mentioned at the start, have I missed out anything really obvious? What would be your favourite debut novel?

Top Ten Tuesday – Classics I Haven’t Read




As someone who has a Degree in English Literature and has been reading for well, the best part of 40 years, this weeks Top Ten Tuesday hosted by The Broke and The Bookish is an embarrassing post. There are so many holes in my classics reading that I really should get working on it. I only just discovered Edith Wharton for goodness sake!

So here is a list the classics I’ve never read but would like to. Or need to. Or feel I should.
Do bear in mind that this list could very easily have been a Top Twenty. Or a Top Fifty. You get where I’m going with this!

1. Moby Dick by Herman Melville
I’ve long been aware that I should read Moby Dick, that iconic tale of a whale. It is about a whale, isn’t it? When I read (and loved) The Art of Fielding last year, I realised I was missing so much of the book, given the number of Melville and Moby Dick references.

2. Ulysses by James Joyce
I’ll be honest here. Ulysses scares me. I think it will bore me, or worse, I won’t understand it. I mean, I’ve read The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, I’ve read The Dead and all Joyce’s short stories. But Ulysses? I’m not sure I’ll ever read it. Although, it’s in the 746 so I’m going to have to at some point. Maybe it will be my final read of the project!

3. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace shouldn’t scare me that much as I’ve read Anna Karenina. I even quite enjoyed it. However, I took Anna Karenina on holiday with me in the days long ago before Kindle and only read it because it was the last book I had left. Maybe that’s my answer. I go to an island somewhere; take only these classics and no iPad and I’ll have no choice! A bit drastic maybe…..

4. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Bleak House was required reading for a course in my first year at University, but I never got round to reading it. To my total shame, the night before my tutorial, I watched the TV adaptation instead and blagged my way through the class. I feel like I need to make amends.

5. Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Actually, this could be any novel by Virginia Woolf as I have never read one of her books. I have Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse in the 746 but am always amazed that I have got this far in life without reading anything by her.


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6. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
I’m too late for this one, right? It’s not going to happen. I’m too old and I was bored by the movie and my husband won’t stop nagging me to read it. Maybe I could read it to the kids when they are older? Or am I visiting the sins of a very long movie on a really rather good book?

7. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Again, another book that I would like to read and am not sure why I never did. I’ve read Plath’s poetry and an autobiography, but never The Bell Jar. I often think it’s a book that needs to be read at a certain time in ones ‘ life and that time is passed for me. Am I wrong about this, would I still enjoy it?

8. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
I feel like I know so much about this Spanish epic, which is regularly counted among the greatest novels of all time, yet I haven’t read it. And it’s so big. So very big….

9. Middlemarch by George Eliot
Another real gap in my knowledge of English classics is Middlemarch, it can join Bleak House and be filed under ‘should have read at Uni but was too hung over/ tired/ lazy to bother with’. I don’t know a thing about it; I just know it’s often called the greatest English novel of all time, so I really should have put the effort in.

10. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
I’ve slipped this one in at the end because I don’t think I’ve read it. It’s one of those stories that has seeped into not only mine, but the public consciousness that actually reading it seems like an afterthought. I bought a copy a few years back so I will read it, but I may just wait until the twins can read it with me.

So there you have it, the Top Ten Classics I Haven’t Read. Are any of your favourites in this list? What omissions would you recommend I rectify as soon as possible? Is anyone out there as ill-read in the classics as me?!