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  • Philip Bryer

An Assault on Classic Literature

Updated: Oct 5, 2021

I decided a couple of years ago that classic books and I had been estranged for too long. A diet of WWII from every angle and self-serving autobiographies was all very well, but (apart from Wodehouse and Runyon) what had I been missing out on since school? School, where I hated every minute of Chaucer and Shakespeare, but adored the modern British stuff like Billy Liar, The Long and the Short and the Tall, and the slightly less modern Far From the Madding Crowd.

Daniel Quilp

As I am unable to place them in order of preference, which is an impossible and meaningless task anyway (take note, you remaining music mags and your Top 100s compiled by Phil Space), here’s an alphabetical list of where we are so far, and perhaps the casual reader might be so good as to point me in the direction of others.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

Animal Farm

The Big Sleep

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (and other stories)

Brighton Rock

Cold Comfort Farm

David Copperfield

Decline and Fall

Down and Out in Paris and London

Farewell my Lovely

A Farewell to Arms

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Great Expectations

The Great Gatsby

A Handful of Dust

A Kestrel for a Knave

Israel Rank

The Leopard

London Belongs to Me

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

The Maltese Falcon

The Master and Margarita

The Old Curiosity Shop

On the Road

The Pickwick Papers

Pincher Martin

The Thin Man

Vanity Fair

Vile Bodies

I have enjoyed almost all of these, and was going to write a note against each and every one as to what I liked or what it gave me, but you’ll be relieved to hear that I have binned that idea.

However, in the briefest of briefs:

Truman Capote’s short stories are so masterful that I had to stop reading every now and again and kick myself for being such an idiot.

Cold Comfort Farm was a joy, a surprise, and a wicked delight from beginning to end. Cold Comfort Farm at Christmas is on the shelf, and I’m trying to hold out until December.

I wonder at Hemingway and how he manages to say so much and yet so sparingly. And wish certain of my more verbose friends would take the hint.

The Maltese Falcon is so beautifully written and snappily plotted that when he made the film John Huston had the good sense to leave it almost intact. Imagine Hollywood doing that these days?

The Master and Margarita is like nothing else on Earth. An absolute bloody masterpiece.

I love the four Dickens titles, but balked at each one at the start for being so long. Was it because they were serialised and he was effectively being paid for prose-by-the-yard? The Old Curiosity Shop is panned for being overly sentimental – even on the back cover puff of my edition. But, having been tipped off, it wasn’t like drowning in syrup and the presence of the magnificent Grand Guignol villain Daniel Quilp saves it from an excess of “mawk”.

If for nothing else (and it’s got plenty else), On the Road should be lauded for the way Kerouac writes about live music.

There’s only one of these that I didn’t like, in fact I really, really, really didn’t like it so much that, halfway through, I skipped to the end to read the much vaunted ‘twist’ and saved myself the bother of reading the second half.

Anyway, thanks for reading my observations on people far more talented than I (although you may just have skipped to the end, of course), and please drop me an email, a tweet, or a message by the London Coach, with your recommendation of where I should next be pitching my tent on the old literary landscape.

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