Arguments over the definition of ‘classic’ novels persist, but there are plenty of works in the Booker Library that are deserving of the label  

Written by Alex Clark

Publication date and time: Published

‘A friend of mine died and I’m here to marry his rich widow.’ It’s an excellent way to set a novel running, even if it’s not true – in fact, the speaker is trying to amuse, or perhaps provoke, an immigration official; his real purpose is not to become Mrs Khoury’s husband, but to become her sole beneficiary without the bother of matrimony. The subsequent story, set in Port Said against the backdrop of the 1956 Suez Crisis, is both firmly rooted in the geopolitics and social texture of its time and enticingly unmoored; our anti-hero, Townrow, suffers a bang to the head early on, and never quite regains his grasp on events, if he ever had it. 

P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For won the inaugural Booker Prize in 1969, but although it is currently in print, its fortunes – and those of Newby’s other novels, of which there are more than 20 – would not suggest it has gained classic status.  

The same can be said of several of the prize’s early winners and shortlisted novels. Some have been superseded, in terms of their relative renown, by a writer’s other work: we do not think of Bruno’s Dream, for example, as among Iris Murdoch’s most famous novels, and we might easily overlook William Trevor’s Mrs Eckdorff in O’Neill’s Hotel on our way to find his greatest short stories. And yet there both are, on the shortlist in 1970, where they were eventually eclipsed by Bernice Rubens’ devastating story of drug addiction within a family, The Elected Member

This is not to diminish any of the novels mentioned so far, or to imply that the Booker’s judges of old got it wrong. It is simply to admit that literary posterity can be fleeting and unpredictable, and that all prizes are snapshots of a particular cultural moment and an expression of the tastes and preoccupations of those who award them. And neither is reputation immutable; any work of art may find its audience long after its first appearance, nearly always as a result of numerous colliding factors. 

Something to Answer For by P.H. Newby

Sometimes the term is shorthand for an old book, and one that we might have been required to read at school; nearly always it carries with it the suggestion of influence

And yet the idea of a ‘classic’ novel persists, its definition discussed and argued over by every generation of writers, readers and teachers. Sometimes the term is shorthand for an old book, and one that we might have been required to read at school; nearly always it carries with it the suggestion of influence, whether in terms of the ideas that power it (Nineteen Eighty-Four, to cite an obvious example, or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man), its memorable characters (Jay Gatsby, Constance Chatterley, Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces) or its groundbreaking style (Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway). 

We know, however, that these markers of renown carry with them dangers. If we can see how easy it is for previously acclaimed novels to fall from readers’ minds, then we can only imagine how many didn’t even rise to our consciousness in the first place (although the stalwart efforts of publishers devoted to reissuing “lost” work, and podcasts such as Backlisted, mean that not all of these books are left to our imaginations). But it is evident that the creation of a canon often means exclusion: of writers of colour, of women, of working-class writers, of writers with physical and mental disabilities. Much has changed in the last few years; much work is still to be done. 

I’ve recently read My Friends, the new novel by Hisham Matar. Alongside its dissection of the terrible toll of Qaddafi’s regime in Libya, it contains a fascinating strand in which the narrator, Khaled, exiled in London, immerses himself in the classics of Western literature. But also in his mind are the great works he has grown up with – among them The Epistle of Forgiveness, an Arabic satirical poem that can be seen as a forerunner to Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Khaled comes to see the great works from across the world and across the centuries as talking to one another, and creating a giant network of imaginative curiosity and virtuosity. 

Portrait of American author Ralph Ellison

With those caveats in mind – and the equally important recognition that personal taste is precisely that – I wondered which novels in the Booker’s long history might come to be regarded as classics. Which stories might reach out from their time to connect with other times and other readers? 

Perhaps surprisingly, for a compact novel with an apparently small-scale premise enacted in a tiny slice of landscape, I thought first of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, which was shortlisted in 1980, alongside novels by such heavyweights as Anthony Burgess and Alice Munro; William Golding’s Rites of Passage was the final winner. 

It is the story of a veteran of the First World War who arrives in a Yorkshire village in the summer of 1920 to restore a mural in the church, and who encounters another man recovering from the conflict, there to carry out an excavation in the graveyard. The relationship between the two men, and the inhabitants of their temporary home, plays out across a tiny number of pages, but within them reverberates a vast number of events, psychological, emotional, ideological. It is a microcosm: of a country and society recovering from the shock of war, of the roots of conflict, and of the possibility of regeneration. For similar reasons, I would not hesitate to recommend the somewhat better-known work of Pat Barker, including 1995’s Booker winner, The Ghost Road

There are some novels that we already regard as classics, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, shortlisted in 2005 may very well be one – perhaps even more so than his winning novel, 1989’s The Remains of the Day. His story of cloned children tapped into our fascination with the uncanny, as much of his work does, and then fully engaged our emotions to become an exploration not simply of a possible future, but of human mortality; in other words, as in Klara and the Sun, longlisted in 2021, its interest in the transhuman served as a way to make us think about what constitutes human subjectivity and attachment. To continue with Ishiguro, I shall (not for the first time) wave a flag for the under-rated When We Were Orphans, shortlisted in 2000, a strange and wonderful novel that blends Shanghai in the 1930s with the tropes of Golden Age detective fiction. 

Kazuo Ishiguro

Returning briefly to 2005, what a year for fiction it was: alongside Never Let Me Go, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Ali Smith’s The Accidental, Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way and Arthur & George by Julian Barnes were shortlisted, with John Banville’s The Sea the winner. There were riches, too, on the longlist: Ian McEwan’s Saturday, another novel often spoken of as a modern classic, Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown and one of my favourite books of all time, Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black. I would argue fiercely for her tale of a psychic and her associates cavorting around the M25 being accorded classic status, such is the cleverness of its construction and the verve of its delivery; and I also believe its apprehension of the world beyond our immediate sight links it inextricably to Mantel’s vision for her Wolf Hall trilogy. 

We must all admit to beloved books that we wished had gained greater recognition. In 2009, I would not have wanted the prize to go elsewhere than to Wolf Hall, but I feel I could make a spirited case for Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, which was longlisted. I loved it before I even came to live near Enniscorthy, the Wexford town in which it is partly set, and which forms the backdrop to other of Toibin’s novels. Now I am here, I can recognise the acuteness with which he captured the rhythms of Irish life outside of the big cities – a quality that also shone from one of this year’s shortlisted titles, Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting

The ferocious vitality and variety of the fiction coming from Ireland just now is much discussed and while there are those who would say – with justification – that it was ever thus, there is something very special happening. It would not be a surprise if 2023’s winner, Paul Lynch’s Prophet Song, was read for many years to come: its understanding of the insidious creep of totalitarianism, its sheer ordinariness, is hard to forget. 

The reader’s eternal problem: so many books to read, and a finite number of hours. Ranging over the Booker stable, recommendations come thick and fast. Novels that seemed like a forceful breath of fresh air, among them Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways, shortlisted in 2015, when Marlon James’s exceptionally inventive A Brief History of Seven Killings won; Lucy Ellmann’s single-sentence Ducks, Newburyport, in the final running in 2019; further back, the inimitable Robertson Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone from 1986; John McGahern’s compelling exploration of Irish Republicanism in Amongst Women in 1990. To borrow Andrew Marvell’s lament about the brevity of human life, we might not be able to make the sun stand still, yet we will make him run. 

Hilary Mantel 2014