Voices of our age

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich - One Hundred Years of Solitude - Rabbit Angstrom, The Four Novels - Catch 22 - The Periodic Table - Midnight's Children - The Adventure of Augie March - Song of Solomon - A House for Mr. Biswas
December 1, 1995


In the three years since its relaunch, Everyman's Library has consolidated its reputation for offering attractive editions of the finest texts and translations. The Modern Classics Series continues the distinctive Everyman tradition.

With the exception of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, each volume contains an introduction followed by a useful chronology that incorporates details of the writer's life within the relevant literary and historical context. In addition, the series offers a number of revised editions. John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom brings together four novels from four decades in one volume. In addition, Updike has restored the cuts from his first novel and made new corrections for this edition. Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich has been similarly restored with an author-approved translation by H. T. Willets.

Much of the merit of the Modern Classics series can be attributed to its awareness of the needs of an international readership and of the changing nature of the English-language novel. In her introduction to Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Anita Desai detects close links between Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Yet, as Desai also makes clear, Rushdie's novel expresses the individual voice of a new age. And, more than anything else, it is a historical epic, framed by the first 30 years of Indian independence.

A House for Mr Biswas is often regarded as V. S. Naipaul's masterpiece. Naipaul has acquired the reputation for being an eloquent apologist for the British Empire, and in recent years he has expressed many politically incorrect views, the most damaging being his acceptance and tacit support of Hindu fundamentalism in India. Karl Miller in his introduction acknowledges the case against him, but adds that dissenting views take no account of the compassion behind Naipaul's writing.

The American novel is well represented by Saul Bellow, John Updike, Joseph Heller and Toni Morrison. Martin Amis's lively and provocative introduction to Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March boldly proclaims it as "the Great American Novel". Set in pre- and post-depression Chicago, the novel's strength is derived from its pluralism or what Amis calls "its fantastic inclusiveness". Heller's Catch 22 remains distinctive today for its welding of deep cynicism with deep humanity. Malcolm Bradbury's lucid introduction emphasises that the novel is not only a satire on war but is also a story of the cold war age and postmodern capitalism. Bradbury also defines the literary sources of the novel, as disparate as J. F. Celine, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco.

Both Primo Levi and Alexander Solzhenitsyn underwent profound suffering. Neil Ascherson, in his introduction to Levi's The Periodic Table shows how Levi transmuted his experiences of Auschwitz into allusive, metaphorical writing. John Bayley's introduction reveals the numerous problems surrounding the publication of the full, uncensored version of Solzhenitsyn's novel. And, as Bayley acknowledges, its enduring appeal lies in its simplicity, which allows the writing to "retain the shock of the present".

Vivek Couto is a critic and publisher's fiction reader.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Author - Alexander Solzhenitsyn
ISBN - 1 85715 219 0
Publisher - Everyman's
Price - £8.99
Pages - 196

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