Saturday, 10 October 2020

What I'm reading: the best novel of the past fifty years?

Michael Ondaatje: THE ENGLISH PATIENT



In 2018, 9,000 people voted for this as the best of the Booker Prize-winning novels in the award’s fifty years. Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children had previously been hailed as the best of 25 and then 40 years.

I’m a huge admirer of Anthony Minghella’s 1996 movie of The English Patient, but I’d missed reading the novel until now. It’s only 320 pages, but I found it a tough read. Stylistically it’s very dense, skipping between present and past tenses with frequent viewpoint switches. The story is fragmentary, and it certainly helps to have seen the movie which had a more linear timeframe.

It’s 1945 and Italy has been liberated by the Allies. Hana, a young Canadian nurse, is looking after a hideously burnt man in a ruined villa in Tuscany. She is joined by a fellow Canadian, Caravaggio, who seems to be AWOL, and a Sikh bomb-disposal sapper, Kip, with whom she falls in love. The English patient (who is not actually English) tells the other three of his time before the war exploring Egyptian ruins in the Sahara and of his affair with the new young wife of one of the archaeologists’ backers.

Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas
as Almasy and Katharine
As in the movie, the relationship between Almasy and Katharine has a kind of cold intensity. Almasy’s trek across the desert to fetch medical aid for Katharine, left injured in the Cave of Swimmers after the plane crash, is epic, but I wasn’t moved by it as much as by the tenderness between the nurse and the sapper.

The desert scenes and Tuscan landscapes are as vivid on the page as in Minghella’s visual feast of a movie. A sequence when Kip defuses a bomb is very cinematic. The English Patient is clearly a masterpiece of English writing, but I could only read a few pages at a time. There’s a lyrical quality to Ondaatje’s prose which requires re-reading as you go. Occasionally I felt I was getting echoes of T.S. Eliot. The only comparable novels I can think of are Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which I hugely admired in my twenties but would perhaps find a bit ‘indigestible’ today.

Wikipedia will remind you of all the Booker shortlisted novels and winners through its 50-plus years. My personal favourite, not a winner but shortlisted in 1980, is Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers, a deeply powerful novel on the theme of Faith and Human Frailty. And I remember reviewing Rushdie’s Shame (1983), another runner-up, as a work of “Genius”, not a word I’ve been generous with. Looking for books that have given me the most pleasure rather than mere admiration, I’m going to plump for The Carpetbaggers and The Adventurers, both by Harold Robbins, two novels from the 1960s which thrillingly explored the world of Hollywood and Jet-Set celebrity.  Do I need to hide my head in embarrassment?

I’d welcome seeing your all-time favourites in the Comment Box.

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