Five useful novels published since the Second World War:
Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann
This is one of those great world novels that Americans keep trying to write on the grounds that "Finnegans Wake" is bound to wear out or, worse, be read. We have had no luck with this sort of book. But then our national genius is for the short story and the novella. Mann dramatized the nature of the demonic in our affairs and how, like the spirochete, a disease like Nazism can permeate the body politic just as, in Mann's genius-protagonist, syphilis proves to be a malignant source of his genius as well as of his destruction. Powerful metaphor, great novel.
Good as Gold by Joseph Heller
I suppose because Heller is a superb comic novelist with an eye and ear for American idiocies that he's never included on lists of novelists to be venerated. ("Catch-22" went into the language before it got onto the syllabus.) Here he is at his deadly best, illuminating a hustler on the make in politics. Can it possibly be Dr. Henry Kissinger?
Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino
Sorry, but the European product has, at its best, outdone us in my time. Fortunately, our English departments will be the last to know; unfortunately, our readers will never have easy access to some wonderful books. Calvino presents us with a primordial atom that contains a Neapolitan family quarreling about dinner -- we hear only their voices. Eventually the atom bursts and there, all over space, is our universe jump-started. Total fireworks, as we follow Qfwfq through his various metamorphoses down the ages, from dinosaur to mollusk to a "shell on a railroad embankment as a train passes by. A party of Dutch girls looks out the window," and he realizes, "The eyes that finally open to see us didn't belong to us but to others." But -- triumph -- Q realizes, "All those eyes were mine." To be seen is half of seeing.
The Golden Spur by Dawn Powell
Readers are now finding Powell's wonderfully tough novels, and in this late one (1962), she re-creates the golden age of Manhattan, as a young man from the hinterlands comes to town to find the allegedly famous man who got his mother pregnant. This is probably the New York novel -- "Greenwich Village Transfer," you might say -- and wildly funny, funny with a true wit's wildness.
Creation by Gore Vidal
Mary McCarthy, another true wit, once observed that if you got nothing else out of "War and Peace," there was always Tolstoy's gourmet recipe for strawberry jam. I sometimes write novels that tell us things we ought to know about but don't. In the fifth century B.C., one man, had he lived to 75, could have known Socrates, the Buddha, Confucius and Zoroaster, not to mention Lao Tse, Mahavira, Democritus, et al. I invented such a character and these admittedly unlikely confrontations take place as we encounter, at its root, every religious and political system that we know today. My recommendation here is entirely disinterested: One writes this sort of book to pass on knowledge of worlds we are encouraged to know nothing of -- which explains why, when we were in Vietnam, we were amazed that Buddhists were setting themselves on fire. Our educational system and media have seen to it that we know nothing at all of other cultures and religions and next to nothing of our own. Worst of all, curiosity is carefully switched off in our schools.