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Margot Livesey's Top Ten List
1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847). Like Wuthering Heights, this is a romance set in the isolated moors of rural England the Brontës called home. Its title character is an exceptionally independent orphan who becomes governess to the children of an appealing but troubled character, Mr. Rochester. As their love develops, the author introduces a host of memorable characters and a shattering secret before sending Jane on yet another arduous journey.
2. Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1932). In this first and best volume of his famed trilogy, A Scots Quair, Gibbon chronicles the growth to womanhood of Chris Guthrie, an intellectually ambitious Scottish girl at odds with her “backward” village and her dour Calvinist father. Succeeding volumes take Chris to Aberdeen and explore the aftermath of world war and burgeoning labor unrest, but lack the concentrated intensity of Sunset Song’s rich renderings of individual, familial, and communal experience and destiny.
3. Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford (1928). Christopher Tietjens, “the last English Tory,” is an exemplar of the old order; his faithless wife Sylvia represents the new. Grounded in their relationship, this rueful modernist epic dissects the intricacies of Edwardian England and the forces unleashed by World War I that would, inevitably and necessarily, slay that genteel world.
4. The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West (1956). (See Margot's appreciation below.)
5. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (1972). Fearing that his empire’s vastness has made it “an endless, formless ruin,” Kublai Khan asks the traveler Marco Polo to describe it to him so he might understand and thereby control it. What Polo offers are accounts of surreal places—“hidden cities,” “trading cities,” and “thin cities” (whose buildings have no walls, floors or ceilings)—inhabited by people whose actions seem inexplicable in this novel of ideas concerned with memory and time, language and community, and the landscapes of the physical world and the imagination.
6. Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951). The French author started her novel at age twenty-one; she rediscovered it at forty-six, ending a mammoth bout of writer’s block. Two years later she completed this intimate first-person narrative of the second-century emperor. Through Yourcenar’s magisterial prose, Hadrian—a thoughtful, sensual man aware of both the fleeting nature of time and eternal verities—details his rise and his liberal policies, especially his belief that it is wiser to embrace your neighbors than to go to war against them. Ever the pragmatist, he notes, “Catastrophe and ruin will come; disorder will triumph, but order will too, from time to time.”
7. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955). “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” So begins the Russian master’s infamous novel about Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who falls madly, obsessively in love with a twelve-year-old “nymphet,” Dolores Haze. So he marries the girl’s mother. When she dies he becomes Lolita’s father. As Humbert describes their car trip —a twisted mockery of the American road novel —Nabokov depicts love, power, and obsession in audacious, shockingly funny language.
8. A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert (1877). Included in the volume Three Tales, this is the story of Félicité, an uneducated and loyal servant who never questions her lot in life. She is sustained by her unquestioning faith and her great love for her nephew and for her mistress’s daughter Virginie. When she loses them both, she finds an unlikely recipient for her ardent affections —a parrot named Lulu.
9. Stories of Mavis Gallant (1922– ). Expatriate experience and cultural contrasts energize the knowing, roomy fiction of the native Canadian, sometime Parisian, master. Praised for her story sequences (such as the semiautobiographical Linnet Muir tales and those focused on aging French author Henri Grippes), Gallant also excels in generously detailed depictions of an unwanted arranged marriage (“Across the Bridge”), a German POW’s survival skills (“Ernst in Civilian Clothes”), and numerous other vivid dramatizations of displacement and rootlessness (such as “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,” “The Four Seasons”).
10. Stories of William Trevor (1928– ). Trevor is less an innovator than a perfectionist of the short story form, with each instance featuring two or three well-drawn characters, a stoutly alluring situation, and not a word out of place. The hundreds of stories he has crafted during his long career are nearly all set in the Irish countryside, which Trevor reveals as surprisingly erotic, sinister, and altogether contemporary, its residents often bent like trees by the wind of a single event.
Appreciation of Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows by Margot Livesey
I don’t know why I waited so long to read The Fountain Overflows. There was a copy in the library of my Scottish school; after all, the novel sold 40,000 copies in 1956, the year it was published. Perhaps it was even in my father’s library, squeezed between, say, Aldous Huxley’s Chrome Yellow and Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, two novels I adored. The book was around but the truth is I didn’t want to read it, in part because I associated it with Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West’s massive tome about pre–World War II Yugo slavia, which I didn’t want to read even more. I finally succumbed only a few years ago at the urging of a dear friend.
Some books, much lauded on publication, rapidly gather dust, but luckily for me The Fountain Overflows remains as lustrous and passionate as when West penned the last page. The novel tells the story of the Aubrey family living in Edwardian London. Mr. Aubrey is a charismatic and unreliable journalist; Mrs. Aubrey, a former pianist, is an awkward woman of immense moral intelligence. Around these two orbit the Aubrey children: the musical Mary and Rose, the awful Cordelia who wants to be musical, and the beloved Richard Quinn. The story is told by Rose.
One scene captures for me West’s genius. A man comes to complain to Mrs. Aubrey about her husband having an affair with his wife. After she has done her best to cheer him up, Mrs. Aubrey takes refuge in Madame Bovary and, by the time her husband arrives home, is absorbed in the novel. Together they praise and criticize Flaubert. Only then does she recall what brought her to pick up the novel in the first place. “I am really very heartless,” she cried, rising to her feet. “But art is so much more real than life. Some art is much more real than some life, I mean.”
And this is exactly how I feel about "The Fountain Overflows"; it is more real, and more pleasurable, than most life.