Sunday 19 February 2017

Best Second

The Royal Society of Literature is running a poll to find The Nation's Favourite Second Novel, which seems an excellent idea - here's the (not very) shortlist. There's probably a pattern there somewhere - in many cases that of a successful second novel following an undistinguished debut. Would a failed first-timer get a second chance in today's publishing climate?
  And it can take more than two attempts for some novelists to get it right (J.G. Farrell, for example, whose Troubles was preceded by three duds). Any of today's novelists who have a second commission are more likely to find themselves in the unenviable situation of musicians faced with the 'difficult second album' problem. However, the number of recent titles in the RSL list suggests that at least some have been allowed a second chance after a less than brilliant debut.
  But what of the list? Leaving aside Ulysses and Tristram Shandy as being in another league altogether, I think from these titles I'd probably vote for Larkin's A Girl in Winter, an underrated novel that has haunted me ever since I read it (and one that was preceded by something very much inferior).  As for omissions, I'd certainly have included Ivy Compton-Burnett's Pastors and Masters (a second novel so different from her first that it could have been written by someone else) and Angus Wilson's Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Shirley Hazzard's The Bay of Noon, W.G. Sebald's Vertigo, maybe Nabokov's King, Queen, Knave.
 Any thoughts? More omissions? Which title would get your vote?
 (More on how to vote here.)


  1. The most perplexing omission is Don Quixote, which followed La Galatea.

  2. Quite so, Waldo - though, like Ulysses and Tristram S, it's in a different league... Hadn't heard of yours, MM - looks interesting.

  3. Lots of memorable books on that list - too many to choose a favorite. Nevertheless, I'd like to highlight a very good, little read book: The Garden of Evening Mists.

    Some worthy omissions: Under the Volcano (Lowry), Living (Green), The Assistant (Malamud), Garden of the Finzi-Continis (Bassani).

  4. All good, Waldo. I haven't read the Garden of Evening Mists, but was impressed by his first, The Gift of Rain. And I really must read The Assistant - thanks for the reminder!

  5. I don't quite understand the thought behind it? Are the novels to be compared just as such, or for their place within the author's work? To take Hemingway for an example, The Sun Also Rises must be better than a fair number of the novels the RLS lists: but I don't remember it as being much better than A Farewell to Arms. And as you say, there are some writers who took more than a couple of books to distinguish themselves: Moby Dick was Melville's sixth novel, and what I have read of the first four is lively enough but would probably not have secured his place among American novelists.