V.S. Naipaul's A House For Mr Biswas is a sprawling, rich tapestry, a portrait of an era and a land through the life of a single man. It is grotesque, realistic, fierce and, occasionally, tender. The Dickensian comparison, offered by a then still fawning Theroux on the jacket of my copy, is richly deserved, but there's a lack of the Dickensian compassion in Naipaul's willingness to emphasise the grotesque.
I'm now reading The Power And The Glory, and am more firmly convinced of Greene's basic nihilism. It's the nihilism that only someone who has believed, or has wanted to, can feel - not the pragmatic reductionism of the true skeptic, but the haunted intimation of cosmic emptiness felt by one who longs for the verities of faith.
Working through my project to become preternaturally well-read this year, insead of merely dauntingly literate, I find that the one thing that unifies the 'great novelists' of the modern era is their thematic clarity. One doesn't need to resort to exegesis to perceive, absorb and mull over the themes in the novels of Conrad, Austen, Huxley, Greene, Hemmingway, Amis, Lessing, or for that matter my old buddy and yours, Phil Dick. I don't mean that their themes are simple, rather that they state them so well that it is simple to understand what these themes are, at least on a basic level, variable mileages of course being applicable in each individual reader's case.
On the other hand, there are novelists I like who seem to run counter to this observation - Banville and Winterson are two examples that spring to mind. Or it it just their greater engagement with the beautiful, or unusual, use of language or structure as a value in itself that tempts me to concentrate on surface polish and miss out on deep content?
Also, David Mitchell continues to be my favourite contemporary contender for all-time greatness.