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The greatest writer
Timeline
February

Dante
1. Dante
Drawing on Homer and Vergil, reconstructing the classical tradition as a medieval vision, Dante creates a vast cosmos, ranging from the intimate life of his own city, Florence, to heaven, hell and purgatory. The Divine Comedy is one of the great medieval myths, a quest for life's meaning. It is also a celebration of poetry, art, language and love. Its epic scale shaped the whole modern idea of literature.

2. Geoffrey Chaucer
Writing in his native English (rather than French or Latin), Chaucer created the first great work of English literature, The Canterbury Tales. The story of the Pilgrims, telling their inner stories as they make their way to Becket's shrine at Canterbury, is one of the great source books of story, and an amazing portrait of character, so that we feel we can live in his times and know his people.

3. William Shakespeare
The world's greatest playwright (despite the dismissals of Voltaire, Tolstoy and Shaw), Shakespeare's mastery of the poetry of language, the deep psychology of drama, the power of stagecraft and the complexity of human nature shows the most fundamental powers of literature. Hamlet, for its soul-searching psychology, is - probably - the greatest play.

4. Miguel Cervantes
Don Quixote is the first great novel, the starting place of modern literature. When the scrawny Don from La Mancha, hi mind deluded by reading the old romances, sets out on his journey with his realistic servant Sancho Panza, he sets out - bearing that mixture of romance and realism - not just not adventures with windmills but the greater adventure of the modern novel.

5. Voltaire
In his times, Voltaire was considered the greatest man of his enlightenment age - for his philosophical independence, his defence of liberty, his challenge to despots. But Candide delights us for its ironic wit, its satirical view of humanity. Like much in 18th century literature (Swift, Sterne, Diderot) it suggests our ideas of justice and progress are themselves often illusions, and there are times when it is better to cultivate our garden, improve what we know without expecting the world to change.

Jane Austen
6. Jane Austen
Too many people are charmed by Jane Austen, but there is a 'Voltaire' side to her too. It comes out in Persuasion, which is as much savage social satire as romance. Austen writes in the new 'female' tradition of the novel; the main thing is she shifts it into the ironic mode. Its heroine, Anne Elliot, knows she is too old to be a heroine, and the great romance is a back-story, in the past. Anne learns here lesson by observing society, and making her moral judgement; and finds her romance after all.

7. Gustave Flaubert
Madame Bovary is the novelist's novel - a celebration of writing, a book, said its author, about 'nothing', an enterprise in the realistic portrayal of the ordinary, dull provincial world, its habits, its social events, and above all its victims. It is not just a portrayal of the romantic and often tawdry Emma Bovary, but the rest of the citizens. Flaubert seeks to perfect the narrative as a pure art object and so became a hero to many writers to come.

8. Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina is sometimes thought of as the Russian Madame Bovary; there are some similarities of plot. But Tolstoy's massive sense of history, his grand feeling for society, his belief that truth lies in the detail, and the sheer scale of this novel - with its four central characters, two great cities (Moscow and Petersburg) and its moral balance make it one of the finest novels ever made.

9. Mark Twain
By the end of the 19th century America could lay claim to many great novelists (Melville, Hawthorne, Henry James). But the easiest, the simplest, the most amusing was Mark Twain. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn he also shows himself among the greatest, telling a mythic story of two people - a young white boy, a fleeing black slave - trying to escape 'sivilization' by riding the Mississippi River on a raft.

James Joyce
10. James Joyce
Ulysses has appeared high on many literary lists recently, and some may wonder why. It's a novel with difficulties, and its parodic tone and its constant allusions both to the complexities of Irish history and the great myth from which it is taken, The Odyssey, make it a learned book, taking a long time to digest. Yet its ambitious purpose - to write in the age of Modernism, a myth for the difficult and self-critical age - is wonderfully achieved. It stands as a great example of 20th century literature, its anxieties, its problems; its sense of having to argue with the tradition, its power to recreate it.


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Malcolm Bradbury
For more than 20 years Malcolm Bradbury was a Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia. He is a prolific writer of novels, short stories, literary criticism and television plays and series.

The Modern British Novel (1994), his Atlas Of Literature (1996) and Dangerous Pilgrimages (1996) explore British, American and European literature from the last quarter of the 19th century to the present day. He has also written several 'television novels', including The Gravy Train (1990), which won a Monte Carlo Award. His early writing, including Eating People Is Wrong (1959) and The History Man (1975), deals largely with academic life and culture.

His latest novel, Doctor Criminale (1992), is a sarcastic résumé of our post-modern world. Malcolm Bradbury is now writing a new novel, Diderot At The Hermitage, set in Russia.