Thursday, November 11, 2010

My Top Shelf, and Why These Novels Are On It

Here, in more or less random order, are the novels on my top shelf, the best of the best, along with a few reasons why I value them so highly:

  1. Ulysses by James Joyce. It's a cliche to begin a best list with Ulysses, but it's an unavoidable cliche. Ulysses is the Rosetta Stone of Modernism. Once you begin to crack its codes and understand it (a process that, as Joyce knew, can take a lifetime of re-reading), most of the rest of Modern and Postmodern literature will come relatively easily to you. This is the master key to the 20th century's multitude of literary languages. And it is also, at times, blindingly funny. The "Circe" episode is especially outrageous. Formally derived from Flaubert's great, bizarre Temptation of Saint Anthony, "Circe" looks backward to Rabelais and forward to the Philip Roth of Sabbath's Theater. Theorists of 20th-century literature privilege the concept of discontinuity, but Modernism is more importantly about continuity in the face of radical change. Ulysses exemplifies and participates in this process.
  2. The Trial by Franz Kafka. All of Kafka is worth reading (and The Metamorphosis is a more perfect and finished work than The Trial), but The Trial means more to me because it was my introduction to the world of Kafka. Joseph K and his perfectly plausible adventures in the realm of the rationally insane impressed me more deeply than just about any book I had read at that point in my life. Kafka's deadpan mixture of the mundane and the surreal perfectly captures the texture of my nightmares. Every time I re-read The Trial it impresses me more--and that's a good working definition of a great book.
  3. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. The first great postmodern novel, and still the best. Sterne's subversions begin with the title and continue to burble in the reader's brain long after the final page has passed. (Most of the opinions herein are expressed by others while sad Tristram takes an inordinately long time getting himself born.) I think it was Milan Kundera who wrote that the twin genealogies of the European novel begin with Richardson and Sterne. While the former is the progenitor of Victorian 'high seriousness' and the seer-yus 'social novel' from Austen to Oates, the latter inaugurates (taking invaluable cues from the Mother/Father of All Novelists, Cervantes) the equally important comic tradition that encompasses everyone from Fielding to Rushdie. Tristram Shandy is the book the members of Monty Python might have written had they been a group of 18th-century litterateurs.
  4. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Probably the greatest novel to emerge from Russia during the Soviet period, certainly the greatest satire of Stalinism written in Russia during Stalin's lifetime (Talk about writing dangerously!), Bulgakov's masterpiece is a book so imaginative, so endlessly inventive, that it must be read to be (dis)believed. I have written elsewhere that this book might be the reason writing was invented. Surely the Sumerians didn't go to all that trouble just so we could read Danielle Steele (or Decision Points).
  5. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Many years from now, when I face the firing squad, I will remember that distant day when I discovered Gabo. William Kennedy blurbed that this book should be required reading for the entire human race. I agree. An overwhelming example of imaginative prolificity, this book reads like a Borges story exploded to novel length without any loss of tension or inventiveness. The phrase 'endlessly imaginative' must have been coined to describe Gabo's masterpiece. (And the unfairly neglected Autumn of the Patriarch is, in its own way, equally extraordinary.)
  6. Moby Dick by Herman Melville. The greatest American novel of the 19th century and one of the two greatest novels ever written by an American (I'm not going to apologize for any of the hyperbole in this post; it's all deserved), Moby Dick succeeds where the writings of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith failed: it is a New American Testament, the true American Bible. Dark, nihilistic, obsessive, bloody-minded, violent, insane, rational, beautiful, bizarre. Pick an adjective, any adjective, and it will probably apply to Moby Dick. And if it applies to this novel, it will probably also apply to America. This encyclopedic attempt to land the white whale with a harpoon of words is an Encyclopedia Americana printed in the blackest of inks. This novel establishes the "nihilistic tradition" in American literature; Cormac McCarthy is Melville's direct descendant. Ahab: "If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me..." This great and terrible speech should be as well known as the Gettysburg Address.
  7. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. I've already blogged at some length on Swann's Way, so I'll simply repeat here that A la recherche du temps perdu in the English translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff (revised and updated, and available in America as the Modern Library Proust) is one of the great works of 20th-century English literature. Proust's roman fleuve flows out of France and into the world. Great art has no respect for borders; its beauty is its passport (forever valid); and it has nothing to declare but its genius.
  8. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. The greatest American novel of the 20th century, Faulkner's labyrinthine meditation on the construction of history through the stories we tell (Faulkner beat Foucault to the concept of discourse construction by at least three decades) contains some of his most gorgeous prose. In one of my favorite sentences, Faulkner distills the tragedy of a man's life into the story of his Sunday coat: "One morning he would merely appear at breakfast in the decent and heavy black coat in which he had been married and had worn fifty-two times each year since until Ellen married and then fifty-three times a year after the aunt deserted them until he put it on for good the day he climbed to the attic and nailed the door behind him and threw the hammer out the window and so died in it."
  9. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. The greatest of all 19th-century novels. I read this over the course of two weeks when I was 20 years old, and while it might be an exaggeration to say that it changed my life, it certainly changed the way I read and judged novels. A historical novel, a war novel, a philosophical novel, a romance novel, an extended essay on history--War and Peace is all of these things. Like an enormous and exquisitely detailed 19th-century history painting, War and Peace engulfs its audience. Cancel all appointments, dates, meetings, etc. before you start reading, because you won't want to tear yourself away from Tolstoy's world.
  10. Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert. Woody Allen's character in Manhattan lists this novel as one of the things that makes life worth living. I consider it the greatest of 19th-century French novels (which means merely that it impresses me more often and more deeply than anything I've read by Stendhal or Balzac or Zola). The masterfully composed and bitterly ironic story of Frederic Moreau's disappointed life is the paradigm-establishing novel of modern disillusionment--even more so, perhaps, than Balzac's Illusions Perdues. (More than one reader has noted that "Lost Illusions" would've been a perfect title for Flaubert's magnum opus.) One of this novel's overarching lessons is that we will be able to possess the objects of our desire only when we no longer desire them. It's yet another 'pivotal' work in literary history, looking simultaneous back to Balzac and forward to Proust.
  11. Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. There is no such thing as a perfect novel. No work longer than 300 pages is free of longueurs. There are however quite a few perfect (or nearly perfect) novellas, and Dostoyevsky's Notes is one of them. The entirely original bifurcated form--half monologue, half narrative--sets up a remarkably complex series of ironies as the two halves reflect upon each other like facing mirrors. I suspect that no reader will ever reach the 'bottom' of the Notes because its ironies are bottomless. And they are bottomless in a way the reactionary author might not have entirely intended. (There's a weird parallel here to the relationship between the radical satire of Victorian conventions in Lewis Carroll's Alice books and the utterly conventional opinions of the books' author.) Sometimes the best books (and the best parts of books) are the ones that get away from their authors.
  12. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. And speaking of bottomless irony, Russian literature and the Alice books, here is the glorious intersection of those three roads. "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta." Even more than the most auditory chapters of Ulysses, Lolita is a book to be read aloud. Listen to the incomparable music of Nabokov's words, Humbert's "fancy prose style" that is the very definition of lyricism. It seems almost beside the point to remark that our narrator is profoundly evil, and that state of moral suspension is exactly the Nabokovian trap into which we readers joyously throw ourselves. We all become Humbert, to a certain extent, as we read. Aesthetics trumps ethics.
  13. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. Judge Holden is one evil son of a bitch. No reader of this novel will ever forget him, though some might wish they could. I've met the fat bastard in my nightmares. He might be the most frightening creation in all of American literature. Beside the Judge, the human monsters of Stephen King are so many haunted house zombies made up to scare small children. For several days after finishing Blood Meridian, I felt that I was still walking around in the bomb crater left by this book. It's that good.
  14. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Everybody has read Gatsby, but most Americans read it in high school, before we're old enough to appreciate it. Before you can read Gatsby the way it deserves to be read, before you can read it with your whole soul, you must personally experience the kind of failure that only adults can bring upon themselves. Utter failure. That's what Gatsby is about. Yes, the novel has many well-known layers. It's a critical primer on the construction of the self under capitalism; it's a study in desire and obsession; it's an East Coast version of the journey from "green breast of the new world" to "valley of ashes" that also lies at the core of Blood Meridian. But I'm interested in a question rarely asked about this book (and the other canonical "great American novels"): why are so many of them studies in failure? Why does a culture that prizes "success" at any cost give rise to a literature of success's polar opposite?
  15. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. This book and Mrs. Dalloway are equally brilliant, and both belong on the top shelf. Woolf at her best (and these two novels are, in my opinion, her very best) writes the most beautifully polished prose of all the English-language Modernists. She takes the formal freedom won by Joyce, the intensity of the 19th-century Russians and the inwardness of Proust and combines them into this glittering, filamented, dew-bejeweled style that is also as English as the freakin' Union Jack, descending from all those writers she credits in Orlando: Browne, Gibbon, Pater, et al. The beauties of her prose are breathtaking.
  16. The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. One of the very few great books ever to have been adapted into a truly great film (directed by Philip Kaufman), Kundera's novel is, to the chagrin of some on the Czech literary scene, THE novel of Czechoslovakia before, during and after 1968. It is one of the great political novels of our time, a brilliant investigation of the personal-political nexus. And it contains one of my favorite statements of the function of fiction: "The novel is not the author's confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become."
  17. The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth. It's appropriate to segue from Kundera to Roth, since Roth introduced Kundera to the English-reading world in the 1970s. Sabbath's Theater is probably Roth's greatest novel, his most outrageously funny and intoxicatingly reckless performance, but The Ghost Writer is my candidate for his most perfect book. This is a lovely, funny, polished, intelligent gem of a novel. And in its own way, it's every bit as outrageous as Sabbath. Consider the sheer chutzpah, for instance, of Roth/Zuckerman's reimagining the life of Anne Frank. Indeed, this goes beyond chutzpah and into a kind of secular blasphemy. Few other writers would even have attempted this; Roth pulls it off with seeming effortlessness. (An effortlessness which surely conceals great effort.)
  18. Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald. Perhaps the most unexpected literary development of recent years was the emergence from East Anglian academic obscurity of Winfried Georg 'Max' Sebald, the last great writer of the twentieth century. I recently blogged here on Austerlitz, so I'll keep this mention brief. I could have put any of Sebald's four long fictions on this list. The Emigrants, Vertigo and The Rings of Saturn are all as beautiful, disturbing and repeatedly re-readable as Austerlitz. And his poetic triptych After Nature is also very good. Sebald's haunting, mourning novels--all of them are like Shostakovich's 14th symphony: songs of death--are perfect examples of the kind of book that gives this blog its name. They are distinctly mindful pleasures.
  19. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Midnight's Children has received more praise and awards (perhaps because it's 'safer' to admire), but in my opinion Satanic Verses is Rushdie's most powerful, exuberant, imaginative and complex fiction. It's also markedly more original than Midnight's Children, which is conceptually too much under the shadow of The Tin Drum. Enough (more than enough) has already been written about the fatwa, and it looks like the final word will be Salman's (he's reportedly working on a memoir), so let's forget about the circumstances that made this book a household word and read it as what it is: one of the great novels of the late 20th century.
  20. Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon. I could have put Gravity's Rainbow on this list--it's equally masterful--but I chose Against the Day because I consider it the greatest novel of the 21st century, so far. Pynchon's enormous, endlessly intelligent, satirically provocative orchestration of the Western novel, the historical novel, the boys' adventure novel, the adult adventure novel and the postmodern comic novel raises the bar for American literature so high that most writers won't be able to see it anymore. Who cares what the author looks like? Who cares about his life? The books are the thing.


Joe Miller said...

Hello, sir.

I've been visiting your blog regularly for about a year now, and I must thank you for introducing me to so many excellent books, and also for providing me with the incentive to read more closely and emotionally than I ever had before. I always enjoy your accessible, witty, and insightful perspective on such a wide variety of texts.

I'd like to return the favor by recommending that you read 'Weymouth Sands' by John Cowper Powys. While he does owe a sizable dept to a great deal of writers, particularly Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Shakespeare, the vivacity and richness of his prose, the depth of his characterizations and sheer beauty of his depictions of the landscapes surrounding the titular seaside town differentiate him from his illustrious influences. Here are a few samples(the following quotations are all from the first five chapters of the book):

"The sea lost nothing of the swallowing identity of its great outer mass of water in the emphatic, individual character of each particular wave. Each wave, as it rolled in upon the high-pebbled beach, was an epitome of the whole body of the sea, and carried with it all the vast mysterious quality of the earth's ancient antagonist."

"As he said this to himself the idea of his father rose up before him in a peculiar and special way. He felt ashamed of his shivering as he sat on and on there, waiting for the steamer to move. He felt as if the blowing of the wind and the breaking of the waves, nay! the very darkness itself, as it descended now on land and sea, contained in it the spirit of his father, massive, primeval, and conceding nothing to human weakness and frivolity."

"The feelings which that sound roused in her were curiously mixed. It awed her a little. It chilled her consciousness with the ebb and flow of vast non-human forces that cared nothing for human plots and counterplots. It brought something into that fantastical bedchamber that was free and uncaught, whose very desolation was a kind of comfort, obliterating with the release of the indifferent elements the unhappy morbidities of her race."

"Simple-minded men are always being deceived by the verbal outbursts of women; for women have the power of abandoning themselves to the most volcanic revelations of grim truth and then of going on living, in the ordinary illusions of commonplace reality, as if nothing happened."

"But scarcely had these vapour-ghosts vanished from before him than a deep, narrow, crimson streak-as if it had been a bloody scar in an ashen-grey forehead-appeared just above the horizon; and simultaneously with this blood-line which made him think of the decapitated eel, the long saurian neck of St. Alban's Head, like some antediluvian sea-serpent, manifested itself on the horizon. And even as he looked at it, this red streak on the sea's rim, that was like a long thin trail of rusty blood that slowly incarnadined as the sun melted it from behind the world, changed its nature, and became crimson, and with it a galaxy of small feathery clouds that had been floating unnoticed in the eastern sky caught this glory and bloomed over the water like a towering cascade of gigantic rose-petals."

"'Every system,' replied Mr. Gaul, 'can be made clear. There is a clue-word somewhere. Mine is Representation. When modern people deny the existence of God and of any survival after death and of free will, I answer that there is something in the deep places of life-though doubtless outside of the material world-'representative' of such things. I don't say corresponding exactly, mind you but sufficiently representative of them to satisfy all those cravings in our nature which half-discovered and half-invented these daring concepts.'"

BRIAN OARD said...


Thanks. I haven't read Powys, but he has been on my mental 'to read' list for quite some time. I'll have to check him out.