The Satyricon by Petronius. The dude who invented writing (and let's assume for the duration of this silly sentence that it was a dude) probably spent many days alone with his rock and chisel meticulously carving into the stone an amusing anecdote about the amazing Sumerian chick he banged in the moonlight shadow of a ziggurat last Saturday night. As long as human beings have been funny, they've tried to be funny about sex. As long as we have been cultural creatures, sex has been the stuff of comedy. Sex comedy, indeed, might be considered one of the defining characteristics of human civilization. High-falutin' stuff for cocks and cunts, eh? In the Western tradition, the Greeks had their satyr plays and the endless hard-on jokes of Heine's one true god, Aristophanes, and the Romans had...Petronius. I've sampled a few translations and favor the William Arrowsmith version of this fragmented phallic cornucopia from the court of Nero. It begins as self-consciously as any postmodern novel, with a disquisition on its own rhetoric, then sends us on a mock-odyssey punctuated with satirical incidents of pomposity, greed and bumbuggery. A good time is had by some, the world is revealed to be fundamentally corrupt and hypocritical, and the reader is treated to some outrageous humor. Of course I've always loved it. Petronius feels much closer to me, closer to the human world, than any of the ancient epicists. The only other Roman who means as much to me is Ovid.
Ulysses by James Joyce. You saw this one coming down O'Connell Street, didn't you now? Over its nearly one hundred-year life, Ulysses has gone from cult book to banned book to dirty book to classic book to textbook to unread book, the typical life cycle of the avant-garde classic. I first read it one summer when I was feeling suicidal. I was 20, lonely, aimless, impoverished, and reading too much Sexton and Plath. And since I was going to kill myself, I wanted to read a few great books first, just to feel that I'd accomplished something in my two decades besides turning a cubic mile of oxygen into a cubic mile of carbon dioxide. I chose Ulysses, Kafka's The Trial and Eliot's Waste Land. Three excellent choices, because each is a work that requires a full lifetime to understand, thereby necessitating the indefinite deferral of my self-offing. I couldn't even think about raising a bare bodkin until I really, truly, deeply understood James Joyce. And since Finnegans Wake will linger always on the horizon waiting to be understood, I decided that I would stand there too. Until the end. That's how literature, quite literally, saved my life. In retrospect, it's a good thing I didn't choose to read The Pet Goat or Get Shorty. (Although, for the record, I enjoyed Get Shorty, and we all know how much Dubya enjoyed the goat book.)
Dubliners by James Joyce. When I first read Dubliners at age 20, I hated it. Just hated it. The stories seemed too thin and old-fashioned, slices of mercifully forgotten life, meaningless pieces of nothingness. If I had known it at the time, I would've applied to Joyce the glib comment Hazlitt made upon Turner's later paintings, "Pictures of nothing, and very like." And I would've been every bit as wrong as Hazlitt. For it's not nothing Joyce paints, but damn near everything. From birth to death, childhood to old age, hedonism to puritanism, and every brand and manner of sad perversity, it's all here. Dubliners is a kind of Chekhovian trial run for Ulysses that also marks the English-language perfection of the epiphanic short story. Today I find my first impression hard to believe. How could I have been so blind? Obviously, I had not yet read enough Modernist literature to become literate in its techniques. When that deficit was remedied, Joyce's stories shone like the hair of Mangan's sister. I could experience the delight of their sneaky, lyrical beauty.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. I first read this at exactly the right time, while I was a high school student. I remember lying in bed one Sunday morning with family noises wafting through the walls and reading the opening pages of the orange-spined Penguin paperback with Berenice Abbot's portrait of Joyce on the cover. And I remember identifying with the child Stephen Dedalus, forced into athleticism on the field at Clongowes just as I was forced throughout childhood and adolescence to play moronic games in gym class. (Physical Education didn't instill a lifelong hatred of sports; I hated sports even before I started kindergarten; hatred of sports is like breathing to me.) I don't recall how much I comprehended of Joyce's book on that first reading, but I recognized it as a difficult, lovely thing that would reward further attention. Most important at the time was the mirror of my young self I saw in the main character and the related realization that ordinary lives could be the stuff of literature, that one need not be James Bond or George Smiley to star in an interesting book.
Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth. Portnoy was my introduction to Roth, and a reader couldn't ask for a better intro. It's neither his greatest book (for me, that's Sabbath's Theater) nor his most nearly perfect (The Ghost Writer), but it is good enough to stand up to multiple readings. I've probably read Portnoy half a dozen times by now, and every reading shows me something I had either forgotten or failed to notice the last time through. As with a very different one of my 'pillars,' Rushdie's Satanic Verses, the book's reputation as a succes de scandale has overshadowed its formidable artistic excellence. The freedom Roth claims here is breathtaking: freedom not merely of content but of form. Roth writes the novel as a monologue unhinged from the inhibitions of traditional novelistic chronology. There's a weak linearity arcing over the work and unifying it, taking us from childhood in the first chapter to Dr. Spielvogel's office in the last line, but within that arc Roth allows Portnoy's memories to flow by association. It was this formal freedom, perhaps as much as the laugh-out-loud outrageousness, that deeply impressed me on first reading and led me to seek out the rest of Roth. Today, Roth is my favorite of Harold Bloom's Big Four (Old) American Novelists (Roth, DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Pynchon). TP and Ol' Cormac have both, in their respective ways, blown my mind into the next county, and DeLillo's work delights more often than it disappoints me, but Roth is the writer who means the most to me.