by WILL HUBBARD and ALEX CARNEVALE
Other lists of this kind have been attempted, none very successfully. We would like to stress that there is a crucial difference between "an important writer" and "a great writer"; the latter is at this time our sole interest. We will account for some of the names that did not make this list in a later dispatch. There is nothing bad to say about anyone we list here, except in some cases that they were anti-Semitic or racist, hated women or hated men. Literary crimes are usually relative, the caveats of which we shall enumerate:
BIOGRAPHY OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV
10. Marcel Proust
Was he the most exciting writer you've ever read? No, but at his best, Proust achieved the kind of highs that fiction had never before approached. Really, it wasn't fiction; it was the kind of autobiography, the sort of scale that was new and fresh. Remembrance of Things Past is so difficult to translate that it probably has not even been expressed sufficiently in English. Despite this, he took the step forward that the novel needed, and he did it for his own sake.
9. Anton Chekhov
He practically invented the modern novel, the modern short story, and the modern play. A doctor like William Carlos Williams, his vision of the sentence was serene and beautiful, and his novella My Life remains the greatest achievement in that genre. His stories mattered quite a bit; they are acclaimed by many as the best ever done in that form, and his plays are beautiful and dramatic, and so, so sad. Recommended reading: My Life, The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, "The Bishop"
8. Vladimir Nabokov
The West's mad and zany master. Lolita is probably more important thanThe Odyssey. It is better written, at least. His stories are sublime pictures of the sane insane man behind the moving inventiveness of Pale Fire. Talked a good game: try his lectures. Recommended Reading: Ada, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.
7. Samuel Beckett
Maybe the greatest prose stylist we ever had, and also the best playwright besides Bill? God never came, but he did, to read things over, survey the situation, and judge human behavior. Master of how we speak to one another, why we say the things we do. Recommended reading: Endgame,Krapp's Last Tape, Molloy, Malone Dies, the short prose works.
6. John Milton
The king of all the poets, Milton attempted the essential story of man, beginning with his rise and chronicling his fall. He alone is the master of meter, of the telling phrase. He practically invented the use of the adjective. Before dying in 1674, he was born to a Puritan family and lived his life out as a Protestant. He planned to enter the ministry but was expelled. Penned some of the most cogent political writing of the time only helps his cause. He wrote Paradise Lost while blind, and sold its copyright for £10. The greatest poet of this time or any other.
5. Gertrude Stein
To know that you have picked up something she has written, perhaps casually, or it was given to you, and to open her little world of language, where nothing was explained, and the reader had to come the rest of the way herself. She mastered being famous or notorious. Delivered those magnificent deadpan lectures. Said more in three words than most did in whole books. Recommended reading: Tender Buttons, Everybody's Autobiography, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.
4. James Joyce
We leave Finnegans Wake to the aliens to hope they can understand what we can't. But he wrote the beginnings of the short story we recognize today, the tragic and insane last moments of "The Dead." Ditto the ultimate line of "Evangeline" in Dubliners: "Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition." The most profound symbolist we have: the joy and fun of Ulysses, he gave more to the prose than you could, he forced you to be more, to cross to where he was standing, seeing as only he could. Recommended reading: Exiles, Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man.
3. William Shakespeare
There's a lot to say about Bill. His mercy, his ways of thinking! He admired everything he gave voice to, we can also hope he admired himself. He took the old stories, and he wrote them new. Romeo and Juliet is just tremendous. Hamlet was better. Who could do comedy and tragedy with equal aplomb? He was master of satire, of broad and physical comedy. He was easy with stage directions, easy with criminals, harder on saints. Recommended reading: The Sonnets, King Lear, Othello, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice.
2. Franz Kafka
He was a genius, our brightest genius, our maker of myth and hater of self. Proof it can come from any place, even hate or fear. The Trial is forever his masterpiece. It can be read in any place, in any time, and it becomes about that place and time. It is man losing the primitive, acquiring a greater sense, changing into a monster, and growing no smarter about who he is or why he is there. All his novels are classics, even minor ones. His letter-writing! He is a code-maker, an analyst, a man of endless feeling, reserve, and talent. He wrote to God, addressed God, was God. As Whittaker Chambers put it about The Trial: "Beside that scene, against the cumulative background of that terrible story, most that has been written in our time about man's lot seems rather childlike. And beside Kafka's insatiable posing of the infinite question, most of his contemporaries' answers seem rather childish." Recommended reading: In The Penal Colony, The Castle, The Metamorphisis.
1. William Faulkner
Racism is not the greatest crime an author can commit, telling the truth is. Somehow Faulkner avoided both, achieving that glistening thing beyond truth, the local. Perhaps only Charles Olson, among the Americans, gives us as real a sense of place as Faulkner's apocryphal Yoknapatawpha County. The man could string together four, five adjectives and make it sound real. His command of syntactical structures pushed the language forward at least seventy-five years, which is to say nothing of his mesmerizing use of dialogue. There is a mindset in Faulkner that is at worst delusion and at best clairvoyance that sings the intricacies of capitalistic suffering deeper than naturalism and more fruitfully its accuracies than any mere realist. The personages in his books live not according to how he wrote them, but with a further life, unaccountable to genius or other machinations of ego. If we can keep anything, we take his lexicon, the words that lie at the interstisice of our wanting and our wanting to be. Our master, for all time.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. Will Hubbard is the executive editor of This Recording.