Friday, July 5, 2013

Alex Carnevale / The 100 Greatest Novels

The 100 Greatest Novels
We can date back all of modern literature to Chekhov's novella My Life, which appeared in Russian in 1896. At about the same time the first translations of new novels by Dostoevsky were hitting American shores, and they too find a place on any compendium of the modern. Many of the novels that contributed in an critical historical capacity to its development are no longer very readable to our modern audience, through no fault of their own. Others, like Tristram Shandy or Moby Dick are far better now than they were at the time of publication, while sharing some of the deficiences of their 19th century brethren. In the end, we are concerned with modern novels, so if it happened before My Life, you won't find it here. Since novellas are essentially short novels, they also find a place on this list.
Without the enduring brilliance of New Directions, the sustained efforts of Dalkey Archive, the phenomenal and immortal NYRB Classics series, and the efforts of so many others editors and writers, some of these novels would never have remained available in America. Whenever I see people giving money to the homeless, or to the American Cancer Society, or James Cameron, I just think, do the world a favor and give it to New Directions or the NYRB and receive the finest literature of our time in exchange.
The comment thread spawned by our notation of the 100 Greatest Writers of All Timehas now ascended past the post itself in prurient interest. The novel exploded as a form in the twentieth century; in recent years it has retained only some small percentage of that power. Some novels changed the world simply by existing. The Fountainhead is one of them, but you won't find it below, not because it was not an important book (it's one of the best-selling novels in the history of mankind and the most annoying to have your friend tell you about after The Corrections), but because it is not an exemplar of the best literary and genre writing has to offer, both in artistic achievement and pure readability for a modern audience. These are those.

100. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car feel a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.
To open Atwood's signature novel on some random day in March is to be drawn in all over again: the intoxicating blend of 1940s-era nostalgia and mind-bending fantasy, the flawless detailing of a novel-within-a-novel in a fashion never accomplished so seamlessly before. The refined prose that always seems to be holding something back.The Blind Assassin is a story that could really only be told in prose fiction and for that reason it inspires another kind of awe.
99. The Moon and the Bonfires by Cesare Pavese
I had a reason for coming back to this town, here instead of to Canelli, Barbaresco or Alba. I'm almost sure I wasn't born here.
Channeling the rejection of romantic disappointment into something positive is the reason we have Microsoft. Why shouldn't something equally valuable emerge from a similar situation in 1940s Italy? Pavese's brilliant autobiographical novel is stamped with his unmistakeable voice and love for the paradise he believed was America.
98. The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
Grant lay on his high white cot and stared at the ceiling. Stared at it with loathing. He knew by heart every last minute crack on its nice clean surface. He had made maps of the ceiling and gone exploring on them.
Regarded as one of the great crime writers of all time, Josephine Tey's basic prose handles the shifting turns of its drama surrounding Richard III with a deftness that would influence writers like Donald E. Westlake and George R.R. Martin. Her efforts in the mystery genre are rightly regarded as canon. The Daughter of Time is the last novel Tey (real name Elizabeth MacKintosh) published before her death in February of 1952.
97. The Northern Lights by Howard Norman
My father brought home a radio. "It's got a sender and a receiver," he said. "Now you can talk to people other than yourselves." He fit the earphones over my head. And the first news I heard was that my friend Pelly Bay had drowned. Pelly had fallen through the ice while riding his unicycle. That was April 1959.
The stunningly crafted writing of Howard Norman is rooted in a nostalgia for a past unknown to most of us. Norman's time working on a fire crew in Manitoba was the inspiration for his first full-length novel, and he reinvents the strictures of what we perceive to be realism in fiction to create an unsettling coming of age story. The best book ever to take place in Toronto.
96. A Violent Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini
The world knows everything they must about the terror of the Third Reich, but the Italian movement towards fascism was in many ways a more puzzling transition. Pasolini's 1959 novel set in Rome has all the rawness of a genius who could master any form to which he put his mind.
95. Stoner by John Williams
William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen.
As academic novels go, this may be the finest. Williams' plain prose is almost maddening in how unaffected it is and his dialogue is no better than competent. The way he unfolds the most unexpected of stories in time is what makes Stoner one of the more entrancing American reading experiences. To make a compelling fiction, you just don't need very much.
94. The Waves by Virginia Woolf
The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased as if a cloth had wrinkles in it. Gradually as the sky whitened a dark line lay on the horizon dividing the dea form the sky and the grey cloth became barred with thick strokes moving, one after another, beneath the surface, following each other, pursuing each other, perpetually.
Woolf's first writing was reviews in the Guardian, and even from the beginning,  the range of subjects she wrote about was intensely diverse. It took her eleven more years to publish her first novel, The Voyage Out. Written after her supreme masterpiece, The Waves was the natural extension of her innovation in the novel form. After he read it for the first time, Leonard Woolf told her it was her best book, but that the first hundred pages were extremely difficult. This is still true of reading The Waves today, but the prize is now well known.
93. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. This was the beginning with God and the duty of every faithful monk would be to repeat every day with chanting humility the one never-changing event whose incontrovertible truth can be asserted.
Considered by many to be the most exciting and entertaining mystery of its kind, Eco's training and expertise in the field of semiotics make this collision of disciplines ideal.
92. The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq
This book is principally the story of a man who lived out the greater part of his life in Western Europe, in the latter half of the twentieth century. Though alone for much of his life, he was nonetheless occasionally in touch with other men.
Houellebecq aims first and foremost to entertain. His is the mind of man who hates to be bored, who cannot conceive of doing anything that bores him when so much interests him. Between the weird science-technical milieu of The Elementary Particles and the magnificent sexual details, there is nothing at all dull here. There is also something quite moving within the satire, a rare literary feat, like when you pitied Gulliver.
91. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie, and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool sock with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn't care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.
A mystery so persuasively linked and real to the touch that its alternate possibilities alone constitute another separate mystery in the mind of the novel's unreliable narrator. Howard Hawks turned its manifold twists into a rather dull movie more about Humphrey Bogart than Philip Marlowe. Chandler's private detective is the real thing.
90. Distant Star by Roberto Bolaño
I saw Carlos Wieder for the first time in 1971, or perhaps in 1972, when Salvador Allende was President of Chile. At that stage Wieder was calling himself Alberto Ruize-Tagle and occasionally attended Juan Stein's poetry workshop in Concepcion, the so-called capital of the South. I can't say I knew him well. I saw him once or twice a week at the workshop. He wasn't particularly talkative. I was.
If you want an introduction to Bolaño, look no further. And if you don't want an introduction to Bolaño, you may want to revisit that line of thinking. Idealized by the tag-teaming of every major literary publication in the world jumping on his material, Bolaño survives the character assassination. How does he do it? He makes the ghosts of his imagination into tangible real darknesses for his readers, and then he unspools them in the exact right order. Not only a masterful novella, but an assault on the methods of realism and their magical counterpart.
89. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again.
The best 20th century version of the Jane Eyre/Wuthering Heights story, built off the identical premise of a dark host. It is the introduction of noir, partly due to Hitchcock's popular film adaptation and the darker results of the drama that made du Maurier's novel such a sensation in its own time. Now it serves a set of new readers as the ideal paperback for any occasion.
88. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
My name is Ruth. I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughters, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.
In the novels that followed her debut Housekeeping, Robinson's interest in pairing her love of history with the art of fiction combined to make her one of the most powerful voices in fiction: when she chose to speak. Then again, it's easy to see how much is invested in these books, and why they take so long to compose. The epitome of the earth-shattering first novel, in an unforgettable setting and time.
87. Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet
Weidmann appeared before you in a five o'clock edition, his head swathed in white bands, a nun and yet a wounded aviator fallen into the rye, one September day like the one when there came to be known the name of Our Lady of the Flowers.
A novel that had a movement ready and waiting for it. The first fifty pages of Our Lady of the Flowers composed, according to Genet, were destroyed by prison guards while he stood in the exercise yard. His drag queen Divine obliterated all the repressive behavior of the society she inhabited. No first novel did more for so many, unless you're talking about how many times The Mysteries of Pittsburgh has gotten people laid.
86. I, Tituba by Maryse Condé 
Abena, my mother, was raped by an English sailor on the deck of Christ the King one day in the year 16** while the ship was sailing for Barbados. I was born from this act of aggression. From this act of hatred and contempt.
For its informed commentary on the historical form of the slave narrative, Condé's best novel is the equivalent of an academic thesis, covering territory from Olaudah Equiano to Booker T. Washington. Every slave narrative is a breathless ride, for the lowest class experiences an extinct society in a way the present moment struggles to appreciate. I don't really know why people struggle to appreciate Maryse Condé, because Crossing the Mangrove is spectacular, I cried during and after Windward Heights and almost all of her books are really fun.
85. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.
Servants are not slaves, but nor are they freemen. The Remains of the Day explores this culture without becoming sanctimonious about any of it; this is a stunning feat when one considers the novel is, on the whole, a broadside against enslavement of any kind, to any thing. Ishiguro's singular style, evolved from Kafka and his own personal deficiences has only been as pleasantly circular in this book's sister volume, A Pale View of the Hills and in his tribute to Kafka, The Unconsoled.
84. Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy
At fourteen I was a boarder in a school in the Appenzell.
Jaeggy's pitch-perfect prose is the highlight of this haunting novel. The narrator's relationship with another girl and the reflection of her father arises from a maudlin-half dream of a very disturbed individual. The book's sheer dedication to comprehending its subjects made it an instant smash, and perhaps the most underrated novella of the century. At only 101 pages, it's so resolutely creepy that it demands a look.
83. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe by Carson McCullers
The town itself is dreary; not much is there except the cotton mill, the two-room houses where the workers live, a few peach trees, a church with two colored windows, and a miserable main street only a hundred yards long.
The strange gender-switching, the magical atmosphere, the languorous prose. For myselfThe Ballad of the Sad Cafe was the first work I ever read in a writing class. It excels in that role firstly because it is short, novella-length, but also because of how it handles the most difficult issue in fiction: that of character.
82. Wise Blood by Flannery O'Connor
Hazel Motes sat at a forward angle on the green plush train seat, looking one minute at the window as if he might want to jump out of it, and the next down the aisle at the other end of the car. The train was racing through tree tops that fell away at intervals and showed the sun standing, very red, on the edge of the farthest woods.
Flannery spent most of her life writing short stories, but composed this short novel in the years following her first diagnosis of lupus. Her writing is so powerful that it almost doesn't matter what form it takes - any way she articulated the world produced fireworks in the sky. As it happens, however, Wise Blood is one wild Southern noir.
81. The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis
My name is Charles Highway, though you wouldn't think it to look at me. It's such a rangy, well-traveled big-cocked name and to look at, I am none of these.
Amis' first novel, his brief on adolescence for all time, established him as every bit the equal in the comic form as his prodigious father Kingsley. To one crowd, The Rachel Papers was an affected portrait of a generation they preferred to mock, to another, Amis was in on the joke, and it was a fabulous joke at that.
80. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.
Upon its publication The House of Mirth became more popular than Gossip Girl, casting Edith Wharton into the public spotlight at the age of 43. She would set only one other book in her New York, and none of her novels would contain as much of her.
79. My Life by Lyn Hejinian
A moment yellow, just as four years later, when my father returned home from the war, the moment of greeting him, as he stood at the bottom of the stairs, younger, thinner than when he had left, was purple - though moments are no longer so colored. Somewhere, in the background, rooms share a pattern of small roses. Pretty is as pretty does. In certain families, the meaning of necessity is at one with the sentiment of prenecessity.
Keeping the world of poetry apart from the world of prose was the dastardly invention of the publishing industry; no novel of the twentieth century did as much for the interstices between the two as My Life. Whether My Life is truly a novel is an open question, but it certainly takes up the techniques of fiction in order to explore poetry in a more unexpected and personal way. Deserves (and has received) treatment as more than a simple collection.
78. Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee
The first thing the midwife noticed about Michael K when she helped him out of his mother into the world was that he had a hare lip. The lip curled like a snail's foot, the left nostril gaped. Obscuring the child for a moment form its mother, she prodded open the tiny budy of a mouth and was thankful to find the palate whole.
The easiest trick in writing is to inflict some tragedy out of nowhere on your character. Coetzee avoids this cheap business and lends real gravity to events by inflicting tragedy constantly on the young Michael K. The wandering journey of this narrator through 1970s South Africa is as seductive and enchanting as it is mysterious and depraved. As Cynthia Ozick put it, "Mr. Coetzee has not written a symbolic novel about the inevitability of guerrilla war and revolution in a country where oppression and dependency are breathed with the air. Instead, he discloses, in the language of imagination, the lumbering hoaxes and self-deceptions of stupidity. His theme is the wild and merciless power of inanity."
77. Cities of the Red Night by William Burroughs
The liberal principles embodied in the French and American revolutions and later in the liberal revolutions of 1848 had already been codified and put into practice by pirate communes a hundred years earlier.
Burroughs' best book, the beginning of his Red Night Trilogy, was his first novel in ten years when it appeared from Viking Press in 1981. It was a return to a more traditional narrative structure that brought the rat bastard some of the best reviews of his career. Concerned with the outbreak of a virus, Cities of the Red Night never misses a single joke, and its writer seemed to cast aside some of the excesses of the first generation of his work and harness his style to the content.
76. Suttree by Cormac McCarthy
Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in the sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you.
A psychological profile of this most intellectual of McCarthy's narrators, Suttree is the most ambitious of the man's novels. When you walk in the footsteps of Faulkner and Joyce, it's hard not to feel small. Lacking a surfeit of confidence was never Cormac's problem.
75. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee
It is late in a summer night, in a room of a house set deep and solitary in the country; all in this house save myself are sleeping; I sit at a table, facing a partition wall, and I am looking at a lighted coal-oil lamp which stands on the table close to the wall, and just beyond the sleeping of my relaxed left hand; with my right hand I am from time to time writing, with a soft pencil, into a school-child's composition book; but just now, I am entirely focused on the lamp, and light.
So full of fiction it can't help but be a novel, no matter what its creator says or doesn't say, or lies about. The genre-straddling Agee is a conservative soul in a liberal's body, and his overwriting reached critical mass on this project, where an examination of what he calls the deep south gives way to a larger project about everyone Let Us Now Praise Famous Men touched. One of the best titles in all of literature.
74. An Accidental Man by Iris Murdoch
"Gracie darling, will you marry me?"
When she began writing the novel that would become An Accidental Man, Iris Murdoch had just written several plays, but she felt another kind stirring. In her journal, she wrote, "Odd how different the atmosphere of one novel is from another. This new one is a completely different world, an unexpected & somehow unrecognizable one. Where has all this come from?" Murdoch's grasp of character and her masterly command of humor make this among her most readable works, not just something to study.
73. The Heather Blazing by Colm Tóibín
Eamon Redmond stood at the window looking down at the river which was deep brown after days of rain. He watched the colour, the mixture of mud and water, and the small currents and pockets of movements within the flow. It was a Friday morning at the end of July; the traffic was heavy on the quays. Later, when the court had finished its sitting he would come back and look out once more at the watery grey light over the houses across the river and wait for the stillness, when the cars and lorries had disappeared and Dublin was quiet.
After the attention his first novel The South received, Tóibín wanted to write "a much calmer, more Irish book. I wanted to enter into the things I knew." Eamon Redmond's account of what happens to his wife and daughter established Tóibín as a major voice in his home country and aboard, and we can feel lucky he continues to write, releasing a book of tense short stories last year.
72. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein
I see in Lunaya Pravda that Luna City Council has passed on first reading a bill to examine, license, inspect - and tax - public food vendors operating inside municipal pressure. I see also is to be mass meeting tonight to organize "Sons of the Revolution" talk-talk.
The best book about space ever conceived, Heinlein's vision of a revolution on the Moon is to fascism what his Citizen of the Galaxy is to slavery and what Stranger In A Strange Land is to repression of any kind: a marvelously exciting action story wrapped around a poignant philosophical and moral treatise. There are ideas is this book that have not even begun to be properly appreciated.
71. Amongst Women by John McGahern
As he weakened, Moran became afraid of his daughters. This once powerful man was so implanted in their lives that they had never really left Great Meadow, in spite of jobs and marriages and children and houses of their own in Dublin and London. Now they could not let him slip away.
Before there was Tony Soprano, there was Michael Moran, who thinks of his family as "a larger version of himself." Some memoir has come close to dramatizing the meaning of parental dread, but instead of unfolding something overwrought, McGahern focused equal attention on Moran's children, seeing them better than their father could and making them as transparent as glass.
70. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o'clock. Two days before the event was to take place he tacked a note on the door of his little yellow house.
Why do some people find Toni Morrison boring? I think it might owe something to the economy of the American covers of her novels, which make them seem austere and elegant things designed to be consumed perhaps with chardonnay or a feather coming out of your ass. In reality, the best material for fiction is suffering, and the African-American experience (not just in the South, not just during slavery) is full of things people don't talk about. My history teacher used to make us line up like we were chained in the bowels of a ship. Morrison makes it a lot more real than that.
69. Amerika by Franz Kafka
As the seventeen year old Karl Rossmann, who had been sent to America by his unfortunate parents because a maid had seduced him and had a child by him, sailed slowly into New York harbour, he suddenly saw the Statue of Liberty, which had already been in view for some time, as though in an intenser sunlight.
If you're looking for the best first novel, Amerika is the first novel of the finest European writer we have. Charles Dickens would write these wild narratives about his travels, just ripping America across volumes. Kafka had to do his vision of the country, which he was lucky turned out to be critical on the world stage. The fact that he could take so basic a premise and turn it into something that can endure beyond time shows what an astonishing talent the man was.
68. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
One of the fruits of Emancipation in the West Indian islands is the number of ruins, either attached to the houses that remain or within a stone's throw of them: ruined slaves' quarters, ruined sugar-grinding houses, ruined boiling houses; often ruined mansion that were too expensive to maintain. Earthquake, fire, rain, and deadlier vegetation, did their work quickly. One scene is very clear in my mind, in Jamaica.
Despite only penning four novels in his lifetime, Robert Hughes' fiction was always exactly what you were waiting to read but never had before. His take on pirates, A High Wind in Jamaica completely reverses the story of the savage pirate without stripping any of the adventure from the meme. Along with Gene Wolfe's Pirate Freedom and the immortal oeuvre of Patrick O'Brian, one of the best novels ever written about ocean travel.
67. Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie
I was born in the city of Bombay...once upon a time. No, that won't do, there's no getting away from the date: I was born in Doctor Narlikar's Nursing Home on August 15th, 1946.
Rushdie's best novel is challenging in its investigation of over half a century of life on the Indian subcontinent. As a chronicle of the history of India and Pakistan's independence,Midnight's Children is perched symmetrically between the time before and after. Rushdie brought his own sensibility to the proceedings, and in light of the fatwa he endured as a result of The Satanic Verses his was a credible voice on the point. But besides its significance in documenting a historic moment not well known in the west, Midnight's Children is the completely readable expression of a man writing between the west and another space.
66. Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian
Colin finished dressing. Getting out of his bath, he had wrapped himself in an ample towel of fine fabric from which only his legs and torso were exposed. He took the vaporizer from the glass shelf and sprayed the perfumed liquid oil in his light-colored hair.
Vian was a favorite of contemporary French master Alain Robbe-Grillet and prose innovator Raymond Queneau, who called Froth on the Daydream "the most poignant contemporary love story." Vian crafted a surrealist novel around the blighting of young love that is occasionally called Foam of the Daze or Mood Indigo.
65. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
The morning before Easter Sunday, June Kashpaw was walking down the clogged main street of oil boomtown Williston, North Dakota, killing time before the noon bus arrived that would take her home. She was a long-legged Chippewa woman, aged hard in every way except how she moved.
It comes as a tremendous relief that the novels of Louise Erdrich are finally being taught in schools, because the starkness of her subject matter constitutes an adult fiction that can still be rewarding to young people precisely because of the suffering at the center of it. The story of the native people of America, so swathed in despair and violence, deserves to be aired even if its literature can not so easily be washed clean for the masses. Erdrich's short glimpses into this world as voyeur and participant remain eerie and honed.
64. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
I'll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is the matter of the imagination. The soundest face may fail or prevail in the style of its telling: like that singular organic jewel of our seas, which grows bright as one woman wears it and, worn by another, dulls and goes to dust. Facts are no more solid, coherent, round and real than pearls are. But both are sensitive.
It astonishes me how much she puts into the creative act. When Ursula wanted to write the best books for children, she did so, but her writing for adults was equally ambitious.The Left Hand of Darkness is really an action-epic, the kind Steven Spielberg should have been keen on wrapping around his finger long ago. It is questionable whether there is anything better than an ice planet.
63. The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak
Whatever falls from the sky above, thou shall not curse it. That includes the rain.
Shafak's second novel in English was savaged by many critics who criticized her lack of command in her new language. For others, the rawness of The Bastard of Istanbul didn't constitute its charm, but lent simply another strange note to the proceedings. After the publication of the book, Shafak was put on trial for 'denigrating Turkishness.' (The charges were dropped.) It is not simply that other countries contain life entirely divergent from our own experience. It's that only some things are different - and we must figure out exactly which ones.
62. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree. They took the flag out and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.
Begun as a short story called "Twilight", you can feel the smaller structure in the book's famous first lines, where so little of the whole is given away, not even the person of Benjy Compson. William Faulkner later recalled that "the idea struck me to see how much more I could have got out of the idea of the blind, self-centeredness of innocence, typified by children, if one of those children had been truly innocent, that is, an idiot." Having been invested with this realization, he went to work: "One day I seemed to shut a door between me and all publishers' addresses and book lists. I said to myself, Now I can write. Now I can make myself a vase like that which the old Roman kept at his bedside and wore the rim slowly away with kissing it. So I, who never had a sister and was fated to lose my daughter in infancy, set out to make myself a beautiful and tragic little girl."
61. The Devil to Pay In The Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa
It's nothing. Those shots you heard were not men fighting, God be praised.
Even in translation, Rosa's prose is inventive and revealing, creating an experimental context for a very human story. Dying to be a miniseries along the lines of Lonesome Dove. The perfect example of how literary fiction need not sacrifice entertainment value. A mercilessly inventive book.
60. Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar
Today I went to see my physician Hermogenes, who has just returned to the Villa from a rather long journey in Asia. No food could be taken before the examination, so we had made the appointment for the early morning hours. I took off my cloak and tunic and lay down on a couch.
The Roman moment has been the foundational source of all modern historical fiction. Like the space station Babylon 5 Rome does and doesn't appear identical to our own society. Whereas I, Claudius was all about the ways the Romans did and didn't live up to their reputations, Marguerite Yourcenar's French novel dazzles in its command of travel and timely verisimilitude. A classic in the historical mode.
59. J R by William Gaddis
-Money...? in a voice that rustled.
One of the more off-the-wall attempts at an American fiction, consisting of note-perfect dialogue that renders human speech in mindbending ways. In his notes for his novel The Recognitions, William Gaddis identifies the problem he takes up in J R: "the separating of things today without love." Such an obstacle can only be attacked through fiction, and Gaddis found satire most appropriate. There is no David Foster Wallace or Bret Easton Ellis without J R. As Gaddis put it, "It is the notion that the reader is brought in almost as a collaborator in creating the picture that emerges of the characters, of the situation, of what they look like - everything."
58. A New Life by Bernard Malamud
S. Levin, formerly a drunkard, after a long and tiring transcontinental journey, got off the train at Marathon, Cascadia, toward evening of the last Sunday in August, 1950.
Some books are so perfect that they go unnoticed during their release because it is assumed their proper exterior is simply that. A New Life should have ushered in a new era of Malamud appreciation, but instead he is an artist without a movement. In his deeply imaginative novels, persecution of the Jews take the form of high aria, and intransigence is a watchword for fascism. The definitive iteration of being a Jew in America.
57. Moravagine by Blaise Cendrars
In 1900 I completed my medical studies. I left Paris in August to go to the Waldensee Sanatorium, near Berne in Switzerland. My master and friend, Professor d'Entraigues, famous for his publications on syphilis, had given me a warm recommendation to Dr Stein, the director, to whom I was to be chief assistant.
Blaise Cendrars' first translators were Henry Miller and John Dos Passos, which is pretty much as good as it gets outside of Richard Howard. His signature work, Moravagine is the entrancing unfolding of a psychopath's journey from the Russian Revolution through World War I. By trade Cendrars was a journalist, spending most of his career at Paris-Soir, a large circulation newspaper in Paris between the World Wars after serving time in the French Foreign Legion and traveling the world as a poet. His prose that still feels as lively and as fresh as when it was written in 1926.
56. Among Women Only by Cesare Pavese
I arrived in Turin with the last January snow, like a street acrobat or a candy seller. I remember it was carnival time when I saw the booths and bright points of acetylene lamps under the porticos, but it was not dark yet and I walked from the station to the hotel, peering out from under the arches and over the heads of the people.
Pavese's last novel begins with a suicide, his favorite remedy to the ills, perceived and otherwise, he suffered during the course of his life in Italy. His attempt to write from the perspective of a woman comprises a valiant attempt at the trick, and he manages to ensure that she is only himself and all of us. There is no limit to his understanding, there is no need to restate the marked beauty of his prose, honed through his marvelous poetry. Every movement in Among Women Only shows he is a master.
55. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
"I have been here before," I said; I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fool's parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as our climate affords once or twice a year, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.
In 1950 Evelyn Waugh wrote to Graham Greene saying "I re-read Brideshead Revisitedand was appalled." Because despite its honored pedigree and many film adaptations, Waugh's novel is so personal and sentimental in the best way that it must have been difficult on the ears of its author after it had been committed to print. Once the wife of an American theatrical producer said to Waugh at a party, "Oh Mr. Waugh, I have just been reading your new book Brideshead Revisited and I think it's one of the best books I've ever read." Waugh replied, "I thought it was good myself, but now that I know that a vulgar, common American woman like yourself admires it, I am not so sure."
54. The Ambassadors by Henry James
Strether's first question, when he reached the hotel, was about his friend; yet on his learning that Waymarsh was apparently not to arrive till evening he was not wholly disconcerted. A telegram from him bespeaking a room "only if not noisy," reply paid, was produced for the enquirer at the office, so that the understanding they should meet at Chester rather than at Liverpool remained to that extent sound.
If we say that The Ambassadors is James' very best novel, does that give away that it is his only appearance on this list? (James himself agreed with our view.) This 1902 jaunt advanced the puck in its treatment of women and even its treatment of men. Like another of wonderful dramas, The Golden Bowl, it plays with the ideas of America and Europe in an original fashion that is still of lasting interest to us. Where James' style is dated he can be forgiven, but this was his most rewarding subject matter, and revisiting him recently, it is surprising how fresh so much of James still seems.
53. The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald
At the end of september 1970, shortly before I took up my position in Norwich, I drove out to Hingham with Clara in search of somewhere to live. For some 25 kilometres the road runs amidst fields and hedgerows, beneath spreading oak trees, past a few scattered hamlets, till at length Hingham appears, its asymmetrical gables, church tower and treetops barely rising above the flatland.
Admired by university instructors around the world, Sebald's mix of memoir and fiction proved a sensation after its publication by the inimitable New Directions in 1996. Sebald's Holocaust story was the ideal fodder for graduates students and undergraduates alike. Accompanied by stunning photographs, he deftly weaves together the two most important threads of prose fiction in his century: the influence of memoir on the form, and the entertainment provided by an unreliable narrator.
52. Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth
The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses. Then she stepped out to the edge of the diving board and looked foggily into the pool, her head of short-clipped auburn hair held up, straight ahead of her, as though it were a rose on a long stem.
Above all things a first novel should be (1) lascivious, (2) impossible, and (3) autobiographical. Philip Roth's debut electrified the world. Instead of focusing on everything, the common danger of the debut, he focused on himself - and mined that material so deeply into the ground during the course of his career that this first keening is all the fresher for it.
51. The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector
Everything in the world began with a yes. One molecule said yes to another molecule and life was born. But before prehistory there was the prehistory of prehistory and there was the never and there was the yes. It was ever so. I do not know why, but I do know that the universe began.
Voice. It is the most demanding and difficult aspect of the craft of fiction. Speaking comes so naturally to us that simply constructing another consciousness can be regarded as an extraordinary effect, as with creating new life. Lispector's genius was to take up this principle and explore it as a theme. Only 96 pages, if it were half as long it would be twice the import of its peers in what it attempts.
50. Correction by Thomas Bernhard
After a mild pulmonary infection, tended too little and too late, had suddenly turned into a severe pneumonia that took its toll of my entire body and laid me up for at least three months at nearby Wels, which has a hospital renowned in the field of so-called internal medicine, I accepted an invitation from Hoeller, a so-called taxidermist in the Aurach valley, not for the end of October, as the doctors urged, but for early in October, as I insisted, and then went on my own so-called responsibility straight to the Aurach valley and to Hoeller’s house, without even a detour to visit my parents in Stocket, straight into the so-called Hoeller garret, to begin sifting and perhaps even arranging the literary remains of my friend, who was also a friend of the taxidermist Hoeller, Roithamer, after Roithamer’s suicide, I went to work sifting and sorting the papers he had willed to me, consisting of thousands of slips covered with Roithamer’s handwriting plus a bulky manuscript entitled “About Altensam and everything connected with Altensam, with special attention to the Cone."
Correction is Bernhard's book about Wittgenstein, termed Roithamer in the novel. Bernhard ignored women, whom he didn't understand, in favor of an analysis of men, whom he understood very well. Bernhard's insanely powerful imagination convinces you that there is an actual intersection between reality and his imagining of it is a frightening thought.
49. The Castle by Franz Kafka
All the best books are unfinished. The fight over the work of Franz Kafka spirals onwards, with a volley from Judith Butler in the LRB that seemed to presume she alone deserved Kafka's materials. Whenever you read Kafka's private diaries and letters, it's obvious the man doesn't mean half of what he says. (Butler seems to suggest it is a surprise Jews were ambivalent about their identity during Franz's life!) Respectfully, the works of Franz Kafka belong to myself and myself alone. Through a gigantic misstep on the part of my parents, I am unable to speak or read German, so my translation of The Castle will have to wait until hell freezes over.
48. Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson
In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.
A novel so prescient that it gave the form another, more improved iteration for the time in which it had to survive. What better for a generation that can't pay attention for longer than five seconds? The terminally depressed Markson passed away in June of last year after living in New York City almost forever. The original manuscript was famously rejected 54 times, but all that work was not in vain, for now the sprawling book of ideas and images has long achieved the recognition it deserved. Mad genius.
47. The Master and the Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
At the hour of the hot spring sunset two citizens appeared at the Patriarch's Ponds. One of them, approximately forty years old, dressed in a grey summer suit, was short, dark-haired, plump, bald, and carried his respectable fedora hat in his hand. His neatly shaven face was adorned with black horn-rimmed glasses of a supernatural size. The other, a broad-shouldered young man with tousled reddish hair, his checkered cap cocked back on his head, was wearing a cowboy, shirt, wrinkled white trousers, and black sneakers.
A rare finding: an artist's last work is his very bestBulgakov completed The Master and the Margarita just before his death in 1940. It is a book wildly ahead of its time, unflinchingly modern in the sense that we use that word to describe things that are so identified with their time that they could not have existed before. Hatred of Stalin is a subject almost too vast to cover in one medium.
46. Augustus by John Williams
Send the boy to Apollonia. I begin abruptly, my dear niece, so that you will at once be disarmed, and so that whatever resistance you might raise will be too quick and flimsy for the force of my persuasion.
Students grow up to think that human history is boring, since they are taught only the very dullest parts of it. (What about gorilla history, or hummingbird history? Who will speak for them?) The historical novel is a vastly underutilized tool for the instruction of innocents. There is much about John Williams' (almost) unparalleled achievement in the genre that might not induce new ideas in young people, but so what? This was the world.
45. The Dying Earth by Jack Vance
Turjan sat in his workroom, legs sprawled out from the stool, back and elbows on the bench. Across the room was a cage; into this Turjan gazed with rueful vexation. The creature in the cage returned the scrutiny with emotions beyond conjecture. It was a thing to arouse pity - a great head on a small spindly body, with weak rheumy eyes and a flabby button of a nose. The mouth hung slackly wet, the skin glistened waxy pink. In spite of its manifest imperfection, it was to date the most successful product of Turjan's vats.
Above all, Vance is the funniest - his prose itself is so classical and yet so deftly adorned that it deserves consideration from anyone who is interested in how language can be manipulated. When it comes to replicating how people talk to each other, Vance's ear might be the finest in all of literature, not just the fantasy, science fiction and mystery he focused his talents on after his time in the Merchant Marines. It's completely pointless to imagine modern fantasy without him.
44. Murphy by Samuel Beckett
The sun shone, having no alternative, on nothing new. Murphy sat out of it, as though he were free, in a mew in West Brompton. Here for what might have been six months he had eaten, drunk, slept, and put his clothes on and off, in a medium-sized cage of north-western aspect commanding an unbroken view of medium-sized cages of south-eastern aspect. Soon he would have to make other arrangements, for the mew had been condemned. Soon he would have to buckle to and start eating, drinking, sleeping, and putting his clothes on and off, in quite alien surroundings.
Of all of his works, Murphy took Beckett the longest to write. In the beginning, he spent a lot of time at a mental hospital, using the pretext of visiting his friend to walk the grounds. If you take one of the most precocious artists ever, and have him stroll through the whorl of the completely obliterated, it's hard to even imagine the result. Murphyemerges, refined as steel, replete with the most memorable chess game ever committed to prose.
43. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
I am an invisible man. No, I am not like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind.
The first chapter of Invisible Man appeared in Cyril Connolly's British Journal Horizon, and from the start, the piece was a sensation. Ellison's work amounted to a rephrasing of the question of race, of its inborn assumptions and affect on the psyche in terms of how he himself perceived the language.
42. The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa
Installed on the upper floors of certain respectable taverns in Lisbon can be found a small number of restaurants or eating places, which have the stolid, homely look of those restaurants you see in towns that lack even a train station. Amongst the clientele of such places, which are rarely busy except on Sundays, one is likely to encounter the eccentric as the nondescript, to find people who are but a series of parentheses in the book life.
Pessoa's sprawling, introspective epic was never published in its entirety until after he died. It is undoubtedly a novel, since almost all of Pessoa's constructed life was essentially a fiction. He worked in an office like many other people, and in the meantime, conceived of such insanity. The ultimate brief on why lying is so much better than telling the truth.
41. The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima
Ever since my childhood, Father had often spoken to me about the Golden Temple. My birthplace was a lonely cape that projects into the Sea of Japan north-east of Maizuru. Father, however, was not born there, but at Shiraku in the eastern suburbs of Maizuru. He was urged to join the clergy and became the priest of a temple on a remote cape; in this place he married and begot a child, who was myself.
Yukio Mishima was 31 and at the peak of his powers when he wrote The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, about a Buddhist who burns his temple to the ground. At the same time, the prolific Mishima was writing a romance novel and taking his talents to the stage. A repressed homosexual in a society that dealt with the subject in an idiosyncratic fashion, Mishima was forced to marry and even had two children. He's probably more deserving of a biopic than anyone other than Gertrude Stein.
40. The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
From the small crossed window of his room above the stable in the brickyard, Yakov Bok saw people in their long overcoats running somewhere early that morning, everybody in the same direction. Vey is mir, he thought uneasily, something bad has happened.
The prison novel is well-trod territory, for it simplifies the miasmic qualities of all free life into one resounding human experience easily understood by adults and children alike. Yakov Bok's story is the counterpart to Josef K.'s, because it identifies itself as being a Jewish story whereas Kafka explored the metaphor. Malamud's grip on narrative restraint and his ability to draw characters that are not simply initials represents another way of truthtelling no less entertaining than the master's own.
39. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
The first time that Jean-Claude Pelletier read Benno von Archimboldi was Christmas 1980, in Paris, when he was nineteen years old and studying German literature. The book in question was D'Asronval.
Jonathan Lethem wrote upon the first English edition of 2666 that Bolaño "produced not only a supreme capstone to his own vaulting ambition, but a landmark in what's possible for the novel as a form in our increasingly, and terrifyingly, post-national world." This makes 2666 sound rather dull, as does describing any book as a chronicle of a post-national world. It's not.
38. The Rainbow/Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence
Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen sat one morning in the window-bay of their father's house in Beldover, working and talking. Ursula was stitching a piece of brightly-coloured embroidery, and Gudrun was drawing upon a board.
Books that start in England and end in America were D.H. Lawrence's metier, and it happens in Women in Love, his sequel to The Rainbow. Composed essentially as one novel, Lawrence brought the culture clash of his time out in the open, starting with The Rainbow, for which he was drawn into an obscenity trial and copies of the book burned and destroyed. Knowing anything he wrote was unlikely to be published, he set down what he liked.
37. Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz
Tuesday morning I awoke at that pale and lifeless hour when night is almost gone but dawn has not yet come into its own. Awakened suddenly, I wanted to take a taxi and dash to the railroad station, thinking I was due to leave, when, in the next minute, I realized to my chagrin that no train was waiting for me at the station, that no hour had struck.
This bizarre work was Gombrowicz's second book, and before he died he wrote of its beginnings that "when I started Ferdyduke, I wanted to write no more than a biting satire that would put me in superior position over my enemies." What better inspiration to write is there than that?
36. Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar
Would I find La Maga? Most of the time it was just a case of my putting in an appearance, going along the Rue de Seine to the arch leading into the Quai de Conti, and I would see her slender form against the olive-ashen light which floats along the river as she crossed back and forth on the Pont des Arts, or leaned over the iron rail looking at the water.
Cortázar's Rubik's cube of a novel begins innocuously enough. At times it may seem too demonstrative, like a boxer showing off his skills in an empty gym, but when it comes to dramatic plotting over disparate narrative structures, Julio Cortázar had few peers. A book that had to be as fun to write as it is to read, starting on any page.
35. Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker
Never having known a mother, her mother had died when Janey was a year old, Janey depended on her father for everything and regarded her father as boyfriend, brother, sister, money, amusement, and father.
The first Kathy Acker novel I ever read was My Mother: A Demonology. I was somewhat shocked by what seemed to occur in it. By the time I got around to Blood and Guts in High School, I was pretty sure everyone else but Kathy was lying to me. Blood and Gutsitself has an ironic title, because the book is beautiful, not only in its depraved and wonderful version of the world, but in the genre-defying illustrations and classic Acker style that surrounds them. The ideal antidote to morning in America.
34. The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
Granted: I'm an inmate in a mental institution; my keeper watches me, scarcely lets me out of sight, for there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can't see through blue-eyed types like me.
After he was released as a prisoner of the Americans during the Second World War, former Nazi Grass met Anna Schwarz and the two began living together near the Gare du Nord in Paris. He was a lucky man and he knew it. His life had steered off the rails, and back onto them, to begin anew. He wrote the The Tin Drum.
33. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.
Steinbeck's best novel was composed in 1951 after the divorce from his second wife. In its time East of Eden was Steinbeck's return to the bestseller lists and the public scrutiny that followed the publication of The Grapes of Wrath. It was made into a popular film. Going back to it, we can feel his anger about his marriage, tightly woven into a retelling of Cain and Abel. The artistic statement as an act of revenge upon the world. If you don't like East of Eden, what do you like?
32. My Life by Anton Chekhov
The director told me: "I only keep you out of respect for your esteemed father, otherwise you would have been sent flying out of here long ago." I answered him: "You flatter me, your Excellency, assuming I know how to fly." And then I heard him say, "Take this gentleman away, he gets on my nerves."
Revisiting the novella that many consider to be Chekhov's finest work in any genre is a bracing experience. Regarded by many critics as a foundation stone in the history of the short-story, Chekhov left his longer movements to the stage. But then My Life has a breadth as wide as any of those stories and plays, and in many ways wanders from the tighter strictures of his short stories. Here he shows how amazing he could be in simple revelation of how existence operates over duration.
31. Beloved by Toni Morrison
124 was spiteful. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims.
Revising the slave narrative, one of literature's most impactful genres, with her Midwestern twist, Morrison stripped sentimentality from everything and focused her boilerplate slave thriller on how and why the story should unfold. An inspired artistic effort on the impossible subject of degradation.
30. Mating by Norman Rush
In Africa, you want more, I think. People get avid. This takes different forms in different people, but it shows up in some form in everybody who stays there any length of time. It can be sudden. I include myself.
A book may or may not originate from a moment in time. It may be the wrong person to chronicle that period, it may be the right person for something else. Whatever Mating is it never falls on its own face, rendering its many pleasures with aplomb.
29. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Towards the end of November, during a thaw, at nine o'clock one morning, a train on the Warsaw and Petersburg railway was approaching the latter city at full speed. The morning was so damp and misty that it was only with great difficulty that the day succeeded in breaking; and ten paces or so from the carriage windows it was almost impossible to distinguish anything.
More than ten years after The Idiot first arrived on the national scene, Dostoevsky wrote to a friend that "all those who have spoken of it as my best work have something special in their mental formation that has always struck and pleased me." Prince Myshkin's tale reads so much like a book than you might open up and read today that it is startling. As Jesus stories go, not many can beat it.
28. Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy's bar. It's not just that he was white but he wore an off-white linen suit and shirt with a Panama straw hat and bone shoes over flashing white silk socks. His skin was smooth and pale with just a few freckles. One lick of strawberry-blond hair escaped the band of his hat. He stopped in the doorway, filling it with his large frame, and surveyed the room with pale eyes; not a color I'd ever seen in a man's eyes. When he looked at me I felt a thrill of fear, but that went away quickly because I was used to white people by 1948.
The mystery novel is a wonderful arena to unveil new directions in fiction. Walter Mosley's mother was a Polish Jew, his father was a black clerk from Louisiana. He is a grandmaster of the form and Devil in a Blue Dress was so incredibly fresh and new when it appeared, and as it ages it gains a new status as a historical text, chronicling a place and time that has begun to disappear. Mosley's inventive fiction is a triumph of superior voice.
27. At-Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien
Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes' chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression. I reflected on the subject of my spare-time literary activities. One beginning and one ending for a book was a thing I did not agree with. A good book may have three openings entirely dissimilar and interrelated only in the prescience of the author, or for that matter one hundred times as many endings.
O'Brien's hilarious book-within-a-book is a righteous example of the novel that concerns itself with the process of writing. We have all become a little tired of this technique; it is like someone starting a speech by saying, "When I thought of what to talk to you about..." But then this book is so funny and knowing that it fills you with a knowledge that replaces what you think you're reading. You want to be taken in.
26. V. by Thomas Pynchon
Christmas Eve, 1955, Benny Profane, wearing black levis, suede jacket, sneakers and big cowboy hat, happened to pass through Norfolk, Virginia. Given to sentimental impulses, he thought he'd look in on the Sailor's Gravehis old tin can's tavern on East Main Street.
I am not entirely sure why so many first novels are so good. It's probably because you have the most amount of time to think about it. With Pynchon, the bloom remained on the rose. Satire is always fresher upon its first invocation, like any spell.
25. Light in August by William Faulkner
Sitting beside the road, watching the wagon mount the hill towards her, Lena thinks, 'I have come from Alabama: a fur piece. All the way from Alabama a-walking. A fur piece.' Thinking although I have not quite been month on the road I am already in Mississippi, further from home than I have ever been before. I am now further from Doane's Mill than I have been since I was twelve years old.
Before I read Light in August it was described to me as one of Faulkner's easier novels. In reality, Faulkner's story about Joe Christmas (only he could pull it off, and wow does he) is incredibly deep and difficult to understand despite some of its uncharacteristically linear elements.
24. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry
Two mountain chains traverse the republic roughly from north to south, forming between them a number of valleys and plateaus. Overlooking of these valleys, which is dominated by two volcanoes, lies, six thousand feet above sea level, the town of Quauhnahuac.
The representation of alcoholism in fiction had suffered from an unlikely absence of truthtellers until the troubled Lowry penned this chronicle of drunkenness so that no more in particular had to be written about the subject. The world of Under the Volcano is made seductive and appealing by alcohol, but its depth is no apparition. Nothing like this style has ever been attempted with so little self-consciousness.
23. Europe Central by William Vollmann
A squat black telephone, I mean an octopus, the god of our Signal Corps, owns a recess in Berlin (more probably Moscow, which one German general has named the core of the enemy's whole being).
Insane. The fiction of William Vollman is the product of ample research and a hefty dose of batshit crazy pills. No one writes books like William Vollman, which is just as well, because part of what makes his historical intellectual romps so fascinating is that nothing like them has ever been attempted. When he accepted the National Book Award forEurope Central, Vollman simply said, "I really have tried for many years to read myself into this horrible event and imagine how anyone could have done this, whether I could have done this, and that was what that book was about. I’m very happy that it’s over and I don’t have to think about it any more."
22. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
The basic premise of Tolstoy's famous first sentence has been disproved about a million times, but it is what follows that sentence that has held such vitality for readers since the first installment of Anna Karenina was published in The Russian Messenger in 1873.
21. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well. On Thursday afternoons he drives to Green Point. Punctually at two p.m. he presses the buzzer at the entrance to Windsor Mansions, speaks his name, and enters. Waiting for him at the door of No. 113 is Soraya. He goes straight through to the bedroom, which is pleasant-smelling and softly lit, and undresses. Sonraya emerges from the bathroom, drops her robe, slides into bed beside him. "Have you missed me?" she asks, "I miss you all the time," he replies. He strokes her honey-brown body, unmarked by the sun; kisses her breasts; they make love.
John Maxwell Coetzee is the left's Whittaker Chambers, and his novels are exercises in meaningful precision. Where they seem more of conscious act only intensifies the virtuoso performance of the author, whose challenge is to hold what may seem like vague 'issues' in the palm of the personal. One of the very few great novels in the present tense.
20. The Horse's Mouth by Joyce Cary
I was walking by the Thames. Half-past morning on an autumn day. Sun in a mist. Like oranges in a fried-fish shop. All bright below. Low tide, dusty water and a crooked bar of straw, chicken-boxes, dirt and oil from mud to mud. Like a viper swimming in skim milk.
The last novel in Cary's trilogy written from three different perspectives, Gulley is his painter straight out of prison, an experiment with the technique of multiple narration that is the most successful of its kind. Like Vonnegut's BluebeardThe Horse's Mouth reads as a wildly funny romp on the cosmic possibilities of artistic creation. (It can be read with or without its two companion volumes - To Be A Pilgrim and Herself Surprised.) In association with its sister volumes The Horse's Mouth takes on a certain timeless depth of feeling along with its considerable narrative innovation.
19. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo....
So many of the techniques he uses in Portrait and Ulysses are so commonplace that we rarely think of Joyce as the originator of them, but he was. Every reader of Portrait finds a kindred soul, for this was the book that said why the great Joyce was like us, andFinnegans Wake the book that elucidated all the ways the man was nothing like us.
18. The Book of The New Sun by Gene Wolfe
It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile. That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of our swim, in which I, the torturer's apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned.
Wolfe imagines his novels as puzzles that take enterprise and discretion. As you move along in his note-perfect reimagining of the world as it might be epochs from now, there is an urbane familiarity to the proceedings, a truth beyond words. The story of Severian the apprentice torturer is the story, if for no other reason than it postulates a reality rife with a signification deeper than our own.
17. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner
From a little after twooclock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that - a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with yellow slashes full of dust motes which Quentin thought of as being flecks of the dead dried paint itself blown inward from the scaling blinds as wind might have blown them.
If someone tells you there is a good way to read all of William Faulkner, he or she is a liar. His novels are so difficult that they require more attention than other fiction, the kind of reading that you get better at as you learn its techniques and strategies. Doesn't sound fun? There are moments in Absalom, Absalom! that are as hard as anything in his work, but the basic structure of a biography told in flashback is a little more familiar to us today than it was to Bill's readers then. On some level, Absalom, Absalom! is just a fabulous mystery.
16. Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
Everyone had always said that John would be a preacher when he grew up, just like his father. It had been said so often that John, without ever thinking about it, had come to believe it himself. Not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.
I can still remember the first time I read Go Tell It On the Mountain in 1996. Afterwards I basically concluded nothing was real and that the world was over. On some level, I had not read anything that verged far enough afield from my own experience, and the fact that all it really was James Baldwin's life is a bit of an eye-opener. Whereas Sonny's Bluesrepresented a nadir for a certain style and Baldwinian way of telling, Go Tell It On the Mountain is otherworldly.
15. Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard
While everyone was waiting for the actor, who had promised to join the dinner party in the Gentzgasse after the premiere of The Wild Duck, I observed the Auersbergers carefully from the same wing chair I had sat in nearly every day during the fifties, reflecting that it had been a grave mistake to accept their invitation.
Bernhard's comedy concerns the indictment of everyone around him, and in complaining about everything, he manages a kind of catharsis. Every page of Woodcutters is a disturbing mental experience in which you as the reader are also evaluating yourself and everyone around you as a reflex to the text. Like Cat's Cradle and Fear and Loathing in Las VegasWoodcutters is more a life experience than a novel alone.
14. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
Pale Fire, a poem in heroic couplets, of nine hundred ninety-nine lines, divided into four cantos, was composed by John Francis Shade (born July 5, 1898, died July 21, 1959) during the last twenty days of his life, at his resident in New Wye, Appalachia, U.S.A.
When it comes to books that truly scare, Pale Fire has no equal. The only kind of metafiction that really matters; the sort that creates another level in the drama in which you yourself become involved and resolve the action in your own mind.
13. Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
In the second half of the 1960s I traveled repeatedly from England to Belgium, parly for study purposes, partly for other erasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks. On one of these Belgian excursions which, as it seemed to me, always took me further and further abroad, I cam on a glorious early summer's day to the city of Antwerp, known to me previously only by name.
In writing about the events of the Holocaust, there is a natural focus towards an extensive detail of suffering that, despite itself, highlights how unbelievable and extreme death camps are. Sebald's unveiling of things is a deeper horror, because it construes genocide as a subtler and more tangible part of the world we live in.
12. Ulysses by James Joyce
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air.
Writing the brief on Ulysses is a difficult task, for like all things of great import it has attracted a number of detractors over time. Composed in a span of seven years, it seems extraordinary that Ulysses was banned in the United States. In this case, it's easy to overlook what something is for what it isn't, and Ulysses is a maniacal mess, the product of a once-in-a-generation mind to consolidate what he learned from a classical education and distill it in people. Ulysses is so happily dense that it inspired its own cottage industry in literary criticism.
11. Demons by Fyodor Doestoevsky
In undertaking to describe the recent and strange incidents in our town, till lately wrapped in uneventful obscurity, I find myself forced in absence of literary skill to begin my story rather far back, that is to say, with certain biographical details concerning that talented and highly-esteemed gentleman, Stepan Trofimovitch Verhovensky. I trust these details may at least serve as an introduction, while my projected story itself will come later.
John Cowper Powys wrote that "in my actual furtive private feelings enjoying The Possessed, or The Devils, as the Russians call this book, most of all. Round Raskolnikov and his superman's crime in the first, move in their danse macabre the unusual figures of Sonya the saintly prostitute and of Svidrigailov the well-to-do highly coloured eroto-maniac whose under-life is so luridly exhibited instead of being, as happens with the archvillains in Dickens, so respectably suppressed! Round Prince Mishkin and his epilepsy-inspired prophetic mission - a mission that rises from a far deeper and more richly charged level in the author's nature than anything in Raskolnikov or Sonya or Svidrigailov - are gathered in this second masterpiece a much more complicated group of people."
10. The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset. It was built of a bright brick throughout; its sky-line was fantastic, and even its ground plan was wild. It had been the outburst of a speculative builder, faintly tinged with art, who called its architecture sometimes Elizabethan and sometimes Queen Anne, apparently under the impression that the two sovereigns were identical.
It surprises some people that The Man Who Was Thursday was written by Chesterton in 1908, because the book is so startlingly modern that it could appear on shelves today without a second thought. The Catholic mix of mystery and very adult fantasy revolves around his faith in God. Chesterton's innovations in prose style were as fresh as his subject matter, and his revolutionary novel was mimicked by a generation of writers inevery genre.
9. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
He awoke, opened his eyes. The room meant very little to him; he was too deeply immersed in the non-being from which he had just come.
An oracle, a finding, a semiotic masterpiece. He modeled the novel after a story he had written in Partisan Review about the West come to Morocco. He wrote most of it on a freighter headed to the place, and he finished it the day before he reached Casablanca. When it was rejected by Doubleday, they told him they could not publish the book because it was not a novel. He responded, "If it isn't a novel, I don't know what it is."
8. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
'Yes, of course, if it's fine tomorrow,' said Mrs Ramsay. 'But you'll have to be up with the lark,' she added.
The Woolfs bought a car with the proceeds from To the Lighthouse, and they might have bought a lot more. Since its publication in 1927 it has been the subject of more academic theses than it has pages. If you want to have a laugh, look at some of the reviews of To the Lighthouse when it came out. It's like that dude in your workshop who was like, "I didn't like your use of the comma." He didn't get that punctuation was made up, the poor little guy.
7. Molloy by Samuel Beckett
I am in my mother's room. It's I who live there now. I don't know how I got there. Perhaps in an ambulance, certainly a vehicle of some kind. I was helped.
Beckett's brother Frank asked him, "Why can't you write the way people want?" No one called Molloy the most readable novel in the world. Like all of Beckett's work, the pleasure comes in unpacking the genius, the unmistakable voice, and consciousness change through repetition. In Beckett's prose work we find material that exists not for performance on the stage, but to be taken apart and interpreted at length. Molloy, the first of a trilogy that continues with Malone Dies and The Unnameable, constitutes a reinvention of the prose form as lasting than any of the man's stupendous plays.
6. I, Claudius by Robert Graves
I. Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives as "Claudius the Idiot", or "That Cladius", or "Claudius the Stammerer", or "Clau-Clau-Claudius" or at best as "Poor Uncle Claudius", am now about to write this strange history of my life.
What happens when a novel is everything? The best historical drama ever written by man, the funniest comedy in the most unlikely setting for it, and a groundbreaking unreliable narrator who can be read in any fashion the reader prefers. (Also a terrific PBS miniseries starring Derek Jacobi.) I, Claudius gains considerably more relevance being that we also endure the slow collapse of a seemingly impervious empire.
5. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
I was born in San Francisco, California. I have in consequence always preferred living in a temperate climate but it is difficult, on the continent of Europe or even in America, to find a temperate climate and live in it. My mother's fazther was a pioneer, he came to California in '49, he married my grandmother who was very fond of music. She was a pupil of Clara Schumann's father. My mother was a quiet charming woman named Emilie.
Stein wrote The Autobiography in six weeks, which has got to be up there when you talk about feats of human achievement, sandwiched somewhere between the parting of the Red Sea and the Wright brothers. In Stein you had a person who simply conceived of language on another level, who could really hear its sounds. Her ear is flawless in this dashed-off explosion of enterprise and intelligence, so reflexive in its creation that it requires not much more than Stein's life and the life of her friend to properly represent her genius.
4. The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley
Sometimes you can hear the wire, hear it reaching out across the miles; whining with its own weight, crying from the cold, panting at the distance, humming with the phantom sounds of someone else's conversation. You cannot always hear it - only sometimes; when the night is deep and the room is dark and the sound of the phone's ringing has come slicing through uneasy sleep; when you are lying there, shivering, with the cold plastic of the receiver pressed tight against your ear.
A novel for adults, David Bradley's book takes up themes that most novelists wouldn't touch with an essay in a newspaper on the other side of the planet. Bradley's prose is completely unaffected and controlled, his command of voice is word-for-word perfect, and he goes in all the directions writing programs in America tell you not to. When the book appeared its present was the present, but now there is a deeper perspective on a story that could take place in any time, but stands in the way of ours.
3. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
For a long time, I used to go to bed early. Sometimes, when I had put out my candle, my eyes would close so quickly that I had not even the time to say, "I'm going to sleep."
I always think of My Life as being so knowing and funny, but whenever you pick up Proust, it's another level. From more than one perspective, these were the first truly modern words offered by mankind, since they reflect on the kind of existence that is created, not recalled, in its telling. In Search of Lost Time is best read hand-in-hand with a guide of some kind to pull you through and little in the way of pressure to finish it. It is a work that unfolds so unpredictably than it can comfortably be called surprising. (It isnot for the casual reader without months to spare.) A masterpiece on its own terms.
2. The Trial by Franz Kafka
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything wrong, he was arrested.
It's funny to think of the first time The Trial was read by humans: what could they have thought of it? The perfect, intricate, detailed novel, the exemplar of the form, the revelation and then what comes after The Trial. Kafka's battle with existence yields a madness so profound that the expression of it is the only consolation. There is no book so perfect.
1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
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.
From his first writings in Russian, published as V. Sirin, and then from Berlin and Paris, Nabokov eclipsed his peers as the most important Russian writer in the world. In America and later in Switzerland he then became simply the most important writer in the world until his death in 1977. According to Borges there are two kinds of classics: the ones everybody knows about but no one reads, and "that book which a nation (or group of nations, or time itself) has taken the decision to read as if in its pages everything were predetermined, predestined, deep as the cosmos, and capable of endless interpretation." And so Lolita can continue to be misunderstood, so lively is its satire that it restarts its soliloquy upon the first turning of the page.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.

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