TOP 10 NOVELS
by Alex Carnevale
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.