(I've appended some of my questions to Dirk at the end, and maybe you will have more. Maybe we can keep this discussion going for a bit.)
Thirty-six novels I often think of
From time to time lists circulate of the 100 best novels, or the thousand novels you must read before you die or the like. A while ago there was a list allegedly from The Guardian of the 100 best novels that was extraordinarily misconceived. It included stuff by Aykroyd, very British but not that good, and included not only “The Works of Shakespeare” as a novel, but also "Hamlet” separately as a novel. I thought to myself: I can do better than that, but I didn’t see much point. Instead I decided to make a list of novels I often think of. I tried to use the criterion that I think of them at least once a month. I excluded novels by personal friends and also those I first read within the last five years. These aren’t all great novels; indeed some are no better than pretty good. Some of them are included for quirky personal reasons that I understand; some are included for reasons no doubt quirky and personal that I don’t understand.
I stretch the definition a bit. I include a couple of works in verse, but, hey, there have always been novels in verse and still are. I include a couple that might be counted as novellas. I include pairs that were published as two books each that I consider to be essentially one book each.
Where the title is in French I read it in that language at least initially; all other non-English books I read in translation.
Someone to whom I mentioned I was assembling this list asked me to annotate it, so I’ve done so briefly, also personally and quirkily. Questions are welcome.
What are we to think of the statistic that 40% of these books were published in the 65 years between 1839 & 1904?
Gilgamesh - Anon. c. 800 BC
Unlike the Odyssey, where Odysseus’ character is fixed, this is a bildungsroman. The first hero of literature learns the meaning of friendship, that Eros is a civilizing force, the poignancy of death, accepts his mortality, and become a better king.
The Odyssey - “Homer” c. 800 BC
My father read it to me as a child, and I read it to my children. It shaped my idea of what it is to be a person.
The Tale of Genji - Murasaki Shikibu 11th century AD
Embodies the role of time in human affairs in a way comparable in my reading only to Proust. I find the first sentence of the fifth volume the most moving in literature (but it will mean little to you unless you have read up to it, so there’s no use cheating).
Tom Jones - Henry Fielding 1749.
Perfect plotting, perfect characterization of a kind, lots of yucks. The comments of the author provide a basic course in creative writing, and much else besides.
Les Liaisons dangereuses - Choderlos de Laclos 1782
An artillery officer who wrote nothing else of note wrote this book to propagandize his theory that women should be allowed education. One of the cornerstones of the history of the novel. An epistolary novel, which gives De Laclos a wonderful chance to exercise a variety of styles and voices. A story of erotic vengeance. Full of provocative moral and gender relation questions.
Another novel, La Princesse de Clèves, by Madame de La Fayette, almost makes it on to this list on it’s own, but more because it is, so-to-say, the good twin of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, being the story of two extraordinarily high-minded lovers in a similar situation. It’s not widely known in English, but in France it is an icon. President Sarkozy’s recent scorn of putting questions about this novel in civil service exams provoked demonstrations and public readings (see article in The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/mar/31/princess-cleves-sarkozy-lafayette).
La Toison d'or - Théophile Gautier 1839
An idle rich Parisian youth wonders what to do with himself, decides he will fall in love, then wonders what sort of woman to fall in love with, and decides to love a Fleming. He goes to Bruges where he has an affair with a naïve lace maker partly because she resembles a Madonna in a painting. He brings her back to Paris and their future is not clear. I read this when I was about 14 and, oddly, for a significant period in my early life it strongly colored what I imaged romance should be.
The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexandre Dumas, père 1844
My father read this to me and I read it to my children. It's a potboiler really, but it sticks in my mind.
The Scarlet letter - Nathaniel Hawthorne 1850
It’s the images that stick, the letter, Pearl in the forest, Dimmesdale atop the town scaffold.
Moby Dick - Herman Melville 1851
It's the language, which gives Melville mastery over the world in a way few writers demonstrate. And, because the world is varied, it is the rich variety of language and style. The closest thing to Shakespeare in a novel. Is there an alternate universe in which Strabuck succeeds in persuading Ahab of his folly and they return rich with oil to Nantucket, where Ahab settles down with his wife and children and Starbuck opens a coffee shop?
Benito Cereno - Herman Melville 1855
This is more like Greek tragedy than any other work in prose I know
War and Peace - Leo Tolstoy 1864
Whitney says, reading War and Peace is like visiting old fiends.
L'Éducation sentimentale - Gustave Flaubert 1869
I read this only after I was married and settled down, and realized it is the book I should have read instead of La Toison d'or.
Anna Karenina - Leo Tolstoy 1873-77
A few years ago I attended a talk by Wendy Lesser (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wendy_Lesser) about re-reading novels. She said that when she re-read Anna Karenina, she found herself feeling that Karenin was right. I was utterly appalled.
À Rebours -J K Huysmans 1884
This contrarian novel teaches me to keep my nose out of books[GF1] .
The Mayor of Casterbridge - Thomas hardy 1886
My favorite novel. Not the greatest, but the one that speaks, or spoke to me most. The template of a novel I should be working on instead of fussing with this list .
Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy 1895
In the beginning Jude, a farm kid with ambitions to education, is disconcerted to find that learning Latin is not merely learning a substitution code, one word for another, but involves a whole different way of thinking. His recognition appeals to me because of some obscure misunderstanding I had about the world. The novel also contains the scene in fiction that is most horrifying to me[GF2] .
The Lady With the Dog - Anton Chekhov 1899
The spectacle of 2 lives wasted, also the background of a good short story I wrote.
The Ambassadors - Henry James 1903
"If he is to bask in the Jamesian tickle, nothing will restrain him and no other author will to any such extent afford him equal gratification." - Ezra Pound
The Golden Bowl - Henry James 1904
The Dead - James Joyce 1914
The warmth of family, the snow of death, the quiet desperation of the protagonist's final reflections.
Victory - Joseph Conrad 1915
I read this novel when I was a freshperson in college. It taught me that a story, or a sentence in context, could mean more than was on the surface, and made me want to do for others what it had done for me.
Ulysses - James Joyce 1918-20
I have read it several times including once in a semester class devoted to it and once in the 24 hours of its own time. You do something like that and it’s hard to get out of your head.
The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann 1924
Another book that taught me about things meaning more than they say. Also the sexiest heroine for me in literature. Also the terrible waste of war.
À la recherche du temps perdu - Marcel Proust 1913-1927
The thread spun by the Fates is not a monofilament but made of many fibers twisted together on the spindle of Clotho and the wheel of Lachesis. Only Atropos, with her shears, is binary. Proust discerns the fibers in our thin but multiplex life as no other author does. He makes real the complexity of living in time. It was only on the 4th reading that I really understood why Swann married Odette. He also writes sentences that thrill me to my heels.
As I Lay Dying - William Faulkner 1930
Written before existentialism was widely known, this is an existentialist novel par excellence. Addie Burden allots to each of her children their own kind of being, and they live it out. With 15 narrators, it is an exercise in voices to rival Les Liaisons dangereuses. It is also the funniest book on this list except for Tom Jones.
The Sound and the Fury/ Absalom, Absalom! - William Faulkner 1929-36
Faulkner often writes with combined dread and admiration about stubborn people. The stubbornness of Addie Bundren in As I Lay Dying drives the identity of her children; the stubbornness of her husband drives the plot. The Sound and the Fury & Absalom, Absalom! are about the heroic and self-destructive grand gestures of the living ghosts of the old south. We are all stubborn; it makes us who we are and keeps us from, from…from what? from something or other. The prose thrills me.
The Man Without Qualities - Robert Musil 1930-1942
When he began this novel, Musil, an engineer, calculated carefully, based mostly on the life span of his parents and grandparents, how many years he had to live. Unfortunately he died about 10 years earlier than planned. As a result, towards the end of the book it meanders into a copious estuary of printed partial versions, printed versions recalled, long clear alternative passage, short ambiguous alternative passages, sketchy notes, etc. Personally I think he had raised plot issues he could never have resolved, but that doesn’t matter because as a writer the multiplicity of shadowy outcomes is satisfactory in fact enriching.
Si j'étais vous - Henry Green 1947
This novel has problems. It’s burdened with Catholic mumbo jumbo by its convert author. The descriptions and characterization have a creaky 19th century quality. Nevertheless it addresses what it might mean to become someone else more seriously than anything I know.
The Unnamable - Samuel Beckett 1953
The phenomenological effort of identifying these novels in my mind is not easy. I'd been working on this list, more off than on, for months before I realized The Unnamable belonged here. Like The Scarlet Letter it is the image I remember, of the protagonist, reduced to a torso in an urn outside a bar talking to bystanders (or perhaps not that). But it is also the prose, shorn, like the protagonist, of all excess. My wife suggested it was one of the novels on this list preoccupied with identity, perhaps, oddly, most like The Odyssey, with its final words: "You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on,"
An Imaginary Life - David Malouf 1978
Exiled in a grungy peasant village on the Black Sea, Ovid, the worldly Roman author of the immensely influential poem, The Metamorphosis, finally learns from a feral child what change means.
Soul Mountain - Gao Xingjian 1986
Who is I? Is he I? Who else is I? Who is she? Is she one or several? What does the answer to that question mean to what I is? This fascinating tale of someone researching folk culture in China dissolves identity as cubism dissolves perspective. Utterly intriguing.
The Rings of Saturn - W. G. Sebald 1999
The most often read and praised of Seybold’s novels is Austerlitz. I love it, but think more often of this one, freed from plot compared to Austerlitz. The plot is that a guy walks around East Anglia and thinks about history. I hike though history with him at a walking pace, learning what it means at every step. The book it most resembles in my mind is another I think of often, indeed keep on my desk, which is not a novel: The Essays of Montaigne. A mind scanning the world, past and present together, and in doing so making it more precious.
Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper - Harriet Scott Chessman 2001
In it’s way this is like The Dead, a story of what mortality means in the context of family, exquisitely drawn with a bright eye and a knowing hand. Maybe I also like it because it lets me re-visit from another perspective the Paris of The Ambassadors, and visit there with another American family.
Double Vision/Border Crossing - Pat Barker 2003
A character haunts these two books. He haunts the lives of the other characters menacing, demanding love, and raising painful questions about what it means to be a member of society. He haunts me, as do the more or less inadequate responses of the other characters to him. Barker is the author of several haunting characters, Billy Pryor in Regeneration Trilogy, for example.
Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro 2005
In a way this is an identity novel like Si j'étais vous, Soul Mountain, and The Odyssey. The question is what it means to be human. What haunts me is the heroine's perspective: cool, engaged, hopeless and optimistic. It is reconciliation, like Gilgamesh.
The Kreutzer Sonata - Margriet De Moor 2005
Beethoven wrote a sonata for Violin and piano and dedicated it to a violinist named Kreutzer. Beethoven was a quarrelsome fellow and soon fell out with Kreutzer so the dedicatee never played it. Tolstoy wrote a story in which, Ancient-Mariner-like[GF3] , a man in a train demands that his fellow passenger listen to his story of killing his wife because of his suspicion she had taken as a lover her music teacher, with whom she played Beethoven’s sonata. The married Czech composer Leos Janacek had a period of extraordinary creative flowering in his later years contemporaneous with his (probably unconsummated) affair with a young woman married to another man, which includes a string quarter he titled “The Kreutzer Sonata.” In De Moors’ novel the point-of-view character meets on a plane a blind critic who, Ancient-Mariner-like, forces him to listen to the story of his marriage with and suspicions of a woman who is in a string quartet that plays the Janacek composition. None of which fully explains the impression this book made on me. For one thing, I have always been interested in reading and writing about musicians.
There are some novels I used to think of this often that have fallen away. La condition humaine by André Malraux for example. I thought about it often for decades, then re-read it a few years ago, still liked it, but that was enough. For decades the novel I thought of most often was Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme, but it faded for no clear reason. Likewise A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov. I note with interest however, that one of my very favorite movies, one I think of often, Claude Sautet's film Un Coeur en Hiver, I discovered only recently to be based loosely on A Hero of Our Time.
I wonder what will stay hanging around my mind this way. I'm sure I will still think of Soul Mountain as long as I think about novels; Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper and Never Let Me Go may fall away. But I never would have thought La Chartreuse de Parm would have fallen away.
I note that though I am an American, no one would mistake me for anything else, only six of these novels are American, eight if you count Henry James, and only one of those written in my life time, and that one set in 19th century Paris. Since childhood I have been uncomfortable with America, and perhaps this represents an interest I have in establishing a broader base for myself than merely America, or perhaps just an effort to escape it.
Try this exercise. You’ll learn something.