You know the way it is with those books that have achieved "classic" status - often as not, you are left scratching your head, feeling certifiably stupid because you just didn't "get" a particular work that is enshrined within the canon. Fortunately, there are also those classics that do make you want to jump up and down and convince your friends to read them as well. This list is dedicated to that second kind - classics that, once I'd read them, I wanted everyone else to share the experience.
The order is somewhat arbitrary - roughly chronological, but not exactly so.
For some odd reason, the Lunch software won't allow me to add T.S. Eliot's "Selected Poems" (the Faber book). But it needs to be on this list. I don't necessarily understand Eliot's poems, but they have the power of an incantation. He writes lines that stick in your mind for the rest of your life.
Obviously, hell is bound to be more entertaining than purgatory or heaven. It's primarily a vehicle for Dante to score off his enemies by assigning them to various fun and imaginative torments. I read a zippy translation by Irish poet Ciaran Carson, who at least has the decency to respect Dante's terza rima scheme. You'd be surprised how many translators don't even bother.
This is where Shakespeare takes off the gloves. He brings us right to the edge of the abyss, then kicks us over that edge. Oddly, despite the high body count, the overall message is not as nihilistic as it might seem -- this is one of the few tragedies (the only one?) in which the protagonists are allowed the chance for reconciliation and forgiveness before their ultimate demise. The play has a power that's elemental, and unforgettable.
See the full review, "Shakespeare's most powerful play is not for sissies.".
Structurally it's a mess, and Lord knows the story is a mess of out-of-control, sweltering emotions. Heathcliff and Kathy are selfish, emotional wrecks and I find their doomed passion completely irresistible. Makes you wonder just what went on in the Bronte household anyway.
Tatyana falls for Eugene, who rebuffs her (gently). Time passes. Tatyana marries a prince. Eugene falls for Tatyana, who rebuffs him (gently). Pushkin whips the whole affair into this wonderfully frothy souffle, which any Russian will tell you is one of the summits of Russian poetry. It certainly disproves the notion that all of Russian literature is dark, brooding, and gloomy.
Edith Wharton skewers her high society peers, but does it with wit, humor, and a certain affection. Far more fun than her good buddy Henry James who trod similar ground with infinitely more pomposity and verbosity.
Joyce may have been the first to try stream-of-consciousness, but Virginia Woolf was the first to get it right, in Mrs Dalloway. I don't really know why I liked "Mrs Dalloway" as much as I did. I've never read anything else quite like it.
Obviously, I knew what Madame Bovary was about before reading it. But I had no idea how brilliantly Flaubert would suck me in to the story. He pulls no punches, just lets the story unfold to its horrifying, inexorable conclusion. What I hadn't expected were his unerring eye for the details of the life of the bourgeoisie, which he lays out for us in unsparing detail. Or how he manages to make us care about Emma, and to sympathise with her, even as she makes one misguided choice after the next.
This is an unlikely candidate to be on my all-time list of the 5 best books I've ever read. But it is. An "autobiographical" account of a long-dead Roman emperor (not even one of the glamorous, or truly filthy ones), written by a 20th century Belgian - who'd have thunk it? But I find myself re-reading it every two or three years.Each time I learn something new. Not a glamorous book, but one that is completely riveting.
See the full review, "A masterpiece.".
I can understand why, given the perfection of the stories in this collection, any writer might not want to risk spoiling his reputation by following up with work that might not reach the same level. Hell, nothing could possibly reach the perfection of the stories, "For Esme - with Love and Squalor", "The Laughing Man", "Down by the Dinghy", or "Just Before the War with the Eskimos". And while I'm not really a great fan of Seymour Glass, "A Perfect Day for Bananafish" is pretty damned awesome as well. It's far beyond me to locate exactly where the genius lies in the particular stories mentioned. You really just need to read them for yourselves.
Written in the 1930's, not published until the late 1960's, a quarter-century after the author's death, this is an amazing book. Any short description I provide is necessarily reductive - it's a reworking of the Faust legend, with an embedded exploration of the story of Pontius Pilate, in which the devil and his retinue visit Stalinist Moscow. From this premise, the author produces a scathing satire of the politics of his time (fully aware that the book would not, and could not, be published during his lifetime), as well as an extremely thought-provoking discussion of the role of the artist, and the necessity of mercy and forgiveness.
See the full review, "Faust on acid.".
There was a guy in my class in graduate school called Gregor Samsa. You really have to wonder about some parents. This is an extraordinary story that manages to be both deeply disturbing and completely hilarious.