Tuesday, January 22, 2013


              On dark and depressing days, such as the one following the re-inauguration of an annoying and overbearing president, one grasps at straws for distraction from the grim realities of the times.  One avenue of escape is to consider the great novels of history, and to compile one's opinion as to which rank as the very greatest, which I have done below, with my personal Top Ten (presented in alphabetical order).
                Needless to say, any such list is inherently flawed by the limitations of the lister's own language and the scope of his reading.  This list is mostly confined to English language novels, but only because the inability to read in, for example, Japanese, Norwegian, or French, prevents proper appreciation of novels by the likes of Yasunari Kawabata, Sigrid Undset, or Gustave Flaubert.  But the translations of some great works, such as Tolstoy's Russian masterpieces, are so effective and natural that those works can be properly appreciated by English language readers.  Some might find the list biased towards English novels of the 19th Century, but no apologies will be made for that, since it really was the Golden Age of the novel.

                Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.  Probably the only thing Oprah Winfrey and I agree upon is the greatness of Tolstoy's masterpiece of romantic obsession and societal complexity.  Among the many features that set A.K. apart from other superior novels is the enlightening counterpoint between the story's two central relationships – the destructive attraction between Anna and Vronsky, versus the uplifting and redeeming effect of Princess Kitty's moral purity upon Levin.
            Bleak House by Charles Dickens.  Magnetically despicable villains; an irresistible central heroin; incisive and legitimate social commentary that blends seamlessly with a fantastic plot; amusing exposition of the excesses of Victorian class rigidity; these and other attractions combine to make Bleak House perhaps the greatest of 19th Century English novels.  Above all, Dickens' ruthless yet entertaining skewering of the grotesque perversities of the legal profession, as exemplified by the eternal case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, remains as valid and amusing today as it did in the heyday of British Chancery excess.
            Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh.  At least one of the novels of the 20th Century's greatest satirist is a must in a best novels list.  A novel that begins with a sly depiction of "the sound of the English county families baying for broken glass" cannot go wrong, and it proceeds to become even more morbidly yet tastefully amusing as it reduces the British upper class to ridiculous rubble.  Waugh's rapier-like precision and wit are unmatched, and such other of his works as the similar Vile Bodies might well be substituted on this list.

            Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.  Pasternak's depiction of an idealist physician's struggles with the relentless inhumanity of Russia's Communist Revolution ranks among the great not only because of its compelling moral qualities, but also because it so effectively enlists the reader's concern with the fate of the diverse characters caught up in the turmoil of the revolution.  The novel also presents an especially magnetic and original heroine in Laura Antipov, and the fates of the three competing male characters – Zhivago, the enigmatic General Strelnikov, and the corrupt lawyer Komarovsky – are successively shaped, for better and for worse, by her powerful appeal.
            Great Expectations by Dickens.  The demands of diversity would preclude a double entry for one author, but on the other hand, the best writers simply produce more of the best novels.  Regardless, Dickens' searing depiction of a boy's progress from terrified little urchin to pampered protégé to snobbish ingrate, and, finally, to courageous redemption in his attempts to save Abel Magwich from his convict's fate demands inclusion among the great works.  And hovering enticingly in the background is Estella Havisham, that beautiful boy-trap who was raised from childhood for the express purpose of driving British lads to distraction.

            Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  Many who have plodded through this novel's hundreds of pages of seemingly extraneous whaling lore may well dissent from its inclusion on a list like this.  But it remains not only one of the greatest adventure stories ever, but also one of the greatest moral novels, in its profound depiction of the struggle between good and evil within different kinds of men – Ahab, Ishmael, Starbuck, and Queequeg.  Also, the exotic and colorful cast of characters on the crew of the Pequod present one of the most fascinating and memorable ensembles in literature.
            Shogun by James Clavell.  The distinction is often made between great literature and novels of entertainment, but the distinction is often (but not always) overdrawn.  This terrific historical novel may be close to that line, but the fidelity of much of its historical portrait, its impressive character drawing, and Clavell's amazingly effective presentation of Japanese idioms in English dialogue persuade me that it qualifies as a truly great novel.  If nothing else, Shogun's portrait of the imposing founder of Japan's Tokugawa dynasty, Tokugawa Ieyasu, is one of the great accomplishments of historical fiction.  Not only a riveting read, but a highly educational one.

            Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.  How can a murderess and a domesticated adulteress elicit the reader's unreserved affection and sympathy as one of literature's most attractive and beloved heroines?  Only when she is Tess Durbeyfield, the innocent rustic beauty who was repeatedly injured and abused both by the men who loved her and the "Immortals" of Fate, who cruelly sported with her as she wandered the landscape of rural England.  Although this writer is generally a hard-line conservative on criminal justice, and regards the insanity defense as riddled with flaws, I would have invoked it without a second's hesitation to acquit the irresistible Tess had I sat on the jury in her murder trial; unfortunately, Hardy's jury convicted her, but she faced her fate with unforgettably beautiful bravery.
            Vanity Fair by W. M. Thackeray.  This undisputed masterpiece combines telling social commentary, riveting historical depiction of the Napoleonic era in Britain and the Battle of Waterloo, and an irresistible portrait of one of literature's most fascinating vixen's, the ever-calculating Becky Sharpe.  Through every possible social disaster and financial difficulty, Miss Sharpe's shrewd wits, elfin charm, and ruthless drive enable her to emerge as a genuine Survivor in a very challenging world.

            The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins.  One of the first and greatest novels centered around the unraveling of a criminal mystery – although the "detectives" are a civilian man and woman on a personal rather than official quest – the greatness of this work goes well beyond its riveting and suspenseful plot.  Collins was a colleague of Dickens, and the remarkable characters he weaves in this masterpiece are worthy of his mentor.  Like Thomas Hardy, Collins was also a pioneer in depicting the Victorian suppression of women, and the calculated abuse of the novel's two "women in white" is only rectified by the relentless drive and courage of the central heroine, the combative Marion Halcombe.  Fans of the zombie-centric TV series, The Walking Dead, may be amused to find that the male hero of that program plays the male hero who assists Miss Halcombe in the very excellent TV dramatization of TWIW produced by Masterpiece Theater some 10 years ago.  Among the great novels, this is probably the most enjoyable read.

No comments:

Post a Comment