It’s either list the 10 best volumes of fiction of all time–or rather, my 10 favorites–or post again about how most novels of any originality get systematically swamped by the “star system” megacorporate culture (more accurately, “culture”) in, especially, the United States.
So, we say, Occupy. But one needs sometimes a break. Therefore, now, as promised back in January, here are the “10 best novels (and other fiction volumes) of all time,” or at least in my opinion.
- Crime and Punishment. There is no question; you are there with Raskolnikov, horrified of a sudden to have forgot so obvious a risk as the hat, the strikingly noticeable hat, you realize you’re still wearing–and recognizing, as more and more you shall, that in your striving for criminal perfection you are increasingly vulnerable and your philosophical truths open to question. And for the next week in St. Petersburg, the next hours or days until you the reader come to the end of this novel, you are Raskolnikov. The novel has flaws; neither Svidrigailov nor, especially, Porfiry is quite real; each is too much a reflection of or foil for Raskolnikov (and there are other flaws). But it has Raskolnikov. And Sonia. And Katerina Ivanovna making the children dance to “show [the rich] what children like these have come to.” It remains the novel against which all others must be measured.
- A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past)–which is really seven volumes, but let’s count them as one. Proust’s masterpiece is masterful indeed. Often shocking in its honesty, it’s sometimes terribly moving and sometimes hysterically funny. And a beautifully accurate evocation of Parisian moeurs (and not just those of the turn of the 20th century either!). Read it in the French; it’s even better. (Note: here and throughout, apologies for my errors in French spelling, prepositions, or etc.)
- Les liaisons dangereuses. De la Clos’s elegant study of love and power, games and real emotions, retains both the wit and the feeling that it had in the early nineteenth century. Again, best in the original and gracefully written French, but there are excellent translations too.
- Tell Me a Riddle. Of these three short stories and one novella by Tillie Olsen, two pieces are unforgettable. It is impossible to read the 5-page story “I Stand Here Ironing” without crying–if, anyway, you are a daughter or a mother. And the title novella delves life, love, loss, politics, family, mortality, and what we may call the “meaning of life” in a way that, reading, one knows makes this work great.
- This is an extra but who’s writing this list, eh? The Rescuer’s Path. This novel, by Paula Friedman, indeed also “delves life, love, loss, politics, family, mortality, and what we may call the ‘meaning of life.'” It makes some readers cry, and some call it unforgettable. Small Press Review, Ursula Le Guin, Cheryl Strayed, Carole Glickfeld, JTNews, Jewish Observer, and many other fine authorities praise it highly. Read it; enjoy it; you will remember it.
- Victory. Probably Conrad’s best. Or you may prefer Lord Jim. It’s Lord Jim that has the great line “He had jumped.” It’s Victory that has the great line “Judge you? I would have to judge the universe.” Lord Jim is about guilt and courage and trying to undo; it is about identity and becoming. Victory is, as my tenth-grade English teacher said, “all about love.” It is about giving everything.
- The Diviners. Canadian author Margaret Laurence’s great novel of the lifelong love between an impoverished girl who becomes a success, and the metis outcast and folksong writer/singer who is, at the start, her childhood friend. It’s a tale about class and prejudice, about acceptance and commitment, about decisions and the divining of life for what it is. It’s a very adult tale of life and years. You will not be sorry you read it. (Maybe this should be number 6.)
- And actually this should be no. 2. Kristin Lavransdatter. Sigrid Undset won the 1928 Nobel Prize for this trilogy. The three volumes cover the 50 or so years of the heroine’s life, in 14th-century Norway. Undset, in this and an earlier novel based a couple of centuries earlier, worked out a language usage to give a period sense without being archaic; as subsequently with Tolkien, the work involved created an unforgettable linguistic triumph. But what stands out most is Kristin’s conflicting thoughts and longings–her religious devotion and her love for home and father, versus her desire for the dashing Erlend and her commitment to the children and life they build together. The intensity of Kristin’s mental life, the swift sweep of her changes from doubts to acceptances, from duty to longings, from the way of the world to the way of the cross–and back again, with many variations over many times–is only matched by the intensity of Raskolnikov’s persona. And here, instead of 19th-century St. Petersburg, we have the late-medieval world of the first half of the 14th century (hah–and I just gave away a major plot element). Life, love, conflict, history, a recreation of the period’s religious life–this is a book to live within.
- You have your choice–Borges’s Labyrinths, Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Kafka, or any volume of Poe’s short fiction.
- You’re probably expecting War and Peace or Anna Karenina, and maybe you’ll get one. Because Anna Karenina, which is really about Levin’s questionings and marriage, has the wonderful near-end section where Tolstoy has Levin suddenly realize that (his) life is actually . . . . And this sudden recognition works. Works very well–even though every course in writing or literature you ever take says this can’t work. A more recent book, for which its author received a Macarthur grant, The Mind-Body Problem (and we know where Rebecca Goldstein got that title for her novel, don’t we?), does the same thing–makes a sudden final realization work, swelling and closing the plotline beautifully, enobling the narrator, and–hey wow, showing that it can be done! But, as noted–and for the no. 10 place here–Tolstoy first showed the way.
- Okay, this is really really really really hard. This is who-gets-left-out land. Do I toss no. 11 to the Goldstein book, thus avoiding having to write another capsule rendition–and besides the book deserves the place. Or do I hand the laurels to the old Modern Library giant volume, The Complete Novels and Stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, some of these being so very good? And what of those teenage favorites, Catcher in the Rye and Hersey’s The Wall and Balzac’s La Quete de l’Absolu and Hardy’s Jude the Obscure (or the later-read Tess of the d’Urbervilles)? What of The Old Wives’ Tale? Or Piercy’s Vida or Three Women, Sarton’s As We Are Now? Or Le Guin’s works, or Tolkien’s trilogy, or A Canticle for Leibowitz? Nevertheless, the place goes to House on the Strand, one of the last novels by underrated English 20th-century author Daphne du Maurier. This novel (like du Maurier’s French Creek, with its heroine who captivates a pirate) is about coming to “maturity” and giving up youthful romance for the daily grind and commitment. It’s a novel that interweaves the late 20th century and the mid-14th century. And it’s really a novel about the magic and danger of writing. Trust me, it’s good.