Monday, March 23, 2009

4 Great Novels

As much as I've resisted having to resort to these kinds of "Top 10 Best..." lists as a means of meeting my self-imposed requirement of keeping things moving on this blog, today I'm posting about 4 novels that have profoundly affected me in some way.

I can't say these are my 4 favorite novels; I couldn't possibly winnow my list down to a mere four, but these are definitely right in the thick of it. I recommend them all, for different reasons. Here they are, in no particular order:

War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy

Perhaps overshadowed by Tolstoy's other epic masterpiece, Anna Karenina, this novel is still held in reverence by all serious students of literature. The word "novel" seems insufficient to describe this work, when one considers its vastness, and the multitude of themes it puts forth. EM Forster called the book "life itself," and it is easy to see why. Tolstoy develops literally hundreds of characters across the entire spectrum of 19th century Russia, from Napoleon Bonaparte and Tsar Alexander, to prominent members of the idle, pretentious Russian aristocracy, to the earthy and superstitious peasantry. The novel's two principle characters are Pierre Bezuhov and Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, fast friends with two contending world views. Bezuhov, the good-natured and innocent idealist, believes in the innate goodness of humanity, even as he is exposed to the savagery of war. Bolkonsky, on the other hand, is nihilistic and dour, despite a seemingly idyllic marriage and an offered life of privilege. As these two men make their ways through life in Russia in the Napoleonic era, Tolstoy plumbs the depths of timeless questions about predestination and free will.

When first I read this book, back in my senior year of college, I was profoundly affected. Tolstoy's genius made me a disciple. For years, afterward, I held that book up and said to the world "This is the truth. Tolstoy's laid it out in black and white for anyone who has the guts to read it." Well, although I have since found other authors who are, perhaps, Tolstoy's equal and I would no longer call myself a disciple, my reverence for Tolstoy hasn't abated. There is truth here, people.

Grendel, John Gardner

Gardner's novella, Grendel, is the legendary Nordic myth of Beowulf told from the perspective of the antagonist: a humanoid monster named Grendel. Gardner uses Grendel to examine all of the cherished ideals of humanity: honor, fealty, love, beauty. Poor, tormented Grendel desperately wants to believe in these things, but, having watched as humanity has gone about the business of conquering the earth and itself in the most barbaric of ways, finds that he cannot. And so he undertakes to make war upon these ideals. He torments King Hrothgar and the Danes, ridiculing them, murdering them, mocking them. By exposing the ugly realities behind the thin veneers that we humans put forth, Grendel hopes to make us better, to perhaps cause us to become that which we pretend to be.

Some have called John Gardner an acquired taste. But when I discovered him, shortly after his untimely death in 1982, I was hooked immediately. I burned through everything I could get my hands on, including Grendel, The Sunlight Dialogs, Freddy's Book, Mickelson's Ghosts, and The King's Indian. In a sense, John Gardner was himself Grendel. His bold (and sometimes scathing) criticism of other major literary giants including Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and John Updike, served the same function as did Grendel's torment of the Danes. He prodded at the art of literature ruthlessly, hoping to make it better.

JR, William Gaddis

William Gaddis' second novel, JR, is a satire, both hilarious and horrifying. On a school field trip, the novel's protagonist, JR, an aspiring tween-aged entrepreneur, is exposed to the workings of the highest levels of cut-throat corporatism. While those around him, his teachers and friends, fumble through the everyday disasters of life in the Reagan era, JR, using a pay-telephone and a single share of stock, eventually cobbles together a vast financial empire. His monster creation epitomizes the worst excesses of capitalism: above-the-law exploitation of the less fortunate, amorality, worth measured in dollars. Events start to spin out of control as JR, following the examples set by captains of finance and industry, beats them at their own game, and draws the world ever closer to global war and financial ruin. Given the events of today, the novel seems prophetic.

In Gaddis' signature style, the novel is written almost entirely through dialog. JR is brilliant as satire and social commentary. Gaddis is less recognized than other satirists (Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, or Jonathan Swift) but he's as good as any of those. I'd wager that Gaddis will some day be recognized as one of our time's great authors. Unfortunately, it will be posthumous, since he passed away in 1998.

100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

Márquez's ground-breaking work is often cited as exemplary of the magical realism literary movement, presenting the magical as mundane while at the same time depicting events associated with the world we know as supernatural or mystical. In the lost backwoods of a fictional South American village, Macondo, the Buendía family wanders through a world where time is ambiguous, where horror and beauty are one and the same. Themes of incest, insanity, and predestination run through this captivating work that has spawned an entire genre of modern literature.

Márquez is widely recognized as one of our time's greatest writers. It is a fair bet to imagine that in some future, his name will be placed alongside those of Tolstoy, Melville, Cervantes, and Shakespeare. The book spoke to me in so many ways, none of which can I readily articulate. Nonetheless, Márquez's wisdom and humanity are so deep that I must imagine any reader will find something in this book that will resonate.

Well, there they are, folks. Like I said, this is not a complete list of my favorite novels. But long about October or November, when the Portland rains set in again, you might consider curling up with one of these great books for those long, wet winter nights.

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