Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - Rest in Peace at #20

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – Rest in Peace at #20

I meant to post this list late on Sunday when I heard that Solzhenitsyn had died, since he’s on the list, but a truck hit a telephone pole and killed our Internet, Cable and phone until a few hours ago.

Anyway, for this list, I have abandoned the idea of limiting it in any way. I cut the list off at 25 because that’s where quality starts to take a dive. The most glaring omission is going to be Don Quixote, because I have never finished reading it. After that, I suppose people might lament the absence of Les Miserables, but while it’s a great story (I’m actually re-reading it), it’s twice as long as it should be. And Thomas Mann. But he is boring as can be. The foreign language Henry James (as Eliot put it so succinctly about James: “a mind so fine no idea could violate it.”).

Before I get to the list, I feel the need to mention the power of a great novel. If you truly find yourself wrapped up in a novel, it can affect how you feel. I’ve been on edge the last couple of days and I realized why: I was re-reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and it is so good, so compelling, does such a good job of making you feel in danger and on edge, that you end up feeling that way. The only other book that ever made me feel so on edge while reading it was The Stand by Stephen King. They produce the same kind of effect that The Trial and Crime and Punishment do. Harold Bloom can dump on Rowling (and King) all he wants, but if a novel is that good at making you feel on edge, it has certainly done its job

#25 – Kiss of the Spider Woman (Manuel Puig) – Spanish

A fluid, stream of consciousness novel that I never would have believed could have been made into a film at all, let alone an excellent one had I not seen the film first.

#24 – The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Yukio Mishima) – Japanese

I read this for an Eastern Philosophy class (thank you David DeMoss) and found it fascinating. Granted, Mishima was a nutjob, but he had incredible talent. This is the best of his novels.

#23 – Invitation to a Beheading (Vladimir Nabokov) – Russian

How amazing to make both lists, for being such a crafter of multiple languages. Though short, I find this to be the best of his Russian novels

#22 – The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas) – French

My brother will lament this being this low, but while I find Dumas to be one of the more enjoyable authors in history, I don’t think he is as great as several others. And this great revenge story falls just below…

#21 – The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas) – French

The ultimate adventure story. That’s really all the needs to be said. The sequal, The Man in the Iron Mask, is overrated, and annoying, when you realize that two other books come between.

#20 – One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (Aleksandr Solzhenistyn) – Russian

The short but poignant novel describing life in the Soviet labor camps. As often happens, when he tried a longer version (The Gulag Archipelago), it wasn’t as good or as interesting.

#19 – The Red and the Black (Stendahl) – French

A truly great book that gets ignored in favor of Dumas, Hugo and Flaubert.

#18 – Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert) – French

The best 19th Century novel not written by a Russian. It gets made into a film every generation or so, but really needs to be read to be appreciated. Most of the novels on this list have been filmed, but only two have really been the equal of the book.

#17 – Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) – Spanish

One of the all-time great love stories. One of the few masterpieces written by someone after they won the Nobel Prize.

#16 – If on a winter’s night a traveler (Italo Calvino) – Italian

I never would have thought I could tolerate anything written in second person until I finally read this. Utterly compelling, though it’s hard to explain why.

#15 – The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende) – Spanish

The only novel that truly captures the spirit and essence of magical realism that wasn’t written by Garcia Marquez.

#14 – The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov) – Russian

One of the first novels I read at the recommendation of my wife. Another great Russian novel that was suppressed for years.

#13 – The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Milan Kundera) – Czesch

The only other novel (beside Kiss) on the list with a film to match it. I had a co-worker at Borders who recommended this book to literally every customer.

#12 – War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy) – Russian

Shock of shocks! War and Peace at #12? Yes. It’s fantastic and has many stretches of brilliance, but it is overly long (it has nothing to do with its actual length, but rather that it could have been edited tighter).

#11 – Fathers and Sons (Ivan Turgenev) – Russian

Yes, the Russians are heavily represented. Until Faulkner, Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Dos Passos all hit peaks together in the late 20’s and 30’s, the best era of writing were the Russians in the 1860’s-80’s.

#10 – Darkness at Noon (Arthur Koestler) – German

As this is on my other list, it gives you an idea of where things fall into place together.

#9 – The Idiot (Fyodor Doestoevsky) – Russian

Doestoevsky is the Faulkner of this list. I was asked once who the five greatest writers of all-time were. I answered: Shakespeare, Faulkner, Doestoevsky, Joyce, Kafka.

#8 – The Plague (Albert Camus) – French

A masterful novel that will leave you feeling like you need to escape from whatever city you are currently sitting in.

#7 – The Wind Up Bird Chronicle (Haruki Murakami) – Japanese

I picked this up in a friend’s apartment when she was in the bathroom, and was so enthralled in the first couple of pages, that I asked her if I could borrow it and two days later, returned it to her, having read the whole novel and bought my own copy. I have read it three times since.

#6 – Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy) – Russian

I am not sure why everyone champions War and Peace as the great novel in history when Tolstoy hit perfection earlier in his career. My best friend read this for our World Lit class our Junior Year in High School and gave a report on it. After class I asked him if he even knew that Anna had died. He had not. But he was so good with his report that our teacher didn’t know he hadn’t finished the last 200 pages.

#5 – Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Doestoevsky) – Russian

The 3 through 5 spots on this list could really go in any order depending on what day it is. They are all such magnificent novels, with such brilliant writing, compelling stories, that adjectives fail me.

#4 – One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) – Spanish

I read this for the first time back when I was nineteen, because my friend, Jake Bassett, had read it and decided it was his barometer for other people – if you read it and didn’t like it, you weren’t worth the trouble. I keep hoping someday I’ll again know Spanish well enough to read this in the original.

#3 – The Trial (Franz Kafka) – German

I felt somewhat like I was living this during the past few days in my dealings with Comcast. Just remember, if you think this is too bleak and the paranoia is setting in, that it’s supposed to be funny.

#2 – The Stranger (Albert Camus) – French

This is also supposed to be funny. In fact I wrote a paper in college called “Existentialism as Black Humor: A Look at The Stranger and As I Lay Dying.” Also, the second novel on this list to inspire a brilliant song – the Cure’s Killing an Arab. (Master and Margarita is the inspiration behind “Sympathy for the Devil”)

#1 – The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Doestoevsky) – Russian

This really should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I have been saying for over ten years that there are 5 perfect works of literature: Joyce’s The Dead, ee cummings’ poem “somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond”, Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (Veronica would disagree but she can post her own list), The Sound and the Fury, and The Brothers Karamazov. This is my refutation to the idea that a book can be too long: it is over 900 pages and not a word should ever be touched. It was the first foreign language novel I ever bought a second copy of, just so I could read a different translation. Granted, Doestoesvky would not be happy because I identify strongly with the wrong brother (Ivan), but I recommend it to anyone who likes to read.

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