Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Most people of my generation seem to favor contemporary novels over the classics, with a couple of exceptions (Jane Eyre, anything by Jane Austen, The Great Gatsby). After college, it's hard to find the time to read any books, let alone the literary monoliths - are they worth it? In a lot of cases, I give a resounding yes. Here are some of the classic novels that are definitely worth the effort, and a few that should stay on the shelf.

Novels Worth the Effort:

 Les liaisons dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
This oft censored masterpiece of sexual predation still has the power to shock us today. The elegant, sinuous prose of this epistolary novel narrates the machinations of two French aristocrats who exact cruel revenge on their social nemeses and on each other. Sophisticated, bitter, and dangerously sexy.

Middlemarch - George Eliot
This dazzling and profound portrait of a small town in 19th century England explores sexual and class politics through the stories of Dorothea Brooke, a brilliant, idealistic, and wealthy young woman, and Tertius Lydgate, a brilliant, idealistic, and not very wealthy physician. This one may require more than a few visits to wikipedia to brush up on British history, but it's none the less a pleasure for that.

Between the Acts - Virginia Woolf
All of Woolf's novels are well worth reading, but this, her last novel, might present greater obstacles. Written shortly before her tragic suicide at the age of 59, Between the Acts is a complex reflection on English history on the eve of World War II. Part modernist novel, part surrealist pageant, the book is alternately mystifying and illuminating.

The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov
Bulgakov's greatest work is the most ecstatic and holistic vision of Christianity of the 20th century. It's a kick in the pants of the repressive Soviet government of its time. It's also gleefully anarchic, pulsing with sexual inebriation, and pungently witty.

Ada, or Ardor - Vladimir Nabokov
My favorite of Nabokov's novels, Ada, or Ardor is difficult on a number of levels. For one thing, it's about an incestuous relationship between cousins (that might be siblings). For another, there is heavy use of both French and Russian. The novel takes place in a sort of parallel universe, which is both far ahead and far behind our own time, and it also functions as a book within a book. An even greater challenge than Lolita, this masterpiece is ecstatically written and quite lovely despite its bitterness.

Don't Bother with These:

Les Miserables -Victor Hugo
This is coming from the person who read the entirety of The Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin when I was 14. Don't bother with this thousand page disaster. Hugo absolutely refused to have his manuscript edited down, leaving us with one of the most endlessly redundant novels of all time.

Moby Dick - Herman Melville
I've never been able to get through any of Melville's works, not even Billy Bud, which is barely a hundred pages. His writing is grandiose and emotionally sterile. He's like a literary Wagner - his work is monolithic and enormously ambitious, but his hubris pervades it with a pungent stink.

Ulysses - James Joyce
Yes, it's brilliant. No, it's not the slightest bit amusing.

Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnameable - Samuel Beckett
Beckett's trilogy gets progressively more unbearable until one would think it couldn't get worse - then it does. These books have no perceivable plot, and less and less discernible character. They are essentially a treatise on post-modernism, but they leave the reader depressed, depleted, and miserable. Save yourself the pain.

On the Road - Jack Kerouac
Beloved of adolescent writers everywhere, this trippy homage to the self-abusive lifestyles embraced by Kerouac and his buddies is sloppy, self-indulgent, and not all there. Though it may be enormously influential, it's one of those novels that grows less and less interesting as one grows older. It's better to leave this one with the high school yearbooks and homemade hash pipes.

Obviously, these lists are only a small sampling and could be endlessly expanded. Readers, what would you add?


  1. What a fabulous list! I would add Flaubert's _Madame Bovary_, Thomas Hardy's _Jude the Obscure_, Italo Svevo's _The Confessions of Zeno_ and Luigi Pirandello's _Mattia Pascal_

  2. I haven't read the Pirandello, but I'm with you on all the other choices, especially Jude the Obscure.

    1. Plus, it's a pity that many of the great Italian writers of the 19th and 20th centuries, like Italo Svevo and Grazia Deledda, are almost unknown in the US.

  3. I would add to the "don't read" list "Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad, one of the only books I have started and not been able to force my way through; and "Little Women" by Louisa May Alcott, which I found annoying to a tragic degree given that I assumed I would love it as much as the movies.

    As far as the "do read" list, I would add some more Russians. "We" by Yevgeny Zamyatin, sadly his only work readily available in English; "First Love" and "Fathers and Sons" by Ivan Turgenev; and just about anything by Dostoevsky are the first few that come to mind.

  4. I would agree that Heart of Darkness is pretty unbearable, but Little Women?! I definitely don't agree on Little Women, which I've read at least a dozen times, not least of all because Jo March is a rare proto-feminist heroine among a lot of wilting lilies. In contrast to most of the schlock aimed at young women of the time, Little Women presented female characters that developed individual identities independent of romantic love and marriage.

    I love the Russians too! I could add even more - Anna Karenina, A Hero of Our Time, Dead Souls...

  5. Hi, Gianna! Love your blog. I thought I'd share that my book club read "The Count of Monte Cristo" last month, all 117 chapters of it! I totally enjoyed it--a rollicking good story, filled with colorful characters, enlightening bits of history, and the gamut of human emotion. It also sparked one of the more enthralling conversations among our members when we met to discuss it. Made me want to read more of Dumas. I wish there were a "classics" book club around here that I could join; I feel there are so many great novels I've never tackled.