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Jim Shepard's Top Ten List
1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955). “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” So begins the Russian master’s infamous novel about Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who falls madly, obsessively in love with a twelve-year-old “nymphet,” Dolores Haze. So he marries the girl’s mother. When she dies he becomes Lolita’s father. As Humbert describes their car trip—a twisted mockery of the American road novel—Nabokov depicts love, power, and obsession in audacious, shockingly funny language.
2. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967). Widely considered the most popular work in Spanish since Don Quixote, this novel—part fantasy, part social history of Colombia—sparked fiction’s “Latin boom” and the popularization of magic realism. Over a century that seems to move backward and forward simultaneously, the forgotten and offhandedly magical village of Macondo—home to a Faulknerian plethora of incest, floods, massacres, civil wars, dreamers, prudes, and prostitutes—loses its Edenic innocence as it is increasingly exposed to civilization.
3. The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925). The Trial is not just a book, but a cultural icon; Kafka is not just a writer but a mindset—“Kafkaesque.” Here, Everyman Josef K is persecuted by a mysterious and sadistic Law, which has condemned him in advance for a crime of which he knows nothing. Modern anxieties are given near-archetypal form in this parable that seems both to foretell the totalitarian societies to come and to mourn our alienation from a terrible Old Testament God.
4. Stories of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904). The son of a freed Russian serf, Anton Chekhov became a doctor who, between the patients he often treated without charge, invented the modern short story. The form had been overdecorated with trick endings and swags of atmosphere. Chekhov freed it to reflect the earnest urgencies of ordinary lives in crises through prose that blended a deeply compassionate imagination with precise description. “He remains a great teacher-healer-sage,” Allan Gurganus observed of Chekhov’s stories, which “continue to haunt, inspire, and baffle.”
5. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). While liberal rebels roam the hills of Sicily, and rumors spread that Garibaldi’s army is poised for invasion, the old prince Don Fabrizio struggles to manage his vast and now threatened estates. “I belong to an unfortunate generation,” he says, “swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both.” While charting what he sees as nineteenth-century Sicily’s necessary movement toward science and liberal politics, Lampedusa uses the admirable prince to suggest the traditions and values lost in the process.
6. Dubliners by James Joyce (1916). Although many of these largely autobiographical stories evoke themes of death, illness, and stasis, nearly all offer their characters redemption —or at least momentary self-knowledge —through what Joyce called “epiphanies,” in which defeat or disappointment is transformed by a sudden, usually life-altering flash of awareness. The collection’s emotional centerpiece is its concluding tale, “The Dead,” which moves from a New Year’s Eve party where guests muse about issues of the day —the Catholic church, Irish nationalism, Freddie Malins’s worrying drunkenness —to a man’s discovery of his wife weeping over a boy who died for love of her. A profound portrait of identity and loneliness, it is Joyce’s most compassionate work.
7. Stories of Flannery O’Connor (1925–64). Full of violence, mordant comedy, and a fierce Catholic vision that is bent on human salvation at any cost, Flannery O’Connor’s stories are like no others. Bigots, intellectual snobs, shyster preachers, and crazed religious seers —a full cavalcade of what critics came to call “grotesques”—careen through her tales, and O’Connor gleefully displays the moral inadequacy of all of them. Twentieth-century short stories often focus on tiny moments, but O’Connor’s stories, with their unswerving eye for vanity and their profound sense of the sacred, feel immense.
8. Stories of Isaac Babel (1894–1940). “Let me finish my work” was Babel’s final plea before he was executed for treason on the orders of Josef Stalin. Though incomplete, his work is enduring. In addition to plays and screenplays, some in collaboration with Sergei Eisenstein, Babel made his mark with The Odessa Stories, which focused on gangsters from his native city, and even more important, the collection entitled Red Cavalry. Chaos, bloodshed, and mordant fatalism dominate those interconnected stories, set amid the Red Army’s Polish campaign during the Russian Civil War. Babel, himself a combat veteran, embodied the war’s extremes in the (doubtless autobiographically based) war correspondent–propagandist Kiril Lyutov and the brutally violent Cossack soldiers whom he both fears and admires. Several masterpieces herein (including “A Letter,” “My First Goose,” and “Berestechko”) anticipate Hemingway’s later achievement, and confirm Babel’s place among the great modernist writers.
9. Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee (1980). A magistrate for an unspecified empire finds himself thrust into a growing conflict on the frontier. Fearing an invasion, the empire sends an army to eliminate the threat of neighboring “barbarians,” and the magistrate, accused of plotting with the enemy, is beaten and jailed. As he suffers these trials, the magistrate reflects on civilization and nature, suffering and oppression, and man’s barbarous tendency toward violence.
10. Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951). The French author started her novel at age twenty-one; she rediscovered it at forty-six, ending a mammoth bout of writer’s block. Two years later she completed this intimate first-person narrative of the second-century emperor. Through Yourcenar’s magisterial prose, Hadrian—a thoughtful, sensual man aware of both the fleeting nature of time and eternal verities—details his rise and his liberal policies, especially his belief that it is wiser to embrace your neighbors than to go to war against them. Ever the pragmatist, he notes, “Catastrophe and ruin will come; disorder will triumph, but order will too, from time to time.”