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Michael Griffith's Top Ten List
1. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (1962). “It is the commentator who has the last word,” claims Charles Kinbote in this novel masquerading as literary criticism. The text of the book includes a 999-line poem by the murdered American poet John Shade and a line-by-line commentary by Kinbote, a scholar from the country of Zembla. Nabokov even provides an index to this playful, provocative story of poetry, interpretation, identity, and madness, which is full to bursting with allusions, tricks, and the author’s inimitable wordplay.
2. Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853). Dickens is best known for his immense plots that trace every corner of Victorian society, and Bleak House fulfills that expectation to perfection. The plot braids the sentimental tale of an orphan unaware of her scandalous parentage with an ironic and bitterly funny satire of a lawsuit that appears to entail all of London. In doing so, the novel encompasses more than any other Dickens novel, shows the author’s mature skills, and is the only Victorian novel to include an incident of human spontaneous combustion.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857). Of the many nineteenth-century novels about adulteresses, only Madame Bovary features a heroine frankly detested by her author. Flaubert battled for five years to complete his meticulous portrait of extramarital romance in the French provinces, and he complained endlessly in letters about his love-starved main character — so inferior, he felt, to himself. In the end, however, he came to peace with her, famously saying, “Madame Bovary: c’est moi.” A model of gorgeous style and perfect characterization, the novel is a testament to how yearning for a higher life both elevates and destroys us.
6. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959). This picaresque novel depicts the rise of Nazism in Germany and its terrible consequences through the adventures of Oskar Matzerath, “the eternal three-year-old” who stunts his growth at three feet and uses his tin drum and piercing screams as weapons against a mad world. Chilling and absurd, teeming with black comedy and dark insights into the human soul, The Tin Drum is both an artistic triumph and an act of reclamation. As the Swedish Academy observed while presenting Grass with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, the novel “comes to grips with the enormous task of reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers, and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them.”
7. Dom Casmurro by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1899). (See below).
8. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925). This masterpiece of concision and interior monologue recounts events in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a delicate, upper-class London wife and mother, as she prepares for a party at her home on a single day in June 1923. In a parallel subsidiary plot, a shell-shocked World War I veteran Clarissa encounters spirals into suicide rather than submit to soul-stealing experimental psycho therapy. The novel explores questions of time, memory, love, class, and life choices through Woolf’s intricate melding of points of view and powerful use of flashback.
9. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72). Dorothea Brooke is a pretty young idealist whose desire to improve the world leads her to marry the crusty pedant Casaubon. This mistake takes her down a circuitous and painful path in search of happiness. The novel, which explores society’s brakes on women and deteriorating rural life, is as much a chronicle of the English town of Middlemarch as it is the portrait of a lady. Eliot excels at parsing moments of moral crisis so that we feel a character’s anguish and resolve. Her intelligent sympathy for even the most unlikable people redirects our own moral compass toward charity rather than enmity.
10. Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy (1968). Outer Dark is a dark, Gothic tale set in Appalachia around the turn of the twentieth century. A woman is impregnated by her brother, who steals the child, leaves it in the woods, and tells her it has died of natural causes. She learns of her brother’s lie; separately they set out across the dangerous wilds to find the child, embarking on strange and chilling journeys informed by evil, dread, and mercy.
Appreciation of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’s Dom Casmurro by Michael Griffith
In 1878, nearing forty and afflicted by epilepsy and rickets, Machado, a successful but conventional Brazilian romancier, withdrew from Rio to convalesce. He returned not only rejuvenated but transformed; in coming decades he would write, among other works, three classic novels: Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, Philosopher or Dog?, and Dom Casmurro.
Dom Casmurro (“Lord Taciturn”) is Bento Santiago, an affluent old man undone by jealousy. He believes that his wife, Capitu, betrayed him; his friend Escobar must be the real sire of Bento’s son. Yet what’s most remarkable here is not the story but the storytelling. There’s its fragmented form (148 chapters in scarcely 250 pages); there’s Machado’s mixture of scathing satire with empathy for his narrator, whose autobiography is part legal brief, part cri de coeur, part special pleading, even (covertly, poignantly) part mea culpa. But Machado’s signal feat is his pioneering handling of unreliable narration.
Though Bento prosecutes his case zealously, his evidence boils down to the oft-repeated fact that Capitu has “eyes like the tide.” Bento may be deluded, even reprehensible, but we are not allowed to laugh at him, to think ourselves superior. He’s like us. And if every narrator is subject to similar blindness and self-pity, how to trust anyone? The question would loom large in twentieth-century literature.
The reader, too, is implicated. Bento writes, “[E]verything is to be found outside a book that has gaps, gentle reader. This is the way I fill in other men’s lacunae; in the same way you may fill in mine.” Reader, jury, do with me what you will. Machado admits into his text radical postmodern ambiguity, years before its heyday, for what book does not have gaps, is not made up of gaps?
Allusive, psychologically penetrating, politically charged, darkly funny, Dom Casmurro links Sterne to Barthelme, Flaubert to Nabokov, and remains startlingly fresh.