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Robert Wilson's Top Ten List
1. Embers by Sándor Márai (1942). Henrik, a nobleman of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Konrad, a humble man with ambition, became best friends in military school. They remained inseparable, even after Henrik married Konrad’s friend. Then, one night, their relationship ruptured. Forty-one years pass until they meet again before the embers of a fading fire, where they probe their relationship and their lives.
2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). Perhaps the most searching fable of the American Dream ever written, this glittering novel of the Jazz Age paints an unforgettable portrait of its day — the flappers, the bootleg gin, the careless, giddy wealth. Self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby, determined to win back the heart of the girl he loved and lost, emerges as an emblem for romantic yearning, and the novel’s narrator, Nick Carroway, brilliantly illuminates the post–World War I end to American innocence.
3. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952). This poignant parable of an old Cuban fisherman’s valiant solitary struggle against a huge fish embodies Hemingway’s definition of courage: grace under pressure. After months without a catch, and deserted by his young protégée, ancient Santiago finally hooks an enormous marlin, which is also prized by a marauding shark, in this study of self-reliance, implacable nature, and equanimity in the face of insurmountable odds.
4. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899). In a novella with prose as lush and brooding as its jungle setting, Phillip Marlowe travels to the Belgian Congo to pilot a trading company’s steamship. There he witnesses the brutality of colonial exploitation, epitomized by Kurtz, an enigmatic white ivory trader. To understand evil, Marlowe seeks out Kurtz, whom he finds amongst the natives, dying. After Kurtz laments his own depravity through his final, anguished words—“The horror! The horror!”—Marlowe must decide what to tell his widow back home.
5. The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953). Chandler’s sardonic and chivalric gumshoe Philip Marlowe winds up in jail when he refuses to betray a client to the Los Angeles police investigating the murder of a wealthy woman. Marlowe’s incorruptibility and concentration on the case are challenged even more when the obsessively independent private eye falls in love, apparently for the first time, with a different rich and sexy woman. She proposes marriage, but he puts her off, claiming he feels “like a pearl onion on a banana split” among her set.
6. Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1864–65). A miserly father dies and leaves his fortune to his estranged son —so long as he marries a woman he’s never met. While returning home, John Harmon appears to be murdered. He survives and goes undercover. As John Rokesmith, he becomes secretary to the man next in line for his father’s estate, Mr. Boffin. Clever coincidences and revelations follow in this novel notable for its wickedly funny treatment of middle-class society.
7. The Untouchable by John Banville (1997). Loosely based on the life of Cambridge spy Anthony F. Blunt, the novel opens in 1979, when seventy-two-year-old Vic Maskell’s crimes have been publicly exposed. As the world recognizes that this art curator was not who he seemed, Vic probes his past —vividly bringing to life his co-conspirators and the city of Cambridge —to determine his accuser’s identity. This suspenseful, philosophical journey reveals the fractured state of Vic’s identity: Irishman and Englishman, lover of women and men, betrayer and betrayed.
8. A Heart So White by Javier Marías (1994). Juan knows only this about his shady, twice-widowed father: before marrying Juan’s mother, he had wed her older sister, who committed suicide shortly after the ceremony. As Juan’s new wife becomes his father’s confessor, eliciting troubling truths, his own experiences begin to mirror those of his father in this Spanish novel that recalls the work of Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Bernhard.
9. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (1985). Márquez takes the love triangle to the limit in this story of an ever hopeful romantic who waits more than fifty years for his first love. When his beloved’s husband dies after a long, happy marriage, Florentino Ariza immediately redeclares his passion. After the enraged widow rejects him, he redoubles his efforts. Set on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, this wise, steamy, and playful novel jumps between past and present, encompassing decades of unrest and war, recurring cholera epidemics, and the environmental ravages of development.
10. London Fields by Martin Amis (1989). Nicola Six, a psychic femme fatale in a soul-sick, lightly futuristic London, has a premonition that one of two men she’s just met will murder her, and then she works to make that happen. All of Amis’s tropes —the coming apocalypse, the self-consciousness of authorship, and hilarious clashes of sexes and classes —get full play in this sprawling romp of a novel.