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I find that the books I think of as great were read when I was still a young and unpublished writer, with the exception of Buddenbrooks and Labyrinths.
1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877). Anna’s adulterous love affair with Count Vronsky —which follows an inevitable, devastating road from their dizzyingly erotic first encounter at a ball to Anna’s exile from society and her famous, fearful end —is a masterwork of tragic love. What makes the novel so deeply satisfying, though, is how Tolstoy balances the story of Anna’s passion with a second semiautobiographical story of Levin’s spirituality and domesticity. Levin commits his life to simple human values: his marriage to Kitty, his faith in God, and his farming. Tolstoy enchants us with Anna’s sin, then proceeds to educate us with Levin’s virtue.
2. 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.
3. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866). In the peak heat of a St. Petersburg summer, an erstwhile university student, Raskolnikov, commits literature’s most famous fictional crime, bludgeoning a pawnbroker and her sister with an axe. What follows is a psychological chess match between Raskolnikov and a wily detective that moves toward a form of redemption for our antihero. Relentlessly philosophical and psychological, Crime and Punishment tackles freedom and strength, suffering and madness, illness and fate, and the pressures of the modern urban world on the soul, while asking if “great men” have license to forge their own moral codes.
4. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880). In perhaps the consummate Russian novel, Dostoevsky dramatizes the spiritual conundrums of nineteenth-century Russia through the story of three brothers and their father’s murder. Hedonistic Dmitri, tortured intellectual Ivan, and saintly Alyosha embody distinct philosophical positions, while remaining full-fledged human beings. Issues such as free will, secularism, and Russia’s unique destiny are argued not through authorial polemic, but through the confessions, diatribes, and nightmares of the characters themselves. An unsparing portrayal of human vice and weakness, the novel ultimately imparts a vision of redemption. Dostoevsky’s passion, doubt, and imaginative power compel even the secular West he scorned.
5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813). “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” reads this novel’s famous opening line. This matching of wife to single man —or good fortune —makes up the plot of perhaps the happiest, smartest romance ever written. Austen’s genius was to make Elizabeth Bennet a reluctant, sometimes crabby equal to her Mr. Darcy, making Pride and Prejudice as much a battle of wits as it is a love story.
6. The U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos (1938). Infused with the radical politics of the 1920s and 1930s and littered with newspaper excerpts, stream of consciousness prose, and biography, this triptych weaves an epic American narrative tapestry. Comprised of the novels The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money, U.S.A. follows a host of divergent Americans from childhood on up in their unique attempts to find a place in a nation teetering on the verge of social unrest. Mixing newspaper reportage with fiction long before the word postmodern gave academics something to write about, U.S.A. reads like a newsreel and a dream.
7. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851). This sweeping saga of obsession, vanity, and vengeance at sea can be read as a harrowing parable, a gripping adventure story, or a semiscientific chronicle of the whaling industry. No matter, the book rewards patient readers with some of fiction’s most memorable characters, from mad Captain Ahab to the titular white whale that crippled him, from the honorable pagan Queequeg to our insightful narrator/surrogate (“Call me”) Ishmael, to that hell-bent vessel itself, the Pequod.
8. The Red and the Black by Stendhal (1830). Stendhal inaugurated French realism with his revolutionary colloquial style and the famous pronouncement, “A novel is a mirror carried along a highway.” Julien Sorel, the tragic antihero, rises from peasant roots through high society. In his character, the “red” of soldiering and a bygone age of heroism vies with the “black” world of the priesthood, careerism, and hypocrisy.
9. Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (1900). Subtitled “The Decline of a Family,” Mann’s first novel chronicles the shifting fortunes of four generations of German merchants. A brilliant literary colorist, adept with rich jewel tones, earthy pigments, and deep chiaroscuro alike, Mann recalls the Dutch Masters in his painterly command of bourgeois interiors and intimate domestic scenes. In equally lucid detail, often with tongue in cheek, he probes the psychological depths of his characters as they follow the arc from Enlightenment vigor to Romantic decadence in this sprawling family saga bristling with comedy and pathos.
10. Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1964). Simultaneously philosophical and nightmarish, this collection of short stories, parables, and essays popularized both Latin American magic realism as well as metafiction. Borges, a blind Argentine librarian and polymath, here provides almost mathematically concise miniatures —of a man who remembers literally everything, for instance —that read like episodes of The Twilight Zone as written by a metaphysician.