Canon of Favorite Books (I)

The titles of the books are linked to longer articles at this blog. I have paired the books, either by author, or by theme.

  1. Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Estate, 1913) by Alain Fournier
  2. Sylvie (1853) by Gérard de Nerval
    "Le Grand Meaulnes" and "Sylvie" are - each in their own way - two short French novels full of nostalgia for the borderland between youth and adulthood, the time we could still dream of pure and innocent love, of a "communion of souls." We have to loose that magic and mysterious estate which is located in both time and place before we can appreciate how beautiful it was, and how much we have lost...

  3. Mansfield Park (1814) by Jane Austen
  4. Persuasion (1818) by Jane Austen
    The novels by Jane Austen are like the music by Haydn: perfectly balanced in feeling and infused with 18th century optimism. There are no shadows: no illness or death, no poverty or hunger, and even the servants move around without being noticed. Pride and Prejudice may be her most popular novel, but is, even more than Jane Austen's other work, too much a fairy tale with no grounding in reality. Sense and Sensibility is too sentimental (I prefer the film version by Ang Lee), and Emma is irritating because she meddles in other people's lives. I prefer Mansfield Park, because it has the largest scale of Austen's novels, ranging from the landed gentry to the professional classes and including the role of the colonies. It is also Austen's most consciously literary work, full of symbols (the park and its gate, the theatricals, the sickening idleness of the gentry which leads to amorality). In Persuasion the satire of the idle aristocracy is continued with for Austen uncommon sharpness - for her the future clearly belongs to the middle class and to professionals. Take her portrait of the vain, self-satisfied baronet, Sir Walter, whose greatest pleasure consists in reading about himself in the "Baronetage," and whose extravagance has put his family into dire financial straits. One wonders what Austen would have written had she been allowed to live beyond her 41 short years...

  5. Torrents of Spring (Spring Torrents, 1872) by Ivan Turgenev
  6. Clara Militch (After Death, 1883) by Ivan Turgenev
    Turgenev was a master of stories about unrequited love - the most famous is First Love, where a 15-year old boy falls in love with a much older and very eccentric young woman living next door, only to discover that his own father is his much more successful competitor. Or Asya, in which the narrator meets a wild and coquettish Russian girl in Germany, and loses her because of his hesitation to declare his love. But my favorite is Torrents of Spring, a story of romantic regret in which the Russian narrator falls in love with a beautiful, pure Italian girl he happens to meet in a German city. He wins her love and the trust of her family, and in order to marry her, he decides to sell his estate and travels to a neighboring city to find a buyer in the Russian emigrant community. There he meets a dark vampish woman who feigns interest in the estate but is just out to seduce him, something she has put a bet on with her husband. The narrator falls for her, choosing sex over love, and he becomes one of a group of young men who are the slaves of this femme fatale, completely forgetting even the existence of his Italian fiancee. Only much later he realizes that he has thrown his life away - but then it is too late. Clara Militch is very different, a combination of a lyrical love story with the supernatural in describing a love beyond the grave. An emotionally unstable actress falls in love with a bookish and quixotic young man, who reacts with an insulting degree of misunderstanding. When she commits suicide, he starts loving her, and then increasingly feels her presence around him... This is also about unrequited love, but then one which finds a weird kind of fulfillment over the grave.

    P.S. For First Love and Asya see my article about the lyrical stories of Turgenev.

    P.S.2 In my mind, Torrents of Spring is associated with Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, perhaps because I heard that music when I first read the novella in my student years - but because of its Italian influence, and dramatic gestures, it also really fits.

  7. Doctor Glas (1905) by Hjalmar Söderberg
  8. A Month in the Country (1980) by J.L. Carr
    Two short novels about unrequited love, from Sweden and England. Doctor Glas tells the astonishing story of the fatal obsession of a physician for one of his patients. Doctor Glas is already over thirty years old, but still unmarried - even more than that, he has "never been with a woman." In fact, the physical aspects of sexual intercourse strike him as rather repulsive. So he is all the more willing to help young Mrs Gregorius, the pastor's wife, when she complains that her husband nightly forces her to have sex with him ("marital rights," the Biblical necessity of procreation, and so on), although he is odious to her. The doctor shares her feelings and even goes so far that he is willing to help the minister to join God before it is his time... Unfortunately, his love is one-sided, and Mrs Gregorius has other arrows on her bow. A Month in the Country is about a WWI-scarred art historian, Tom Birkin, who has to restore an ancient fresco in a country church, and who is slowly healed by his contacts with the kind village people. The most important role here has Alice, the wife of the vicar, a sensitive woman who seems buried in an incompatible marriage. In the end, both are in love but unable to confess it. It is only shown in the blushes flaming Alice’s cheeks. Nothing happens, not even a kiss. The next day Birkin has to return to London and they never meet again. However, this delicate novella is not only about resignation, but all the more about cherishing beautiful memories.

  9. The Comfort of Strangers (1981) by Ian McEwan
  10. On Chesil Beach (2007) by Ian McEwan
    McEwan is - together with Coetzee - one of my favorite English writers because of his concise style (yes, in Grammar School I was a fan of Tacitus). Atonement may be his most admired big novel - and I agree where it concerns the "country house part," the first third of the book, but not the rest - , but I have a preference for his shorter works. I started by liking McEwan's short stories, about a narrator with whom a certain woman is in love, but who likes to swing from the kitchen cabinet, and who is of course an ape, about a millionaire fatefully in love with a mannequin, and about two nurses applying their clinical skills to take a terrible revenge on the man who has been cheating on them... The Comfort of Strangers has elements of a crime and horror story, but is above all a spellbinding study of power, control, and the frighteningly thin line between pleasure and pain. It is about spiders and their prey: a British couple working on their relationship while on holiday in an (unnamed, but identifiable) Venice are the prey, and an elderly couple, a sinister local man with a disabled wife, living in an old palazzo and entertaining a sadomasochistic relationship, are the spiders who draw them into their deadly web. The lesson: when in a foreign city, don't allow yourself to be pulled into a friendship with pushy strangers... On Chesil Beach is a study of what can go wrong between two young lovers (the answer: about everything), by way of a very detailed description of their disastrous wedding night. It ends with a quarrel in which both say exactly the wrong things, only making their partner more angry.

    P.S. My review of McEwan's early short stories at this blog.

  11. The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco
  12. My Name is Red (1998) by Orhan Pamuk
    The Name of the Rose is one of my favorite Neo-historical novels, in which the past is viewed through the consciousness and knowledge of the present, instead of being just a stage for a story. Eco's novel is a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes transferred to a mountain monastery in the Middle Ages, but it also references Borges and Aristotle. Eco was a great book collector himself, and in this novel we find the largest library in the medieval world (a labyrinthine place, fitted out with mirrors and built of seemingly endless galleries), managed by a blind librarian, a book that is used as a tool for murder, and that is also the cause of the crime. The detective, William of Baskerville, has read so many books that he needs glasses – here presented as a new-fangled invention. This novel is huge fun and I would have liked to pair it with another of Eco's books, but although I have tried them all, I can count none among my favorites - most are too long and dull. So I have opted for another Neo-historical novel, My Name is Red, by Turkish Noble Prize winner Orhan Pamuk. It contains a murder mystery and a love story, but is above all a philosophical and historical novel about art and reality, and the cultural division between Islam and Western thought, made tangible in the theme of painting. Islam originally forbids figurative representation, but in Persia in the Middle Ages the art of book illustration by decorating the margins of the pages with abstract representations, gradually led to a miniature figurative art. In the novel, we meet the miniaturists who were making this type of illustrations at the court of the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, just at the juncture that some wanted to go in the individualistic direction of European painting, while on the other hand fundamentalists were clamoring to stop all figurative expression. The last group won. In this way the novel also symbolically reflects modern societal tensions in Turkey. But above all, also this book is great fun.

  13. Manon Lescaut (1731) by Abbé Prévost
  14. Dangerous Liaisons (1782) by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
    Two French 18th c. books about love and passion. Or are they really? For Manon Lescaut, about the passion of the young aristocrat Des Grieux for the even younger prostitute Manon Lescaut is in fact a strangely passionless book, without an erotic atmosphere. Morally and psychologically it is also a perfectly static book, for neither Manon nor Des Grieux change in any way - they remain blind and lacking in self-awareness and never grow up. Whatever immoral experience happens to Manon, she shakes it off like raindrops and doesn't allow herself to be soiled by anything - isn't that true immorality? Dangerous Liaisons is the school textbook about manipulating others - it is a true labyrinth of manipulations. The main characters are two experienced rogues: the Vicomte de Valmont, a notorious rake who seduces women for sport, and the Marquise de Merteuil, who rather than craving sex (she has had enough of that already), needs the headier kick of destroying the lives of other people. They set up an intrigue, but fail each other's standards of evil, and finally end up as enemies. A deliciously bad book, written during the final years of French aristocratic society, only seven years before the Revolution of 1789, when high heads would start rolling. The bawdy excesses of the leisure class were infamous (this was also the age of the Marquis de Sade), and Les Liaisons Dangereuses only added oil to the fire.

  15. Madame Bovary (1856) by Gustave Flaubert
  16. Effi Briest (1895) by Theodor Fontane
    The 19th century saw a huge number of novels published about adulterous women, and most of these women were punished by death by their male authors. The two novels here are usually counted among those "adulterous wives" books, but both also contain another, more interesting element: they are both about the terrible narrow-mindedness (and even meanness) of 19th c. "bourgeois" society. It is true that Emma Bovary commits adultery, even twice, but life in the sticks with a dull and busy country doctor as husband, is driving her mad with boredom (and she has no intellectual mind to keep her occupied). Her major mistake is not that she falls in love with other men, but that she is also addicted to shopping above her budget. The merchants in the town allow her to buy on credit, or even advance her money, but when the bill comes due and she has to pay back everything all at once, nobody rescues her, not even her two lovers. Alone and at her wit's end, she eats a handful of arsenic and dies a terribly painful death. She takes her husband with her, for the doctor's possessions are also auctioned off, and there is the strong suggestion this was all planned by the town's good citizens. Although Madame Bovary contains one of the best "unseen" erotic scenes ever written (Emma has sex in a closed carriage that keeps circling through Rouen, but the reader is not allowed even a small peep inside, although the writing is so hot it almost scorches the pages), it is in fact the greatest study in alienation and boredom in world literature and not an "immoral" novel like Lady Chatterley's Lover, etc. Effi Briest is just as tragic. As a still playful girl of 17, Effi is married off by her parents to a 38-year old baron, who - if you please - has been her mother's unsuccessful suitor in the grey past! There is no real communication with her formal husband, and living in a small coastal town, she feels incredibly lonely in their large, spooky house. Then a young major arrives in town and Effi goes horse riding with him in the dunes - she has a fling with him, and love letters are exchanged, but it is soon over. Effi's husband is transferred to Berlin, and things seem to become better for Effi, too, but then, when she is on a visit to her parents, her husband discovers the by now six year old love letters and with German (or rather Prussian) "Gründlichkeit" kicks Effi out of the house (keeping their little daughter) and seeks out the major to kill him in a duel. Effi is ostracized by society - even by her own parents - as a "fallen woman" and eventually becomes ill and dies. Thus is an individual life crushed by society with its petrified moral concepts.

  17. Memento Mori (1959) by Muriel Spark
  18. Out of Mind (1984) by J. Bernlef
    Two books about the problems of getting old, the first one humorous and satirical, the second one almost too realistic. Memento Mori by the Scottish writer Muriel Spark is about death as variously perceived, feared, denied, and anticipated by the elderly. A group of elderly people is getting nuisance phone calls with always the same message: "Remember that you must die." The baffled police can't trace the calls, and gradually the opinion takes hold that it is Death himself who is calling. Despite that, these old people are still engaged in a whole labyrinth of intrigues against each other, refusing to go quietly. They also look back at their lives and relations (usually a mess). One after the other dies. And then they start feeling that being over seventy is like being engaged in a war. All friends are gone and they survive among the dead and the dying as on a battlefield... All the same, this is one of the most deeply funny novels I know. Out of Mind by the Dutch writer Bernlef is a story of dementia, told from the inside, from the mind of the sufferer. Maarten Klein has worked as secretary for the Boston office of an international organization and after retirement he and his wife have stayed on in their coastal house in Gloucester in Massachusetts, although Maarten dislikes the severe winters. During one long winter, Maarten quickly loses his memory. Just as the snow falls outside and covers all traces, so the snow also falls on Maarten’s mind. It starts with forgetting small things, then develops into an increasing disorientation in time and space (he doesn't recognize his wife anymore), culminating in the loss of his language ability - his sentences become shorter, he can no longer come up with the right words and finally even the voice in his head falls silent. A true but terrifying book. 

  19. Boule de suif (1880) by Guy de Maupassant
  20. The Maison Tellier (1881) by Guy de Maupassant
    Maupassant was like Chekhov a master of the short form. Unfortunately, his work has been misunderstood in the English world: in the 19th c. ostracized because he wrote too openly about certain bodily matters for the uptight Anglophone public, in the 20th c. he was brought out in abominable translations as a "naughty writer." It is only in recent decades that he is being done justice by new literary translations. What few people realize is that Boule de Suif was in fact the basis story for John Ford's film Stagecoach. Also Shanghai Express by Josef von Sternberg, starring Marlene Dietrich, was loosely based on it. In Boule de suif, a group of people from Rouen travels in a stagecoach through enemy territory (it is set during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71); one of them is a prostitute who is despised by her bourgeois fellow travelers. In the story, a cliché of the French bourgeoisie is destroyed: middle class citizens were always presented as venerable, patriotic and exemplary, but Maupassant exposes the hypocrisy of so-called decent people who are only concerned with their own gain (as Flaubert did in Madame Bovary). He shows vividly how false their morals are  - in fact, only the despised prostitute is honest and sincere, as she selflessly helps the others and is the only true patriot. The Maison Tellier is a brothel that also functions as bar and cafe, the only place to go to at night for the men in a boring provincial town. One night it is unexpectedly closed, leading to agitation among the male population: it appears that Madame Tellier has taken her girls on a trip into the countryside to attend the first communion of her niece. Nobody in the village suspects their occupation. When during communion all the whores start crying from regret at seeing such a pure young virgin, the priest and the villagers see it as a sign of divine inspiration.

  21. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1991) by José Saramago
  22. The Following Story (1991) by Cees Nooteboom
    Jose Saramago started writing seriously when he was in his mid-fifties, and over the next 30 years he published 15 novels and even won the Nobel Prize in Literature. A late start is not always a disadvantage! Saramago writes in an idiosyncratic style, with long rambling sentences, frequent digressions, and avoidance of quotation marks for dialogue. The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis brings to life one of the "heteronyms" (pseudonyms) under which Ferdinand Pessoa had written his poetry in the first half of the 20th c., as a medical doctor who returns from Brazil to Lisbon. He takes frequent strolls through the city which is a second character in the novel. He has a relation with the hotel maid and falls in love with an aristocratic woman with a paralyzed arm, but his most intense contact is with the ghost of Pessoa who pays him frequent visits. Gradually it dawns on him, that as a figment of the imagination of the dead poet, he has no life himself and finally joins Pessoa in his grave. The novella The Following Story by the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom is – at less than 100 pages – a small gem. It is also a strange and uncanny story, although told with the necessary humor. A man who as usual went to bed in his apartment in Amsterdam, to his surprise wakes up in a hotel room in Lisbon - the very same room where he stayed 20 years ago with a now long lost lover. What has happened to him? Walking around the city, he recalls that long ago affair and other aspects of his life. Then, one day, as inexplicably as his arrival in Lisbon, he boards a boat bound for Brazil with a number of other passengers. As their ship starts sailing up the Amazon, the passengers tell their life stories. A haunting meditation on the inescapable reality of death, the blindness of love, and the possible existence of an immortal soul.

  23. Bartleby, the Scrivener, (1853) by Melville
  24. Bartleby & Co., (2000) by Vila-Matas
    Bartleby as described by famous American 19th c. author Herman Melville in this well-known story is the iconic figure of one who opts out, who calls it off, who doesn't want to do it anymore, who stops playing the game. He's fed up. At the same time, he is very mild mannered, which makes his refusal all the more mysterious. He gives no explanation why he gives up his clerical duties of copying legal documents. But he also refuses to leave the office, he even completely settles down there, like a modern "occupier." In the end, the office moves out, for the director is also a very gentle man. There are almost as many explanations for this enigmatic story as there are readers. The contemporary Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas has written a novel about a clerk who searches through literature for other possible Bartlebys (while also being one himself), making a catalog of authors suffering from the “Bartleby Syndrome:” authors who wrote great books at one point, but then decided to stop writing altogether; potential authors who could have written great books, but who chose never to put the pen to paper; authors who began books magnificently, but then left them sadly unfinished; and authors who were famously reclusive and refused to add their personal presence to their literary efforts. We meet such “Masters of the Art of the No” as Robert Walser, Laurence Sterne, J. D. Salinger, Fernando Pessoa, Robert Musil, Jorge Luis Borges, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and of course Melville.

  25. Blindness (1997) by José Saramago
  26. The Plague by Albert Camus
    is one of the best dystopian novels ever written, about a terrible pandemic that causes blindness. Focusing on a small group - an eye doctor and some of his patients, plus the doctor's wife who is the only person not affected by the disease - Saramago gives a frightening picture of the complete breakdown of civil society. Thanks to their kindness for each other, the small group survives like a new family, until the pandemic suddenly disappears. Saramago has aptly demonstrated how fragile our social conditions are.
    Camus' The Plague has become a renewed bestseller in these corona times, but it surprises

  27. A Severed Head (1961) by Iris Murdoch
  28. The Sea, the Sea (1978) by Iris Murdoch

  29. The Immigrants (1992) by W.G. Sebald
  30. The Rings of Saturn (1995) by W.G. Sebald

  31. Diary of a Chambermaid (1900) by Octave Mirbeau

  32. Middlemarch (1871-72) by George Eliot
  33. Irretrievable (1892) by Theodor Fontane


Photo on top of page: The Library of the Palais Bourbon in Paris, by Baptiste ROUSSEL, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons