The challenge? Your top ten books, leather bound, on the mantle. I limited it to fiction. The first part is below.
Anna. Vronsky. Levin. Kitty. The novel is a beautiful story, first and foremost—hopeful and tragic at the same time. Tolstoy cannot help be compared to Dostoevsky, and while the latter pounds philosophy into your head, the former focuses on the art. From the famous opening line, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” the lengthy novel moves with surprising pace: each chapter is only a few pages, as Tolstoy shows his mastery over rising action, letting each scene contribute to the whole. We start by seeing an affair; we end by seeing a man come to belief and commitment (of course, there’s that suicide in there, too). When I think of characters, though, I think of no one who does them better than Tolstoy. He captures the essences, the paradoxes within people. Yet, he watches with a moral eye, as told from the foreboding epigraph: “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.”
The Power and the Glory
The whisky priest rushes from town to town, ahead of the authorities. He’s a broken man, an alcoholic, with a child, yet he will not relinquish his duty as a purveyor of grace. What I like about Greene is that he delves the existential questions: what it means to be moral, to have faith in something. For the whisky priest, faith means walking into a likely trap. Morality doesn’t mean always doing the right thing, but stumbling blindly toward what we think is best, despite the mess we’ve made. Greene plots surprisingly tightly, and his novels acutely point out moral failings: and how we live on in spite of them. For the lieutenant chasing the priest, everyone must conform to his philosophy in order for his beliefs to succeed. For the priest, people can be as bad as he is, and his faith still succeeds.
Cormac McCarthy might be insane. That was one critic’s opinion after reading his most well-received work (until, that is, The Road). Blood Meridian is one of the most violent books I’ve read: it is jarring, intense, and unrelenting as the kid joins the Glanton gang and they run amok through the desert country. We see the destructive and expanding nature of violence, and the novel takes on an apocalyptic note (again, as The Road would more ostensibly later) in its scope and allowance for evil. The form McCarthy uses—unsentimental, spare prose—has influenced writers; he is the natural continuation of Hemingway in some sense (with bigger words). Like Hemingway, if fiction is meant to be a lucid dream, McCarthy has penned a nightmare, an indictment of America—a book that is both hard to pick up and put down.
From Russia With Love
I figured any good criterion collection ought to have a guilty-pleasure novel. For me, it’s James Bond. While I grew up with the movies, I discovered the novels later in life: the vigorous prose, the tight set pieces. From Russia With Love is probably my favorite (followed by On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), though the movies bleed into my readings, as I saw them first. We can claim much wrong with James Bond: the misogyny, the plots that are incredulous, the way it has spawned a whole industry making fun of it. But it’s been able to do this for a reason: Ian Fleming writes surprisingly well, and it’s a fun story. From Russia With Love details Bond’s trip to Istanbul, after the first third of the novel sets up the backstory: what the Russians are doing. The creative storytelling strengthens Fleming’s oeuvre (he also wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), as he seeks to keep the series fresh. The set piece on the train, as Bond discovers the Russian agent, is taut and pulls you along. Plus, the surprise ending differs from the movie: Bond falls to the floor after being stabbed with poison. A tight page-turner from another era.
The final spot in the criterion challenge was the toughest, and I debated a variety of 20th century novels that I love before “settling” for one of the greatest stories ever written. Why The Odyssey? I like the non-linear storytelling, the long effect it has had on Western culture, the central issue of a man trying to journey home that resonates throughout the ages (Chesterton would write about finding home and seeing it with new eyes centuries later in Orthodoxy—which would fall on my non-fiction criterion list). But this motif is one of, if not the most, central motif in storytelling. For that reason, too, I enjoy myth: the stories that are True for a culture, whether or not they really happened. They help us see what we value, who we are, and where we’re going. While The Iliad might have larger resonance for an entire culture, The Odyssey’s theme of man suffering (versus man being angry), translates better—certainly to the 20th century, and perhaps to the 21st. Thus, The Odyssey gets the final spot (especially the readable Robert Fitzgerald version). I find hope in it. I’m still on the hunt for a first edition, though.