Monday, March 24, 2008

7 Classics Nobody Reads

A few weeks back, Nicole and I started a discussion about those books that people talk about all the time but that nobody has actually read. You know what I'm talking about: classic literature that people discuss as if they've read it (maybe you were supposed to read it in school, maybe you started it but never finished, or maybe you just have a vague idea what it's about). Everyone talks about how great they are and yet you would be hard pressed to find anyone who has actually read them cover to cover.

We had a lot of fun bouncing suggestions off each other for books that belong in this group via phone, text message and gchat so I figured I should compose a blog post listing some of them. And why not make it a countdown? Everybody loves a countdown! So here's my pics for the Top 7 Classics that Nobody's read.

7) William Faulkner/The Sound and the Fury

I'm proud to say I've actually read this one (that's why it's not higher on the list), but it took two attempts and a whole lot of willpower. Faulkner's prose is pretty opaque. It can be difficult to figure out who's narrating each section, whether a particular sentence is dialogue or the narrator's internal monologue, what is going on in the present (and what year is it anyway?) and what is a memory. From what I could discern, this is the story of three generations of a landowning white family from rural Mississippi and their black servants/tenant farmers (who are basically part of the extended family). One guy goes off to Harvard, and I think he had incestuous relations with his sister maybe and was all jealous when she got engaged. To add to the confusion, I swear there's a girl who was named after her uncle (it took me like half the novel to figure out they were different characters). Oh and there's a mentally handicapped man child -- it just wouldn't be Faulkner without a mentally handicapped man child.

(6) Marcel Proust/À la recherche du temps perdu

This seven volume autobiographical novel represents like 95% of Proust's writing. It's traditional English title is Remembrance of Things Past but recent translations use the more literal In Search of Lost Time; meanwhile Proust-heads just call it "the Novel." A lot of people would put Proust's oeuvre on the short list for the coveted title of Greatest Novel of the 20th Century, yet reading the whole thing is a rare accomplishment given that it's about the same length as 6 medium-thickness Victorian novels (when considered as a whole it dwarfs the exemplarily weighty War and Peace).

As I said, the Novel is heavily autobiographical. The narrator is a frail young social climber who in the end decides to devote himself to writing. Interestingly, he is never explicitly named in the text and he's rarely if ever given direct dialogue. There is also (Nabokov points this out in his lectures on Proust) a split perspective, as we are given the thoughts and perceptions of both the younger narrator who is present when the "action" takes place and the older narrator who recalls the story as he writes it down.

The Novel deals with a myriad of themes: World War I, human sexuality (Proust himself was gay and although the narrator is not there are several gay and lesbian characters), musings on philosophical topics such as the passage of time, how the names we give places affect our perception of them, how we must regain our sense of where we are and who we are when we wake up each morning, how memory works.... Probably the single most famous passage of the novel occurs when the adult narrator dips a madeleine into a cup of herbal tea and the taste brings with it a flood of memories of his Aunt Leone, her house in Combray, the town, his childhood.... Proust's psychological treatment of dysfunctional love is also right on the money: how one might take a lover for granted, but one grows jealous and obsessed when he feels that lover is slipping away.

A lot of people have cracked the pages of Volume I (Du Côté de Chez Swann or "Swann's Way"), but many of them don't finish the book let alone continue on to Volume II. Swann's Way is typical of the Novel as a whole in that it includes some interesting parts that I read through relatively quickly (e.g. "Swann in love") as well as some dull parts that dragged (mostly in the first part about his childhood summers spent at his great aunt's house in the country town of Combray). I've read up to the beginning of Volume VI thus far and I can tell you that my reading pace and enjoyment varies greatly from page to page. My favorite parts include the descriptions of high society gatherings and the witty conversation which takes place there, while some other passages (long descriptions, philosophical tangents, whinings about his girlfriend) are a bit more laborious. Proust cleverly ends each volume on a sort of cliff hanger so I find myself forgetting the tedium and looking forward the what happens next. If you're interested in reading Proust in English make sure you get your hands on the new translations which are edited by Christopher Prendergast. I like to say, half joking, that the Novel doesn't really pick up until Volume III.

(5) John Milton/Paradise Lost

This epic poem written by the blind Milton in the 17th-century is partly an exegesis of the Bible story of Adam and Eve and the "fall of man." It also deals with the chiefly apocryphal story of the fallen angels who rebelled against heaven. Indeed, a lot of people consider Lucifer to be the protagonist or anti-hero of the poem. It's also true that many contemporary Anglophones get the actual text of Genesis mixed up with Milton's version.

I read some of Paradise Lost in my Brit Lit class in college. I remember enjoying some of its beautifully written passages (such as the part where Milton asks for divine inspiration before attempting to describe the heavens, so that even though he is blind he might see the light -- the first 2 stanza of Book 3). The poem is also not without drama, as when the army of fallen angel wages war against Heaven with cannons. But, as was pointed out in the Norton Anthology's snarky introduction, you can't expect that much excitement from a story whose dramatic climax centers around a woman taking a bite from a piece of fruit.

(4) James Joyce/Ulysses

There's a lot of noise out there about how Joyce is the greatest writer of the 20th century and how Ulysses is the century's greatest novel, but just try and find someone who's actually read this one. If people have read anything by Joyce, they've probably read The Dubliners (I read that "Araby" story for a class in college). From what I gather, Ulysses is the story of a day in the life of Leopold Bloom as he wanders around Dublin running errands (or something) -- oh, and somehow its all an allusion to Homer's Odyssey. Joyce is known for his opaque prose and his stream of consciousness style which make UIysses anything but an easy read -- yet it is apparently a walk in the park compared to the elusive Finnegan's Wake which like 5 people in the world have read (and they didn't understand it). Someday I'm going to tackle Joyce.

(3) Herman Melville/Moby Dick

"Thar she blows!" Moby Dick is often lauded as the greatest American novel, and yet again no one has actually read it (Have you read it? I haven't read it). Moby Dick is the American Ulysses! We all know, however, that it's the story of Captain Ahab and his obsessive quest to harpoon the titular white whale. His crew includes the narrator, ole "call me Ishmael," and the Polynesian, Queequeg, who I think is the strong, silent type. Is this passing familiarity enough to spare us the task of reading this one?

(2) Geoffrey Chaucer/The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer was a 14th-Century English courtier who (inspired by Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron which was written around the same time) penned this classic in which a group of pilgrims on a journey to Canterbury take turns telling stories to alleviate the boredom of the road. The character's include a saucy widow (the Wife of Bath), a prioress who is more haughty than holy, some creep who sells phony religious relics, a noble knight and his not-so-noble squire son, and a humble country parson. Chaucer planned on having each pilgrims tell one story on the way to Canterbury and another on the return journey, but as it stands we don't even have a story from all of the characters. What we do have though is some lovely poetry ("Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote \ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote"), a unique picture of what life was like for members of different social classes in England during the Middle Ages, and a lot of anticlerical sentiment which, in my mind, presages the Protestant Reformation and the split between Rome and the Church of England.

So why doesn't anyone read this one? Well, Chaucer wrote in Middle English (some people falsely state that Shakespeare is Middle English, but it's not -- Shakespeare wrote in an antiquated form of Modern English) which makes his work tricky but not impossible to read (you definitely need some explanatory footnotes). It's actually difficult to find a copy of the Tales that isn't written with modern spellings, which I think is akin to reading those versions of the Bible for teenagers that are translated into street slang, but Penguin Classics can hook you up. I had to read the Wife of Bath's tale in Brit Lit I (and maybe something else), but my favorite section thus far is the gory, antisemitic Miracle of the Virgin recounted by the Prioress.

(1) Dante Aligheri/La Divina Commedia

And finally, a classic that practically no one has ever read: Dante's Divine Comedy. This epic poem was written at the beginning of the 14th century by Dante Aligheri who is universally recognized in Italy as the nation's greatest poet and who is called "il vate" the same way Anglophones call Shakespeare "the Bard." It's divided into three parts "Inferno", "Purgatorio" and "Paradiso." Basically, the narrator (who's just a fictional Dante) somehow finds himself going on a guided tour of the afterlife as it was imagined by the poem's Medieval Christian author. The Roman poet Virgil leads him through Hell and up Mount Purgatory, and then Dante's muse, Beatrice, is his guide through Heaven. I really have no idea how he ended up on this journey in the first place (shit, I didn't read the thing!) but I want to say maybe he was having a midlife crisis and so like his guardian angel thought this would be good for him... maybe I'm getting this mixed up with It's Wonderful Life. Also there's like a lion and a tiger in the beginning... who knows!

Anyway, the Inferno is the only part that people even pretend that they've read. Dante places various figures from history, legend and the recent past in the different circles of hell depending on their sins. From what I gather, it's a rather political poem in that corrupt figures from recent memory are castigated to hell. This includes a famous hole where bad popes are thrown head first (watch yourself, Benedict).

So why doesn't anyone read this? Well its kind of religiousy and Heaven and Purgatory might be kind of dull. Plus it's written in the 14th-century Italian vulgate (your average Italian could definitely use some explanatory notes) and since it's a poem you know that it'll be hard to find an English translation that does the original justice. Also, much like Milton with the Book of Genesis, a lot of people's concepts of the afterlife owe as much to Dante as they do to Church doctrine.

* * *

So that's my list. Feel free to share your additions or your thoughts on these titles. If you have read any of these (a) thanks for messing up my theory and (b) give yourself a pat on the back. And as for the rest of us dilettantes: we better hit the books or else keep our traps shut about these "greatest books of all time." When you do read a book like this it's also interesting to gauge your experience: with some of them you're like "this is delightful and fully deserves all its praise" (the Odyssey, Jane Eyre), with others you're like "boring! I bet all those people singing its praises didn't even read it" (Anna Karyenina), and with still others you're like "damn! how do people even get through this thing?!" (the Sound and the Fury)


nola32 said...

actually, ulysses is far more boring than you described it. yes, it is a day in the life of leopold bloom, but there are no errands being run. it's essentially just him wandering around. what makes it particularly difficult to read is that joyce was essentially just showing off when he wrote it (this is the man who, afterall, said, "all i ask of you is that you devote your life to studying my work"). each section is written in a different style of prose, some standard or classic styles, some that he invented all by his little lonesome. this makes the narrative choppy as well as boring. you have to be really devoted to writing as an art form, to the styles of prose for the sake of the style, rather than the substance, to really like this book. having said all this, i haven't read the damn thing, but my husband is one of those people who HAS read it (multiple times- not to mention the fact that his best friend is in dublin as we speak doing his PhD on this book- and this book ALONE). so, i've been told reapeatedly and at great length what it entails. i have had a crack at some of it, but it's just so scattered that it's like reading 20 different novels. i would have been more impressed if joyce had just written 20 diff novels in diff styles, rather than cramming them all into one. someday i'll finish it, and when i do i'm sure that i'll be all the more bitter about having done so (might i refer to how bitter i am about wasting my time with tolstoy here?!?).

Meeg said...

That does sound even worse than I imagined.

Writing this post has inspired me to start up with the Novel again.

nola32 said...

that's awesome. hopefully, by the time you're done i'll have an agent that i can refer you to :D

wait, you did mean YOUR novel, right?

Bracha said...

i'm a dorkess...5/7.

Meeg said...

Whoa! Color me impressed.