By Evan Mantyk

From The Iliad, Beowulf, and Shakespearean literature in the West to the Chinese Classic of Poetry, the Indian Ramayana, and the Middle Eastern Epic of Gilgamesh, classical poetry is the foundation of literature in almost every culture historically. Today, if you can understand, appreciate, and write a sophisticated classical poem, certainly you can do so for a sophisticated essay or novel. Indeed, half of the books on this list are books written entirely or half in poetry. The classical poem is a highly condensed and powerful nexus of ideas and language. Thus, by grasping this foundation of literature—classical poetry—we can naturally command other literary genres and, in this case, determine the 10 greatest novels ever written. This is what I have intended to do here.

By novels, I do not mean novels in the strict sense but rather something closer to what today are sometimes called “class novels,” or books that one might be given to read in middle school, high school, and, to a lesser extent, college. The reason is that the majority of people only read great novels when forced to do so by their teachers. The books on this list are books you should be forced to read. (The down side here is that this target audience is primarily pre-college and thus excludes some of the more philosophical but excellent texts such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost  and Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.) These are books that everyone, English major or not, college education or not, should pick up and read at some point in their lives. They will enrich you immensely.

Of course within this framework, there is plenty of room for disagreement. Please feel free to list your picks below in the Comments section.

 

10. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910)

Tolstoy’s historical fiction novel follows a handful of upper-class Russian families during the era of Napoleon Bonaparte—that French conqueror who might be compared to George Washington or less affectionately to Adolf Hitler.

Tolstoy accurately portrays historical events of the Napoleonic era in Russia (1805-1820) and gives us characters who are deep and complex. His genius comes in the way he shows how the individual’s very real experience is connected with the sweeping force of history.  For example, in the first words of the book, an aristocratic woman close to the empress of Russia speaks to another aristocrat just arriving at her soiree:

Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca [Italian states] are now just family estates of the Bonapartes. But I warn you, if you don’t tell me that this means war, if you still try to defend the infamies and horrors perpetrated by that Antichrist—I really believe he is Antichrist—I will have nothing more to do with you and you are no longer my friend, no longer my ‘faithful slave,’ as you call yourself! But how do you do? I see I have frightened you—sit down and tell me all the news. (Book I, Chapter I)

As the first chapter plays out, we realize that the man on the receiving end of these words, Prince Vasili, in fact has little interest in politics. He is far more interested in pleasing the powerful speaker, Anna Pavlovna, and securing a high position for his spendthrift son or at least a favorable marriage. Of course, these circumstances are not random. Napoleon, whom she calls “the antichrist,” precisely represents a modern world where such backdoor dealings in high positions and favorable marriages would, in theory, not exist. People would rise on merit and achievement, as Napoleon himself did, and have a greater degree of individual choice and freedom. It is in these juxtapositions of history and intimate character-driven scenes where Tolstoy succeeds.

Tolstoy also succeeds in his visceral spiritual ponderings that run through situations and characters’ dialogues.  For instance, when one of our main characters, Pierre, tries to steer his friend Prince Andrew away from his atheistic impulses, he states:

There is no truth, all is false and evil; but in the universe, in the whole universe there is a kingdom of truth, and we who are now the children of earth are—eternally—children of the whole universe. Don’t I feel in my soul that I am part of this vast harmonious whole? Don’t I feel that I form one link, one step, between the lower and higher beings, in this vast harmonious multitude of beings in whom the Deity—the Supreme Power if you prefer the term—is manifest? If I see, clearly see, that ladder leading from plant to man, why should I suppose it breaks off at me and does not go farther and farther? I feel that I cannot vanish, since nothing vanishes in this world, but that I shall always exist and always have existed. I feel that beyond me and above me there are spirits, and that in this world there is truth. (Book V, Chapter XII)

There is this kind of profound insight hidden in the pages of War and Peace. And I do mean hidden, for the book is a behemoth. Unabridged print versions can easily reach over 1,400 pages—even abridged versions are over 700 pages. For that reason, it is the only book on this list that is not readily digested in its entirety in an ordinary classroom setting. Nonetheless, excerpts may be real options.

The Louise and Aylmer Maude translation, from which my quotes are taken, can be accessed in the public domain on Gutenberg.org.  There is also a good version edited and abridged by the Russian princess Alexandra Kropotkin.

 

9. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1812–1870)

Dickens’s Great Expectations follows the coming-of-age story of an orphaned boy named Pip, who begins as a blacksmith’s apprentice but rises to become a wealthy gentleman through mysterious circumstances.

Dickens weaves a tale that successfully straddles both a humorous children’s fairytale and a real-world drama. For example, Pip’s miserable childhood is painted in ordinary ways, through tombstones, a dreary setting, and an abusive parent, but it also comes to life fantastically through his imagination. When Pip is forced to commit a bad deed, through no real fault of his own, even the cattle seem to accuse him:

The cattle came upon me with like suddenness, staring out of their eyes, and steaming out of their nostrils, “Halloa, young thief!” One black ox, with a white cravat on,—who even had to my awakened conscience something of a clerical air,—fixed me so obstinately with his eyes, and moved his blunt head round in such an accusatory manner as I moved round, that I blubbered out to him, “I couldn’t help it, sir! It wasn’t for myself I took it!” (Chapter III)

Additionally, at a time when the Industrial Revolution was in high gear, Dickens boldly put forward a Romantic theme about the high value of keeping the simplicity and innocence engendered by country living, childhood, and lack of education. This theme is found throughout the book, but perhaps never so vividly and humorously as when Pip’s old pal and father-figure “Joe the blacksmith” comes to visit him in London. Pip, now an educated and cultured gentleman, sits across from Joe, who is dressed very uncomfortably in formal clothing and can’t eat his food in a formal manner. Joe gives this monologue before escaping:

Pip, dear old chap, life is made of ever so many partings welded together, as I may say, and one man’s a blacksmith, and one’s a whitesmith, and one’s a goldsmith, and one’s a coppersmith. Diwisions among such must come, and must be met as they come. If there’s been any fault at all today, it’s mine. You and me is not two figures to be together in London; nor yet anywheres else but what is private, and beknown, and understood among friends. It ain’t that I am proud, but that I want to be right, as you shall never see me no more in these clothes. I’m wrong in these clothes … I’m awful dull, but I hope I’ve beat out something nigh the rights of this at last. And so GOD bless you, dear old Pip, old chap, GOD bless you!

The illusory distinctions melt away and Pip suddenly sees Joe with clarity. Pip narrates:

I had not been mistaken in my fancy that there was a simple dignity in him. The fashion of his dress could no more come in its way when he spoke these words than it could come in its way in Heaven. He touched me gently on the forehead, and went out. As soon as I could recover myself sufficiently, I hurried out after him and looked for him in the neighboring streets; but he was gone. (Chapter XXVII)

Here and throughout the book, the beauty of simplicity and innocence is made clear through Dickens’s attention to detail. This includes his authentic use of language; for example, “divisions” becomes “diwisions” and God gets all capital letters, giving us a subtle but clear feeling for Joe’s uneducated, God-fearing character. Dickens also makes this beauty elusive by having Joe disappear down the street, which aptly captures the elusiveness of beauty in modern life. In fact, Dickens’s depiction of beauty’s elusiveness was so pronounced that the somewhat sad ending he originally wrote was criticized and he created a second happier one. This results in an unsatisfying feeling when you finish the book and are unsure of what Dickens really intended—though perhaps this unsatisfying feeling itself is his ultimate depiction of modern life.

Great Expectations can be accessed through the public domain on Gutenberg.org. There are a number of good abridged versions as well.

 

8. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1802–1870)

Dumas’s page-turning saga follows the life of Edmond Dantès as he goes from a young man with his bright future ahead of him—a beautiful fiancée, a new promotion, and a pocket full of money—to a hopeless prisoner victimized by three jealous and conniving men. While imprisoned, Dantès acquires knowledge of an enormous treasure hidden on the small island of Monte Cristo. He then escapes, finds the treasure, and reinvents himself as the Count of Monte Cristo in order to carefully orchestrate a complex plan of vengeance.

The great beauty of Dumas’s writing is not in the revenge plot itself, but in a setting of refined French culture—the ballet, the opera, beautiful art, poetry, and gentlemanly behavior are common features—and in undercurrents of a profound spirituality.  For example, Dumas’s narration preaches about the imprisoned Dantès:

Pride gave way to entreaty, yet it was not to God that he prayed to, for that is the last resource, but man. The wretched and miserable should turn to their Savior first, yet they do not hope in Him until all other hope is exhausted. (Chapter XII)

There is a palpable sense that Heaven or a divine realm is never far and exists just beneath the surface: “For an hour he slept thus, and was awakened by the roar of a tremendous clap of thunder. A flash of lightning that seemed to open the heavens to the very throne of God.” (Chapter XVII). This spirituality is also intensified by the fact that, in order to carry out his plans, Dantès carries on for much of the novel as an abbot, speaking lines that both a real monk and the real Dantès might sincerely say, such as, “There are times when God’s justice tarries for a while and it appears to us that we are forgotten by Him, but the time always comes when we find it is not so, and here is the proof.” (Chapter XXII).

Through the refined culture and spirituality, Dumas brings the eternal law of retribution, “what goes around comes around” or “you reap what you sow,” to the very peak of human aspiration. He then takes it one step further in the latter stages of the novel, when he realizes that he must rise above his own revenge and submit to the will of a power that is higher than himself.

This inner awakening climaxes when his old love, Mercédès, asks the Count of Monte Cristo (Dantès) to spare her son from the revenge that has driven his life for the last 20 years and to give his own life away in a duel. It is the son too of the man who so vilely conspired against Dantès:

“Have you seen your father die in your absence?” cried Monte Cristo, thrusting his hands into his hair. “Have you seen the woman you loved give her hand to your rival while you were pining away in the depths of a dungeon? …”

“No, but I have seen him who I loved about to become my son’s murderer!”

Mercédès said these words with such infinite sadness and in such tones of despair that they wrung a sob from the Count’s throat. The lion was tamed, the avenger was overcome!

“What do you ask of me?” he said “Your son’s life? Well then, he shall live!”

Mercédès uttered a cry which forced two tears into Monte Cristo’s eyes, but they disappeared again immediately; doubtless God had sent some angel to collect them, for they were far more precious than the richest pearls of Guzerat or Ophir. (Chapter LVII)

Thus, giving up everything, the Count of Monte Cristo accepts a higher truth about the impotence of human hatred in the grander scope of the universe and the greater power of compassion.

Although this book is almost too long for any class to tackle at 1,200 pages or so, abridged versions do an acceptable job, without too many confusing gaps—although, there definitely are some. The quotes I use are from the nearly 600-page abridged version produced by Tor, which I recommend. An unabridged English translation is also available on Gutenberg.org.

 

7. The Odyssey by Homer (circa 8th century B.C.?)

Homer’s epic poem tells of the Trojan War veteran Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) trying to get home and reclaim his palace from the suitors who have set their sights on marrying his beautiful wife, Penelope. Standing in his seafaring way are Cyclopes, giants, sea monsters, a sorceress, a sea nymph, sirens, intoxicating lotus fruit, ghosts in hell (Hades), and the sea god Poseidon himself—yet those are just his external foes. His own internal issues are perhaps even greater: pride, paranoia, hunger, lust, and sleepiness. In a word, The Odyssey is the ultimate adventure.

The eternal theme of perseverance plays out grandly since Odysseus spends 10 years trying to get home after 10 years already at war. His family, unsure if he is even still alive, must persevere too. His son, Telemachus, must quickly mature and seek out his father despite an assassination attempt by his mother’s suitors. His mother, Penelope, keeps the suitors at bay herself with the now immortalized method of endlessly weaving and then secretly unweaving a shroud that she says she must finish before picking a new husband.

Although the narration and dialogue can be long and daunting, some leeway must be given for the fact that it was all originally written as ancient Greek poetry that had a particular rhythm. Alexander Pope’s 18th-century poetic translation catches some of this enchanting beauty, as can be seen in this description of the sorceress Circe’s lair:

A palace in a woody vale we found
Brown with dark forests, and with shades around.
Access we sought, nor was access denied:
Radiant she came: the portals opened wide:
The goddess mild invites the guests to stay:
They blindly follow where she leads the way.
I only wait behind of all the train:
I waited long, and eyed the doors in vain:
The rest are vanished, none repassed the gate,
And not a man appears to tell their fate. (Book 10)

The bouncing rhythm of the iambic pentameter and rhymes echoes their foot steps through the forest and the narrator’s nervous heartbeats, giving movement to what is otherwise relatively static prose.

Yet, greater than all of this genius is Homer’s perspective or paradigm itself. Every moment of his epic is pervaded by a sense of hierarchical yet accessible divinity. The gods are usually superior in physique, superior in powers, and superior in morality to the humans depicted in the epic (though we certainly might find some of the gods’ deeds questionable today). It is one thing to ponder, “Perhaps there is a god or gods out there who look down on us as we look down upon children,” but Homer vividly paints what this might really look like in sublime and profound colors. For example, the father of the gods, Zeus, comments: “It’s disgraceful how these humans blame the gods. They say their tribulations come from us, when they themselves, through their own foolishness, bring hardships which are not decreed by fate.” (Book 1). In a few lines, Homer has covered what might be done in many volumes of philosophies and carefully nuanced stories. And that’s just in The Odyssey’s first 100 lines!

Finally, a comment on translations: There are countless translations of Homer’s works. The newer translations tend to have more accessible language, which is good and necessary for first time readers, but they also unnecessarily insert a lot of sexual language and swearing. The older translations by Pope and Samuel Butler are free in the public domain and are much cleaner and closer to the original in my view, with Pope’s having the added benefit of being consummately poetic. I also helped produce an adaptation that provides a clean and clear modern translation suitable for middle school students and up, and also includes 10 lines of Pope’s poetic version at the beginning of each chapter. The quotes in this piece are all from this adaptation.

 

6. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1775–1817)

Austen’s quintessential comedy of manners follows the Bennet family and its five daughters who face gloomy prospects in life if favorable marriage partners are not secured. The story begins with two potential wealthy suitors materializing, including the prideful—as well as tall, dark, and handsome—Mr. Darcy. He and his ego must face the prejudice of the sharp-witted and beautiful-eyed Elizabeth Bennet, the second eldest daughter.

Austen’s genius is in her ability to bring to life characters who strike the difficult balance between being conservative, prudent, and proper on the one hand and charming, quirky, and humorous on the other hand. For instance, in this dialogue, Mr. Darcy writes a letter to his sister, Miss Darcy, while Miss Bingley vies unsuccessfully to gain his interest:

“How delighted Miss Darcy will be to receive such a letter!”
He made no answer.
“You write uncommonly fast.”
“You are mistaken. I write rather slowly.”
“How many letters you must have occasion to write in the course of a year! Letters of business, too! How odious I should think them!”
“It is fortunate, then, that they fall to my lot instead of yours.”
“Pray tell your sister that I long to see her.”
“I have already told her so once, by your desire.”
“I am afraid you do not like your pen. Let me mend it for you. I mend pens remarkably well.”
“Thank you—but I always mend my own.”
“How can you contrive to write so even?”
He was silent. (Chapter 10)

These two aristocratic characters are strangely enthralling with their proper language, like “by your desire” and “I am afraid,” and their idiosyncrasies, like Miss Bingley’s obsession with Mr. Darcy and Mr. Darcy’s insisting that he mend his own pen. There are a number of other unforgettable characters too like the hilariously smarmy Mr. Collins and the shockingly pompous Lady Catherine.

Building on such brilliant characterizations, Austen then takes her story to a loftier level by clearly showing the inner transformation of Elizabeth Bennet. After pointing the finger outward for much of the book, Elizabeth realizes her own deep and disturbing flaw. While she had thought Mr. Darcy excessively prideful, prejudiced toward those beneath his class, and wickedly conniving, she later finds out that reality was not what it seemed and that it was she herself who was prejudiced against him:

“How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candor of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself. (Chapter 36)

It is this moral lesson about the mechanics of human pride and prejudice that truly elevates the novel to a work of greatness.

Pride and Prejudice is available in the public domain on Gutenberg.org.

As a final note, Pride and Prejudice and other Austen works share striking similarities to one of the four great novels of China, Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong Lou Meng), by Cao Xueqin. Both Austen’s works and Cao’s work revolve around the arranging of marriages and provide detailed and realistic depictions of the culture of upper class families in the same era—indeed Austen penned her first work in 1790 (23 years before Pride and Prejudice), only a year before Cao’s work was published. Both present moral lessons on propriety and etiquette. From this, we see the universal appeal and genius that Austen has harnessed.

 

5. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1660–1731)

If Homer’s Odyssey is the ultimate adventure, as I have called it, then Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is the most exciting adventure. The novel’s stranded-on-a-deserted-island plot has been so influential that it created an entire genre that includes the classic 1812 children’s story The Swiss Family Robinson, the 1960s TV show Gilligan’s Island, and now the Survivor reality TV show that is still being made today.

Also, Defoe uses diary-like first person narrative and shrewd attention to detail to keep the illusion of reality vividly alive at every turn of the page in Robinson Crusoe. This approach to fiction writing proved so effective that countless later novels, from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) to Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001), have used it. In this passage from Robinson Crusoe, for example, our titular protagonist faces the reality of a devastating storm that has stranded his boat and forced him and his shipmates to gamble on taking a smaller boat to land:

As to making sail, we had none, nor if we had could we have done anything with it; so we worked at the oar towards the land, though with heavy hearts, like men going to execution; for we all knew that when the boat came near the shore she would be dashed in a thousand pieces by the breach of the sea.  However, we committed our souls to God in the most earnest manner; and the wind driving us towards the shore, we hastened our destruction with our own hands, pulling as well as we could towards land. (Chapter III)

Do they make it? You have to read on. Such exciting tangles with death are sprinkled, not too much and not too little, to create the right flavor of excitement throughout the story, making it feel perfectly real, engaging, and uncontrived. Such scenes are also balanced by delightfully detailed descriptions of island life: “I saw here abundance of cocoa trees, orange, and lemon, and citron trees; but all wild, and very few bearing any fruit, at least not then.  However, the green limes that I gathered were not only pleasant to eat, but very wholesome; and I mixed their juice afterwards with water, which made it very wholesome, and very cool and refreshing.” (Chapter VII).

The whole adventure runs parallel to a plot of moral and spiritual awakening. This is clear from the narration at the beginning, when Crusoe disobeys his father multiple times by running away to seek fortune on the high seas and refusing to return after his failure. When he ends up tasting success through a tobacco plantation, he is still unsatisfied and is drawn into seeking slaves to further increase his wealth. Then, when he ends up frightfully sick on the desert island, he dreams he saw “a man descend from a great black cloud, in a bright flame.” The man tells him, “Seeing all these things have not brought thee to repentance, now thou shalt die.” (Chapter VI). He does not die, but thereafter deeply reflects and slowly gains “divine knowledge,” realizing that he was being punished for his bad deeds, or sins, all along. Through this process, his inner being is stripped down as bare as his outer circumstances on the deserted island. He realizes that he should be hoping to be rescued not from the island, but from his own wrongdoing and evilness. From these realizations he ultimately arrives at peace and happiness:

“I learned to look more upon the bright side of my condition, and less upon the dark side, and to consider what I enjoyed rather than what I wanted; and this gave me sometimes such secret comforts, that I cannot express them; and which I take notice of here, to put those discontented people in mind of it, who cannot enjoy comfortably what God has given them, because they see and covet something that He has not given them.  All our discontents about what we want appeared to me to spring from the want of thankfulness for what we have.” (Chapter IX)

Thus, the deserted island and Robinson Crusoe’s adventure are both physical and spiritual. This is Defoe’s greatest achievement.

Robinson Crusoe is available in the public domain on Gutenberg.org.

 

4. The Iliad by Homer (circa 8th century B.C.?)

For any civilization in human history, there is no escaping war. In an age when nuclear weapons have prohibited any conflicts between major world powers, war seems distant. But, we must remember that for millennia people could not escape it and in fact desired it. As the American World War II General George Patton said, “Magnificent! Compared to war all other forms of human endeavor shrink to insignificance. God help me, I do love it so!”

This reality of war is brought to life in all of its sprawling effects and magical glory like nowhere else as in Homer’s Iliad. The epic poem details a few weeks in the war between the ancient Greeks, or Achaeans, and the Trojans. It focuses on the anger of the Greek Achilles toward Agamemnon, who is his commander and the king of the Greeks, as well as on the saga of the Trojan hero Hector. (One might use the term “warrior” here, but the original Greek term for the warriors on both sides is literally “hero,” or “hērōs,” and that really captures the proper romance of the epic much better.) There are many other characters and subplots as well.

In The Iliad as in The Odyssey, the story can feel tedious at times, but out of this arises the beauty too. In particular, there are the epic similes that provide what seems a plain enough comparison at first, but then just seem to keep going, holding the moment in a state of sublime creativity that literature today generally does not achieve:

Ajax struck him in the chest, by the right nipple.
The bronze spear went clean through his shoulder.
He collapsed in the dust, like a poplar tree,
one growing in a large well-watered meadow,
from whose smooth trunk the branches grow up to the top,
until a chariot builder’s bright axe topples it,
bends the wood, to make wheel rims for a splendid chariot,
letting the wood season by the riverbank. (Chapter 4)

Although this is a violent and gruesome scene, the epic simile gives us a whole new perspective on the beauty of the killed man’s death and the good, the “splendid chariot,” that may come forth from this death.

Of Homer’s two great works, his Iliad is distinguished by the moral lessons it imparts more explicitly. The central problem the Greeks face is that Agamemnon has stolen the woman with whom Achilles is in love. This situation mirrors the war’s cause: Paris of Troy stole Helen, the wife of Agamemnon’s brother. The lesson is that if the Greeks can show themselves morally superior to the Trojans by overcoming this internal conflict (woman stealing) within their own ranks, then they have met the threshold to emerge victorious. The entire plot is the resulting misery of Agamemnon and Achilles while the Trojans triumph until finally Achilles abandons his hubris and apologizes:

Fewer Achaeans would have sunk their teeth into this wide earth at enemy hands, if I’d not been so angry. That’s really helped lord Hector and his Trojans… Still, though it hurts, we should let all this pass, repressing hearts within our chests—we must do that. (Chapter 19)

And, in all of this fighting over women, it is not the word “war” or “love” that appears most, but “god”—by far. Dovetailing with this divine focus is a sense of celestial balance and order that is pervasive. Relatable heroes and gods are on both sides and either army may pull ahead at any moment depending on the gods’ designs. We are left, too, with the sense that balance and order are among the higher principles and powers that the Greek gods themselves must adhere to, as in this scene:

Father Zeus raised his golden scales,
setting there two fatal lots for death’s long sorrow,
one for Achilles, one for horse-taming Hector.
Seizing it in the middle, Zeus raised his balance.
Hector’s fatal day sank, moving down to Hades.
At once Phoebus Apollo abandoned him. (Chapter 22)

Here it seems that the golden scales, not Zeus (at least directly), decide and that the sun god Apollo has no choice but to obey. This rich insight into the order of the universe, human civilization, and war make The Iliad truly epic.

Recommended translations by Alexander Pope and Samuel Butler are free in the public domain. There is also an adapted version that provides a clean and clear modern translation suitable for middle school students and up, and also includes ten lines of Pope’s poetic version at the beginning of each chapter. The quotes in this piece are all from this adaptation.

 

3. Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1564–1616)

The nation, controlled by your worst enemy, is against you. Your own mother, who is all the family you have left in the world, also seems to plot against you. Even reality itself, which is supposed to be distinct from ghosts and imagined foes, seems unreliable, threatening your life and possibly worse, your sanity, at every turn. This is the position in which Prince Hamlet finds himself when he returns home to Denmark from college in Germany.

The immense and soul-tempering nature of this struggle is what has turned Hamlet into a time-honored classic and many of its lines into famous quotes. What Hamlet goes through colors and adds depth to the rest of the play. When Polonius tells his son, Laertes, “this above all—to thine own self be true,” we realize that these words are really about Hamlet and the lesson we are supposed to take away from the play. When Hamlet strongly suspects that his father, the king, was killed by his own brother in order to take the throne and marry Hamlet’s mother, he could ignore his suspicions, play it safe, and be smart. But this would be denying his own conscience, honor, and dignity. He would not be true to himself.

From Hamlet’s predicament also arises Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquy, beginning:

To be, or not to be—that is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? (Act III, Scene I)

It is debated whether this refers to Hamlet’s contemplating committing suicide or killing his villainous uncle. (I would argue a bit of both, but especially the latter.) Yet, in either case, it is a perennial contemplation of the human condition, of the need to take action, and of the aspiration to a nobler state of being. His actions themselves demonstrate throughout the rest of the play that human beings must follow their consciences, seek justice, and aspire to have a noble spirit. In a moment of truth, Hamlet chooses the tough but right path.

There are also profound insights into the workings of human beings and society as a whole. For instance, there are the lines: “Till then sit still, my soul: foul deeds will rise, / Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes.” (Act I, Scene II). In a world that may be ruled by corruption and people fighting to make profits, it is nonetheless inevitable that any bad deed committed will sooner or later be duly repaid. These rhyming lines also highlight the beautiful poetic nature of the play, which is composed almost entirely in a poetic meter, or rhythm, called iambic pentameter.

Yet, Shakespeare does not stop there. Although he shows that Hamlet is doing the right thing by following his conscience and being true to himself, he also shows that there are higher powers and principles. He does this with a subplot about the prince of Norway, Fortinbras, whose father was previously killed by Hamlet’s father. Shakespeare subtly suggests that Hamlet’s home, Denmark, should in fact belong to Fortinbras. In the end, Denmark indeed ends up in Fortinbras’s hands. Thus, despite Hamlet’s pained struggle to bring justice to his kingdom, it was all the while fated for his kingdom to collapse. From this perspective, hypothetically speaking, if Hamlet had had insight this profound and had he already relinquished his fear of death, we might say that had he not taken any action against his conniving uncle and not sought anything, then that would have been even nobler than what he did. This is perhaps the ultimate revelation that the play offers. “To be or not to be” really is a question without a specific answer. The answer depends on an individual’s state of mind at any particular moment and under the circumstances of that moment in history. Whichever answer will advance his or her particular path upward toward a greater and profounder nobility, or state of being, is the correct one.

Hamlet is available in the public domain on Gutenberg.org.

As a final note, Hamlet’s position as the greatest of Shakespeare’s plays has in recent years been supplanted by Macbeth. This trend is idiotic. Macbeth is an interesting play with many good aspects but it is far behind Hamlet, Henry V, Julius Caesar, Richard III, and many other plays by Shakespeare. Whereas the general premise of Hamlet is moving and profound, the central premise of Macbeth is flawed at best and ridiculously sloppy at worst. Since there is no deeper motives, other than greed and hunger for power, for Macbeth’s killing his own king, Macbeth strangely shifts from a valiant wartime hero loyal to his king and country into a lowlife murderer who seems to have not a single shred of integrity. Such a character is bizarrely contrived, unrealistic, and, like the recent trend, idiotic since conception.

 

2. Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en (1501–1582)

Up to this point in our journey through great literature, every story has had an ordinary sort of focus that forms the plot of the story. For instance, protecting the nation, moving up the social ladder, finding love, returning home, seeking revenge or justice, and basic survival. Of course, they have deeper and richer spiritual themes that are universal, but they are grounded in these very common secular goals.  Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en is quite different. The main focus is the history of the real seventh-century Buddhist monk Xuanzang (pronounced “shwen-zahng”) who traveled from China to India in order to bring back Buddhist scriptures. The grounding of the story then is chiefly spiritual and altruistic.

Wu successfully takes this spiritual grounding and turns the story into an ordinary adventure with action and exciting characters that compare with other stories on the list. For example, Xuanzang’s fellow Buddhist priest, the magical Monkey King, is never far from a fight. He is known for lines such as “Stand your ground, and eat old Monkey’s fist!” When they come across six roadside robbers, he simply kills them all, leaving Xuanzang distraught. Xuanzang says, “One has no right to kill robbers, however violent and wicked they may be …You have behaved with a cruelty that ill becomes one of your sacred calling.” (Chapter XIV). What Xuanzang doesn’t realize is that these robbers were no ordinary robbers; their names translate to “Eye that Sees and Delights,” “Ear that Hears and is Angry,” “Nose that Smells and Covets,” “Tongue that Tastes and Desires,” and “Mind that Conceives and Lusts,” which hints that they represent attachments to be relinquished in one’s quest for enlightenment.

Further, with an allegorical spiritual grounding, the action and adventure need not obey human laws and can be like a fairy tale and even a cartoon—basically, whatever one can imagine goes. This model is not unlike Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, but Wu takes it to unparalleled heights of fantasy and brilliance. For instance, at one point, the Monkey King enters into a wager with the Buddha as to whether he can fly off Buddha’s enormous hand. The Monkey King then flies to the end of the universe, where he finds five pillars that he marks with both his name and his urine. The Buddha says, “You stinking ape, you’ve been on the palm of my hand all the time.” “Monkey peered down with his fiery, steely eyes, and there at the base of the middle finger of Buddha’s hand he saw written [his name] and from the fork between the thumb and first finger came a smell of monkey’s urine.” (Chapter VII). Somewhere between sacred and hilarious, it’s a weird balance but Wu makes it work. His greatest achievement is this ability to take spiritual, altruistic, and idealistic goals and make them seem doable, fun, and immediate.

There are also strong themes of perseverance over a long journey, as one would expect, and of the hidden order and meaning behind the seemingly random events of human life. Strangely in line with the latter theme, while reading Journey to the West, I found that a long episode in the book uncannily mirrors Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Stranger still, I found that both were published in the 1590s. Both stories begin with the ghost of the king visiting and explaining that he was improperly murdered by a brother while in a garden and that the current king is that brother. Both revolve around the prince of the kingdom trying to unseat the murderous king currently on the throne. Both also end with the murderous king’s removal and a sublime twist the puts all of the events into a different light. If nothing else, this demonstrates that, while there is an abundance of magical powers and cartoonish animal people in Journey to the West, its main events and realistic plot developments are ultimately as profound, or arguably more profound, than those we might find in the realism of Shakespeare.

As a digression, you may be wondering where exactly the similarities in story lines came from. If you are an average sort of scholar, you may troll the internet for some kind of scientific explanation. You might conclude that both Hamlet and Journey to the West possibly drew on earlier stories and perhaps have some ancient progenitor. (There are similar Cinderella fairy tales in both cultures as well.) However, the precise similarities in the plot and times of publication are too uncanny to make that a rational explanation. In fact, ancient Chinese wisdom suggests that changes in human society unfold according to specific celestial arrangements. The human body, human society, and the universe are all connected. Such arrangements naturally control both Eastern and Western civilizations and have also been observed by 19th-century German historians. They noted that Buddha Siddhartha in India, Lao-zi and Confucius in China, and Socrates and Plato in Greece had profound effects on civilizations and all appeared around the same time, leading these historians to call that period the Axial Age.

My particular take on the similarities between the two 1590s works is that, firstly, they were wistful for the great but dead kings of the past—the most renowned being Tang Taizong (who appears in Journey to the West) and King Arthur (who, if real, likely lived around the same time as Tang Taizong). Secondly, they were both prophetically anticipating the great kings and cultural icons who were just about to arrive on earth—Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) of China’s Qing Dynasty and King Louis XIV (1638-1715) of France … Or perhaps this entire analysis itself is just a fairy tale!

Finally, I note that the recommended version of Journey to the West is an adaptation by Arthur Waley from 1910, called Monkey. The quotes above are taken from it. Waley removes about two-thirds of the adventures, but he does a good job of capturing the essence of the work in under 350 pages. He also wisely takes out most of the poetry, which loses its feeling in English and threatens to bog the story down too much for English readers. For a full unabridged translation, Anthony Yu’s 2012 version is recommended.

 

1. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (14th-century author unknown)

There are certain parts of our collective cultural consciousness that we cannot escape and do not seem to want to escape. In the literary realm, chief among these is King Arthur. From fragments of Dark Ages poetry to a myriad of books, poems, operas, TV shows, and movies (yet another of which is slated to come out next year), the influence of King Arthur is inescapable. Other literary icons, like Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote and Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, also owe their legacies to the medieval romances of which Arthurian tales are the greatest. Yet, wherein lies the true essence of King Arthur?

Nowhere do the charm, mystery, and grandeur of Arthurian legend come to life better than in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the medieval novella-length poem whose author remains unknown. The words seem to dance off the page since they are written in alliterative verse (that is, similar beginning sounds are repeated in each line) and each paragraph ends in a “bob and wheel” (the “bob” being a couple of words and the “wheel” being a poem of four short rhyming lines), as seen here in this description of a Christmas feast at Camelot:

Delicious dishes were rushed in, fine delicacies
fresh and plentiful, piled so high on so many platters
they had problems finding places to set down
their silver bowls of steaming soup: no spot
________was clear.
____Each lord dug in with pleasure,
____and grabbed at what lay near:
____twelve platters piled past measure,
____bright wine, and foaming beer. (Stanza 6)

The merry mood changes when a supernatural knight and horse who are utterly green from head to toe enter the hall. The Green Knight challenges someone in Arthur’s court to enter into a bizarre wager with him. First the unlucky person is supposed to take one free swing at the Green Knight’s bare, but green, neck with an axe; and then, assuming that the Green Knight lives, he gets one swing at that person in a year and a day. When all are too frightened to come forward and King Arthur himself sees no choice but to do it himself, Sir Gawain steps up and puts his own life in the hands of a higher power.

The unpredictable yet realistic plot of Sir Gawain is intriguing and the descriptions and poetry are lush. Building on these, the greatest achievement is the poem’s ability to so clearly and convincingly portray pure goodness. This is done in a number of ways. Firstly, it is through the character of Sir Gawain, who is pure and good, yet convincingly fallible and human. For example, when he jumps up to stand in the place of his king, he shows a self-deprecating humility:  “Of all your men of war I am the weakest and least wise, / and my life little enough to lose, if you look at it clearly. / My only honor is that you are my uncle; / my only boast is that my body carries your blood.” (Stanza 16). This is someone with whom, century after century, readers can identify.

Secondly, Sir Gawain is not simply a tough-guy protagonist. He engenders a complete philosophy that gives depth and proportion to the tough guy—whom we might alternatively name the proverbial manly man or protector. The symbol that he bears and cherishes is the five-pointed star-shaped pentangle, and each point is rich with meaning that is spiritual, sensory, and, most notably, moral: “And a fifth five was found in Gawain: / bounty and brotherhood above all else; / courtesy and a clean heart (these were never crooked) / and the finest point, compassion—these five virtues” (Stanza 28). I note that “bounty” can also be translated from Middle English as generosity; “brotherhood” as fellowship or fraternity; “clean heart” as cleanness or sexual purity; and “compassion” as piety or pity. These are all virtues that Sir Gawain displays through his actions in one way or another throughout the story. For example, he painstakingly seeks out the Green Knight even though it almost certainly means his own death and even though the Green Knight lives far away and is not easy to find. This demonstrates an incredible adherence to his word and reinforces the virtue of brotherhood. He also persistently resists the temptations of a seductive and powerful lady, reinforcing the virtue of a clean heart. Such instances as these, in which a good guy demonstrating good virtues is connected with being presented in a good light, in the grandest and most interesting manner, are invaluable and potent. They reinforce foundational morals generation after generation.

The potency of such virtues is also seen in how similar these virtues are to the five Confucian virtues that were revered for thousands of years in China and kept Chinese civilization strong: Rén (仁, benevolence, humaneness); Yì (義/义, righteousness or justice); Lǐ (禮/礼, proper rite); Zhì (智, knowledge); and Xìn (信, integrity). We can draw correlations in various ways between this list of five virtues and Sir Gawain’s five, but their general goodness and universal morality is what is overriding. The greatest human wisdom that secular literature can impart is this ability to overcome the moral pitfalls inherent in the human condition and create thriving civilizations.

The quotes above are all taken from a publicly available online version by Paul Deane, which does a good job of preserving the poetry and using understandable language. J.R.R. Tolkien of Lord of the Rings fame also created a good translation. I also created a short student skit adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for public use.

 

 

Evan Mantyk teaches history and literature in the Hudson Valley region of New York.

Edited by Connie Phillips

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23 Responses

  1. Tod Benjamin

    I have enjoyed reading Evan’s selected written works – as he states, not all novels – and agree totally with their listing as great works. They are all books that I would consider essential reading for literature students, and fascinating reading for anyone.
    As a top ten, however, I cannot conceive of a list that does not include what, for me, is the greatest novel ever written, Dostoievsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, nor the sublime poetry of John Donne.
    What to leave out? Now, there’s a question!

    Reply
  2. Cynthia Thornton Herrera

    This is an impressive list.

    I have a genuine appreciation for ‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Geoffrey Chaucer. I just completed a graduate course about the ‘Tales.’ Chaucer composed a clever and diverse collection of stories in this work that most certainly carry important moral messages that even today should be examined. Although the jury is still out on whether or not this pilgrimage happened, it makes no consequence to the outcome of the collection.

    It was written almost entirely in metered rhyming poetry except for the last installment, which rounds out the reason for the collection as a whole. I had been exposed to Chaucer when I took British Lit many years ago, but I did not realize how potent this piece is. It literally teaches and exemplifies the Seven Deadly Sins. While the list of Seven Deadly Sins are of Roman Catholic origin, certainly, anyone regardless of religious affiliation can appreciate the characterizations and examples of people of the Middle Ages demonstrating sinfulness.

    The course was a good workout for me as far as determining what morals each story-poem described, and surprisingly, I now examine human behavior as comparing folks to these entertaining stories. In modern times, we can observe people to see their goodness and badness, for lack of better words. I have learned that, we all display behavior at times that can be determined as good or bad. The wisdom is acknowledging when we go astray with our fellowman and try to lean to the good and have kindness for each other.

    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Evan

      Dear Cynthia,

      I was very close to including Canterbury Tales and I do purposely reference it for that reason in #2. Thank you for adding it!

      Reply
    • Profile photo of Evan Mantyk
      Evan Mantyk

      For “The Color Purple” I can only say that the list was not long enough. For “A Brave New World,” I read it myself in high school and subsequently grew somewhat obsessed with Huxley. I read every Huxley book I could get my hands on. I even intended to travel to the desert and ingest peyote as he had done… at any rate, now I am somewhat disillusioned with the extreme messages he conveyed, and which painted ideas in such drastic terms. In fact, I think he himself was quite dissatisfied with the way that particular book ended.

      Now, that being said, I think there are good lessons in there to take, so I invite you to construct your own list and reach your own conclusions. Thank you for bringing these up, Courtney.

      Reply
      • Courtney

        Thanks for the reply! I have to admit, after I read ABNW, I was wanting more Huxley, and read Ape and Essence. Boy, did he go in a different direction, with that one! Such a dark future. I hope we aren’t headed in that direction. As drastic as his visions of the future were, I can’t help feeling like he, and writers like Jules Verne, were ahead of their time and saw where we were heading as a species. It’s incredible what they saw as our future, and how close we come to their predictions.

        I really do think The Color Purple should be read in high school. I never read ABNW in high school. It wasn’t part of our curriculum. A friend recommended it to me, and I was hooked the minute I started. Color Purple, I read in 4th grade, when I visited the library to pick a new read. I liked the color, had no idea what the book was about, and my eyes were opened wide up.

        It won’t make any lists, but I really wish more people would read A Nazi Officer’s Wife, by Edith Han Berr. Its an incredible story. For all the education we received, on the Holocaust in school, reading that book was like learning about it for the first time.

  3. Bruce Dale Wise

    Although I must admit that I would never in my own mind think about making a list of the top novels, I thought, after I read Mr. Mantyk’s wildly Romantic list of the “10 Greatest Novels Ever Written,” I should have a go at it as well…but in a different way: I would list the 10 novels that most carried me away; and I would limit my choices to prose narratives, not supposing for a moment that my choices were the greatest novels ever written, nor even the best of a particular author’s works. I notice also that these works vary as to when they most moved me, in my teenage years, my twenties, thirties, etc. In addition to exluding poetic epics (like Homer’s unequalled masterpieces “Iliad” and “Odyssey”) and poetic dramas (like William Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet,” or “The Merchant of Venice”), I have excluded poetic novels, like Murasaki Shikibu’s “The Tale of Genji,” Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” or Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire,” which nevertheless would not have reached my top ten.

    Needless to say, I am very much impressed with Mr. Mantyk’s selections and discussion. His reading is wide and deep. There is not one book that he has listed that I have not read and admired, and, not surprisingly, I share some of his choices. I could be wrong (and I am sure many would love to tell me so) but I do believe that the novel, like opera, poetic epic, and poetic drama, has had its day; but like anything priceless, it does not easily go away. Here, for what it’s worth, are my top ten novels; which are certainly not the top ten greatest novels ever written.

    1. Don Quixote-Cervantes
    2. Gulliver’s Travels-Jonathan Swift
    3. War and Peace-Leo Tolstoy
    4. The Glass Bead Game-Hermann Hesse
    5. The Count of Monte Cristo-Alexandre Dumas
    6. Moby Dick-Herman Melville
    7. To Kill a Mockingbird-Harper Lee
    8. 1984-George Orwell
    9. The Brothers Karamazov-Dostoyevsky
    10. The American-Henry James

    Of Mr. Mantyk’s brilliant choices, I would point out that in some ways “Macbeth” is a play that matches “Hamlet.” I think, in “Macbeth,” the shorter play, Shakespeare contrasts the ambitious, active pair of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, drawn to the evil that destroys them, with the indecisive, passive pair of Hamlet and Ophelia, destroyed by the evil that surrounds them. There is incredible poetry in each of the plays, as in so many other Shakespeare plays as well.

    I was happy to find in Mr. Mantyk’s list “Robinson Crusoe,” which I do consider the first novel in English, though many do not; and I included in my list the satire “Gulliver’s Travels,” which from some vantage points, is not a novel at all. Though “Pride and Prejudice” is frequently considered Austen’s best work; I have always liked “Sense and Sensibility” more, because of its dichotomy of reason and romance. Dickens’ work, as a whole is remarkable, not least his brilliant depiction of character, but of all of his works “Great Expectations,” like Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” takes a look at the World through the eyes of youth.

    In conclusion, I want to thank Mr. Mantyk for his polemical stand, and his continued work for poetry and literary criticism. We are lucky to have his unique voice at the Society of Classical Poets.

    Reply
    • Profile photo of Evan Mantyk
      Evan Mantyk

      Thank you, Bruce. Someone mentioned The Color Purple and my mind immediately went to To Kill a Mocking Bird. Gulliver’s Travels was also close to making my list. One point of clarification. Are your books listed from greatest greatest to least greatest or is there no particular order?

      Reply
  4. Courtney

    I can’t call my list 10 greatest novels or anything like that. More like the 10 most powerful or memorable books, that I’ve read.

    Here is my list:
    1) The Color Purple
    2) A Raisin in the Sun
    3) A Brave New World
    4) Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
    5) Great Expectations
    6) The Nazi Officer’s Wife
    7) Unbroken
    8) Moby Dick (except for the 200 pages of just…whales)
    9) Delores Claiborne (book is way better than the movie, of course)
    10) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (whole series)

    This list is fluid and will obviously shift, as I read different books. Since this is arts, and not sciences, I cheated with #10, because that series was really good.

    Reply
  5. Damian Robin

    Monu
    mental
    off-the-rocker
    for an older
    dogg’reled man

    wanting rest
    on bum and laurel
    in half-p’jarma’ed-
    at-home
    apparel
    on my rocking chair

    for I do want to read
    and take the info in.
    Will I succeed
    within the daily din?

    Phaps at breakfast
    I’ll digest
    a small portion
    of you feast,
    and then
    for lunch and supper
    have the rest

    books on table
    toast in hand
    crumbs on vest
    nothing planned

    like the fresher
    that I am
    in the wider air
    of true po-em.

    Reply
  6. Bruce Dale Wise

    Evan,

    There is “no particular order” to the list of novels that moved me; and if I were to make a list of what I consider the ten greatest novels literarily I think I would fall into an abyss from which I never could escape. Many of the novels that I chose would not make that list. What is so impressive about your list is your willingness to list from “greatest greatest to least greatest,” and your reasons are breathtaking for the breadth of your literary knowledge.

    Who truly cares about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight? I know no modern poet whose vision of the Arthurian legend is as profound as yours, which is reminiscent of the ghosts of Tennyson or Robinson. I find fascinating that your “bob and wheel” quote hangs at the ballad form:

    “Each lord dug in with pleasure, and grabbed at what lay near:
    twelve platters piled past measure, bright wine and foaming beer.”

    And who, but you could place “Journey at the West” by Wu Cheng’en at number 2? Other than the appearance of that Chinese novel in a docupoem of mine this year, yours is the only serious mention of that novel on a poetry site I have seen this last year.

    Their Journey to the West
    by Wu “Sacred Bee” Li

    Colonialist Chinese, in their journey to the West,
    explore the Dragon Blue Hole in their underwater quest,
    like as the Monkey King, who stole the gold-band iron rod,
    they sent depth-sensored VideoRay Pro 4 on their pod.
    These searchers in the Paracels discovered it was steep,
    the roughly circular sink hole, 300 metres deep.
    The Monkey King storms into hell; he claims this hole is his.
    The grand Celestial Emperor asks Buddha for his wiz.
    The Buddha has the Monkey King escort Monk Xuan Zang,
    but will he ever get the Sutras to the Falun Gong?

    As you know from my discussion, I had excluded “Hamlet” as a novel; and I place Shakespeare’s poetic dramas in the company of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Now that is one place I can make a value judgment: Shakespeare’s English is the best; and you are one of the few 21st century poets who acknowledges his greatness. As you know, his work inspired the following poem of mine from last year.

    Composed Upon the 400th Anniversary of His Death: April 23, 2016
    by Wilude Scabere

    Shall I compare his language to a grave?
    It is more lively and more flowery.
    His rough-shook words refuse to be death’s slave.
    No tomb’s as showy or so showery.
    A sepulchre, though hard as rock, erodes,
    and shrines do often lose their lustre’s prime,
    while monuments, though nice, make poor abodes,
    and sadly catacombs decay in time.
    But Shakespeare’s language will not go away.
    Unceasingly, his lines play in the mind.
    They pop up even on a summer’s day.
    Unlike a crypt, they will not stay behind.
    Alas, poor Oracle, his song goes on,
    despite all efforts of oblivion.

    I could not place Homer’s “Iliad” alongside novels, as both his “Iliad” and “Odyssey” are the best poetic epics of all time; and I think only Vergil in his “Aeneid” approaches Homer. In English, Milton’s has accomplished the best English epic in “Paradise Lost.” Milton changed our language forever. As for Homer, I can’t get through a year without thinking of his works. Among the poems, I have written in relation to Homer this year, is the following short poem.

    The Mariner
    by Acwiles Berude

    He was an ancient mariner, akin to Odysseus,
    in sailor stripes and pearl strings, this worshipper of Zeus.
    He bore his chalice through the fallacies of palace guards,
    and held his cup up to the bards, this bearer of the gods.
    He firmly held his bearded head up to the force of fate,
    and could withstand the fire-fury of Achilles’ hate.
    He gave his all to all who gave as much as these could give.
    He was a mighty mariner who truly longed to live.
    He did his best to keep his curved and floating boat on course,
    through turbulent, uncharted seas to distant, twice-kissed shores.

    As for the other novels that you chose, I find it interesting that we share two. So you too were carried away by the captivating French novel by Alexandre Dumas: “The Count of Monte Cristo”. Even Mark Twain’s satire of it in “Hucklebrry Finn” cannot dilute its power for me, even though I know that literarily it lacks the grand vision of Hugo’s “Les Misérables,” Balzac’s “La Comédie Humaine,” or Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu.” Despite that I like it better; its tale is spectacular. And I remember to this day the human wisdom of “attendre et espérer.”

    As I have been swept away by Golden and Silver Russian poets and novelists, it is not surprising that we both share a great admiration for Tolstoy’s “War and Piece.” I remember in my youth, when I lived in Russian House at the University of Washington that I adopted the name Andrei from that novel. One novel I almost listed, because it thrilled me almost as much was Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago,” from which I “semi-translated” the following poem “Hamlet” this year.

    Гамлет

    Гул затих. Я вышел на подмостки.
    Прислонясь к дверному косяку,
    Я ловлю в далеком оттолоке,
    что случится на моем веку.

    На меня наставлен сумпак ночи
    тысячью биноклей на оси.
    Если только можно, Абба Отче,
    чашу ету мимо пронеси.

    Я люблю твой замысел упрямый
    и играть согласен ету роль.
    Но сейчас идет другая драма,
    и на єтот раз меня уволъ.

    Но продуман распорпядок действий,
    И неотвратим конец пути.
    Я один, все тонет в фариисействе.
    Жизнъ прожитъ—не поле перейти.

    Hamlet
    by Alecsei Durbew

    The noise subsides. I walk onto the stage.
    While leaning on the lining of the door,
    I try to, in a far-off echo, gauge
    what will, within my life and age, occur.

    Ay me, I’m pinned by night’s eternal show;
    a thousand op’ra glasses point at me.
    If you are able, Abba Father, o,
    please take this cup I do not want to drink.

    I love your hard, unwavering design;
    and I’m content to play my given role.
    But now another play unfolds in time,
    and just this once, I beg, release my soul.

    But this predestined plot proceeds undone;
    and I can’t change the course that I am on.
    I’m all alone, sunk in oblivion.
    Life’s not a walk across a field with dawn.

    Reply
  7. James Poulter

    Dear Evan Mantyk,
    Thank you so much for your hardworking in compiling this list! I am amazed how much our opinions converge. So I am committed to reading the books you recommend which I haven’t yet read, starting with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. But I have gone on Amazon and can’t find any that are simply “anonymous” as you state in your article. The closest I can find is by “anonymous and Richard Morris”. What do you recommend? Thank you.

    Reply
  8. James Poulter

    Dear Evan, please forgive my ignorance, I have just looked once more at your article and realised you do specifically state a few good translations. I am going to go for the JR Tolkein one 🙂

    Reply
  9. Reid McGrath

    Neil Gaiman said: “Picking your five favorite books is like picking the five body parts you’d most like not to lose.” Hemingway said: “There is no order for great writers.” Likewise, he also said that every American novel “came through” HUCKLEBERRY FINN. He called it the first American novel. For years I would read four books every spring, when the winter snows were melting and the crocuses were blooming. My reading at the time was somewhat WASPish and chauvinistic. I was sometimes heckled about this, which was entertaining, and yet I was an eighteen to a twenty-four year old kid trying to read everything in the world. I aspired to conquer the Library quite like how I went about playing “RISK:” I would vanquish the world strategically and logically. I would start locally and at home. I would commence in North America.

    The four books I would read every spring were: HUCKLEBERRY FINN, THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, WINESBURG, OHIO, and THE SUN ALSO RISES. I sometimes read books simply for their style.

    I also came up with a figurative baseball lineup based on my favorite authors: Twain would play first base, because “everybody came through him.” Crane would play catcher, because he didn’t have a long lifespan. Hemingway would play second, as his play was straightforward and succinct, with Fitzgerald at short-stop, as his style was more ornate and grandiose; but who interacted a lot with Ernest. Steinbeck would play center, as he was talented and could throw far but was looked down upon for not going to Europe when the rest of the ex-pats did, or for writing propaganda; and Salinger would man third, as he was a good defender and didn’t make many mistakes. Faulkner and Henry James were in left and right field, eccentric misfits who liked to watch the game go on around them, with James grumpy and ornery as he wanted to be traded to the English All-Star Team in lieu of the American one; and with Sherwood Anderson as the pinch-hitter, occasionally subbing for Salinger or Steinbeck or Faulkner or James. The two primary pitchers were Thoreau or Melville, as they both could throw an array of pitches as they do sentences, straightforward and terse ones as well as curvaceous and complex ones. Melville could last for eight innings. Kerouac was the closer, because, like many closers, he was insane.

    So I’ll list my top ten favorite American Novels (WALDEN is a novel as much as Robinson Crusoe is) thus:

    THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, by Stephen Crane.
    THE SUN ALSO RISES, by Ernest Hemingway.
    WINESBURG, OHIO, by Sherwood Anderson.
    HUCKLEBERRY FINN, by Mark Twain.
    WALDEN POND, by Henry David Thoreau.
    THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, by Salinger.
    THE GREAT GATSBY, by Fitzgerald.
    THE BEAR (within GO DOWN, MOSES), by Faulkner.
    MOBY DICK, by Melville.
    GRAPES OF WRATH, by Steinbeck.

    I’d really like to add PORTRAIT OF A LADY, by Henry James, and yet he is rather too English for this category, although, compared to English writers, he seems American. I would also like to add Thomas Merton’s SEVEN STORY MOUNTAIN (as it may be in the running for my favorite book ever written) and yet I think Merton was more of a universal man than an American one, and the book is an autobiography.

    I believe that THE SUN ALSO RISES and MOBY DICK have the best beginnings (BOVARY is also up there and yet not American). I memorized the whole first chapter of TSAR on a dare and memorized the first paragraph of MD just because I like reciting it to myself. “Call me Ishmael.”

    Outside of American Literature, my top-ten favorite novels are:

    THE PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, by James Joyce.
    MADAME BOVARY, by Flaubert.
    DON QUIXOTE, by Cervantes.
    WAR AND PEACE or ANNA KARENINA, by Tolstoy.
    JANE EYRE, by Charlotte Bronte (which I think puts P & P to shame, Evan ;).
    THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, by Dostoevsky.
    FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD, by Hardy.
    THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE, by Hardy.
    THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER, by Goethe.
    DARKNESS AT NOON, by Arthur Koestler.

    The novels of Hesse, Turgenev, Graham Greene also belong on this list, and yet as their individual oeuvres somewhat blend together in my mind, I have left them off or out, whereas I would have had them on or in if we were simply talking about ten greatest authors.

    Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD to me is superior to Orwell’s 1984, and yet I think Orwell’s essays and short novels are immaculately written and entertaining to read. I left BRAVE NEW WORLD off because I think if he never wrote BRAVE NEW WORLD REVISITED I wouldn’t like the novel as much. I read it a second time with my wife, and, like Evan, I find the end dissatisfying. It starts off on a tear and then somewhat piddles out. I think as a work of art it is somewhat incomplete.

    I am definitely forgetting a plethora of novelists and great novels. I also haven’t read everything yet. But what how exciting books are. I could do this all day. Like Hugo said in LES MIS: “Books are cold but are sure friends.”

    Reply
    • Profile photo of Evan Mantyk
      Evan Mantyk

      Thank you, Reid. You have highlighted an American deficiency in my list. I am waiting to add The American Poet by Reid McGrath, 2018.

      Reply
      • J.L.S

        For Americana, I think Nathaniel Hawthorne also deserves consideration. He was completely absent from my grammar school education and I think that was an unforgivable admission.

  10. Lew Icarus Bede

    Reid McGrath,

    I’m sorry for this belated reply, but it is inspiring to hear your voice again. I had forgotten how strongly novelistic your vision is.

    What tactics—playing Risk strategically and logically, and starting locally in North America.

    And then your baseball team. Of course, my line-up would differ, but your team might still beat mine. But how could I argue with whom you put in right field. Henry James definitely deserves that place for the reason you gave. His brother William would have been a more pragmatic choice; but I understand this is a list of novels, not philosophical tracts. The two novels of your American top ten that I would most vigourously defend are Twain’s Huck Finn, for its marvelous balance of brutality and farce and Melville’s Moby-Dick for its expansive, albeit hostile, view. And both of those writers wrote other very remarkable works as well. Twain may be America’s greatest humourist.

    One of the qualities I admire in your character, Reid, is your breathtaking pertinacity; so, to be blunt, I dislike disagreeing with someone who is so inspiring to me personally. Still…I would never call Walden a novel. For me, it is an unendurably long, self-involved essay; however, I do find it a remarkable work for several reasons, not least of which is, the plain-speaking quality Thoreau evinces on existence, and his willingness to take on Homer. In my mind, Thoreau was an utter failure in the latter; but he has gone farther than any American writer in that respect; so he retains my respect.

    I also admire Faulkner’s novella The Bear, but the novels he wrote that have most impressed me are The Sound and the Fury, the compressed As I Lay Dying, and the over(t)ly extreme Absolom, Absolom! Here is an imperfect sonnet, that was published in a Southern review, that I wrote on a single paragraph from one Faulkner’s short stories.

    The Antepenultimate Paragraph of Faulkner’s Barn Burning
    by Cause Bewilder

    He ran on, his blood and his breath roaring,
    unable to hear the galloping mare
    almost upon him, in wild grief soaring
    to hurl himself through th’ early summer air
    into the weed-choked, roadside ditch, the horse
    thundering past and on, for an instance in
    furious silhouette against the stars—
    the fierce rider! before vanishing, and
    then springing up into the road, running
    again, knowing it was too late, hearing
    the shots, crying out loud, “Pap! Pap!” stumbling,
    the glare of the fire at his back, searing,
    running among the invisible trees,
    panting, sobbing, “Father! Father!” bent knees.

    As for Hemingway, I am most impressed with his understated style, especially in some of his early short stories. Here is an unpublished sonnet of mine on the novel you chose that I tried to reread this last summer. Hemingway may have been hard on Stein and Fitzgerald, as a literary friend of mine once told me, but others can be hard on him as well—it comes with the territory.

    On Ernest Hemingway
    by Wilbur Dee Case

    Ernest Hemingway sure knew how to write
    depressing novels, if that is what one
    desires. The Sun Also Rises is right
    there at the top, a tale of depression.
    There’s Jake, an American journalist
    [surprise, surprise], ex-fiancée Brett,
    her semi-fiance Mike, and the rest,
    writers Robert and Bill [oh, to forget].
    These lost-generation expatriates
    take an extended vacation to Spain
    to watch bull-fights, drink hard [like idiots],
    and find contentment only in the vain.
    How could it really be any surprise
    then, that he would receive the Nobel Prize?

    I have to admit I am unfamiliar with Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain; though I do remember reading some of his poetry.

    As for all of your choices, I must defer to your sincerity, which is superior to mine.

    Reply
  11. Reid McGrath

    Dear JLS,

    Nathaniel Hawthorne definitely deserves consideration.

    Dear Bruce,

    I was hoping to catch your attention. I’ve always felt the opposite emotion while reading Hemingway: not depressed, but uplifted. In striving to be a writer myself, I used to believe that there was a vulnerability to writing which made it endearing, if for the sole fact that it was not indomitable, or, to appease Orwell and expurgate the double negative, because it was reproducible or even able to be surpassed. To put it bluntly, when I was younger I loved reading Hemingway because I thought I could write as simply and as lucidly as him. But I was wrong. Nobody could or should try to write like him again (despite the fact that so many have tried). Everyone has their own opinions, but to me he was a major artistic talent.

    Sincerely,

    Reid

    PS. I concede that Walden is not a novel. As of now I am still inspired by it though. As I am Crevecoeur’s LETTERS OF AN AMERICAN FARMER.

    Reply
  12. Epictetus

    I accept that this list is compiled by you but still your non inclusion of Anna Karenina leads me to believe that either you have not read it or you didn’t understand it.
    I can guarantee you that even the most hard-hitting critic of Anna Karenina cannot exclude it from his/her top 10 list.
    But to each his own.

    P.S I read great expectations after Anna Karenina but it felt like a stale experience for me.
    I advise you to read Anna and fall in love with her.

    Reply
  13. Joan Carol Fullmore

    Catch 22 – changed the way I looked at life and how not to judge others by their appearances

    Reply

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