Here’s my pick of five-star fiction.
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Western literature kicks off with the clash of civilizations.
Crafting an epic of my own, I got the idea of exploring the great epics of Western literature in more detail. They are all to be found in my set of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World:
– the Iliad (volume 4, Homer)
– the Odyssey (volume 4, Homer)
– the Aeneid (volume 13, Virgil)
– The Divine Comedy (volume 21, Dante)
– Paradise Lost (volume 32, Milton)
However, I read not the Great Books version, a prose translation by Samuel Butler, but rather the verse translation by Robert Fagles, published in a lovely paperback by Penguin Classics in 1998. I bought it in January 2008 along with a companion edition of the Odyssey, also translated by Fagles, when I saw them together in a bookstore. I probably read it not long after I bought it, and that was my first time through the whole work (I had attempted a prose translation by W.H.D. Rouse when I was in grade 10, but abandoned it before I got too far). So this time through marked my second reading of the famous poem.
This is how novels are supposed to be.
I came across this book by way of the Goodreads recommendation engine, which presented it to me when I was searching for “epics.” The American Revolutionary War is far out of my time zone with respect to my own epic in progress, but since true epics are about the birth of nations and societies, and this book seemed to be very favorably viewed by critics, I thought I would give it a chance.
Am I ever glad I did. As soon as I downloaded the e-book to my Kindle and started reading the prologue, I was drawn in. The narrator and central character is one Steven Nason of Arundel (modern Kennebunkport) in the province of Maine, who, against his natural inclinations, is writing a book describing his role in Benedict Arnold’s 1775 expedition to Quebec. He is driven reluctantly to this task by the grossly inaccurate tales that are current about the expedition and its members; he feels driven to set the record straight.
Plays and Sonnets of Shakespeare (buy from Amazon.com)
This Britannica Great Books edition of the complete works of Shakespeare offers a serviceable, robust, no-frills, and altogether high-quality experience of this most famous of writers.
It’s a commonplace that Shakespeare is the greatest writer in English literature, and even, according to Harold Bloom and no doubt many others, the greatest writer of all time in any language, full stop. It’s quite a reputation, but despite my lifetime passion for reading and writing, I have had only a slight acquaintance with the Bard, beginning, as I recall, in grade 7 when our school staged a production of Julius Caesar, in which I played Mark Antony. But of course, even at age 13 I was already familiar with lines like “Friends, Romans, countrymen: lend me your ears,” and even “et tu Brute?“. I also would have known that “To be or not to be: that is the question” was also Shakespeare, from Hamlet, and will also have heard many other Shakespeareisms sprinkled into everyday speech around me without recognizing them as such: “what’s in a name?”; “the winter of our discontent”; “all the world’s a stage”.
This romantic farce holds the mirror up to human nature, and in the maelstrom of passion, folly, vice, and also virtue, we see that while manners have changed (a little) since 1749, the animal who adopts them has not.
I might never have read this book if it were not for the Britannica Great Books of the Western World series, a whole set of which I acquired in 2010 from a lady farmer in Minnesota. The 54-volume set contains just eight novels (the other seven are Gargantua and Pantagruel, Don Quixote, Gulliver’s Travels, Tristram Shandy, Moby-Dick, War and Peace, and The Brothers Karamazov), so it’s intriguing to think of how the editors of the series selected them.
The editors refer to the Great Books as the Great Conversation, and as the best conversation is about ideas, the novels in the set are novels of ideas. Tom Jones is divided into 18 books, the first chapter of each of these being a short humorous essay on some aspect of the work; in book 1, chapter 1, page 1, Fielding, likening himself to a restaurateur, posts his bill of fare, and it is a single dish: Human Nature. While acknowledging that other authors set out to offer the same thing, Fielding asserts that it’s all about how the meal is cooked and presented. And for this reader, as for the editors of the Britannica Great Books, he has here shown himself to be a master chef.
Finally, after 30 years, I’ve closed the gap and completed the task that Thomas Mann, in his afterword to the novel, suggests for his readers: to read The Magic Mountain not once but twice.
My first reading of it was in the spring and summer of 1982, when I was 23. It was not the first of his works that I had read, for I had already made my way through his short stories, including “Death in Venice”, and before any of those, his late novel Doctor Faustus, which I read first because it happened to be on the bookshelf at home. Even so, it was not our book, for it was on loan from my mother’s friend Dorothy Burt, an avid reader, a close friend of Malcolm Lowry, and a passionate fan of Thomas Mann. It was Dorothy who first made me want to read Thomas Mann, and Dorothy, wherever you are: thank you.
I enjoyed The Magic Mountain very much the first time through, although I was not in a position to get a great deal out of it except the pleasure of sojourning at length in that world of his creation, populated with so many striking and memorable characters. Although I was a writer myself, even a serious one, I did not have the experience or the literary education to appreciate it for its deeper qualities, beyond the realization that these deeper qualities were there to be plumbed by the knowledgeable.