Summer seems to be the time of year I love to pick up classics that I have not yet read, or reread old favorites. Because I was an English major in college, I have read what seems like a million classics and I’m still working on the “pile”. Just this week I picked up Flaubert’s Madame Bovary for the first time, and am loving it. I thought it would be easy to make a short list of favorite classics, but they all crowded in, vying for attention when it came time to pick only a few. So look for more favorite classics in a future post–there are just too many great ones to choose from.
The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham
I admit being very partial to Maugham, and have read almost everything he has written (except maybe his letters). It was hard to pick from Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence (reviewed in an earlier blog), or Of Human Bondage. Many say that this was his most serious novel–it is certainly that–and much more. Maugham himself “narrates” the story of four characters who are young and in search of their life’s place in the world. But the story primarily follows Larry, a young American who was a pilot in WWI then came to Paris to recover and pursue a spiritual path in a world he finds too materialistic. Maugham moves his plots along well without dragging, and at the same time fully develops his characters, revealing all their flaws while not judging them. He respects the reader and his characters enough to let them figure out their own lives. That is what I love about this man’s insightful and subtle writing.
I remember reading this classic when I first started graduate school, and was quite overwhelmed to finally understand how excellent fiction can examine and make one ponder the many moral dimensions of life. Dreiser published this story, based on a sensational murder case, in 1925 to almost as much publicity as the original crime. His story is of a young Clyde Griffiths, born into a poor religious family but who, after being hired by a wealthy uncle, aspires to much more. In his quest to move into a higher stratum of society, a tragedy occurs which changes his life dramatically. This is really a detailed portrait of American values and cultural differences in the early 20th century–the economic divide, political corruption, moral hypocrisies, and how the very essence of a person’s character develops. I thought of it as a “must read” after finishing it, and am still of that mind and anxious to read it again.
One summer I read one of Lawrence’s books after another, enchanted by the sensuality of his writing style and subject matter. I was still young, and still romantic. While he was most famous for Lady Chatterley’s Lover (like most people, I read it at about age 14) , my favorite was this title. Although Lawrence was always at the center of controversy for his writing, his popularity has fallen off in the past 20 years or so, (probably because he did not produce any dystopian novels!) Women in Love follows the relationships of two couples, one of them obviously modeled on Lawrence and his wife Frieda (Birkin and Ursula in the book). The highs and lows of their courtships and love, their intellectual pursuits (i.e. long philosophical discussions about art and life), and their differences are primary themes of the book. Many critics think this is Lawrence’s best novel, and I do agree, although The Rainbow comes close (and is the predecessor to this story).
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
If I had to pick one favorite from this group, this would be it. It is considered not only Eliot’s masterpiece, but a masterpiece when held up against most English literature, for good reason. But before I list the reasons, I will say that all of her other novels have also seriously impressed me–Daniel Deronda in particular. Several critics have said that there are “no easy resolutions in a great novel”, and Middlemarch fulfills that requirement perfectly. A richly woven story, it follows a number of primary, well-defined characters in a nineteenth century Midlands English town, almost all of whom are less than happy with their life’s circumstances. But it is the character of Dorothea, unhappily married to an elderly husband (Casaubon), to whom I was most drawn, because in spite of her frustrating circumstances, she is the most accepting of her situation. She tries to do right, even as she is thwarted in her pursuit of happiness. Steeped in realistic plot, character and setting, Eliot has a hold on me. I could scarcely put Middlemarch down–every page (and there are 800!) made me want to keep reading.
Perhaps because I did not read this novel until I was about fifty, as opposed to reading it for a class assignment years ago, I came to love it by the tenth page. Written by Hurston after a stormy, tortured love affair, it was published in 1937 and was a commercial success. However, several male members of the Harlem Renaissance criticized it roundly because of her use of African American dialect. I think it is one of the stars of the story–she uses authentic dialect of the times in which she lived, which makes her voice more expressive and unique. The plot, or story, is told by Janie Crawford, a black woman who by age forty has had three marriages–her last being her most loving but still troubled. When her third husband dies, she comes back to Eatonville, Florida to live (a real community run and populated only by African-Americans). Over her life, Janie has struggled to find her own voice, and her own happiness, which finally happens. Hurston created an entire, unique universe in this novel–startlingly different, yet so familiar to me because the characters are so real, human, and unflinching.
A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
My first introduction to Dickens was seeing the movie (in black and white) when in junior high school. Even then it charmed me, as most of Dickens can charm me because of his unique characters. His books are long and kind of windy, which makes sense since he was often paid by the word. But he is the author I seem to return to when nothing else appeals. What Dickens does, and does best in this particular novel, is to capture everything a reader could want in a 400 page book and rarely produce a dull moment. Set in London and Paris prior to and during the French Revolution are the stories of two very different men and the events that cause them to intersect. Dickens gives us melodrama, memorable characters, smart pacing, emotional depth and great humor and satire. As I write this, it makes me want to pick it up and start it all over again! Which I am sure I will.
The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck
Here is another example of a classic I did not read until recently. Yet I remember staring at its cover in my family’s bookshelves for years as I was growing up, and having my mother praise it again and again. It is a more quiet novel, the story of an ordinary peasant family in pre-revolutionary China–farmer Wang Lung and his obedient and hard-working wife O-lan. The story starts with their wedding day (sometime before WWI), and follows his life’s ups and downs to the end when he finds that the land he worked so hard to acquire and farm during his lifetime is to be sold by his sons, who are the inheritors. A common enough story, yet more poignant and beautiful because of the culture and times in which it is set. Buck won the Pulitzer Prize for this in 1932, and it was a runaway best seller for the first two years after being published. Just lovely; told in simple, unadorned language which makes it all the more unforgettable.