in no particular order
charles bukowski run with the hunted (harper collins, 1994): the best of Bukowski’s novels, stories, and poems, this collection reads like an autobiography, relating the extraordinary story of his life and offering a sometimes harrowing, invariably exhilarating reading experience. A must for this counterculture idol’s legion of fans.
j.d. salinger franny and zooey (little, brown and company,1991): salinger writes “Franny came out in The New Yorker in 1955, and was swiftly followed, in 1957 by Zooey. Both stories are early, critical entries in a narrative series I’m doing about a family of settlers in twentieth-century New York, the Glasses. It is a long-term project, patently an ambiguous one, and there is a real-enough danger, I suppose that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms. On the whole, though, I’m very hopeful. I love working on these Glass stories, I’ve been waiting for them most of my life, and I think I have fairly decent, monomaniacal plans to finish them with due care and all-available skill.”
j.m. coetzee elizabeth costello (deckie edge, 2004): Costello had lost her faith in storytelling. Given the choice between telling a story and doing good, she would try to do good. […] The frogs, like a novelist’s characters, are believed in by the novelist, but cannot themselves believe in the novelist. To enter the frog’s life is like entering a fictional character’s life. And this is a kind of religion, akin to the worship of a God who gives us nothing back. If it represents the paganisation of belief in God, it also represents the sacralisation of belief in fiction. Because, like suffering and death, fiction, too, is not an idea. (james wood)
hermann hesse siddhartha (bantam classics, 1981): In the shade of a banyan tree, a grizzled ferryman sits listening to the river. Some say he’s a sage. He was once a wandering shramana and, briefly, like thousands of others, he followed Gotama the Buddha, enraptured by his sermons. But this man, Siddhartha, was not a follower of any but his own soul. Born the son of a Brahmin, Siddhartha was blessed in appearance, intelligence, and charisma. In order to find meaning in life, he discarded his promising future for the life of a wandering ascetic. Still, true happiness evaded him. Then a life of pleasure and titillation merely eroded away his spiritual gains until he was just like all the other “child people,” dragged around by his desires. Like Hermann Hesse’s other creations of struggling young men, Siddhartha has a good dose of European angst and stubborn individualism. His final epiphany challenges both the Buddhist and the Hindu ideals of enlightenment. Neither a practitioner nor a devotee, neither meditating nor reciting, Siddhartha comes to blend in with the world, resonating with the rhythms of nature, bending the reader’s ear down to hear answers from the river.
kenzaburo oe a quiet life (grove press, 1997): A famous Japanese writer whose first name begins with K takes off with his wife for a year to become writer in residence at one of the several campuses of the University of California, leaving their almost equally famous son, an idiot savant who is a remarkable composer, in the care of their daughter, Ma-chan. What the reader is given is an intimate domestic portrait in the form of Ma-chan’s diary — ”Diary as Home,” she calls it — which at the end of the novel is sent to K after her mother suggests that the self-absorbed novelist (who has removed himself from Japan in order to deal with what seems to be writer’s block) might thus ”relearn the names of his real family.”
j.m. coetzee disgrace (penguin, 2000): ‘The personal life is dead,’ Pasternak wrote in Doctor Zhivago – ‘history has killed it.’ In J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, Disgrace, which is set in a violent post-apartheid South Africa, David Lurie, a Cape Town academic, reaches a similar conclusion when his daughter Lucy is gang-raped by three black men at her isolated homestead in the Eastern Cape. ‘But why did they hate me so?’ Lucy asks. ‘I had never set eyes on them.’ ‘It was history speaking through them,’ her father replies. ‘A history of wrong. Think of it that way, if it helps. It may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t.’ Lucy decides not to press charges, believing that this rape, in the South African context, is not ‘a public matter’. In the face of irresistible historical change – the collapse of a corrupt order – the claims of the individual are necessarily of secondary importance, even irrelevant. (elizabeth lowry)
zadie smith on beauty (penguin, 2006): Last year, she had not thought she would still be in this house, in this marriage, come spring. But here she was, here she was. A tear in the garbage bag freed three pairs of pants and a sweater. Kiki crouched to pick these up and, as she did so, the second bag split too. She had packed them too heavy. The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free. (on beauty)
v. nabokov lolita (paris press, 1955): Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov’s immaculate and disturbing masterpiece, is the story of middle-aged Humbert Humbert and his tragic love affair with his 12-year-old, bubble-gum popping stepdaughter Dolores “Lolita” Haze. It’s a post-war road novel, the odyssey of a venerable European man and a prepubescent American girl bouncing across the United States, trying to outrun the past and find a future that doesn’t exist. The prose is by turns passionate and playful, while the narrative is simultaneously lyrical and unsettling and erotic and violent — did I mention that, in addition to being a child molester, Humbert is also a murderer? It’s a kind of inverted detective story: You immediately know someone’s been killed, but have to wait to find out who. The book, which can be viewed as an allegory for Europe’s relationship with America, offers a depiction of love that is as patently original as it is brutally shocking.
james baldwin the evidence of things not seen (buccaneer books, 1998): In his searing and moving essay, James Baldwin explores the Atlanta child murders that took place over a period of twenty-two months in 1979 and 1980. Examining this incident with a reporter’s skill and an essayist’s insight, he notes the significance of Atlanta as the site of these brutal killings—a city that claimed to be “too busy to hate”—and the permeation of race throughout the case: the black administration in Atlanta; the murdered black children; and Wayne Williams, the black man tried for the crimes. Rummaging through the ruins of American race relations, Baldwin addresses all the hard-to-face issues that have brought us a moment in history where it is terrifying to to be a black child in white America, and where, too often, public officials fail to ask real questions about “justice for all.”
ali smith the accidental (penquin, 2006): The Accidental pans in on the Norfolk holiday home of the Smart family one hot summer. There a beguiling stranger called Amber appears at the door bearing all sorts of unexpected gifts, trampling over family boundaries and sending each of the Smarts scurrying from the dark into the light.
john banville the sea (picador, 2010): The Sea is a direct return to my childhood, to when I was ten or so. The book is set in a fictionalized Rosslare, the seaside village where we went every summer as children. Looking back now it seems idyllic, though I’m sure ninety-five percent of the experience was absolute, grinding boredom. I feel a kind of intellectual regret, not an emotional regret, at having left my parents and that world behind. But it’s not a great weight on my soul. In a way I wish it were. To leave one’s background without guilt is an indication of shallowness of character, I suspect. […] I didn’t think that Max was more warmhearted or approachable than any of my other narrators. He is weaker, and in a more devastated position in his life. Very many readers of The Sea cite to me the line, “The past beats inside me like a second heart.” I wonder why it has such appeal. I’ve written better sentences, but this one seems emblematic of whatever it is in the book that caught people’s imaginations and—dare I say it?—needs. (banville)
edith wharton the house of mirth (everyman, 1991): One of Wharton’s earliest descriptions of her heroine, in the library of her bachelor friend and sometime suitor Lawrence Selden, indicates that she appears “as though she were a captured dryad subdued to the conventions of the drawing room.” Indeed, herein lies Lily’s problem. She has, we’re told, “been brought up to be ornamental,” and yet her spirit is larger than what this ancillary role requires. Lily’s rather violent tumble down the social ladder provides a thumbnail sketch of the general injustices of the upper classes (which, incidentally, Wharton never quite manages to condemn entirely, clearly believing that such life is cruel but without alternative). From her start as a beautiful woman at the height of her powers to her sad finale as a recently fired milliner’s assistant addicted to sleeping drugs, Lily Bart is heroic, not least for her final admission of her own role in her downfall. “Once–twice–you gave me the chance to escape from my life and I refused it: refused it because I was a coward,” she tells Selden as the book draws to a close.
colm toibin the master (picador, 2005): The novel borrows one of James’s favourite narrative methods without attempting anything like a pastiche of his style. The story is told through the thoughts, perceptions and encounters of a single character, the ‘vessel of consciousness’ James so loved, and that figure is framed as a grammatical third person (‘Sometimes in the night he dreamed about the dead’). James himself did this a lot, lending his own idioms, for example, to the wishes and guesses of children, or a young woman in a telegraph office. The effect in James is of a sort of translation: the material comes from the minds of the characters but is couched in words they probably don’t have. In Tóibín’s novel the same principle works backwards, but very well. Language is taken away from James rather than given to him, which brings him closer to us than he might otherwise be.