I have made a list (in no particular order) of seven books that come to mind every time I think of classics. Most of these I read a while ago and some of them I have read several times, but all of them are brilliant. There is a wide variety, from stories about love and betrayal to dark outposts and surreal transformations, from very long to very short. Take your pick and enjoy!
Travelling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning transformed into a giant insect. Unable to speak or get out of bed, his back has turned into a hard shell, he can’t reach his locked bedroom door. When his family finally get in, they react with disgust and shame. Gregor’s sister, Grete, initially takes pity on him, but eventually, even her sympathy runs out. Imprisoned in his room, he slowly withers away. Pretty grim stuff, but written with imagination and in a nightmarish, disorienting uniquely ‘Kafkaesque’ style. Metamorphosis is a seminal work about shame, the plight of being a burden and the limits of sympathy. Truly original and an absolute thrill to read.
Middlemarch by George Elliot (pseudonym for Marian Evans), 736 pages.
A rich, multi-layered portrait of an English town in the 1830s, Middlemarch follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a number of people, set in the social and political context of the time. We meet idealistic, intelligent and well-off Dorothea Brooke whose disastrous marriage provides barren ground for her talents; hypocritical, scandal ridden banker Nicholas Bulstrode; young, progressive doctor Tertius Lydgate and a host of other characters. Way ahead of her time, Eliot questions conventional attitudes to marriage and the role of women (she decided to write under a male pseudonym to be taken seriously). A long and dense book, but exquisitely written and one you will want to read several times. Jane Austen with brains and grit. Considered by many to be the perfect English novel.
Brace yourself from one of the strangest books you will ever read. This will not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you fancy a bit of experimental literature, this is it! A giant amongst Russian 20th century novels, The Master and Margarita has a surreal, at times nearly incomprehensible, story line. The Devil visits Moscow in the guise of Woland, a professor of black magic with an entourage that includes a talking black cat that walks on two legs (yes!), a hit-man and a witch. The Master, an author whose novel about the meeting between Jesus and Pontus Pilates displeases the Soviet authorities, is reigned in. His love for Margarita is what keeps him afloat. A fiercely anti-Soviet novel, satirising literary censorship and enforced atheism. If you’re feeling brave, this is the book for you.
Young, single and innocent American heiress Isabel Archer visits Europe to see more of the world. Wanting to enjoy her freedom, Isabel turns down several attractive marriage proposals, before she meets decadent, corrupt American expats, hell-bent on taking advantage of her. Set in England and Italy in the 1880s, The Portrait of a Lady is a fascinating portrayal of the ‘New’ World, America, versus the ‘Old’, Europe, of the freedom to choose and living with the consequences. Extraordinarily beautiful descriptive writing full of atmosphere. Made into a memorable film starring Nicole Kidman as Isabel and John Malkovich brilliantly cast as the creepy expat, Gilbert Osmond.
Another disastrous marriage, this time in a French provincial town in the 1830s. Emma marries the boring, bourgeois and mediocre Charles Bovary, and spends the rest of her life trying to escape her marriage and her social class. First through books and day-dreaming, and later through various romantic affairs. Slowly Emma runs herself into the ground and you can’t help but empathise despite her stupidity. A tragic heroine in one of the most unromantic romantic books you’ll ever read. A gripping study of unfaithfulness, unhappiness and betrayal written by a perfectionist.
Set in America in the 1920s, The Great Gatsby tells the story of self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby, his quest for acceptance by the snobbish, wealthy Long Island set and the love of his life: superficial, fickle Daisy. A social commentary on ‘Old’ versus ‘New’ money in America and the relentless pursuit of wealth, all seen through the eyes of the narrator, the outsider Nick Carraway. Wonderful atmosphere of the excesses and decadence of the roaring 1920s. A true gem; exceptionally well written and an iconic American novel. Forget the films, particularly the last one, and read the book instead. Infinitely better.
The story of river-steamboat captain Charles Marlow’s journey up the Congo River. Marlow, employed by a Belgian ivory trading company, is shocked by the mistreatment of the native employees, most of whom have been forced to work for the company. Further up the river, the charismatic but dangerous Mr Kurtz is in charge of a trading station, and as Marlow reaches the outpost it become clear that Mr Kurtz has gone mad. Kurtz, evil personified, was immortalised by Marlon Brando in the unforgettable film Apocalypse Now which was based on The Heart of Darkness. As eerie and suffocating as they come, The Heart of Darkness is a book that will haunt you for a long time.
Have I tempted you? I can guarantee that none of these will disappoint…
Do you have ideas for other books that should be on this list? Please let me know!