a classic is a book which which each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first readingItalio Calvino
Literary critics, historians, authors and avid readers all have different opinions on which works of literature can be considered “classic”. Are they novels which captivate because of their lyrical, figurative language? Are they works that ask profound questions about our society and what it means to be human?
The answer is of course Yes and Yes.
I think of classics as works that are unforgettable as a result. Reading them is an intensely rewarding experience. And the initial joy on first reading never goes away. Each time you read the book you discover a new layer of meaning or a new question to consider.
Coming up with a list of just 10 classics makes Brexit negotiations seem like a piece of cake. There are easily twice that number I could have included. I’ll enjoy seeing your reactions and debating what should or should not have made the list.
A Seventeenth Century Classic
1. Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667).
I can remember sitting on my bed in my university room feeling daunted by having to read this for a tutorial.
It was a monster of a book because of the extensive notes that explained all of Milton’s references. And boy did I need those explanations since I was not blessed with a deep knowledge of the Bible (the price for not paying attention in Sunday School) or Greek and Roman myths.
But I still found this epic a gripping read with its rebel angels, the clash of good and evil, creation of the world and then the fall from grace of Adam and Eve. Yes it’s long and the prose is often convoluted but utterly memorable.
Nineteenth Century Classics
This was the century that saw the greatest change in the form and nature of the novel. Starting with the first realist texts of the early part of the century, and ending in the realm of stream of consciousness.
So many wonderful novels from which to choose that I could easily have just done a list of 10 favourite 19th century novels. But I’ve tried to pick ones that I never tire of reading.
2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
There is no way that a list of favourites from the nineteenth century could ignore Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice can be read as a romance story which ends happily ever after. But as the title indicates Austen was more concerned about issues of social class and the precarious position of unmarried women.
3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)
This was one of the first classics I ever read and it’s still giving me pleasure 50 years later. Obviously my understanding and interpretation of Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel has changed over those decades. But that’s one of the beauties of this novel, that it can be read in many different ways.
At it’s most basic level it can be a story of a put-upon orphan to finds love and happiness. Delve deeper however and you can find ideas about women’s right for independence and a fulfilling life; the unenviable position of governesses and 19th century attitudes towards science in the form of phrenology.
4. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871)
My all-time favourite novel.
I know many people who have started to read this book but struggled because it’s a bit slow to get going and has a very large cast.
One way to read it is to think of it like a soap opera with a few key relationships – the ‘eternal triangle’ of Dorothea, Casaubon and Ladislaw and the predatory Rosamund who snares Dr Lydgate and almost bankrupts him.
Look beyond that however and you’ll find a novel about ambitions for great medical discoveries, altruism and electoral reform. All are thwarted.
This is a novel about big ideas but one that also shows how gossip can bring a man down.
5. Germinal by Emile Zola (1885)
This was my first experience of reading Zola and, though I’ve gone on to read a few others by him (see my list here) , this is the one that has a special place in my affection.
It’s hard reading not because Zola’s prose is impenetrable but because of the subject matter – a struggle for survival by impoverished miners in France. They take strike action in the hope of a better future but their rebellion is violently crushed by the army and police.
Uncompromisingly harsh this is a novel that is absolutely unforgettable.
6. The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1898)
A novella about a woman who feels trapped in her role as wife and mother. It was castigated at the time of its publication but has come to be viewed as a key feminist text.
Edna Pontellier’s process of “awakening” and self-discovery that constitutes the focus of the book takes several forms: she learns to swim, has an affair and leaves her husband and children. But her freedom doesn’t provide her with happiness.
The ending is enigmatic – does Edna’s action represent a failure of her bid for freedom or is it a liberating triumph?
Twentieth Century Classics
8. A Passage to India by E. M Forster (1924)
Set against the backdrop of the British Raj and the Indian independence movement in the 1920s, Forster’s novel traces the disastrous consequences when well-meaning but clueless representatives of the colonial class mix with those who are subjects of the Raj.
It features a tremendous set piece of an expedition to the Marabar caves where something happens (exactly what is a typical Forsterian ‘muddle’ that causes the disgrace of an Indian doctor and inflames the ruling Sahibs.
The novel might feel a bit dated at times but it’s on the ball in its depiction of the difficulties in bridging cultural divides.
9. Heart of the Matter — Grahame Greene (1948).
Few authors do a better job of portraying people undergoing a moral crisis and tortured by their consciences.
Greene himself didn’t care much for this book. But I love this story of a British police officer in an African outpost who becomes embroiled in a moral crisis In the end there is no way out for him, except one of eternal spiritual damnation.
10. Cry, the Beloved Country — Alan Paton (1948).
I’m staying in Africa for my final choice.
This novel is set in South Africa on the eve of apartheid. It features a clergyman who travels to Johannesburg from his home in a small rural village and discovers racial tension, economic inequalities between black and white and a breakdown of traditional values.
Paton uses multiple voices to expresses his love for South Africa and his fear for the future of his homeland.
This is a novel of protest in a sense but it is also an appeal for justice.
So there you have my choices. What would be on your list?