For years, I promised my classes in literature and writing that I’d make a summer and/or lifetime reading list for them. One semester, I finally did it. The results are below for any enterprising student who wants good reading. I made this list in 2014 for students in an introductory course to English studies for majors and minors; consequently, it reflects my sense of what today’s English undergraduates are expected to read. This document is not intended to be a definitive canon. It represents both my own (informed) tastes and, more importantly, my quasi-objective sense of the “compromise canon” promulgated by American English departments in the wake of the first wave of the culture wars. It could therefore be criticized by all camps in those wars—what couldn’t?—and my bias toward modern fiction is probably clear. Nevertheless, I wrote this to communicate and inspire pleasure in complex reading. In that spirit, enjoy!
[Note: This is not meant to be a definitive list of “great books,” but only a selection of works mentioned in class, offered with explanations for those who want some guidance to the labyrinth of western literature our course only began to explore, from ancient Greece to postcolonialism and postmodernism. Many worthy books might have been included; exclusions signify no judgment—sometimes they signify only my own inexperience. For most works in other languages, I have made translation recommendations; these should be taken with a grain of salt, as I am not a competent linguist but simply a reporter on reading experiences I have enjoyed.]
The Odyssey, Homer.
Homer’s poem is the fount of western narrative—the apogee of its oral epic form, a sometimes ironic compendium of myth, and an anticipation of later comic and novelistic modes in its focus on intellect and the everyday (as opposed to The Iliad’s proto-tragic emphasis on war and heroism). For modern translations, I recommend either Robert Fitzgerald, who favors an almost Miltonic blank verse that gives the poem the gravity of an English classic, or Robert Fagles, who uses an energetic free verse that speeds the narrative of wandering along.
Tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.
The only extant trilogy among the surviving Greek tragedies, Aeschylus’s Oresteia tell the story of the institution of justice in the overcoming of tribal revenge by civic law, the latter figured as male and the former as female (thus from a feminist perspective, these tragedies envision the institution of patriarchy in Greek civilization). Haunting imagery with historical import. Sophocles’s Oedipus the King and Antigone are what most people have in mind when they think of classical tragedy, the first play for its stunning dramatic irony and vision of unyielding fate and the second one for its intractable clash of rival value systems; Sophocles influenced the way major thinkers from Aristotle to Nietzsche conceptualized tragedy. And Euripides, the Ibsen of antiquity, brought tragedy closer to the ground with his bitterly ironic plays about people (often women or slaves) suffering under the capricious reign of gods and other authority figures; I recommend Medea, Hippolytus, and especially The Bacchae. I somewhat unfashionably recommend the older Penguin Classics versions—by Phillip Vellacott or Robert Fagles—which balance grandeur with modernity better than does the Biblical bombast of older translations or today’s prosy poetry.
The Aeneid, Virgil.
The great epic of Rome’s founding, and perhaps the central work of European literature for over a millennium after its first-century BCE composition. Virgil adapts and reverses the Homeric epics in his portrayal of a wandering warrior-hero, Aeneas, Trojan survivor of Troy’s fall, who finds his divinely destined way to Italy, where he lays the foundation for a new empire after a fierce battle with prior inhabitants. But the real conflict of the poem is between Aeneas’s duty to destiny and his desire for other ways of life, emblematized by his tragic renunciation of his love for Queen Dido of Carthage, in the poem’s most memorable sequence. And Virgil, too, a poet of some decadence, appears caught between the needs of his martial/imperial plot and his sense of lush and sometimes grotesque beauty. Sarah Ruden’s recent translation is a beautiful English poem in its own right.
The Inferno, Dante.
The first part of The Divine Comedy, Dante’s vision of damnation—a precisely arrayed and vividly described arena of merited suffering where the torture of the sinner is nothing other than to live the sin for eternity, an idea that grants this poem a psychological profundity whether one takes or leaves its theology. The old-fashioned Dorothy L. Sayers translation is suggested for those who like traditional formal verse; if you prefer modern poetry, the Allen Mandelbaum version might be best.
Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes.
The progenitor of the European novel, considered as a literary form that juxtaposes illusion to reality even as it celebrates the desire to transcend that reality. Don Quixote is second only to Hamlet as a candidate for the first modern individual represented in literature, a sad-faced wanderer caught up in cruel comedy because he sees how utopian the world could be even as he is forced to sojourn in the dystopia that the world in fact is. A book suspended between the archaic and the modern, hideously funny, painfully vivid, it is also as metafictional as anything calling itself “postmodern” with its texts-within-texts and stories-within-stories. Burton Raffel’s translation is slangy and fast-paced, like a grimly comic and experimental American road novel published only yesterday.
Paradise Lost, John Milton.
The great English epic of the Fall of Man, told in marmoreal blank verse, rich with imagery and dense with learning, by a disappointed Puritan revolutionary. Visionary and ambiguous—it’s been a commonplace of criticism since Blake to say that some part of Milton sided with his rebellious villain, Satan—this was an inspiration to the Romantic movement due to its sublimity and its insight into the psychology of evil. Read it for its grandeur, and then read it again, with an eye on the footnotes, for the massive humanistic education it provides as it synthesizes Biblical, Classical, and modern learning to “justify the ways of God to man.”
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and Pamela by Samuel Richardson.
The beginnings of the English novel. Defoe’s is the story of a shipwrecked sailor who recreates “civilization”—in the implicitly imperialist image of an English bourgeois Puritan slave-trading male—on a deserted island. The story is well-known, but the novel’s moving theological reflections on God’s justice and its almost unprecedented commitment to describing the workaday reality of how things look and work are much less famous, even though they more than anything make it worth reading. For a criticism of its politics of race and gender, see Coetzee’s Foe later on the list. Richardson’s Pamela is no less a founding work of modern individualism, but in its domestic variant. This epistolary novel, largely narrated by its eponymous heroine in a sequence of letters to her family, tells the story of a domestic servant first abused and then wooed by her aristocratic master; it is presciently feminist in its critique of male sexual predation, while also suggesting that men and women, and upper and lower classes, may put their conflicts behind them and unite in marriage if only they adopt Christian virtue and bourgeois rectitude. Both of these works are ancestors of all later novels that speak with and for the voice of the socially excluded or marginal individual.
Faust, Part I, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Goethe’s poetic masterpiece, Faust is a post-Shakespearean treatment of the medieval tale of a scholar who makes a pact with the Devil in return for knowledge. Heralding the Romantic era, Goethe’s God states that all who strive will be saved, overturning Christianity’s assurance that the meek will inherit the earth and vindicating Faust’s quest, in what may be an echo of the Kantian Enlightenment motto, “Sapere aude! (Dare to know!)” Goethe is too subtle for a mere celebration of Promethean striving, however, and the cost to those around him of Faust’s willfulness—most poignantly, his love, Gretchen—is carefully registered in this perhaps unstageable verse drama. See Walter Kaufmann’s fast-paced translation, in a volume that contains all of Part I and selections from the massive, phantasmagorical, experimental, and difficult Part II.
Poems of William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats.
This is the classic poetry of Romanticism, from Blake’s ironic ballads in Songs of Innocence and Experience to Coleridge’s supernatural verse narratives in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel to Shelley’s utopian drama of spiritual revolution in Prometheus Unbound, not to mention the exquisitely philosophical Odes of Keats. These works still define in many ways what we consider poetry to be—lyrical, inward, celebratory of nature and the individual—despite the counter-revolution launched by the modernists against these poets’ passion for new worlds and new experiences at the expense of order or tradition.
Persuasion, Jane Austen.
Austen’s slim final novel, autumnal and quietly experimental, perfects English realism as a treatment of domestic middle-class life centered on female experience. Persuasion contains Austen’s criticism of the Romantic poets for excessive ardor and her advocacy of the female-headed home as center of the British empire. But its conservative politics perhaps matter less than the novel’s sweetly melancholy love story, its resignation to diminished expectations, and its several startling deployments of a psychological prose that anticipates the innovations of Virginia Woolf.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë.
While not as intricately-wrought or as philosophically profound as Wuthering Heights, it is one of the great bildungsromane: a romance of female development from orphan deprivation to command of an estate. Written in the impassioned first-person by an author who disparaged as fervorless the society comedies of Austen, Jane Eyre is both Gothic and realist, a spiritual autobiography and a political protest; in the directness of its prose and in its commitment to the value of the individual, it descends from Defoe; but its vision of stormy and possibly haunted nature suggests Brontë’s belief, shared with the Romantic poets and with her sister Emily, in forces that transcend the social. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, discussed below, is a post-colonial and post-modern response to this Victorian novel.
Stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville.
The origins of the modern short story. Poe not only provides the first comprehensive theory of the form, he also all but invents several crucial genres: horror, mystery, and detective fiction. His best stories are those Romantic tales of doomed and obsessive love or psychological obsession: “Ligeia,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “William Wilson,” “The Man of the Crowd.” Hawthorne invests the Romantic tale with an allegorical religious energy that looks back to Dante and a disturbing psychology of negative and uncertain states that looks forward to Kafka—I recommend “Young Goodman Brown,” “Wakefield,” “The Birthmark,” Rappaccini’s Daughter,” and “The Artist of the Beautiful.” And Melville in “Bartleby the Scrivener” produces an iconically inscrutable allegory of capitalism and labor, while his “Benito Cereno” is a corrosive antebellum satire on the kinds of ideological illusions that allow such atrocities as slavery.
Poems of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson.
The poetry of American Romanticism—these wildly differing but complementary poets anticipate modernism in breaking poetic form to express dissident insights about life and language. Whitman’s ecstatic, erotic free verse, intoxicated and aroused at the whole spectacle of American reality from nature to labor to the bodies of men and women, expresses the individual soul as an aggregate of society and of the spirit that lies behind society. Dickinson, by contrast, writes wry odes to an ambiguous God and disturbingly funny reflections on human consciousness in syntax-bending, dash-scored fourteeners like the author of some heretical hymnal. Modern American poetry begins here.
Middlemarch, George Eliot.
The height of realism in the novel, and perhaps the greatest of all English novels: Eliot’s panoramic study of a fictional English town on the eve of the 1832 Reform Bill’s expansion of democracy contains more psychological insight and moral beauty than any other novel I know. Its intertwined plots, in which the romantic illusions of its central characters are gradually replaced by a tender regard for the limitations of the actual, suggest Eliot’s deeply humane reformist politics. Eliot was formidably intelligent, really a philosopher who wrote fiction, and Middlemarch is a bold attempt to offer a total vision of life in the form of the novel, an epic ambition that weds the realism of Richardson or Austen to the allegorical grandeur of Dante.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
The twin pillars of the great nineteenth-century Russian novel tradition. In Tolstoy’s double-plotted novel about an aristocratic woman’s adultery and a landowner’s moral reform, novelistic realism is taken to extremes of clarity and insight that have never been matched. In scene after scene, you will forget you are reading and feel that you sweat in a Russian hayfield with the reapers, sit aghast at a horse-race gone wrong, eavesdrop on intense domestic conflicts, or inhabit the conflicted hearts of the main characters. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, has no such pretense to realism; his novel is a torrent of nightmarish crime and conflict in a Russia as demon-haunted as the Gospels. At once high tragedy and mystery novel, religious testament and courtroom drama, family saga and comic apocalypse, The Brothers Karamazov stages through its title characters the combat of rival worldviews, from the vital sensualist Dmitri to the intellectual atheist Ivan to the pious monk Alyosha. For both novels, the recent translations of Richard Pevear and Linda Volokhonsky have been acclaimed—and they are very readable, probably the best place to start—though some critics have also doubted this proficient husband/wife team.
The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde.
The poles of Wilde’s rich literary gift. Wilde’s only novel, Dorian Gray is both Gothic potboiler and proto-modernist anti-bildungsroman. While its central image of the portrait that takes on the sins and the years of its ever-youthful and increasingly corrupt sitter is instantly memorable, the real delight of the novel is its witty and decadent portrayal of late-Victorian London’s elite artistic and implicitly queer milieu. The dialogue is as aphoristic and amusing as any in Wilde’s plays, while the descriptive prose is so decadent it is like fragrant perfume on a rotting corpse. As Aristotle noted, comedy has no history because thinkers have taken it less seriously than tragedy, but Wilde’s theatrical masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, is one of the funniest of all stage comedies. It veers from pointed satires of Victorian social complacencies to absurdist jokes that seem simply to revel in language’s ability to create formal perfection out of conceptual senselessness. Wilde is half Jane Austen, half Gertrude Stein in this classic play.
A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen.
Ibsen’s modern tragedies brought realism to the European stage in these quasi-feminist plays that treat, in intricate plots with unforgettable heroines, the prison that domestic life among the European middle classes had become, especially for women. Like Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, Ibsen is out to dispel illusion by casting suspicion on all received religious, social, and political values—in these plays, the values of women’s subordination to men in marriage above all. Rolf Fjelde is perhaps the definitive translator of Ibsen, though readers interested in theater may wish to consider translations/adaptations by contemporary playwrights.
Stories by Franz Kafka.
Kafka’s stories, including his breakthrough “The Judgment,” the famous novella-length “The Metamorphosis,” and the hauntingly mysterious para-parable—of the religious vocation? the artistic life?—“The Hunger Artist,” are some of the most influential and strange of the twentieth century. Combining a richness of detail with a vagueness of setting and meaning, Kafka’s stories are either allegories—some say of the twentieth-century totalitarian or minority experience, some say of religious truths—or are philosophical interrogations of the very possibility of meaning in narrative. They altered the non-realist tradition of fiction, pushing it from the supernaturalism of Romanticism to the doubts and ironies of the modern period. Kafka’s initial English translators, Willa and Edwin Muir, still have their defenders (including Coetzee), but contemporary readers may prefer more recent efforts, such as those of Joachim Neugroeschel or Susan Bernofsky.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, James Joyce.
A Portrait charts the development of Joyce’s alter ego, the aspiring writer Stephen Dedalus, but it does so by displaying the growth of Stephen’s language from infancy to university, so that the novel begins in babytalk and ends in aesthetic philosophy. Ulysses, the story of the day Stephen Dedalus met Leopold Bloom, is too many things to discuss here: a reconstruction of Dublin in 1904, an encyclopedia of English prose style, a retelling of The Odyssey and The Inferno and Hamlet and Robinson Crusoe, a parody of the realist novel, an “epic of the human body” (Joyce’s own description of it), and a rare portrayal in literature of a good and lovable man in the protagonist Bloom.
Cane by Jean Toomer and Quicksand by Nella Larsen.
The prose masterpieces of the Harlem Renaissance. Toomer uses the modernist techniques of fragmentation and symbolic organization to portray the African-American experience in the early twentieth century, from the brutal rhythms of Southern life amid social oppression and natural beauty to the Northern excitements of city modernity associated with jazz. A novel, a story collection, a poem cycle, and a closet drama all in one, Cane also encodes Toomer’s spiritual vision of the reconciliation of opposites. What Joyce did for Dublin in Ulysses and Eliot did for the modern European city in The Waste Land, Toomer does here for black American life. Larsen, adopting a more psychologically realist approach, gives us a novel-portrait of a woman caught between cultures—half Danish and half African-American, Quicksand’s heroine seeks a place of belonging in a racist world, and in so doing, provides readers a brief and harrowing tour of America and Europe in the age of Jim Crow, the Jazz Age, and interwar instability, from Harlem to Denmark to the Deep South. A short novel of unsettling intelligence and brilliant insight.
Mrs. Dalloway and Orlando, Virginia Woolf.
Woolf is the great English modernist. Mrs. Dalloway takes the day-in-the-life motif adopted by Joyce’s Ulysses and economizes it to produce a short, beautiful book about one day in post-WWI London when a society hostess and a shell-shocked veteran face the mounting crises of their lives. Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness prose turns fiction into poetry as she borrows the radical spiritual vision of Shelley and Keats to celebrate the upheavals of modernity in the teeming city. Her later novel Orlando, a fantasia about a poet who lives from the English Renaissance to the Victorian period and who changes from male to female along the way, is a high-spirited modernist romp that anticipates magical realism and satirizes traditional gender and sexual expectations.
Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot.
Eliot’s final poetry and the culmination of his religious vision. The poet revisits the sites of his early life and experiences the epiphany that all times are one time in the unity of the material and the spiritual, the rose and the fire. Much less allusive, fragmentary, and difficult than The Waste Land, Eliot here finds some of the clarity he’d been seeking. Extraordinary philosophical and devotional verse.
Endgame, Samuel Beckett.
The distillation of Beckett’s vision, this exemplary (and bleakly hilarious) modernist tragedy—a post-Hiroshima and post-Holocaust send-up of Shakespeare in its protagonist’s evocation of Hamlet, Lear, and Prospero—is set in one room at what appears to be the end of time. Its debilitated hero, Hamm, stands either for humanity in general facing its extinction (a New Critical or maybe Existential reading), or merely for the European white male at the welcome end of his historical reign (a post-colonial, feminist reading). Either way, this play is unrivalled in its seriocomic absurdism and its portrayal of the universality of pain.
Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges.
This first English-language collection of deliriously, fantastically philosophical fiction and non-fiction—with him the boundary between the two is porous—by the Argentine genius remains the best introduction to his work. It contains such classic stories as “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” (in which a group of intellectuals imagines a parallel world that gradually takes over our own in a startling allegory for totalitarianism), “The Garden of Forking Paths” (a story of intellectual intrigue and labyrinthine literature set during World War II), and “Funes the Memorious” (about a man who can forget nothing). The collection also features a few of Borges’s classic essays, such as “The Argentine Writer and Tradition” (wherein Borges boldly declares, against all compulsory nationalisms, the universal to be his artistic birthright) and “Kafka and His Precursors” (his famous statement on the paradox that writers create their own predecessors). The first and last word in postmodern literature.
Stories of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor.
What was begun by Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville (not to mention Joyce and Kafka) finds its fulfillment here in the symbolic short stories of these two American writers, so similar (both Southern white women writing in the middle of the twentieth century) but so different: Welty the lyrical liberal humanist, the lover of Romantic poetry and of Virginia Woolf, whose impressionistic stories could double as verse; O’Connor the cinematic Catholic, plain-writing and Dostoevsky-reading laureate of Southern Gothic, expert in a pictorial violence meant to shock the unredeemed reader into the recognition of grace. Each writer’s first collection—Welty’s A Curtain of Green and O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find—is worth reading.
The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing.
Initially considered the novel of the women’s movement on its publication, this compendious account of (middle-class British) female experience at mid-century is, even now, remarkably frank on erotic and gendered experience, from intercourse to menstruation. It is also a novel of ideas that dramatizes its heroine’s gradual disillusionment with two political and intellectual movements that defined the twentieth century: Marxism and psychoanalysis. Also crucial is Lessing’s portrait of British colonialism in southern Africa on the eve of its dissolution. Finally, this text, made up of the heroine’s own notebooks in which she tries to make holistic meaning from her disparate experiences, is an experimental construction, a postmodernist attempt to write a new kind of novel.
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys.
This is perhaps the first and best of what became a veritable late-twentieth-century genre: the postcolonial and feminist revision of a classic that allows that classic’s silenced and marginalized voices to speak. Rhys, who grew up in the West Indies, here fills in the gaps in Jane Eyre. In a fragmentary form that owes much to Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Toomer et al., the novel tells the life story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife, from her lyrically realized Caribbean-Gothic girlhood to her disastrous marriage to the Englishman, a forced assimilation that causes her self to give way to a hallucinatory disintegration.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez.
Probably the most influential novel of the twentieth century’s second half. In García Márquez’s epic, the history of the Buendía family recapitulates the history of their fictional town, Macondo, which in turn stands for the Columbian and more broadly Latin American experience, in a dizzyingly brilliant political allegory, anti-colonial and anti-capitalist, bedizened with the author’s signature technique of magical realism—the dead return and die again, a young woman is elevated into the sky, an executed man’s blood runs in a rivulet across town to his mother’s doorstep, an entire town loses the ability to remember. A mixture of ultramodern, international literary technique with national cultural tradition (García Márquez cited the stories of Kafka, Woolf, Borges, and his grandmother as influences), One Hundred Years of Solitude remade the novel as Joyce had done with Ulysses. Luckily for Anglophones, the English translation by Gregory Rabassa was humbly acclaimed by García Márquez himself as better than the Spanish original.
Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison.
Morrison, a Nobel laureate in literature, reaches the top of her form in this magical-realist novel about a young African-American man’s journey to the South in search of his origin. Morrison’s genial skepticism about male narrative creates a space around this gendered picaresque/bildungsroman for a chorus of female voices—led by the hero’s wise aunt Pilate as well as his cruelly abandoned Ophelia, Hagar—to express truths previously excluded from the literary canon. This novel is a rare combination of page-turning plot with masterful style, fierce emotion with political awareness, and a focus on the quotidian crossed by the unexplainable. One of the great American novels.
Foe and Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee.
Coetzee, a white South African, anatomizes oppression with an insider’s guilty knowledge and an outsider’s impassioned skepticism. Foe follows the path cut by Wide Sargasso Sea: it re-writes Robinson Crusoe from the point of view of an Englishwoman to give the female perspective left out of the male narrative. The storytelling woman in turn faces the political dilemma of trying to tell Friday’s story—the story of the colonized subject. The novel addresses the problems of articulating gender and race through writing, as its metafictional form queries the idea that truth can be communicated at all. Coetzee’s later novel, the controversial Disgrace, is brutal in its depictions of sexual violence and racism in post-apartheid South Africa. Its story—of a white male professor undone by scandal and of an attack on his daughter’s farm—leads eventually to a vision of life as painful as Beckett’s but as grace-haunted as T. S. Eliot’s.
An Artist of the Floating World and The Unconsoled, Kazuo Ishiguro.
Ishiguro’s graceful second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, is the first-person narrative of a Japanese painter concealing from us (and himself) his complicity in the atrocities of the World War II era, when he espoused nationalism and imperialism. A study, obviously informed by psychoanalysis, in an individual’s exculpatory narration of his life, the novel also offers a surprisingly anti-political story of how art and artists may get caught up in historical violence when they fail to remain in their studios in times of national crisis. But Ishiguro came to feel that such unreliable narrators and legible morals made things too easy on himself and on readers, so with his fourth novel, The Unconsoled, he provides a narrator adrift in a dreamlike Central European city straight out of Kafka; tasked with performing a concert at which he can never manage to arrive and burdened with those who want to use his art for their own purposes, the pianist hero endures a bravura 500-page anxiety dream with no ready explanations, as if Ishiguro were telling us that we are all as confused and complicit as the narrators of his earlier, “easier” fiction.
Underworld, Don DeLillo.
DeLillo’s masterwork, this 800-page montage of American life during the Cold War is held together less by a central character or plot than by DeLillo’s extraordinary inventiveness and eloquence. On page after page of visionary, perfect, and sometimes hilarious prose, we go to a baseball game with J. Edgar Hoover, a Lenny Bruce standup routine, an underground showing of the Zapruder film, an art installation in the Arizona desert, the New York City art scene in the 1970s, a Jesuit school in the mountains, a website devoted to a possible miracle, the immigrant Bronx of the 1950s, a hospital for radiation-poisoned children in Kazakhstan, a condom emporium, a bombing raid in Vietnam—all the while menaced by the elusive sense of an overweening conspiracy of unseen powers and visited by the mystical possibility of spiritual redemption.
Autobiography of Red, and Red Doc>, Anne Carson.
Carson, a Canadian classicist, is a brilliant and beloved contemporary poet. Autobiography of Red is labeled a “novel in verse,” and Carson presents it semi-seriously as a translation of mythological verse fragments by the ancient Greek poet Stesichoros—who came, Carson says, “between Homer and Gertrude Stein,” a temporal frame that puts the merely modern in its place. Like Eliot and Joyce, Carson mixes myth with the everyday: her verse novel retells the legend of Geryon as the mordant story of a young gay man’s erotic awakening and early travels. Red Doc>, its melancholy, zany sequel (there is a hallucinating cow), is less artistically successful but even more fun to read.
Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell.
British author Mitchell’s nested set of literary pastiches—from Melvillean political sea drama to dystopian science fiction—allows him to survey the mixed-genre storytelling possibilities of the early twenty-first century with a craftsman’s eye. But this novel attempts to go beyond the skepticism about narrative and truth found in such fragmentary post-modernist classics as The Golden Notebook and Foe. Its intimation that everything from past to future is connected across time through recurrences of soul makes an attempt reminiscent of The Waste Land to renovate western literature with eastern spirituality and to evoke non-oppressive forms of organic unity in both art and life. A novel that culminates in a moving treatise on the necessity of humanity’s moral reform, Cloud Atlas is also a masterpiece of suspense and adventure.