Currently reading Alexandre Dumas’ wonderfully evocative, twisty-turny Napoleonic adventure The Count of Monte Cristo and George Eliot’s Middlemarch – a book I’ve attempted countless times before, but never quite reached the end of. Other things I’ve read since I last posted include Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I don’t think I’ll be posting thoughts on every single book that I read. I did have a lot to say about Moon Tiger, but since it’s so slim, I think I may re-read it before writing about it here. I can’t really say that I read it all too thoroughly the first time through, it was all rushes of colour and exotic places and vague, washy impressions – I always feel I need to read a book more than once to start seeing any deeper glimpses.
Plus updates to my list! I discovered some Korean contemporary classics (novels and short stories from the late 19th to early 20th centuries), and though they’re English translation, I’m sure they’ll be a fantastic read anyway. The titles have been added to the Classics list here. It’s so difficult to find foreign books in their original languages where I live. Well-known classics like Anna Karenina do seem to be available for free online though – I can provide links if anyone’s interested, seeing as I’m planning on reading some Russian sooner or later myself.
As for this month’s meme, choosing a single favourite book is always a bit of a hard task, so I’m going to ‘cheat’ and introduce a select list of my most loved classics from across the ages (limiting it to 18th-early 20th centuries, because I feel those are the centuries where the novel – as a form and literary phenomenon – really reached its pinnacle*):
* though I’m not, in any way, implying its demise in recent days ;)
(18th century) Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin
One of the best works of Chinese classical literature, written in vernacular Chinese. Circulated in manuscript form with various titles, until its print publication in 1791. Follows the rising and falling destinies of two branches of an ancient and prosperous family/clan. It is incredibly complex and captures very well the lives of the Chinese aristocracy in those days. In fact, it’s such a sprawling, huge piece of literature that I’ve yet to read it from start to finish, but the parts that I did read were absolutely fabulous. I have to say that with Dream of the Red Chamber, I’m as much fascinated by the premise, the historical context and the idea of it all, as I am with the actual book.
(Early 19th century) 1816: Persuasion, Jane Austen
Almost impossible to choose a ‘favourite’ out of the Austens, because they’re all equally wonderful. I think I am prone to favouritism though. I remember at one stage reading Emma over and over again (and having a bit of a crush on Mr Knightley-types for a while); at another time, it was possibly Sense and Sensibility, given that I sat through the terrible BBC production of it. At the moment, though, I have to say that Persuasion captivates me most. Who can forget? The ever-so-romantic scene by the seaside, the poignant love letter! The tortured moments in the earlier sections of the book where Anne Elliot is tormented by her own foolishness…
(Late 19th century) 1870s: Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
This is an absolute tapestry of a book; finely woven and rich in detail and imagination. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it wonderful writing, stylistically speaking – it’s a little dry and prosaic for that. Yet Tolstoy is undeniably the master of storytelling, of weaving strands and threads of life, death, love, betrayal – all those great themes of literature – into a single story that flows seamlessly onto the page. What else can I say? It’s a masterpiece.
(Early 20th century)
1925: The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
Sparse, poetic language. All the exuberance and recklessness and glitz and glamour of the Roaring Twenties. Wonderfully written, terrible but complex and memorable characters. Incidentally, Baz Luhrmann’s film Gatsby is out on December 26th of this year, and I can’t wait. From the looks of it, he’s succeeded into transforming Fitzgerald’s prose into a delectable visual treat – the scene with all of Gatsby’s coloured shirts; the wet, dripping garden of lilacs where Gatsby and Daisy are first reunited; Daisy and Jordan seated like languid golden cats, dressed in floating whites – and of course, Gatsby’s magnificent house parties with flapper girls, Jazz music and men in brilliantly sleek, sleek tailored clothes.
Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
Published in the same year, incidentally, all the way across the globe though. Mrs Dalloway is my favourite Woolf, possibly because it’s the first I ever read. It may also have left an impression because it was one of the first works of literature I ever read in the stream-of-consciousness form, that that style of writing just blew my mind away at the time. I was fascinated by how seamless and melodic the entire thing was; it seemed like such an ingenious and incredibly beautiful way of capturing the mind’s innermost thoughts and melding them into a narrative.