Sunday, July 15, 2012
The other evening my wife and I were chatting with our pastor. The topic of conversation turned to novels and he explained that although she has no sympathetic characters and no happy endings, Flannery O'Connor is his favorite novelist. I have never read any of her works, but I had long intended to. She may have a genius for writing, but without sympathetic characters or happy endings, count me out!
This set me off on a small crisis: Do I have a favorite novel? Do I even like novels at all? As I wracked my brain, I thought of great novels that I never managed to finish (A Tale of Two Cities, The Count of Monte Cristo, Kristin Lavransdatter, The Brothers Karamazov), novels I finished but wished I hadn't (Great Expectations, The Grapes of Wrath, As I Lay Dying), children's novels (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Chronicles of Prydain, The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle), biographies (Guerilla, Pitt the Younger), novels I like for some part, most often the ending (The Scarlet Letter, Brighton Rock), and novels that were pretty good but perhaps not great (Many Dimensions, Dune). But adult novels that are hands-down, unambiguously, sit-up-and-pay-attention, great works? Do I really have any favorites, or am I a literary ignoramus?
Have no fear: my doubts were assuaged and - as my poor wife was trying to go to sleep - I assembled a list of some favorite novels:
The Space Trilogy. Although Lewis considered this a sci-fi series, it is really more fantasy simply set in space. But the result is still excellent. Weaving together Christian theology, Roman mythology, and Arthurian legend, Lewis crafts a story which contains several particularly stunning scenes and brings the medieval world-view to the modern age.
A Canticle for Leibowitz. This novel, set in post-apocalyptic America, tells the story of an order of monks which seeks holiness and truth while trying to re-build civilization. The novel addresses questions of faith and science, Church and state, and the dignity of human life, all in a way that hangs together and is moving without being cheesy.
Gates of Fire. I read an advanced reading copy of Gates of Fire many years ago and re-read it a couple times thereafter. Pressfield's novel of the Battle of Thermopylae is not for everyone - the very first word of the novel is not one for polite company - but he has drunk deeply of both ancient Greek literature and the memoirs of modern soldiers, creating an account of ancient warfare which is convincing on both counts, while also asking big questions about human nature.
Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen produces vivid and hilarious characters; her writing, though about a society more formal than our own, is deeply witty. But her greatest genius is for understated insights into character and virtue. Her prose flows along in such an enjoyable and almost obvious way that one might miss the keen observations of human nature, observations which might have been termed "common sense" in another age, but are largely lost on our own.