Watching Eric Rohmer’s Summer last night--a movie I hadn’t seen in a decade and one that lives up to its unofficial status as my favorite film--I was again shamed to be reminded of Dostoevsky. The heroine (French, lonely, self-defeating) has read him; I have not.
And this is a dangerous game, isn’t it? If you’ve read David Lodge, you’ll remember the English professors playing a suicidal game of admitting which classics they haven’t read. Drunk, the young antihero plays his trump card: Hamlet. He wins the game.
He doesn’t get tenure.
So these are the thoughts that have been racing through my mind.
Still, top ten lists are amusing, so I offer mine. I took this to be about fiction, so Yeats, Shakespeare, and Virgil are not here. They probably would be otherwise. As would Keats’ odes.
I drew this up quickly: the top five or so are without doubt the most important novels in my life. After that, I’ll admit to some tinkering. I let the unquestioned masterpieces pass without comment. They are, to me, sacred texts. As Henry James (who came in thirteenth or so) said, one does not defend one’s god; one’s god is, in himself, a defense. (I doubt he foresaw that being applied to Leslie Stephen’s bluestocking daughter Virginia….)
- Pride and Prejudice
- Mrs. Dalloway
- Another Country by James Baldwin. I came to this on my own somehow in high school and it changed my life. It’s not close to being in the top twenty-five best books, but it does something incredible: it really tries to imagine a world of inter-racial love and friendship, of alliances between gay and straight people, even (least successfully) of finding smart women interesting and sexy. This was the world that my Seattle friends and I thought we were building in the early eighties in high school and to find Baldwin having tried it already made me believe in our fantasy all the more.
- Invisible Man
- Great ExpectationsLittle makes me happier and more connected to my girlhood and my father than Dickens. It’s hard not to choose Oliver Twist or David Copperfield, but this novel of a thwarted fairy tale did some important illusion-breaking for me. I have re-read it several times since with increasing pleasure and admiration.
- Anna Karenina
- Anne of Green GablesD. H. Lawrence wrote a gorgeous essay on the hymns of his youth as the lifeblood of his poetry. Nothing, he wrote, could touch him more deeply than “Oh Galilee, sweet Galilee / Where Jesus loved so much to be.” L. M. Montgomery was that to me. I still remember breathlessly running down to the kitchen, “Mama, what’s a kindred spirit?” “Oh. Well, Anne is my kindred spirit.” My parents were kind and did not giggle in front of me. I knew I was swept away, but what a pleasure it was.
- Women in LoveI came to Lawrence late. What a thunderclap. And, when I turned briefly away from Woolf to work on Lawrence--just for a little testosterone break--I met my husband.
- Wizard of the Crow I love what Bud said--that if he’s lucky, the book he’s reading now is his favorite. I’m still living in the spell of this one: a great, great epic of African literature with a marvelous romance, lots of humor, and biting satire.