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10. Karen Blixen / Isak Dinesen
Toughest choice to make here. Thus far I have read only three. They're all somewhat banal. The most beautiful things about her work are stories within her stories, that is, anecdotes or tales characters told one another. Think of her work as caskets of jewelries. Some're simply breath-taking, like the tale of a blindfold rope-dancer and two philosophies in the first Gothic tale. Ironically I don't think she invented those herself. Perhaps they're what she heard while traveling to all exotic locations. In a way, she is like a grand collector of really good bedtime stories.
Then again those tales by themselves might not amount to much. How she embedded them within her stories -- like a ring-smith crowning his masterwork -- makes them gems. Her prose is hyponotic. Among a few successful who blend fantasy with reality. I always find a novel is not magical by its dreamlike elements, but by the realistic told in a dreamlike fashion. Hardly anyone equals Blixen in the task.
Out of Africa: her most popular work. A very inspring piece. Regardless of its memo-like horbgorble, the book is wonderfully capturing.
The Winter's Tales: A collection of short stories. My favorite of hers. As said, the stories themselves do not matter as much as what's inside. The Young Man with a Carnation, the first one, contains The Blue Jar, one of the most beautiful short stories ever. Interesting enough, long time ago I read an anthology of short literatures of which only The Blue Jar is compiled by not the whole The Young Man With a Carnation. Am not sure which way I like it better.
Seven Gothic Tales: My least favorite. Some stories are pretty bland. Yet certain ones are quite haunting.
"The earth was made round so we would not see too far down the road."
"The cure for anything is saltwater--sweat, tears, or the sea."
9. Thomas Mann
Can you judge a man reading only his two books? Perhaps not. Yet Buddenbrooks and Doctor Faustus leave a strong enough impression on me to include him in the list. Yes, I have yet read Death in Venice, Magic Mountain, or Felix Krull which, from what I heard, should only strenghten the said impression.
Mann is a strange choice compared to others. Critics say Mann's work is too devoid of scientific reasoning, like a game of bumblepuppy, I beg to differ. His proses are far from magical; in fact they grounds so deep into reality I can't help but admire. Mann wrote with a strong command of story telling. Many authors always rush to the good parts. Mann really knew how to manage time and pages. His novels are huge but never boring. They might took forever building up details, but the results sure are satisfying.
If reading is like walking in a park, most writers concern themselves with million ways to dazzle us -- showing them trees, rocks, bridges, and all those good stuffs. Not Mann. He simply laids down bricks, building a road so solid it's nothing but a comfort to walk on.
Buddenbrooks: a bourgeoisy, European-to-the-extreme novel, and I love every minute of it! This is an Austen's with a sense of decaying moral and value.
Doctor Faustus: yet another retelling of Faust. This one is a piano composer. The first world war and the German psyche actually add interesting spins to the legend. In addition, reading about classical music always gives me joy.
"No man remains quite what he was when he recognizes himself."
"War is a cowardly escape from the problems of peace."
8. Herman Hesse
Finally a writer whom I feel I've read enough to be authoritative about.
Hesse is perhaps the most wildly read Nobel Laureate asides from Kipling. During the course of my life, I've met three people who claimed him as their favorite authors and read all of his work -- which isn't true by the way. Except for The Glassbeads Game, Hesse's books are meritted from being short. They are also fairly digestible, and have a lot of appeal to teenagers.
His perpetual theme is coming-of-age. Most of his books're about a young man braving the world in seach for truth, beauty, and the meaning of life. He is an anti-institutional, both in academic and romance. Yet not against mentorship system. His characters always find a sage of the wilderness to be pass on knowledge and philosophy. Full of innocence, the novels ring a good bell inside younsters of any era.
Do I always agree with what he said? Actually no. I enjoy the spirit of his books more than their actual contends. Nothing is as intoxicating as youth sometimes.
From my favorite to least.
Steppenwolf: A rather strange piece. The central character is an old man. Still the central theme is about discovering life. The sage appears in a form of a mysterious, young girl who might or might not be his long-lost male friend. I always appreciate any book that teaches people the joy of dancing. The last thirty pages contain some weird stuffs, unlike anything I've ever read from him.
Siddhartha: A retelling of the Buddha legend. Siddhartha is the young man, and the sage is a boat rower. The book is a par excellence of Hesse's obsession with eastern philosophies.
Narcissus and Goldmund: His darkest piece. Written after the first world war. The only time, I guess, Hesse started to doubt if this world is worth exploring after all.
Knulp: His most beautiful novels. Optimistic, yet quaint with touchs of sadness. Knulp is the young man, and the sage is perhaps God himself.
Gertrude: Hesse's attempt in writing about music. A rare chance I find the book's short length doesn't do justice to its contend.
Damien: The most Hessest of all Hesse's. Not for a non-believer.
Rosshalde: Based on Hesse's own unhappy household.
Beneath the Wheel: A good example of his anti-institutional idea. The ending is quite out of nowhere.
"There is no reality except the one contained within us. That is why so many people live such an unreal life. They take the images outside them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself."
"Flower send out their scent and their seeds, because they would like to go to each other; but a flower can't do anything to make a seed go to its right place; the wind does that, and the wind comes and goes where it pleases."
7. Italo Calvino
Calvino, like Hesse, belongs to authors I admire their oeuvre more than any single book. He might not be the greatest writer in this list, but he sure is the most fun.
Take The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Name me one book more imaginative than this in which travelers spending a night at an old castle fell under the spell of silence. They thus relived and told their adventures through the series of tarot cards. The pictorial tales are laid down on a table, forming a big rectangle of which any line and row tells particular story.
Indeed, I know a more imaginative book. It's called If on a Winter's Night a Traveler about "you" in search of the true book of If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, the new novel by Italo Calvino. It's easier to read than to explain.
Calvino is a book lover. He takes texts and pages not as a media, but as an art form by themselves. Remind me of those 18th century printers who always invented an original way to make, bind, and print a new book. Calvino doesn't make a book; he pens it with child-like glee, and the result's full of excitement and innovation. It's not in any way experimental or undecipherable. He writes to be understood; his prose is straight forward. A book, to him, is a playground, and readers can feel him hopping, climbing, having fun with us.
From my favorite to least
Our Ancesters: A collection of three novella. Calvino's most straight forward work. A blend of fairy tale and history. With a bit of existentialism, but that philosophy never get as interesting as it is here.
The Castle of Crossed Destinies: An imaginative exercise in story telling. He probably has more fun writing it than us reading it. Still the work is so good you will allow him to have that piece of joy.
If on a Winter's Night a Traveler: Calvino's most famous work. Recommended for a newcomer.
Malcovaldo: A collection of beautiful, short tales about life in a big city.
The Watchers: Calvino's most serious work, and perhaps among his lesser. The concept is quite interesting though, about a guy who is in charge of patients' voting inside an asylum during one local election.
Mr. Palomar: Another short pieces about a man and science.
Invisible Cities: More like a collection of poem than a novel.
"A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say."
"Revolutionaries are more formalistic than conservatives."
6. Angela Carter
After an Italian legend and two German nobel laureates, isn't it a bit digressing to mention this British lady? Definitely not. I have to admit my reading might not cover enough of her work to put me in a judging position. Yet from what I've read, there is no question she is among the contemporary masters of English language. After all she is among the only two on this list whose native language is English.
How to describe Angela Carter? Let's say she is a Fellini of books. There is an obsession with circus and clown, best depicted in Nights at the Circus. And like Fellini's, reading her novels is not too different from paving your way through a labyrinth of erotic dream. Surreal, symbolic, but never pretends to be anything above her readers.
Carter always introduce new characters in every chapter of her novels. Most of the time they are more fun to read about than the protagonists themselves. The style might be too episodic for some who only used to stories with economic characters.
Bloody Chamber: A collection of short stories among which include In the Company of Wolves. Admittedly I've never watched the movie, but the story is as scary and erotic as any piece of writing can be.
Heroes and Villains: Her most popular work. Ironically it's my least favorite. I find the book plauged with symbols, and not that rewarding. It's pretty short though, so might be a good introductory piece. Contain an erotic scene featuring plants.
Nights at Circus: A brilliant book with a slightly unsatisfying ending. Contain an erotic scene featuring a tiger, a muscle man, a chimp trainer, and a young reporter.
The Infernal Desire Machine of Doctor Hoffman: I have read only four books by Carter, and they all rank from poor to masterpiece, so why do I put her above Hesse or Mann? Seven words. The Infernal Desire Machine of Doctor Hoffman. I love love love this book. A classic story of good vs evil, or in the language of Desirio, the protagonist, dream vs reality. With a bit of Faust mixing in. It's also a tragic love story with a breath-taking climax (or anti-climax). Contain erotic scenes featuring a girl gangbanged by horses, and a guy by a bunch of Arab acrobats.
"Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people."
"I think the adjective "post-modernist" really means "mannerist." Books about books is fun but frivolous."
"Midnight, and the clock strikes. It is Christmas Day, the werewolves birthday, the door of the solstice still wide enough open to let them all slink through."
5. Fyodor Dostoevsky
Here come the big D. With Dostoevsky, I should first explain why he is not any higher. The answer is simply I've only read Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, gorgeous gorgeous books, definitely among the best ten.
Strictly speaking, Dostoevsky is a nineteenth century writer, and according to the rule, I should only stick to the twentieth. I make an exception here, because his work is thoroughly modern. It weds the traditional story telling of Dicken, Bronte, and Austen, with a more contemplative nature of twentieth century.
A quality I find unmatched in Dostoevsky is his theatrical sense. I love how he construct scenes that stand up and speak for themselves. If you ask me to rank top ten moments from books, the first five are definitely belong to his. Something tells me the man is going to really enjoy cinema as a medium.
Crime and Punishment: Dostoevsky's first major novel, and perhaps the most widely read. It's even mentioned in Stranger than Fiction as a book one should finish before one dies. The book features a horde of memorable characters. Scratch that, every major character is well written. I love the crazy aristocratic Katerina and her good-for-nothing husband. Rodya, the theoretical murderer, and Svidrigilov, his sister's admirer/employer. Is there any supporting character more complex than Svidrigailov? He is freakish and threatening, but his end is also heart-breaking. And, yes, Sonya the saint. Speaking of which, how come all Russian names are so freaking cool?
The Idiot: The story of a beautiful person was, contradictory, written almost at the same time as of the guilty. Crime and Punishment might be Dostoevsky's most famous book, but Prince Myshkin is his best known character. Justifiably so, since The Idiot is Myshkin's showcase. Not to say, there is no other good character. Rogozhin, Myshkin's evil opposite and Hippolite, his intellectual opposite. Myshkind's two loves, Nastassya Filippovna, the pitiful beauty who famously flees the altar, and Aglaya his actual true love. The books features scenes such as Hippolite's speech and his subsequent "suicide", the mentioned fleeing the altar, and my personal favorite, Myshkin and the vase incident.
"One can know a man from his laugh, and if you like a man's laugh before you know anything of him, you may confidently say that he is a good man."
"The greatest happiness is to know the source of unhappiness."
4. Gu Long
Gu Long is unique to the list in many ways. The only non-european, the only genre writer, and the only one whose work I've read not in English translation.
Praised as among the grand tripod of modern Wuxia. I'm not too familiar with Liang Yusheng, but will duel to death with anyone who claim Jinyong is greater than Gu Long. Different from his predecessors, Gu Long is a scholar of western literatures, a great admirer of Fleming, Maugham, Hemmingway, Steinbeck, and Puzo. His novels are melting pots of western and Wuxia elements.
And yet, the reason I put him over Nobel Laureates and great European thinkers is Gu Long's the Wuxia writer who truly understand Chinese philosophy. Jinyong can quote all Confucius that he remembers, but Gu Long is the one who inaugurates Zen into storylines and swordplays.
My first Gu Long's is Red Snow. Red Snow was a great swordsman. A bad guy wanted to off him. What did he do? Sent henchmen, weaved elaborate plot -- admittedly to the point of being ridiculous -- not to physically harm Red Snow, but to weaken him emotionally. Amid all bloodbaths and plot twists, the novel is essentially a story of conflicts within a man.
Many time Gu Long has been emulated, but yet never equal. People are caught up by the fighting, the double-crossing, and the freak characters -- his novels also work as fantasy -- but Gu Long's greatest adventure always lies in the chambers of human heart.
I have read more than twenty, most of which I don't know original Chinese or English title. I'll only list those that I can find online.
Chu Liu Xiang Xi Lie: The Chu Liu Xiang Series: an equivalent to James Bond. About a great thief who can break into any man's house and any girl's heart.
Duo Qing Jian Ke Wu Qing Jian: Sentimental Swordsman, Ruthless Sword: Who could have believed a book with a title this dumb can be among the great pieces of modern literature. It's a dumb name for one thing, the main character does not use sword. I prefer an alternative Flying Knife of Little Li. Little Li is the mightiest fighter of all Wuxia universe. His knife-throwing skill's second-to-none. Not a flashy, but essentially useless, style audiences are treated in House of Flying Daggers. We're talking about the guy whose knife is so fast it is compared to a meteor, and he never miss. This novel is actually the first of a quadrulogy of which only the first and the last are worth reading. The aforementioned Red Snow is the last in the series.
Jue Dai Shuang Jiao: The Legendary Twins A novel so long that it features some really good along with quite stupid stuffs.
Liu Xiao Feng Xi Lie: The Liu Xiao Feng Series Nicknamed series of the freaks, since they contain so many. The third book though is among Gu Long's top novels.
I can't find any English translation, and I don't want to butcher his saying by translating them myself. I'll give you one.
"Men are like porcupines. No matter how cold it is, we cannot hold without hurting each other.
3. Umberto Eco
To be honour among the top three, it's not enough that an author wrote one or two really good books, or has a solid oeuvre. Umberto Eco, for example, pens The Name of the Rose which easily is among the three best books I've ever read. Foucault's Pendulum, which I consider his weakest, is still a masterpiece by its own right.
Eco is a reason I have never gotten into fantasy genre. Who care about Middle Earth, when there are guys like Eco who can present medieval Europe to be as colorful and imaginative as any other-worldliness, granted he sometimes cross those fine lines devided history, folklore, and mythology. His novels are playgrounds where historical figures run amok, create mayhem, but never wander too far from their real-life characters.
Interesting enough, Eco tries as much to base his tale on reality. If there are fantasy elements, he leaves possibility those might be lies, parts of hallucination, or crank theories. Sometimes that a character -- or readers -- believes in something is enough for those to become real. I used to read an essay where Eco quotes folklores and old wives' tales, once enough people in believe them, gain significant momentum and become as forceful to the flow of history as any factuals.
Eco is also a real scholar. His work is as educative as it's interesting. While many people learn about the Knights of Templar from Da Vinci's Code, Eco approches the same topic in Foucault's Pendulum with much more elegant and responsible manner.
The Name of the Rose: No one can praise this book enough. A medieval murder mystery, a discourse on Chirstian philosophy, and a fantastic tale that will chill your spine. A Sherlock Holme-like monk investigates the death in a monastery; and what's a monastery! There is this library that seemingly contain all knowledge ever conceived by mankind.
The Mystic Flame of Queen Llorona: This is the coolest book ever! In fact, it's so cool that I don't even know a book can be this cool. It's a pictorial novel about an amnesian trying to construct the lost memory of his childhool. And you know what? The pictures are all in freaking color. How's about that!
Foucault's Pendulum: A series of crank theories, one after the other. It's often regarded as Eco's second best, although I do not recommend it unless you already are a fan.
Baudolino: A laugh-riot, semi-historical, semi-fantastical tales about a group of adventures looking for the lost kingdom of Christianity. My second Eco's, and also my second favorite. Humour is always a charmful seasoning in all his writing, but Baudolino demonstrates what a funny guy this semiotic professor can be.
The Island of the Day Before: A weird novel of which more than 200 pages absolutely nothing happens. Yet it's anything but boring. The topic is about how medieval philosophers combine science and religion.
"But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth."
"The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else."
"The comic is the perception of the opposite; humor is the feeling of it."
2. Iris Murdoch
Here is a nice piece of story. The person who introduced me to Dame Murdoch is none other thant Roger Ebert himself. One day I checked out reviews of Iris and found that Ebert was among the few who gave this movie a rotten. His reasoning is that it does not do justice to the life of one of his favorite authors. This makes me very curious since at that point I have never heard of this Murdoch before. So, I read The Sea, The Sea which according to Ebert is a good introduction to her work.
my. oh. my.
The Sea, The Sea is the second most devastating experience I've ever had with book. (The most is Lolita.) The book is not tragic. We are introduced to a protagonist who is not easy to root for with a much less than honorable aim. Yet how much we want him to succeed. As much as we want the aged knight to bring down an indestructible windmill.
If you are not familiar with her work, think skeptic Jane Austen. My definitive Murdoch moment comes when in one of her novel, a certain character dies. He is well loved, and seemingly all are going to mourn his death til the back cover, right? wrong. Instead they come to a conclusion that his death benefits those around him. Thus we are left with a cold, reasonable yet nonsensical world in which human are non-stereotypical. Murdoch's specialty is to make characters so clear and exact you can understand -- but not predict -- how they are going to respond to certain situations.
Ebert describes Murdoch as a "writing machine." This is both to and against her credit. For all these years, I have nailed three or four of her novels every year -- they are hugh -- and even now, I only finished half of the auteur. The work ranks from masterpiece to a load of crab.
Under the Net: A terrific first novel. Very different from what to follow. For some reason, it's quite famous, so I suggest it as a good introduction due to its short length.
The Sandcastle: The third novel in which you start to discern her particular genius for character study and drama.
An Unofficial Rose: A book with a very good idea. Yet failed execution.
A Fairly Honourable Defeat: Perhaps my second or third favorite. If you like Rohmer, this book is definitely for you. Simply reading the philosophical exchange between characters put a smile on my face.
The Sacred and Profane Love Machine: My least favorite. Although up til the last hundred pages, it has a chance to be her best work. During the third act, Murdoch (intentionally?) screw up the story so much that it's almost another kind of fun to read.
The Sea, the Sea: I am very related to this book personally. I can see myself grow old and become like Charles Arrowby, the protagonist, an aged famous director who is going to employ all his charm, intellect, and pull to win the lost love of his life.
Nuns and Soldiers: A really good book that is way too long.
The Good Apprentice: Vying for the second favorite spot, this book is a perfect blend between magic and psyche. The first half is very idyllic, comparable to the opening of Goethe's Werther or Melville's Pierre.
The Book and the Brotherhood: Another really good book that's way too long. The last chapter is a waste.
The Green Knight: Ok, I lied. This is her worst novel. So bad that I can't even finish it. The book has more endings than what is good, and by the time I came to the fourth fake ending, I just had it.
Jackson's Dilemma: A book that has a potential to be great, but cut short perhaps by her illness. It's interesting for you can really see the nut and bolt of how she constructs her work. Good for scholars.
"A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia."
"Every man needs two women: a quiet home-maker, and a thrilling nymph."
"Human affairs are not serious, but they have to be taken seriously."
"People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us."
"The absolute yearning of one human body for another particular body and its indifference to substitutes is one of life's major mysteries."
1. Milan Kundera
You cannot overstate the influence of Milan Kundera in my life, as an individual, a scholar, a writer, or a sexual being. Kundera is such a strong presence, so strong in fact that I cannot imagine how I "think" before reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being half a decade ago.
Once, like many people, I adhered to the "one writer one book" rule, and it had taken me quite a while before I actually read my second Kundera's -- which is actually the first one he'd ever written -- The Joke. 'tis wonderful, and that's the end of the stupid rule.
Kundera is an unconventional choice for this spot since his work seems to rub many people the wrong way. He is more of a self-proclaimed philosopher than a writer. In his book, he just presents the idea; he does not believe in those bullshits about having the readers conclude the moral by themselves. It is, for him, tell not show. At the end, how receptive you are is how much you believe his craps. I just happen to think he is the wisest guy in the history of mankind second only to Buddha.
Kundera is the only author whose entire repertoire I finish, fiction and non-fiction alike, with the only exception of Curtain his most recent collect of essays, and Farewell Waltz only because I am not sure I can live in a world without unread Kundera's novel.
The Joke: People always start from The Unbearable Lightness of Being which, I think, is a wrong approach. The Joke is Kundera's most accessible, and what else, also his second best. Very similar in theme to Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Yet his purpose is more to ridicule than to antagonist. Communism is not this big bad labyrinthian thing. It's just hilarious as hell, and it does not even know that. Precisely the first novel you can expect from a guy who was born on April's fool.
Laughable Loves: His only collect of short stories -- we will come to this when we discuss the "sequel." Some are obviously written before The Joke. My least favorite of his.
Life is Elsewhere: Although seduction is an ubiquitous topic in The Joke, it's not until Life is Elsewhere that Kundera earns his fame as an erotic writer. A story about an artist who sells his life and soul to the party.
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting: A sequel to Laughable Loves. It is a novel of some sort. With different stories and characters handling the same theme over and over from the simplest to most complicated of idea. A Thema con Variation. Perhaps the only experimental book that I deem successful in its being an experiment.
Jacques and His Master: A play. A retelling of Diderot's. A collector piece. My most treasured book since I stumble on it in a second-handed book shop in Bangkok.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Ah...his most influential...
Immortality: His second most influential. I actually find it a bit overrated, although the idea of "projecting one's immortality" really captures me. It's a more intellectual version of Haneke's Code Unknown which in turn is a thinking men's Crash. I don't recommend it to a beginner, since aside from The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, it's his weirdest, and I don't think the experiment is that successful.
Slowness: A big piece of nothing for your entertainment, as Kundera himself call it. A work that's so short it hardly leaves any impression on you.
Identity: Kundera's least kunderian piece. More storytelling than others. The novel builds on the seduction/deception theme of Life is Elsewhere and many others.
Ignorance: His latest work. Somewhat middle-of-the-road. A good mixture of his wit and unique style. Another good place to start. The last three novels are written after the fall of Berlin Wall, so in a way, this signifies an end of the ongoing war between him and communism. And how appropriate that the motive of this novel revolves around Odyssey.
"Nothing is more repugnant to me than brotherly feelings grounded in the common baseness people see in one another."
"No great movement designed to change the world can bear to be laughed at or belittled. Mockery is a rust that corrodes all it touches."
"People are always shouting they want to create a better future. It's not true. The future is an apathetic void of no interest to anyone. The past is full of life, eager to irritate us, provoke and insult us, tempt us to destroy or repaint it. The only reason people want to be masters of the future is to change the past. They are fighting for access to the laboratories where photographs are retouched and biographies and histories rewritten."
"And what can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?"
"Love begins at the point when a woman enters her first word into our poetic memory."