Ten modern classics you should read this fall
Before I give you a list, here’s a confession: there can never be any right or wrong list of good books, and this is neither. Lists of books, like literary prizes, or any other prizes for that matter (read Oscar and/or Nobel) are extremely subjective and reflect the personal tastes and inclinations of those who concoct them. Following are a few books, which, I believe, have stood the test of time, books that delight and astound every time you read them, books that offer new rewards each time you approach them.
These books have been rightly called ‘modern classics’ because they retain the resonance and power they had when they were first published. These books will transform you, both, as a reader and as a person. They’ll change the way you think and feel, and these are the books that we will be reading and rereading in many more years.
2666 By Roberto Bolano
The Chilean novelist and poet, Roberto Bolano, was at the peak of his career when he suddenly died in 2003 at an extremely early age. A little before his death he had already been ascribed to a somewhat ‘superstar’ status is the literary world and the publication of his novel, 2666, added colossal weight to such assertions. Published posthumously in English, in 2006, and translated from Spanish brilliantly by Natasha Wimmer, it is now widely recognised as Bolano’s magnum opus, his masterpiece. It is as haunting, dreadful and hallucinatory as anything he has ever written. The story begins in Santa Teresa, at the Mexico-US border, and plunges the reader into the murky labyrinths of the literary world, haunted by writers, critics, academics, journalists, obscure novelists and historians. As writers rise to prominence, critics exude vitriol and academics scrutinise literary masterpieces, at the same time the town becomes infested by horrible crimes that open the window on a growing mystery, a looming, apocalyptic conspiracy, that will draw the reader into its vortex and reach its climactic conclusion. For all its beauty, sheer genius and strength of language, this is a contemporary classic of Latin American literature.
Underworld by Don Delillo
No writer has ever been as eerily prescient about the dilemmas of the 21st century as Don Delillo. In his early masterpieces published in the 80’s and the 90’s Don Delillo effortlessly captured the sense of paranoia and dread that have come to ensconce modern day America. His 1997 masterpiece, Underworld, is a prophetic novel that captures the essence of the post 9/11 life. His book, even after almost 20 years, is as important and timely as it was at the time of its publication. Particularly this year, in the light of the presidential elections and Donald Trump’s horrifying rise to prominence, Delillo’s ideas regarding the American anxiety and a sense of the decaying national identity have never been more pertinent. Don Delillo is an important writer, perhaps one of the best at work in the US today, and his masterpiece, Underworld, a novel that follows the USSR’s first atomic detonation and the overarching narrative of the cold war, is a novel for our times, for all times.
The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn
The world that Edward St Aubyn creates in this masterful quintet of novels, the Patrick Melrose series, is quintessentially English, almost Victorian in its evocation of grandeur, the addiction to wealth and a looming sense of dread over deteriorating social status. The protagonist of these novels, Patrick Melrose, is the scion of a wealthy and prominent aristocratic family in England. Owing to traumatic events in his childhood, his life becomes a litany of guilt and remorse which he tries to eradicate by forging a life of drugs and alcoholism. In Aubyn’s powerfully controlled prose style the story takes the shape of a satirical and even mirthfully account of a family, full of spiteful and venomous characters, snobs, paedophiles, elitists alike, that are dealing with the crisis of fraying social prominence in post-war England. The haunting beauty of the struggles of the protagonist married with the sensual beauty of Aubyn’s language gives these novels the haunting resonance and austere power of a classic.
Dispatches by Michael Herr
A ground breaking and genre-binding book, Dispatches marries the techniques of new journalism with memoir. Michael Herr served as a war correspondent for Esquire magazine during the Vietnam War and Dispatches, a compendium of his first hand experiences in Vietnam, gives the reader a visceral understanding of the human cost of war. The narrative voice is at once hauntingly urgent and mesmerising. No book to date offers such a compelling account of men at war and the horrors they face, which are often crushed behind a political facade of bravery and heroism. The interior monologue tactic in the book encapsulates the sympathy of the author and attempts to limn the psychological narrative of the combatants. This book is a potent and hallucinatory mix of wit, insanity and fear and is captured in the wry and eloquent symphony of Herr’s language.
A House for Mr Biswas by V S Naipaul
A House for Mr Biswas is the masterpiece of the Trinidadian novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, V S Naipaul. It is a dark and comic book that tells the story of a derailed man who is struck by misfortune since birth. Whatever he does, he fails at it. From the dissolution of his family to a troubling marriage and being sacked from his job, misfortunate follows him everywhere. But adamant on achieving a sense of semblance and independence he embarks on an exhausting and arduous journey to buy a house for himself. Sometimes sad, sometimes darkly comic, but always heart-warming, A House for Mr Biswas is the perfect exploration of a man’s struggle for identity and sovereignty during the gruelling time when Trinidad was struggling to break-free from the shackles of colonialism. Rife with marvellous prose and an abundance of insight it stands strong and bold, shoulder to shoulder, with the best novels of the last century.
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
The Australian writer Peter Carey is one of the three novelists in the world to have won the Booker prize twice. He won it the first time for his epic, Oscar and Lucinda, a remarkable historical novel and a moving love story. It recounts the story of Oscar, a son of a minister and an Anglican priest, and Lucinda, the heiress to a glass factory. The one thing that is common about them is that they are helpless gamblers, and when they meet on a ship over to Australia, they play a bet that will change their lives forever. Peter Carey has been one of the most significant literary voices in post-colonial Australia and he has produced some extremely fine novels, but this, I think, is his finest.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
With the publication of her Gilead trilogy, Marilynne Robinson has become one of the world’s greatest living writers. President Obama cited the first book in the trilogy as one of his favourites. However, even after 30 years, it is her 1980 debut novel, Housekeeping, that has attained that status of a modern classic and is widely considered her masterpiece. It tells the story of two sisters, Ruth and Lucille, who are abandoned by a series of relatives and later are taken into the care of an eccentric aunt, Sylvie. As the two sisters fall out, one into the murky outside world of rural Idaho and the other into the dark labyrinths of their haunting family history, the novel becomes a vortex of alchemical themes of loss, solitude and identity. Robinson’s language itself is a joy. The meditative calm of her prose can slow down your breathing and entrance you. Robinson evokes both, the desolate winter landscape and the struggles of her characters against the bleak solitude with such verve and authority that it is inevitable to submit to the hunting power of this novel.
Aunt Julia and the Script writer by Mario Vargas Llosa
The Peruvian novelist and Nobel Laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, seems to be deeply influenced by some of the major novels of the last century. His novel, The Bad Girl, is a modern reinvention of Gustav Flaubert’s Madam Bovary and his comic masterpiece, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter seems to toy with the themes of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The protagonist, Marito, works at a local Peruvian radio station during the day and dreams of becoming a writer at night. But then two unexpected arrivals in his life turn his world upside down. The first is his Aunt Julia, with whom he begins a romantic and secret love affair. The second is Pedro Camacho, a peculiar scriptwriter whose politically charged radio dramas please and offend people in equal measures. This mischievous and playful novel deals with the themes of forbidden love and adolescences and, for all its humorous prowess, it certainly is classic of comic fiction.
The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
This book earned Hanif Kureishi, apart from several awards, the labels of a ‘fearless’ and ‘taboo-breaking’ writer. After reading it, one can only agree. It’s a thrilling book that enthrals from its eccentric first sentence to last. The shameless and amiable hero of the book, Karim, is a typical London teenager, eager to escape the monotony of Southern London in the 1970s. Unexpectedly, he lands an opportunity in the world of theatre which not only promises but also brings the attention, fame and glory that Karim always wanted to achieve. As he acclimates to his new setting the fruits of success are also accompanied by the constraints of class and race. Largely autobiographical in nature, the novel deals with the dilemmas of growing up as an outsider in a society. Witty, warm, and above all, honest, this novel will discomfort and charm.
Pincher Martin by William Golding
William Golding is no stranger to readers. His masterful novel, Lord of the Flies, is required reading in schools worldwide and earned him universal acclaim and a Nobel Prize. However, it is his more intimate and deeply personal novel, Pincher Martin, which speaks directly to the predicament of the modern man. Like the cast of characters in Lord of the Flies, the protagonist of this book, Martin, is stranded upon a rock in the Atlantic. But whereas the former were a group of schoolboys, the latter is alone and secluded in his odyssey. His sole companions are the sweltering heat, the salty water and the freezing nights. In his solitude, he not only finds a way to survive but also finds himself. This devastating and shocking novel of human struggle is one of the best survival novels ever written.
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