Halloween always brings to mind that classic of gothic literature, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
This is a novel that has so enamored me over the years I once took a class dedicated solely to the study of it line by line. The mythology it created is still alive and well today (witness the recent box office champ 30 Days of Night), and there have been a myriad of stage, film, and television adaptations that always seem unfaithful. Over the years Count Dracula has been romanticized and made an object of sympathy, whereas in the novel he was always kept at arm’s length as a monster, and we learned of his story through a series of diary entries, letters, and notes from those in and around his inner circle of victims. The book’s perversion of Victorian Era social mores and its inversion of the Christian sacraments made it an instant and subversive classic. Its subtexts concerning child sexual abuse and modern man’s irrational fears of women’s liberation make it a point of controversy to this day. Its lasting influence on future generations of writers and mythmakers will be bleeding and frightfully alive for years to come. Does this make it one of the greatest novels of all time?
It made me wonder is it even possible (or practical) to make a list of the greatest novels of all time? There’re only a finite number of great books one can read in their lifetime and there are inherent limitations in language and culture. For every classic unearthed and devoured there are dozens of masterpieces I will never even know existed. Obviously, this would become a list not necessarily of the greatest novels of all time, but of my favorite novels up to this point in my life
In compiling a list I realized my own personal limitations. I’ve never read James Joyce or Hemingway or Tolstoy. I only know of Charles Dickens from the endless parade of film adaptations of his great works. The list would also be heavily biased as for the past three years the events of my life have been indexed in relation to what Graham Greene novel I am reading at the time. As I write this, I’m lost in his Ministry of Fear. I’m a willing resident of “Greeneland” and I hope to never leave. Greene clearly separated his novels into two groups: entertainments and serious literature. Surely I could find a place on my list for the best of both worlds. A Gun for Sale is the best genre thriller I’ve ever read, and his The Power and the Glory is pure literary genius.
Could I also find a place on my list for a sentimental favorite? The children’s book The Prince of Whales is the first book I remember reading on my own and falling totally in love with. The story of a young humpback whale named Toby coming to terms with his dangerous dreams and his destiny unlocked my imagination in ways no other book has since.
Then there are books like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Other than the Bible, this is the most widely read book in the United States, and it’s a helluva lot better written and more morally relevant.
Of course we must also consider those books where the author has turned the weaving of words into an art form. It’s not just the story being told, but how it’s being told. Sure, Toni Morrison may have won the Pulitzer and Oprah’s heart with Beloved, but it’s with Jazz where she turned words into music. In this work, Style looked over at Substance and started feeling that deep down spooky kind of love. The beautiful bastard child they begot taunts and haunts me to this day. And yes, snobbish literary circles may forever debate the merits of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, but I agree with his wife when she remarked there was just something so special about the Light in August. In this classic canon about the American South, Faulkner took feelings and moments often rendered indescribable beyond words in their raw power and dripped them in over 500 pages of sweet poetic molasses. With Light in August, Faulkner performed nothing short of a miracle; he gave words to the unspeakable.
Now, the List:
10. The Prince of Whales, R. L. Fisher (1986)
9. An Accidental Man, Iris Murdoch (1971)
8. In the Hand of Dante, Nick Tosches (2002)
7. A Gun for Sale, Graham Greene (1936)
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960)
5. Jazz, Toni Morrison (1992)
4. Suite Francaise, Irene Nemirovsky (2004-French edition, 2006-English Translation)
3. Dracula, Bram Stoker (1897)
2. The Power and the Glory, Graham Greene (1940)
1. Light in August, William Faulkner (1932)
*What novels would make YOUR list? Feel free to leave your suggestions in the comment field.
Written by David H. Schleicher