By J. Peder Zane
Italo Calvino defined it is as a work that “has never finished saying what it has to say.” Ezra Pound said it possesses “a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness." And the 19th century French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve declared that “[it] has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered.”
At first glance, these definitions of classic/great books seem on the mark. Under their umbrella of excellence we can fit undisputed works of genius from “The Iliad” and “The Divine Comedy” to “Pride & Prejudice,” “Anna Karenina” and “Invisible Man.”
Unfortunately, they rest on a fallacy – that any and every book that exhibits these qualities will be considered a classic. In fact, there are many works graced with eternal and irrepressible freshness that are not considered part of the canon. I could mention “A High Wind in Jamaica” by Richard Hughes, “With” by Donald Harington and “The Night Inspector” by Frederick Busch. Some readers will dispute those picks; most have their own list of unheralded masterpieces.
The definition of great books will never be settled by competing arguments. There are no objective criteria that can establish the qualities exclusively possessed by a small handful of works deemed classics. That doesn’t mean that we should stop trying to define what makes some works better than others – this is possible, necessary and great fun. But it suggests that other, long ignored factors drive our definition of classic/great books. Read more ...
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Ron Rash has received many glowing reviews, but it would be hard to top the mash note he received from Janet Maslin last week for Something Rich and Strange, “a major short-story anthology that can introduce new readers to this author’s haunting talents and reaffirm what his established following already knows.”
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945). Waugh was one of the twentieth century’s great satirists, yet this novel, widely considered his best, is not satiric. It is, instead, an examination of Roman Catholic faith as it is used, abused, embraced, and rejected by the Flytes, an aristocratic English family visited by alcoholism, adultery, and homoeroticism.
How German Is It by Walter Abish (1980). Abish wields not pen, but scalpel, vivisecting Germany’s cult of appearances and culture of denial. His protagonist is Ulrich, whose father was executed for plotting against Hitler.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980). This is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, their eccentric and remote aunt.
1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray (1984). In a fleabag Scottish motel, divorced and depressed, Jock McLeish once again seeks consolation and strength through massive doses of alcohol and sadomasochistic sexual fantasies (some starring a woman named Janine). Through frank, complex language Gray takes us inside the addled mind of a powerless man seeking to impose some control over his life.