You are here
David Means's Top Ten List
1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880). In perhaps the consummate Russian novel, Dostoevsky dramatizes the spiritual conundrums of nineteenth-century Russia through the story of three brothers and their father’s murder. Hedonistic Dmitri, tortured intellectual Ivan, and saintly Alyosha embody distinct philosophical positions, while remaining full-fledged human beings. Issues such as free will, secularism, and Russia’s unique destiny are argued not through authorial polemic, but through the confessions, diatribes, and nightmares of the characters themselves. An unsparing portrayal of human vice and weakness, the novel ultimately imparts a vision of redemption. Dostoevsky’s passion, doubt, and imaginative power compel even the secular West he scorned.
2. Independent People by Halldór Laxness (1934). The Icelandic Nobel laureate’s best novel is a chronicle of endurance and survival, whose stubborn protagonist Bjartür “of Summerhouses” is a sheepherder at odds with inclement weather, poverty, society in particular and authority in general, and his own estranged family. Laxness unflinchingly dramatizes Bjartür’s unloving, combative relationships with his step-daughter Asta and frail son Nonni (a possible authorial surrogate)—yet finds the perverse heroism in this bad shepherd’s compulsive pursuit of freedom (from even the Irish sorcerer who had cursed his land). This is an antihero for whom readers will find themselves cheering.
3. A Sportsman’s Notebook by Ivan Turgenev (1852). Set in the Russian countryside, this series of linked, introspective story-essays describes the rambles of a young nobleman shooting game on the vast estates of Russia’s aristocracy. As Turgenev depicts the beauteous intricacies of the natural world, he captures the suffering of Russian serfs, helping to convince his country’s leaders to abolish the feudal system.
4. Stories of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904). The son of a freed Russian serf, Anton Chekhov became a doctor who, between the patients he often treated without charge, invented the modern short story. The form had been overdecorated with trick endings and swags of atmosphere. Chekhov freed it to reflect the earnest urgencies of ordinary lives in crises through prose that blended a deeply compassionate imagination with precise description. “He remains a great teacher-healer-sage,” Allan Gurganus observed of Chekhov’s stories, which “continue to haunt, inspire, and baffle.”
5. The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925). The Trial is not just a book, but a cultural icon; Kafka is not just a writer but a mindset—“Kafkaesque.” Here, Everyman Josef K is persecuted by a mysterious and sadistic Law, which has condemned him in advance for a crime of which he knows nothing. Modern anxieties are given near-archetypal form in this parable that seems both to foretell the totalitarian societies to come and to mourn our alienation from a terrible Old Testament God.
6. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929). A modernist classic of Old South decay, this novel circles the travails of the Compson family from four different narrative perspectives. All are haunted by the figure of Caddy, the only daughter, whom Faulkner described as “a beautiful and tragic little girl.” Surrounding the trials of the family itself are the usual Faulkner suspects: alcoholism, suicide, racism, religion, money, and violence both seen and unseen. In the experimental style of the book, Quentin Compson summarizes the confused honor and tragedy that Faulkner relentlessly evokes: “theres a curse on us its not our fault is it our fault.”
7. Dubliners by James Joyce (1916). Although many of these largely autobiographical stories evoke themes of death, illness, and stasis, nearly all offer their characters redemption—or at least momentary self-knowledge—through what Joyce called “epiphanies,” in which defeat or disappointment is transformed by a sudden, usually life-altering flash of awareness. The collection’s emotional centerpiece is its concluding tale, “The Dead,” which moves from a New Year’s Eve party where guests muse about issues of the day—the Catholic church, Irish nationalism, Freddie Malins’s worrying drunkenness—to a man’s discovery of his wife weeping over a boy who died for love of her. A profound portrait of identity and loneliness, it is Joyce’s most compassionate work.
8. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913–27). It’s about time. No, really. This seven-volume, three-thousand-page work is only superficially a mordant critique of French (mostly high) society in the belle époque. Both as author and as “Marcel,” the first-person narrator whose childhood memories are evoked by a crumbling madeleine cookie, Proust asks some of the same questions Einstein did about our notions of time and memory. As we follow the affairs, the badinage, and the betrayals of dozens of characters over the years, time is the highway and memory the driver.
9. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922). Filled with convoluted plotting, scrambled syntax, puns, neologisms, and arcane mythological allusions, Ulysses recounts the misadventures of schlubby Dublin advertising salesman Leopold Bloom on a single day, June 16, 1904. As Everyman Bloom and a host of other characters act out, on a banal and quotidian scale, the major episodes of Homer’s Odyssey —including encounters with modern-day sirens and a Cyclops —Joyce’s bawdy mock-epic suggests the improbability, perhaps even the pointlessness, of heroism in the modern age.
10. A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oë (1969). The preeminent voice of Japan’s New Left from the 1960s, Oë brings a most un-Japanese rawness and rebellion to his semiautobiographical story of a young intellectual who fathers a brain-damaged baby. This modern morality tale juxtaposes its protagonist’s tortuous cerebral musings with a visceral world of blood and bile, sexual deviance, and medically sanctioned infanticide. Oë’s grotesqueries paradoxically render his characters more human and sympathetic, rather than less, while the sometimes self-conscious artifice of his language accommodates a society adrift from tradition and meaning.