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Philip Caputo's Top Ten List
1. The Oresteia by Aeschylus (458 b.c.e.). Before Freud there was Aeschylus, who revealed the mind’s darkest impulses through this trilogy of plays mapping the mad round of retaliations that bring down the royal house of Atreus. In the first play, the Greek King Agamemnon — who sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to appease the gods before setting sail for the Trojan War — and his slave, Cassandra, are slain by his wife, Clytemnestra. In the second play, Clytemnestra is slain by her son, Orestes (egged on by his sister Electra to avenge their father’s murder). In the final play, Orestes is freed from the Furies (or the curse) because, unlike the other characters — who search for scapegoats — he admits his own culpability, ending the cycle of violence through personal responsibility.
2. Medea by Euripides (431 b.c.e.). What would you do if the man who promised you love, children, and a throne, after convincing you to slay your brother and exile yourself from your home, decided to marry a richer woman instead? This play gives a whole new meaning to “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Medea takes rejection to horrifying levels, killing her children as revenge on Jason for his faithlessness and his manipulation of her. That she is not punished for this deed is a stunning conclusion to this riveting play.
3. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1321). Dante’s poetic trilogy traces the journey of a man’s soul from darkness (The Inferno) to the revelation of divine light (Paradiso) while providing commentary and gossip about the politics and prominent families of Florence. Led in his pilgrimage through the underworld and purgatory by the Greek poet, Virgil, Dante is escorted into paradise by his early beloved, Beatrice, while learning that, in order to ascend, he must be transformed.
4. Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1606). The shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth runs along at breakneck speed, elevating Macbeth from Thane of Glamis to Thane of Cawdor to King of Scotland in two brief acts. It explores the psychology of ambition, abetted by supernatural forces, as Macbeth and his wife — one of the few successful marriages in the Shakespearean canon — engineer the murder of King Duncan and Macbeth’s usurpation of the Scottish throne. The pleasures of kingship are rare and brief, however, as the past comes to haunt the future, in ways obscurely prophesied by three witches, and Macbeth is brought down with a terrible swiftness matched only by the speed of his ascent.
5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857). Of the many nineteenth-century novels about adulteresses, only Madame Bovary features a heroine frankly detested by her author. Flaubert battled for five years to complete his meticulous portrait of extramarital romance in the French provinces, and he complained endlessly in letters about his love-starved main character — so inferior, he felt, to himself. In the end, however, he came to peace with her, famously saying, “Madame Bovary: c’est moi.” A model of gorgeous style and perfect characterization, the novel is a testament to how yearning for a higher life both elevates and destroys us.
6. The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1872). Dostoevsky’s signature theme —the future of morality and the human soul in a Godless world —takes flight in this harrowing portrait of revolutionary terrorists who have surrendered their humanity to their ideals. The political satire throbs with urgency, but Dostoevsky raises this work to the level of art through rich characterizations of his combative principals: the well-meaning, ineffectual philosophical theorist Stepan Verkhovensky; his true-believing, monomaniacal son Peter; the conflicted, ” serf Shatov; and two vivid embodiments of good and evil —saintly Bishop Tikhon and urbane, satanic Nicolas Stavrogin.
7. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877). Anna’s adulterous love affair with Count Vronsky —which follows an inevitable, devastating road from their dizzyingly erotic first encounter at a ball to Anna’s exile from society and her famous, fearful end —is a masterwork of tragic love. What makes the novel so deeply satisfying, though, is how Tolstoy balances the story of Anna’s passion with a second semiautobiographical story of Levin’s spirituality and domesticity. Levin commits his life to simple human values: his marriage to Kitty, his faith in God, and his farming. Tolstoy enchants us with Anna’s sin, then proceeds to educate us with Levin’s virtue.
8. Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (1883). This isn’t a book, but a two-part time machine. The first part is a work of literature, as Twain reimagines his salad days as a cub pilot learning to navigate the “fickle Mississippi.” His vivid you-are-there prose transports readers to the untamed land filled with rough-hewn people. The book’s second section, a travelogue begun seven years later, in 1882, is memoiristic and meditative. Having lived so long in the West and East, Twain sought to reconnect with the land of his youth and wellspring of his art, taking readers on a journey of discovery and rediscovery down a still fickle river.
9. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899). In a novella with prose as lush and brooding as its jungle setting, Phillip Marlowe travels to the Belgian Congo to pilot a trading company’s steamship. There he witnesses the brutality of colonial exploitation, epitomized by Kurtz, an enigmatic white ivory trader. To understand evil, Marlowe seeks out Kurtz, whom he finds amongst the natives, dying. After Kurtz laments his own depravity through his final, anguished words—“The horror! The horror!”—Marlowe must decide what to tell his widow back home.
10. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936). Weaving mythic tales of biblical urgency with the experimental techniques of high modernism, Faulkner bridged the past and future. This is the story of Thomas Sutpen, a rough-hewn striver who came to Mississippi in 1833 with a gang of wild slaves from Haiti to build a dynasty. Almost in reach, his dream is undone by plagues of biblical (and Faulknerian) proportions: racism, incest, war, fratricide, pride, and jealousy. Through the use of multiple narrators, Faulkner turns this gripping Yoknapatawpha saga into a profound and dazzling meditation on truth, memory, history, and literature itself.