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.
Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund (1999). “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last” reads the opening line of this novel, which imagines the life of the woman married to the obsessive captain from Moby-Dick. And what a life it was—running away from home, posing as a boy to get aboard a whaling ship, tragedy at sea, cannibalism, and then domestic life in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Amours de Voyage by Arthur Hugh Clough (1858). A nineteenth-century figure who expressed twentieth-century skepticism about action and belief, Clough set this tragicomic narrative poem during the unsuccessful Italian Revolution of 1848–49.
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (1971). “It’s perfectly clear that if every writer is born to write one story, that’s my story,” Stegner said of this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel. The narrator is a divorced, wheelchair-bound professor recalling the life of his pioneer grandparents. He was crude and adventurous, she sophisticated and self-possessed.
Answered Prayers by Truman Capote (1987). Unfinished and perhaps unfinishable at the time of Capote’s death in 1984, this roman à clef was his savage chomp at the hands that fed him—the manicured, diamond-freighted hands of Upper East Side socialites and assorted New York celebrities. Bitchiness, bile, and sexual braggadocio vie in this gossipy, literary vivisection of high society.
Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (1606). One of Shakespeare’s late Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra has a sense of fading grandeur about it, as the great warrior Antony succumbs to the exotic luxuries of Egypt and the heady sexual powers of her queen Cleopatra, thus neglecting his duties to Rome.
Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001). When Briony Tallis, a precocious adolescent on an English estate, writes a play to mark her brother’s homecoming in 1935, she sets in motion a real-life tragedy that marks the end of her innocence.
Bhagavadgita (fifth century b.c.e.). An eighteen-chapter section of the Mahabharata, this “Song of God” is a dialogue between Prince Arjuna, a warrior on the battlefield, and the Supreme Lord Krishna, who appears as a charioteer. The two discuss the true self that is not destroyed in death and states of release from the human realm of suffering.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia by Rebecca West (1941). While England slept, West clearly saw the danger of Hitler, who embodied for her the “genius of murder which has shaped our recent history.” Her account of a trip from Dalmatia to Kosovo reads like the cry of a modern Cassandra.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853). Dickens is best known for his immense plots that trace every corner of Victorian society, and Bleak House fulfills that expectation to perfection. The plot braids the sentimental tale of an orphan unaware of her scandalous parentage with an ironic and bitterly funny satire of a lawsuit that appears to entail all of London.