Monday, March 12, 2012

What is the greatest novel ever written?

Never mind. Silly question. One could take a poll, perhaps; ask 1000 people their favorite and tally the results. Such lists exist on the internet. But of course your favorite novel will not be the same as mine.

It's like asking, "What is your favorite food?" Different novels nourish us in different ways. We require different nourishment at different times in our lives. And favorite novels will vary from culture to culture, like cuisines.

Important novels in my own life?

Start with James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the first great novel I read at an age when I was mature enough to realize what I was reading, a young man emerging from a smothering Catholic culture, awakening to sex as something more than an itch in the pants. Forget Ulysses and Finnegans Wake which I read much later; Portrait was the book that set my 19-year-old soul afire.

A few more, in no particular order.

Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain. A dense, very grown-up book that made me feel at age 30 that maybe I had grown up. Great art, like a great life, can be made out of the leavings of an ordinary day.

Virginia Woolf's The Waves. Not the Woolf novel that makes most lists, but certainly the one that most profoundly resonated with my own life. A plum pudding of a book that might have been written on half-sheets of note paper. Bernard, Neville, Jinny, Susan, Louis, Rhoda. And me.

Vladimir Nabokov's Ada. No, not Lolita. Big, brimming Ada overwhelmed me with its lush romance, its flowering word-play, its lepidopteran fragility and resilience.

Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, of course. So glad I waited until late in life to read it.

And, perhaps my favorite book of all, Sigrid Undset's epic Kristin Lavransdatter, which I read three times, once as a passionate young man in love, once in the crushing turmoil of middle age, and again (in Tina Nunnally's brilliant new translation) in the quietude of retirement, a book that embraces and informs every stage of life. Nature and supernature, love and lust, fidelity and unfaithfulness, peace and violence.

A few more words about Kristin tomorrow.