As I said at the very beginning, there’s a shameless bias in this blog towards English Culture, but the rest of the world is hardly a cultural void, so here is my pick of five of the very best works of European classic literature. I’ll be honest, I’ve only read three of the books on this list, but I have grand plans to tackle the remaining two in 2017 (mind you, I also have grand plans to read at least twenty other books, some of them quite weighty, in 2017, so we’ll see how that works out for me). These are books which not only spoke deeply to their own time and place but have continued to speak to people throughout the years. They’ve become ballets, operas, and popular musicals, and served as sources of wisdom and inspiration for readers all over the world.
The Inferno, by Dante Alighieri (Italy, 14thC): The Inferno is actually the first part of a trilogy set in the three realms of the (Catholic) Christian afterlife – Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven (Protestant theology rejects the idea of Purgatory and recognises only Heaven and Hell). The full trilogy is known as The Divine Comedy, in the traditional sense of ‘comedy’ meaning ‘it has a happy ending’. In The Inferno the protagonist journeys through the nine circles of Hell, encountering those guilty of progressively more grievous sins and witnessing their punishment. The finer points of Dante’s story are not in fact Catholic doctrine, but his work has been so influential that almost all subsequent portrayals of Hell (in the Christian sense) have been influenced by it, and/or by Milton’s portrayal in ‘Paradise Lost’. Not only that, but the Tuscan dialect in which Dante wrote would go on to become the basis of modern Italian, due almost entirely to the success of his work.
Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes (Spain, 1605): Cervantes wrote the first part of Don Quixote at a time when stories of chivalry had fallen out of fashion in Spain, and the second after (thanks to Part 1) those same stories had experienced a revival. They tell the story of Don Quixote, a man of noble lineage who literally believes that he is a heroic knight errant, in spite of the fact that he is poor, and his horse and armour are ancient. Nothing – not ridicule, not pleading, not beatings, not anything – will convince him otherwise. The story was swiftly translated into French and English and has had a profound influence on popular culture. Quixote’s name is the origin of the word ‘quixotic’; the episode where he attacks some windmills in the belief that they might be giants has given us the metaphor ‘tilting at windmills’; and the story itself has been retold in film, ballet, and art.
Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Germany, early 1800s): A pair of plays rather than a novel, Faust is a retelling of an older folk legend about a man who makes a deal with the devil: he will serve the demon Mephistopheles in Hell after death if Mephistopheles will gain for him all he desires in life. Needless to say this leads to suffering not only for Faust himself but also for his innocent love interest, but Goethe’s version is notable for offering its main human characters the chance of redemption from their sins rather than irrevocable damnation because of them.
Les Miserables, Victor Hugo (France, 1862): Before it was a phenomenally successful musical it was a sprawling epic novel set against the backdrop of post-Revolutionary France. And it is epic: while the musical reduces the plot primarily to the Valjean/Javert police chase and the Cosette/Marius/Eponine love triangle the novel pays much more attention to politics and religion, the political turmoil of early 19th century France, and to themes such as justice and freedom. ‘Les Miserables’ roughly translates to ‘the miserable ones’, ‘the wretched poor’, ‘the victims’, and it is easy to see where Hugo’s sympathies lie – the chief symbol of Authority and the Establishment, Javert, is driven to madness and suicide when he is finally forced to confront the difference between the simple, clear-cut world of right and wrong in his head and the complex real world of suffering and sacrifice around him.
Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Russia, 1866): Have you ever wondered what it was like to kill someone? How could you find out? Why not kill someone, someone who no-one would miss, someone poor and horrible? Then you would find out. This is the plot of the first part of Crime and Punishment. The second part is the finding out. Turns out, it’s pretty awful. For one thing, there’s the guilt. Then there’s the constant fear that someone’s on to you, and the need to go on with your normal life in an effort to prevent anyone from realising what you’ve done. Then there’s the realisation that someone is on to you, and the legal and social ramifications of being unmasked as a murderer. Dostoyevsky’s works are known for their rich psychological, philosophical, and spiritual themes, and for weaving together multiple voices and viewpoints, and these attributes make Crime and Punishment a rich meditation on the subject of personal as well as legal right and wrong.
These are my European greats. Which books would you add to the list?