3 Classic Novels You Should Never Write Off
Today I’m writing about three of my favourite classics. Some have garnered mythic status which often comes with a preconception that they’re just big, weighty, dense tomes best left to universities and people with too much time. I don’t think that’s wrong, but it’s no reason to ignore them either.
One benefit of a big book is that they were written to be read over a long time. That means you have a long-term companion, an insightful partner in conversation, an extensive world to enjoy for the longest time, and, great value. They’re often bound very nicely too. If you’re concerned about your bookshelf, aesthetically, classics always look the best.
The list today includes one novel that is a quicker read than most contemporary works, too!
Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus
A true Gothic classic. Considered by some to be beside The Blazing World, Somnium, and The Other World as one of the progenitors of science fiction, and certainly speculative fiction, Frankenstein has a strange cultural reputation.
Most people know that the monster isn’t called Frankenstein. But what do they call it? Depending on which character is asked in Shelley’s novel, the creature is a him, an it, a monster, or a creature. That includes asking the creature itself.
The green beast birthed between lightning-charged Tesla coils is a crude reduction in many ways; in stage, film, and television adaptations, rarely is the creature more than a mute, lumbering brute. Yet, in the source material, there is nothing but sympathy found in the creature’s own eloquent story.
Frankenstein is a labyrinth of stories woven into the fabric of stories; at times epistolary (that is, letter-based), recount or memoir, and biography, there is a lot to be commended for in this short novel. The pacing is contemporary. The philosophical, rhetorical, and scientific limits of the concept are stretched to their fullest. Ultimately, it is certainly full of warnings, from Enlightenment to Romantic, themes of motherhood, to the restraint (or lack thereof) in science, and yet more.
I would recommend Frankenstein to anyone, frankly, who is ready to engage with the literary roots of popular culture. My copy reads:
“That rare story to pass from literature into myth”
(The New York Times)
and I wholly agree. It is short, engrossing, important, and a must-read for anyone that hasn’t already. Be prepared to feel conflicted for a creature that popular culture would have you believe little more than a zombie-ogre. Expect sublime setting descriptions of the Alps, the Arctic, and Lake Geneva.
A note: there are multiple editions of Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. I read an 1831 edition, which has some minor but significant changes that I cannot speak to when compared with the 1818 editions.
I was originally going to recommend War and Peace in this slot, and I may do some other day. However, continuing our theme of doubles in the most explicit way, I am recommending Portuguese Nobel Laureate José Saramago’s The Double.
To call The Double a classic might be dubious to some, and being relatively young compared with Frankenstein or #3, I am prepared to agree. However, it is a powerful and contemporary story of identity all the same, and Penguin Random House include it as part of their Vintage Classics collection, so I must be on to something.
Saramago weaves a difficult story that is in many ways deconstructing the structure of the novel itself — something that is occasionally a point of discussion within the text too — and this can understandably put people off. I was almost put off entirely, after I had read
Tertuliano Máximo Afonso
for what felt like the hundredth time (and possibly was). But that’s the story; it is about identity, right down to the fabric and choices of its words.
A depressed history teacher, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso, watches an otherwise bland rental film, only to find a truly identical actor playing a minor character within it. After some amusing, montage-esque detective work, most notably realising that the actor has both a stage name and a true name, Tertuliano Máximo Afonso goes out in search of his double. Tertuliano Máximo Afonso is our frame of reference, yet, in a story characterised by perception, reliability or the lack of it, and, as I have mentioned already, identity, we are (at least implicitly) invited to consider António Claro’s life.
It was also the basis of Enemy, a film directed by Denis Villeneuve (Blade Runner 2049, Arrival, Sicario, Prisoners, and the upcoming Dune film).
I’ve not seen it personally, but it is on my list.
Expect dense prose, an interesting take on dialogue, and a whimsical, yet insightful tone.
Moby-Dick; or, the Whale
Another capital “R” Romance. Moby-Dick is my favourite classic novel. It is a behemoth, a long, winding, complicated behemoth. It is boring at times. It is outdated, scientifically, at times. It is sublime, at times. It is clunky and very strange at others.
And yet, I have often seen Moby cited as a favourite novel. Why? Is it the comprehensive scope? The lucid prose? The philosophy? The allegory, or metaphor? Maybe. Maybe it is all those things. As someone who has finished it, I’m not sure what it is to tell you the truth, other than it is whatever you make of it.
In some ways, I wish there was more Moby-Dick waiting for me to get back to it. After acclimatising to Melville’s somewhat antiquated style, and familiarising yourself with the geography and ships of whalers at the time (my copy came with such descriptions and illustrations), it does seem to elevate beyond a written story. It can be read in any number of ways, and, indeed, has been. Some say that was Melville’s intention. Others say it is not Melville’s strongest work. I cannot attest to either of these things, as an outsider when it comes to the storied scholarship of this titanic tome. Because, Moby-Dick is a world unto itself, and like the genome sequencing of a nematode worm; cryovolcanism on Titan; the economics of the Great Divergence, Moby-Dick is a study in so many things. As you may tell, I grew attached to Moby-Dick in a way unlike most — or any — works of fiction have ever ensnared me.
Is Ishmael the narrator? Is Queequeg the incarnation of exoticism and alien culture? Why did Moby-Dick only take Ahab’s leg? How wrong is whaling, truly? How strong is the despot beside democracy, and was Socrates right to use it as an analogue of government? Is Moby-Dick a book about writing books?
These are not unanswerable questions in the sense that there is no answer; rather, that the answer is personal to each reader. Maybe Melville only wrote another South Seas Pacific adventure. Maybe he wrote much, much more.
And, with often short chapters, Moby-Dick perfectly lends to reading over a huge long period. In fact, the density of the text practically demands it. You must let Moby-Dick, like the swash of the shoreline, bring forward ideas, feelings, thoughts, and let the backwash reveal your own conclusions.
It is absurd, it is radical, it is insightful. It is about thalassophobia, somehow. It is a true adventure. It’s great. I love it. Please, at least consider it. This is one story for which the summary won’t do.
“There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.”
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Thank you for spending time reading this little work. I hope you enjoyed it enough to stick around for more!
A couple of questions for the comments:
What deters or attracts you to a book? Does that change if the book is considered a “classic”?
If you’ve read any of these, would you recommend them yourself? Why, or why not?