Saturday, March 31, 2012

Literature: Favourite classic British novels/plays

I realised the other day that I hadn't read a classic in a while. Pretty surprising as I used to devour them, British, French, Russian, German classics, anything I could get my hands on. Some of them I would read over and over again, others I would force myself to finish, just so I could say I had read it. I still devour books on a regular basis, but not any classics for many, many months. I've been wanting to read Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's translation of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina for ages now, so maybe I should ignore my current pile of to-read books and get on it. It is after all one of my favourite books ever.
Anyway, all this thinking about classics and how much I enjoyed reading some of them made me think that I should write a post about my favourites. And then I realised that if I started doing that I would have to make several based on language, because one post for all favourites would just be too long! So here goes with my favourite British classics, all must-reads in my opinion. I forced myself to choose only one title per author, otherwise it may have been a little too Dickens & Hardy & Brontë heavy...
(I already have an outline for a post on my obsession with Russian literature, but I won't post that one until I have seen the performance of Chekhov's Three Sisters at the BAM in April).

Charlotte Brontë – Jane Eyre

How can one NOT love this one? A female main character who defies a difficult past misfortunes and traumas to become a strong woman; a dark and mysterious male with whom she falls in love and an uncovered secret that could ruin everything. Dark, gothic, beautiful and so absolutely beautifully written. Oh, and Mr Rochester beats Heathcliff on the "why-doesn't-this-character-exist-in-real-life" scale. I always wanted to be Jane Eyre growing up. You know, strong, independent, passionate, smart...

Emily Brontë – Wuthering Heights

Yet another one full of gothic landscapes and households, unrequited love, dark, obsessive and totally and utterly sad. Impossible not to burst into tears when reading this novel. I used to relate more to Cathy when I was younger, not so much now, not as much as I relate to Jane Eyre. This is just one of the most beautifully written stories I have ever read. I have read a lot of people complaining about how descriptive Emily was in her prose, but if that's a problem then you should probably avoid reading any type of Romantic literature.

Charles Dickens – Oliver Twist

One of my all-time favourite stories. I used to imagine myself being Oliver Twist, heading off with my only possessions in a sack tied to the end of a stick, going off towards the gold-paved streets of London to find fortune and a better life. The sweet little Oliver ends up being taken in by a band of criminals lead by Fagin (while bringing his image to my mind I just started to rub my hands together, in just the way I have always imagined him to). Dickens wrote his novels as serials, chapters were published in periodicals, this is why each chapter is of the perfect reading length to keep your attention (and perfect bedtime stories for children). No one described Victorian London in such a colourful, dark, wonderful way as Dickens did. I love all of his work, but this is the one that I always go back to. And one day I WILL get a bull terrier and call him Bullseye.

George Eliot – Middlemarch

Such a wonderful depiction of Victorian England, and the place of a woman in society. I took a class on the woman in Victorian time back when I was at university, and it really helped me to understand this book and the issues that Dorothea faces within society. If you are worried about the size of the book, don't be. It's a wonderful read, from beginning to end.

Thomas Hardy – Tess of the d’Urbervilles

I got my love of Thomas Hardy from my mother. Tess of the d'Urbervilles my favourite book of all-time (right after Marge Piercy's Gone To Soldiers). There is something about the tale, the despair, the sadness, the beauty and the characters that draws me back to this book every time. It's heartbreaking and sad and sometimes happy. I am usually really wary of film adaptations of novels, but Polanski did an amazing job with his version, and using Nastassja Kinski as Tess was the best idea ever - she is exactly the way I imagined Tess in my head.

I suppose there is some kind of pattern in my literary preferences here, although I'm not too surprised really...

Mary Shelley – Frankenstein

There is so much more to this novel than a doctor (Frankenstein) who creates a monster. Mary Shelley was in her late teens when she wrote this novel and was surrounded by other literary greats (her husband Percy Shelley and Lord Byron) and held her own in this literary circle. This story is a wonderful gothic tale that not only scares the shit out of you, it also plays with the philosophies and society of the time, leaving subtle hints that stick in your mind and nag you for days after you have finished reading. Mary never knew her mother, who died a few days after Mary was born, but her mother was one of the very early advocates for women's rights in England. Everyone should read A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.

D.H. Lawrence – Sons and Lovers

I may have read this a little too early in life, I was around 11 or 12 at the time, but it definitely hit a chord. I understood the main themes the first time round, but when I revisited it again a couple of years later I really felt like I had got it. D.H. Lawrence isn't for everyone, but I adore his work, most especially this one. I actually find this one to be darker and more intense than Lady Chatterley's Lover.

George Orwell – Animal Farm

One of the best and most obvious political allegories ever written in my opinion. Although 1984 is pretty timeless (even though it contains a year as a title), I also feel that this one is too. Replace the political notions with just humankind and the way humans inevitably interact with each other when given the chance to obtain certain amounts of power and this is what can happen. Main moral of the story, no one is free from the possibility of becoming a tyran once one has obtained a position of power over others.

William Shakespeare – Othello

Still the piece of literature with the best most evil character of all time. I hope to never meet an Iago in my life, but know at one point probably will (or probably already have). I love to read Shakespeare, I love to watch Shakespeare, and really wish that I hadn't been too shy in high school to pursue drama, because I really wanted to be a Shakespeare character one day in my life. Not Desdemona, she is too tragic and too easily persuaded in my mind, more like an Emilia, a strong woman figure. Although the play is called Othello, in my opinion the main protagonist is Iago. God, even his name is a synonym for evil in my mind.

The Picture of Dorian Grey – Oscar Wilde

Decadence. That's the first word I always think of when I think of Oscar Wilde. I was so obsessed with him (and decadence) when I was a teenager, and I wanted to write just like him. His writing is magical, telling, descriptive, sarcastic and many a time, just downright hilarious. What a tale of a narcissistic descent into hell. Eternal youth isn't that something that we all dream of at some point in our lives?!

Travels With My Aunt – Graham Greene

I probably would never have read this unless it had been a required reading book in high school, and I am so glad it was. A retired man ends up picking up and traveling around England and then abroad with his older, eccentric aunt, meeting weird and wonderful people along the way. Greene's prose is so entertaining that you can't put this book down. Which reminds me, I should probably read some more of his work after all this time!

Other honourable mentions: William Thackeray – Barry Lyndon; Henry James – Portrait of a Lady; Jane Austen - Emma; Bram Stoker - Dracula

I just realised I hadn't even bothered to talk about any of my favourite poets, so I am just going to write another post about them at a later date. Too much to say about them and too little time today!

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