The History Of Literature II

September 29, 2020 Category: History

Existentially Profound Works:

The present survey would be derelict if it focused ONLY on parables.  For narratives can also be highly complex–that is: not necessarily allegorical in nature.  So let’s now explore literary works that are valuable in that they explore existential issues by telling stories in less metaphorical ways (though metaphor is still certainly employed).  Again, I will limit the scope primarily to the modern era; and I will tend to stick to the more estimable examples (in terms of literary quality as well as philosophical profundity).

We might begin with the bildungsroman (coming-of-age story).  In English, this narrative approach began in 1749 with Henry Fielding’s “The History Of Tom Jones: A Foundling”.  Here are twenty more notable examples (composed in English):

  • Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre”
  • Jane Austen’s “Emma” and “Sense And Sensibility”
  • Willa Cather’s “My Antonia”
  • Charles Dickens’ “David Copperfield” 
  • Thomas Hardy’s “Far From The Madding Crowd”
  • Rudyard Kipling’s “Captains Courageous”
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side Of Paradise”
  • Jack London’s “Martin Eden”
  • Rudolfo Anayas’ “Bless Me, Ultima”
  • James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It On The Mountain”
  • J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher In The Rye”
  • Booth Tarkington’s “Alice Adams”
  • James Salter’s “A Sport And A Pastime”
  • Jack Karouak’s “On The Road”
  • Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures Of Augie March”
  • David Paterson’s “Bridge To Terabithia”
  • Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Wizard Of Earthsea”
  • Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit From The Goon Squad”
  • Nnedi Okorafor’s futurist “Binti”

Also notable are children’s classics like Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Anne Of Green Gables”,  Louisa May Alcott‘s “Little Women”, and Scott O’Dell’s “Island of the Blue Dolphins”.  (Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” was over-rated.)

Meanwhile, a bildungsroman composed in an alternate language can be fully apprehended–and appreciated–in English.  Sixteen notable examples:

  • Umberto Saba’s “Ernesto” (Italian)
  • Italo Calvino’s “The Path To The Nest Of Spiders” (Italian)
  • Hermann Hesse’s “Demian” (German)
  • J.W. von Goethe’s “Willhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” (German)
  • Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Notebooks Of Malte Laurids Brigge” (German)
  • Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” (German)
  • Gustav Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education” (French)
  • Stendhal’s “Le Rouge Et Le Noir” (French)
  • Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” (Russian)
  • Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” (Spanish)
  • Gafur Gulom’s “Shum Bola” (Uzbek)
  • Khalid Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” (Afghan)
  • Kamala Markandaya’s “Nectar In A Sieve” (Indian)
  • Haruki Murakami’s “Noruwei no Mori” [“Norwegian Wood”] (Japanese)
  • Hayao Miyazaki’s film, “Spirited Away” (Japanese)
  • Qiu Miao-jin’s “Notes Of A Crocodile” (Chinese)

Also note “Purple Hibiscus” and “Americanah”, bildungsroman written by Igbo (Nigerian) author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; as well as “Washington Black” by Barbados native Esi Edugyan (all of which were composed in English).

There are many narrative devices of which writers can avail themselves to accomplish the desired task.  Some invent a religion to make the point–as was done brilliantly by:

  • Lord Dunsany (with the deities of Pegana) in 1905
  • Usula K. Le Guin (with the Kesh) in 1964
  • Frank Herbert (with the “Bene Gesserit” and their “Missionaria Protectiva”) in 1965 {9}
  • George R.R. Martin (with the “Sparrows”) in 1991
  • Octavia Butler (with “Earthseed”) in 1993
  • Neal Stephenson (with the “Cartasian Discipline” of Arbre) in 2008

H.P Lovecraft went so far as to invent a godhead to tell his story (“Cthulhu” / “Aza-thoth”), reminding us that even when they are overtly fictional, fans can become spell-bound by deities.

Russian literature is renown for addressing existential matters.  Here are the ten most notable examples:

  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Notes From The Underground”; “Crime and Punishment”; “The Possessed”
  • Mikhail Lermontov’s “A Hero Of Our Time”
  • Maxim Gorky’s “The Mother”
  • Anton Chekov’s “The Lady With The Dog” and “The Seagull”
  • Ivan Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons” and “Virgin Soil”
  • Vladimir Nabokov’s “Invitation To An Execution”

In German, a dozen notable examples are:

  • Heinrich von Kleist’s “Michael Kohlhaas”
  • Hermann Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”
  • Jacob Bidermann’s “Cenodoxus”
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Hermann and Dorothea” and “Faust”
  • Hans Herbert Grimm’s “Schlump”
  • Alfred Döblin’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz”
  • Anna Seghers’ “Transit”
  • Thomas Mann’s “Doctor Faustus”
  • Heinrich Böll’s “Billiards At Half-Past Nine”
  • Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann’s “Signor Formica”
  • Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”

In French, a dozen notable examples are:

  • Denis Diderot’s “The Nun”
  • Voltaire’s “Candide”
  • Marcel Proust’s “In Search Of Lost Time”
  • Émile Zola’s “Germinal” and “Nana”
  • Guy de Maupassant’s “Ball Of Fat”
  • Albert Camus’ “The Stranger”
  • Gustav Flaubert’s “Madam Bovary” and “The Temptation Of Saint Anthony”
  • Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s “Journey to the End of the Night”
  • Honoré de Balzac’s “La Comédie Humaine” series (esp. “La Peau de Chagrin” and “Scène de la Vie de Campagne”)
  • Hugo’s “Toilers Of The Sea”

When it comes to addressing existential issues, Latin America has also offered its fair share of profound literary achievements.  Here are the most notable Latino works:

  • Miguel Angel Asturias’ “Mister President”
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Autumn of the Patriarch” and “Love In the Time of Cholera”
  • José María Vargas Vila Bonilla’s “Ibis”
  • Don DeLillo’s “Mao II”
  • Antonio Di Benedetto’s “Zama”
  • Romulo Gallegos’ “Doña Barbara”
  • Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’ “Dom Casmurro” (Brasilian Portuguese)

Let’s look at existentially profound works from twenty other cultures:

  • Knut Hamsun’s “Hunger” and Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler” (Norwegian)
  • Halldor Laxness’ “Wayward Heroes” (Icelandic)
  • Henrik Pontoppidan’s “Lucky Per” (Danish)
  • Boleslaw Prus’ “The Doll” and Jerzy Kosinski’s “The Painted Bird” (Polish)
  • Jaroslav Hasek’s “The Good Soldier Svejk” (Bohemian)
  • Mesha Selimovic’s “Death And The Dervish” (Bosnian)
  • Ismail Kadare’s “The General Of The Dead Army” (Albanian)
  • Arthur Koestler’s “Darkness At Noon”; Magda Szabo’s “The Door”; and Marai’s “Candles Burn Until The End” [“Embers”] (Hungarian)
  • Mircea Eliade’s “The Forbidden Forest” (Romanian)
  • Alessandro Manzoni’s “The Betrothed” and Alberto Moravia’s “A Ghost At Noon” (Italian)
  • Benito Perez Galdos’ “Fortuna And Jacinta” and “Doña Perfecta”; as well as Leopoldo Alas’ “La Regenta” (Spanish)
  • Wole Soyinka’s “A Dance Of The Forests” and “The Strong Breed” (Nigerian)
  • Tayeb Salih’s “Season of Migration To The North” (Sudanese)
  • Aravind Adiga’s “The White Tiger” and Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Lowland” (Indian)
  • Taslima Nasrin’s “Lajja” [Shame] (Bengali)
  • The Tale of Hong Gildong (Korean)
  • Ge Fei’s “The Invisibility Cloak” (Chinese)
  • Yasushi Inoue’s “Tun-Huang” and Yukio Mishima’s “Confessions Of A Mask” (Japanese)
  • Nguyen Du’s “Doan Truong Tan Thanh” [a.k.a. “The Tale of Kieu”] (Vietnamese)
  • Sutan Alisjahbana’s “With Sails Unfurled” (Indonesian)

In English literature, already mentioned was Oscar Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Grey”.  Charles Dickens is arguably the greatest writer of the modern age when it came to conveying an important message.  His “Christmas Carol” was mentioned earlier as one of the great parables of all time.  When it comes to existential matters, we might note his “Nicholas Nickleby”; “A Tale Of Two Cities”; and “Great Expectations”.

Here are forty more existentially profound works that were composed in England and America:

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
  • Henry James’ “The Ambassadors”
  • James Hogg’s “The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner”
  • Thomas Hardy’s “The Return Of The Native” and “Jude The Obscure”
  • Joseph Conrad’s “Heart Of Darkness”
  • Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Mary Barton”
  • Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”
  • M.G. Lewis’ “The Monk”
  • William Faulkner’s “Requiem For A Nun” and “The Reivers”
  • Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy”
  • Willa Cather’s “Death Comes For the Archbishop”
  • Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”
  • T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”
  • W.H. Auden’s “The Age Of Anxiety”
  • John Steinbeck’s “East Of Eden” and “The Winter Of Our Discontent”
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is The Night”
  • Arthur Miller’s “Death Of A Salesman”
  • Graham Greene’s “The Power And The Glory”
  • D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rainbow” and “Sons And Lovers”
  • Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Orsinian Tales” and “Malafrena”
  • Edith Wharton’s “Ethan Frome”
  • John Irving’s “Avenue of Mysteries”
  • Charles Monroe Sheldon’s “In His Steps”
  • Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge Of San Luis Rey”
  • William Golding’s “Lord Of The Flies”
  • Richard Wright’s “Native Son”
  • Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”
  • Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five”
  • John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy
  • Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint”
  • Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple”
  • Saul Bello’s “Ravelstein”
  • Penelope Lively’s “Moon Tiger”
  • William Vollmann’s “Europe Central”
  • Michael Chabon’s “The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay”
  • Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections”

Many of these are cautionary tales.  For grim morality tales, note Klaus Mann’s “Mephisto” and Kafka’s “The Trial”. Sometimes, the work addresses the contemporary political world–as with Günter Grass’ “The Tin Drum”, John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes Of Wrath”, Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”, and Salman Rushdie’s “Quichotte”.

For sardonic existential commentary, note John Kennedy Toole’s tongue-in-cheek “A Confederacy of Dunces” and Dave Egger’s quasi-memoire, “A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius”.  Literature can even provide commentary on the human condition via zany comedy–as with Robert Heinlein’s “Job: A Comedy Of Justice” and Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker” pentalogy. That leaves one more major narrative device for making an important point. It is to that genre to which we now turn.

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