At 16, apropos of nothing, Elizabeth Engledow set herself a Herculean task: read all the classics. Six years in she wondered, would we like to publish a few reviews?
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, 1915
It’s a novella, yes, but don’t underestimate the little guys.
Gregor Samsa is a door-to-door salesman with a dick for a boss. His family relies solely on his income, and worse – his father’s debt binds him to ceaseless, gruelling servitude. Sound drab or even familiar? It’s surprisingly funny and a canny depiction of stuffy office life.
Then it turns brilliantly bizarre. Samsa wakes as a human-sized beetle, unable to communicate, craving rotten food and with an irresistible instinct to scuttle. Only his thinking and memories remain, or at least at first, but that’s debatable.
The family is stunned. They recoil. The narrative carefully follows Gregor’s own crucifixion, riddled with the guilt of no longer being able to provide, excusing, even understanding, their cold behaviour.
In the moments in which he contemplates the idea of his consciousness, Gregor is undone with the want to explain himself, but he is misunderstood. His father strikes a wound – an apple in the back! – that eventually kills him.
I recommend this book for the nervous types, and here’s why. There is a moment of realisation, right before Gregor dies, that his family no longer needs him and maybe never did. He is set free. Some note his break from humanity, and interpret this as completing his metamorphosis. But I think Kafka has hidden something more severe between the lines: a depiction of complete contentment, and how hard that is to realise.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, 1936
Scarlett O’Hara is a woman of self-determination, grit and passion. She lives an untouched life, coming of age as a Southern belle whose only concerns are parties and courting. Then the American Civil War hits. Lincoln pushes for the abolition of slavery and the South pushes back.
Scarlett clings to her childhood fancy, Ashley Wilkes, as a remnant of her former life. But Rhett Butler is chasing her in turn.
She marries first for jealousy and secondly out of necessity. That second time, motivated by money, she uses deception to nab her own sister’s betrothed, gaining her ruthless reputation.
Twice widowed, Scarlett marries Rhett. Growing comfortable in the life of luxury he provides, she increasingly pines for Ashley and for the past. But she finally realises – it takes her 966 small-printed pages! – that Ashley never loved her, and that nothing in the South will go back to the way it was. She runs to tell Rhett, but it’s too late, and suddenly we’re on the stairs and he’s a man who no longer gives a damn.
Long, sweeping scenes are used to explore what it’s like to face inevitable defeat – and, what’s more, to deserve it.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, 1949
Darkly political themes reflect the era of this novel’s conception; when communism was known as the “red fear” and technology was rapidly advancing.
Working an allocated job at the Ministry of Truth in a province of the totalitarian Oceania, Winston spends his days adjusting historical records per the governing political party’s agenda. Life is strict, rationed, routine, the all-seeing eye of Big Brother watching at all times. A new language called Newspeak has been initiated to remove words associated with undesirable lines of thought aka thoughtcrime, the deadliest crime of all, monitored by the Thought Police. Can you imagine? Yes. Orwell’s ideas and his portrayal of mass manipulation are convincingly possible. So convincing, in fact, that the book itself has occasionally been censored.
Winston is tortured in Room 101, a room full of our greatest fears, at the chillingly-named Ministry of Love. Starved, beaten and indoctrinated with the pro-party attitude, he tries to play the required part while secretly holding onto freedom with one hidden thought – that he hates Big Brother.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a stealthy beast that lingers and grows in the mind. After some time it feels as though Big Brother is the book itself, crawling through your eyes and settling under your skin. In the last pages, as Winston reluctantly accepts unquestioning love for Big Brother, it almost feels as though you do too.
They shoot him, and us, in the back of the head.
The Odyssey by Homer, late 8th century BC
A stale classic, maybe. This was hard to get through. The writing is long-winded and, considering it is a tale of epic adventure, never quite seems to reach any climax.
Granted, there are apparently fresher translations out there (that’s not Homer’s fault – neither is time!) so I can only speak for the one I picked up at the charity shop for a handy two dollars.
This archaic poem opens with the noble Odysseus, who after the battle of Troy (the wooden horse trick) is given the Gods’ favour to head home. But not before he tells the long and intricate story of his adventures, stalling him for years, including all the Greek mythological classics: sirens, sea monsters and giants.
The prevalent moral is fortitude. Luckily, because repetition – “rosy fingers of dawn”, for example – makes the journey seem to pass almost in real time. Occasionally a prophetic pearl is dropped in, like “you must endure much grief in silence, standing and facing men in their violence”. The pages are kept turning.
Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, voyages to find him. They return together to slaughter the suitors who have been aggressively pursuing Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, and re-unite as a family. The relatives of those killed plot their own vengeance, but in a swift and disappointing stroke, the Gods help persuade peace back into the kingdom, and so there it is.
There are shining moments that breathe life into this otherwise aged text, that, like Odysseus himself, allows us to endure until the end.
Moby Dick by Herman Melville, 1851
If you thought it was all about the monomaniacal cap’n chasing after the legendary white whale that bit off his leg (as the blurb says) then you’d be right, but also very wrong.
Ishamael, with no money or strings attached, decides to go whaling. He meets Queequeg (likely based on Ngāti Toa rangatira Te Pēhi Kupe) who quickly becomes his comrade on Captain Ahab’s boat Pequod.
At this point you’re settled, ready to start the journey, and exactly where Melville wants you to be, so he can subvert you to his much wilder intentions: a ritual in edification. He duly dives into the art of whale anatomy, species, and the business that surrounds this leviathan.
Did you know that the skin of a whale is translucent, or that it has finger-like bones inside those delicate fins? If you have read Moby Dick, then you would.
The ego-versus-whale plot loosely threads itself through the novel, making appearances at pinnacle points, if only to remind you that you’re not reading an encyclopaedia.
As you’d expect, they hunt some whales. Queequeg dies to break your heart, and strap up for this one: there’s a hidden saucy chapter, but only if you really look for it (or so Google says). Finally, Ahab goes twirling down to the deepest depths in the jaws of Moby Dick. The Pequod is destroyed, the crew all perish, excepting Ishmael, our narrator.
The book is a piece of pure self-indulgence for Melville, having whaled himself. The detail is precise, severe and certain – easy to get lost in, but only if you can get going with it in the first place. So, for that reason I’d only recommend this novel to those who like their stationery kept well organised.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, 1967
So many interlocking storylines! Let me instead give you the gist. Set in a small village called Macondo, which the first of the Buendía family founded, we follow the generations through the spyglass of their family home.
Themes? Again, many. But let’s mention modernisation and the pervasive Colombian civil wars.
If you’re not the military type it’s certainly still worth a look because I repeat: there’s a lot going on. A character is beamed up to heaven while hanging the laundry. Children are born with pig tails (be warned of incest), there are ghosts, an over-taking banana plantation, a suppressed mass shooting, and for some interesting reason, the behaviour of the Buendía women is particularly damning. The story ends with the desolation and disappearance of the village, bringing everything full circle.
If you, too, reach the end, you find out what Márquez was driving at: we are in the rotating rings of the past, present and future at all times, each interconnected and told simultaneously (be prepared for some time jumps). Márquez alludes to this as an illusion of mirrors.
Once you sit back and try not to think about it too much, the story unfolds like a watery hallucination. And if you want it to, this book will change the way you look at things, and make the world seem small and endless. It is complete serenity.