Notes From the Underground: Four Alternatives to Classic Novels
Literature is a game for narcissists. Arguing the opposite can be quite tricky when merely possessing the leisure time to read disoriented ramblings on a website and engage to prove them wrong, is in itself more than a bit self indulgent. There is no shame in admitting that a good read is worth at least half of what one gets from discussing it.
Popularity has infected many great novels in the last few decades, however, reducing them to banality. Hemingway’s genius is unquestionable, yet with each copy of Midnight in Paris a hipster buys, Papa loses a bit of his illustrious glimmer. If you need a good read but would also love to raise a few eyebrows at the dinner table take a leaf through one of these alternatives to classic novels.
Before a certain Ian Fleming came along and introduced the world to Her Majesty’s Martini swilling, womanizing, secret weapon, England had another protector. William Somerset Maugham, inspired from his own experience in international espionage, devised the story of Ashenden, a British spy on a mission in war torn Europe. Vivid descriptions of high society, deadly mystique and a genuinely vulnerable, even neurotic protagonist make this as captivating as any Bond novel.
If ‘A Farewell to Arms’ was an original screenplay it would be the kind of Oscar encrusted, Hollywood behemoth you might see Daniel Day Lewis starring in. If it were so, then E.M. Remarque’s ‘All Quiet On The Western Front ’ would be the kind of piece of genius that came out a few years prior, taking continental art house theaters by storm, but not quite making as large a ripple. Shorter yet more graphic, Remarque’s work feels like a portrait of the First World War, as told by a voice that weathered it alongside a generation that never quite survived the trenches. You must read this!
George Orwell legally owns the rights to any conversation you might ever have on the subjects of surveillance and totalitarianism. He may as well do, given how deeply his vernacular has penetrated the cultural zeitgeist. The novel he was inspired to write his magnum opus from, however, was written by a Russian writer. Zamyatin’s ‘We’ landed him in immediate trouble with the Communist regime for its critical sentiments, yet his tone is uniquely sardonic and often surprisingly light. Leaf through ‘We’ and for every mention of ‘Big Brother’ or ‘doublethink’ you will have a rhetorical grapple tighter than Cicero.
Coming of age stories used to be more than convenient plot points for a protagonist’s origin tale. Caught in a strange ven diagram between Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Rousseau’s Emile, Demian blends adolescence, existentialism and the occult and delivers an ambivalence that marks the narrative of all good works of art. Herman Hesse’s novella has everything you could want from an intellectual book. Its moral is elusive, its story leaves much up for discussion and the character’s names are sufficiently foreign sounding to wow that young lady at the café, with the hair thing and beautifully gaunt expression.
She looks like her name might be Serena. She would be impressed if you shared this story on facebook… and followed me on twitter. That’s enough from me, I think.