The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

RG

FURTHER READING

PAROLES

(1946), JACQUES PRÉVERT

Paroles (“Words”) is the first poetry collection by the French poet and screenwriter Prévert (1900–77). Comprising 95 poems of varying length, it reveals multiple elements of his trademark writing style, such as wordplay, prose poems, puns, and mini dialogues. The collection covers a variety of subjects and themes, entwining everyday life in post-war Paris with sentiments of antiwar protest, critiques of both religion and politics, and a reflection of the role of art in society.

CRY, THE BELOVED COUNTRY

(1948), ALAN PATON

The masterpiece of South African author Paton (1903–88) focuses on Stephen Kumalo, a black Anglican priest in Johannesburg who is in search of his son, who has been involved in the murder of a white activist for racial justice. It also tells the story of the activist’s father, and how his own prejudices and views are changed by his son’s death and writing, and by meeting Kumalo. Paton’s narrative reveals the changing reality of South Africa on the verge of apartheid.

SNOW COUNTRY

(1948), YASUNARI KAWABATA

Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata (1899–1972) is a Nobel Laureate. One of his most famous novels, Snow Country, tells of doomed love amid the mountains of western Japan. Shimamura – a bored, wealthy businessman – meets Komako, a beautiful but forlorn geisha at a hot spring resort. The landscape becomes a metaphor for feelings – including hopelessness and isolation. Kawabata’s focus on the personal, with no mention of the fighting in World War II, which was raging at the time of writing, may have been a conscious artistic response to the conflict.

"The train came out of the long border tunnel – and there was the snow country. The night had turned white."

Snow Country
Yasanuri Kawabata

THE LAGOON AND OTHER STORIES

(1951), JANET FRAME

A collection of short stories, this was the first publication by New Zealand author Frame (1934–2004). To varying extents, the texts in the collection question their own status as fiction, explore the author’s agency and identity, and experiment with narrative voice. The book’s publication and critical reception – including a highly regarded literary prize – were crucial in saving Frame from a lobotomy and a series of atrocious practices in mental institutions, where she had been committed.

THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA

(1952), ERNEST HEMINGWAY

Written during Hemingway’s stay in Cuba in 1951, The Old Man and the Sea was the last piece of fiction to be published during the author’s lifetime. The story is as simple as the writing style, depicting the struggle of old fisherman Santiago with a marlin off the coasts of Cuba and Florida. Nevertheless, the work is deeply emotional and powerful, as both the Pulitzer and Nobel commissions acknowledged in their awards to Hemingway. Multiple interpretations of the book have been suggested, such as that it is a reflection on the author’s career, that it has an allegorical religious significance, or that it is a personal story based on people Hemingway encountered during his life.

Ernest Hemingway

Born in Illinois, USA, in 1899, Hemingway discovered his affinity for writing early in life as a reporter for The Kansas City Star. He later served as a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I in Italy, from where he returned wounded in 1918. His first novel, The Sun Also Rises, was written while working as an overseas correspondent in Paris. Establishing himself in Europe, Hemingway saw increasing success from his short stories and novels and travelled widely to pursue – among other interests – his love of hunting, a subject that would appear in many of his stories. He returned to journalism to report on the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) and the Normandy landings (1944), and won the Nobel Prize in 1954. Hemingway committed suicide in Idaho in 1961.

Key works

1929 A Farewell to Arms

1940 For Whom the Bell Tolls

1952 The Old Man and the Sea

FAHRENHEIT 451

(1953), RAY BRADBURY

One of the most famous novels by the US writer of speculative fiction Ray Bradbury (1920–2012), Fahrenheit 451 is a key example of dystopian fiction. In a world in which knowledge and books are banned, Guy Montag, a fireman (in Fahrenheit 451, a fireman is a person who is in charge of setting fire to books) slowly rediscovers his own humanity and individuality. The story highlights the conflict between mindlessly following orders and questioning established power structures, and the role that books and knowledge can play in that ongoing struggle.

"A book is a loaded gun in the house next door … Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?"

Fahrenheit 451
Ray Bradbury

LORD OF THE FLIES

(1954), WILLIAM GOLDING

Despite its initial lack of success, Lord of the Flies has since become a classic and fundamental text of dystopian, allegorical, political, and satirical writing. The story begins with a group of boys stranded on an otherwise unpopulated island, and follows their unsuccessful, violent, and ultimately savage attempts to impose different types of self-government and order on the group. The story takes place in the shadow of a rotting pig’s skull surrounded by insects – the eponymous Lord of the Flies of the title. Although Golding’s first novel has often been challenged for its controversial exploration of human nature, utilitarian themes, and violence, it is nevertheless a fascinating insight into political, psychological, and philosophical thought of its time.

William Golding

Golding was born near the British town of Newquay, Cornwall, in September 1911. He grew up in a political household in Wiltshire: his father, Alec, was a science master, a socialist, and a rationalist, while his mother, Mildred Curnoe, was a female suffrage activist. Golding studied natural sciences, then English literature at Oxford. He served in the Royal Navy during World War II, and published his first work of fiction, Lord of the Flies, in 1954. He kept writing until his death in 1993, and was awarded both the Booker and Nobel prizes.

Key works

1954 Lord of the Flies

1955 The Inheritors

1980, 1987, 1989 To the Ends of the Earth: A Sea Trilogy

THE LORD OF THE RINGS

(1954–1955), J R R TOLKIEN

English writer and academic Tolkien (1892–1973) helped to redevelop the fantasy genre with the three-volume sequel to his children’s book The Hobbit (1937). Taking inspiration from events in the world wars, his childhood in South Africa, and his studies in Icelandic and Germanic literatures, he developed the epic tale of The Lord of the Rings. The story follows multiple characters as they journey through The Fellowship of the RingThe Two Towers, andThe Return of the King, in a life-or-death quest to end the spread of evil forces across Middle-earth.

PEDRO PÁRAMO

(1955), JUAN RULFO

Influencing writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and José Saramago, Pedro Páramo by Mexican author Juan Rulfo (1917–86) is a surreal, supernatural, and enigmatic story of grief, haunting memories, and deeply fraught relationships. Through non-linear storytelling, the blurring of events, dreams, and hallucinations, the reader is dragged into the confusion of the narrator Juan Preciado. He tells of his return to the ghost town of Comala after his mother’s death to fulfil her last wish – to find his father, Pedro Páramo. Juan is shocked to discover the extent of Páramo’s influence in the town. As the narrative unfolds, Páramo is revealed as protagonist and antagonist of the story, holding the power of life and death over Comala and its inhabitants.

MEMED, MY HAWK

(1955), YASAR KEMAL

Kemal’s first full novel, Memed, My Hawk – originally titled Ince Memed (“Memed, the Slim”) – was the first Turkish-language book to achieve international fame. The first volume in a series of four, it follows the troubled story of young Anatolian Memed, who runs from his abusers with his loved one Hatche, loses her, and joins a band of brigands. He returns to his mother and hometown to challenge the abusive landowner who caused Hatche’s death, and discovers that his story has only just begun.

Yasar Kemal

Born in Gökçedam, Turkey, in 1923, Kemal experienced childhood hardships that may have contributed to his later urge to speak out on behalf of the dispossessed. He was blinded in one eye as a child, and suffered the tragedy of witnessing his father’s murder at the age of five. He first met with literary acclaim with his short stories and novels, which he wrote in the 1950s and 60s while working as a journalist. He also wrote ballads and children’s books. Kemal was awarded 38 literary prizes throughout his career, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1973. He died in 2015.

Key works

1954 The Drumming Out

1955 Memed, My Hawk

1969 They Burn The Thistles

THE DEVIL TO PAY IN THE BACKLANDS

(1956), JOÃO GUIMARÃES ROSA

A major work of South American literature, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, by Brazilian writer João Guimarães Rosa (1908–67), is narrated by ex-mercenary Riobaldo as a long and continuous tale, with no section breaks. It is the story of the narrator’s life, his encounters with turncoat ranchers and other brigands, and the devil himself, as they all cross paths, literally and metaphorically, in the outback of the Brazilian state Minas Gerais.

HOWL AND OTHER POEMS

(1956), ALLEN GINSBERG

The first and most significant collection by US poet Ginsberg (1926–97), and the most influential for the Beat Generation movement. Containing among other poems the epic “Howl”, Ginsberg’s pieces are raw and emotional, and openly condemn consumer capitalism, homophobia, racism, and cultural hegemony in the US. The book’s publisher was charged with obscenity, but won the case, which only served to increase demand for the book and boost circulation both in the USA and across the world.

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO

(1957), BORIS PASTERNAK

The internationally acclaimed novel Doctor Zhivago by Russian writer Pasternak (1890–1960) is a thought-provoking investigation of the Russian Communist Party between the revolution of 1905 and World War I. It had to be published in Italy due to censorship by the Russian government, which also removed the Nobel Prize awarded to Pasternak. The story is told through multiple characters – centred around Yuri Zhivago – as they adapt to the new political reality of their country. It deals with the regime’s misguided attempts to impose conformity and its misreadings of socialist ideals, as well as the characters’ struggles in their attempts to deal with and overcome the alienation, loneliness, and coldness of communist Russia.

LA JALOUSIE

(1957), ALAIN ROBBE-GRILLET

An experimental French nouveau roman (new novel), La Jalousie by Robbe-Grillet (1922–2008) features a narrator who is effectively absent – although his presence is implied – from the events he describes. He spies, out of jealousy, on his wife through a “jalousie”, a type of window. Scenes are repeated multiple times, with some of the details changed. Ambiguous and fragmented, the work is an example of the author’s experimentation with the novel form; the reader is left to interpret the story for themselves.

"She begins serving: the Cognac … then the soda, and finally three transparent ice cubes, each of which imprisons a bundle of silver needles in its heart."

La Jalousie
Alain Robbe-Grillet

A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS

(1961), V S NAIPAUL

The first novel by Trinidad-born British writer Naipaul (1932–) to achieve international acclaim, A House For Mr Biswas draws on the author’s experiences of growing up in the Caribbean. Mohun Biswas strives towards his goal of owning his own house, to provide a home for his family and escape from his overbearing in-laws. The book lays bare the inequalities of colonialism, and exposes the tensions between individual and familial life.

THE TIME REGULATION INSTITUTE

(1962), AHMET HAMDI TANPINAR

Tanpinar (1901–62) wrote The Time Regulation Institute as a critique of the excessive bureaucracy in modern governmental procedures, basing many of his observations on his native Turkey. This major Turkish-language novel recounts the protagonist’s personal struggles (as well as those of the secondary characters he interacts with) to adapt to the Eurasian post-war reality, and to be at peace with the changing nature of modern times.

ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH

(1962), ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYN

An active critic of the totalitarian government ruling over his native Russia, Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) wrote this, his first literary work, to openly condemn Stalin’s rule. The book recounts a day in the life of a wrongly condemned labour-camp prisoner, Ivan Denisovich, and the nature of the punishments, hardships, and horrors that he endures. The underlying message, however, is one of solidarity, loyalty, and humanity among the prisoners, who only survive from day to day by working together.

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST

(1962), KEN KESEY

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by US writer Kesey (1935–2001) is a novel set in a mental institution in Oregon, and is based on the author’s own time as a staff member at a similar facility. Although the novel has been well received in most quarters, it has also been subject to bans. Kesey’s best-known book, it highlights the humanity – and in some cases, cruelty – behind the individuals, from patients to staff, in the mental-care system. It is often seen as a critique of this type of institution, as well as of other systems of control in US society.

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE

(1962), ANTHONY BURGESS

In this dystopian novel, Burgess (1917–93) takes his observations of the changing youth cultures present in Britain in the 1960s to disturbing extremes. The reader follows the teenage narrator Alex in his exploits of “ultraviolence”, depravity, and drug use, told in both English and the Russian-influenced teen slang known as “Nadsat”. Also described are the authorities’ attempts to reform Alex through an experimental type of aversion therapy, no matter the cost to his mental state; the final chapter, cut from US editions until the 1980s, seems to show some redemption for Alex. The satirical novel spawned an extremely successful and equally controversial cinematic adaptation in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick, which helped to increase the popularity of and interest in the book.

"If he can only perform good or only perform evil, then he is a clockwork orange … an organism lovely with colour and juice but … only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil."

A Clockwork Orange
Anthony Burgess

THE DEATH OF ARTEMIO CRUZ

(1962), CARLOS FUENTES

One of the novels that helped bring Latin American literature to wider international recognition, The Death of Artemio Cruz by Mexican author Fuentes (1928–2012) is a recollection of the life of fictional main character Artemio Cruz, as he lies on his deathbed. Through the memories of Cruz, the reader joins his greedy family, overbearing priest, and not-too-loyal assistant in revisiting over 60 years of Mexican history, politics, and religion, including the country’s foreign policies, corruption, and betrayals.

THE BELL JAR

(1963), SYLVIA PLATH

This semi-autobiographical novel by US poet Sylvia Plath (1932–63) retells events in the author’s life, and was initially published under a pseudonym. The text is made up of multiple flashbacks to protagonist Esther’s earlier life, as she interns for a renowned magazine in New York one summer. Esther, in search of her own identity as a woman, descends into a worsening mental state, eventually ending up in a mental hospital and being treated with electroshock therapy.

"I felt very still and very empty … moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo."

The Bell Jar
Sylvia Plath

THE TIME OF THE HERO

(1963), MARIO VARGAS LLOSA

The heavily censored literary début of Peruvian Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa (1936–), The Time of the Hero is an experimental work of fiction. Employing multiple perspectives and a complex, non-linear chronology, the story is set in a real-life military academy in Lima. It exposes the techniques used to train cadets, turning them into loyal, silent, hyper-masculine drones, never questioning or challenging imposed structures of authority. In turn, these practices are not solely seen as issues of the academy, but also of more general military structures, and of a state that relies on military power to maintain control – such as in Peru from the 1930s to the 1980s. The authorities attempted to prevent the novel’s publication, condemning it as a plot by neighbouring Ecuador to denigrate the nation of Peru.

THE CRYING OF LOT 49

(1966), THOMAS PYNCHON

Written by New Yorker and author of speculative fiction Pynchon, this novella was hailed as both a prime example and a harsh parody of postmodern fiction and psychoanalysis. It follows Oedipa Maas and her discovery of a worldwide conspiracy rooted in a centuries-old feud between two postal services, one real (“Thurn und Taxis”), one fictional (“Trystero”). The text is littered with cultural and social references to popular music, literature, and art.

WIDE SARGASSO SEA

(1966), JEAN RHYS

A powerful novel by Dominica-born British writer Jean Rhys (1890–1979), Wide Sargasso Sea explores feminist and postcolonial themes through relationships of power, especially between men and women. The story, a prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), follows white Creole Antoinette and her troubled life in Jamaica, as she is controlled, oppressed, then dismissed as a mad woman by her English husband, before being forced to relocate to England under the name of Bertha.

"We stared at each other, blood on my face, tears on hers. It was as if I saw myself. Like in a looking-glass."

Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys

THE MASTER AND MARGARITA

(1966–67), MIKHAIL BULGAKOV

Written by Russian author Bulgakov (1891–1940) between 1928 and 1940 but only published almost 30 years later, The Master and Margarita is set both in 1930s’ Moscow and – as told in a novel by lead character the “Master” – in Jerusalem at the time of Christ. Through both story lines, the book can be seen as a historical validation of religious tenets, a critique of overly bureaucratic rules, and a satire of the Soviet authorities, catalyzed in the characters of Professor Woland – an anarchic but scholarly manifestation of Satan – and his devilish entourage.

THE ARMIES OF THE NIGHT

(1968), NORMAN MAILER

Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel/The Novel as History, by journalist, playwright, novelist, and film-maker Norman Mailer, was a key work in the rise and acceptance of creative non-fiction in the literary landscape. The text is a historicized, political, journalistic recollection of an anti-Vietnam War rally in Washington, DC, in 1967, interspersed with self-reflections, novelizations, and personal thoughts on the subject matter and the author himself.

Norman Mailer

Born in New Jersey, USA, in 1923, Mailer grew up in New York. He joined Harvard University at the age of just 16, initially to study aeronautical engineering, but soon became interested in writing. One of his stories won a competition in 1941, which led him to pursue writing seriously – an ambition that he argued (unsuccessfully) should exempt him from military service. His first novel The Naked and the Dead (1948) is based on his war experience in the Philippines. In 1955 he co-founded the political arts magazine The Village Voice. A cultural commentator and critic, Mailer also wrote biographies of Picasso, Lee Harvey Oswald, and Marilyn Monroe. His creative non-fiction, political activism, and two Pulitzer prizes ensured his fame. He died in 2007.

Key works

1957 “The White Negro”

1968 The Armies of the Night

1979 The Executioner’s Song

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE

(1969), KURT VONNEGUT

Written by US author Vonnegut (1922–2007), Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death is a key example of speculative fiction and surreal political satire. It meshes together time-travel and its paradoxes, alien creatures, and semi-autobiographical notes about the author’s service in World War II, including the bombing of Dresden. The result is a critique of the horrors of war, the publishing industry, and the status of literature, and is a thoughtful, almost comic, meditation on death and mortality.

THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN

(1969), JOHN FOWLES

This popular and highly acclaimed novel by British author John Fowles (1926–2005) is often labelled as a postmodern historical fiction. It tells the story of naturalist Charles Smithson and Sarah Woodruff, a former governess, in a style that comments upon Victorian romances, while dealing with topics such as gender issues, history, science, and religion. The narrator, who also becomes a character, allows for multiple possible endings to the story, destabilizing the linear narrative of the texts it is imitating.

I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS

(1969), MAYA ANGELOU

The first book of a seven-volume autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1928–2014) – the African-American Pulitzer Prize winner and activist – expresses the author’s changing responses to the violence of racism. A powerful and influential literary work as well as a candid memoir of Angelou’s early life in Arkansas from ages three to 16, the book explores issues of childhood, trauma, and motherhood, and proclaims the power of belief in one’s self, and of literature and the written word.

CROW

(1970), TED HUGHES

Often regarded as the most important collection of the British poet Ted Hughes (1930–98), Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow was inspired by US artist Leonard Baskin’s illustrations of the bird. The poems – some of which are traditional in style, while others take more experimental forms – follow the character of Crow, weaving elements of world mythologies and religions into an ongoing epic folktale. While the tale is incomplete – Hughes was unable to continue after the suicide of his lover Assia Wevill in 1969 – the ambitious collection is a noteworthy philosophical and literary reflection on mythology and the natural world.