In my inbox today was a newsletter from
Penguin Classics UK in which they list the…
Top Ten Cruellest Classics (wah, ha, har!)
They didn’t say ‘wah, ha, har!’ that was me. I thought it needed something.
They did say this, however:
Despite some sunny days recently, we wouldn’t dare argue with T. S. Eliot – and since it’s April, here is our top ten of the very Cruellest classics:
1. Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola
‘It was like a lightning flash of passion, swift, blinding, across a leaden sky’
In a dingy apartment on the Passage du Pont Neuf in Paris, Thérèse Raquin is trapped in a loveless marriage to her sickly cousin Camille. The numbing tedium of her life is suddenly shattered when she embarks on a turbulent affair with her husband’s earthy friend Laurent, but their animal passion for each other soon compels the lovers to commit a crime that will haunt them forever. Thérèse Raquin caused a scandal when it appeared in 1867 and brought its twenty-seven-year-old author a notoriety that followed him throughout his life. Zola’s novel is not only an uninhibited portrayal of adultery, madness and ghostly revenge, but is also a devastating exploration of the darkest aspects of human existence.
Robin Buss’s new translation superbly conveys Zola’s fearlessly honest and matter of fact style. In his introduction, he discusses Zola’s life and literary career, and the influence of art, literature and science on his writing. This edition also includes the preface to the second edition of 1868, a chronology, further reading and notes. Buy
“Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.”
Thus begins Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark; this, the author tells us, is the whole story–except that he starts from here, with his characteristic dazzling skill and irony, and brilliantly turns a fable into a chilling, original novel of folly and destruction.
Amidst a Weimar-era milieu of silent film stars, artists, and aspirants, Nabokov creates a merciless masterpiece as Albinus, an aging critic, falls prey to his own desires, to his teenage mistress, and to Axel Rex, the scheming rival for her affections who finds his greatest joy in the downfall of others. Buy
Ah, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done;
Ten thousand worse, than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will.
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.
An embittered Roman General returns from war, having captured the Queen of the Goths and her three sons. Sacrificing the eldest, in memory of his own sons killed in battle, he provokes the queen’s unending hatred. And when she is made empress by the new emperor of Rome, she quickly begins to plot a murderous revenge of barely conceivable cruelty. Buy
‘That proud, impassioned soul, so ungovernable now that she has felt the sting of injustice’
The four tragedies collected in this volume all focus on a central character, once powerful, brought down by betrayal, jealousy, guilt and hatred. The first playwright to depict suffering without reference to the gods, Euripides (484-407 BC) made his characters speak in human terms and face the consequences of their actions.
Medea, is a story of betrayal and vengeance. Medea, incensed that her husband Jason would leave her for another after the many sacrifices she has made for him, murders both his new bride and their own children in revenge. It is an excellent example of the prominence and complexity that Euripides gave to female characters. Hecabe depicts the former queen of Troy, driven mad by the prospect of her daughter’s sacrifice to Achilles. Electra portrays a young woman planning to avenge the brutal death of her father at the hands of her mother, while in Heracles the hero seeks vengeance against the evil king who has caused bloodshed in his family. Buy
“My life looks as if it had been wasted for want of chances! When I see what you know, what you have read, and seen, and thought, I feel what a nothing I am!”
When Tess Durbeyfield is driven by family poverty to claim kinship with the wealthy D’Urbervilles and seek a portion of their family fortune, meeting her ‘cousin’ Alec proves to be her downfall.
A very different man, Angel Clare, seems to offer her love and salvation, but Tess must choose whether to reveal her past or remain silent in the hope of a peaceful future.
With its sensitive depiction of the wronged Tess and with its powerful criticism of social convention, Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of the most moving and poetic of Hardy’s novels. Buy
‘Was anyone hurt?’
‘No one, I am thankful to say,’ said Mrs Beaver, ‘except two housemaids who lost their heads and jumped through a glass roof into the paved court. They were in no danger. The fire never reached the bedrooms, I am afraid. Still, they are bound to need doing up, everything black with smoke and drenched in water and luckily they had that old-fashioned sort of extinguisher that ruins everything. One really cannot complain. The chief rooms were completely gutted and everything was insured. Sylvia Newport knows the people. I must get on to them this morning before that ghoul Mrs Shutter snaps them up.’
Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust is a satirical depiction of the ‘sterile’ generation between the wars. It tells the story of bored Lady Brenda Last, who abandons her husband’s Gothic pile to conduct an affair with shallow socialite John Beaver of the Belgravia set. A Handful of Dust remains one of the finest tragedies and comedies of ill manners. Buy
7. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
‘Let him feel that he is one of us; once fill his mind with the idea that he has been a thief, and he’s ours, – ours for his life!’
The story of the orphan Oliver, who runs away from the workhouse only to be taken in by a den of thieves, shocked readers when it was first published. Dickens’s tale of childhood innocence beset by evil depicts the dark criminal underworld of a London peopled by vivid and memorable characters – the arch-villain Fagin, the artful Dodger, the menacing Bill Sikes and the prostitute Nancy. Combining elements of Gothic Romance, the Newgate Novel and popular melodrama, in Oliver Twist Dickens created an entirely new kind of fiction, scathing in its indictment of a cruel society, and pervaded by an unforgettable sense of threat and mystery.
This is the first critical edition to use the Bentley’s Miscellany serial text of 1837–9, showing Oliver Twist as it appeared to its earliest readers. It includes Dickens’s 1841 introduction and 1850 preface, the original illustrations and a glossary of contemporary slang. Buy
“Oh, children, children! hush! hush! or I will kill myself before your eyes.”
Monsieur Goriot is one of a disparate group of lodgers at Mademe Vauquer’s dingy Parisian boarding house. At first his wealth inspires respect, but as his circumstances are mysteriously reduced he becomes shunned by those around him, and soon his only remaining visitors are his two beautifully dressed daughters. Goriot’s fate is intertwined with two other fellow boarders: the young social climber Eugene Rastignac, who sees a way to gain the acceptance and wealth he craves, and the enigmatic figure of Vautrin, who is hiding darker secrets than anyone.
Weaving a compelling and panoramic story of love, money, self-sacrifice, corruption, greed and ambition, Old Man Goriot is Balzac’s acknowledged masterpiece. A key novel in his Comédie Humaine series, it is a vividly realized portrait of bourgeois Parisian society in the years following the French Revolution. Buy
‘What we were after was lashings of ultraviolence’
In this nightmare vision of youth in revolt, fifteen-year-old Alex and his friends set out on a diabolical orgy of robbery, rape, torture and murder. Alex is jailed for his teenage delinquency and the State tries to reform him – but at what cost?
Social prophecy? Black comedy? Study of freewill?
A Clockwork Orange is all of these. It is also a dazzling experiment in language, as Burgess creates a new language – ‘nadsat’, the teenage slang of a not-too-distant future.
‘Every generation should discover this book’ Time Out Buy
10. Casino Royale by Ian Fleming
‘A dry martini,’ Bond said. ‘In a deep champagne goblet. Three measures of Gordons, one of Vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice cold, then add a thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?’
Introducing James Bond: charming, sophisticated, handsome; chillingly ruthless and very deadly. This, the first of Fleming’s tales of agent 007, finds Bond on a mission to neutralize a lethal, high-rolling Russian operative called simply ‘The Cypher’ – by ruining him at the Baccarat table and forcing his Soviet spymasters to ‘retire’ him. It seems that lady luck is taken with James – The Cypher has hit a losing streak. But some people just refuse to play by the rules and Bond’s attraction to a beautiful female agent leads him to disaster and an unexpected saviour…
You tell me, have they got it right?
About the Contributor
While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. Now, as the Director of Books at booktopia.com.au, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection.