What is a classic? I like Italo Calvino’s poetic definition best:
A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.
Here are three such books that I highly recommend to anyone, and everyone.
The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov
Mikhail Bulgakov’s devastating satire of Soviet life was written during the darkest period of Stalin’s regime. Combining two distinct yet interwoven parts—one set in ancient Jerusalem, one in contemporary Moscow—the novel veers from moods of wild theatricality with violent storms, vampire attacks, and a Satanic ball; to such somber scenes as the meeting of Pilate and Yeshua, and the murder of Judas in the moonlit garden of Gethsemane; to the substanceless, circus-like reality of Moscow. Its central characters, Woland (Satan) and his retinue—including the vodka-drinking black cat, Behemoth; the poet, Ivan Homeless; Pontius Pilate; and a writer known only as The Master, and his passionate companion, Margarita—exist in a world that blends fantasy and chilling realism, an artful collage of grotesqueries, dark comedy, and timeless ethical questions.
This is a classic that I think is rather underrated, at least in the English-speaking world. It’s a darkly funny, moving, and imaginative story about life in a totalitarian society, and the power of humanity, love and spirituality. It’s also a great fantasy story, that weaves together past and present, realism and fantasy, magic and reality.
“Is that vodka?” Margarita asked weakly.
The cat jumped up in his seat with indignation.
“I beg pardon, my queen,” he rasped, “Would I ever allow myself to offer vodka to a lady? This is pure alcohol!”
Candide, by Voltaire
Candide is the story of a gentle man who, though pummeled and slapped in every direction by fate, clings desperately to the belief that he lives in “the best of all possible worlds.” On the surface a witty, bantering tale, this eighteenth-century classic is actually a savage, satiric thrust at the philosophical optimism that proclaims that all disaster and human suffering is part of a benevolent cosmic plan.
Fast, funny, often outrageous, the French philosopher’s immortal narrative takes Candide around the world to discover that — contrary to the teachings of his distringuished tutor Dr. Pangloss — all is not always for the best. Alive with wit, brilliance, and graceful storytelling, Candide has become Voltaire’s most celebrated work.
Candide was first published in 1759, and was soon widely banned for various reasons, including “religious blasphemy, political sedition and intellectual hostility hidden under a thin veil of naïveté”. The fact that it’s such a hilarious read probably added to the bannings, because ‘Candide’ is one of the funniest, and most enjoyable literary classics I’ve ever come across.
- “Optimism,” said Cacambo, “What is that?” “Alas!” replied Candide, “It is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.”
- “But for what purpose was the earth formed?” asked Candide. “To drive us mad,” replied Martin.”
A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.
It isn’t exactly historically accurate in every detail, but this is without a doubt my favourite Dickens-tale: it’s just such a gloriously sweeping epic, rife with romance, tragedy, aristocrats behaving badly, blood-thirsty revolutionaries, honour, betrayal, and outrageous plot twists. And, of course, there’s the opening line:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”