The long and short of it
I own about five books of shorter works by Leo Tolstoy. By far my favorite Russian — despite strong cases from guys like Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Mikhail Lermontov,[ref]Stop reading this right now and go buy a copy of “A Hero of Our Time.” It’ll change your life.[/ref] and Andrei Platonov[ref]Stop reading this right now and go buy a copy of “The Foundation Pit.” Satire at its apex.[/ref] — his works always make me think of my own mortality, the transience of everything.
This week I read “Master and Man” in one sitting. It was a fantastic read about a wealthy landowner man who is obsessed with his possessions and a peasant who is illiterate as they encounter a snowstorm. As always seems to be the case with Tolstoy, he painted two sweeping contrasts to help support his themes. I enjoyed the ending and what it was he attempted to convey and I won’t ruin it for you. Read it for yourself and you won’t be disappointed.
Tolstoy is, of course, known for his much longer works, “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace.” After finishing “Master and Man” I glanced at my bookshelf and wondered what other authors had written exceptionally long works while also mastering shorter forms. Below I’ve listed some of my favorites, taking liberty with what constitutes both “long” and “short” works. As always, these are only my opinion and I welcome any thoughts in the comments section.
Leo Tolstoy: “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “War and Peace”
My girlfriend insists that “Anna Karenina” is the superior novel. I, however, would choose “War and Peace” over it if for nothing but the character of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky. The man-crush is akin to my love of Tom Brady in fantasy football.[ref]And that’s monumental, considering how many championship teams I’ve had him on.[/ref] As for “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” it is my second favorite book with “death” in the title.[ref]Stop reading this right now and go buy a copy of “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann. Heartbreaking and honest, it’ll change your life.[/ref] Don’t spend your life questioning what life is about; instead, simply live. We can learn a lot from Ivan.
David Foster Wallace: “Little Expressionless Animals” and “Infinite Jest”
I won’t gush about “IJ” since I spend most of my free time doing so. “Little Expressionless Animals” is the first story in Wallace’s book of short stories entitled “Girl With Curious Hair.” Some of the stories therein I find eye-rolling and mediocre. “LEA,” however, has Alex Trebeck and Pat Sajack as part of the cast of characters and is both funny and sad.[ref]The story is actually online at Paris Review and you can read some of it here, though you have to purchase the magazine to read the entire story.[/ref] I think it’s Wallace’s best short story and certainly important if you’re a fan of his.
Thomas Pynchon: “The Crying of Lot 49” and “Gravity’s Rainbow”
A friend of mine said he has picked up “Gravity’s Rainbow” twice only to discard it both times. It’s a tough read, but a remarkable and rewarding one if you can find the time. No other book spells out doom for our industrialized and technology and computer-obsessed minds than this book. I think “The Crying of Lot 49” is vital to read before you pick up “Rainbow.” There are elements of style and writing technique that will prepare you for the monumental task of comprehending the phallicism of bananas, Tyrone Slothrop, and a killer octopus.
James Joyce: “A Little Cloud” and “Ulysses”
No need to discuss “Ulysses.” Horses deserve to rest in peace. “A Little Cloud” is one of my favorite stories from “Dubliners.” Joyce often had characters who failed to act and suffered the consequences for this inaction. In Little Chandler we have a heartbreaking character that feels trapped and doomed. My kind of fella.
Flannery O’Connor: “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Wise Blood”
“A Good Man” is so good and perplexing it’d be impossible to have this list without it. “Wise Blood” is by no means a “long” novel, but it’s here because it’s one of my favorite books. O’Connor has to be a list of best writers ever since she was a master at short fiction and her novel collection isn’t too shabby. The characters in “Wise Blood” are strange and beautifully written.
Herman Melville: “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Moby Dick”
If this were a contest, I’d rank these two stories by Melville number one. “Bartleby” should be required reading for every human being on earth. In a world driven by consumerism and materialism, Bartleby chooses not to participate, choosing apathy over all else. There’s a lot to chew on here and that pun makes me hate myself more than usual.
Saul Bellow: “Seize the Day” and “Herzog”
I think he’s probably one of those guys who will be appreciated over time. His writing is fiercely personal and honest. “Seize the Day,” much like “Bartleby” oddly enough, is a look at the avarice in our world and how some folks respond to it. There’s a desperation in the story unrivaled by few other stories. As for a “Herzog,” it, too, is a shorter work (0nly 341 pages), but certainly my favorite novel of his. The title character is a thinker and it’s frightening how well I relate with him. Why is it I always like depressive, introspective characters? Where’s my bowl?
Roberto Bolaño: “Monsieur Pain” and “2666”
On my blog,[ref]I haven’t written anything on it in a year. Now that I’m a Bro Jackson senior writer, do I really need to write anywhere else?[/ref] I wrote a five-part piece on “2666.” If you are interested in wasting time, you can read it here. The book, like “Gravity’s Rainbow” or “Ulysses,” is a monumental undertaking. You’ll need patience, but the reward, again, is worth it. You probably won’t find a lot of people who list “Monsieur Pain” as among his best works. I found the short mystery novel so full of noir and dark comedy that I couldn’t help but list it here. It also reminds us that there aren’t pretty bows on all things in life. Get used to the idea that sometimes there are not perfect endings.