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Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Literary Fiction" for SFF Lovers (by Liviu Suciu)

Once in a while disputes appear online about genre vs literary, the Man Booker prize and genre and similar topics. These days and for almost 20 years now, I have been reading mostly sff , but I like quite a few "literary novels" where I use the quotes since I strongly believe that "literary fiction" is a genre with its subgenres and conventions (suburbia, boarding school, academia, family drama, social drama…) and it intersects with other genres in many places .

I also think that the Booker prize is fine the way it is focusing on this genre as the AC Clarke prize is fine the way it is focusing on sf, however loosely defined. So outside of various current "literary" novels I've reviewed here, I would like to present some more I loved a lot and which I think can appeal to people who tend to read mostly sff.

As usual, I will limit myself to one book or series - yes, literary fiction has series too and even the 2009 Booker winner Wolf Hall is the first part of a planned duology - per author since nothing is more tedious than seeing a general list repeating ten times the same author, but I also strongly suggest checking out more works by the author in cause if the book presented here tempts you.

I will not include books reviewed on FBC so far since I will make a separate list for that though I will include different books by some authors (Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro, Roberto Bolano, Margaret Atwood) I've already reviewed. I will include mostly links to Google Books previews or snippets since when available they are quite useful and will give you a direct taste of the book in cause. Wikipedia or Amazon otherwise.


The Sea of Fertility Tetralogy ( Spring Snow (1966), Runaway Horses (1969), The Temple of Dawn (1970) and The Decay of the Angel (1971)) by Yukio Mishima

exotic, reincarnation, great characters, great worldbuilding and page turners to boot; three times Nobel prize nominated and whom is rumored to have lost by a whisker in 1968; a loose tetralogy following one character's interactions with four young people he believes are successive reincarnations of each other.

The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata

page turner that is both allegory and a gripping description of a marathon go match; another novel that was an important part of a Nobel prize winner's work.

The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov

maybe not the best Nabokov, nor the most sf-nal (Ada is alt-history for example) but a big favorite of mine for its great tale of chess and madness; also one famous book for which the movie is pretty good since it respects its spirit whatever liberties it takes with the text.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

family saga, mystery and pulp-sf; Booker prize winner and top five novel of the 00's of mine.

Seven Japanese Tales by Junichiro Tanizaki

the one collection on the list since each story here is superb; a mixture of themes and settings from contemporary to the writing (mostly 1910-30's though one as late as 1959) to historical fiction showcasing Junichiro Tanizaki's "typical" mixture of eroticism, strange and exotic
another Nobel prize nominated author who almost won

2666 by Roberto Bolano

sprawling, subtle, funny and then ultra-dark; one of the few "must" novels of the 00's imho; I hope to review it here by early 2011.

The Forbidden Forest by Mircea Eliade (aka St John Nativity Night or even Faerie Night in the original Romanian language title)

one of the few novels I read in three languages several times each; sadly the English language edition is rare and expensive but good college libraries have it - I read it that way first and kept it borrowed on and off for almost all my time in graduate school here since it was banned by the communist regime I grew up under; later I bought the French edition and then even later, a Romanian language edition and I wish someone would reprint it in English too since I would buy it on the spot at a decent price...

epic, (slight) paranormal, romance, world building, great characters and a powerful sense of history; the last 100 pages and the ending are still among the most emotional ones I've ever read even today after many readings of the book; the one "marooned on an island novel" for me

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

another Booker shortlisted novel and while maybe not the author's best, a favorite of mine despite being loosely classified as "detective/crime" fiction; exotic world building at the boundary with the imaginary and a great denouement

The Magus by John Fowles

the one pure mainstream novel that reproduces the sf-nal sense of wonder; it just blew me away many years ago when I read it first in Romanian and then I read it in English several times too; one of those famous novels I think any sff fan should at least look at

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

epic tale of glitter, misery and Revolution; world building, great characters, page turner in this Nobel prize winner novel; the author paid dearly for the Nobel though, suffering humiliation in the supposedly "thawed" Kruschev' Soviet Union; the first book I bought and read here in the USA, days within my arriving in 1990. A bunch of movies too with the most recent Russian miniseries the best rendering of the novel I've watched, though of course Omar Sharif and Julie Christie still have their timeless charm...

A Time to Love and a Time to Die by Erich Maria Remarque

nobody does better exile and alienation in a foreign country than EM Remarque and his tales of people blown by the winds of war in the maelstrom of Europe 1930-1940's when a passport stamp made all the difference between life and death still resonate with me very strongly today; this one though is a bit more straightforward; Germany 1943 among bombings, rubble and the specter of the Eastern Front and the title says it all; while Arch of Triumph - another personal favorite that takes place in 1939 Paris - may be more accomplished, this one is just a big, big personal favorite.

The Stranger by Albert Camus

too well known to say more in a paragraph and a landmark of the literary world of the 20th century; also a crucial part of a Nobel prize winner work; try it since you will be surprised how gripping it is

Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

another well known novel about the Devil in Stalin's Moscow; the posthumous publication was a landmark event; the 10 episode Russian miniseries is the best adaptation of several I watched; and Behemoth the black cat on the cover above is still awesome :)

Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann

the "most difficult" novel on the list but another landmark of 20th century literature which shows that an author can write great stuff decades after receiving the Nobel; the descent into madness both personal and societal and with sff-nal elements too.

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

way before Wolf Hall, there was this one which I read on US publication some 15-16 years ago and reread a bunch of times since; while less accomplished technically it is still a big time favorite; same great world building and characters but in the French Revolution. And of course a superbly ironical title.


Nate said...

Here here! Great post, Liviu.

Here are my additions:

Jose Saramago -- Balthasar and Blimunda

GG Marquez -- One Hundred Years of Solitude

Mario Vargo Llosa -- The War of the End of
The World

Mark Helprin--A Winters Tale

You can also find great sfish picks by Jorge Luis Borges, Michael Chabon, Doris Lessing, Cormac McCarthy...

Liviu said...

Thank you for the comment; great additions - I read Marquez and liked it a long, long time ago but it did not stay that fresh in my memory; I started Helprin, this and the WW1 one, they are there on the pile somewhere.

From Jose Saramago I liked Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, but not read more, have a bunch of others though

Borges I read many of his stories
For some reason though I do not like Chabon' style

Anonymous said...

What an awesome list! Just wanted to add one of my personal favorites:

Salman Rushdie - The Enchantress of Florence

There's also a collection of Herman Hesse's "fantastical" short stories on the market. They're hit or miss, in my opinion, but the good ones are REALLY good.

Liviu said...

Thank you for your comments; I read Enchantress and liked it too

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