6 Great Long Novels for your Quarantine

The edicts from governments have come out.

Stay in the house.

Play at spoonerizing. Quentin Tarantino becomes Trentin Quarantino.

Yikes! Cabin fever’s come a knockin’ already.

You have a choice,

  1. Numb your mind watching Nitwitflix, or
  2. Settle in with a lengthy read.

Ok, that was false choice because there isn’t a choice really. No time better than the present to engage with a long, long novel, one that consumes your time and mental space. Without particular order, here are six I recommend.

Admit it, you haven’t read it but always said you did. This is the great grandaddy of action novels but unlike today’s flunkies it’s incredibly well written. Edmond Dantès, literally fresh off the boat, discovers injustice, heartbreak, and sweet, sweet revenge. However, as we learn, while revenge is a dish best served cold, its consequences affect many. The novel’s ending maxim on wisdom, “Wait and Hope,” is a fine phrase to remember while suffering in solitude through the coronavirus pandemic. After this, you’ll be itching to read The Campaigns of Napoleon, by David Chandler.

Film still of James O’Neill as Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo, a 1913 film. Wikimedia Commons.

Even Eliot worried about the novel’s continually growing length, but she was a great writer and we reap the rewards of her extended effort. If ever there was a book that I didn’t want to end, this was it. I have an old copy, with yellowed pages and minuscule text, which I once poured over throughout much of a summer. Dorothea marries the bland and prickly Casaubon and it takes off from there as the Romanticism enters from off-stage. Eliot writes, “And, of course men know best about everything, except what women know better.” After reading the novel, you’ll probably frame much of what you see at work and in government as equal to Casaubon’s fool’s errand known as Key to All Mythologies. What is delusion and what is true love? Read and find out.

Frontispiece illustration for the Victorian novel Middlemarch by George Eliot (London: 1900–1909?). Wikimedia Commons.

Richardson, the 18th Century dean of authors invited less fortunate writers to his house for food and company on a regular basis. So we like him already. In the preface, Richardson wrote, “‘Much more lively and affecting,’ says one of the principal character, ‘must be the style of those who write in the height of a present distress; the mind tortured by the pangs of uncertainty (the events then hidden in the womb of fate;).” Yep, that’s her, the somewhat naive Clarissa who is as desperate to retain her virtue as the libertine Lovelace is to debase it. Having been banished to her room by her family, and afterward, Clarissa explains her plight by writing lengthy letters, so many in fact that someone once calculated the time she would have spent writing and found she wouldn’t have been able to eat or sleep. Clarissa is a great epistolary novel and a compelling tragedy about morals, compromises, virtue lost, contrition, and guilt.

Two prints from Clarissa by Samuel Richardson. Daniel Nickolaus Chodowiecki, 1796. Wikimedia Commons.

Once slammed by critics and now seen as a masterpiece, the novel is a chunk of heady, erudite writing. Gwyon in his quest to become an artist meets the world and the corrupt Recktall Brown who convinces him to create forgeries of old master paintings. This is a novel that burned in my head through days and dreams. Gaddis wrote, “Everybody has that feeling when they look at a work of art and it’s right, that sudden familiarity, a sort of…recognition, as though they were creating it themselves, as though it were being created through them while they look at it or listen to it…” And so it is with this great novel. I’m so miffed that he wrote it and not me.

The Recognitions. Fair use for review.

Do you want esoteric and sexy? Do you want a book you can use for a front step? Historically not widely known in North America, Schmidt is a brilliant writer who composed some of this novel on more than 130,000 index cards that he organized in long wooden crates. Rather than paraphrase, it’s best to let Schmidt speak for himself. You’ll see what I mean. “ »I had a (sinfull) vision to do battle with … « / (: »? ! -«) / (Gallant) : »Sorda in the style of an ,AhaB + SeeDekiah thru those 2< : You; in a butt fulla dew! -«; (then, at last, We had Her thru, gristle’n’all.” Throughout this midsummer night’s romp, translators attempt to gain Freudian insight the sexual themes found in the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Enjoy the collage, the marginalia, the labyrinthian story, the invention of emoticons, and the neverending wit. “I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.” So says Bottom in Shakespeare; however, it wasn’t beyond Schmidt’s abilities to describe it.

Pages from Bottom’s Dream.

Technically four books: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. Is it possible one can contemplate too much? Can one balance hedonism with creative focus? Darley carefully considers every aspect of his life and we get to ride on his brain as it wanders through mostly prewar Alexandrian heat, friendship, and modern love. This is some of the most lush, sensuous, sumptuous writing that I have ever read. The voice wraps you like a thick blanket. You will find you have to read sentences over and over again, they are just that beautiful. Durrell said, “The thing was, I wanted to produce something that would be readable on a superficial level, while at the same time giving he reader — to the extent that he was touched by the more enigmatic aspects — the opportunity to attempt the second layer, and so on …Just like a house-painter; he puts on three, four coats. And then it starts to rain, and you see the second coat coming through.” You’ll emerge from reading this novel feeling that for the first time, you know adulthood.

The Alexandria Quartet. Fair use for review.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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