Many of the greatest stories ever written are as vital and compelling as when their authors first put pen to paper. And these classic works, featuring some of the most unforgettable characters ever created, are still being printed today to meet an abiding demand among readers.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) by Mark Twain is a complex masterpiece that works on multiple levels – a critical attribute that all great works of art share. It is at heart a riveting adventure tale.
Huck, in flight from his murderous father, and Jim, in flight from slavery, pilot their raft thrillingly through treacherous, swirling waters. They survive a terrible crash with a steamboat, betrayal by rogues and a final threat from the bourgeoisie.
The river flows through it all, rendered in rich detail by Twain, a former steamboat pilot. It is transformed into a vital entity that both infuses and drives the story. The author’s innovative use of the language in the book, drawing from the regional vernacular of the setting, is equally impressive.
“The invention of this language, with all its implications, gave a new dimension to our literature,” Robert Penn Warren once noted. “It is a language capable of poetry.”
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is considered by many to be the first great American novel. Ernest Hemingway believed that all American literature flowed from this work. Part of the work’s inestimable charm is the wisdom and penetrating social criticism that surfaces in the seemingly innocent observations of the uneducated Huck and the even-less-educated slave Jim. It is a seminal work that remains as meaningful and important as when Twain first wrote it.
Les Misérables (1862) by Victor Hugo shares two major attributes with Twain’s masterpiece – it is a superb adventure story and an equally powerful social document.
This riveting tale of convict Jean Valjean, a man struggling to escape his past and reaffirm his identity in a world brutalized by poverty and ignorance, served as a bible for the poor and oppressed.
Today Les Misérables is considered a scholarly classic, despite being originally published and promoted as a popular romance novel. The novel vaulted Hugo onto the international stage, with the work being published in 40 different countries within a decade and later serving as the subject for numerous stage and film productions.
But the elite literary world still criticizes the work for long, rambling digressions, sentimentality and the frequent use of coincidence as a plot device.
On the other hand, authors such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky praised the work. In Tolstoy’s opinion, Hugo towered over his century as a model of the highest moral and artistic consciousness while Dostoevsky even compared him to Homer as a voice of spiritual regeneration.
There is no question the humanitarian themes explored in the work are partly responsible for the success of Les Misérables. But ultimately it is the engaging adventures of Jean Valjean, the hero of the work, that lie at the heart of the novel’s enduring appeal.
War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy is a Russian national epic and often lauded as the greatest novel ever written.
The scope of the work is utterly spellbinding. It focuses broadly on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and follows three of the best-known characters in literature: Pierre Bezukhov, the illegitimate son of a count who is fighting for his inheritance and yearning for spiritual fulfillment; Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, who leaves his family to fight in the war against Napoleon, and Natasha Rostov, the beautiful, daughter of a nobleman who intrigues both men.
As Napoleon’s army invades and pillages, the author vividly follows characters from widely diverse backgrounds as they struggle with the challenges and problems unique to their era, history and culture.
Readers can certainly be forgiven if they find it terribly difficult to read a poor translation of the epic. This is a crucial element that can greatly affect the reading experience, particularly with a novel of such scope written in Russian. Unfortunately, almost every translation of this novel is mediocre at best and sometimes even stultifying.
But one excellent translation is available. The translating team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky paid absolute fidelity to the language of Tolstoy to produce a wonderfully fresh and readable translation that substantially stands out from all other versions.
“The Russian language is the real hero of Tolstoy’s masterpiece; it is the voice of truth,” said Orlando Figes in a 2007 review published in The New York Times.
“The English-speaking world is indebted to these two magnificent translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, for revealing more of its hidden riches than those who have tried to translate the book before.”
These three great works, as well as numerous other classic works, are available at your Okanagan Regional Library branch. Visit www.orl.bc.ca.
– Peter Critchley is a reference librarian with the Vernon branch of the Okanagan Regional Library.