As the world turns inward and most of us have packed up our laptops and retreated into self isolation it's the perfect time to finally tackle those Big Books you've avoided.
Yes, I'm talking about the great Dead White Male tomes from the 19th and early 20th century that have struck fear into many lit students, let alone the general reader - yet all three here will entertain, astonish and provide sustenance and meaning in these strangest of times. These books truly uphold the adage that - "literature is news that stays news".
In Search of Lost Time
If Covid-19 lasts for months this seven volume novel (published between 1913 and 1927) about a young man's journey to becoming a writer has you covered.
Proust was the king of self isolation - writing the latter parts of this in a cork-lined room as he lay in bed. Don't expect thrills or spills - the first forty pages involve the young narrator waiting for his mother's good night kiss - but few books will stay with you like this one. Author Edmund White called Proust "the most companionable of all the great authors. Though he's a mama's boy and a neurasthenic and into lots of kink, he will take your breath away because he second-guesses all your thoughts."
Of the three big books here this will resonate most with contemporary readers. While his narrator is avidly heterosexual, Proust was gay - and there's a sense of gender fluidity throughout, as characters who publicly appear heterosexual are involved in clandestine same-sex affairs.
The narrator longs to be part of high society Paris and over the seven volumes we follow his slow rise through society's ranks, as well as his love affairs and his attempts to be taken seriously as a writer. It is a fictional autobiography by turns funny, insightful and moving (the last volume Time Regained is heartbreaking as the effects of Time on his cast of characters is revealed).
Though he's a mama's boy and a neurasthenic and into lots of kink, he will take your breath away because he second-guesses all your thoughts
Although it has a reputation as long and dull, the more recent English translations have trimmed much of the verbosity and, among other qualities, Proust is a great comic writer. As someone who is on his third reading - I pick it up once a decade - all I can say is that no other work of literature has had as lasting impact on me.
The characters here (the closeted Baron de Charlus, the dandy Saint-Loup, the obsessive Swann, the autocratic society dame Mme Verdurin) are some of the greatest in 20th century literature, and all are archetypes recognisable today.
A book as rich, sad and funny as life itself - but one which does benefit from being read in order.
For fans of Karl Ove Knausgaard
Crime and Punishment
While the later novel The Brothers Karamazov is considered his masterpiece Crime and Punishment (published in 1867) is Dostoevsky's most readable novel.
It's a Russian potboiler, full of passion and melodrama that remains one of the finest crime novels ever written.
Ian Rankin's Detective Rebus character rereads it annually, while Virginia Woolf was ecstatic in her praise of his work.
"They're composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture. Outside of Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading."
Here Dostoevsky writes of the psychological account of a crime, creating an unlikely anti-hero - Raskolnikov - a student drop-out with grand pretensions.
The novel poses deep philosophical issues about free will, forgiveness and redemption still relevant today.
Wouldn't the world be better off if a miserly pawnbroker was murdered - wonders our irascible protagonist?
Raskolnikov justifies his actions by believing that murder is permissible in pursuit of a higher purpose - (Dostoevsky was a big influence on Brett Easton Ellis's American Psycho).
This is transgressive fiction that operates at a high intensity - megalomania, alcoholism, prostitution, suicide, violence, greed - it's all here. Reading this is like immersing yourself in a fever dream; being stuck within four walls won't seem so oppressive after this.
For fans of James Ellroy
Published in 1922 Joyce wrote much of this holed up in Northern Italy with a map of his beloved Dublin on the wall.
Apparently his favourite pastime was to ask visitors from Dublin to recount the names of the streets, shops and pubs.
In some ways Ulysses is a love letter to a city by a self-imposed exile who wouldn't ever return.
The entire book takes place over one day in Dublin in 1904 as Leopold Bloom - a 38 year-old newspaper ad rep - goes about his day - his journey mirroring that of Odysseus in The Odyssey - (although this can be enjoyed without reference to Homer's poem).
Bloom's at home in the world, an affable man with appetites. In contrast the other major character is the young Stephen Dedalus - a cerebral, ambitious writer with a complicated relationship to his homeland much like Joyce himself (Dedalus' story was first told in 1916's A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man).
Meanwhile Bloom's wife Molly - who begins an affair with a concert promoter on this day - is given the novels most celebrated piece in the books final chapter; an erotic soliloquy as she lies beside her husband at day's end (when published the book was accused of being pornographic and was banned in many countries).
While some of this hasn't dated well, Joyce's facility with language and narrative pushed the novel into exciting new territory.
"Joyce made everything possible..." Irish novelist Anne Enright told the Boston Globe in 2008, pushing back at feminist criticisms of the novel.
"I have a very strong theory that he was actually a woman. He wrote endlessly introspective and domestic things, which is the accusation made about women writers – there's no action and nothing happens. Then you look at Ulysses and say, well, he was a girl, that was his secret."
It's not nearly as "difficult" as his next book Finnegan's Wake but it does take perseverance and gets more experimental as it progresses.
One approach is to try reading each chapter as a separate work.
For fans of David Foster Wallace