Books 21 through 30 - Ibsen to Balzac

[Note: this is part of Powys' One Hundred Best Books.]


21. IBSEN. Any edition of Ibsen containing the WILD DUCK.

 Ibsen is still the most formidable of obstinate individualists.  Absolute self-reliance is the note he constantly strikes. He is obsessed by the psychology of moral problems; but for him there are no universal ethical laws—“the golden rule is that there is no golden rule”—thus while in the Pillars of Society he advocates candid confession and honest revelation of the truth of things; in the “Wild Duck” he attacks the pig-headed meddler, who comes “dunning us with claims of the Ideal.” Ultimately, though absorbed in “matters of conscience,” it is as an artist rather than as a philosopher that he visualizes the world.



 Strindberg has obtained, because of his own neurotic and almost feminine clairvoyance, a diabolical insight into the perversities of the feminine character. This merciless insight manifested in all his works reaches its intensest degree in the “Confessions of a Fool,” where the woman implicated surpasses the perversities of the normal as greatly as the lashing energy with which he pursues her to her inmost retreats surpasses the vengeance of any ordinary lover.


 23. EMERSON. Routledge’s complete works of Emerson, or any other edition containing everything in one volume.

 The clear, chaste, remote and distinguished wisdom of Emerson with its shrewd preacher’s wit and country-bred humor, will always be of stirring and tonic value to certain kindred minds. Others will prove him of little worth; but it is to be noted that Nietzsche found him a sane and noble influence principally on the ground of his serene detachment from the phenomena of sin and disease and death. He will always remain suggestive and stimulating to those who demand a spiritual interpretation of the Universe but reluct at committing themselves to any particular creed.


 24. WALT WHITMAN. The complete unexpurgated edition of all his poems, with his prose works and Mr. Traubel’s books about him as a further elucidation.

 Walt Whitman is the only Optimist and perhaps the only prophet of Democracy one can read without shame. The magical beauty of his style at its best has not even yet received complete justice. He has the power of restoring us to courage and joy even under circumstances of aggravated gloom. He puts us in some indescribable manner “en rapport” with the large, cool, liquid spaces and with the immense and transparent depths.

More than any he is the poet of passionate friendship and the poet of all those exquisite evasive emotions which arise when our loves and our regrets are blended with the presence of Nature.


 25. EDGAR LEE MASTERS. SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY, published by Macmillan.

 After Whitman and Poe, Mr. Masters is by far the most original and interesting of American poets. There is something Chaucerian about the quizzical and whimsical manner in which he tells his brief and homely stories. His characters are penetrated with the bleak and yet cheerful tone of the “Middle West.” Something quaint, humorous and astringent emerges as their dominant note.

Mr. Masters has the massive ironical observation and the shrewd humane wit of the great English novelists of the eighteenth century. His dead people reveal “the true truth” of their sordid and troubled lives. The little chances, the unguessed-at accidents, the undeserved blows of a capricious destiny, which batter so many of us into helpless inertness, are the aspects of life which interest him most.



 Of all modern novelists Theodore Dreiser most entirely catches the spirit of America. Here is the huge torrential stream of material energies. Here are the men and women, so pushed and driven and parched and bleached, by the enormous forces of industry and commerce, that all distinction in them seems to be reduced to a strange colorlessness; while the primordial animal cravings, greedy, earth-born, fumble after their aims across the sad and littered stage of sombre scenery.

There is something epic—something enormous and amorphous—like the body of an elemental giant—about each of these books. In the “Titan,” especially, the peculiar power of Dreiser’s massive, coulter-like impetus is evident. Here we realize how, between animal passion and material ambition, there is little room left in such a nature as Cooperwood’s for any complicated subtlety. All is simple, direct, hard and healthy—a very epitome and incarnation of the life-force, as it manifests itself in America.


 27. CERVANTES. DON QUIXOTE. In any translation except those vulgarized by eighteenth century taste.

 Cervantes’ great, ironical, romantic story is written in a style so noble, so nervous, so humane, so branded with reality, that, as the wise critic has said, the mere touch and impact of it puts courage into our veins. It is not necessary to read every word of this old book. There are tedious passages. But not to have ever opened it; not to have caught the tone, the temper, the terrible courage, the infinite sadness of it, is to have missed being present at one of the “great gestures” of the undying, unconquerable spirit of humanity.


 28. VICTOR HUGO. THE TOILERS OF THE SEA. In any translation.

 Victor Hugo is the greatest of all incorrigible romanticists.  Something between a prophet, a charlatan, a rhetorician, and a spoiled child, he believes in God, in democracy, in innocence, in justice, and he has a noble and unqualified devotion to human heroism and the depths of the dangerous sea. He has that arbitrary, maniacal inventive imagination which is very rare except in children—and in spite of his theatrical gestures he has the power of conjuring up scenes of incredible beauty and terror.



[Editor's note - a discussion of Balzac's writings may be found under Pére Goriot, on the next page in this list.]



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