Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Saddest Books in the World

(Note: I'm throwing together both the tragic and the drearily depressing under the heading "sad.")

1. Tess of the d'Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy

I'm pretty sure this is the saddest book in the world. It is probably the least plausible of Hardy's endings but somehow more crushing than any of the others. I stared at a wall for like ten minutes after I finished it.

2. Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates

They are, incredibly, making a movie out of this book. I think it's the most depressing one I've ever read. It falls under the "drearily depressing" category, but it's written beautifully and has a sense of honesty that makes it art instead of torture. Although it is certainly the latter as well.

3. A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens

Maybe it's manipulative, but it still gets to me. God, Sydney, don't sacrifice yourself for that worthless aristocrat!

4. Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

I haven't read The House of Mirth, but apparently that is even more depressing.

5. The Golovylov Family, by Saltykov-Shchedrin

The dreariest book in all of Russian literature, says Mirsky. One of the most awful sets of people ever to occupy a single book. It also has what is probably the most horrific suicide scene in all of literature.

6. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway

I didn't realize what Jake's injury was when I first read this book and it still depressed the hell out of me. Now that I know, it is both depressing and a little painful to think about.

7. The Professor's House, by Willa Cather

More subtly depressing than the other books on this list. A quietly brutal verdict on most people's lives.

8. Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

Maybe the most desolate last page of any of these books. Man.

9. The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald

A set of stories largely about people who lived through the holocaust. Never cheap or manipulative, though.

10. Adolphe, by Benjamin Constant

I wrote a little bit about this book already. A harsh and sad little novel.


Katie said...

Jude the Obscure, I think, is sadder than Tess. And as for Saltykov-Shchedrin... have you read it? It has sad events in it, yes, but it is hardly the saddest book in Russian literature. For that honor I would nominate "The Meek One" by Dostoevsky or "Cement" by Gladkov. Or something equally depressing. "Twenty One and a Girl" by Gorky. Saltykov-Shchedrin at least writes with humor of his sad events and makes them a bit more hopeful than they could be.

Katie said...

As for Ethan Frome. It is certainly more stupid than House of Mirth. I would count it sadder for that reason alone. Honestly, who tries to kill himself by sledding down a hill aiming for a tree? Obviously you're going to end up maimed and miserable and not actually dead.

Paul Morton said...

I second Katie on The Golovlyov Family. Its members are so wretched and provide such a thorough panorama of every odious human evil, that it is hard to consider it a sad book, as much as a very disturbing comedy.

My own vote for "saddest book in Russian literature" would probably go to "Cancer Ward." The final chapter, in which the gulag camp survivor-hero comes face to face with the new moral order in Russia during the Krushchev thaw is sad beyond words. I've met several people in Central and Eastern Europe who read the book for the first time in the early '90s. They said nothing else quite captured the mixed feelings of finally being done with a truly insane system.

For whatever reason, short stories have always made me cry much more often than novels, probably for the same reason a song can be more melancholic and meaningful than any grand symphony. (If a totalitarian alien race took over Earth and ordered all of Pink Floyd's epic garbage disappeared to be incinerated, I wouldn't mind, just as long as we could keep Johnny Cash's "Big River.") And with that in mind, let me mention my favorite sad story: "The Kiss" by Chekhov.

And for what it's worth, though I haven't read Tess, I have to say the Father Time sequence in Jude the Obscure made my blood turn white. And on Dickens: I don't often agree with Harold Bloom, but he wrote that whenever he read Bleak House, he found himself crying whenever Esther Summerson cries. It's good to know that I was not the only one.

Matt K said...

What a great list topic (and a great list, too)... where to begin?

First, I have to give a shot out to Ford Maddox Ford's "The Good Soldier," which begins, perhaps somewhat self-importantly, with the line, "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." The book was moving in its way, but probably too oblique to match the crushing power of a Hardy or Shakespeare. Unlike the narrator, I think I've heard sadder stories.

I'd also plug Ishiguro's "Remains of the Day," which is quietly but remorselessly sad, and which would certainly make my top 10.

Ethan Frome is a good choice--for pure, granite-hard brutality, it's hard to beat--but for me it felt a little too remote and mechanical in its construction. As if Wharton was wandering around New England one winter and thought to herself, why don't I create some hard-bitten New Englander, who I don't really care about to begin with, and then destroy him in the most savage way possible.

As for the Jude-Tess debate, in a kind of cold mathematical sense (i.e., what happens to whom), Jude may be a sadder book. But for me, anyway, it lacks the tragic beauty and the humanity of Tess, which is in the end much sadder and a highly deserving Number One. If anything, Hardy beats up on poor Jude so badly that the reader starts to expect it, and becomes numb to his sufferings.

Charlotte said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charlotte said...

Matt K was so excited about this post that he dragged me (his girlfriend Katherine) into the fray. A voracious reader of sad books, I couldn't decline.

I love the Tess-Jude debate, probably because I tend to be in the minority, and I'm always looking for converts. What happens to Tess is savage, of course -- but I think men tend to find it more heartbreaking because, like Hardy, they are all a little bit in love with her. Jude and Sue's struggle is, to me, far more devastating, because they both understand their social chains -- and yet neither is strong enough individually, or as a pair, to break them, in spite of love. In fact, their progressive minds and spirits (especially Sue's) in many ways hasten their tragedy. That's a frightening thought to any reader aspiring to a life of intellectual freedom -- and this from a novel not written in Russian!

Great to see Revolutionary Road on this list. I cannot recommend that book enough. I'd also like to add Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner's elegy to the doomed South. Quentin's last lines really bowled me over -- the torment he suffers for his ancestors' sins. We can't choose our histories, but we can't escape them either.

John said...

What about King Lear? It's certainly the saddest of Shakespeare's tragedies.

I always find the end, where the mad Lear returns with the dead Cordelia, to be pretty devastating.

And my poor fool is hang'd! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou'lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!

Paul Morton said...

For the hell of it I thought I might mention two more recent books. The Beauty of Men by Andrew Holleran, which is about a single gay man living out his middle age in rural Florida, is the single most devastating portrait of loneliness I have ever read. Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis makes you feel like there's no such thing as a happy childhood.