In my past life as a sociologist I studied ideas that exposed the true nature of human behavior. No one and no thing was held sacred; scratch beneath the surface of society’s conventions and you’ll see people as they really are. Later, as I began reading more widely, I realized that novelists were doing this long before sociologists.
Milan Kundera argues a similar point in The Curtain, his book of essays about the novel. Beginning with Don Quixote, he argues, novelists began to draw back the social “curtain” that hides the truths of life. It’s the duty of subsequent novelists to expose even more of what the curtain hides.
Here I recommend some of my favorite novels that, for me, did more than draw back the curtain — they ripped right through it:
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse – I could include the Hesse canon in this list, but for simplicity I decided to go with the Hesse standard. Siddhartha is a fictionalized account of the Buddha’s quest for enlightenment, and does a good job of introducing Hesse’s favorite themes of internal conflict and searching. Like the real Buddha’s journey, Siddhartha reveals the true nature of reality that hides behind the curtain of our worldly desires.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera – Naturally, Kundera’s best known work is a study of the truth behind the curtain, in this case the Iron Curtain. Indeed, in this and much of his other work, Kundera displays a preternatural understanding of men’s and women’s hearts and minds laid bare by the 20th century socialist political machine.
Independent People by Halldor Laxness — I’ve bragged up Laxness’s World Light here before, so now I should mention his other great novel, Independent People. In this epic, an Icelandic farmer works hard to maintain his illusions of independence even as history conspires against him. Laxness is a master of lifting the curtain to reveal the often ridiculous nature of individual and social hubris.
The Lurker at the Threshold by H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth – Ah, the ultimate rending of the curtain, in this case literally as Yog Sothoth rips through the fabric of mankind’s silly reality. Lovecraftian horror is probably not quite what Kundera has in mind, but for me—and for many others, I think—Lovecraft and fellow Cthulhu Mythos writers like Derleth exposed how puny our presumptions truly are.
What books ripped through the curtain for you?