Literature is a never-ending, overlapping, sometimes circular conversation — between writers, between readers, between books themselves. Especially when viewed from a vantage, and despite what Vonnegut said, this fact can make for some fascinating and rewarding reading. After all, what’s more interesting than listening in on one genius talking to another? And in story form, no less. There are some novels that are better if you have a little bit of background going in — and sometimes that background is nothing more or less than another great novel. Here are a few books you should pair the way you would a fine wine with an excellent cheese — each enhancing the other and making for a very satisfying evening.
Before reading: Ulysses, James Joyce You should read: The Odyssey, Homer
This is an obvious one, but it still bears mention. “Ulysses” is, of course, just a Latinized “Odysseus,” and Joyce’s novel is organized in sections that each refer to sections of Homer’s epic (of course, scholars had to figure this out; Joyce was frankly gleeful about his plot to be as esoteric and tricksy as possible). But even a layman (or at least someone who read The Odyssey in high school, ahem) could figure out that the major characters in Joyce’s modernist masterpiece have direct correlations in Homer’s ancient one: Leopold Bloom = Odysseus, Molly Bloom = Penelope, Stephen Dedalus = Telemachus.
Before reading: The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov You should read: Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Bulgakov isn’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. He begins his most famous novel with an epigraph from Goethe’s Faust that reads “‘…who are you then?’/ ‘I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.'” The asker, of course, is Faust, and the answerer is Mephistopheles. Bulgakov mines Goethe for both his most elemental themes (man’s search for knowledge!) and some elements of the book’s mythic structure. This novel is packed full of allusions and references of all kinds, and a modern reader can’t hope to catch all of them without careful study — so Faust is a good start. Also sampled here: Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and of course, the story of Christ.
Before reading: Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert You should read: Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
Flaubert first read Don Quixote when he was 11 years old. He wrote a letter to a friend of his that declared, “I know I had told you before that I wanted to be a playwright, but on second thought, I’ve decided against it… I have decided instead to become a novelist and I’ve already got some ideas for my first books. I’ll write about Cardenio, about Dorotea, and one about Ill-Advised Curiosity.” Of course, anyone who has read Cervantes knows just what little Gus is talking about. Much later, he’d write one of the most beloved books in the canon, consciously imitating and expanding upon his favorite book of all time. There are many parallels in the two books — one of the most interesting is Emma Bovary herself. As Kevin Frazier explains, “Emma embodies, in one person, the conflict between idealism and pragmatism that Cervantes divides between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.”
Before reading: Foreign Bodies, Cynthia Ozick You should read: The Ambassadors, Henry James
Any fan of Ozick’s knows that she’s totally obsessed with Henry James. In her sixth novel, she endeavored to create, as she described it, “a kind of Ambassadors plot in reverse.” But it’s not exactly the plot that’s reversed, but something a little more difficult: the essential meaning. As Thomas Mallon at the NYT wrote, “What makes this novel such an absorbing achievement is not so much its slanted replications of the story line of The Ambassadors (probably the least crucial component of the later James) but the witty, fierce way in which it goes about upending the whole theme and meaning and stylistic manner of its revered precursor.”
Before reading: The Autobiography of Red, Anne Carson You should read: Geryoneïs, Stesichorus
Anne Carson’s incredible novel-in-verse is a retelling and, in some parts, a loose translation of Stesichorus’s ancient epic poem, which recounts the theft of the monster Geryon’s cattle by Heracles for his tenth labor. In truth, it’s enough to be acquainted with the myth, so you can appreciate how far Carson changes it, but I’m betting scholars of ancient Greek will get a lot more out of it than the rest of us.
Before reading: Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes You should read: Three Tales, Gustave Flaubert
Sure, you can totally understand Barnes’ delightful meta-examination of the life of Flaubert without having read any of his work, or knowing anything about him. But why would you want to? You should, at least, read “A Simple Heart” from Three Tales, which Flaubert apparently wrote while staring at the titular parrot of Barnes’ work. (The story itself also features a parrot.)
Before reading: Finnegans Wake, James Joyce You should read: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
Everyone’s favorite pairing, one of those you’d never think of, but you believe immediately. Both books are dreamscapes rife with worldplay, and as far back as 1941 Henry Levin called Carroll’s book “the official guide” to the language of Joyce’s. But that said, don’t expect much of anything to help you understand Finnegans Wake. You just have to read it and revel — or revolt.
Before reading: Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys You should read: Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
Wide Sargasso Sea is one of the few direct “spin-off” novels that has become a classic in its own right. Though it is technically a prequel to Brontë’s novel, you should read it after, so its revelations (so to speak) of the madwoman in the attic hit you the hardest.
Before reading: Lavinia, Ursula K. LeGuin You should read: The Aeneid, Virgil
LeGuin’s most recent novel, the Locus Award-winning Lavinia, takes a minor character from The Aeneid and expands upon her life. But LeGuin also imagines Lavinia as conscious of her existence as being only in the poem of Virgil, which lends the whole thing a metafictional, or perhaps metahistorical air. In the book’s afterword, LeGuin writes, “The Trojan War was probably fought in the thirteenth century BC; Rome was founded, possibly, in the eighth, though there is no proper history of it for centuries after that. That Priam’s nephew Aeneas of Troy had anything at all to do with the founding of Rome is pure legend, a good deal of it invented by Vergil himself.” And so it goes.
Before reading: Gertrude and Claudius, John Updike You should read: Hamlet, William Shakespeare
The events of Updike’s freestanding novel are mostly a prequel to Shakespeare, though they progress into about Act I, scene ii of Hamlet. More importantly, Updike reaches back further than Shakespeare and into his sources for his characters, as if getting to the truth of them, at last. The result is, by all accounts, extraordinary. Richard Eder wrote in the NYT : “It is as if the stage characters had drifted from their roles to reflect other possibilities, becoming figures of appealingly layered intention. No doubt Updike reveres Shakespeare, but ”Gertrude and Claudius” is a proffered challenge. It is novel against drama: see what broader, deeper, richer texture can be achieved through fiction’s indeterminacy than through the dramatic determinacy of a figure on the stage. It is a courtly challenge: art against art.” The best kind of challenge there is.