I recently finished two classics, and damn were they worth the designation, both of them — The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (1932 Pulitzer Prize) and All The King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1947 Pulitzer Prize). They’d been sitting on my shelf for years, finally got around to them (the list is so very, very long, and then there are all the movies too…!)

The Good Earth follows the life of an ordinary Chinese man, Wang-Lung, from the day of his wedding to the day of his death, during a time of world war, revolution, and great upheaval that touches him directly barely at all. It’s the land that changes him, and then, human foibles that undo him. The sentences are very simple, and roll along quite easily. A simply-told, profound story.

Before a handful of days had passed it seemed to Wang Lung that he had never been away from his land, as indeed, in his heart he never had. With three pieces of the gold he bought good seed from the south, full grains of wheat and of rice and of corn, and for very recklessness of riches he bought seeds the like of which he had never planted before, celery and lotus for his pond and great red radishes that are stewed with pork for a feast dish and small red fragrant beans.

The book jacket on my copy says this book is of interest for anyone who wants to know about Chinese culture, but I say it’s of interest for anyone who wants to know about people. Buck seems to have a great deal of sympathy for her characters (and there are a broad range of them), even when those characters don’t for each other.

All the King’s Men is, as you might know even if you haven’t read it, a tale of corrupting power, Southern politics, etc. And it is all that but what struck me is a) what fascinatingly flawed, larger-than-life but ordinary (though under duress) characters they all are, and b) how the story all comes together. It’s told in pieces, from Jack Burden’s point of view, with quite a fractured chronology, and how all the strands come together is frankly breathtaking. It’s a tour de force and entertaining.

There was Sadie, who had come a long way from the shanty in the mud flats. She had come a long way because she played to win and she didn’t mean to win matches and she knew that to win you have to lay your money on the right number and that if your number doesn’t show there’s a fellow standing right there with a little rake to rake in your money and then it isn’t yours any more. She had been around a long time, talking to men and looking them straight in the eye like a man. Some of them liked her, and those that didn’t like her listened when she talked, which wasn’t too often, because there was a reason to believe that when those big black eyes, which were black in a way which made it impossible for you to tell whether it was a blackness of surface or a blackness of depth, looked at the wheel before it began to move they could see the way the wheel would be after it had ceased to move and saw the little ball on the number. Some of them liked her a lot, like Sen-Sen. Thoat had at one time been hard for me to get. I saw a package done up in the baggy tweed or droopy seersucker suit, according to the solstice, and the black lamps in it and above it the mob of black hair which looked as though it had been hacked off at ear length with a meat cleaver.

Both novels contain, I suspect (it’s only been a few weeks since I read them) characters that will stick with me. Some books of course you remember as being good in a vaguer sort of way, or moving, but others have individual characters that stay alive with you (Antonia and Jim of Willa Cather’s My Antonia spring immediately to mind, as well as John Fowles’ titular French Lieutenant’s Woman).

While I’m on the topic of good novels, two quick additional recommendations, humorous ones this time. Straight Man by Richard Russo is hilarious, especially if you’ve ever spent time at either a local college or an English department, and The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth‘s take on the historical novel, is a riot.