What to read after Ulysses?
June 28, 2011 3:42 PM   Subscribe

Ulysses. Lolita. Proust. Books where the quality of the prose is the best part, more so than the plot. Help me find more?

I'm looking for something to take on a two week trip to Germany, so something that's regionally-appropriate and travel-suitable is a plus, but not a requirement.
posted by kiltedtaco to Writing & Language (60 answers total) 73 users marked this as a favorite
Three Novels by Samuel Beckett. Amazing prose, just really jaw dropping use of the English language, and plot ranging from spare to completely non-existent (as far as I could tell). Not really regionally appropriate in any way I can think of, though.
posted by bepe at 3:45 PM on June 28, 2011

Italo Calvino's "If on a winter's night a traveler" might fit the bill.
posted by mauvest at 3:46 PM on June 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

Certain parts of Cloud Atlas, a perennial favorite here, are wonderfully written.
posted by 2bucksplus at 3:46 PM on June 28, 2011

Anything by Jack Kerouac.
posted by sudama at 3:56 PM on June 28, 2011

Some people think that the work of James Lee Burke fits into this category. I have my doubts about him, though, and he certainly isn't German.
posted by tel3path at 3:56 PM on June 28, 2011

Mark Helprin is often celebrated for his prose, e.g. "a vast, overwhelming collection of many different works, in different styles, from different periods, all of which share nothing but the robust, crystalline purity of Mark Helprin's incomparable prose" -- for one of his story collections. He also has four novels, the best known of which remains a fantasy about New York, Winter's Tale; but A Soldier of the Great War is actually (in the narrative present) sort of about traveling in Europe. Helprin is also famously peripatetic as a writer, never seeming to cover the same territory twice.
posted by dhartung at 3:57 PM on June 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

A Man Without Qualities would fit your bill, I believe, perfectly. Relevant to your trip as well and incredible, incredible prose.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:05 PM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Goethe's version of Faust, in a nice bilingual edition.
posted by No-sword at 4:06 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Gravity's Rainbow? Definitely region-appropriate, and gets a lot of comparisons to Ulysses in impenetrability.
posted by mikeh at 4:07 PM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wait, you said prose. Sorry. But I still recommend it.
posted by No-sword at 4:09 PM on June 28, 2011

Franny & Zooey? I read it once, and I don't recall much of anything happening, but the writing itself still stayed with me.
posted by Gilbert at 4:10 PM on June 28, 2011

Madame Bovary actually isn't the most exciting story, but man, there are some sweet semicolons in there! And the juxtaposition of the scene at the fair! Well, I'll let you read it and see.
posted by chatongriffes at 4:14 PM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

P.G. Wodehouse.

Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men on the Bummel would also fit, and is even about a trip to Germany.

Also, more P.G. Wodehouse.
posted by pseudonick at 4:16 PM on June 28, 2011

(Three Men on a Boat is better than Three Men on the Bummel, but lacks the Germany connection)
posted by pseudonick at 4:18 PM on June 28, 2011

WG Sebald? For me, reading his work is like walking and listening to someone fascinating, even if the story does not have a point -- well not an obvious one. Since you are going to Germany, perhaps Vertigo.
posted by bwonder2 at 4:21 PM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I was going to suggest The Sheltering Sky, but it's probably too late to change your ticket to Africa.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 4:24 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

William Faulkner! I know, not at all German. But, oh, his sentences! One of my fondest memories is of reading Absalom, Absalom aloud to myself in Moscow, juxtaposing the most American lyricism with the stern ex-Soviet surroundings. It doesn't have a big plot, but you also might want the Faulkner reader for having shorter pieces, too.
posted by ldthomps at 4:41 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan and Gormenghast. Beautiful use of the language.

This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.

The boy could write.
posted by Decani at 4:41 PM on June 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

To the Lighthouse. There's no German angle, but ... absolutely.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 4:44 PM on June 28, 2011

I'd say Lawrence Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet", starting with Justine, except the plot just so happens to also be fabulous. Rivals Nabokov at every turn, if you ask me.
posted by hermitosis at 4:50 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping. I just re-read it and the prose is beautiful.
posted by not that girl at 4:57 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Beowulf, definitely the Rebsamen translation -- very authentic. I know, it's not exactly prose. It is from the Dark Ages in Scandinavia. The language is so wonderful!

I second Goethe's Faust and Faulkner.

For thick, wonderful prose I recommend Henry James The Portrait of a Lady.
posted by minx at 5:12 PM on June 28, 2011

Kafka would be great, too, for the Germanic part. And maybe some Rilke poetry to mix in with the prose?
posted by mauvest at 5:28 PM on June 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Cormac McCarthy, I would say, is an example of an author whose prose itself is as important as the plot.

For the German thing ... Christopher Isherwood?

And just because I feel she's under-rated: Edith Wharton is a wonderful writer.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:48 PM on June 28, 2011

Marguerite Young - Miss Macintosh, My Darling
posted by Trurl at 5:52 PM on June 28, 2011

Nicholson Baker's fiction, especially: Vox, Fermata, The Mezzanine. Warning: the first two have lots of sex, but that's a good thing imho.
posted by novalis_dt at 5:56 PM on June 28, 2011

The first book I thought of before I read the [more inside] was Sophie's Choice by William Styron, but maybe a trip to Germany isn't the best time to read it. Try it later, though? It's one of the few books where I lose myself in the prose. Lolita is also on that list.
posted by eunoia at 6:08 PM on June 28, 2011

Something by Kazuo Ishiguro? A Pale View of Hills and The Remains of the Day touch a great deal on World War II issues, so that has Germany relevance, though certainly not in a lighthearted way. His narrative voice is very spare and striking; the characters are reserved and gradually you realize the secrets they hide.

And if I can put in a plug for a book I proofread, Alina Bronsky's Broken Glass Park, while less famous, is absolutely genius, and the story of a teenager living in Germany. Sasha is an unforgettable character—brash and smart and brave.

Both of these are more character-voice driven than beautiful-sounding-language driven, but may fit your criteria, since I think voice is a part of prose quality too.
posted by mlle valentine at 6:29 PM on June 28, 2011

The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley
posted by troll at 6:44 PM on June 28, 2011

Ocean Sea by Alessandro Barrico.

(but seriously, Nabokov is the king of writing a sentence so beautiful, I want to hang it on my wall)
posted by smirkette at 6:46 PM on June 28, 2011

Oh snap---Jonathan Safran Foer is very good at this, too. Everything is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
posted by smirkette at 6:48 PM on June 28, 2011

In the time of Spanish rule, and for many years afterwards, the town of Sulaco—the luxuriant beauty of the orange gardens bears witness to its antiquity—had never been commercially anything more important than a coasting port with a fairly large local trade in ox-hides and indigo. The clumsy deep-sea galleons of the conquerors that, needing a brisk gale to move at all, would lie becalmed, where your modern ship built on clipper lines forges ahead by the mere flapping of her sails, had been barred out of Sulaco by the prevailing calms of its vast gulf. Some harbours of the earth are made difficult of access by the treachery of sunken rocks and the tempests of their shores. Sulaco had found an inviolable sanctuary from the temptations of a trading world in the solemn hush of the deep Golfo Placido as if within an enormous semi-circular and unroofed temple open to the ocean, with its walls of lofty mountains hung with the mourning draperies of cloud.
posted by technocrat at 6:50 PM on June 28, 2011

I like to throw Tom Robbins in here, in terms of language. "This is the room with the wolfmother wallpaper.", the opening line of "Skinny Legs And All", might be a place to start. What does this have to do with Germany? What does this novel have to do with anything? I have no idea, but I love the way it sounds.
posted by DaddyNewt at 7:43 PM on June 28, 2011

Oscar & Lucinda (Peter Carey).
posted by dreamphone at 8:27 PM on June 28, 2011

My answer, which might be arguable, would be The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald's writing is beautiful poetry, but I couldn't find anything else enjoyable about the book. This is also a major trait of all Nabokov's work, IMO. Gorgeous prose and underwhelming content. There's also Nadja by Andre Breton. At this point, I've actually given up most fiction because I've found I lost the youthful patience I once had for pretentious but plotless avant-garde gobble-di-gook that once overflowed on my bookshelves.

(On preview, YES to Mervyn Peake. I wouldn't EVER want to read his books again, but his writing was sublime.. yet mind-numbing and almost pointless.)
posted by Mael Oui at 8:58 PM on June 28, 2011

One of the Berlin novels of Alfred Döblin? His prose style is certainly special, even in translation.
posted by Abiezer at 9:27 PM on June 28, 2011

Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World and Caroline Gordon's None Shall Look Back.

Also, William Gibson's Pattern Recognition. Kurt Vonnegut's Hocus Pocus.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 9:42 PM on June 28, 2011

If you can find a copy of it, Darconville's Cat completely blew my mind the first time I read it. Unfortunately, it looks like it's out of print, but you may be able to pick it up used. The plot is nothing to write home about, but the writing is over pretty much any top you can imagine, and some you've never thought of yet.
posted by troublesome at 9:56 PM on June 28, 2011

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept by Elizabeth Smart. A lightly fictionalized account of her affair with the poet George Barker whom she fell for while browsing his work in a London bookshop during World War Two. Considered a masterpiece of prose poetry.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 10:48 PM on June 28, 2011

I loved Infinite Jest, mostly because I enjoyed untangling DFW's byzantine sentences. It was like gymnastics for my brain.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:07 PM on June 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding Man Without Qualities. Excellent dry Austrian turn-of-the-last-century wit and philosophizing with some semblance of a plot tacked on mostly for allegorical purposes.
posted by ropeladder at 1:18 AM on June 29, 2011

Michael Ondaatje -- the English Patient
posted by Cocodrillo at 4:04 AM on June 29, 2011

I came in to recommend Michael Ondaatje, too. Anything and everything he has written.
posted by misozaki at 4:30 AM on June 29, 2011

Alexander Theroux. Start with Three Wogs.
posted by OmieWise at 5:23 AM on June 29, 2011

The Man Without Qualities has already been nominated and I strongly second it. Other German writers that might fit your bill would be
- Heinrich Heine: (his "Germany: A Winter's Tale" is a long poem, but never mind. It still can teach you everything you need to know about my countrymen).
- Arno Schmidt (don't know about the quality of the translation)
- Wilhelm Genazino: a contemporary writer, absurdist tales of the humdrum and everyday.
- Thomas Mann of course (Buddenbrooks or The Magic Mountain).
- Sven Regener: singer of the band Element of Crime and a very good author. Berlin Blues is highly recommended.

Others that come to mind are Heinrich Böll, Günther Grass and Lion Feuchtwanger.
posted by kasparhauser at 5:28 AM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mervyn Peake for sure.

I sat down with Titus Groan, ripped into it at my usual fairly quick pace, and by page 14 realized that I had not the faintest clue what it was that I'd just read. So I started over, deliberately taking it slowly and pausing for reflection at the end of each paragraph, and realized that this writing was just intensely beautiful and that reading it as if it were Robert Ludlum was just wrong.

There are three Titus books. The first two are the best; Peake wrote the third while ill, it was published posthumously, and it shows.

I absolutely disagree that the writing is mind-numbing and pointless. It's mind-filling - the verbal equivalent of Christmas Pudding: so rich that if you try to rip into it in huge chunks you will just end up feeling bloated and overstuffed. Pointlessness - endless, ritual pointlessness - is part of what the book is about, but is in no way characteristic of the writing itself.

Samples available here.
posted by flabdablet at 6:48 AM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis.
posted by Iridic at 9:13 AM on June 29, 2011

flabdablet - you've captured what Peake was about perfectly, there.

"Titus Alone" definitely bears the signs of Peake's mental deterioration, although it's worth reading just for the strange and rather disturbing shift in perspective from the first two books. But those first two contain lush, beautiful language and imagery. They're like incredibly detailed paintings that you have to look at with care, and at length, in order to see the depth and richness. They are not for speed-readers or people with attention deficit issues.
posted by Decani at 1:09 PM on June 29, 2011

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Jorge Luis Borges. His short stories are surely best in their native Spanish, but his elegant economy of words beams through in the translations I have read by Andrew Hurley (contentious as they may be).
posted by FissionChips at 1:48 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts - great prose and regionally appropriate.
posted by paduasoy at 2:40 PM on June 29, 2011

Christa Wolf's memoir about growing up in Nazi Germany - translated under two titles, A Model Childhood and Patterns of Childhood. Really well-written - I remember it very clearly 15 years after reading it. There's a review here.
posted by paduasoy at 2:53 PM on June 29, 2011

Jose Saramago's All the Names is another good candidate, if you don't mind Portugal instead of Germany.
posted by mauvest at 3:13 PM on June 29, 2011

these are all awesome German writers: Kafka, of course, Robert Walser, Thomas Mann, Goethe (though he's more old-timey than Proust/Nabokov/Joyce), and Thomas Bernhard (who is more contemporary). less well-known but I love them anyway are Jakov Lind and Joseph Roth.

if you wanted to branch out a bit into middle European authors, then Agota Kristof (Hungarian) is one of my favourite writers, for the reasons you mention, and both The Art of the Novel or The Curtain, two collections of essays by Milan Kundera, mention plenty more.
posted by spindle at 3:36 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Middlemarch! Eliot was amazing at writing sentences.
posted by Bleusman at 3:37 PM on June 29, 2011

Cormac McCarthy's The Road. It has very little plot and very high quality writing.
posted by cnc at 4:30 PM on June 29, 2011

Jeffrey Eugenides. Middlesex has a frame story set in Berlin, where I believe the author also live(s/d for a while). The Virgin Suicides is also absolutely beautiful prose, in my opinion. Ignore the movie thing-- that book was definitely prose-over-plot. I cannot recommend either of them enough.
posted by Because at 7:24 PM on June 29, 2011

Thanks everyone, this has been a fantastic list. So many authors I wouldn't have found on my own, I feel like I have a complete course in German lit here. And I know these were all on the right track, because many of the works I am familiar with are some of my favorites (especially "If on a winter's night a traveller").
posted by kiltedtaco at 4:37 PM on July 1, 2011

Thomas Bernhard of course.
Wittgenstein's Nephew to get a feel for it.
Extinction if you decide to go deep.

And I also second Sebald. Great great stuff.
posted by dfreire at 8:42 AM on July 2, 2011

Dog Years by Gunter Grass is one of the most beautiful books, as far as pure language, i've ever read, and has the bonus of taking place in Germany. The Tin Drum is more famous, but I prefer Dog Years for its lyrical prose.
posted by Devils Rancher at 3:18 PM on July 3, 2011

Bernhard is a great suggestion. The Road, however, reads like something out of the bad Hemingway contest. Why do people like that guy?
posted by OmieWise at 3:44 PM on July 3, 2011

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