HAMLET by William Shakespeare
Boy returns from university to find father dead, mother married to uncle. Takes it out on girlfriend. Can't decide what do to. ("To be or not to be", etc.) Kills girlfriend's father by accident. Girlfriend suicides. Girlfriend's brother wants revenge on account of family disappearing. Hamlet, by now existentialist, allows himself to be tricked into showdown in which everyone not already accounted for dies. (Big finish.)
LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding
English private schoolboys marooned on island behave badly or well or neither. Those who behave badly kill those who behave well, leaving future to be determined by those who behave badly and those who can't decide (cf. England).
PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen
Elizabeth Bennet (mother obsessed with marrying daughters off, father amusing but not very helpful) dislikes Mr Darcy because he is too proud. She becomes prejudiced against him and even likes one man (Wickham) because he speaks ill of Darcy.
Her life is occupied with sisters Jane, who is calm and loves Bingham, and Lydia, who loves soldiers (Wickham) and who brings family into disrepute (Wickham). Elizabeth inadvertently discovers that Darcy is unbelievably rich. They marry immediately. Mother knew best.
THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO by Victor Hugo
Edmond Dantès (France, corruption, treachery) is wrongly imprisoned for life. Old prisoner tells him of a great fortune in a cave on an island and when old prisoner dies, Dantès sews himself inside dead man's body bag, is removed from prison and escapes. Makes way to island, gets treasure and returns to France representing himself as the Count of Monte Cristo.
Gets stuck right into enemies who put him in jail. Ruins some. Kills others. No beg-your-pardons whatsoever. On for young and old. He had a long time to think about it and he gets right on with it. Revenge in spades, on all fronts, and no mistake.
VOSS by Patrick White
Doomed explorer whose name isn't really Voss embarks on doomed attempt to cross Australia. Expedition marred by fact that both explorer and enterprise are doomed. Perhaps whole country is doomed. (Discuss.) Surprise ending in that explorer doesn't die earlier than he does.
MOBY DICK by Herman Melville
Man meets whale. Man loses whale. Man tries to kill whale. Man loses leg. Whale finds man. Man loses marbles. Whale kills man. (Metaphors all over the place. Man v Nature, Life v Death, Dark v Light, Christian v Pagan, Arsenal v Manchester United.)
GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens
Boy (Pip) helps escaped convict (Magwitch) on marshes. Spends childhood happily with blacksmith Joe and land-girl Biddy although is sometimes invited to big house (Miss Havisham: old, loopy, cobwebs everywhere, clocks in house all stopped, etc) to play with rich girl Estella. Pip informed he is to become a gentleman at expense of mysterious benefactor. Pip becomes gentleman and snob, believing Miss Havisham to be benefactor and expecting to marry Estella. Benefactor turns out to be Magwitch (Australian connection here) who also turns out to be Estella's father. Bad spell of Miss Havisham on Estella broken by Pip's love. About time, too! (All stand.)
PERSUASION by Jane Austen
Featuring Anne Elliot (plain, educated, sensitive, wise, family down on luck). Father and spoilt sister go to Bath for society, Anne to another sister (selfish, stupid, married to cheerful farmer). Children get sick, Anne tower of strength. Visited by Captain Wentworth. (Naval man at time of Trafalgar = national hero.) Wentworth and Anne have met before, have loved, and Anne has rejected Wentworth's proposal of marriage but heart not still. Farmer's sister falls off seawall and Wentworth realises he's an idiot about Anne. Hooray!
ANNA KARENINA by Leo Tolstoy
Married woman (Russian, upper class) is in love with man not her husband. Completely absorbed in her love for him to exclusion of all else. Cannot concentrate on other things at all. Tries really hard but simply can't. Ends in tears. (See Magritte.)
NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR by George Orwell (Eric Blair)
Novel written in the 1940s (cf. Stalin) suggesting powerful and unscrupulous interests will work to obtain control of democratic process, orchestrate media, institutionalise "freedoms" and crush opposition in name of nation and people. Couldn't happen here.
EMMA by Jane Austen
Beautiful daughter of silly old fool has nothing better to do than manipulate and matchmake in snobbish rural society. Behaves very stupidly and messes up life of Harriet Smith, a harmless woman who should obviously marry local farmer. Eventually marries best friend Mr Knightley, the resonance of whose name she had previously failed to notice. (See Clueless.)
KING LEAR by William Shakespeare
Ageing father devises pompous test for daughters. (Declare love for me or suffer consequences.) Cinderella speaks truth, ugly sisters profess unconditional devotion, etc. Stupid king rejects Cinders, takes up with Edmund, husband of ugly sister (it's a man's world), goes mad and finds himself in blizzard with blind Edgar. (Some kind of mix-up here.) King realises, too late, love of Cinders worth having because real.
TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES by Thomas Hardy
Poor, rural Tess Durbeyfield is raped by rich distant cousin D'Urberville, has baby, which dies. Tess cuts off hair and works as milkmaid. Educated rich man (Angel Clare) falls in love with her and they marry. He confesses a day of sexual debauchery with another woman.
She forgives him and tells him about her baby. He does NOT forgive her and leaves for South America. Years later he returns and they meet at the house where Tess is living with D'Urberville. Tess goes into the house briefly, murders D'Urberville and then leaves with Angel. They wander through the countryside, doomed, happy. (See Bonnie and Clyde.)
ULYSSES by James Joyce
Formative modern work. Entire novel set on one day. Classic outsider Leopold Bloom (Jew, advertising, sensitive, Irish, cuckold) attends funeral, pub, brothel, with young man. Wife has last word (husband not as good as boyfriend, psychology of marriage blighted by death of infant child). Wife's monologue caused book to be banned. (See Catholic.) Thought by male academics and critics to be great expression of woman's thoughts. (See Sluts.)
THE FORTUNES OF RICHARD MAHONY by Henry Handel Richardson
Man (dreamer, hoper/hopeless, author's father) emigrates to Australia, goes to goldfields, fails, goes into business, fails, returns to Britain, fails, re-emigrates to Australia, practises as doctor, fails, concentrates on marriage and family, fails, attempts to keep mind in order, fails. (Wife a tower of strength.)
HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad
Man is sent to Africa to take over from Mr Kurtz, who is branch manager. Trip rather dull. Mr Kurtz dead on arrival. (Conrad was Polish.)
OTHELLO by William Shakespeare
Iago (archetypal shit with nothing better to do) convinces king that queen is having affair on circumstantial evidence involving handkerchief. King kills queen. King realises he has been complete tool. Complicated by race issue. (See Machiavelli.)
DAVID COPPERFIELD by Charles Dickens
Fatherless boy rises above bullying by stepfather, enjoys seaside with Aunt Betsy and lovely Mr Dick. Marries silly girl with annoying dog. She dies. (But wait, there's more!)
OWLS DO CRY by Janet Frame
The Withers family live in New Zealand. Mum Withers, Dad Withers, everybody Withers, the children Wither, the dog Withers. Get it?
Edited extract from Tinkering: The Complete Book of John Clarke (Text Publishing, $35), out Monday.