I have always been obsessed with the notion that the world as it is is not really the complete world. These five great novels manage to paint a picture of a panoramic totality and then to open cracks in that totality, allowing intimations of another, undefinable realm. Those fissures are not additions to the mosaic of the worlds depicted, but a perfume of some other energy that can never be fully assimilated by a world that is in any way describable.
The Demons by Heimito von Doderer
In my opinion this is the great novel of the 20th century. A monumental work following the lives of more than 30 major characters moving through Vienna in the years preceding the second World War, it documents with the fascination of a gossip column the way in which representatives of all strata of society are imprisoned within their own obsessive, personal versions of reality. Yet every few pages a corner is turned, or a window is opened and some other, cosmic reality momentarily engulfs the reader, soon tossing him back into the bitter, intricate and comic swirl of apparently "real" life documented with the amazingly acute detail of a great historian-psychologist-writer.
The Forbidden Forest by Mircea Eliade
Though known as the century's greatest historian of religion, Eliade thought of himself as a novelist. This vast panorama of Romania before and during the war is informed by the strange magic of dream and archetype. The lead character is shadowed by a famous writer who seems to be his double. Events slide in and out of meaningful resonance with each other, and each member of the huge cast of characters pursues a private quest for spiritual meaning. One of the most resonant books of our time, spinning with the politics of delirium.
Nadja by Andri Breton
This panorama is centered on the activities of the surrealist group in Paris of the '20s -- which seemed like the center of the world to many. Of all books, this is perhaps the one most directly in search of the magic of coincidence and possible transcendence. The surrealist program has been much misinterpreted and banalized over the years. This amazing white hot ingot of a book, this mosaic of the magic of wandering through life in search of accident, remains the ultimate attempt to re-see social life as so many possible doors to deep dreams of a more powerful reality.
Reader's Block by David Markson
Markson's panorama is that of the world of books and of tiny mosaics of historical fact. Though poignantly hinting at deep personal anguish as the organizing principal behind this miniaturist encyclopedia of bits and pieces, this amazing novel evokes all books and all lists and the powerful human lust for inclusiveness. It's as if he's saying, "read this book and know everything worth knowing." But the only thing left out is ... everything else -- which howls at the center of this book like the hurricane of death that sweeps all of us away in the end. I find this the great American novel of our times -- perversely so, heartrendingly so.
Voices From the Plains by Gianni Celati
This is a group of 30 short fables -- a novel really -- that I read and reread. The lives of 30 different nameless characters from the Italian countryside are rendered in a few short paragraphs each, but each life finally comes full circle on the mystery of things that has no resolution. The total effect of this mosaic is found, amazingly, in its tiniest parts -- and that is the ultimate transcendental message of this book of whispers.