rscn4338These are the 10 shyest novels of all time according to me.

Since there were over 25,000 novels written in the 19th century alone, and I probably haven’t read more than 150 of them, along with maybe 300 from the 20th and 21st centuries, whose novels no one has even tried to count as far as I know, this is not necessarily an exclusive list.

There is nothing here earlier than the 19th century. I would dearly like to have included the 17th century Don Quixote, since it is a book that probably pleases many shy readers as much as it pleases me, but Cervantes was not a shy man, and neither was his hero, Don Quixote, that self-made obdurate knight who rides through the world like a one-eyed man in the land of the blind, not understanding the world, but understanding it better than anyone else.

Instead of trying to rank them, which would be beyond me, or putting them in chronological order which somehow annoys me, I’m presenting them as it suits me.

[1] A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens [1843]

Most people don’t think of gruff, reticent, tough-talking people as shy, but most of them are very shy. Ebenezer Scrooge, Dickens’ most famous character, is one.

Scrooge’s story is probably the most read, most filmed and most watched story of all time. If we could get in a time machine and travel a thousand years into the future, I wouldn’t be surprised to find it still holding that position.

Scrooge’s transition from an asocial, withdrawn, unsympathetic miser to a born-again happy generous man should not be seen as a transition from shy to unshy, or from an introvert to an extrovert. Shy people can be generous and out-going too, according to the moment, while remaining their true shy selves.

No, I’m sure Scrooge wouldn’t have stopped being shy once the Christmas holiday was passed. He would still have kept to himself most of the time, but his new view of his fellow man was changed for good. He went from being an unhappy shy man to a happy shy man, and one of Dickens’ messages is that this can be true for anyone, shy or unshy.

[2] Victory – by Joseph Conrad [1915]

Joseph Conrad was a very shy man, and I could include any of his novels here, but Victory deals so directly with the aloneness of a very shy life that it has to come first.

Axel Heyst is one of the shyest of men. After taking over his deceased father’s business on an island off the coast of Sumatra, and the business falls into decline, he does what so many shy people would like to do – retire from the world.

But the world comes looking for him. Though he is just getting by, the theory develops in on the mainland in Surabaya that he is hiding riches on his island.

Three men arrive in a small boat set on acquiring whatever is to be had. They may be the most unforgettable dark threesome in fiction. Heyst’s struggle, first to understand what they’re up to, then to resist them when it has become too late to resist them, makes this the powerful novel that it is.

[3] The Haunting of Hill House – by Shirley Jackson [1959]

I’ve never been able to make up my mind whether horror is a fantasy genre whose readers are escaping the real world through fear, or if horror is, at some deep psychological level, addressing real problems in the real world that we should all be afraid of.

One way or the other, its continuing popularity continues to puzzle me.

Shirley Jackson might be said to have started modern horror with this book that was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1959. Stephen King says she was a big influence on him.

You won’t find a better depiction of a classic shy introvert than central character, Eleanor Vance, who, if you read the book, you will care about immediately. The fact that things don’t turn out well for her is, to say it mildly, what makes this a horror novel of unusual power, one that has haunted me for a long time.

[4] Barnaby Rudge – by Charles Dickens [1841]

Yes, I’m giving Dickens another book. I could have given him three or four, because he is, in my opinion, more important to an understanding of our civilization and the shy and unshy people in it, than any other author.

Dickens himself was one of those strange people who are both shy and unshy, introverted and extroverted, depending, in his case, on which he wanted to be at the moment.

Shyness and autism often overlap, and character Barnaby Rudge may be the earliest literary attempt to depict this. Barnaby is vulnerable and admirable at the same time, physically strong and adept, but simple in his thinking, enchanted by the natural world, honest and trusting in a cynical and deceitful human world that he doesn’t understand. He is very shy and very conscious of it.

But his best friend, the raven Grip who rides in his backpack commenting sardonically on this problematic world, and who will share a prison cell with him, does understand it, at least according to Barnaby.

When Edgar Allen Poe was working on his famous poem The Raven, he intended his bird to be an owl. But when he read Barnaby Rudge, he immediately decided that it had to be a raven.

(Dickens, by the way, had two pet ravens prior to writing the book – he knew the birds well)


[5] War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy [1869]

Many people would argue that a novel that has so many well-drawn characters, spans decades, stretches across Europe and takes part in monumental historic events, cannot be considered a shy novel.

But the central character, or maybe I should say most important character as far as I’m concerned, Pierre Bezuhov, has the profound shyness and innocence of a sensitive autistic man. His wandering through the famous battle of Borodino as if he is wandering through a dream, the battle described realistically while Pierre’s detached fascination with it becomes a strange, haunting metaphor for all of history, might be the finest extended piece of writing ever written.

Ernest Hemingway, himself a shy man, once claimed that he’d got into the literary boxing ring with most of the world’s famous writers, one after the other, and defeated each of them them with a better work.

But he immediately qualified that, declaring that no one would ever get him to enter the ring with Mr Tolstoy.

[6] Silas Marner by George Eliot [1861]

George Eliot was one of the most accomplished, most astute, most readable English writers of the 19th century. Though she isn’t as famous as Dickens, Balzac or Tolstoy, she is easily their equal.

Shyness is to be found throughout her books, so it’s hard to choose between them. I chose Silas Marner because the scene where this quiet, retiring weaver finally faces up to his social superior, the bragging, self-serving Godfrey Cass, is one of the greatest in all of literature.

[7] One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez [1967]

Whenever this book comes up in conversation, at least among English speaking people, someone always has to start on about its famous magic realism – the levitating priest, the rain that falls uninterrupted for 4 years and 11 months, the butterflies that follow people around, etc.

Marquez resented such superficial reading of the book. When this happened in conversation with one journalist interviewing him, he replied impatiently, “The book is about solitude.”

There are many shy solitary people in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Aureliano Buendia senior, the foundation of it all and present through most of the hundred years, says almost nothing. Rebecca, a mute orphaned girl, enters the book walking silently down the road carrying her parents’ bones in a sack. She grows up silently in the Buendia household, gets married to everyone’s surprise, then disappears when her husband is killed, only to reappear in stunning, completely unexpected fashion after you’ve forgotten all about her.

Yes, One Hundred Years of Solitude has shy solitary characters around ever corner. Garcia Marquez obviously agreed with Joseph Conrad’s famous statement – “We live as we dream – alone” – and this book was his demonstration of it.

[8] The Last Stop of the Tramp Steamer by Álvaro Mutis [1988]

Only a shy author, or at least one who deeply understands shyness, could have written this novel in which the central character is a small, aging ocean freighter.

The captain of the little ship, Jon Iturri, is a member of the Basque race, a people who, Mutis says, have turned their silence into a weapon “acerada y insondable” (unfathomable and sharp as steel).

On a sunny, severely cold winter morning, the narrator goes down to a port on Finland’s south coast to see the sparkling vision of St Petersburg far off across the gulf, and so, by accident, sees for the first time, but not the last time, the Alción, the grimy rusted little freighter slowly laboring into the scene ‘like a badly wounded saurian’, escaped from its latest ordeal out on the ocean.

Those first few pages are my choice for the finest opening to a novel ever written.

For some reason, in English this book is only available in editions where it’s combined with other Mutis stories, and it’s usually labelled as a ‘novella’. But its 140 pages are dense with compelling visions, events and ideas. It easily deserves its Spanish designation as a full novel.

We seem to think a book isn’t a real novel now unless it has 600 pages.

Though it has not been read by many English readers, The Last Stop of the Tramp Steamer won the Cervantes prize, the most prestigious award in the Spanish-speaking world. If you read it you will see why.

[9] Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse [1927]

Magic realism became popular in our time mainly through Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it entered fiction full blown in 18th century Germany, and in Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf you’ll find the finest use of it that I’ve ever seen.

Harry Haller, the steppenwolf, might be the best example I know of a shy confident man in a novel. Some will dispute this, arguing that someone who contemplates suicide as he walks the streets alone at night is anything but confident.

Well, he does that because he has lost interest in a selfish, hypocritical, dishonest society. He has no use for it, and rejects it with confidence and fortitude.

Almost a century after it was first published, this book continues to draw new readers, especially those who are young, romantic and resistant to modern materialism. It was the inspiration for my own novel The Birdcatcher, and I expect it to inspire many more books to come.

[10] The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway [1952]

No one seems to talk about it, but this story of a very shy man alone on the ocean demonstrates better than anythiing I’ve ever read that shyness has more in it than timidity. Shyness and strength are sometimes not two things, but one.

Though it is a small book and so also is often not recognized as a novel today, in the scope of the events and visions described, it is a perfect novel.

Santiago’s silent struggle over a few nights and days, where he can only talk to himself and the great silent fish to whom he has become irrevocably connected, is one of those timeless stories that is here to stay.

As long as there is anyone left to read, I have no doubt that this book, along with A Christmas Carol and War and Peace, will still be read a thousand years from now.

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