One Great Book Per Life

Writers who said it all to perfection in a single book and then most decently died

William Langland (late fourteenth century). The work of this greatest English poet before Chaucer still bursts with the energy of a Brueghel wedding dance. Little is known about Langland himself (a hired church singer?), but he gives us the Creation Myth as seen from below-stairs. Like other single books by obsessed and isolated authors, Langland's narrative poem, The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman, aspires to contain merely everything: now allegory, now almanac, a list of cures, a compendium of low jokes slung alongside the purest silver-white religious aspiration. It still offers us scope, forgiveness, genuine animal laughs. As our present political reality darkens toward fundamentalist tribal warfare that can leave us feeling daily more medieval, this medieval poem illumines itself as a consolation. Permeable in its clear wishes, gorgeous in its humane and unapologetic belief, it reassures us that the Seven Sins aren't actually Deadly.

G. B. Edwards (1899-1976). Guernsey, one of Britain's Channel Islands, considers itself mainly French. Here Victor Hugo was exiled for fifteen years among fisher-folk speaking their Francophile patois. Here Gerald Basil Edwards was born, the son of quarry owners, proud of his gypsy blood. He earned a scholarship on the mainland, where he married, sired four children, then disappeared. Retiring from the civil service to that English port nearest his beloved Guernsey, Edwards planned devoting his last years to a trilogy of island novels. He finished only one, The Book of Ebenezer Le Page (1981), but it reads like Beethoven's Ninth. It charts island life from 1890 to 1970, including the German wartime occupation. In it, weather, darkness, hunger, blood-connectedness, shelter, and an almost painfully keyed-up sexual desire appear in odd, magical proportions never found in any novel conceived off-island. Coated with sea salt, its crannies spilling wildflowers, Edwards's book still roars like some huge shell held, cutting, against your ear.

William Emmanuel Bugg (1848-1935). To justify its high-cost living, every life is worth examining. And Farmer Wm. Bugg's existence seemed (to him at least) worth a spunky daily pencil jotting. Journals of William Emmanuel Bugg, 1848-1935 (1986) reveals one rustic fellow as funny as strict. He noted every penny spent and most eggs laid. This North Carolinian loved freak-show carnivals; he ranked each church meeting's level of hellfire and music, after counting all the pretty girls present. His literary style might be called "early hotel register." Hurricanes are endured, even enjoyed, in ten words. Crops planted on page 80 get harvested on 99. Amid haiku-ed floods and lightning bolts, so many local deaths are recorded it's a wonder Bugg had one neighbor left. And yet his work offers ten thousand moments lit by joy. Diary pages are expunged after the appearance of a particularly lovely girl he squired home from church. Whether Bugg's excisions contained prayers for the girl's favors or petitions for his own strength in resisting these, such passages grow erotic in absentia and are much missed. What Bugg leaves us is a bone-plain portrait at once endearing, scary, and all but godly in its tenderness toward the muddiest of ordinary days.

Giuseppe di Lampedusa (1896-1957). Married to an analyst trained by Freud, the Duke of Palma and Prince of Lampedusa fled their shared palazzo each morning as his wife's first patient arrived. He repaired to a favorite trattoria, where he read Latin and Joyce, dining all day in peace. His dowager mother considered novel-writing "middle-class," and who can argue that? But in 1954, while attending a literary banquet awarding his cousin some minor poetry prize, Lampedusa was finally moved to write a book based on the life of his womanizing amateur-astronomer great-grandfather. It would chronicle the aristocracy's faltering hold on half a century's Sicilian history. What the prince left us is a great comic novel, more in the spirit of Waugh than the usual praise-song to one's own gilt genealogy. The Leopard (1958) was submitted anonymously (hence proving the prince's true nobility). It became—after his death, alas—the best-selling novel of postwar Italy, outraging Marxists. This masterpiece remains a pitiless love poem to the ever dying, never dead aristocracy. Tart and suave with its author's sexy big-cat ego, it is the greatest work by and about someone titled.

____________ (1900-1949). Born pretty, pointy, fairly rich, she attended Smith College till a black student sat right beside her in class. Hurrying home by train, Peggy soon became a "local-color society stringer" for The Atlanta Journal. She presented herself as a "typical flapper," assuring others of her wildness (though it seems to have included a stubborn virginity). After marrying a fellow journalist who insisted she give up the newspaper game, she amused her bright, restless self by starting a novel meant to portray her famously strong-minded country grandmother. Patterned on Thackeray's Vanity Fair, the novel (and Peggy's Victorian hypochondria) sidelined her for years. When the book became 1936's best seller, winning the Pulitzer, she was doomed to spend the rest of her foreshortened life answering letters from every fan who idly pestered or praised her. A southern deb's obligation did the poor woman in: thank-you notes became her death sentence—a final work far longer than her first. As she jaywalked across a busy intersection with her invalid husband, Atlanta's traffic grew too spooky. Diving Scarlett-like to save herself, she alone was struck by a taxi. Even so, she'd written one novel that created and then retired at least four classic "types." But tomorrow, actually, would not be another day.