Five Geniuses of 19th and 20th Century Literature

The world of literature is endless. Since the turn of the 21st century it has been possible for anyone with a laptop and internet connection to publish their own novel. Whilst this has given many authors the encouragement to write their own novels and has led to the advancement of accessible literature, it has also perhaps unfortunately meant that the quality of literature in the 21st century has dropped.

Whether you believe this or not though is another debate entirely. What most literature lovers can agree on however, is that the 19th and 20th centuries were golden periods for the number of active literature geniuses. If you are perhaps searching for a classic work of fiction to read, then we present to you five novelists of the 19th and 20th centuries that are really second to none.

Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka is widely regarded as one of the most important figures of 20th century literature. Kafka’s novels are a little hard to describe; they mix realism with the farcical; anxiety with absurdity. Kafka’s writing is so unique, the term Kafkaesque entered the English language to describe situations like those found in his novels and short stories.

Kafka was born in 1883 in Prague which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The author had an extremely estranged relationship with his father which is evident in his writings. Kafka worked in several different bureaucratic roles; jobs he would end up despising, again, this is evident in many of his novels and short stories. Kafka’s work has been described as “typically featuring isolated protagonists facing bizarre or surrealistic predicaments and incomprehensible socio-bureaucratic powers.”

It is perhaps difficult to pin-point just one of Kafka’s works as his magnum opus. His most famous works are: The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung), The Trial (Der Process), and The Castle (Das Schloss). The Metamorphosis is arguably the most well known. A short story so original in its theme that it influenced surrealist artists. The main protagonist of the novel, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning and realises that he had transformed overnight into an insect like creature or as translated from German: “monstrous vermin”. When he speaks he can only make insect like screeches and scratches and his family are delirious when they see him. Pity quickly turns into disgust and then hatred as all of Gregor’s family other than his sister are of the view that the insect like creature has killed and eaten Gregor. Only Gregor’s sister looks to comfort and help him before Gregor becomes a burden to her. Without spoiling the story, The Metamorphosis is an absolutely remarkable novel that explores Kafka’s struggle for existence in a society that is slowly but surely destroying him.

Despite Kakfa’s name being widely known today, when he was alive, only a few of Kafka’s writings were published and those that were published received very little attention. Before he died, Kafka instructed his friend and executor Max Brod to destroy all his work. Max Brod ignored these instructions however and the rest is history. Kafka has inspired and influenced an uncountable number of writers, artists and philosophers since his death. The Kafka Museum in Prague is testament to how important a figure Franz Kafka is in the Czech Republic. The museum attracts visitors from all over the world and contains numerous drawings, letters and diaries created by the author as well as first edition Kafka novels.

Mikhail Bulgakov

When most people think of Russian literature, they recall the 19th century Russian geniuses such as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky (more on him later) but one giant of Russian 20th century literature is certainly Mikhail Bulgakov, best known for his novel, The Master and Margarita.

Without doing the novel any injustice, it really is a fantastic piece of literature, the most remembered chapter of Master and Margarita is probably the chapter entitled ‘Black Magic and its Exposure’ where the devil Woland and his entourage treat the public to a theatre show of magic. The young Mikhail Bulgakov was drawn to theatre from childhood, in fact he often wrote comedies which his brothers and sisters would then act out. Despite his passion for the creative arts, Bulgakov studied to become a physician and at the outbreak of World War One, he volunteered with the Red Cross and was sent to the frontlines of battle. Bulgaov returned from the war with several severe injuries. The repercussions of these injuries meant he needed to use morphine which he eventually became addicted to. He later released a book in 1928 called ‘Morphine’ which is an account of his suffering during this period. He did manage to stem his addiction however and eventually stopped himself from using the drug completely.

Following his illness, Bulgakov gave up his medical career to pursue writing. The Master and Margarita is a satirical dark comedy of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet regime. The novel was published after the death of the writer. The novel can be seen as a scathing criticism of Stalin’s Russia and the ‘godless people’ that were being created by the communist state. The novel goes back and forwards between the present and the past with biblical characters such as Pontius Pilate, Matthew Levi and of course Satan featuring prominently. One interpretation of the novel centres around evil being inseparable from our world as light is from darkness.Satan and Jesus dwell inside every person. Some comparisons to this interpretation include Francisco Pizzaro, the Spanish conquistador who conquered the Incas for his country and who features in Megaways Gonzo’s Quest. Whilst Pizzaro brought riches to himself and his king and country, his deeds massacred a whole civilisation of people.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most influential philosophers to have existed whose work has had a major and profound influence on the modern world. The German’s most well known work is ‘Beyond Good and Evil’ (this is probably his most misquoted work too) which explores Christaian morality, the profound crisis of nihilism and the prejudices of other philosophers.

Unfortunately, after his death, Nietszche’s writings went under the influence of his sister Elisabeth. Elisabeth reworked his unpublished writings in order to fit her own German nationalst ideology. It is for this reason why Nietszche was described as the philosopher most favoured by the Nazis; his work became associated with fascism and Nazisim despite his stated opinions which were completely opposed to antisemitism and nationalism.

Beyond Good and Evil is essential reading for any person wishing to learn more about themselves. Nietzsche argued that past philosophers were mistaken in believing in the faith that the good man is the opposite of the evil man when in truth one must look to the perilous condition of the modern individual who is capable of both good and evil.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Russian Genius Fyodor Dostoevsky, is regarded by many to be the greatest novelist the world has known. Dostoevsky novels explore human psychology like no other writer has ever done before or since. Crime and Punishment is seen to be one of the finest works of literature in existence whilst his ‘Notes from Underground’ is considered as one of the first works of existential literature.

Dostoevsky spent his late twenties in a SIberian prison camp after he was arrested for belonging to a literary group that discussed books banned by tsarist Russia. Dostoevsky was initially given the death penalty but it was commuted at the last second. Dostoevsky worked as a journalist following his years in Siberia and compulsory military service. He would later travel around Europe but developed a gambling addiction which forced him to beg for money. Dostoevsky eventually became one of the most highly read Russian writers and his career blossomed.

Crime and Punishment is his most well known work of literature. Put simply, it explores the protagonist Raskolnikov who has every reason to commit murder and does so. However, what follows is the protagonists crippling feelings of guilt and terror as pre-murder Raskolnikov is not the same as post-murder Raskolnikov as the young student enters into a universe of chaos of his own doing. Crime and Punishment is one of our recommended must read novels for good reason - it is a masterpiece.

Dostoevsky’s books have since been translated into over 170 languages and his influence has reached far beyond Russia. The well-known psychotherapist Jordan Peterson stated that his favourite author is Fyodor Dostoevsky whilst the Russian master has also influenced other writers including Anton Chekhov, Friedrich Nietzsche and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Ivan Turgenev

Turgenev was another giant of Russian literature during the 19th century. Turganev was a key proponent in popularising Russian literature in the west. His novel ‘Fathers and Sons’ is widely seen as one of the major works of all 19th-century literature - quite the mean feat given the works of fiction it was up against.

Unlike his contemporaries Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Turgenev lacked religious motives. Instead, Turgenev wished to represent the social aspect to the reform movement in Russia at the time. After traveling with Turganev to Paris, Tolstoy wrote in his diary that “Turgenev is a bore” whilst Dostoevskt parodied Turgenev in his novel ‘Devils’ through the vain character Karmazinov. Turgenev’s writing inspiration was closer to that of his friend Gustave Flaubert rather than the overtly religious Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

His most famous novel, Father’s and Sons is credited as creating the first Bolshevik in Russian literature through its leading character Bazarov. The novel concerned the older generation reluctant to accept reform compared to the nihilistic youth.

Keep up with the top stories from Reader’s Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter.