Top 10 novels and stories about shame

I was an adolescent when I first came across the letters of St Paul. Though I had been raised Greek Orthodox, at 13 I had joined an evangelical church in the hope that God would banish my shame. The shame of being different. The shame of hurting my immigrant parents’ honour. The shame of being gay. At that age, all I could hear from Paul was his admonishment in his first letter to the Corinthians that my homosexuality would banish me for ever from God’s love and grace. I battled with that for over two years before finally abandoning my faith. It was a relief to declare myself atheist, and a relief to begin the slow, difficult process of extricating myself from shame.

In my late 20s, however, I experienced another form of shame. I had betrayed a man I loved. I had betrayed my ideals. In a state of misery I found myself walking into a small Uniting Church. My body fell to weeping and prayer – for aid from a God in whom I no longer believed. On the pew in front of me there was a copy of the New Testament and I began to read it. I read Paul’s letter to the Romans and this time I heard the voice of a man struggling with doubt and confusion, shame and regret. And I heard his words of solace and compassion. My novel Damascus is my attempt to reconcile these two versions of Paul. It is the story of a man, not a saint, since it is the living, breathing, conflicted man who interests me. This is the man we can still hear 2,000 years later through the letters he left us.

The two aspects of shame I have experienced, the one negative and exiling, the other positive and humbling, are core to the human experience. Shame tears us apart; and shame allows for compassion and contrition. Paul understood this. As do the following writers.

1. The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Boll
In the mid-1970s, West Germany was rocked by a series of terrorist attacks. Boll uses that backdrop to examine what happens to a woman who is inadvertently caught up in the ruthlessness and paranoia of the state. Katharina Blum is at first pursued by government agents and then by the media, who relish destroying the sexual and moral reputation of an innocent woman. This novel is a powerful and compassionate howl against the tyranny of those who confuse morality with politics, all those ideologues, of the left as much as the right, who believe that the end justifies the means.

2. Ransom by David Malouf
Malouf takes a moment from The Iliad, when Priam goes to Achilles to beg that he be allowed to bury the desecrated body of his son, Hector, and from it crafts an exquisite novel in which we are witnesses to something world shattering – the moment when a king begs for mercy and for peace. Priam’s shame is clear. It is an abomination in the Homeric world for an aristocrat to fall to his knees and it is a scandal to not wish to repay blood with blood. In their argument and then in their accord, Achilles and Priam redefine both shame and honour. I think Malouf’s achievement is staggering. He rips apart the veil between the ancient and the contemporary.

3. Unbecoming by Eric Michaels
Unbecoming is Michaels’s memoir of living with HIV and eventually succumbing to Aids. A delirious rage suffuses his writing. But it is the relationship between his anger and the sexual shame that was part of his upbringing as a gay man that makes the book almost unbearable to read. There are points where it feels as if Michaels is spitting in the face of the reader, but that violence and fury never feels gratuitous. There is a clear moral purpose to it. This is what you do to a human being when you make them feel ashamed of their very being, of their consciousness and nature.

4. Requiem by Anna Akhmatova
Akhmatova was one of the greatest Russian writers of the 20th century. She had first-hand experience of totalitarian terror. Her elegy Requiem explores the shame that comes from submission to inhumanity. She details how unconscionable and how necessary this obsequiousness is in order to survive. The poem is her witness, testament and revenge. It outlives the monsters.

5. Scandal by Shusaku Endo
Endo’s novel is a rewriting of The Picture of Dorian Gray. However, unlike in Wilde’s novel, sin, here, isn’t extravagantly decadent: it is quotidian and all too human. I can’t imagine anyone reading Scandal and not recognising themselves in it. Endo is showing us what becomes of our humanity when we lie to ourselves and believe we have every right to throw the first stone.

Trenchant and honest ... Yukio Mishima.

6. Forbidden Colours by Yukio Mishima
In Forbidden Colours, a beautiful young man is seduced and tempted by a bitter old artist to become the epitome of the arrogant and emotionally distant male. The older man will use him to exact revenge on the women he believes have blighted his life. Reading Mishima’s novel is deeply unsettling. It is boldly erotic, yet fiercely conservative in its notions of family and duty. It is also the most trenchant and honest dissection of the shame of sexism by a male writer that I have ever read.

7. Love by Patricia Cornelius
This play is about three underclass characters who hurt, abuse and destroy each other. But they also love each other, and their shame comes from being aware of the damage they are doing but being trapped by cruel economics that make exploitation inevitable. I don’t know another work that captures so potently the gruelling shame of not having money, and the violence that emerges from the rage that underlies this experience of shame.

8. The Book of Job
We don’t know anything about the writer or writers of the Book of Job more than 2,500 years ago. Arguably, it is the first great work of existentialism. What is the meaning of our being on this Earth? Why do we suffer? How do we bear the shame of being unloved? One doesn’t have to be religious to identify with and be humbled by Job’s story. It is the antithesis of “new age”. Acceptance is never enough. There cannot be faith without doubt. There cannot be merit without sacrifice.

9. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
It is such an obvious choice I thought I shouldn’t include it. Then I realised that such an omission was not possible. It is one of the greatest works about shame ever written, including the shame of self-righteousness and the dishonour of thinking you are better than your fellows. I have met people who don’t admire Dostoevsky’s novel: they’re usually moral idiots.

10. In Dreams Begin Responsibilities by Delmore Schwartz
For all of us second-generation migrants who are writing from the fraught perspective of what we owe to our parents, this short story is shattering. The son of Jewish immigrants to the US, Schwartz perfectly captures the burden of shame the immigrant’s child feels of never being able to compensate for their parents’ exile and sacrifice. I could tattoo this short story on my skin.

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