Inspired by the promptings of a certain argumentative old git, who has put together a list of his 100 most indispensable books, here is a list I compiled in June 2009 of my top 50 novels, a bunch of books I would not hesitate to recommend to interested parties. Well, this is the first half of it. The second will follow presently. I like to maintain some suspense. Will Dan Brown make the cut? you are meant to wonder. As you can see, it’s arranged chronologically. I’m not sure if there are discernible trends or not, but you will see that my tastes tend towards the twentieth century, and I note that more than 40% of the books on the list come from the 1950s and 1960s. So there.
My reading has not remained static since I made the list, and if I were to revise it now I suppose I would have to sacrifice some books for the sake of including Middlemarch, an Updike (probably Couples), The Heart of the Matter, something by Philip K. Dick, who has enriched my reading greatly in recent weeks, and maybe one or both of The Cowards and The Wind on the Moon, which I have written about on the blog. But that would require far too much mental anguish, so I present it in its outdated manifestation. Enjoy/comment!
1. Choderlos de Laclos – Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782)
A masterful example of the epistolary novel, a nasty, unsettling story told with style and brilliance. Also quite racy.
2. Charles Dickens – Bleak House (1853)
An all-encompassing portrait of London and its inhabitants, containing elements of comedy, murder mystery and love story rolled into a tremendous whole. Just a glance at some of the characters – Jo the crossing-sweeper, Mr Snagsby, Lawrence Boythorn, Sergeant George and Phil Squod, Harold Skimpole, Mr Turveydrop, Matthew Bagnet – reminds one of its greatness.
3. Gustave Flaubert – Madame Bovary (1857)
A mightily impressive depiction of small-town society with the tragic story of Emma Bovary at its centre. Her problems arise from paying too much attention to books, something we would all do well to heed.
4. Anthony Trollope – Barchester Towers (1857)
It is always a joy to spend time with a writer of so amiable a demeanour as Trollope, and this book is a delight from start to finish.
5. Charles Dickens – Great Expectations (1861)
A magical story, its characters somehow monumental – Pip and Estella, Joe, Miss Havisham, Magwitch, right down to Wemmick and his Aged P. The first Dickens I read from beginning to end, and it still draws me inexorably back to it.
6. Leo Tolstoy – Anna Karenina (1877)
The temptation is to describe a book of this size as sprawling, but its scope is both wide in its coverage of the elemental themes of life and love and narrow in the minute attention to detail that makes it such a joy to read. One marvels at Tolstoy’s knowledge of human nature and suffering.
7. Mark Twain – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
A marvellously entertaining journey along the Mississippi, combining broad humour with social commentary. Twain’s ear for language and dialect is a joy.
8. Thomas Hardy – Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891)
One of the great tragic stories, and yet for the pain that Tess suffers I don’t see it as a necessarily depressing book. I find no other writer’s descriptions of place and landscape as stirring as Hardy’s.
9. Robert Musil – Die Verwirrungen des Zöglings Törless (The Confusions of Young Törless) (1906)
Austere and expressionistic, a psychological study of a regime of beating in a military boarding school. Not for everyone, but it lingers in the mind long after reading and its premonitions of the rise of fascism in Germany are eerie.
10. Thomas Mann – Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice) (1912)
As realistic a depiction of the process of falling in love as I have read, I thought on rereading this book earlier in the year . Certainly the concept of a passion so strong that one ultimately sacrifices one’s own life is remarkable (and one that presumably continues to recur in fiction). Powerfully symbolic and a source of undying fascination to me.
11. Alain-Fournier – Le Grand Meaulnes (1913)
An enigmatic novel telling of the mysterious Meaulnes and his quest to find his lost love, and an exquisite representation of the (imaginary?) place where childhood and adulthood meet.
12. André Gide – La Symphonie Pastorale (1919)
A fable about the adoption of a blind girl by a priest and the tragedy that occurs when her eyesight is restored. Covering themes of love, sin and both physical and (especially) moral blindness, this is a book entirely typical of its author.
13. Rosamond Lehmann – Invitation to the Waltz (1932)
A delightfully delicate comedy of manners whose heroine, Olivia, is tremendously sympathetic in her gauche awkwardness. Lehmann continued her story in a much darker but arguably even more impressive sequel, The Weather in the Streets, but that is not to denigrate its very funny predecessor.
14. P.G. Wodehouse – Right Ho, Jeeves (1934)
Any number of Wodehouse novels might have made it into the list; this is the one featuring Gussie Fink-Nottle’s drunken address to the boys of Market Snodsbury Grammar School.
15. John Steinbeck – Of Mice and Men (1937)
A short morality tale whose ending speaks volumes about Steinbeck’s humanity and sympathy for the downtrodden of the human race.
16. Carson McCullers – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
A profoundly moving story of how four people’s lives are influenced by their friendship with a deaf-mute man. Its poignancy and fragility are utterly devastating.
17. Mikhail Bulgakov – The Master and Margarita (completed c.1941)
A unique and magnificent creation, the surrealism of the incarnate devil ruining the lives of innocent and not-so-innocent humans contrasted with a vivid, individual retelling of Christ’s Passion. A great masterpiece that has stayed with me long after reading it.
18. Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle (1948)
A coming-of-age novel of great charm and exuberance, with a captivating heroine in Cassandra Mortmain and a memorable cast of eccentrics. Very much a young person’s book, with an indefatigable vitality about it.
19. J.D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
It took me many years to come round to this book, but I now see it for what it is: a funny, poignant portrait of a young man unsure of his place in society. The depiction of his relationship with his sister is particularly touching.
20. Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
A powerful allegorical novella ostensibly about the struggle of a fisherman to catch a marlin, a source of boundless fascination open to endless interpretations.
21. L.P. Hartley – The Go-Between (1953)
Perhaps the novel I love above all others, the story of a middle-aged writer’s recollections of the summer of 1900 and his part as the go-between in a clandestine affair between a farmer and the daughter of a landowning family. A paean to youth and a devastating depiction of the loss of childhood innocence and the self-deception and self-betrayal that ensues, with a final hint at redemption that allays the sense of fragility and tragedy that pervades the book.
22. William Golding – Lord of the Flies (1954)
A story I expect everyone is familiar with – a group of schoolboys, marooned on a desert island following a plane crash, form their own society and eventually descend into barbarism. The poetry of Golding’s language is what stays most vividly with me.
23. Patricia Highsmith – The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955)
An effortlessly cool psychological thriller. Tom Ripley is an amoral hero, but one can’t help rooting for him as he attempts to stay one step ahead of everyone else.
24. Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita (1955)
Dazzlingly, outrageously brilliant, hilariously naughty, and immensely tragic, firstly in the protagonist’s actions and then in his at least partial realisation of his self-delusion. One of the indisputable masterpieces of twentieth-century fiction.
25. John Wyndham – The Chrysalids (1955)
More than mere science fiction: the story of a group of children whose discovery that they can communicate telepathically puts them at risk from their puritanical society. As with the best novels set in other worlds, it strikingly holds a mirror up to our own culture.