50 novels – part 2

Well, here is the conclusion of my traversal of the novel. Cruel of me to make you wait so long, really. Glancing down the list, I’m not sure exactly why The Remains of the Day should be there. I think when I compiled the list it wasn’t so long since I had read the book, and it was fairly fresh in my mind, but the impression it made has not lasted. I think it would be first off if I wanted to make room for something else. But why should I trust my memory of it now better than my memory of it then? It’s perverse, quite frankly. Better to say nothing of the matter.

***

26. Sam Selvon – The Lonely Londoners (1956)
A bittersweet snapshot of a group of West Indian immigrants living in 1950s London on the lookout for a better life, finding strength but also isolation in their community.

27. Saul Bellow – Seize the Day (1956)
Tommy Wilhelm is a failed actor and furniture salesman who has unwisely invested his money in lard. This novella – not a comedy, despite the premise – shows Wilhelm approaching crisis point and eventually making a reassessment of his life. Tragic and inspiring in equal measure, this is a ‘small grey masterpiece’ (V.S. Pritchett) in the mould of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

28. Rebecca West – The Fountain Overflows (1957)
The engrossing tale of a bohemian family headed by a brilliant but unstable father struggling to make ends meet in turn-of-the-century London, this novel is magically exuberant. Not much in the way of plot, but a book I imagine I could read over and over without getting bored, and the best advert for Virago I can think of.

29. Catherine Storr – Marianne Dreams (1958)
Young Marianne, suffering from a debilitating illness, finds that whatever she draws she dreams about the following night and enters into an eerie dream-world through which she finds she is able to communicate with another invalid from reality. A haunting story that I first read when I was nine and have continued to revisit. The kind of book that I suspect is wasted on children.

30. Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird (1960)
The story of the trial of a black man falsely accused of rape in 1930s Alabama seen through the eyes of two children, this is book that radiates warmth and humanity, a deeply moral statement that nevertheless avoids the trap of descending into polemicism.

31. Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)
Among Muriel Spark’s many fine novels, this one stands out for the character of Jean Brodie, an amalgam of the sort of inspirational teacher who is the stuff of dreams and a self-absorbed monster whose individuality ultimately proves her downfall. Spark’s dry humour is abundant and she tells the story with great wit and verve. A book that seems to get funnier with every reading.

32. Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire (1962)
Even more dazzling, if possible, than Lolita, this novel takes the form of a commentary on a posthumously published poem whose author is all but obliterated by the commentator’s self-importance. The character of Kinbote is monstrous, the book fiendishly clever and at times deeply sad.

33. John Fowles – The Collector (1963)
Macabre, nasty and utterly addictive, Fowles’ debut is a psychological thriller telling the story of a young misfit who stalks and kidnaps an art student. The dual narrative is very stylishly executed, and the conclusion chilling.

34. Truman Capote – In Cold Blood (1966)
The archetype of the non-fiction novel, a compelling reconstruction of a crime and the path to justice. Capote takes liberties with the truth, but if one can overlook this aspect the book stands on its own as a remarkable work.

35. Daniel Keyes – Flowers for Algernon (1966)
A tearjerker of a novel, this is the story of Charlie Gordon, a man of low intelligence who undergoes a pioneering operation to make him smart – but his heightened self-awareness brings tragedy as well as joy. Its genius lies in the development of Charlie’s narrative voice, which mirrors his changing intelligence.

36. B.S. Johnson – Trawl (1966)
Johnson is best known for his stylistic gimmickry – the book in a box, the holes in pages, the typographical innovations – but this is a comparatively straight work, an extended monologue by a man on a fishing trawler. His reflections on events from his past are deeply affecting, his return home exhilarating.

37. Michael Campbell – Lord Dismiss Us (1967)
A marvellously witty and poignant schoolboy novel about the joy and pain of first love, the kind of book I would like to read every year but feel bound to ration for fear of dulling its power. It’s not in print at the moment and might be dismissed by some as genre fiction, but as Iris Murdoch, Angus Wilson, Anthony Burgess and Christopher Isherwood have all at some point recorded their love of the book I feel in exalted company.

38. Henry de Montherlant – Les Garçons (1969)
Another intoxicating novel of love in adolescence, remarkable for Montherlant’s uncanny observation of human relationships. His wisdom, his understanding, and his forgiveness of his characters’ faults shine like beacons.

39. Philip Roth – Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)
Fabulously filthy and laugh-out-loud funny, an excursion into the mind of a neurotic as he catalogues his sexual hangups, forever in the shadow of his equally monstrous mother…

40. Ian McEwan – The Cement Garden (1978)
McEwan’s first novel, a macabre story of the way four children deal with the death of their mother. His novels may have grown in complexity and verbal polish, but I find none of them as gripping, dangerous or headily atmospheric as this one.

41. Philip Roth – The Ghost Writer (1979)
Arguably as different a book from Portnoy’s Complaint as Roth has written, this is the novel that introduces his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman, a young writer who journeys to stay with a celebrated novelist and encounters his mysterious lodger. Principally memorable for the brilliant extended section revealing the lodger’s secret identity, this intriguing novel has much to say about the process of writing and the discovery of one’s own voice.

42. J.L. Carr – A Month in the Country (1980)
Set in the years following the First World War, this is the story of two veterans now employed in rural England, one restoring a mural in a church, the other searching for a grave in the churchyard outside. A small book, but it carries a great emotional impact.

43. William Maxwell – So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980)
An elegiac account of a burgeoning friendship brutally cut short, and a beautifully sad depiction of the tangential nature of tragedy, how the conjunction of a number of superficially minor things can cause irreparable damage, and how the smallest act of selflessness can make the most enormous difference.

44. Gabriel García Márquez – Crónica de una Muerte Anunciada (Chronicle of a Death Foretold) (1981)
A delicate, meticulously crafted novella documenting the events leading up to a murder, this is both concise and compelling.

45. Paul Auster – The New York Trilogy (1987)
Metafiction par excellence. An endlessly fascinating trilogy of complex and self-referential detective stories, and a deeply impressive achievement.

46. Kazuo Ishiguro – The Remains of the Day (1989)
A warmly funny and yet bittersweet story of a dignified but emotionally repressed butler on the verge of old age, who takes a journey that causes him to take stock of his life. I found the ending, which hints at Stevens’ awareness of his delusion but also suggests that his optimistic perseverance will prevail, curiously moving.

47. Hanif Kureishi – The Buddha of Suburbia (1990)
A favourite book during my teens that I ought to revisit, this tells the story of Karim Amir, a second-generation immigrant growing up in 1970s London, discovering the forbidden. I think I was as much if not more interested in the secondary character of Changez, who arrives from India a few chapters in and finds difficulty in adapting to his new life. Funny and touching.

48. Haruki Murakami – Sputnik Sweetheart (1999)
The needlessness of loneliness and the power of companionship are the themes that are shot through this melancholy but hopeful novel. The idea of people as satellites whose orbits coincide only occasionally continues to resonate with me years after reading it.

49. Vikram Seth – An Equal Music (1999)
One of the most moving and emotionally involving love stories I have had the joy(/despair) to read, also remarkable for Seth’s gift for writing about the process of making music, which is more accurate and insightful than that of any other writer I can think of.

50. Howard Jacobson – Kalooki Nights (2006)
Jacobson’s magnum opus [N.B. this description may now be out of date] is the story of a middle-aged cartoonist ruminating on the events that led to the imprisonment of a childhood friend for murder. A moving and witty novel, showing the ways we deal and fail to deal with tragedy in our lives. Jacobson’s meditations on the shadow cast by the Holocaust have great substance.

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