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(Our selection of) the world’s greatest novels
Wednesday 21 October 2009, by
There are no doubt some novels missing from this compendium, but there can be no doubt that these 99 masterpieces from Albania, Austria (3), China, Columbia, Czechia, Egypt (2), England (23), France (23), Germany (9), Holland, Hungary, Ireland (2), Italy, Japan (3), Norway, Peru (2), Poland, Portugal, Russia (10), Scotland, Spain, Sweden and the U.S.A. (9) have all scaled the very highest heights of literary achievement in the novel form.
see=>More of the World’s Greatest Novels.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
|1605||Don Quixote||Miguel de Cervantes||Spain|
|1668||Simplicissimus||Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen||Germany|
|1719||Robinson Crusoe||Daniel Defoe||England|
|1729||Gulliver’s Travels||Jonathan Swift||Ireland|
|1749||Tom Jones||Henry Fielding||England|
|1759||Tristam Shandy||Laurence Sterne||England|
|1774||The Sorrows of Young Werther||Johann Wolfgang Goethe||Germany|
|1813||Pride and Prejudice||Jane Austin||England|
|1814||The Manuscript Found in Saragossa||Jean Potocki||Poland|
|1821||The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr||E.T.A. Hoffmann||Germany|
|1826||From the Life of a Good-for-nothing
|Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff||Germany|
|1830||Le rouge et le noir
(The Red and the Black)
|1831||La Peau de chagrin
(The Magic Skin)
|Honoré de Balzac||France|
|1835||Le Père Goriot||Honoré de Balzac||France|
|1836||The Lily of the Valley||Honoré de Balzac||France|
|1838||Oliver Twist||Charles Dickens||England|
|1839||La Chartreuse de Parme||Stendahl||France|
|1842||Dead Souls||Nikolai Gogol||Russia|
|Honoré de Balzac||France|
|1844||The Count of Monte Cristo||Alexandre Dumas||France|
|1844||The Three Musketeers||Alexandre Dumas||France|
|1846||La Cousine Bette||Honoré de Balzac||France|
|1847||Jane Eyre||Charlotte Bronte||England|
|1847||Wuthering Heights||Emily Bronte||England|
|1848||Vanity Fair||William Thackeray||England|
|1850||The Scarlet Letter||Nathaniel Hawthorne||USA|
|1851||Moby Dick or The Whale||Herman Melville||USA|
|1856||Madame Bovary||Gustave Flaubert||France|
|1857||Barchester Towers||Anthony Trollope||England|
|1857||Little Dorrit||Charles Dickens||England|
|1861||Great Expectations||Charles Dickens||England|
|1862||Les Misérables||Victor Hugo||France|
|1863||Captain Fracasse||Théophile Gautier||France|
|1866||Crime and Punishment||Fyodor Dostoyevsky||Russia|
|1867||The Last Chronicle of Barset||Anthony Trollope||England|
|1868||The Idiot||Fyodor Dostoyevsky||Russia|
|1869||War and Peace||Leo Tolstoy||Russia|
|1870||20,000 Leagues Under the Sea||Jules Verne||France|
|1875||The Mysterious Island||Jules Verne||France|
(The Knock-Out Café)
|1877||Anna Karenina||Leo Tolstoy||Russia|
|1880||The Brothers Karamazov||Fyodor Dostoyevsky||Russia|
|1883||Treasure Island||Robert Louis Stevenson||Scotland|
|1883||Au Bonheur des dames||Emile Zola||France|
|1884||The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn||Mark Twain||USA|
|1895||Jude the Obscure||Thomas Hardy||England|
|1896||Effi Briest||Theodor Fontane||Germany|
|1903||The Way of All Flesh||Samuel Butler||England|
|1905||I Am a Cat||Natsumé Soseki||Japan|
|1909||Sumida River||Nagai Kafu||Japan|
|1924||The Magic Mountain||Thomas Mann||Germany|
|1925||The Great Gatsby||F. Scott Fitzgerald||USA|
|1925||The Trial||Franz Kafka||Austria|
|1926||The Death Ship||B. Traven||Germany|
|1927||Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises)||Ernest Hemingway||USA|
|1927||À La recherche du temps perdu
(In Search of Lost Time)
|1929||The Sound and the Fury||William Faulkner||USA|
|1930||Vile Bodies||Evelyn Waugh||England|
|1932||A Glastonbury Romance||John Cowper Powys||England|
|1932||Voyage au bout de la nuit
(Voyage to the End of the Night)
|1932||The Radetsky March||Roth||Austria|
|1937||The Hobbit||J. R. R. Tolkien||England|
|1939||On the Marble Cliffs||Ernst Jünger||Germany|
|1939||The Grapes of Wrath||John Steinbeck||USA|
|1939||The Master and Margarita||Mikhail Bulgakov||Russia|
|1940||Casanova in Bolzano||Sandor Marai||Hungary|
|1945||Brideshead Revisited||Evelyn Waugh||England|
|1947||Under The Volcano||Malcolm Lowry||England|
|1947||Midaq Alley||Naguib Mahfouz||Egypt|
|1949||Nineteen Eighty-Four||George Orwell||England|
|1958||The Marvellous Voyage of Nils Holgersson||Selma Lagerlof||Sweden|
|1960||The Leopard||Guiseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa||Italy|
|1960||To Kill a Mockingbird||HarperLee||USA|
|1960||The Alexandria Quartet||Lawrence Durrell||England|
|1960||La promesse de l’aube
(The Promise of Dawn)
|1962||A Clockwork Orange||Anthony Burgess||England|
|1965||Cancer Ward||Alexander Solzhenitsyn||Russia|
|1965||In Cold Blood||Truman Capote||USA|
|1967||100 Years of Solitude||Gabriel Marquez||Columbia|
|1970||The Siege||Ismail Kadare||Albania|
|1980||Life and Destiny||Vasily Grossman||Russia|
|1981||The War of the End of the World||Mario Vargas Llosa||Peru|
|1986||Love and Garbage||Ivan Klima||Czechia|
|1990||Soul Mountain||Gao Xingjian||China|
|1992||The Discovery of Heaven||Harry Mulisch||Holland|
|1997||All the Names||José Saramago||Portugal|
|2000||The Feast of the Goat||Mario Vargas Llosa||Peru|
|2002||The Yacoubian Building||Alaa El Aswany||Egypt|
Don Quixote* by Miguel de Cervantes (1605) 
This masterpiece will never cease to impress and to awe. Published in 1605, way before anything of similar stature was produced elsewhere in Europe (but then the first Japanese novel, The Genji Monagatari, had been written 600 years earlier), this rollicking tale of a man driven to the edge of folly by his passion for books (readers, beware!) and his immersion in the dream-world they project (video gamers, beware!) to go out into the wild world out there to combat its injustices (social reformers, beware!) and win the heart of his idealised Dulcina (lovers, beware!) is a picaresque farce that is transformed into a universal epic by the forceful presence not to say omnipresence of his resourceful equerry and general factotum Sancho Panza, who actually ends up achieving his dream of acquiring a duchy of his own with surprising results (power-seekers beware!) and who provides the realistic and everyman element that combines with Don Quixote’s world of the imagination and of noble knights and ladies to make this inseparable pair so memorable, so humane and so universal.
Simplicissimus by Hans Jacob Christoffel von Grimmelshausen (1668)
This fascinating fresco follows the young Simplicissimus as he grows up and learns about life, love, death and the depths of the human soul during the devastating Thirty Years War (1618-1648) that reduced the population of current-day Germany by half, a cataclysmic predecessor of the world wars of our own times.
A massive classic by the first giant of German literature, a baroque monument.
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719)
The great story – the very first English novel! – about how an adventurous man in the 17th century accomplishes his destiny when marooned on a desert island, where he manages not only to survive but to prosper, to find spiritual peace and comfort in his condition, to open his heart to a native whose life he has saved, and finally to triumph in a series of extraordinary challenges that have to be read to be believed.
In spite of the archaic mindset of the central character – notably his matter-of-fact acceptance of the slave trade and his intense, even fanatic religiosity – this stirring, powerful and moving story that almost instantly received world-wide recognition as a masterwork has remained one of the most-read works of fiction around the world to this very day.
Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1729)
Jonathan Swift’s scathing satire of the society of his time in the form of a seafarer’s account of all the amazing peoples he had encountered in strange far-off places – the tiny Lilliputs, the enormous Brobdingnags, the ferocious peoples of the Far East and, especially, the wonderful land of the magnificent horse-like Houyhnhnms so superior in all ways to their awful human-like enemies the Yahoos, so similar to himself and his fellow countrymen.
An original and brilliantly-recounted adventure story with eternal satirical significance by the great Irish writer, satirist, essayist, poet and clergyman that’s as readable today as it was when first published almost three hundred years ago.
Tom Jones by Henry Fielding (1749)
Exploding with life and vigour and a great deal of humour, very cosmopolitan with an engaging young hero wandering all over 18th Century Europe learning the ways of the world, full of snappy dialogues, nicely written but unpretentious, this wonderful big book epitomises the spirit of that momentous century in a unique way.
Without a doubt one of the most outstanding English novels of its time, and of all time.
Tristam Shandy* by Laurence Sterne (1759)
This effervescent brimming-over-with-the-joy-of-life novel in the form of a fictional autobiography goes shooting off in every which way as one thought leads to another, so that it takes the verbose but quite spell-bindingly fascinating and funny author a whole 80 pages to bring his life story (that starts naturally enough but nevertheless very originally with the hilarious account of the moment of his conception) up to the moment of his birth. This great book was written in the early days of the English novel and it was perhaps the lack of an established frame of reference for the novel form that encouraged Sterne to adopt such a constraint-free form and his meandering, ebullient style that seems to just explode out of these pages. The hero and his entourage never go further than 2 miles or so from their comfortable Sussex village and yet this small corner of the Earth by the magic of the author’s pen becomes a world unto itself that epitomizes the quintessence of the human experience.
Sterne’s easy prose seems to effortlessly flow on and on, expanding and twisting and turning with amazing agility to transmit in a real-time stream the impulsive onslaught of thoughts and lovingly-detailed recollections of his personages. Among the novel’s many joys is probably the funniest single chapter I have ever read in my life, the one so appropriately entitled "Zounds!".
A masterpiece, by one of the greatest masters of the English language of all time.
The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1774)
The original Bildungsroman about a young man’s initiation to life – the book that put Goethe on the map and whose sensitive, soulful, searching and suicidal hero was a founding figure for the Romantic movement throughout Europe.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin (1813)
In spite of the fact that it is nicely written – nothing spectacular, mind you – and that the author does have a fine ear for dialogue, I couldn’t help finding the subject of match-making so obsessively omnipresent and the mindsets of its female protagonists so concentrated on this theme – important, that I grant you – that my interest in the book in general and their fate in particular started seriously waning well before the end. I found myself becoming quite seriously irritated by the implied acceptance by the author and her female protagonists of the de facto secondary status of genteel young women, yearning after the prestige of the landed gentry and aristocracy without any particular personal ambition for self-fulfilment and quite entirely dependant on the hypothetical entrapment of a male with sufficient status and income to assure their position in society. So in spite of the undeniable qualities of this well-told story with its excellent rhythm, lively dialogues and nicely-delineated personages, all in all I found myself a tad disappointed by its lack of scope and even ambition.
No doubt an anachronistic appreciation of one of the most celebrated English novels of that momentous century.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jean Potocki (1814)
This story within a story within a story, written in French by a Polish nobleman, explorer, archaeologist, diplomat, linguist and historian at the beginning of the 19th Century, purports to be a manuscript, discovered by a French officer in Spain during the Napoleonic Wars there, that recounts the bizarre encounters of a Spanish officer during a mission in the barren Sierra Morena mountains where he encounters, for starters, a couple of mysterious and voluptuous young sisters who, after proposing imaginable delights and unimaginable treasures, recount their own encounters, and so on.
The book abounds in an extravagant variety of semi-fantastical figures, including devils in male and especially (seductive) female form, a wandering Jew, a saint, a heroic knight, bandits, hermits and many more. Written in the intellectual aftermath of the French Revolution, the novel embraces large themes under a mystical-oriental cloak, whereby Christian values are challenged, the merits of Islam are considered and taboos in general are flaunted in a rather gay, fantastic way. The scope is universal and the tone cosmopolitan, even for our modern, blasé eyes and minds.
The reader is swept along in this strange, original, fascinating book and one can only regret that the final chapters were tragically lost in or en route to Paris after the first part had been published in a Russian translation in St. Petersburg in 1805. But then the fragmentary nature of the text is well in keeping with its complex structure, so the resulting text is not only a masterpiece of fiction in the fantastic vein, but a masterpiece of fiction, period.
The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1821)
I just loved this story about – in part, but what a part! - a particularly gifted cat who is not only smart enough to learn the language of humans but who is lucky enough to have a superior kind of master who reads aloud to him, so that he learns how the letters in the book he is staring at correspond to the sounds that he is hearing, and thus learns to read as well. After that, writing is a piece of cake for this super-cat, and this book is his autobiography, recounting not only his intellectual attitudes to life (the original German title “Lebensansichten des Katers Murr” is literally "Views on Life of the Tomcat Murr") but the conversations of his master with his erudite friends as well as his own thoughts and escapades and very involved love-life.
To help stir things up, the manuscript is presented as having been mixed up in the printer’s shop with the biography of a strange and inspired musician and writer-intellectual named Kreisler, also the theme figure in Hoffmann’s renowned Tales in the Manner of Calot, who has his own scrapes and escapades and expansive semi-mystical meditations, so the Murr chapters alternate with the Kreisler ones in a bizarre and unsettling but totally original and intriguing way that leaves the reader quite overawed at the vigour and scope of this work like none other.
The overall result is a funny, brilliant and profound parody of a Bildungsroman (a novel of a young man’s learning-about-life process) that just explodes with the individualism and the fascination with the mysteries of life and with the world of fantasy that characterized the romantic spirit of the time, of which Hoffmann was a leading spirit.
An unusual and inspired book that I rank very highly indeed.
From the Life of a Good-for-nothing (Taugenichts) by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff (1826)
In the first sentence of this masterpiece of the German Romantic movement the youthful and very carefree narrator rubs the sleep out of his eyes, listens to the twittering of the starlings and the murmurings of his father’s mill and sits on the doorstep to bask in the warm spring sunshine, only to hear his father’s outraged admonition "you Good-For-Nothing! Getting up at noon while we have all been slaving away since daybreak! Take your things and get out of my house forever !" So our young and very carefree hero takes off down the road in front of his father’s mill with his beloved violin and a few pennies to visit the wide world.
Taugenichts, who is just about always either singing or playing his violin or listening to birds trilling away or admiring the glories of nature or the charms of the many females who pass his way, in no time at all is – because of his singing and musical ability and perhaps also because of his quite irresistible easy-going charm – first taken on as a gardener and then as a gatekeeper at a splendid castle, where he can indulge to his heart’s content his inclinations for singing and listening to the sounds of nature and bringing flowers to lovely young ladies. But when his love for the lovely lady of the castle is unrequited, he unhesitatingly sets off without a penny down the road again, on the way to the Rome of his dreams – the Rome not only of saints but also of Venus-worshipping pagan rites – and rapidly becomes involved in a bewildering set of dramas and rococo adventures which do lead him to the Rome of his ambition. Where he finds and loses again the mysterious lady of the castle back home, where he somehow manages to finally end up again amidst many imbroglios and much confusion.
Seeped in music and poetry and the love of nature, deceptively erudite and ambitious in spite of the bucolic simplicity of its wandering but quite unforgettable hero, brimming over with humour and vitality, this complex masterpiece both looks back to the baroque and rococo past while magnificently incarnating the exuberance of the Romantic spirit of its time.
Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and the Black) by Stendhal (1830)
Julien Sorel is a young plebeian with a lot of pride, a lot of confidence in his future and a lot of animosity to the privileged few born into the upper classes of the society in which he lives – the France of the “Restoration” of the monarchal regime after the fall of Napoleon. He is the unloved son of a “carpenter”, a saw-mill owner, who, like his two big brothers treats him badly and sends him off to get some education in an abbey. Where he does learn Latin and even memorizes the whole on the New Testament in Latin by heart, no less, a feat that helps him get a position as a tutor in the family of the mayor of his little town in the mountainous region of Franche-Comté. Where he sees the inner workings of the regime he loves to hate and becomes more than friendly with the very attractive wife of the mayor. When that relationship becomes too intense not to say physical he leaves to complete his education in a religious seminary in the region’s capital, Besançon, where he learns more about the power of the Church that was such an important mainstay of the hated monarchy, and after three years there completing his growing-up process – he is now twenty – he goes to Paris to become the secretary of a very wealthy and very aristocratic member of Parisian high society, who happens to have an amazingly intelligent, beautiful, dynamic daughter with a super-charged personality who, yes, does eventually get interested in our plebeian hero so different from all the boring young and very standardized nobles who are always paying court to her. One thing leads to another and the daughter of the lord becomes pregnant! And Julien gets a promotion and is all set to enter the privileged world that he hates so much when a very scandalous letter arrives from the wife of the mayor back home and Julien, who has a very low boiling point, rushes off to get even with her, and his story then rapidly comes to a sad end.
Somehow this strange mix of social critique, political comment, melodrama and psychological analysis keeps the reader reading with ever-increasing interest from start to end, feeling that the intense questioning of values, the omnipresent critique of social inequalities, the vividness of the many strong personalities that people this saga have an odd but definite relevance for his own age – notably thanks to the captivatingly smooth, flowing, direct, clear, “unfancy” style of the prose and the author’s ability to put the historical and cultural specifics of the period in question, necessarily unfamiliar to the modern reader, completely into a vague sort of background, in line with the author’s often-repeated ambition of rendering his work accessible to readers throughout the ages.
Published in 1830 just after a major political upheaval (the “Revolution of July”, epitomised by Delacroix’s painting of Liberty leading the people), this seminal work did in fact only start to gain widespread recognition long afterwards, quite in line with the previsions of the author, who declared that he was writing for the readers of 1880, of the 1930s, and of the year 2000.
La Peau de chagrin (The Magic Skin) by Honoré de Balzac (1831)
Balzac’s first successful novel of his mature Comédie Humaine period (1831-1850), this metaphorical rags-to-riches tale with a philosophical/fantastic twist has all the drive and scope and convincing down-to-earth detail that make his later works so special and so interesting and readable almost two centuries later.
Le Père Goriot (Old Goriot) by Honoré de Balzac (1835)
This renowned novel is quite perfect in both form and content. The strength of the characters (Goriot, Rastignac, Goriot’s daughters …), the force and drama of the story, the quality of the prose with its long and often complex sentences that seem to flow on in a quite irrepressible way — each of these constituent parts contribute to a greater whole, surely one of the master’s finest works.
Le lys dans la vallée (The Lily of the Valley) by Honoré de Balzac (1836)
A moving love story that finishes of course rather badly (after all, this is Balzac), written with a sweep and an intensity that carries all before it. The descriptions of the états d’âme of the leading characters, Félix de Vandenesse and Blanche de Mortsauf, of the countryside and of the grape harvesting in the Loire valley where they walk and talk and get wrapped up in each other, are surely among the finest things Balzac has ever done. Not an action novel, there are no battles or struggles with giant whales or implacable enemies, but this masterful novel explores relationships in an adult, penetrating way that has rarely if ever been equalled.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)
This book was a shock to Dickens’s vast public, who were looking for further Cockney comedy in the Pickwick Papers vein, and got a hard-hitting description of some of the most shocking aspects of the social tragedies of the world’s most advanced country at the time: criminal child neglect in orphanages, inhuman conditions in public work houses, crime and prostitution... This is sock-it-to-’em fiction at its very best, with scenes of low life in London that just cannot be forgotten. And with a number of his most outstanding "supporting role" characters: the resourceful and worldly-wise young pickpocket The Artful Dodger, the moll Nancy, the clever, scheming (and caricaturally Jewish) gang leader Fagin, and the brutal arch-criminal Sikes. The one major reserve modern readers can have about this famous book is about the very negative, almost antisemitic portrait of the arch-villain Fagin, the central figure in the last two-thirds of the book, in which the young (27 year-old) Dickens reflected the current prevailing attitudes towards those strange folk, and for which Dickens, influenced by the comments of close Jewish friends, later tried to made amends by portraying another central Jewish character, the dustman Old Riah in Our Mutual Friend, his last completed work, in an almost exaggeratedly positive light. But it’s a great read, nevertheless.
La Chartreuse de Parme by Stendahl (1839)
Fabrice del Dongo is a young Italian nobleman who vibrates with such enthusiasm for the cause of Napoleon that he flees to France from the paternal mansion near Parma to offer his services to the great man when he descends upon the country and the world after his escape from the Elba – and arrives just in time to participate in the clamour and confusion of Waterloo. After that great military and political turnaround he returns to Italy where we spend the rest of this great novel watching him devoting his quite irresistible charm and his immense talent for appreciating the beauty of the two central women in his life – his dynamic and ever-so-beautiful aunt (!) and the timid and very religious but overwhelmingly attractive daughter of the general of the prison in which he ends up being imprisoned for not only being a ’liberal’ but also for having slain a rival to the hand of a lovely young actress – to the cause of his personal happiness as well as advancing along as easily as possible on his career as a future archbishop.
A sweeping transposition of the career of a celebrated Renaissance pope to his own time, this most Italian of French novels is an immense tribute to the culture, the history, the geography and the undefinable, eternal appeal of that very special land, couched in a quite enchanting style that always goes straight to the point as well as to the heart of the reader, utterly devoid of fancy flourishes and effects but all the more effective thereby.
A work of great depth and intelligence, with endless beauties, insights and encouragements to the reader to aspire to ever higher heights.
Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842)
The account of the not-always-successful attempts of the traveling schemer Chichikov to make his way in the world by ingratiating himself with important people and devising complicated schemes to achieve financial and social success by wile and charm — notably to purchase deceased surfs (“dead souls” in the language of the time) to defraud the government with — and above all by not doing anything involving hard work.
Although only partially completed — in a depressive crisis Gogol burnt the manuscript of the second part, and several pages are missing from the first part — the immensely talented author’s mastery of language, of the psychology of his fellow countrymen of all levels of society, of the glories of the Russian landscapes — and also and even especially his quite wonderful sense of humour that permeates the work from beginning to end — have made the sage of Chichikov one of the most celebrated personnages of Russian fiction and elevated this rambling but utterly captivating work to the status of one of the most celebrated Russian novels.
Illusions perdues (Lost Illusions) by Honoré de Balzac (1843)
Lucien is a handsome young man in Angoulème who’s introduced to the society of the town by a leading socialite who soon after leaves her banal husband to go to Paris, taking Lucien with her. Where she rapidly abandons the ambitious and penniless young author to his own devices. He rapidly gets involved with the intellectuals in the Latin Quarter, with writers and journalists, with librarians, book-sellers and editors — he has a book of poems to offer and is writing a novel —, and with the theatre world where he immediately catches the attention of Coraline, a striking young actress. Lucien evolves in this new world, learns about the harsh ways and mercantilism of life in the big town, desperately tries to become a literary success to the extent of betraying all who had befriended him, but after losing everything in gambling halls he returns, on foot and still penniless, to his home town. Where he is in deeper trouble than ever after having forged a bill of change in the name of his brother-in-law David, a printer who’s working on a revolutionary new method of fabricating low-cost paper. We then follow the adventures of David and his dearly-beloved wife Eve, Lucien’s devoted sister, as they try to avoid imprisonment because of the debts incurred by Lucien and his forgery, while David comes ever nearer to perfecting his invention. Lucien not only cannot help them but finally is the cause of David’s final downfall, and in despair he goes off to put an end to his misery – but destiny has another fate in store for him in the form of an extraordinary, almost miraculous encounter. An encounter with homosexual undertones that had been subtly suggested throughout this epic panorama of the society at the time and its values, just bursting with remarkable people, conversations, encounters and themes brilliantly recounted by one of the great masters of the language.
One of his longest and most accomplished masterworks.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
Athos, Aramis, Porthos and d’Artagnan: four of the best-known characters in all fiction (and all in the same book!), whose names are recognized all over the world by people who have never even read this famous book that has caught – and continues to catch – the imagination of people everywhere in a way that very few other books have ever done.
True, it is basically just a popular best-seller, an action story of the cape-and-sword genre, written in a hurry for the mass public by one of the most prolific writers of all time with the collaboration of a ghost writer, Auguste Macquet, who provided much of the basic story line and the initial draft of a part of the text.
Yet in spite of all these drawbacks from a certain elitist literary point of view, its qualities sweep all obstacles aside in its irresistible ascension to the highest ranks of world literature: its unrelenting pace, carrying the young d’Artagnan (at 19 young enough for young readers to empathize with and old enough to capture the imagination and win the hearts of the not-so-young) without a pause from his native Gascoigne to court intrigues in Paris and London and battles in the company of his musketeer comrades throughout the kingdom, not to mention dangerous adventures of another sort in the arms of Milady; the terrific story line; the atmosphere of daring and bravache and enterprise that seems to dominate the spirit of that rambunctious age in these pages; the sheer energy of the writing; the brilliance and sharpness of the dialogues.
Throw in all those ingredients, add a touch of genius, a never-failing inspiration and a mysterious alchemy and you get a work of art of surprising but undeniable stature. A work of art whose surface glitter is rounded out by its darker side, the darker side of the four heroes as a parable for the downside of humanity itself, when they commit in cold blood and with solemn solidarity a deed that will haunt them for the rest of their lives and that will drive the events of the superb sequel to this great novel that Dumas produced the following year, Twenty Years After.
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844)
Dumas’s great, massive epic on the theme of revenge, his only non-historical novel. This is a strange story that goes way beyond the main plot line of treachery, escape and revenge to explore large side avenues in unexpected ways, becoming progressively more and more cloaked in a veil of oriental mystery. A surprisingly complex tale that combines action and mystery and meditation and morality with a relentless drive that has impressed its countless readers all over the world since its publication in 1844 (the same year as The Three Musketeers!) by a Dumas at the height of his formidable powers.
La Cousine Bette by Honoré de Balzac (1846)
A sparkling panorama of the society of its time – the Louis-Philippe régime that had taken power in the glorious 1830 revolution that had brought down the aristocratic Restoration regime that had followed Napoleon’s Empire and which was soon to collapse in the chaos of the 1848 revolution – in which mercantile values and the dominant commercial class (“bourgeoisie”) was all-powerful thanks to the electoral laws that gave the vote to those of certain means only. But this is not a sociological document, at least not principally, it is a vibrant, rapidly-evolving story of the emotional, financial and above all sexual dramas of a respected family, whose tensions and betrayals and ethical dilemmas condemn almost all of them to doom and destruction. Except the philandering sixty-nine year-old baron Hector d’Hulot (modelled on the writer Victor Hugo), whose sexual obsessions and misdeeds over-ride all other consideration including the honour of his family and the bottomless depth of debt into which he condemns them. Every page of this scintillating masterpiece is simply overflowing with a level of language that has rarely been equalled!
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847)
This is of course a wonderful book. It has everything — passion, scope, emotion, significance — and is told in a masterful way that casts a spell on the reader from start to end. As an extra plus it evokes in the most haunting, powerful way the unique atmosphere of a very special place, North Yorkshire, where the author herself met her own tragically premature death from tuberculosis at the age of 29 in the damp and fetid climate of that strange land.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)
This famous novel needs no introduction: suffice it to say that its enviable reputation as one of the finest English-language novels of all time is fully justified. Scope, emotion, pace, mastery of the language: all of the ingredients for a masterpiece are here, with a perhaps feminine kind of sensitivity to heighten the nuances of awareness, but in no way limited in scope to the feminine experience.
Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (1848)
A magnificently vibrant portrait of the society of the time, the mid-19th Century when England was the most prosperous and industrially advanced country in the world, and of the eternal social comedy, the fair of vanities (the never-ending fair in the wicked town of Vanity referred to in the title was the central theme of John Bunyan’s 17th-Century classic Pilgrim’s Progress), that rings just so true down to our own times.
What a writer, and what a masterpiece! Witty, brilliant, interesting, this saga has scope and scale and fully achieved ambition. One of the undoubted monuments of English literature, certainly one of the two or three most outstanding English novels of the fabulous 19th Century.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
The classic tale of parochial puritanism in a primitive place: pioneer pre-revolutionary America. A powerful portrayal of the practically-irresistible pressure exercised by dominant social attitudes on the individual that is just about as relevant today as ever.
Moby Dick or The Whale by Herman Melville (1851)
Why is there so much talk about the long-awaited Great American Novel? Here it is! Written in a vigorous style peppered with very American humour and a quite unparalleled enthusiasm for his subject, the quality of the text is of the very highest order, complex and rich and highly articulate – perhaps too sophisticated in fact for the American public of the day who practically ignored this novel at the time of its publication in spite of the big successes of his previous books, Typee and Omoo, both about life in the Polynesian islands in the exotic South Seas.
Melville embraces some very deep themes indeed in this epic adventure laced with metaphysical implications, where the ship and its crew become a microcosm of the universe itself and the obsessional pursuit of the White Whale a metaphor of man’s impassioned but probably futile course through life. But the story has its feet firmly on the ground, or rather of the ship-planks, it is infused with a hardly believable energy and drive, its central figure Captain Ahab is as monumental a creation as any in literature, the text is studded with moving and profound and brilliant passages and with many appropriate mythological and biblical references, the dialogues are as real and true to life as can be...
If only Melville had managed to contain his enthusiasm for the subject of whales in general and white whales in particular a bit more by eliminating a number of those long documentary passages which interrupt the narrative so often! But then, that was in a way the style of the time, and Les Misérables and War and Peace, which were both being written at about the same time as Moby Dick, are also full of long documentary chapters that break into the flow of the narrative in the same way.
click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1856)
Charles Bovary struggled with his schooling and then with his medical studies, but has finally obtained his diploma and settles down as a country doctor in a remote Normandy village. Where he still struggles but does manage to find some clients and notably a wealthy farmer whose broken leg he mends and whose lovely young daughter Emma he woos and marries. Emma becomes rapidly disappointed by the mediocre existence that she leads with the mediocre Charles, and even though Charles sets up practice in a larger village closer to the big town of Rouen she is still disappointed with her lot in life and especially with the narrow-mindedness of her still-very-amorous husband, even though a baby daughter has arrived. There is, however a handsome young notary’s clerk who is much closer to her romantic ideals than her husband, there is the high society that she meets at a nobleman’s political ball, and there is a dashing man-of-the-world who has bought a large manor nearby. From then on Emma and the reader concentrate on her existential dilemma and her extra-marital affairs that are so convincingly and understandingly portrayed in this ground-breaking classic of honesty and clarity about marriage and morals and middle-class materialism.
Particularly poignant about Emma and her frustrations and desires, this masterpiece of modern fiction, this almost-miraculous model of finely-chiseled, precise, elegant, harmonious prose is as powerful and relevant and interesting today as when it first so scandalously burst into the world of literature.
Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope (1857)
I had just read beforehand Melville’s great opus Moby Dick, certainly a hard number to follow without coming across as small and trite, but this enthralling work, of a totally different nature, managed the feat.
Helped by a particularly heartfelt preface by John Kenneth Galbraith in the Penguin Classics edition to approach this work in a relaxed, at-peace-with-the-world, unhurried frame of mind, ready to enjoy the fine flavour of that which I was about to receive, I found myself savouring and sipping and smiling at practically every page throughout this quite bewitching story of strife in the Anglican Church in a glorious and ancient and utterly civilized corner of south England baptised Barchester.
A story that subtly is saying things about tolerance and justice and openness to men’s hearts and the virtues of kindness and understanding in an increasingly harsh, competitive, strife-ridden world. And in the most easy and natural prose one can imagine, constantly underpinned with a sense of humour and whimsy at the foibles of the men and women in this imperfect world.
But this being peaceful and civilized Barchester where the gardens are somehow closer to Eden than elsewhere, when I put this wonderful book down I felt that I too had had been touched by its special grace, thanks to the magic of Trollope’s art.
click here for an extract from the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition by John Kenneth Galbraith.
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens (1857)
In this very big and wide-ranging novel Dickens follows his eponymous heroine from the Marshalsea Prison for Debtors in south London, where she had lived for the first twenty-plus years of her life and the first half of the book, across France and Switzerland with her newly-rich family on a Grand Tour to Italy, where she spends a couple of years rubbing shoulders with the hordes of semi-expatriate upper-class English that congregated there at the time — the novel is set in the mid-1820s — and then back to London, where the Marshalsea Prison again features prominently, to deal with the dramatic events and revelations and turns of plot with which the last part of the novel is filled.
This is a riches-to-rags-to-riches-to-rags story featuring anew a wispy, pure, almost impossibly perfect young heroine, here nicknamed Little because she is, at 22, mistaken for a 10-year-old by all and sundry, including the male lead, who only wakes up to the fact that she is marriageable during the last few pages. Her dreamy father had sort of wandered into the Marshalsea prison after squandering his family’s means, without in the least understanding how or why, and had promptly established himself there as a kind of gentleman-guru to be honoured and admired and above all nourished because of the lustre his presence brought to the institution and its inmates, precisely because of his otherworldly, absent-minded way of being somehow superior in a nice, gentlemanly and admirable manner. He is yet another example of Dickens’s genius for creating the most amazingly offbeat but credible and enjoyable-to-read-about secondary characters that is his unmistakable trademark, although Mr. Dorrit is probably the secondary character with the biggest role in any of his novels: nincompoop and irritating and phoney as he may well be, with his endearing absent-minded ways and his gentleman-mania he is nevertheless the one who steals the show here from his eponymous but rather too anonymous daughter.
As is usually the case with Dickens’s novels, which generally feature bland but boring heroes or heroines who are overshadowed by stunningly vivid minor characters, the main interest is provided once again by the multitude of secondary characters who populate its pages, and by its villain, another Dickens strong point. Although here the portrait of the nasty Monsieur Rigaud turns somewhat to caricature in the rush of events at the end, the irresistible magnetic force exuded by this hard, glib and intelligent evil-doer, probably modelled on the celebrated assassin Lacernaire, provides a note of harshness and menace from the very first page onwards that keeps the whole story well centred on the worldly realities that are so foreign to the Dorrit family’s mindset. Although when one thinks of Dickens one thinks mostly of the horde of full-of-life minor characters that are constantly bursting out of his pages, all in all his striking villains contribute at least as much to Dickens’s final stature.
Little Dorrit was the third (and last) of a series of novels sharply critical of various aspects of the England of his time, after the massive Bleak House and Hard Times. Dickens’s social critique here is of a much broader scope than ever before: in sweeping, virulently sarcastic, often bitter tones he takes on a wide range of targets: the bureaucracy of the state in general and the Patent Office procedures for inventors in particular, the arrogance of the aristocracy and their monopoly of the state apparatus, the corrupt and antiquated rotten-borough system of allocating parliamentary seats, the general passion for lucre, the servility and indeed gullibility of one and all towards wealth and social status, and, notably, the unscrupulousness and hollowness of the world of high finance.
click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.
Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov (1859)
If you have ever had trouble getting out of bed in the morning you will appreciate the long first chapter of this marvellous book, wholly devoted to the efforts of our hero Oblomov — whose very name has entered the Russian language to symbolise the somewhat slothful and pleasure-first side of the Russian temperament — to raise himself from a horizontal position to a vertical one so as to get the day off to a start with his morning cup of chocolate. He is surrounded by vigorous, dashing friends and relations, he has a considerable amount of wealth and property and disposes of all the modern amenities imaginable, and he has a splendid opportunity for a most agreeable and advantageous marriage, if only he could get up and go about his business energetically enough.
This is an utterly charming book that in its easy light-hearted way paints a broad canvas of the changing Russia of the mid-19th Century. And Goncharov has created in Oblomov, a friendly and likeable thirty-something nobleman whose passion for the pleasures of the table and for the easy way of life overrides all other considerations, one of the most memorable characters in Russian literature.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1861)
This is Dickens at his very best. A mature work, his penultimate novel, it gets off to a rousing start (the famous encounter of the young Pip with an escaped convict takes place on page 2!), the writing is absolutely sparkling, the characters are finely chiselled and marvellously full of life, and the theme is a large one – this is a Bildungsroman, a tale of youth growing up and learning about life’s ups and downs. So, yes, this is a masterpiece.
Although it is one of his relatively shorter novels, about half the length of most of his other novels as it was written for publication in weekly instalments briefer than the standard (for Dickens) long monthly ones, it makes up for the lack of the more leisurely, sprawling, panoramic atmosphere of his longer works with its pace and its sparkle, and although there are fewer of those wonderful Victorian-Dickensian secondary characters extraneous to the central story line that he had such a special genius for imagining and portraying, they are present here too of course, notably in the persons of the hopelessly honest Mr. Pocket with his turbulent household and the amazingly human – in his private life – notary’s clerk Mr. Wemmick and his aged mother. The prose and dialogues are superb, with many remarkable passages, with a constant touch of gravity beneath the surface as well as a steady tinge of humour of the most charming kind.
So though the romantic ending (which in fact was changed after the manuscript had been completed on the probably misguided urging of his close friend, the renowned author Arthur Lytton-Bulwell) is a bit too convenient to be fully satisfying, the novel as a whole certainly is that and more – an almost perfect example of the art of this great writer at the peak of his powers.
click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.
Les Misérables* by Victor Hugo (1862)
This is a sublime reading experience, without any doubt one of the greatest novels of all time. From start to finish one is swept up by its steady and solidly-sustained pace, by its ambition and scope and universality, by its forceful mix of humanism (the good side of man) and its realism (the down side), by its passion and its power and its drama. And one is moved to the depths by some of the finest pages in all literature, such as the scene where the young Cosette, miserable and cold and terrified of the night and its shadows, alone in the middle of the threatening woods where she is struggling to carry the pail of water she has been sent to fetch by her tormentors, finds the heavy pail suddenly lifted from her hands and the strong hand of Jean Valjean leading her out of the dark into a new life. There are many other passages of exceptional grandeur in this big book, such as Jean Valjean’s life-moulding encounter with Monseigneur Bienvenu in the early stages of the novel, or his flight from the police through the streets of Paris at night, or the barricade battle scenes, or his epic escape through the sewers of Paris, or his final dramatic confrontation with his nemesis, Inspector Javert, and many others, but the key merit of the book is the quality and sheer intrinsic interest of the text: this man was a writer of immense stature.
Hugo was both a novelist and a poet, and there is an ease and fullness and breadth about the text that is the mark of a born master of words – it turns out in effect that his oeuvre contains the largest number of different words of any writer in the history of the French language. So although some have baulked at the long, very long documentary-type chapters – on Waterloo, on the history of Paris convents, on the building of the sewers of Paris, on the construction of barricades in the 1848 revolution (17 years after the events described in the novel!) - that are scattered about the book, most reader-admirers of Les M. find them so engrossing in their own right and so helpful to a heightened appreciation of the key episodes that they introduce that it would be impossible to feel that they would have been best omitted in the way one can easily feel about the big digressions in other major works written practically at the same time, such as the many whale-documentary chapters in Moby Dick and the long Theory of History chapters in War and Peace.
So what is there to criticise? Perhaps Jean Valjean does disappoint us somewhat at the end when he bows down to conventional values and behaviour in his old age, but that is the natural and hardly-condemnable consequence of his obsession with his adopted daughter’s well-being, and I found a certain form of subtle realism in this portrait of a once-towering man declining into as peaceful and strife-free existence as possible in the twilight of his life cycle.
This book just has to be on anyone’s list of the Top n.
Captain Fracasse by Théophile Gautier (1863)
What a novel! Gautier set out to prove with this "cape-and-sword" novel that he could do as well as Dumas in the genre — and how brilliantly he succeeded! The opening scene where a group of weary roving actors ask for shelter in an ancient and almost-abandoned castle is unforgettable, the story line is really good and utterly credible, based as it is for a good part on episodes of the adventurous early career of Molière, there is perhaps the finest swordplay scene in all of literature, the prose is simply masterful; no doubt about it: anyone who has liked The Three Musketeers will love Captain Fracasse. The only possible drawback is that much of its superb literary qualities would be lost in translation…
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1866)
This is a very Russian novel, as the hero Raskolnikov (surely one of the best-known names in all fiction) commits his crime early on and the rest of the novel concentrates on the inner workings of the mind of this articulate, intelligent and almost likeable young man, on his introspective soul-searching and on his intense interaction with his police pursuers. The theme is certainly a big one but to me, even if – perhaps because of the overwhelming presence of the theme in our modern mass media – one can easily feel somewhat detached about the fate and state of mind of a man who has so pitilessly clubbed an old woman to death.
The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope (1867)
This was the sixth and last novel in Trollop’s Barsetshire series, that began with the excellent The Warden and continued with his wonderful masterpiece, Barchester Towers. Surprise and delight, this final and most sober work in the series, on the quite eternal themes of honour and dishonour, of honesty and integrity and social opprobrium, of pride, poverty and self-respect, rises to the glorious heights of Barchester Towers thanks to the sparkle of Trollope’s prose, to his wonderful gift for dialogue, and to his ability to fluidly, precisely, and ever so artfully and subtly delve into the depths of the human soul. What a writer, and what a work!
click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.
The Idiot* by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1868)
I can’t do justice to Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, but I can say that its central figure, Prince Mychkine, is probably the single most moving and unforgettable character that I have ever encountered in fiction, that the central theme of a saintly man subtly challenging by his very integrity the values of his time is immensely powerful, that the very many characters that people this panoramic novel are all vibrantly brought to life by dialogues and descriptions that just could not be better, that there is a special tone of import and intense significance throughout this long novel that maintains it from start to finish on the very highest heights. No, I can not put anything higher than this masterpiece of Russian and world literature.
War and Peace* by Leo Tolstoy (1869)
Written by Tolstoy to mark the 50th anniversary of the invasion of Russia by Napoleon, this massive work (the longest novel ever written, I do believe, if we exclude Proust’s À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, which was published in a number of separate volumes – but then so was W & P) magnificently captures the drama of men and women caught up in the sweep of a major upheaval that dwarfs the individual and his fate in the face of events that can destroy the very basis of the world they live in. Tolstoy paints a very broad canvas – one of the broadest in the history of literature – of people living and loving and longing and working out their individual destinies against the backdrop of a war that threatens the very existence of their nation, and then puts that war itself against the backdrop of the pulsations of the deep forces of History with a capital H to elevate his saga from a Russian drama to the level of the universal.
And there’s the rub – if there is a flaw in the structure of this epic it is in the extraordinarily long digressions of the author into what might be termed the Tolstoyan Theory of History which, it simply cannot be denied, have not passed the test of time and which the modern reader cannot help but feel that they negatively affect the flow of the novel’s narrative and lower the level of the novel’s intensity and its aesthetic impact on the reader.
These long digressions into the Theory of History do it is true consolidate the vastness of the scope of the work and thereby contribute to its lasting status as a work of awesome and achieved ambition, so we must take the chaff – the digressions – with the wheat: the splendours of the main text and the immense force and quality of the writing and the subtlety of the characterisations and the brilliance of the dialogues and of the narrative as a whole.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne (1870)
This remarkable adventure story with a strong scientific-exploration bent has somehow retained its credibility and readability so many years later in spite of the phenomenal advances made since Verne’s day in engineering and natural science, thanks to his unerring talent for creating drama and excitement at the wonders of nature and the unlimited perspectives for scientific and technological progress. And above all thanks to his knack for telling a marvellous story with pace and enthusiasm and a complete mastery of language. Everyone young and old should read this remarkably imaginative and well-told story, the (great) grandfather of the science-fiction genre.
Middlemarch by George Eliot (1872)
Almost oddly, this big (800+ pages), complex, ambitious, very sophisticated novel is set in an almost claustrophobic provincial setting, where its great strength – the sharpness and intelligence of the dialogues and the conversations – are, it seems to me, somewhat dampened by the just-about-mediocre or at least typically-provincial qualities of the main characters and their environment. I cannot help feeling that a London setting with the sparkle of the big town and its more elitist, cosmopolitan, sophisticated atmosphere, could have been a more fitting environment for Eliot’s intellectual brilliance and meditations on mores and ethics. But there is much, an awful lot in fact, to be thankful for here, in addition to the generally elevated tone of the thinking and talking and writing; for example, one of the most striking characters in all English fiction, the university professor Casaubon, who will forever epitomise for Eliot readers the casuistry and pedantry of the over-specialized academic.
click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.
The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne (1875)
A terrific adventure story, a great theme (man against the elements), an optimistic, faith-in-mankind’s-possibilities outlook, elegant prose: this modernised version of a Robinson Crusoe tale is surely the master’s finest work. A must read for any youngster around the age of fourteen or so, and for the others too.
L’Assommoir (The Knock-Out Café), by Emile Zola (1877)
An in-depth exploration of the lifestyle and existential quandary of poor people living in the working-class slums in the north of Paris at the height of the Belle Epoque, during the reign of Napoleon III in the 1850s and 1860s, when the whole of Paris was rapidly being turned upside-down — “gentrified” in modern parlance — by the Industrial Revolution in general and the massive redesign of the city by the Baron Haussmann in particular. One follows the central, rather handsome and initially likeable young couple as they court, get married, work, prosper somewhat, have children, and then succumb to the pitfalls of their environment, notably alcohol and the difficulty of making ends meet, as they follow their destiny to its quasi-inevitable final decline into degradation and misery of the most basic, almost inhumanly bestial nature.
Recounted in a smoothly-flowing, no-fuss style with the vibrant Parisian dialect (“argot”) of its protagonists, not only in the dialogues, as in modern attempts to use that living language in literature, but also and even especially in the prose passages and accounts of the mental processes of its protagonists, complete with a number of quite unforgettable scenes – the wedding feast, the final fate of the young girl next door, the heroine’s desperate search for something to eat at the end — this is an astonishingly modern, original and finally powerful work of literature that is also a precious testimony of the social conditions of its time. It was the first of the master’s great masterpieces, a tremendous popular success that catapulted its author to the heights of literary fame in France, and elsewhere.
Anna Karenina* by Leo Tolstoy (1877)
Anna Karenina and Vronsky, Levin and Kitty, the Prince Oblonsky and Dolly – these are characters that literature is made of, characters that rise up out of these marvellous pages to become as real and as full of life and passion and the drama of life’s experience as any of the people who populate our memories. The characters in this sweeping novel have depth and scope, the central drama of Anna’s passion is as key to the human experience as can be, the background setting (of mounting economic change threatening the very foundations of the timeless way of life in the Russian countryside, so essential to the very soul of that vast country) is as portentous and significant as any could be, and the prose and the dialogues are of the highest possible order: this novel has everything!
If only Tolstoy could have left off his mania for preaching and spared us the too-long political-economical digressions on his theories about how to reform Russian agriculture, this novel would have been as close (if not closer) to perfection as any novel ever written since time began. But maybe it is anyway...
The Brothers Karamazov* by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1880)
Is this Dostoyevsky’s greatest book? Hard to say in view of the competition but it very well could be. In any case it constantly sent shivers of aesthetic emotion down my spine with the power of its writing and the scope of its themes and the grandeur of many of its scenes, in a way that Crime and Punishment did not. Although some of the Slavophile and religious scenes are hard to relate to for a modern-day non-Russian, the overwhelming impression that this massive monument leaves one with is awe at the sheer beauty and force of the text and the heights which this masterpiece attains and maintains itself at.
Nana by Emie Zola (1880)
A superbly rich, swiftly-flowing, realistic and yet somehow lyrical account of the rise and fall and rise and fall of an almost-irresistible woman of the sordid streets who flaunts her boisterous body at men – and women! – of all strata of society, especially those of the wealthy, aristocratic or financial worlds from whom she can extract the unceasing flow of money and properties she needs to satisfy her endless whims and follies and burning desire to be admired and acclaimed and, yes, respected in spite of her origins and flamboyant style. In a forceful denunciation of the corrupt mores and values of the bourgeois-clerical and still-somewhat-aristocratic upper classes of society of the Third Empire under Napoleon III shortly before its downfall in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War (we are in 1867) that he so despised, Zola treats us from the start to a rousing sequence of spectacular and brilliantly-narrated scenes of Nana’s spectacular theatrical début, of the memorable and very Belle Epoque feast our heroine throws the next day to celebrate her forthcoming notoriety, of her intensely active what we might euphemistically call love life (this book is all about a three-letter word that starts with s and ends with x), of her follies, of her fall into the depths of Parisian low life, of her rapid return to the world of the wealthy, of her quite fabulous social and financial success at the Grand Prix racetrack, of her final extravagances, of her disappearance (like several of the most famous courtesans of the time) into the wilds of the Orient, and of her final return to the scene of her past glories and her tragic end. Told with brio and force, this sweeping narrative is not just an in-depth and amazingly frank analysis of the sexual mores and attitudes and complexes of the men and women of the time, it is a masterpiece of the highest order that rises above its first naturalistic-sociological level to attain the heights of a literary monument of universal interest.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
One of the best books for younger readers ever written, this reread gave me just about as much enjoyment as when I first read it a zillion years ago. The writing is taut and the story moves along steadily at a nice pace, the bad guys are really well done – for once, unlike the current mythology, pirates are not portrayed as romantic rebels or gentlemen of fortune revelling in their marginal ways while battling for freedom against the establishment, but mostly as the savage cut-throat scum that they really were - and we meet one of the outstanding characters in all fiction I would say, I am referring of course to the extraordinarily resourceful, capable, likeable and dangerous Long John Silver, who actually gets away at the end! What a shame that Stevenson didn’t write a sequel about what he got up to next...
But then Bjorn Larsson did do just that with his most interesting (although with a way too pro-pirate bent for my taste) novel Long John Silver, a fictionalised autobiography of our bad hero supposedly written at the end of his long and adventurous life, where Larsson imagines not only the sequel to TI but also the prelude to it, featuring Captain Flint (so often referred to in TI) and explaining how the famous treasure ended up where it did and how and why the map got drawn and so on.
In any case my not very original but firmly-held lifelong feeling about this book was confirmed by this reread: anyone who has not read this book around the age of 12 years or so has missed something important in the growing-up experience!
Au Bonheur des dames by Emile Zola (1883)
A panoramic docu-novel examining in parallel the spectacular impact of the great department stores that revolutionized the retail commerce of the time (the novel is set in the 1860s when the great stores Le Printemps, Le Bon Marché and the Le Louvre were founded) and the career of a penniless young woman struggling to survive with integrity in the brave new world of modern commerce. In a sweeping, very precise and often very lyrical panorama the novel investigates both the devastating impact on small shops of the big new store (“Woman’s Delight”) of the title and the professional and private lives of the men and women working under the dynamic and innovative leadership of its owner, the ambitious Octave Moreau, whose earlier career had been followed in Pot-Bouille, the previous novel in Zola’s monumental saga Les Rougon-Macquart. A carefully-crafted novel centred on the difficult but ultimately rewarding career of its excessively-likeable feminine hero with a will of her own, Denise, and her tense but somehow magnetic relationship with the powerful and equally determined Octave. A particularly interesting sociological study in the framework of an excessively convincing novel.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
Mark Twain’s masterpiece, his sequel to Tom Sawyer, this time written directly for an adult public, where Huck recounts at first hand his harrowing "river trip" down the Mississippi River after escaping from the clutches of his ultra-violent, brutish father (!) into the heartland of the Deep South (!!) with an escaped black slave (!!!).
The scenes of everyday violence in the frontier towns of the Far South are as striking, I would even say hair-raising, to us today as they must have appeared to be to the East Coast readers of Twain’s time for whom he was writing.
An epic adventure tale with a very hard undertone that highlights Twain’s compassion for the weak and the oppressed, conveyed throughout this ambitious work in the heavy vernacular prose and dialogues of Huck and his black companion.
click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.
Germinal by Emile Zola (1885)
A sweeping social, sociological and political kaleidoscope of the industrial civilization of the 19th Century at its height and in its depths, set in the coal mines in the north of France where ten thousand workers – men and women (the novel is set in the 1860s, when women were routinely employed in the mines) – work in quite terrifyingly insecure and unhygienic conditions to keep the far-off, anonymous share-holders of the mines in well-fed comfort and prosperity. When the company decides to cut costs by lowering the pay of the workers there is a massive revolt with its flood of passion, hatred and bloody violence that just seems to pour out of this magnificent overview of the life of the miners and their families: their work hundreds of meters below ground, their living conditions, their promiscuity, their lives and deaths and conflicts and crimes – there are three murders, a mob lynching and many other deaths in the course of the novel – as well as their politics and their ideological convictions and their struggles to organise and resist oppression in those fearsome times.
Not by any means just a (very powerful) sociological and ideological statement – the author leaves no doubt about his radical sympathies – but above all a lyrical panorama of the society of the time, written with great strength and power of evocation. Without a doubt one of the master’s finest and most influential and enduring works.
Hunger by Knut Hamsun (1890)
This was the great Norwegian writer’s first novel published under his own name – and what a novel! No doubt somewhat autobiographical, it describes the fight against hunger of a penniless young journalist-writer in the poverty-stricken northern Norwegian town of Christiana who is slowly starving to death for want of food. His fight against the pangs of hunger and his whole relationship with life via the need for nourishment is described in a most effective factual and laconic way that carries all the more weight because of its understatement tone. Never before or since has the vital act of eating been explored in such a powerful, profound way. This is a book both for weight-watchers – if he can get by with so little food for so long, why can’t I cut down a bit? - and gourmets, who are sometimes almost as passionate about the act of eating as the hero of this book. An enriching experience indeed.
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1895)
Hardy’s last novel, a forceful, wide-ranging overview of the social foibles of the late Victorian society (we are in the 1880s in the south of England and in Oxford) as Hardy saw them, notably: a) the class barriers preventing labouring-class young people from being admitted into institutions of higher learning; b) the rigidity of the marriage institution, whereby people are forced by law and by intense social pressures to live out the rest of the days with what often turns out to be an unsuitable not to say worse kind of person; c) the intolerance of society in general and organized religion in particular towards extramarital sex and towards children born out of wedlock. The generally-unfavourable reaction provoked at the time by this iconoclastic view of Victorian social mores, not to mention his own wife’s reaction to this outspoken denunciation of the marriage institution, caused Hardy to renounce novel writing (he was fifty-five years old, in the prime of his creative life) and to publish only poetry for the remaining 33 years of his long life.
Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (1896)
Fontane was an extremely prolific writer of novels, short stories, poetry, articles, travel diaries, letters and just about everything else – he wrote almost non-stop every day – who only wrote his first novel at the ripe old age of fifty-nine. Like all the rest of his oeuvre (notably his celebrated five-volume travel journal Wanderings in Brandenburg), this novel, his last and most famous, analyses the mores and the mindset of the traditional aristocratically-minded Prussian society struggling, ultimately unsuccessfully, to maintain its status and moral standards in the face of the rise to pre-eminence of the more commercially-minded and dynamic (and – oh horror – sometimes Jewish) middle class. In an elegant but straightforward way we follow the title heroine as she gets involved in an almost-inevitable adulterous relationship with a brilliant and attractive officer friend of the family and has to face the terrible consequences of her flouting of the rules of the established society in the essentially agriculture-oriented, traditional Prussia of her day. Sensitive, beautifully written, Fontane’s fine intellect and penetrating insights into human nature implicate us in the tensions of this intense social drama in as subtle and artful a way as could be desired.
Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (1900)
The saga of the rise and fall of a family in the Hanseatic (Baltic) town of Lübeck, written when Mann was only 25, an enormous best-seller at the time and afterwards. Splendidly recounting in many memorable chapters and passages – notably an unforgettable chapter about a catastrophic day at school of the young Hanno Buddenbreooks – the ups and especially downs of a once-distinguished and wealthy family, this masterwork was cited by the jury as the main reason for awarding the distinguished author of The Magic Mountain the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929.
The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler (1903)
Should a novel – or any other work of art for that matter – be judged on the strength and validity of its ideas and convictions? I think not. Should it be judged on the energy and vitality and drama and emotion that the author manages to provoke and portray and evoke? Of course, and on those scores this original, iconoclastic and undeniably powerful work rates very highly indeed. Although generally classified as a 20th Century novel in view of its posthumous publication in 1903, one year after Butler’s death, it was actually written in the 1870s and completely finished by 1884, so it is in fact yet another great literary creation of that extraordinarily rich high-water period of literary and artistic achievement, the European 19th Century.
The subject and ideas – the hypocrisy and injustice and even repulsiveness of a bourgeois-Victorian upbringing based on strict (too strict, practically inhumanly strict) Christian values – are sufficiently wide-ranging and important and, one could say, so much in tune with 21st Century thinking on these themes to fully engage the interest of today’s reader, even though the intensity of the issues involved has largely abated. But the erudition and the wit, the humour and the sharpness and the intensity of the author’s style are still all palpably there and make this one of the major literary accomplishments of its time, without a doubt.
I Am a Cat by Natsumé Soseki (1905)
The narrator is a very cocksure cat, quite convinced of his superiority over all and sundry, notably over the University of Tokyo professor (we are in 1912 or so) whose house he shares. The weaker moments of the prestigious professor when being browbeaten by his wife or when engaging in foolish banter with his friends and colleagues are scornfully disparaged by the cat-narrator (who of course perfectly understands human language and behaviour patterns) throughout the book quite pitilessly.
This is an ingenious and extremely brilliant analysis, seen from the inside by an alert and informed but quasi-invisible bystander, of the workings of a Japanese society that had hoisted itself to world-class status in practically all spheres of endeavour (notably industrial, military and scientific) after over forty years of intense modernisation and catching up on Western civilization. With considerable profundity, with much subtle exploration of the Japanese psyche, with an extraordinarily effective and powerful ending, and with much humour too, I just cannot help considering this book as being one of the finest masterpieces of its time.
Botchan by Natsumé Soseki (1906)
This is a novel that can be enthusiastically recommend to anyone who is a teacher or who has teachers in his/her family or who knows teachers or who has had a teacher who was once a rookie – yes, everyone!, as this is the account of the experiences of a young teacher straight out of university, sent on his first assignment to a remote village location. We are in 1905 and the Russo-Japanese War is vaguely getting under way in the background, and hostilities are also breaking out in Botchan’s classroom and school-yard and threatening to get out of control. How Botchan survives this experience and transmits his humanity and respect for knowledge to his pupils – and to the reader – just has to be read to be properly understood. This little book is a sheer masterpiece, on an eternal and essential theme.
The Marvellous Voyage of Nils Holgersson by Selma Lagerlof (1907)
The journey of a young boy all around Sweden on the back of a wild goose at the turn of the 20th Century, a modern classic justly famous throughout Scandinavia and elsewhere, celebrating the call of the far-off and the love of the land. Heart-warming and timeless, and not by any means only for young people.
To be read in an edition with the full saga, unlike many early foreign-language editions that had previously cut out so many bits on the grounds that they were too literary for young people.
Sumida River by Nagai Kafu (1909)
This very short novel is an intensely poetic evocation of the intellectual and moral atmosphere of Japan towards the end of the Meiji epoch after over 40 years of intense modernisation and importation of Western techniques and methods into all spheres of public and private life. In less than a hundred pages the author powerfully brings to life not only the clash between traditional Japanese values and the harsh and often negative aspects of the ever-encroaching Western influences sweeping that ancient land, but also the look and feel of life in the ancient quarter of Tokyo, the mythical atmosphere of the Sumida river at night, the febrile ambience in a Kabuki theatre, the aesthetic impact of a Hiroshige etching, the fleeting charm of a haiku poem, the importance of a new-bloomed cherry blossom, and much, much more.
A masterwork of modern literature.
À La Recherche du Temps Perdu* by Marcel Proust (1913-27)
Marcel Proust’s great opus was conceived as one vast cathedral-like structure comprising what evolved over time into seven separately-published novels: Du côté de chez Swann (1913), A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleur (1918 – awarded the Goncourt Prize in 1919), Le côté de Guermantes (1921), Sodom et Gomorrhe (1922), La Prisonnière (1923), La Fugitive (1925) and Le Temps retrouvé (1927), the last three volumes having been published posthumously after Proust’s death in 1922.
The charm sets in from the famous first sentence onwards, and never abates throughout: when this great master of language turns his scrutiny upon an object it is transformed forever in the reader’s mind – a doorknob will almost systematically evoke for me the Narrator’s youthful anguish waiting for his mother’s treasured night-time visits, a church steeple inevitably brings to mind the massive spire dominating the town of Combray, a piece of cake will evoke the Narrator’s madeleine and his incessant mental efforts to recapture the essence of time gone by, a piece of music the absolutely sublime description of the Sonata of Vinteuil, and almost any painting will remind me of the celebrated passage where Swann contemplates a simple small square of yellow paint in Vermeer’s View of Delft.
This unequalled word-mastery, this gift of the gods, is never misused for its own sake in a show of lexical pyrotechnics, but systematically employed to slowly and patiently but effectively and irresistibly build, splendid page after splendid page and superb chapter after superb chapter, a literary monument of unparalleled force and beauty.
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
This is a quite amazing literary tour de force - but is it more, much more than that? A number of things are clear. First and foremost, one cannot begin to have a chance to understand what is going on without an extensive critical apparatus and copious footnotes. Secondly, this book has an experimental, let’s-see-what-can-be-done-with-words side to it which was very much in tune with the questioning drive for innovation and experimentation in art, music and literature that dominated intellectual and artistic Europe at the time of its conception during the apocalyptic adolescence, the teen-age, of the 20th Century. Thirdly that this experimental mode of expression is an impressive demonstration of the author’s phenomenal mastery of language, but fourthly that he seems so determined to show just what he can do – one thinks for example of the fifty-odd pages of successive parodies of Swift, Addison, Goldsmith and other 18th Century writers that, even with the help of scholarly notes to explain who is being caricatured when, cannot help but leave the reader utterly bewildered – that one cannot escape the feeling that one has had too much of a good thing and that the overall architecture of the novel has become so clouded over that it has become hidden from sight. Fifthly, that the background theme announced by its title, that has always been an essential part of the novel’s aura of intellectual grandeur, whereby Stephan Bloom’s wanderings around Dublin on a certain day in 1905 echo the voyages of Homer’s hero around the mythical Mediterranean, is basically invisible to readers who – with the possible exception of professors of English and ancient Greek literature at elite universities – are quite incapable of detecting the minutest links between the Bloom’s peregrinations around diverse Dublin dives and Ulysses’s epic odyssey. Sixthly that all in all this is an incredibly rich, complex work that applies an immense culture to explore brilliantly the expressive resources of language (one thinks of Molly Bloom’s celebrated stream-of-consciousness internal monologue) and to uncover significance in the seemingly straightforward banality of the everyday human experience.
The Magic Mountain* by Thomas Mann (1924)
Reading this extraordinary book is an unforgettable experience. No one who has read this masterpiece can ever forget the young Hans Castorp’s visit to a sanatorium nestled high in the Swiss mountains where he meets and becomes so intensely involved with its cosmopolitan patients from all over Europe, especially the tantalizingly mysterious Clawdia Chauchat, her explosive protector Mynheer Peeperkorn, and the impetuous philosopher Settembrini. Their encounters and discussions and intense relationships have an epic tonality that permeates the novel and creates an aura of significance that leaves the reader profoundly shaken and moved by the exceptional scope of this magnificently-written book with its vast themes of life and death and health and sexuality and passion and search for meaning.
Many of its scenes are particularly unforgettable: the day where Hans gets lost in a blinding snowstorm on a mountain top and has an almost mystical vision, the Walpurgis Night encounter with Clawdia when all constraints are lifted for one intensely-lived night, his confrontations with the extraordinary personality of Meinheer Peeperkorn and his intense conversations with M. Settembrini are some of the most remarkable scenes that I have ever read.
One is a different person after having read this magical book.
The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)
Kafka’s masterful account of the struggle of Mr. Average Citizen with the state apparatus, written in 1912 but never completed and published posthumously in 1925. But can a book like this about the difficulty if not the impossibility of communication in the modern world ever be finished? Kafka opened up the whole field of absurdity and incommunicability in modern literature with this theme and with the detached mock-realist style of this seminal work.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
All that glitters is not gold… This sparkling tale of the brilliant social life in the Long Island of the glittering Twenties makes good reading indeed for those non-socialites among us for whom the rich, handsome, elegant, cultured, and mysterious eponymous (war-)hero would be quite insupportable if he had turned out to really be all those American-dreamy good things with no redeeming awfulnesses to get him back down nearer to our lowly level.
The story reads for the most part in its relaxed narrative way like a New Yorker story for sophisticated suburbanites which it just might have been at some point, but it somehow develops a deeper tone as it starts getting behind the surface shine and broadens its scope and widens its significance in a most effective and even moving way.
The author captures with his casual but sophisticated style the glamour and punch of a jazzy nouveau-riche age that indelibly marked the imagination of America and the world, making this short novel undoubtedly one of the most interesting and enduring American novels of the century.
The Death Ship by B. Traven (1926)
This extraordinary account of the life and hardships of a penniless but very articulate and anti-establishmentarian not to say revolutionary sailor in the chaotic post-WW1 world of the twenties was first published as Das Totenschiff in Germany in 1926 under the pen-name of B. Traven. It was translated into English by its mysterious author himself in 1934.
It’s a fascinating, hard-to-put down epic about the quite unbelievably bad working conditions of vagrant workers at the bottom on the social ladder practically forced to accept work on the myriad of broken-down tramp steamers of the time. Written in an earthy, no-holds-barred and often highly creative language, it’s liberally infused with humour and sarcastic comments on bureaucracy, nationalism, capitalism and the working-class condition in general and on passports, identity papers and food and sleep – or rather the lack thereof – in particular.
The author of this remarkable book was later discovered to (probably) be Otto Feige (1882-1969) aka Ref Marut, an adventurous German mechanic, actor and sailor who had emigrated to Mexico in the early twenties under a series of aliases and initiated there an eventually very successful writing career, particularly after the release in 1948 of John Huston’s Academy Award-winning film version of his novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre starring Humphrey Bogart.
Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) by Ernest Hemingway (1927)
Fiesta was Hemingway’s first major novel, better known under its later title The Sun Also Rises. It’s set essentially in the Paris of 1924 and in Pamplona, Spain, during the 7-day bullfight fiesta there.
The narrator is an American journalist-writer based in Paris (like Hemingway) who had participated in the first World War on the Austro-Italian front (like Hemingway), where he was wounded in a way most unfortunate for his future love-life (unlike Hemingway, at least not physically). He spends most of his time in Paris wandering around the bars, brasseries, restaurants and nightspots where the Anglo-Saxon expatriate community then tended to congregate, where he constantly crosses paths with a former amour Lady Brett Ashley, an upper-class English sophisticate who lives on her wit and name, not to say her charms. He meets up with her again in Pamplona where he has gone with two friends to participate in the festivities there, centred on the then-not-as-famous-as-it-is-now bull-run through the city streets and a climactic bullfight, magnificently described.
For the first part of the book the narrator thus wanders around his favourite city, constantly meeting up with acquaintances with whom he shares conversations and drinks, and then moves along on his seemingly endless and possibly aimless search for... something that he does not articulate and that the author leaves unspecified. And the atmosphere of that existential search is expressed in an original, systematic, exercise-de-style kind of way.
Does that not remind us of something? Yes, this is decidedly reminiscent of Steven Dedalus’s day of roaming around the Dublin of 1905 in Ulysses. Hemingway was certainly familiar with Joyce’s epic work, published in Paris in 1922 by the only English-language bookstore in the city at that time, Shakespeare & Co, where he met and became good friends with Joyce. Was Hemingway interested in emulating Joyce’s idea of experimenting with language forms in a new way, in tune with the drive for technical experimentation then so predominant in other art forms? This consideration does tend to reinforce the interest of this important work, in my humble opinion.
The narrator being American, the vague à l’âme of the "lost generation" is copiously nourished by alcohol in almost every possible variety. And copious is hardly an appropriate word for the quantities that get routinely consumed morning, noon and night. Is the determined, aggressive drinking, often culminating in crude rows and in one case serious fisticuffs, an expression of the désœuvrement of the Lost Generation, or the cause of it, one might wonder? It is in any case impressive, bordering on the extravagant: for example, in the final goodbye dinner the narrator has already personally gotten through three bottles of fine wine before ordering another two for dessert for his ladylove (who sips a bit) and himself!
In any case, this is a story about disenchantment, told in a turgid, abrupt, bare style that effectively evokes the sparse mental horizons of the participants and the existential angst of the narrator, a style particularly well suited to the straightforward tell-it-like-it-is American-way-of-being of the main protagonists. It must have seemed strikingly original at the time. Sentences are very short. The narrator recounts in minute detail his most mundane activities. He gets out of bed and shaves. He crosses the street to the café. He has a café and croissant and goes to the office. We are light-years away from Oblomov, where it takes Goncharov an entire chapter to describe his hero’s efforts to get out of bed in the morning! But though the novelty of the style has now worn off (as has been the case with Joyce’s stylistic extravagances), Hemingway’s understatement-style is as effective as ever in engaging the reader to go beyond and beneath the surface narrative to empathise with the profound existential concerns being addressed.
And while literary life in Paris of the 1920s is an interesting subject, and women, wine and wondering about the meaning of life are important, there are nevertheless really significant things to be dealt with – such as bullfighting! That is the overriding theme of the last and very successful part of this novel. The mounting excitement in the air before the start of the fiesta, the religious processions which underline the higher significance of the event, the exhilaration, festivity and solidarity of the spectators, the solemnity of the occasion, the danger and blood and gore (human and animal) that are shed during various phases of the week-long ceremonial are tremendously well conveyed. This escapade to exotic Pamplona provides a striking contrast to the existential ennui experienced everywhere else by the narrator, and nicely prepares the elegant dénouement in the final chapter.
A modern must.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, (1929)
This striking novel is certainly a tour de force, written largely – as one eventually ends up realising – from the viewpoint of a mentally retarded youth in the back-lands of the deep South, in a stream-of-consciousness mode that most effectively transcribes what one can very well imagine to be the thought processes of a deranged mind.
But does a spectacular technical display of great originality make for a great work of art? On the whole, I would say not. The subject matter though – the mindset of the southern USA man (we are in the thirties, the height of the Dark Ages down in those there parts in the days when Mississippi and Louisiana had more in common with the banana republics southwards than with the rest of the US of A northwards) - is of enormous interest and significance and there are some superb passages in the more straightforward parts, notably the all-too-short chapter where the black folk make their way to Sunday church to listen to a famous guest preacher, whose absolutely fabulous address to the congregation, one of the finest pages in all of American literature I would say, cannot fail to send shivers of emotion down the most hardened reader’s spine. I mean, you are there, man, in that church packed out with that big crowd of local people as spell-bound as they are, and you are beginning to understand what it’s all about, and why this is an important book...
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh (1930)
An extremely brilliant, and at times extremely funny, novel set in the frantic pleasure-seeking period immediately after the First World War, peopled with Bright Young Things dressed and behaving and thinking about things in general and partying in particular as never before. Although Waugh’s book can be read as a sort of social document on the mores and attitudes of a brilliant, innovative, thrusting decade bursting with a desire to live life to the hilt (before another catastrophe occurred?) that stands out in the European and American imagination in a way that few decades before or after have ever done, it is a complex work with a number of interleaving themes that cannot be so simply classified as a sort of period drama. The sex referred to in the title, which is part of the image we retain of those outlandish and daring times when it first became the over-riding public topic that it still is in our own times almost a century later, is certainly present but only in a smooth understatement kind of way as the party-going and satisfaction-seeking Bright Young Things (a term first coined I do believe in this novel and which instantaneously entered the language to categorise the frenetic young socialites who came to symbolise the new spirit of that post-war age) try to sort out their relationships and find their way in the world. Above and beyond the (fascinating) subject matter of this outstanding book I appreciated especially the smooth, elegant, classy prose and dialogues of this very gifted writer.
Voyage au bout de la nuit* by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1932)
The narrator Bardamu gets sucked up in the enthusiasm of the early days of the First World War, gets rapidly disillusioned, unexpectedly survives a suicidal mission to which he has been casually assigned, deserts, escapes through southern France to Africa, hides in a jungle populated by the most terrifying insects I have ever read about, goes to New York where he scrounges around a while before getting a job in a gigantic car factory in Detroit, and manages to wend his way back to the most glaucous urban environment in the world, the Paris working-class suburbs of the early Depression days, where he opens up shop as a doctor catering to the health needs of his not-very-attractive and hopelessly-penniless neighbours and clients – and we have now covered less than a third of this magnificent masterpiece, and the voyage referred to in the superbly expressive title can really begin.
Much more though than for its acerbic and everlastingly valid social comment, or for its brilliant portrayal of the hugely significant subjects broached (wartime desertion, colonialism in Africa, factory life in America, the desolation of the 20th-century urban landscape), this book rises to the very highest heights above all on the strength of its extraordinarily innovative and powerful language. Apart from his masterful ear for the rhythm of the spoken tongue and his gift for snappy sayings and his innate word-mastery, Céline with this book brought language as it is spoken on the streets and in the slums into the realm of literature in a way that has often been imitated since but never equalled. The only downside is that it cannot really be properly appreciated in translation, but that is hardly Céline’s fault.
One of the great monuments of modern literature, beyond any doubt.
A Glastonbury Romance* by John Cowper Powys (1932)
This is a big, towering novel that left me stunned with its scope and ambition and above all the force of its magnificent prose. Set in the ancient numinous town of Glastonbury with its venerable ruins and aura of mystery and memories of pagan beliefs, the central figure is preparing a Passion Play as part of a plan to restore Glastonbury to its former position as one of the great spiritual centres of the world, while an industrial magnate plans for industrialisation and modernisation of the city. In this story of conflict between the spiritual and the material Powys creates a timeless epic enfolding the distant and mysterious past – the Celts and pre-Celts, the Romans and the immemorial Grail of Glastonbury and its newer Christian significance – with the passions of the present and the portents of the future to build a work of cosmic proportions.
Powys is one of the greatest masters ever of the English language: his full, rich, smoothly flowing, expressive and inventive prose makes every page a delight to read, particularly the tremendously effective and vibrantly alive dialogues (often in the vernacular of the south-west of England) and the quite amazingly beautiful and intense descriptive passages, and he has a way of placing people in a large, very large perspective, as if we were viewing them and their actions and thoughts through an instantaneous telescope from a far-off planet, that constantly reinforces the dimensions of the work in the reader’s mind.
A treat is in store for those who have not yet had the pleasure and excitement of reading this very special novel.
The Radetsky March by Joseph Roth (1932)
A large, sweeping saga of the social rise and fall of three generations of the newly-ennobled Trotta family in the Austro-Hungarian empire over the 80-odd years preceding the final catastrophe that ended the world as it was and really ushered in the new and terrible 20th century, the First World War. Set mostly in various outer reaches of that multinational, far-flung proto-European empire, in what are today Slovenia, the Czech Republic and the Ukraine, the sense of impending decline and doom assumes ever more tragic overtones as the novel approaches its end and the news from Sarajevo and elsewhere sets the wheels of war and ethnic-national conflicts in motion. With a touch more emotion and with central characters easier to relate to than the feeble Trotta tribe, this would have been an absolute masterpiece; it remains a fascinating study of a bygone epoch that saw change of unprecedented proportions invade every sphere of industrial, cultural and social activity.
Autodafé (Die Blendung) by Elias Canetti (1935)
A book about books, and one man’s over-riding passion for books, and book collecting, that is itself a whirlwind of words that swirl around the reader to sweep him effortlessly along to the final paroxysm of an ending that leaves one quite breathless with admiration for the force and power of this exceptional book.
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (1937)
A remarkable fantasy tale full of adventure, excitement and drama, particularly well-written and particularly creative, one of the classics of its age and all ages for the younger generation and others too.
The forerunner of the later three-volume Lord of the Rings cycle, much darker, more military-minded and more on the outer limit of the fantasy world here created.
The Master and Margarita* by Mikhail Bulgakov (1939)
Words fail me when it comes to this monument of modern Russian literature – this extraordinary book probably has to be read in Russian to be fully appreciated, but it is so original and interesting and stimulating and moving, it rises to such heights of significance and aesthetic emotion that it floats above the language barrier like Shelley’s skylark winging its way ever higher and higher. I fortunately read this masterpiece in a remarkable edition with extensive footnotes to explain the vast number of literary, historical and geographical references that are so important to properly appreciate the finesse and depth of the text.
On the Marble Cliffs by Ernst Jünger (1939)
Jünger’s great poetical novel, set in a mythical and deformed but recognisable Europe, about the desperate and probably-doomed struggle of the forces of enlightenment to defend civilization against the forces of destruction and inhumanity surging out of Europe’s dark forests that are led by a charismatic, utterly determined leader known as the Great Forester. In spite of Jünger’s immense prestige as one of Germany’s most decorated First World War veterans and author of the war classic Storm of Steel (In Stahlgewittern, literally: In Steel Storms), it required great courage on his part to publish this book in the Germany of 1939.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
Told in a straightforward, low-key, unflowery American kind of way, this tale of suffering and strife in the depression days in the dust bowl and in the orchards of California is an American classic that has magnificently passed the test of time.
Casanova in Bolzano by Sandor Marai (1940)
A particularly gifted writer – one of those who always seems to find exactly the right words to say what he or his characters want to express in the most harmonious and flowing way possible – on a huge and timeless theme: the seduction a man exercises on a woman and vice-versa. As in Arthur Schnitzler’s superb story Casanova’s Journey Home on the same theme published 30 years earlier, the author explores the mindset of the most celebrated womaniser of all time after his spectacular escape from Venice’s central Fenice prison over St. Mark’s Square. From a superb opening scene where Casanova surprises a group of servant girls spying on him through the keyhole of his hotel room through to the sweeping and dramatic final encounter with a past but never-forgotten conquest, the novel unfolds in a series of conversation-encounters like an extended theatre play.
Writing of the highest order, a terrific subject, drama and emotion: what more can one ask for?
L’Etranger (The Stranger) by Albert Camus (1942
This is the book that put Camus on the literary map. A universal subject (the outsider who just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the world), an original stream-of-consciousness approach and a concise, ultra-simplified style set this masterful account of an everyday tragedy with universal overtones quite apart. This is no doubt a great novel, although its distinctive, oversimplified style — so pertinent to the mindset of the main protagonist — borders somewhat on the showy exercise de style, see-what-I-can-do approach that may not be to everyone’s taste.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945)
A faultless, frankly brilliant and subtly nostalgic evocation of the life of the upper circles in England before the social upheavals of the Second World War and the disappearance of their way of life, by one of England’s most outstanding writers of the 20th century.
La Peste by Albert Camus (1946)
Camus’s great portrayal of a community – the inhabitants of the European sector of the city of Oran in Algeria – struggling to survive a sudden and deadly menace to their very existence. A parable of the struggle against the forces of destruction in all their forms, the strong moral and existential questioning that runs through the book is expressed with detachment, via brilliant dialogues and monologues, in a calm but impassioned manner that multiplies the effect and power of this grandiose work.
Camus manages to rise above the dramatic political and historical conflicts of his time to create a work of art that has as powerful an impact on the reader of today as it must have had at the time of its initial publication in 1946, although the outspoken humanist denunciation at one point of the crimes of means-justifies-the-ends resistance fighters was not at all well received, to put it mildly, by the pro-Party arbiters of literary taste at the time.
Under The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947)
Mescaline misery in Mexico: not a particularly easy read, this stunning description of decline into despair is quite overwhelmingly powerful. A major reading experience, written by an inspired master of the language. But a master who is not constantly showing off what he can do with words like a certain Irish writer I could name – one who uses all the resources of the English language not just to transport you to the dry desolate depressed and depressing back-lands of Mexico in a timeless setting that could very well be the Depression days of the thirties when Lowry lived there, but to make you feel and live the heat and the despair and the whirling, wondrous relief that the expatriate European self-exile experiences while he downs yet another glass of mescaline on his descent into oblivion.
Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz (1947)
Life in the rougher part of Cairo in the thirties told by a master of the delicate touch, a master of the art of story-telling who brings vibrantly to life the whole kaleidoscopic panorama of that unique city with ease and elegance.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
A biting satire of the methods used by totalitarian regimes to manipulate the masses and spy on every minute action that they undertake in public or in private, this political fiction set some far-off forty years in the future (1984 is an inversion of 1948, when it was written) when such regimes controlled the whole world and in particular Britain where the central hero George Smith tries to live a peaceful but honourable life, clearly addressed the slavish worship by European intellectuals of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Bloc countries at its time of writing.
It is still a scary read even if Big Brother, the all-seeing and all-knowing and all-powerful ruler of Britain in the novel, has never, fortunately managed to acquire power there, although his descendants are still very much alive in many parts of the world. But the powerful images of totalitarianism epitomised by the Orwellian concepts of Big Brother and Newspeak have entered the language - and practically all the others too – and the clear, penetrating power of the prose is as effective as ever.
A novel of imagination that almost instantaneously attained the status of an eternal classic of world literature.
The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell (1957-60)
The four novels that comprise this opus (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea) were published separately but conceived as part of a whole, intended to be read together. The construction is brilliant, with each of the separate novels relating the point of view and life and personality of one of the interlinked characters, with the first three running more or less in parallel and the final one being a sort of sequel, thus deconstructing to great effect the linear time-line almost inherent in the novel form. The ultra-cosmopolitan setting in the multi-cultural Alexandria of the thirties and forties (and, later, the Greek islands) with its mix of populations (European and oriental) and languages (English, French, and Arab) provides a background seeped in history and culture that, with its mix of the familiar and the exotic, the understandable and the mysterious, transposes the interweaving lives of the actors in this drama to a level of universal significance.
But of course it is the writing that matters most and here we have one of those masters of the language that the English educational system (Durrell was a Cambridge graduate) regularly produces. The prose is both sparkling and lively and rich in power, with particularly snappy and often witty dialogues, so reading this vast work is not only easy but enjoyable – and as a special bonus you benefit from the sophistication and articulateness of the author and his characters to soak up a bit of culture and word-wisdom while you’re at it: for example about the Grand Old Man, the great Greek poet Cavafy whose powerful poems and mysterious aura are so present throughout this magnificent work.
The Leopard by Guiseppi Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958)
An impressive study of the mental turmoil of an ageing aristocrat faced with the challenge of adjusting to violent social change. We are in Sicily in 1860 and Garibaldi’s troops are approaching and the old social structure is crumbling (as Don Fabrizio’s finances have been doing for some time now) and the rats are starting to change sides and the good old days when one could despise people who have gotten rich without having been born into a prestigious family are going going and gone forever. This is the kind of sensitive, nicely-flowing saga that makes one wish one could read the text in the original. Well worthy of its reputation – and bravo master Visconti for having been so faithful to the letter and the spirit of this fine text in your masterful cinema rendering (and with what actors!) of this justly-famous modern classic.
La promesse de l’aube (The Promise of Dawn) by Romain Gary (1960)
A particularly brilliant autobiographical novel relating the author-narrator’s odyssey from Russia through Poland to France and Marseille and his dramatic engagement with the Free French forces throughout the duration of the Second World War. While the explosive personality of his mother, who spends her life assuring one and all that her son would some day be a famous man, stands out as a quite unforgettable literary personality of Dickensian proportions, it is the fluid, expressive and utterly quotable quality of the quite magnificent language that flows from Gary’s pen that makes this exceptional novel so special and so moving and so unforgettable.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
Impossible not to be captivated by this powerful account by a young girl of growing up in a sleepy Alabama town in the Depression days of the thirties – and of the tense racial relations underpinning the way things worked in the segregationist South in them those days. Relations that erupt into passion and test the mettle and moral fibre of every citizen in the town when a black man is arrested for the rape of a white girl, and the narrator’s upright father is appointed to defend the accused man. Beautifully told without militant parti pris but with a humanity and a sensitivity that are this book’s trademark, peopled by oddly original and hard-to-forget characters, addressing with honesty and openness big questions indeed, this phenomenally successful book just has to be considered one of the finest American books of the century.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
The young Alex and his three droogs (pals) are having a last shot of moloko (futuristic stimulant) in a vesto (futuristic pub) before setting off on yet another evening of ultra-violence, this time involving first a tolchock (vicious assault) of a fellow carrying books they come across in the street, then a horrorshow (devastating) raid on a neighbourhood sweets store, followed by a beating-and-kicking-up of an old pyahnitsa (drunk) who had the misfortune to cross their way and a no-holds-and-no-britvas(knives)-barred encounter with an enemy gang, after which they relaxed by stealing a luxury car and going out into the country for a drive, where they come across an isolated cottage where their horrorshow evening REALLY gets going. But all good things must come to an end, and Alex finally gets arrested, spends time in prison while the authorities figure out what to do with him and his ultra-violent likes, and the solution they come up with will have your hair standing on end, as it did Alex’s.
A futuristic fable of the problem of delinquency addressed with all the force and talent – in this case genius – of a master of the English language in all its forms, that leaves the reader shaken and marvelling at the originality and scope of this great achievement, a modern classic.
Cancer Ward by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1965)
An unforgettable insight into the human condition in the Soviet Union under Stalin as seen via the filter of the conversations and biographies and internal monologues of the patients in a ward for cancer patients towards the end of Stalin’s long reign.
click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965)
Capote’s masterpiece, this fictionalised but totally credible account of a crime that shocked America at the time is as readable and relevant now as the day it was published. Because of the dialogues, it has to be catalogued as fiction, and great fiction at that.
There is only one other novel that takes you so completely and intensely and convincingly into a criminal’s mind before, during and after he has committed his act as this book, and that is Crime and Punishment.
100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Marquez (1967)
The detached, almost fairy-tale "magic realism" tone of this magnum opus of Latin American literature is at first sight almost inappropriate for a subject as emotive and complex and visceral as the terrible civil war that racked Marquez’s homeland Columbia — one of Latin America’s most populous countries — for decades after the Second World War, but there is no denying that this distinctive saga of large dimensions succeeds in conveying a sense of grandeur and significance to the history of a turbulent land that can be seen as symbolic of the destiny of a whole continent and perhaps even to a certain extent of humanity itself.
The Siege by Ismail Kadare (1970)
The Siege is an historical novel of exceptional force, recounting the siege of a strategic mountain citadel in Albania by the forces of the expanding Turkish empire in the mid-15th Century, as seen through the eyes of a Turkish chronicler accompanying the massive invasion forces, interspersed with short extracts from the journal of an Albanian defender of the besieged fortress.
Little known outside of that small but distinctive corner of Europe, this struggle of Homeric proportions lasted for twenty-five years as the Albanian defenders under the leadership of their national hero Skanderberg resisted year after year the all-out assaults by the most powerful empire in the world, fresh from its historic triumph in Constantinople, until the arrival of the fall rains each year, announced by the military drums that signalled each autumn the forced retreat of the invasion forces for the winter season and the disgrace and probable execution of the failed Turkish commander.
Appointed by the Sultan to record truthfully for posterity the coming victory, the chronicler is a cultivated and erudite member of the Turkish elite whose open mind, free-ranging conversations and alert observations give us an objective and dispassionate but extraordinarily vivid and impressive picture of this awesome struggle.
With this view from the inside we fraternise, in a natural and almost relaxed way that immerses the reader in what just must be the authentic atmosphere of a vast military force on campaign, with the leaders and officers and rank-and-file soldiers of the many specialised corps (cavalry, archers, artillery units, assault troops, janissaries and others, notably the fearsome final-assault shock troops for whom the punishment for retreat is death) to penetrate their military façade and apprehend their individuality and their humanity while they are struggling to overwhelm the enemy citadel and impose the law of the Sultan and of Islam on this last bastion of resistance to Turkish expansion in the Balkans – even though our sympathies cannot help but lie with those on the ramparts who are offering such determined and unexpected and long-lasting resistance.
Written with finesse and intensity and a subtle sense of the infinite complexity of the forces that drive men to be what they are and to do what they do, this gripping account of a very real drama is perhaps the most flawless of Kadaré’s considerable and admirable œuvre.
Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (1980)
The scope of this big in every way novel is vast: the battle of Stalingrad, the mass executions of the Jewish population in German-held areas during the Second World War, civilian Russia during the forties and fifties, postwar Soviet antisemitic oppression, the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of Stalin’s regime, the goulags, the struggle of the individual to survive in the face of a faceless state bureaucracy. The intensity, the drama, the poignancy is maintained throughout in this remarkable book whose manuscript survived in the KGB archives by miracle. Not particularly political or even anticommunist, Grossman’s account of those tragic times sweeps you along in an effortless, natural way that is the mark of a major writer. This moving, eye-opening novel was first published in the West, 20 years after its author’s death shortly after its completion in 1960. A great reading experience.
The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa (1981)
A sensitive, intense, very powerful fictionalised account of the massive peasant-revivalist uprising in the north-east of Brazil at the end of the 19th Century that rocked that giant country to its foundations. Vargas Llosa recreates the atmosphere of those times and the attitudes and mentalities of the actors in this epic drama by a combination of expressive language (this man is a master of words) using very many untranslatable Brazilian terms (the large glossary of these terms at the end is an essential part of the book), stylistic techniques experimented in his earlier works for getting ever deeper into the minds of his protagonists, and an art of narration that literally leaves you breathless.
This is the kind of book that you put down with regret and with tears in your eyes. It is a masterpiece.
Love and Garbage by Ivan Klima (1986)
An arresting title – always a good sign, in the way that a book with a memorable first line or paragraph generally tends to live up to the promise of that enticing beginning. But like much of this rather dense work, it needs to be read carefully: the author is not associating love with garbage – those are but two of the many diverse themes that are intricately interleaved in this work by one of the foremost modern Czech writers. Kafka and art and language and the Holocaust and bureaucracy and the destiny of the soul are among the myriad other themes of this book, certainly one of the most interesting to come out of Eastern Europe in the last half of the 20th Century.
The setting is Prague in the winter of the communist regime. The narrator is a writer who has taken up a job as a street cleaner to get some exposure to how the other half lives, hence the Garbage theme. He is torn between his attachment for his wife and children and his passion for another woman, an artist, hence the Love theme. A theme which, as suggested by its place in the title, is the novel’s central and indeed obsessive theme.
Be forewarned: nothing much ever really happens in this book – perhaps that is also another of its statements. The narrator wanders around the bleak cobblestone-paved streets of proletarian Prague, manually sweeping up the city’s refuse into piles to be collected by another team (!) and then sitting around chewing the fat with his workmates in cafés and bars once the day’s quota has been met, waiting for the clock to get around to the point where they can go and collect their day’s wages. He is writing a biography of Kafka and is particularly interested by the links between that writer’s tortured life and his works. In between meditations on language, on love and hate, on religion and art, on the Prague wartime ghetto, on growing old and on the nature of the soul, he observes and listens to his fellow workers and recounts his complex, intense relationships with the two women in his life, his impulsions and passions and hesitations, and attempts to understand and to explain why he is what he is and why he behaves as he does.
This is thus an introspective book – I do not think that I have ever read a book with as many first-person pronouns "I" in it. But it is interesting, full of stimulating ideas and thoughts. In one of the many striking passages for example, the narrator recalls having read about a new 225-word language baptised "Jerkish", developed in America for communicating with chimpanzees and which has been successfully used for communicating with mentally handicapped persons. The theme of "Jerkish" becoming universally used in an Orwellian world to which it is perfectly adapted, and of the appropriation of "Jerkish" language terms in poetry and journalism and politics is recurrent throughout the book, though not always with the same bonheur. Elsewhere he recalls his youth growing up in the Jewish ghetto of Prague and the countless people he, one of the rare survivors, saw taken away to be destroyed by their Nazi oppressors.
There is a certain Central European tone to the prose, appropriately enough: the phrases are short but, often somehow heavy if not ponderous, they are about significant subjects, they read like a translation from another language. It is in itself evocative of the drab world Klima is writing about. And the mise en page is original, with dialogues being reported indirectly, and with constant switching from one mental scene to another in juxtaposed paragraphs.
Ivan Klima is a distinctive voice from the heartland of Europe, a voice that can be listened to with much benefit.
click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.
Soul Mountain* by Gao Xingjian (1990)
A young Chinese man sets out on a quest throughout the mountains of north China to delve into his country’s soul, and his own, after discovering treasures hidden in the archives of a disaffected provincial museum that had miraculously survived the ravages of the Cultural Revolution. This book is itself one of the most exciting literary discoveries of the latter part of the 20th Century, marred somewhat however, or at least it seemed to me on the first reading, by its descent from the stratospheric heights it had been cruising on to a more real-world level towards the end of the book. Conclusion: probably one of the best books of the century!
The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch (1992)
A modern epic with cosmic overtones by one of Holland’s top writers, this big, ambitious book sparkles throughout in the most engaging way. Embracing big questions – science, astronomy, the religious mystique, the meaning of life, man’s place in the overall scheme of things – we move along at a good steady pace with the author’s formidable erudition and intelligence discretely tucked away in the background while we get increasingly caught up in the central character’s personal life, his intellectual questionings, and his spiritual quest that takes him on a sort of irresistible drive through to the holy city of Jerusalem and its mysteries.
All the Names by José Saramago (1997)
A kind of mix between Canetti’s Autodafé and Kafka’s The Trial, this book about a librarian’s passions for books is superbly well written with a Proustian swell of long never-ending phrases, quite pregnant with significance and import. Although it is not a particularly easy novel to read, once you are caught up in the long, even flood of words you will want to continue for ever. Although it tapered off somewhat towards the end from the almost spellbinding level it had been floating on, this book impressed me no end with its depth and its powerful prose where every word seems to fit perfectly into place.
The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa (2000)
A brilliant and powerful study of a modern totalitarian state with a Latin American veneer and a universal core of terror and thought control and cult of the personality, the thirty-one-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic from 1930 when he took power (with the help of the US of A) to 1961, when he was assassinated.
With finesse and artistry, Vargas Llosa takes us into the minds of all of the actors in this drama: the enclosed world of this in many ways typical totalitarian state is progressively seen through the eyes of the police chiefs, of the middle-level officials, of the collaborators, of the citizens forced to collaborate in order to survive, of the rare opponents and even through the eyes of the exceptionally capable and charismatic dictator himself – a man with a spellbinding aura of personal magnetism and power whose gaze (he stares out at you from the dust-cover so that you can judge for yourself) no one was ever able to withstand.
The writing is so clean and sharp, the structure is so original and effective, the psychology of each of the successive narrators is so effortlessly and effectively portrayed, the basic existential quandary – the quasi-impossibility of resistance to an efficient totalitarianism from the inside – is so powerful and so significant, the story itself is so gripping that I was captivated and enthralled and moved from start to end by this brilliant and masterful book, many of whose scenes are forever burned into my mind.
The Yacoubian Building by Alaa El Aswany (2002)
A powerful panorama of contemporary Egypt, with a kaleidoscope of people of many different walks of life revolving around one large 1930s-style building, delivering with clarity and force – and humour and humanism – an essentially sombre picture of the mindsets of most of the citizens of that very major country and of the seemingly unstoppable rise of anti-Western attitudes and of Islamic extremism.
 works that would incontestably have to be considered for selection for a “Top Tennish” short list have been marked with an *.