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More of the world’s greatest novels
Tuesday 20 October 2009, by
None of these 87 novels — from Albania (2), Austria (2), Belgium (2), Canada, China, Egypt (4), England (17), Finland, France (19), Germany (4), Hungary, India, Italy, Japan (9), Mexico (3), Peru (4), Poland, Portugal, Russia (3), Scotland, South Africa (2) and the U.S.A. (7) — were included in Our selection of the world’s greatest novels, although they are all worthy candidates for the distinction of appearing there in the august company of Don Quixote, Les Misérables, War and Peace, The Magic Mountain and À la recherche du temps perdu.
Candide by Voltaire (1759, France)
Tales of a Fugitive Life by Chen Fu (1808, China)
The Elective Affinities by Goethe (1809, Germany)
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austin (1811, England)
The Elixirs of the Devil by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1815, Germany)
Adolphe by Benjamin Constant (1816, France)
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo (1832, France)
Colonel Chabert by Honoré de Balzac (1832, France)
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens (1836, England)
César Birotteau by Honoré de Balzac (1837, France)
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (1839, England)
The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens (1840, England)
Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas (1845, France)
Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1846, Russia)
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850, England)
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860, England)
Humiliated and Insulted by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1861, Russia)
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1865, England)
The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope (1870, England)
Le Ventre de Paris (The Stomach of Paris) by Emile Zola (1872, France)
Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874, England)
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876, U.S.A.)
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (1878, England)
Tribulations of a Chinaman in China by Jules Verne (1879, France)
Washington Square by Henry James (1880, U.S.A.)
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881, U.S.A.)
Pot-Bouille by Emile Zola (1882, France)
Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant (1885, France)
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (1886, England)
Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891, England)
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (1893, Scotland)
Poil de carotte (Carrot-Head) by Jules Renard (1894, France)
The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899, Poland)
Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901, England)
Kokoro or The Sad Heart of Men by Natsumé Soseki (1914, Japan)
Siddharta by Hermann Hesse (1922, Germany)
Naomi by Junichirô Tanizaki (1924, Japan)
Class Reunion by Franz Werfel (1928, Austria)
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929, U.S.A.)
The Caudillo’s Shadow by Martin Luis Guzman (1929, Mexico)
Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys (1929, England)
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929, Germany)
Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934, U.S.A.)
A Strange Tale from East of the River by Nagai Kafu (1937, Japan)
Les inconnus dans la maison (Strangers in the House) by Georges Simenon (1940, Belgium)
A Pale-blue Woman’s Handwriting by Franz Werfel (1941, Austria)
The Burning Coals by Sandor Marai (1942, Hungary)
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945, U.S.A.)
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (1947, Japan)
The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai (1947, Japan)
Letter to my Judge by Georges Simenon (1947, Belgium)
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (1948, South Africa)
Viper in the Fist by Hervé Bazin (1948, France)
Let The Night Come by Naguib Mahfouz (1949, Egypt)
The Green Shutters (Les Volets verts) by Georges Simenon (1950, France)
Memoirs of Hadrian by Margaret Yourcenar (1951, France)
The Rumbling of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (Japan, 1954)
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954, England)
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954, England)
Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo (1955, Mexico)
Les Racines du ciel (The Roots of Heaven) by Romain Gary (1956, France)
Tonkō (Tun-Huang; The Paths of the Desert) by Yasushi Inoué (1959, Japan)
Diary of a Mad Old Man by Tanizaki (1961, Japan)
The Thief and The Dogs by Naguib Mahfouz (1961, Egypt)
The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes (1962, Mexico)
One Day In The Life of Ivan Denissovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1962, Russia)
Adrift On The Nile by Naguib Mahfouz (1966, Egypt)
Conversation in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa (1969, Peru)
Malevil by Robert Merle (1972, France)
Captain Pantoja and The Special Service by Mario Vargas Lllosa (1973, Peru)
Beyond This Point Your Ticket is No Longer Valid by Romain Gary (1975, France)
La Vie devant soi (The Life Ahead) by Romain Gary alias Emile Ajar (1975, France)
Vatanen’s Hare by Arto Paasilinna (1975, Finland)
The Three-Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadaré (1978, Albania)
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1980, U.S.A.)
Broken April by Ismail Kadaré (1980, Albania)
Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee (1980, South Africa)
Death of a Tea Master by Yasushi Inoué (1981, Japan)
Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz (1982, Egypt)
Indian Nocturne by Antonio Tabucci (1984, Italy)
The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa (1987, Peru)
The Satanic Verses by Salmon Rushdie (1988, India)
Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa (1993, Peru)
Dreams of my Russian Summers by Andrei Makhine (1995, France)
Blindness by José Saramago (1995, Portugal)
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001, Canada)
Saturday by Ian McEwan (2005, England)
Candide by Voltaire (1759)
This book is probably funnier now than when it was first published in the 18th Century, as its violent denunciation of the evils of war, poverty, egoism, conformism, etc. probably did not particularly amuse the exponents of positivism and economic laissez-faire liberalism whose optimistic attitudes to progress are held up to such scathing and effective sarcasm and ridicule by this master of the vitriolic pen. A continuing debate, really, although Voltaire’s overall moral stance does seem to have come out on top in today’s world, and no one can deny the exceptional value of this sweeping satire.
Tales of a Fugitive Life by Chen Fu (1808)
An intensely charming and even moving account, no doubt partially fictionalised, of one man’s meanderings around 18th Century China, full of interesting lights on the way people lived and thought in the heyday of the Manchu Dynasty. I loved it and so would you.
The Elective Affinities by Goethe (1809)
Goethe’s classic novel set new standards for straightforward adult attitudes towards moral issues such as extramarital relations, adultery and even incest, but its main interest is in the remarkable quality of the prose and dialogues. Not a particularly easy read, but I found myself increasingly impressed and enthused by the calm but Olympian overall tone that permeates the text, and finished the book with the sensation of having shared some very privileged moments with a writer of unusual breadth and scope.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austin (1811)
The first of the four novels published during Jane Austin’s lifetime, this undoubted classic explores in depth the central theme of all her oeuvre: the anxieties of genteel, well-educated, well-mannered — and totally dependant — young women (and their mothers) embarked upon the search for a suitable mate who will enable them to maintain their desirable social status with as few moral compromises as possible. It is hard, if not quite impossible, not to feel empathy for Marianne Dashwood, the clever, almost too-clever, sharp-witted (and sharp-tongued when the need arises) central figure in this sensitive, intimist story, even if our interest in the overwhelmingly feminine set of characters and the rather isolated and unsophisticated provincial setting started waning well before the end.
The Elixirs of the Devil by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1815)
Hoffman is one of the masters of the romantic movement in Germany and one of my favourite authors, and this book is usually considered to be his masterpiece, so Achtung! This novel, his first, about the doings of a strange monk who guards a mysterious elixir of the devil’s own making, is as wild and extravagant and complex as anything he ever wrote, which is saying a lot. In Hoffmann’s inimitable manner he adroitly introduces supernatural elements, or rather the possibility or suspicion of supernatural elements, into the ordinary everyday world, intermingled with fraternal admonitions to the reader to be wary of false appearances that combine with the verve of the prose to elevate this story above the more straightforward roman noir novel in the vein of M.G. Lewis’s Gothic tale The Monk, which had caused a literary sensation throughout Europe at the end of the previous century and on which this book is in a way modelled. As seems to usually be the case with Hoffmann, a number of separate strains and themes run in parallel and criss and cross, and one is constantly subjugated by the vigour and originality of the prose that surges along like an unstoppable tidal force throughout the story – one can just sense the words flowing out from his pen as he frenetically writes to get them down on paper fast enough.
I have the feeling that I probably read it too quickly to savour the work in full, but somehow it left me less enthralled than his other major novel The Tomcat Murr, no doubt because of the lessened impact today, at least as far as I am concerned, of the then-irresistible supernatural theme.
Adolphe by Benjamin Constant (1816)
Adolphe is attracted to and then fatally ensnared by Ellénore, the upper-class mistress of an important nobleman and mother of his two children, who finally succumbs to his charms but is so intensely devoted to him that in spite of her social obligations and her children she follows him everywhere so that Adolphe finally feels his liberty threatened by her claims on him. But he just cannot resolve to break off with her, a situation with finally dramatic consequences. Brilliantly written with an unending sequence of sparkling apophthegms, the celebrated political figure and liberal theorist splendidly captures the romantic spirit while penetrating like none other into the depths of an intense relationship profoundly affected by the social opprobriums of the time.
One of the most outstanding masterworks of the French Romantic movement.
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo (1832)
A historical novel set in 1482 featuring Quasimodo, a strange, malformed quasi-monster who’s been adopted by a priest of the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and assigned the role of ringer of the great bells of the cathedral, a task that renders him deaf and even more outcast from society than before. He falls hopelessly in love with the beautiful gypsy dancer Esmeralda – who was stolen as a 4-day-old baby by gypsies and replaced a few days later by … the 4-year-old Quasimodo (!) – as does, to his and others’ misfortune, his mentor the very studious priest (who has in the course of the novel become a specialist in alchemy and a consultant to the king Louis XI), as well as a very cavalier cavalry officer named Phoebus who also falls under the charm of the svelte young Esmeralda. Who’s arrested and condemned to death for murder and sorcery (!!) after Phoebus was knifed in the middle of a bed-scene with Esmerelda (on their first date) by the priest (!!!). But when she’s taken into Notre-Dame cathedral to atone for her sins just before being put to death, she’s saved by Quasimodo, who kidnaps her and claims asylum for her in the towers of the cathedral. However, the king decides to over-rule the asylum and to arrest her again, so her friends in the lower world launch a massive night-time assault on the cathedral to save her, but Quasimodo fights them off until the troops (led by Phoebus) arrive, all for nothing though as the priest who lusts after her like you wouldn’t believe – he’s going on fifty – talks her into coming with him to the nearby place of public executions where he offers her freedom in exchange for her favours. When she declines he calls the troops and everything ends badly for just about everyone in the novel.
A good and dramatic story indeed in a spectacular setting and powerfully written, marred more than usual though by Hugo’s penchant for lengthy digressions on various subjects of great interest to him (the history of architecture, the role of printing in the history of the world, the geography of Paris in the 15th century, revolutions and the role of the masses in history…), by its literary logorrhea and by its excessive accumulation of implausible coincidences and improbabilities.
But Quasimodo, Esmeralda and the Notre Dame cathedral are nevertheless unforgettable figures indeed...
Colonel Chabert by Honoré de Balzac (1832)
A short but very powerful novel about the desperate struggle of a survivor of the Napoleonic Wars to recuperate his possessions on coming back home years after his reported death on the battlefield. Timeless.
The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens (1836)
Dickens’s first and funniest novel, published when he was 25 – a huge worldwide hit which had people lining up on the wharfs in Sydney and New York when the boats came in with the latest instalment, and which went through 100 English and American editions before the end of the century. An English version of the Don Quixote/Sancho Panza theme, with an utterly likeable but impractical nouveau riche Cockney would-be gentleman from London (Mr. Pickwick) travelling around the country-side with a street-wise and resourceful young Cockney lad, the equally likeable and way more practical young Sam Weller, as servant-guide and fixer-upper of awkward incidents, this is a hugely enjoyable book just packed with the vignettes of life that are Dickens’s trademark. Note that it would be a big mistake to read this book in an edition without the facetious illustrations by Phiz (George Cruickshank) that were so carefully elaborated in collaboration with Dickens that they are really an integral part of the text – in a quite literal sense too, as Dickens was originally hired to write around the illustration, by another artist, of the first instalment that had already been established and which was at the core of the publisher’s project – after which the first illustrator promptly died and Dickens hired Phiz and took over editorial direction of the entire project.
César Birotteau by Honoré de Balzac (1837)
A stirring tale of the rise and fall of a very greedy and unscrupulous man, outwitted and crushed by market forces that he tries to manipulate but which he can in truth scarcely comprehend. Although words seem to gush out of Balzac’s pen like water out of a fountain, they all serve a purpose in moving the story along at a good pace and in enveloping the reader in the psyche of the eponymous hero and in the atmosphere of life in those far-off days when bankers ruled the world and debts had to be paid or else. In fact this is a really timeless drama that would be generally considered as an all-time classic if it weren’t so centred on such distasteful and vulgar subjects as money and people worrying about how to pay the rent and the food bills.
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (1839)
This is one of Dickens’s best books, apart from the last 150 pages, which are disappointingly conformist as Nicholas finally settles down and starts leading a normal middle-class life and we start losing interest. The first 150 pages are spectacularly good, taking Nicholas up to the wilds of Yorkshire where he struggles with a shyster schoolmaster who is exploiting his pupils like you wouldn’t believe, before fleeing down south after a dramatic show-down to join a roving band of actors(!!) and get involved in many more pages of rousing adventures peopled by many wonderful Dickensian personages. Coming on the heels of the hard-hitting Oliver Twist (or rather written and published in monthly instalments at the same time as the last part of OT itself was being written and published) at the height of Dickens’s celebrity, this book had one of the greatest sociological impacts on its times of any novel ever published, as the scandalously self-serving "Yorkshire schools" which it so effectively denounced had been abolished by the time the second edition of the book was published only 10 years later, as Dickens himself proudly announced in his preface to that edition.
The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens (1840)
Dickens’s fourth novel, another best-seller, a "road novel" about the adorable Little Nell and her grandfather on the run from a grasping creditor all around England. The young heroine shines like a beacon through the gloomy moral and physical aspect of England of the times that Dickens was so good at portraying. The ending, which I can’t bear to talk about, shocked his readers so much that his next books were more or less boycotted by a sizeable portion of his then-vast reading public. As always, the full set of original illustrations (by Phiz) are indispensable complements to the text – please do not read this book (or any other of his) that does not have them all.
Twenty Years After by Alexandre Dumas (1845)
Dumas’s big sequel to The Three Musketeers, about as highly regarded as the 3M in France, especially in literary circles where its denser style and less light-hearted tone are more in keeping with highbrow taste, but decidedly less well known in the Anglo-Saxon world, no doubt because of its outspoken engagement on the Royalist side in the English Civil War and its anti-Puritan and anglophobe stance bordering on the caricature (although Cromwell himself does get off pretty lightly). It’s a good action story, much grimmer than its predecessor and more of a historical novel, centred on the final stages of the English Civil War and the decapitation of Charles I, than a universal tale for young and old alike, which the 3M certainly is. The story is a really good one, though, that certainly keeps a good hold on the reader’s attention throughout, and from the start there is a tightly-twisted coil of dramatic tension that confers an element of grandeur to the story, as the reader cannot help but understand if not sympathise with the (English of course) villain’s passionate conviction that the four famous friends really should be made to atone one way or another for what they did to his mother Milady twenty years earlier. A book that really should be read by anyone who has enjoyed reading the 3M and wants to round out his appreciation of d’Artagnan and his friends, i.e.: just about everyone. And if that’s not enough, there is a huge third part of the saga, as long as the 3M and Twenty Years put together(!!), The Count of Bragelonne, that the ultra-prolific Dumas churned out two years after this opus.
Poor Folk by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1846)
Dostoyevsky’s first and most socially-oriented novel, focusing on the plight of the low end of the social ladder where the number one daily concern is where and how to find enough food for the day to just keep going.
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)
This is the mature Dickens writing at his best, and the first and largely autobiographical first half of the book is very close to perfection. Although it peters out somewhat in the latter part where the adult David comes across as so much less interesting and promising than the youthful one (but perhaps that is Dickens’s underlying message about life in general and himself in particular?), the wonderful Dickensian secondary characters – led by two of the best-known of them all, the creepy Uriah Heep and the eternally optimistic and forbearing Mr. Micawber – are there aplenty, the portrait of a sensitive young boy’s struggles with his school mentors and with his schoolmates is as powerful and humanistic as anything Dickens or anyone else ever wrote, and the heard-hearted but oh-so-smooth uncle Mr. Murdstone is as worthy a villain - always a Dickens strong point - as any in his oeuvre. A classic, of course, perhaps Dickens’s best-known and best-loved work after Great Expectations.
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860)
The most dramatic of all George Eliot’s novels (that quite unforgettable flood scene!), this was only her second novel, published when she was 40, so there is nothing particularly juvenile in the writing or plot, concentrated on the heroine’s intense relationships with three men (her brother, her suitable suitor, and her unsuitable lover). It is less intellectualising than the later Middlemarch (1872) but retains the country setting and nature-centred flavour of Adam Bede, written the previous year (she may have waited until she was forty to get going, but then she really went on a roll!) so it is the one to read if you only have the time and energy (it does take effort and energy to concentrate on the lengthy and weighty, dense prose and high-flying conversations of Eliot’s novels) to get into one of her works. This sensitive but sharply-written, essentially intimist work is highly recommendable, even if I admit to having been somewhat unconvinced by the final twisting of the plot and by a certain lack of scope in respect to its evident literary ambition.
click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.
Humiliated and Insulted by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1861)
A complex narrative featuring a strikingly cruel father (Prince Valkovsky) whose ambitions for his weak and wayward son require the latter to forego his entanglement with a beautiful and independent but penniless heroine (Natasha) who is also courted more or less by the too-noble not to say somewhat weakish narrator (a budding author who has just published a Poor Folk-like book), who rescues and harbours a remarkable Little Nell-like young girl whose forceful personality and unhappy end tend to dominate this intricate and psychologically acute exploration of love and attachment and (mostly-unhappy) family relationships.
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1865)
Written by Dickens at the height of his powers — his previous work was Great Expectations — this was the last of his 14 complete novels is. And the theme is a very strong one, one of his best and most timeless: the Thames river which dominates the lives of those who work on and beside and near it and which symbolises the force and power and also violence of the current of life itself, a theme which is powerfully developed from the dramatic opening scene throughout the book. The writing is first-rate, with at least as many if not more remarkable passages as in any other of his novels; the characters are on the whole more firmly rooted in the lower (and more interesting to the modern reader) levels of society than elsewhere in his œuvre with the possible exception of Oliver Twist, and it has the full 800+ page length that Dickens seems to have felt best at ease with and within which he had the scope to develop his genius for the studies of the multiple secondary characters which are his special trademark. And, especially, the book has the most remarkable, credible and admirable secondary character of all his works, the quite unforgettable crippled 12-year-old girl-woman Miss Jenny Wren, who so effectively and energetically takes charge of her totally inadequate alcohol-prone father. A particularity of Our Mutual Friend is that one of its main secondary characters is a Jewish moneylender with a kind heart and the very best of intentions who is in fact portrayed so favourably that he loses credibility even to our modern eyes, a deliberate effort by Dickens to make up for the nasty and somewhat caricatural — but better-rounded and more memorable — image of a bad Jewish exploiter that he had created in the person of Fagin, the archetypal villain in his early success Oliver Twist.
The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope (1870)
One of Trollope’s best-known novels, beautifully delivered in his unmatchable, elegant and precise prose. The mess that Lady Eustace gets into with her fabulous diamonds provides T. with the framework for an examination of the mores and morals of the increasingly-crass society of his day that (of course) keeps the reader well engaged from start to end. Unlike Barchester Towers, one of the monuments of English letters, the distastefulness of the central characters in this saga prevents me from being quite as enthusiastic about the book as it perhaps deserves, but it is in any case another excellent example of Trollope’s apparently effortless mastery of the English language and of his piercing insight into the souls of his fellow human beings.
click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.
Le Ventre de Paris (The Stomach of Paris) by Emile Zola (1872)
THE book about the great, bustling, historical marketplace in the centre of Paris, Les Halles de Paris (most unfortunately torn down in the 1970s to be replaced by a shopping centre!), that was a part of Paris’s very soul since the Middle Ages, most effectively brought to life in Zola’s straight-from-the-shoulder style. A fascinating subject indeed, effectively handled by Zola in his renowned detailed-realistic manner.
Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874)
This novel, first published in serial form in 1874, was the first of Hardy’s major works (his last novel, Jude the Obscure, was published in 1895), and this Penguin Classics edition is the first time it has ever been published in its original manuscript form, without the zillion cuts and corrections made by the editor of the original serialised magazine version to the many parts that were considered in those straight-laced times to be too suggestive or irreligious. As the title (from Grey’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard) suggests, it is set in a pastoral setting, where the central positive figure, an ex-farmer now a simple shepherd, pines away for most of the book for the lively and independent farm-owner heroine Bethsheeba. The story is pretty melodramatic but has a huge amount of local colour, with a full set of country characters whose vernacular and often quite comical conversations and doings take up a considerable amount of the story, and the countryside dramas (a fire in the hay ricks, a violent crop-threatening storm, a sheep catastrophe when a whole herd falls over a cliff, a servant girl getting into trouble, and others) do indeed tend to get the reader away from the maddening metropolitan mobs to sort of look up to the stars and wonder a bit more than usual about the big picture and our little place in it. Both readers and writers of the day must have been particularly receptive to and interested in this type of setting, as all of Hardy’s novels as well as most of those of his contemporary George Elliot (two very sophisticated and cultivated authors with wide interests indeed) were set almost exclusively in the countryside. George Elliot has a big reputation as a heavyweight intellectual, but I found that there are easily as many references in FFTMC to classical mythology and literature and biblical scenes as in any of Eliot’s somewhat more sedate works. So there are lots of good things here, especially the dialogues and that magnificent storm scene, even though the most powerfully-drawn character is the villainous ex-soldier and fallen aristocrat who tries so hard to ruin both the heroine’s happiness and the hopes of the hero.
click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876)
The classic, homespun-style tale of growing up in grassroots America in the middle of the 19th Century, with two of the best-known characters in the whole of American fiction, the resourceful and imaginative Tom Sawyer and his adventurous, semi-wild bosom friend Huckleberry Finn. An American classic (although first published in England!) it was really intended for young people by its structure (anecdotes loosely linked together), its content matter (youthful escapades and high-jinks) and its style (dialogue-intensive, heavily laced with rural forms of speech and local superstitions), but it veers towards darker, wider concerns when murder and lynching and race relations enter the picture as the narrative builds up pace and the writing becomes more descriptive. With its charm and homespun humour and its almost magical way of recreating the atmosphere of life in the halcyon days of America’s youth before the Civil War on the banks of the Mississippi river, this very special book by a very gifted author has a universal appeal that has superbly passed the test of time to become a classic for not only young people of both sexes but all those who were young once too.
click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.
The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy (1878)
This was the second of Hardy’s major novels (after Far From The Madding Crowd in 1874), set again – one might almost say of course – in a rural community in a region of unfarmed and sparsely-populated semi-wild heaths in the south-west of England baptised Wessex by Hardy, closely resembling his own native Dorsetshire where he had been raised and where he had returned to settle down shortly before undertaking this deeply-felt novel of the intense inter-relationships and tensions between a man and his mother, between three men and the two women they are attracted to, between the wild beauty of the untamed Nature that surrounds them and the winds of change blowing in from the prosperous towns on the sea-coast, between the call of the senses and the constraints imposed by a society with an almost-infinite scale of social hierarchies and codes, between the appeal of a pastoral way of life hardly changed for centuries and the glitter of big-city sophistication epitomised by Paris, where Clym, the "male lead" has been living and where Eustacia, the "female lead" would very much prefer to be. Hardy succeeds in elevating the tone of this tale of pastoral passion by an impressive and always-pertinent array of biblical, mythological and classical references that reinforce his sedate but smooth-flowing prose to add significance and substance to this story of people living in wide-open spaces who are as hemmed in and constrained by their impulses as if they were enclosed in a prison, a story which Hardy succeeds in infusing with considerable intensity indeed.
Tribulations of a Chinaman in China by Jules Verne (1879)
Particularly original (all of the characters are Chinese) and surprisingly interesting, this tale of a young man desperately chasing all over China to find the man he had hired to kill him (!) and call the deal off before it is too late (he has recovered his lost wealth) so that he can finally get married to the lady he loves is told with such vim and vigour that the reader’s interest is captivated from start to finish. Hats off to maître Verne!
Washington Square by Henry James (1880)
A very smooth, handsome, sophisticated treasure-hunting idler exercises his considerable charm on Catherine, the daughter of a famous and quite well-to-do physician who moves into a splendid residence in the fashionable (we are in the early part of the 19th-Century) Washington Square, with the aid of the girl’s aunt who lives with her and her father and who has nothing else to do but meddle in the innocent – and awkward, unsophisticated, unworldly and unattractive – young woman and future heiress. The whole novel turns around that relationship and the intrigues of the aunt to get her niece married to this charming more-or-less young man: but the relative lack of scope of the subject is just about made up for by the remarkable cleverness of the dialogues and the penetrating analysis of the various protagonists’ characters and motivations. Still, there is the somewhat heavy-handed longwinded-ness of the author’s prose style which is not necessarily to everyone’s taste, but this is still a very good and captivating tale, nonetheless. Quite a must, really!
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881)
A well-rounded, in-depth exploration of the inner psyche of Isabel Archer, a liberated and very independent-minded young American woman, discovering England and Italy and the complexities of life in the eighteen-eighties. The author’s somewhat verbose style, his inherent difficulty in summing things up in a nutshell, and the quasi-absence of much of a story line – other than the tribulations of the heroine’s sentimental adventures - make this a rather hard read at times, but perseverance is rewarded by what turns out to be a remarkably in-depth portrayal of the ebbs and flows of the inner life of the central character. Globally admirable, that cannot be denied, even if that has to be said without a great deal of enthusiasm or passion (two qualities notably lacking, perhaps not coincidentally, in Isabel Archer’s own personality).
click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.
Bel Ami by Guy de Maupassant (1885)
One of the few novels that Maupassant wrote – his forte was the short story -, this hard-hitting account of the rise and fall of a handsome, dashing, talented, cynical and very egotistical journalist working and womanising his way up the social ladder with brutal determination is written in the straightforward, tell-it-as-it-is style that makes his short stories so impressively stark and powerful and which contributes effectively to the emotional and social power of this realistic drama that somehow captured a certain aggrandising and mercantile spirit of our modern times. This man could write!
The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (1886)
The most striking scene in this novel is right at its beginning, where the then-20-year-old central character and future mayor gets drunk in a tavern and - get this - sells his wife and baby daughter to a passing sailor! We then follow his ups and downs, especially the latter, twenty years later when his past starts catching up with him after he has become mayor and one of the town’s leading merchants. Set in the south-east region of "Wessex" (a fictionalised transposition of Hardy’s native Dorsetshire), the background and indeed the secondary theme of every single one of the fifteen novels written by Hardy, England’s premier regional novelist, the fall from grace of the increasingly surly soon-to-be-ex mayor is described at length as he takes up his bad old habits and lashes about him trying to vent his mixed-up feelings of resentment and incomprehension on one and all. Although we are in an agricultural milieu - Mayor Henchard has made his mint dealing in hay and corn - the story takes place in an urban milieu (Casterbridge being a carbon copy of the town of Dorchester where Hardy had settled when he was writing the book, with only the street- and place-names changed), which better suits the sombre theme of emotional and social bankruptcy and the ever-increasing atmosphere of despair than the completely rural setting of his preceding novels Far From the Madding Crowd and The Return of the Native.
There is undeniably a certain psychological complexity in this novel as Hardy traces the conflicting impulses and motives that mould the erratic actions of the mayor fighting against his fate, but I confess to finding him a good deal too basic and too much the solitary wounded animal biting the hands trying to help him to be particularly moved by his inevitably sombre fate.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891)
This is Hardy’s penultimate and probably his best-known work, first published four years before his final and equally scandalous novel Jude the Obscure, which, with its critical stance against the marriage institution caused such an uproar from the public in general and his wife in particular that Hardy gave up novel-writing altogether and concentrated thereafter on his poetry.
Here the angle that grated the most with his contemporary public and critics (Victorian morals and rules were then at the peak of their sway over the English-speaking world’s mindset) was the wanton way whereby the female heroine Jude gets herself into trouble by foolishly falling to the spiel of a local socially and physically desirable sportsman, and especially by the way in which the harsh and hypocritical moral standards of the day are seen as preventing her from properly coming to grips with her dilemma to lead a normal and what-could-have-been-happy life with another – but poorer – suitor. No doubt like many readers, and I suspect somewhat contrary to Hardy’s intentions, I found myself increasingly irritated by Jude’s stubbornness and her insistence on making the wrong decisions at the critical moments, but it is a tribute to Hardy’s art that the interest and tension built up by the unfolding and almost surprisingly dramatic plot never lost its hold for a moment.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but feeling that there is something almost claustrophobic about Hardy’s concentration on the regional specifics and characteristics of his partly-imagined “Wessex” (West Sussex?) setting in the south-west of England that, rightly or wrongly, for me, prevent the novel from attaining the heights which it was most certainly aiming at. Hardy does write nicely and there is much linguistic interest in his regional-tainted dialogues and homely down-to-earth local atmosphere, but his prose doesn’t quite flow with the sparkle and mastery of other Victorian-era masters, notably Trollope and Thackeray, whose masterpieces are I find a notch up on this undeniably important and even fascinating opus. It somehow lacks – albeit perhaps not by much – the scope and impact and literary genius of Barchester Towers and Vanity Fair, although it is undeniably a worthy contender for top marks.
click here for a selection of extracts from this novel.
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (1893)
The young hero of this very interesting adventure story does get kidnapped early on as one expects from the title, but rapidly escapes from the ship which has absconded him off the west coast of Scotland, and spends the rest of the book wandering around the Highlands a) trying to find someone who can understand a word of English; (b) getting very seriously mixed up in the Jacobite rebellion raging at the time; c) hiding from the Crown troops who are actively hunting him as a murder suspect; and d) trying to recuperate the inheritance that his awful uncle (who got him kidnapped in the first place) has done him out of. A rousing story and a fascinating (pro-Jacobite) insight into the way of life in the Highlands in the middle of the 18th century.
Poil de carotte (Carrot-Head) by Jules Renard (1894)
This is a powerful late 19th-Century tale of a very unhappy childhood indeed, that of a young boy scornfully nicknamed “Carrot-head” by his truly hateful mother who treasures and coddles his elder brother and sister while blithely exploiting and mistreating him much in the same heartless and vindictive way that Cosette was treated by the Thénardiers in Les Misérables or Cinderella was by her stepmother. But this has nothing of the fairy-tale about it, and everything of the harsh reality of almost-everyday and totally-believable family relationships later celebrated by Hervé Bazin in his resounding 1945 Goncourt-winning Vipère au poing (Viper in the Fist) on the same "Mother I hate you" theme. The narrative is extremely original and recognisable, almost entirely composed of dialogues of the most credible and realistic kind and with a remarkable exchange of letters at the end, and the style is sparse and bitter and original, particularly well adapted to its moving theme of love-deprived childhood. Jules Renard died early of a heart condition, but he did have time to found the celebrated militant daily newspaper l’Humanité as well as writing this poignant book (dedicated to his own children) that can leave no one indifferent.
The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)
I read this short novel (long short story?) twice through because of the impression of having misunderstood or missed too much the first time around. It is certainly very dense and manages in a mysterious way to create an atmosphere of quite cosmic significance that is however hard to define or really come to grips with. I just cannot however get used to Conrad’s style of prose, which with its consistently elaborate structures and profuse use of adjectives and many rather awkward turns of phrases reads too often as if it were a translation from the French (which it mentally probably was) for my taste. No doubt I need to reread it a couple more times to make sure...
Kim by Rudyard Kipling (1901)
A masterpiece, no doubt Kipling’s finest work, a magnificent tribute to the vibrancy of life in general and in India/Pakistan in particular. A remarkably positive book.
Kokoro or The Sad Heart of Men by Natsumé Soseki (1914)
A complex, introspective, sombre and most impressive psychological portrait of the relationship between a student and his brilliant but tortured professor towards the end of the Meiji modernisation period that transformed Japan into a major international power during the 40 years before the First World War. Even in translation the sharp, clear, perceptive prose of the author of I Am a Cat carries the day and eases the reader effortlessly into the strange atmosphere of those bygone days.
Siddharta by Hermann Hesse (1922)
The search for internal peace and spiritual understanding of Siddharta, told in a way that is halfway between a novel with dialogues and internal monologues and a sacred text recounting with awe the spiritual messages of Buddhism and Hinduism. Much easier to read and even assimilate than I had been expecting, this book’s awesome reputation is on the whole well justified, although I wasn’t as shaken by its eastern spirituality (that’s not what I’m looking for in a novel, anyway) as many of its reader-believers seem to have been.
Naomi by Junichirô Tanizaki (1924)
This is an eminently readable account of life in the rapidly-westernising Tokyo of the early twenties (before the devastating earthquake of 1923) and the rise there of a startlingly new social being: the liberated young urban woman. A very interesting theme indeed, mixed with the clash of traditional and jazz-age values and the intense intellectual and artistic life of the ancient and ever-expanding city of Tokyo. Tanizaki is an important writer indeed.
Class Reunion by Franz Werfel (1928)
A finely-wrought short novel of quite theatrical intensity, describing the confrontation of a renowned judge with a man accused of murder whose past turns out to have been intimately linked with the judge’s own past, and whose descent into the depths menaces to sweep the judge along with him. A psychological drama of great intensity and power, set in the Vienna of both the glorious pre-First World War and the more sedate twenties, in the great Viennese tradition of Schnitzler, Zweig and Musil for whom Werfel is a most worthy continuer.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)
The First World War on the Italian front seen through the eyes of an American participant. The dramatic events described, notably the chaos of a major retreat amid scenes of panic and summary executions and desertions, are strikingly recounted in a low-key, terse kind of way with straight talk and straightforward albeit wry writing with cynical and rather disabused overtones that is very effective and which confirmed Hemingway as one of the most influential writers of his time.
The Caudillo’s Shadow by Martin Luis Guzman (1929)
A former partisans of Pancho Villa during the Mexican Revolution (the author was Villa’s private secretary during those heroic times) decides to affront another veteran of the Revolution for the presidential elections, but post-Revolution politics are not as free from corruption, violence and outright thuggery as had been hoped for. A powerful indictment of the failure of the Revolution to bring about the longed-for social and political changes that its partisans had fought for.
Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys (1929)
This was John Cowper Powys’s first novel, published in 1929 when the author was 57 years old (!), three years before his crowning achievement, A Glastonbury Romance. Here too we find the huge cast of characters, the lyrical, semi-mystical and semi-pagan, almost worshipful attitude towards the beauties and the mysteries of the ancient untamed lands of south-western England (Dorsetshire) that contribute so much to Glastonbury’s impact. Not particularly easy reading, with Powys’s long, involved, passionate prose, his many references to classical and Celtic mythologies, his unceasing search for significance and his mystical impulses that never let the reader just coast along with the story. But the effort is well worth the while: the prose is rich and masterful, the dialogues are absolutely brilliant as Powys had a Welshman’s ear for the music of the spoken word, there is drama and passion and sensuality and a permanent sense of the quasi-spiritual glories of just being alive throughout this marvellously original, powerful, exceptional book.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
The most powerful novel to come out of the First World War (with Ernst Jünger’s In the Steel Storms, which, however, was basically a war journal rather than a novel), particularly poignant and with a pronounced sense of the tragedy of that stupendous conflict.
Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934)
A brilliant account of a couple of sophisticated jazz-age Americans on a jag around the French Riviera in the 1920s, hobnobbing with fellow expatriates and distilling their existential ennui in a flurry of cocktail conversations and domestic strife. Fitzgerald manages somehow to create a very adult, credible tone and an atmosphere of significance around his classy couple and their coterie, helped by his gift for witty, wry dialogues and his narrative skill. Perhaps the innate cynicism of the actors in this very contemporary drama put me off my stride though, as although I admired this book I was not moved or touched by it the way I rather expect to be by a great book, possibly mistakenly.
A Strange Tale from East of the River by Nagai Kafu (1937)
A short – barely 100 pages long, excluding the introduction – but very dense and delicate novel whose central character is really the old, historic part of Tokyo where the geisha girls and theatres and artists were always centred, its past and current (1930s) character, and the way it had for centuries epitomised the aesthetic and artistic soul of ancient Japan. One gets the impression that Kafu loses some of his impact in translation because of the incessant references to past events and personalities and places and because of the dreamy, poetical nature of the text, but with the help of the very many erudite and informative footnotes in this authoritative edition this book provides the reader with a precious and oddly moving insight to the heart and soul and culture of that great but mysterious land.
Les inconnus dans la maison (The Strangers in the House) by Georges Simenon (1940)
An embittered, isolated man who has shut himself off from the world for 18 years (who drinks three bottles of burgundy every day for solace) ever since his wife ran off with another man hears footsteps in his enormous house late at night and discovers a) that someone has just slipped out of his daughter’s room and b) that there is a stranger he has never seen before lying on the bed in an upstairs room, covered in blood from a gunshot wound, on the verge of dying. He progressively discovers that his daughter is involved with a group of the town’s idle rich and their hangers-on, that his daughter has a lover – who is promptly arrested and charged with the murder of the dead man – and that there is a town teeming with life and drama out there whose existence he has never even noticed. A remarkable sociological portrait of a provincial town and its class structure, written in a style that is just magnificent and with a subterranean level of emotion that leaves one shaken and filled with wonderment at this great writer’s achievement.
A Pale-blue Woman’s Handwriting by Franz Werfel (1941)
A very short novel with the feel of a long short story but the emotional impact of something much vaster, this account of a top civil servant’s unsuccessful struggle in the mid-thirties with his conscience when faced with a secret from his past that threatens his social position is a relentless (and contemporary) condemnation of the moral turpitudes of an Austrian society almost effortlessly integrating the brutal anti-Semitism of hitlerian Germany in a vain attempt to preserve their comfort, tranquillity and independence.
The Burning Coals by Sandor Marai (1942)
Set in Hungary in the 1930s, a confrontation of two old men who relive the sudden break-up of their intensely-felt friendship in pre-World War One Vienna. Marai is a master of the long intense monologue-dialogue which he uses to great effect here to vividly evoke the splendours of the Austrian-Hungarian empire and the impossibility of avoiding the consequences of our past errors.
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945)
With The Grapes of Wrath, this just has to be one of Steinbeck’s best books. This tale of down-and-outers in a lazy corner of California in the thirties is told with humour and humanism in the most captivating way. This simple, charming tale is utterly American in tone while attaining to the universal: there always will be people like these just about everywhere, at least one hopes so!
Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (1947)
A masterful evocation of the Japanese countryside or rather mountainside and its pull on the Japanese imagination.
The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai (1947)
A really fascinating portrayal of the Japan of the immediate post-WW2 period, as seen through the eyes of an aristocratic family in decomposition, confronting their values and their visceral attachment to their country’s ancient and treasured traditions with the social and moral upheaval of those cathartic times. One of only two books written by its troubled, tremendously talented author before he finally managed after several attempts to do away with himself at the age of 39, this book and its author are icons of modern Japanese literature.
Letter to my Judge by Georges Simenon (1947)
A condemned man writes to his judge – his social equal, as he is a doctor, albeit from a poorish background – to explain in depth who he is and how he thinks and how what happened came to be. A very powerful, in-depth study of personalities and social relationships and the oppressive – to many, and to the narrator in any case – nature of the social conventions and strictures of the time. Very frank, very profound, very, even magnificently written, this is a masterwork, certainly one of Simenon’s greatest novels of any sort.
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (1948)
This most famous South African novel decidedly deserves its reputation. The mix of love of the land and regret/repulsion at the injustice of the social relations on which the country functioned in those far-off days just after the Second World War is still as poignant today as when this book shook the consciousness of the western world when it first appeared.
Viper in the Fist by Hervé Bazin (1948)
A breathtakingly powerful account of a young boy’s vicissitudes at the hands of his mother who blatantly favours his younger brother and subjects our long-suffering lad and his elder brother to an increasingly atrocious series of punishments and servitudes that make Colette’s lot in Les Misérables seem like a picnic in comparison. Our boy has moral strength though, and the gradual build-up of resentment and outright hate that culminates in the final confrontation is simply but so convincingly not to say chillingly portrayed in this Goncourt-prize-winning first novel that the boy-martyr’s bitter nickname for his mother, Folcoche (short for crazy pig (!)), has entered the French language as a very pejorative term for an abusive matron.
Let The Night Come by Naguib Mahfouz (1949)
Another wonderfully complex, poignant, moving saga by Mahfouz about life in Cairo – the best and most ambitious book of his that I have read so far (but then I tend to think that after finishing each one of his books).
The Green Shutters (Les Volets verts) by Georges Simenon (1950)
A celebrated theatre- and movie-actor learns that his days are numbered but continues his intense life-style, wining and dining and loving and lording it over one and all while progressively beginning to reflect on the people and especially the women who have populated his existence and what if anything has really counted for him – and for his young wife and her little daughter.
A formidable, fascinating and finally moving portrait of a personality, of the Paris of the time – the glorious late forties – and of the people who peopled it, a most impressive investigation of the mood of those times in the simple, flowing, word-perfect style of one of France’s finest authors of the century.
Memoirs of Hadrian by Margaret Yourcenar (1951)
This is an extremely interesting, informative and insightful investigation of the life and times of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 AD), poet and author, patron of the arts, peace-minded consolidator of the empire which he ruled for the last 20 years of his life, builder of Hadrian’s Wall in Britain and of the magnificent Hadrian’s Villa near Rome, patron of the beautiful boy-prince Antinous whom he deified after his tragic early death, adoptive father of Marcus Aurelius, putter-downer of the rebellion of the Jews in 134, believer in science and in black magic – all of this and much, much more is explored in depth in this remarkable fictional autobiography. The wealth of information and the mass of erudite references make this book heavy going at times but the effort of concentration required to penetrate the psychological universe of the Roman elite of the early 2nd Century that is so brilliantly recreated by Yourcenar’s weighty prose is well worth the trouble.
The Rumbling of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (1954)
Another Kawabata masterpiece, about an old man meditating on the ups and downs of his past life in the context of his forthcoming demise. Not very gay, but the delicate skill with which the central personage, his entourage and his natural environment are portrayed elevates this novel to the very highest level.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
A parable about the violence and inhumanity inherent to man and the ease with which the veneer of education and civilization can disappear when a group of boys in wartime are left to fend for themselves on a desert island. On the whole the boys turn out very badly, not really all that surprisingly when one considers the incredible savagery that has marked our recent history. Hard not to be impressed by this dystopian (anti-utopian) view of man’s or rather boy’s nature, although much of the silliness that they get up too would surely not have happened if there had been some girls or even better adults in the group of marooned survivors ...
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (1954)
A brilliant and very very funny story about the misadventurous life of a frustrated young professor at a not-very-important redbrick university in England in the early fifties, this book has acquired the status of a modern classic and justly so – it really has everything: sharp prose from a master of the language, author of the authoritative The King’s English; some of the funniest scenes in English literature (just about as hootful as the great Zounds! chapter in Tristam Shandy!); a subject of universal interest, and a hero/anti-hero who with his stroppy determination to carry on in spite of everything caught the spirit of his age – and inspired a whole literary movement in Britain on the "angry young man theme" - in a way that very few novels manage to do.
Pedro Paramo by Juan Rulfo (1955)
I had to read this complex, surrealist novel twice in a row to be able to begin to sort out the interweaved threads of the various characters, both alive and (mostly) dead, who populate these pages and who narrate their generally unsuccessful struggle to survive in the harsh climate and even harsher social conditions of central Mexico in the twenties. We start off with a lone traveller who penetrates into a seemingly deserted ghost town to encounter a series of shadowy figures who pop in and out of sight, especially at night-time, to recount in a fragmentary but finally extremely forceful way the dramas and tragedies that shaped the destiny of the region in the bygone days of compradore (landlord) violence and civil warfare. This was the only novel ever published by the author of the striking collection of short stories The Llano on Fire (his one and only other book), and it is a memorable reading experience, believe me, albeit not a particularly easy one.
Les Racines du ciel (The Roots of Heaven) by Romain Gary (1956)
Should novels – or any work of art for that matter – set out to expound ideas and be judged by the force of the said ideas? If so, this novel deserves a 9 or 10 out of 10, it was so far ahead of its time with its impassioned, articulate and utterly convincing plea for the protection of one of the great wonders of the natural world, the herds of freedom-loving elephants that in those days still roamed or rather raced and crashed and ransacked around over vast areas of Africa, feeding and exploring and generally doing their own glorious thing from morning to night, regardless of what damage they might be doing to native crops or to the plantations of European settlers in what was then French Equatorial Africa (Chad, Niger, Central African Republic, Mali). Gary’s thesis was that Europe in particular and mankind in general should do something serious to protect these magnificent creatures from the settlers and the natives (who saw them as free meat on foot) and especially from the big-game hunters parading around with their sophisticated high-powered weaponry, mowing down as many beasts as possible (usually several dozens per hunter) per day. This book with its long monologues and intellectualising dialogues – much in the vein of the high-flying discussions in Albert Camus’s almost-contemporary The Plague - was greeted with a mix of acclaim (it won Gary his first Prix Goncourt) and incomprehension: not radical enough for the Marxist literary world of its time, it was too harsh in its implicit denunciation of the down side of French colonialism with regard to the non-European population (much more present here than in Camus’s novels set in French Algeria) and for the fauna (this book was way ahead of its time in terms of ecological awareness) for the other side of the political spectrum. Although Gary does get somewhat too carried away by his pro-elephant crusade to concentrate enough on the non-ecological aspects of the story, this is an impressive, powerfully-written work that I found grew on me in retrospective in a delayed-action sort of way, so it can be heartily recommend it to anyone interested in any one of its multiple themes, quite apart from the literary qualities of those vintage monologues and dialogues. And one can easily understand Gary’s anger at the general callousness regarding the protection of wildlife when he recounts elsewhere how, when on site to film his novel, the film’s director John Huston had the gall to go off on an elephant-hunting safari!!
Tonkō (Tun-Huang; The Paths of the Desert) by Yasushi Inoué (1959)
This is, I would say, the most exciting, most instructive, most intriguing and best-written historical novel I have ever read, with the marvellous series Angélique, Marquise des Anges by Ann and Serge Golon – if we exclude The Three Musketeers and War and Peace from the "historical novel" category, natch. Set in China under the Song Dynasty in the early part of the 11th Century AD, a young man goes out west to escape from the shame of having failed the all-important national civil service entrance exams (already a thousand-year-old tradition at the time) by falling asleep waiting for his name to be to be called for the final exam, only to get immediately conscripted into the army of the redoubtable Xingxia tribesmen who were menacing the very existence of the Song Empire at that time. After several years of active participation in the turbulent ebb and flow of history in that crossroads region of central Asia where empires and religions and cultures clashed and competed and were born and died, our hero develops both physically and militarily and mentally and spiritually while providing the spellbound reader with endless precious insights into the life of the times and the history of the whole huge region, to finally embark on a quest for enlightenment that takes us through the chaos of war and destruction and history in the making into the mysterious and long-secret caves of Dun Huang where the greatest treasure of ancient Buddhist manuscripts of all times was discovered in the 19th Century and whose mysterious origins are explained so convincingly in this brilliant, fascinating, exceptional novel of quite grandiose dimensions.
Diary of a Mad Old Man by Tanizaki (1961)
Tanizaki’s crisp, precise prose effortlessly gets you deeply involved with the intricacies of the urges and inner impulses of a man on the wrong side of sixty trying very hard to satisfactorily quench the fires still burning strongly deep down inside him. An in-depth portrait of a man and his psyche that leaves the reader almost exhausted with its unrelenting tension and force. Most impressive.
The Thief and The Dogs by Naguib Mahfouz (1961)
This short novel is a masterpiece. Poignant, dramatic, intense – the everyday adventures and tragedies of a big-city petty thief have never been more effectively described than in this terrific little book.
The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes (1962)
The story line – a veteran of the Mexican Revolution relives his youthful engagement in the Revolution and his subsequent less glorious but very successful climb to the highest level of social and political domination – is about as interesting as can be, and the way Fuentes fits in the eponymous hero’s career into the complex modern history of that turbulent land is absolutely first rate. In fact this book strikes me as being practically essential background to a proper understanding of the complex modern history of that mysterious land unlike any other, even though somehow I failed to be really caught up by the what-could-have-been-epic flow of the narrative as perhaps a Spanish-understander might have been. No doubt the fairly unpleasant personality of the caïd Artemio Cruz is at the root of my detachment, and I suppose that that fits in with the author’s political intentions, but the result, at least for me, was to prevent this ambitious novel from quite attaining the heights which it was no doubt intended to conquer.
One Day In The Life of Ivan Denissovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1962)
The little book about life in the Goulag that rocked the Soviet Union and the world when Nikita Khrushchev authorised its publication in 1962. Its stark, low-key way of portraying a single day in a prison camp during the later period of Stalin’s reign as seen through the eyes of one of its countless victims has never been surpassed in its penetrating exposure to the light of day of the evil essence of that morally bankrupt regime.
Adrift On The Nile by Naguib Mahfouz (1966)
A really impressive short novel that in so few pages gets you right inside the mindsets of a group of very cosmopolitan, liberated people in modern Cairo. Mahfouz is one of those rare writers about whom one finds oneself saying "This is my favourite book of his" every time you read another one.
Conversation in the Cathedral by Mario Vargas Llosa (1969)
This was Mario Vargas Llosa’s most ambitious work to date, where he experimented with an original conversation-only technique without identification of the speakers that he had already used in The Green House and that he used here systematically throughout. The Cathedral of the title is not a church but the name of a bar where the protagonists meet to talk about one another and about their past and present exploits, so the reader really has to concentrate hard to have a chance of understanding just what is going on. It is hard going, but it does all fit together towards the very effective and quite moving end. Having shown what he can do (and this is a writer who really can do anything) and how effective this technique can be to provide insight into the protagonists’ mindsets (do we not only really get to know people via their conversation?) Vargas Llosa moved on to other things and basically dropped this demanding technique, although there are echoes of it in some of his later works.
Malevil by Robert Merle (1972)
A terrific account by a terrific writer of how a group of people who had survived a sudden nuclear war (because they had been in a deep underground wine cave in the Bordeaux region when it happened) recovered, got organised, established security and new social and sexual relationships, managed to build a new society and even to establish the basis for a new religion, while facing up to terrible menaces from determined, ferocious bands of marauders.
Captain Pantoja and The Special Service by Mario Vargas Lllosa (1973)
The young and competent Captain Pantaléon (Pantoja in the English translation) is sent by the Peruvian high command to sort out a serious problem of morale among the troops in the army garrisons on the Amazonian frontier, who have been excessively venting their sexual frustrations on the local women. This is a very funny book by an immense writer, in an original and very effective staccato style with dialogues where you have to figure out by the context just who is talking (a technique used extensively if not excessively by Vargas Llosa in his earlier and ambitious Conversations in the Cathedral (1969)). The subject – frontier life in the Amazonian jungle – is more than first-rate and Vargas Llosa just cannot help bringing in larger socio-religious factors that put things in a big perspective. I LOVED this brilliant book by the author of the masterful The Feast of the Goat.
Beyond This Point Your Ticket is No Longer Valid by Romain Gary (1975)
A brilliant and moving, and also funny and saddening, exploration of a major but never-before-talked-about theme: increasing masculine impotence with age and its dramatic consequences on a man’s psyche and his relationships with the world around him. It needs Gary’s verve and talent for the juste phrase and his mastery of language to carry off this touchy subject successfully and he does just that, with brio.
La Vie devant soi (The Life Ahead) by Romain Gary alias Emile Ajar (1975)
I had been very impressed by the powerful prose and the very strong theme - the protection of African wildlife - of Gary’s earlier (1956) Goncourt-prize-winning novel The Roots of Heaven and I just loved this completely different, utterly original dialogue-based monologue by a young Arab boy about his intense relationship with his (very) Jewish adoptive mother and his upbringing in the working-class east end of Paris in the early 1970s. Published under the pseudonym of Emile Ajar, this book also won an unheard-of, contrary-to-regulations second Goncourt Prize in 1975 for Gary, who was only discovered to be its real author shortly after his tragic death by suicide in 1980. Vigour, charm, humour and an irresistible, ungawky humanity characterise this superbly original novel that has already quite splendidly passed the test of time.
Vatanen’s Hare by Arto Paasilinna (1975)
This story of one man’s sudden break with his not particularly satisfying urban way of life to go off wandering through the forests of Finland with a young hare whose leg had been broken by the car he had been driving in (so far we are up to page 2 or thereabouts) on a quest for new values and a different way of life is a modern-day classic throughout Scandinavia and should be so elsewhere too.
The Three-Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadaré (1978)
A monk in 14th-century medieval Albania recounts his version of the building of a historic bridge whose saga has since entered the folk mythology of the Land of the Eagles. Kadaré’s fluid storytelling style effortlessly recreates the atmosphere of those far-off times, and as usual when he turns his attention to past events in his strange and complex native land he transmits an aura of almost cosmic significance to the events described, in this case taking place shortly before the five-century-long Ottoman occupation. A most impressive work indeed.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1980)
A full-of-life saga, published posthumously eleven years after the author’s suicide, about a big slob’s efforts to find a place for himself in the world or at least in New Orleans. Full of punch and vigour, its explosive style and extroverted central characters became a bit tiring towards the end, at least for me – I couldn’t avoid the feeling that here was a bit too much of a good thing. But then I never did particularly like the exercise de style look-at-what-I-can-do kind of writing, which this mostly rather tends to be. Still, I can understand its big reputation and certainly think that everyone should read it - there haven’t been all that many American books of this stature published in recent times, for sure.
Broken April by Ismail Kadaré (1980)
A cosmopolitan writer and his newly-wed wife drive through the mountains of northern Albania in a timeless period that could be the twenties or thirties on their honeymoon, where they cross the path of a young man who has just revenged the murder of a member of his family and who is on a trek to the place where tribute must be paid according to the age-old feudal rites of the Kukan, the time-honoured custom that had governed the practise of honour killings in the region throughout the centuries. The story balances between the two sets of actors in the drama, the city couple on the one hand and the youth and his pursuers on the other hand, who are honour-bound to revenge in turn the killing, already the 70th in a long dispute whose precise origin no one can remember any more. This stark, powerful story mounts with a constant sense of foreboding towards the inevitably tragic denouement in a driving, forceful way that left me shaken and moved by the darker side of this life on earth.
After Kadaré’s artful account of the implacable rigour of this age-old mechanism for solving the overpopulation problem in this strange, mysterious, sombre land – a custom that has survived determined efforts to suppress it by successive regimes for centuries right up to our own time – one can better understand the persistence of vendetta practices elsewhere, even though nothing, absolutely anywhere, can compare with what has been going on in those Albanian mountains in this respect, believe me. Another example of the talent, indeed I would say the genius, of this admirable author who has such a gift for making whatever aspect of the life and history of his beloved homeland that he turns his attention to acquire a universal significance and impact.
Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee (1980)
Remarkably well written on the very major theme of the coming fall of civilization (or at least of South Africa’s) announced by its title, I nevertheless found this book somehow wanting. As a parable about South Africa’s future it is way too simplistic, and if the parable is to be taken as having wider implications it lacks the mystical or apocalyptic overtones that might have elevated the narrative to the level of universality. And how could Coetzee not acknowledge front-on his debt for the title to the great modern Greek poet Cavafy and his justly famous and best-known poem of the very same name?
Death of a Tea Master by Yasushi Inoué (1981)
A remarkably detailed and vivid evocation of the cult of the tea ceremony in 16th-century Japan, via the quest of a monk to understand the reasons for the suicide of his mentor, the most renowned master of the tea ceremony of his time. This book, written in Inoué’s low-key, purified style, needs to be read slowly and calmly, the way one would sip thoughtfully at a precious cup of tea, to properly absorb the atmosphere and attitudes and significance of the rites so respectfully described by the author in this fascinating novel, one of the author’s best if I am not mistaken.
Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz (1982)
A lively suite to the classic The Thousand and One Nights full of the vitality and charm and energy that abound in all the works of the author of Midaq Alley, but in a significantly more fantastic vein than that realistic, slice-of-life modern masterpiece.
Indian Nocturne by Antonio Tabucci (1984)
A short but mysterious and pregnant-with-significance novel about one man’s quest for a phantom from his past in modern India. A subtle and unusual text with an intriguing metaphysical atmosphere.
The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa (1987)
A striking story set in the Amazonian tropics of Peru on the powerful theme of the tragedy of the inexorable extinction of the native languages and cultures of that vast region, brilliantly told. Mario Vargas Llosa reveals yet another major aspect of that far-off country – and of his talent. A book one just cannot forget.
The Satanic Verses by Salmon Rushdie (1988)
Not only a courageous book, with its critical reinterpretation of the saga of Mohammed and his frequent hikes up the mountain to discuss things with the angel Gabriel (and as it just so happened coming back every time with a verdict from G. that settled the latest dispute with his neighbours in his favour), but a wide-ranging, well-written, almost lyrical saga ranging widely over time (M’s and ours) and space (India and England). A really quite inspired work, by a major writer on a very big theme indeed. A must.
Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa (1993)
This is a vague sequel to Vargas Llosa’s Who Killed Palomino Bolero, which could and probably should be read first so as to get the most out of this impressive, really major work set in the mountains of southern Peru during the atrocious "Shining Path" maoist terror campaign. The skill, subtlety, humour and psychological insightfulness of Varga Llosa’s pen are put to good effect to tell this captivating story with, as usual, large overtones.
Dreams of my Russian Summers by Andrei Makhine (1995)
A powerful, moving, evocative novel about life on the plains of Russia under Stalin, written in French by the Russian expatriate who writes like a deity in his adopted language. Makine’s French is so striking that he had to pretend that his previous novel had been translated from the Russian to get it accepted for publication in France, as otherwise no one would believe that a foreigner could write like that. This novel was the first to ever have won both of France’s most prestigious literary prizes, the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Médicis, in the same year.
Blindness by José Saramago (1995)
A harrowing, even nightmarish tale set in an unnamed city in an unnamed time (close to our own, though) whereby a whole city is suddenly struck by a devastating epidemic of unknown nature, “White Blindness”, that makes an ever-increasing number of people in the city go suddenly blind. At a loss as to how to react, the authorities quarantine them in an abandoned mental hospital, where conditions go from bad to worse to unbelievably and stomach-turningly horrible as a group of well-organized and very ruthless inmates takes over all the food and goods and establishes a brutal regime whereby the women become sex slaves and the men and children slaves, period. A parable of man’s infinite capacity for being nasty to man, this long and detailed description of rape and murder and starvation and degradation is perfectly credible and probably not all that different from what actually goes on in some prisons in various places around the world, but reading about all that is decidedly not everyone’s idea of the nicest way to spend a few leisure hours. No getting away from the fact, though, that the dense, articulate writing grips you from the beginning and with force transports you into the tense, desperate, enclosed atmosphere where the people suddenly trapped in this hellish situation concentrate on surviving and on organizing resistance to their oppressors as best they can. With this strong theme and the quality of its writing it can be considered as a superior kind of science-fiction story, albeit with distasteful content, but on the same theme of a community suddenly trying to face up to a collective disaster I would suggest that Camus’s La Peste holds pride of place, in spite of the excellence of the writing here.
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
This original, brilliant, moving book starts off strongly and keeps getting better right through to the end, an authentic tour de force. It is not giving any secrets away to reveal that the central personage is a tiger, and that splendid animal will always be epitomised for me from now on by the one in this terrific book which has already become a classic.
Saturday by Ian McEwan (2005)
An incredibly detailed account of one man’s day and the thoughts and emotions and memories that accompany him as his day progresses, a day hovering on the verge of abnormality from its very start when the central character, a London brain surgeon, awakes with insomnia in the middle of the night to witnesses a burning plane descending through the skies towards Heathrow airport, a day filled with a heightened intimation of significant events unfolding in the post-9/11 world around him where huge numbers of people are gathering in the nearby streets of central London to protest against the impending invasion of Iraq. The author certainly has an impressive way with words, and the key scenes in this almost-ordinary day are told in such a precise, accurate, finely-worded and finely-chiselled way that they quite dominate the narrative: I cannot imagine reading a more intense, compelling, complete account of a major brain operation or a more engaging description of a tense, fiercely-fought game of squash or a more delicate, uplifting evocation of the mood and technical complexities of a jazz concert. The author certainly gets us effectively and deeply into the mind of our brain-surgeon hero, but I have to say that apart from the brilliance of such morceaux de bravoure scenes I found the contents of the brain-surgeon’s mind, his thoughts on the Iraq war, his relations with his wife and family less interesting than I think I was supposed to. But the exceptional quality of the writing makes this a book no one can regret having read.