John Galsworthy: The Man of Property (1906)
“Those privileged enough to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight – an upper middle-class family in full plumage.” Galsworthy’s introduction to the Forsyte clan focuses on the miserable marriage of the enigmatic “heathen goddess” Irene to the ghastly, domineering Soames. Through her subsequent love for the young bohemian Bosinney and Soames’s violent reaction to the threat of losing his prized possession, Galsworthy nails his socialist and feminist principles to the mast.
Elizabeth Gaskell: Mary Barton (1848)
Gaskell’s first novel sets out many of the themes that would resonate throughout her later fiction, notably the divide between rich and poor in industrialising societies. In this Manchester-set tale of love, murder and family secrets, contentious topics such as Chartism and prostitution are tackled unflinchingly, which made some early readers reject the book as unnecessarily coarse. Gaskell, however, was sufficiently a woman (and writer) of her time to ensure that her heroine remained as pure as the driven snow.
André Gide: The Immoralist (1902)
Michel leads the life of an exemplary academic until tuberculosis almost kills him. With recovery comes a taste for more sensual pleasures, so, accompanied by his wife, the devoutly religious Marceline, he heads for north Africa, driven in part by an awakening of homosexual desires. But his newfound freedom and rejection of the values and society that he once held dear present him with difficult choices, forcing him to question the nature of decency and personal responsibility.
Oliver Goldsmith: The Vicar of Wakefield (1766)
Funnier (and considerably shorter) than most 18th-century classics, Goldsmith’s only novel centres on Dr Primrose, a good-hearted country parson whose rustic bliss is rudely shattered by his family’s efforts to live beyond their station. Vice is punished and virtue – as Goldsmith’s age understood it – rewarded by the buoyantly improbable plot, with “one detail after another”, as George Orwell put it, “clicking into place like the teeth of a zip”. As with Jane Austen, it’s made all the more enjoyable by its heavily cash-based notion of morality, not to mention its somewhat pre-feminist take on marriage.
Graham Greene: The Power and the Glory (1940)
In this novel of guilt, sin and the power of grace, an unnamed priest goes on the run in southern Mexico in the 1930s, a time when the government is brutally suppressing the Catholic church. Leading the anti-clerical crackdown is the ideologically driven lieutenant of police (also unnamed). On his travels, the priest encounters figures from his past – including the village woman with whom he fathered a girl – as well as assorted expats and indigenes, one of whom – known simply as the Mestizo – he knows will be his Judas. John Updike, among others, has acclaimed this novel as Greene’s masterpiece.
Knut Hamsun: Hunger (1890)
Embarking on an unholy fast on the streets of Christiania, Hamsun’s extraordinary hero is the very model of the starving artist. At one point reduced to begging a butcher for a bone to gnaw on, weeping and vomiting, he still refuses to rejoin the society that might feed him, pushing against his own mental and physical limitations until he sheds his identity along with his skin. Hunger can be seen as a runway into 20th-century modernism, proposing, as Paul Auster has written, “some new thought about the nature of art”.
LP Hartley: The Shrimp and the Anemone (1944)
The vividly evocative account of a childhood summer spent on the Norfolk coast at the turn of the 20th century by the timid, impressionable invalid Eustace and his strong-willed elder sister Hilda, who is determined to imbue her brother with a sense of duty and moral responsibility. The powerful opening scene on the beach prefigures their destiny: Hilda tries to rescue a shrimp from a sea anemone, and in the process destroys both. Part one of Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy.
Ernest Hemingway: The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
“I went out too far,” says the old Cuban fisherman, looking at the shark-ruined carcass of the giant fish it has taken him three agonising days to catch. As compelling as a hook in the throat, Hemingway’s novella is an elemental fable of humanity at the extremes of endurance, reduced to one frail figure surrounded by an ocean of hidden forces. Despite baiting his tale with irresistible symbolism, however, the author took a different view of it: “The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man.”
Hermann Hesse: Steppenwolf (1927)
Harry Haller, a middle-aged loner, is handed a pamphlet titled Treatise on the Steppenwolf, which addresses him by name and appears to describe his own struggle to resolve the two poles of his character: the spiritual and the animalistic. A chance meeting with a young woman, Hermine, leads him into an episode of gratifying debauchery, before a hallucinatory and disturbing denouement at the “magic theatre” of the saxophonist Pablo, where Harry kills Hermine and finds himself being judged by Mozart. Hesse drew heavily on Buddhist thought for this novel, which he considered “more often and more violently misunderstood” than any of his other books.
Hermann Hesse: Narziss and Goldmund (1930)
A novel that dramatises Nietzsche’s conception of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. At the medieval monastery of Mariabronn, the restless Goldmund realises he isn’t cut out for a cloistered life under the tutelage of his friend and mentor, the ascetic Narziss, and so begins a series of travels that see him work his way through most of the seven deadly sins before finding a psychic resolution of sorts in an apprenticeship to a master sculptor. Only by feeding his appetite for worldly experience does Goldmund finally find the courage to face death.
Thomas Hughes: Tom Brown’s School Days (1857)
The novel that announced to the world the revolution brought about by Dr Thomas Arnold at Rugby. The great headmaster is seldom seen, but looms over the narrative “like the god in a Greek play”. Tom, a nine-year-old squire’s son is dispatched to Rugby, where he is befriended by Harry “Scud” East, morally improved by saintly George Arthur, and tormented by bully Harry Flashman, whom the plucky young heroes eventually best. The main events in the novel are football, cross-country running, fishing, feasting and various innocent scrapes. At the end of the last term, Tom captains his school cricket team against the MCC. The novel ends with Arnold’s death. Contemporary readers have found Flashman (as immortalised by George MacDonald Fraser) less odious than did Hughes.
John Irving: A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989)
Abnormally short, afflicted with a curious speech impediment and responsible for the inadvertent baseball-inflicted death of his best friend’s mother, Owen Meany is an unlikely instrument of God. Against a backdrop of the Vietnam war, however, this “little doll” takes on the status of a heroic colossus, ultimately becoming a thoroughly modern martyr. Taking Irving’s New Hampshire whimsy and adding a spiritual twist, this novel explores faith, friendship and predestination with an alluring sweetness and charm.
Henry James: The Ambassadors (1903)
“Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.” It’s no wonder that Lewis Lambert Strether, the 50-something protagonist, speaks with such passion: when he is sent to Paris to rescue Chad, the son of the formidable Mrs Newsome, from big city Bohemia, the old-world glamour sets him wondering whether his whole life has been wasted. It’s this doubt that ruins both his mission and his future, leaving him balanced on the precarious cusp between comedy and tragedy.
Henry James: Washington Square (1880)
Catherine Sloper is James’s Fanny Price, a heroine notable for her anti-heroic qualities: passivity, plainness, average intelligence. And this is, indeed, something of an anti-love story. The hero may be dashing and handsome, but his penury arouses the suspicion of Catherine’s father, a successful New York doctor who, though disappointed in his only daughter, had intended to provide her with thirty thousand a year. No one in this tartly written early novel comes out well, except perhaps Catherine, who discovers modest reserves of dignity and stoicism.
Elizabeth Jenkins: The Tortoise and the Hare (1954)
This is a novel about a love triangle. Imogen, 37, is married to Evelyn, 52, a barrister and a living testament to the qualities and habits of life that have made the reputation of the English southern counties. Their next-door neighbour is 50-year-old Blanche Silcox, festooned in tweeds, stout of body and firm of mind. As atmospheric as Graham Greene, beautifully written, enigmatic and exquisite, it eternally puts the question: who is the Tortoise, who the Hare?
BS Johnson: The Unfortunates (1969)
A sports journalist, sent to a Midlands town on a weekly assignment, finds his attempts to report a football match interrupted by memories of a close and trusted friend who died young of cancer. Johnson’s famous “book in a box” has 27 chapters, which are printed individually and can be read in any order. At the time of writing it, Johnson was earning his living as a jobbing football reporter for the Observer. Published in 1969, the fourth of his seven novels, The Unfortunates offers a frank self-portrait which is also a meditation on mortality, a celebration of friendship and one of the key works of the experimental fiction of the 60s.
James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
“It’s damn well written,” Ezra Pound wrote to HL Mencken in 1915, describing the serialised version of Portrait of the Artist; later, he would predict the that the book would “remain a permanent part of English literature”. Both assertions now look like understatement: Joyce’s depiction of the early Dublin life of Stephen Dedalus towers over modern literature, providing a stylistic blueprint and creative touchstone for artists young and old.
Molly Keane: Good Behaviour (1981)
Aroon St Charles doesn’t seem best suited to telling her family’s story in a “big house” novel: she fears Mummie’s iciness, but can’t think how she ended up like that; she notices Papa’s absences but doesn’t realise he’s having affairs with everyone from Cook to the unmarried twins in the village; she joins her beloved brother Hubert and best friend Richard for pre-dinner cocktails but doesn’t see she’s gooseberry. But Aroon perfectly illustrates the Anglo-Irish aristocratic philosophy that gives this Booker-shortlisted novel its name. Gloriously readable, it is darker, funnier and more satisfying than it at first appears.
Yashar Kemal: Memed, My Hawk (1955)
In the impoverished highlands of Anatolia, Slim Memed is driven by the cruelty of the local landowner to do battle with feudal injustice. He becomes a bandit-hero, championing the landless poor against their corrupt oppressors. Kemal’s first novel was praised by James Baldwin for “trying to find, to create, in his own country, a language for millions and millions of people whom no one’s ever heard of, whom no one has ever spoken for, and who cannot speak”.
Hanif Kureishi: The Buddha of Suburbia (1990)
Coming of age is enough of a challenge at the best of times, but Karim Amir has it harder than most. It’s the 1970s: he’s half-Indian, he’s gay, and his father is being egged on by Eva, his dynamic mistress, to set himself up as a prophet of eastern mystic values to plug the spiritual gap left by British materialism. The entire family is plunged into turmoil in a perceptive and highly entertaining novel that established Kureishi as one of the first British Asian writers to take his place in the literary mainstream.
DH Lawrence: Sons and Lovers (1913)
With the working title of Paul Morel, this, Lawrence’s third novel, but his first major work, is the story of a young man growing up in a mining village in Lawrence’s native Nottinghamshire. First there is the lovely Miriam from a neighbouring farm with whom he enjoys long walks, conversation and much sexual tension, then the sensuous Clara with whom he finally gets some Lawrentian passion. But, in the end, neither of his lovers matches up to his mother. More Freudian than a psychoanalytic textbook, the novel was begun while Lawrence’s own beloved mother was dying of cancer. It remains an affecting portrait of a mining family torn apart by class divisions and individual desire at the turn of the century.
Laurie Lee: Cider with Rosie (1959)
Cider with Rosie is a heavily autobiographical account of a working-class childhood lived in the shadow of the first world war. Told in lyrical prose, it captures the sights and sounds of an agricultural Cotswold village as seen through the eyes of a small boy. In a thematic and anecdotal rather than strictly linear form, Lee creates memorable portraits of eccentric villagers, various local authority figures and, above all, his beloved mother and elder sisters. Some critics find the prose too lush, but the book remains hugely popular and has become a fixture on the school syllabus.
Rosamond Lehmann: Invitation to the Waltz (1932)
Olivia Curtis is 17, still living in the bosom of her family, but about to leave it for the adult world. Her older, more knowing sister Kate has already abandoned the adolescent sensitivities that pulse through Olivia as she is about to attend her first dance in a great English country house. Lehmann’s perfect understanding of the workings of the human heart turn this into a timeless portrait of every young girl leaving childhood behind for the capricious mysteries and merciful release of maturity — and sexual experience. Olivia’s story is continued in The Weather in the Streets.
Richard Llewellyn: How Green Was My Valley (1939)
The narrative of this English Grapes of Wrath, a tribute to the endurance of the Welsh working class in the 1930s slump, is told autobiographically by Huw Morgan. Huw is born into a tight-knit mining family, fiercely moral and fiercely socialist. Huw, a brilliant and precocious child, is injured rescuing his pregnant mother from drowning. As a result, he is late in attending school, where he is bullied and subjected to anti-Welsh prejudice. He nonetheless succeeds as a scholar. The novel ends with the death of Huw’s father in a graphically described pit collapse. We are to assume that Huw goes on to become a successful man of letters. The novel echoes Edward VIII’s anguished declaration, on visiting South Wales in 1936, that “something must be done”.
Jack London: Martin Eden (1909)
This fictional counterpart to London’s “alcoholic memoir”, John Barleycorn, is the most autobiographical of the author’s novels. By rigorous self-help and self-education, Martin raises himself from destitute family circumstances in San Francisco. Like London, he first follows the “adventure path” of life at sea. He aspires to be a writer, but finds the way barred to the unprivileged. His idiosyncratic socialism does not help. His attempt to win the higher-class Ruth Morse, whom he meets during a brief spell at Berkeley, is similarly unlucky. Finally Martin achieves literary success, only to find it not worth the achieving. The novel has a raw power and offers more insight into the two-fisted author than any of the biographies written about him.
Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano (1947)
Lowry’s masterpiece, one of only two novels published during a lifetime characterised by obsessions with literature and alcohol, was inspired – unsurprisingly – by a period of particularly dark alcoholic excess in Mexico. The novel is set on the Mexican Day of the Dead in 1936 and traces the last day in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, an ex-British consul drowning in mescal-soaked purgatory, and doing all he can to add to the misery of his ex-wife and brother. Lowry writes in a complex, allusive, symbolic, Joycean style, and leaves few lows untouched: “I think I know a good deal about physical suffering. But this is the worst of all, to feel your soul dying.”
Carson McCullers: The Member of the Wedding (1946)
Precocious, motherless 12-year-old Frankie Addams sits in the kitchen of her house in the small-town South and discusses with the family’s maid, Berenice, her brother’s forthcoming wedding and her longing to join him and his new wife on their honeymoon in Alaska. In a narrative that skips back and forth over the three days before the wedding, Frankie’s attempts to demonstrate her growing maturity – including agreeing to a date with a soldier, who tries to rape her – prove futile. Filmed most recently in 1997, with Anna Paquin as Frankie.
Naguib Mahfouz: Palace Walk (1956)
Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy tells the story of 20th-century Egypt from the first world war to Nasser’s overthrow of the old regime in 1952, as reflected in the well-to-do al-Jawad family. In this first volume, published in English in 1990, Ahmad, a prosperous shopkeeper, tyrannises his family and forbids his wife to leave the house. As his five very different children begin to challenge his rules and forge their own identities, they discover that their father is not as pious as he would have them believe.
Bernard Malamud: The Assistant (1957)
In this struggle for the American Dream in 1950s Brooklyn, the Russian-Jewish immigrant Morris Bober has fallen on hard times. A rival grocery store has opened, and to make ends meet his family is now relying on the daughter’s wages from her job as a secretary. After a violent robbery in the store, the Italian-American Frank Alpine is hired as Morris’s assistant and slowly falls for his daughter. The first and second generation come into conflict, and Morris’s desire for a better life comes with a dismissal of Frank based on class rather than true love.
Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks (1901)
A mercantile family in the sober north of Germany gains commercial success but not inner peace as the weight of tradition and the drive to self-fulfilment forever pull in different directions. Set in the environment of his own upbringing, Nobel prizewinner Mann’s chronicle of 19th-century Germany has a cast of memorable characters, from the revolutionary romantic Morten Schwarzkopf to the bumbling Bavarian son-in-law Alois Permaneder. Completed shortly after the author’s 25th birthday and long before Mann’s characters started to talk like philosophy textbooks, this is as gripping and life-changing a family saga as they get.
William Maxwell: Chateau (1961)
In this Henry James-like adventure by a former fiction editor of the New Yorker, we follow the American couple Harold and Barbara Rhodes on a four-month trip to Europe. They are full of enthusiasm, eager to immerse themselves in French culture; but it’s 1945 and in this war-battered country they do not get the welcoming reception they had desired. The novel successfully depicts misunderstandings, isolation and disappointment: are they sensitive to local traditions? Are they laughing at the right jokes? Are they tipping too much?
FM Mayor: The Rector’s Daughter (1924)
Robert Herbert remembers Mary Jocelyn as a woman with an “intensity of feeling which rarely showed itself in her face, or even in her words”. Flora Mayor, her creator, had an uncanny sensitivity to the inner workings of that class of English women – so often the offspring of clergymen – who dwelt enclosed, and seemingly at peace, within the confines of upper-middle-class English life in the last century. Illuminated by a love story of great beauty, this novel exquisitely captures every nuance of a heart longing for love.
George Meredith: The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859)
Meredith’s novel was banned by the circulating libraries for the frankness of its sexual descriptions. The hero is raised according to a rigid system devised by his father, Sir Austin Feverel. It is tested to breaking point when the boy falls in love with Lucy Desborough, and secretly marries her. In London, Richard is seduced by a courtesan and Lucy attracts the dangerous attention of Lord Mountfalcon. The couple separate (a frequent event in Meredith’s fiction, reflecting his own broken marriage). In the climax, Richard is wounded in a duel. Lucy goes mad, while her husband lies paralysed – a triumph of his father’s system. The novel’s melodrama is filtered through a Meredithean style that, for those who have cultivated the taste, is sublime.
Rohinton Mistry: Family Matters (2002)
“To so many classes I taught Lear, learning nothing myself.” So laments Nariman Vakeel, a former professor in Bombay, now aged 79 and suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Infirmity makes him dependent first on his stepchildren, who feel, perhaps rightly, that he ruined their mother’s life, and then on his daughter Roxana and her family, who live in two rooms and have no money. The hideous intimacies of old age and decrepitude are described in unsparing detail by a writer with an eye for the small tragedies and epiphanies that constitute ordinary life.
Timothy Mo: Sour Sweet (1982)
In London’s Chinatown in the 1960s, there are clans and conflicts, ambition and the struggle for survival. The Chen family arrives from Hong Kong in the hope of establishing a successful restaurant, but that is threatened by the sinister triads. The novel cleverly contrasts the family’s mundane life with underworld violence. Mo, an Anglo-Chinese author, offers compassionate insight into the immigrant experience, and this, his second novel, was shortlisted for the Booker prize.
Brian Moore: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955)
Despite being written with an empathy that lends it some warmth, Moore’s exploration of loneliness comes with the authentic chill of nights spent alone in shabby bedsits. Newly resident in her latest Belfast boarding house, Judith Hearne loses herself in alcohol and fantasy, pinning her fading romantic hopes on the dashing, desperately unreliable figure of James Madden. Failings of religion, love, family, friends and, most damningly, the human mind are revealed with bleak clarity as Judith’s faith flows away like the dregs of a bottle of whiskey. The book was made into a Bafta-winning film starring Maggie Smith and Bob Hoskins.
Toni Morrison: The Bluest Eye (1970)
Toni Morrison’s first novel is set in her childhood town of Lorain during the Depression. It began as a short story about a school friend of Morrison’s who said she wanted blue eyes, despite how ridiculous this little black girl, who couldn’t see her own beauty, would look if she got her wish. “It was the first time I knew beautiful,’ Morrison has written. Her story of racial self-loathing tells the tale of poor, ugly, unloved Pecola, whose own mother favours the pretty white Shirley Temple daughters of the family she works for, who is raped by her father, bears his child and who eventually descends into madness through her longing for blue eyes. There is enough heartbreak and poetry in this slim novel to earn it’s place as one of the great African-American novel of the last century, but when it was first published in 1970 it was, as the author wrote in an afterword nearly 25 years later, “like Pecola’s life: dismissed, trivialised, misread” and was out of print by 1974. Since then critical and popular appreciation of Morrison has soared. She has won both the Nobel and the Pulitzer and is one of Barack Obama’s favourite authors. In 2000 The Bluest Eye was voted as an Oprah book club choice.
Toni Morrison: Song of Solomon (1977)
This Nobel prizewinner’s third novel was the first Oprah book club pick, and the fortunes of both are inextricably linked. It means that a significant proportion of the American population has read this strange, beautiful novel about African-American Macon Dead III – or Milkman (still being breastfed when his feet trailed on the floor) – and his moneyed family living in the South, his ethereal and silent sister Pilate, born without a navel, and his separation from his family in search of the rumoured family treasure. Exploring familial bonds and conflict, separated from the breathless Oprah rhetoric, this novel still sings.
Alice Munro: Who Do You Think You Are? (1978)
Because the short stories in this volume are linked by the same characters, ambitious Rose and her small-town cynical stepmother Flo, Claire Tomalin won her determined argument for the book to be considered for the 1980 Booker prize (shortlisted, it lost to William Golding’s Rites of Passage.) If this is a list of the 1,000 books you should read, Munro ought to be in the top 20 at least: her deceptively direct and completely unfussy prose opens trapdoors into wide worlds of emotion, rebellion, the infinite complications of love.
Iris Murdoch: The Black Prince (1973)
Love, death, art and truth: when it comes to the big issues, this towering Murdoch novel has them all covered. Constructed with dazzling verve, it tells the story of Bradley Pearson, an ageing writer with a troublesome block, whose artistic peace of mind is overshadowed by the trials of his friends, Arnold and Rachel Baffin. Subtle and shifting, thanks to the playful inclusion of postscripts and forewords from the dramatis personae, The Black Prince shows the author at her formidable peak.
VS Naipaul: A House for Mr Biswas (1961)
Six-fingered and born in the wrong way, Mohun Biswas is destined, according to village lore, for a life of misfortune. When his family is exiled from its village after an unfortunate incident with a neighbour’s calf, Mr Biswas sets out on a lifelong search for a home of his own. He becomes a sign-writer and then a news reporter, and does battle with the suffocation of Hindu family life, only to end his days deeply in debt in a jerry-built house sold to him by an entrepreneur of the new Trinidad. The novel that made Naipaul’s name is a comic epic of survival against the odds in the postcolonial world.
Flann O’Brien: At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)
A man is writing a book about a man who is writing a book, which is about several strange characters. Naturally, these characters resent being made to do as their author decrees, and plan a mutiny. O’Brien’s fragmented narrative skips between this lot, their author, the top-level author (a stout-swilling undergraduate) and other tales that slip in: Irish epics, westerns. There’s a sophisticated exploration of authorship, fiction and the ego here somewhere, but most readers will be so bamboozled that they won’t notice – or mind – if they miss it.
Kenzaburo Oe: Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness (1969)
The birth of a disabled boy to Oe and his wife opened a new chapter in the writing life of the Japanese Nobel laureate. Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness is one of three novellas in what Oe called his “idiot son” cycle. Here, he explores the scorching devotion between a hugely fat father and his mentally handicapped son, Eeyore (Oe’s own son is nicknamed Pooh). Criticised for exploiting his son in his work, Oe simply says that in all his fiction he is “writing about the dignity of human beings”.