VS Naipaul A Bend in the River (1979)
Another great 20th-century writer visits the sub-Saharan Africa explored in Conrad’s Heartof Darkness, soon after the white colonialists have disappeared. “Black men” have assumed “the lies of white men” and the narrator, Selim, observes with the outsider perspective of a Muslim Asian as a dictator tears apart his country. It’s a bleak vision of a land ruled by terror, but the beauty of the prose and Naipaul’s barbed humour make A Bend In The River a real pleasure.
Frank Norris: McTeague (1899)
A bracing blast of social-realism, played out in San Francisco and detailing the rise and fall of a knuckle-headed dentist. Taking his lead from Zola, Norris rustles up a bold, broad and colourful tale of human weakness as his characters are at ﬁrst galvanised and then destroyed by a $5,000 lottery win. A forgotten landmark in American ﬁction, McTeague formed the basis for Erich von Stroheim’s classic silent-screen drama Greed (1924).
Andrew O’Hagan: Personality (2003)
A skilful exploration of celebrity culture, O’Hagan’s second novel tells the story of Maria Tambini. Born into a Scottish-Italian chip-shop owning family, she becomes a child star thanks to Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks and then develops anorexia nervosa. This was, of course, the life of Lena Zavaroni, but Personality is a long way from a biographical study. It’s chock full of diﬀ erent voices and styles — O’Hagan is exceptional at dialogue — and wraps Zavaroni’s story in a charged lyricism. We create celebrities for our pleasure, then destroy them: fans of The X Factor should be made to read this book.
George Orwell Animal Farm (1945)
A Swiftian satire on totalitarianism — speciﬁcally Stalin’s Russia. Animals, led by the pigs, resolve to take their farm from its human owner, Mr Jones. Once the revolution is achieved, the ruthless porker Napoleon (Stalin) imposes an even harsher dictatorship than that run by his capitalist, two-legged predecessor. The less intelligent beasts are slaughtered or worked to death while the pigs morph into the capitalists of old. The fable, composed at a time when the Soviet Union was a wartime ally, could ﬁnd no British publisher (TS Eliot, then a director at Faber, pointed out that the intelligent pigs deserved to be in charge). The British publishing industry was, Orwell concluded, inherently “gutless”.
Pier Paolo Pasolini: The Ragazzi (1955)
A robust challenge to the mainstream mores of post-war Italy, Pasolini’s scabrous novel follows Riccetto, a member of the Roman underclass, as he wanders the meanest of streets. Slum thuggery represents freedom from the conventions of politics and morality. Told in pungent slang and unabashed in its depiction of sex, crime and violence, the book was conﬁscated by police, and the future director was accused by the government of obscenity.
Alan Paton: Cry, The Beloved Country (1948)
Published in the year that saw apartheid come into force in South Africa, Paton’s novel follows the Reverend Stephen Kumalo on to the streets of
Johannesburg as he attempts to find his son, Absalom. His mission is transformed when he discovers that Absalom has been charged with the murder of a white liberal activist. Humane, compassionate and touched with a biblical grace, Paton’s book is unflinching yet never hopeless: “But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”
Cesare Pavese: The Moon and the Bonfire (1949)
Returning to his Italian village after years of making good in America, Pavese’s narrator discovers that the countryside of his youth has been irreversibly scarred by the second world war. As memories of his childhood rise from the landscape, so do the bodies of those who were killed during the conflict — grisly evidence of the past polluting the present. Sex, betrayal and the tensions of a divided community underscore the tough lyricism of this, the author’s final novel.
Thomas Love Peacock: Headlong Hall (1816)
Peacock’s gift was for dialogues — not realistic chat, but carefully staged disputes reminiscent of Socratic debates. His novels are usually named
after country houses because these are the locations where he gathers representatives of particular beliefs or fashions (or beliefs that are merely fashions) and forces them into each other’s company. In Headlong Hall, the equally absurd Mr Escot, the pessimist, and Mr Foster, the optimist, rehearse the arguments of, respectively, Malthus and Rousseau. Other guests at Squire Headlong’s Welsh retreat debate literature or art with equal vehemence and ludicrous certainty. Mr Milestone, disdaining mere talk, puts his theories of landscaping into effect by blowing up part of the squire’s grounds.
Anthony Powell: Afternoon Men (1931)
Critical attention has focused on A Dance to the Music of Time but Powell’s first novel is memorable. It’s slighter but sharper than Dance, more scathing in its depiction of disaffected, acidic young urbanites — the interwar generation — whose only emotion is a sort of dull gloom and whose only concession to higher thoughts is to make snobbish comments about art. Atwater, the narrator, is almost a perfect blank, propelled forward only by a vague desire for cocktails and women. The first chapter is icily funny, especially in the collision of the American Schneider, a “regular boy”, with London’s bright young things.
Thomas Pynchon: Vineland (1990)
What has happened to the territory in North America christened by the
Norse explorer Leif Ericson “Vinland”? Pynchon’s Vineland is a wooded slice of northern California, an enclave in 1984 for ageing 60s hippies in a culture devastated by capitalist obsession and Reaganism. Our window into this world is Zoyd Wheeler, single parent to Prairie, whose mother, Frenesi Gates, has turned from hippy to FBI informant. Funny and touching, packed with pop cultural references and an inspiration to film directors (Quentin Tarantino is clearly a fan), this is Pynchon’s only look at present-day America — America as he was experiencing it.
Joseph Roth: The Radetzky March (1932)
Written just half a decade before the author’s death from alcoholism while in exile in Paris, this is a nostalgic study of the decline of the Habsburg Empire and the parallel decline of the Trottas, a loyal military family whose status is elevated by Emperor Franz Joseph I. Roth offers an elegy to relatively benign imperial rule and explores the meaninglessness that sets in when an ideal is destroyed. In his memorable phrase, his peasant-born, conscience stricken Trottas are “homeless for the Kaiser”.
Philip Roth: American Pastoral (1997)
Seymour “Swede” Levov is a Jewish-American golden boy who is brought down by the actions of his cherished daughter, who bombs a post office in protest at the war in Vietnam. Levov might also be seen as the emblem of a complacent middle-class that assumed the world’s troubles would pass them by — Roth shows how the house of cards can come tumbling down. American Pastoral spotlights a nation in spiritual crisis, staggering towards a horrified self-awareness.
Philip Roth: The Human Stain (2000)
“Do they exist or are they spooks?” This is the question, about absent students and addressed to his class, that seals the fate of Jewish classics professor — and reputed racist — Coleman Silk. Except Silk is not what he seems. He is a man of secrets; at once noble and cowardly, confident and compromised. In the guise of his alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, Roth rails against a climate of sexual and racial hypocrisy. Along the way he produces a tragedy substantial in its weight, scope and ambition — an Othello for the Clinton era.
Salman Rushdie: Midnight’s Children (1981)
A great English novel that hardly mentions England and has no major English characters. Yet while it spans much of the history of India in the 20th century, and is heady with the smells and colours of the sub-continent, it also borrows from a great tradition of English fiction. Saleem Sinai, the novel’s narrator, is a latterday Tristram Shandy, reviewing the comic family history that has made him. Born on the day of Indian independence, his own “lifelong belief in the equation between the state and myself” is borne out by his own accidental involvement in all the great and terrible events of his country’s history, ending darkly with the infamous “emergency” of Mrs Gandhi (“the Madam”).
Salman Rushdie: Shame (1983)
Set in Peccavistan, a country that “is and is not Pakistan”, Shame describes the conflict between two families, the Harrapas and the Hyders. They are at once united and divided — the book is a thinly-veiled study of the relationship between Zia ul-Haq, president of Pakistan, and his overthrown predecessor,
Zulkifar Ali Bhutto. Connected is the story of Suiya Zenobia, whose failure to be born a boy instils within her a limitless capacity for shame. Suiya’s sense of degradation illustrates, with candour, the impossibility of female dignity in the society in which she finds herself.
Leonardo Sciascia: To Each His Own (1966)
In this short and elegantly brutal detective novel set in Sicily, Sciascia, an Italian writer and moral and cultural commentator, takes on a society that had acceded to fascism and the mafia. When two locals are murdered, everyone knows who is responsible. Everyone, however, sticks to a behavioural code that ensures the guilty party remains unpunished — everyone, that is, except Sciascia’s unlikely hero, the timid schoolteacher Laurano, who thinks he can solve the crime and deliver justice. His failure — and grisly end in a sulphur mine — is Sciascia’s statement on the impossibility of justice in his native country.
Paul Scott: Staying On (1977)
A comic, moving novel that looks at the handover of independence to India through the eyes of a retired British colonial couple, Colonel Tusker Smalley and his wife Lily, who decide to stay on in the home they have made. Scott is brilliant on the division between Indian nd colonialist, and moving on the plight of the Smalleys as they try to retain control over their lives. They are at once symbolic of a whole system and vividly distinct, in a way that makes their slow demise heartbreaking.
Hubert Selby Jr: Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964)
Banned when first published in Britain, this novel’s eventual appearance here in 1968 signalled the effective end of literary censorship. Initially conceived as a bundle of connected short stories, it is set in the savage, degenerate post-war Brooklyn projects. Last Exit is both ultra-realistic and abrupt in a stream-of- consciousness, lagrantly ungrammatical style. Two of the longer stories, “Tralala” (which ends with a street woman being gang-raped) and Strike” (in which a union leader discovers his homosexuality, with hideous consequences) caused particular alarm among Britain’s moral guardians.
Samuel Selvon: The Lonely Londoners (1956)
In smog-bound London, where signs say “keep the water white”, West Indian immigrants beg shillings to feed the gas heater, wear pyjamas as underwear and labour in factories through the night. When they can’t get work, they catch pigeons and seagulls to eat. “Why the hell you can’t change colour?” a new arrival on the boat-train interrogates his black hand. The city around him is changing colour fast: from saltfish and rice appearing in shops to babies being born “with curly hair”. This bleak yet wry novel reflects the exile experienced by the author, who left Trinidad in 1950 and has since been hailed as “the father of black writing” in Britain. The book’s fragmented, open-ended structure is fitting for a story that continues today.
Ousmane Sembène: God’s Bit of Wood (1960)
In this landmark novel, which progresses through the dreadful Senegalese Union Railroad strike of 1947-48, the women gradually usurp the men and take centre stage. When the ruling French try to bring down the workers by cutting off their food and water supply, it is the women who defend themselves with violence and clash with the armed forces of their colonial rulers. Lacking individual heroes, this tale of collective action celebrates and honours a strike, a protest march and a resistance that lasted “as long as a life”.
Victor Serge: The Case of Comrade Tulayev (1950)
“The case ramified in every direction, linked itself to hundreds of others, mingled with them, disappeared in them, re-emerged like a dangerous little blue flame from under fire-blackened ruins.” Written from Mexican exile, the legendary anarchist’s novel about Stalin’s purges, show trials and executions is astonishing for many things: for the beauty of prose that describes horrifying acts; for sustained suspense, as the murder of a Stalinist party head on a cold Moscow night reverberates through the country and the world; and for its tribute to the heroism of the masses.
Lao She: Rickshaw Boy (1936)
Lao She’s unsentimental tale follows peasant boy Hsiang- tzu, who is drawn to Peking by dreams of independence and comfort but whose strength and cunning are not enough to save him from despair as he pulls a rickshaw from dawn till dark. Lao She’s own story is almost as tragic — he was persecuted, beaten and humiliated by the Chinese government. His rickshaw boy, in a scene which sums up the futility of the individual’s struggle against the system, dies in the snow, alone and defeated. The author committed suicide in 1966, his spirit broken.
Upton Sinclair: The Jungle (1906)
Sinclair had aimed, he said, at America’s conscience, but hit its stomach instead. A muckraking novel about the Chicago stockyards and meat-packing industry, the narrative follows the fortunes of a Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus. Newly arrived in the country with his family, and newly married, Jurgis is idealistic about the new world. But the heartless industrial machine which produces canned food — adulterated and frequently poisonous — for the American table uses him until his strength, health and family are utterly broken. Jurgis takes to drink but finally sees a glimmer of hope in socialism. Theodore Roosevelt was so shocked by the sanitary standards Sinclair described that he sent a presidential commission to investigate the stockyards.
Stevie Smith: Novel on Yellow Paper (1936)
As in the poetry for which she is also famous, Smith herself, witty, brilliant, wandering of mind yet eternally perspicacious, erupts through every word of this remarkable novel. Her heroine is Pompey Casmilus, a young woman who, bored as a secretary, takes up her office’s yellow writing paper to tell us of her life and times. She misses not a trick, and through her love affairs, her friendships, her love of love and her revealing experiences in Nazi Germany, a comic masterpiece emerges.
Zadie Smith: White Teeth (2000)
Zadie Smith burst on to the literary scene with this rich and fizzy vision of multicultural Britain. Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal fought together in the second world war; 30 years later, their families’ lives intertwine as Archie’s daughter and Samad’s twin sons attempt to navigate late 20th-century London’s lures and expectations. Immigration and pregnancy, friendship and genetics, fundamentalism and class, beauty and luck: Smith’s novel contains multitudes, and deals with all its subjects astutely, wittily and with an admirable lightness of touch.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
Cleared for publication by Nikita Khrushchev himself, who had to bully his colleagues on the politburo into reading it, this daring account of life in the Soviet gulag was an instant sensation in Russia, and made Solzhenitsyn world- famous within weeks. Based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences at a camp in northern Kazakhstan, this slim volume follows a prisoner from the hammer banging out reveille on the rail at 5am, through the brutality of camp life until lights out at 10pm. Pared-down and finishing on a note of transcendent calm, the book enjoyed global success and laid the seeds both of Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel prize, awarded in 1970, and Khrushchev’s downfall.
John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
Still one of the most-read texts in American high-schools. The Joad family, tenant farmers, are driven from Oklahoma by the mid-1930s “dustbowl” climatic disaster. Tom, recently out of prison, rejoins them as they prepare for their pilgrimage to California where, as advertisements assure them, life is easy. In a rickety, overloaded Hudson van the Joads laboriously traverse Route 66, the “mother road”. In the west, they discover that “Okies” are despised, abused and employed only as long as the season requires them for the stoop labour of fruit picking. The family disintegrates.
Stendhal:The Red and the Black (1830)
“I shall be understood in 1880,” said Stendhal — ie around half a century after he published this, his most renowned novel. Telling the story of the young, impassioned hero, Julien Sorel, as he exerts himself to rise above his
humble station using a mixture of native gifts and hypocrisy, Stendhal wrote in a style inimical to both Classicists and Romantics alike; and so the book reads astonishingly freshly today. The words applied to Sorel at one point could apply to Stendhal himself: “You haven’t a Frenchman’s frivolous mind, and you understand the principle of utility.”
August Strindberg: The Red Room (1879)
Arvid Falk, a disillusioned civil servant, becomes a journalist in Stockholm only to discover that man, in all his social guises, is a deceitful animal. Inevitably, government and the church are satirised, but the depressive dramatist’s irst novel goes much further, launching a scathing attack on every aspect of modern life. Cultural institutions, business and philanthropy are merely the parasites of capitalism, driven by the pursuit of self-interest. Publishing is caricatured as the lifeless arm of faceless media empires, concerned with nothing but peddling celebrity biographies and manufacturing
Rabindranath Tagore: The Home and the World (1916)
On a prosperous Bengali estate in 1908, housewife Bimala enjoys a life of contentment with her wealthy husband, Nikhil. But her happiness is endangered when she meets Sandip, the charismatic leader of the Swadeshi movement, which aims to end colonial rule in India. His persuasive rhetoric encourages Bimala to get involved in a cause that proved to be rooted in violence and corruption. Sandip’s exploitation of Bimala sums up the immorality Tagore saw in Swadeshi activists; his intense distrust of the movement is woven into the fabric of this novel.
William Makepeace:Thackeray Vanity Fair (1848)
Published as a serial over 18 months, Vanity Fair offers a panorama of English society which pivots on the Battle of Waterloo. Subtitled “A Novel
without a Hero” it has two heroines. Rebecca (“Becky”) Sharp is ruthless and self- seeking; Amelia Sedley is a “good woman”. Both marry soldiers: Becky’s Rawdon lives, Amelia’s George dies. Over the next 10 years the women’s careers seesaw. Becky ends ennobled but disgraced; Amelia accepts Dobbin, who has always loved her. Thackeray’s clubman tone and easy irony (“cynicism” his contemporaries thought), establish him as the natural heir to Fielding.
Robert Tressell: The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914)
Life seems to get ever harder for Frank Owen and his fellow painters and decorators at Rushton & Co while their bosses get richer and fatter. Using chopped up bits of bread, Owen shows his colleagues the “Great Money Trick” to prove that money is actually the cause of poverty — but they are not easily convinced. Published posthumously, with much of the explicit politics edited out, Tressell’s only novel didn’t appear unabridged until 1955. Since then it has become something of a sacred text among activists, and even the odd cabinet minister has claimed it as a favourite book. It is worth bearing in mind though, that Tressell’s intended lesson was to “indicate what I believe to be the only real remedy, namely — Socialism”, and that may have had little effect.
Anthony Trollope: The Last Chronicle of Barset (1867)
Trollope’s magniicent conclusion to his Barsetshire saga is his finest study of agonised conscience. The storyline is summed up by a discarded title: The story of a Cheque for Twenty Pounds And Of The Mischief Which It Did. Josiah Crawley, the cross-grained curate of Hogglestock, is suspected of having stolen a cheque. Confused, he cannot remember how he came by the money. The formidable Bishop’s lady, Mrs Proudie leads the campaign against the luckless Crawley. Virtue triumphs — but love does not, Trollope declined to allow his most beloved maiden heroine, Lily Dale, to marry her faithful lover, Johnny Eames.
Anthony Trollope: The Way We Live Now (1875)
In which the aged Trollope lashed an English society that he felt had become pervasively dishonest. The narrative opens with an assault on the corrupted London literary world, moves on to the depraved world of the West End gentleman’s club (patronised by no one that Trollope regarded as a gentleman), and then to the great canker at the centre of English life, the City. Dominating the narrative is the majestically dishonest Augustus Melmotte — a speculative railroad financier who buys an English society only too willing to sell itself. At the height of his rise, an MP courted by all the great in the land, Melmotte is disgraced and commits suicide. The darkest of Trollope’s 47 novels.
Mark Twain: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
The novel which introduced Twain’s juvenile hero to the world. Tom epitomises what Americans call “spunk”, and — like his Irish pal Huck Finn — has always been something of an offence to the more strictly disposed guardians of public morality. An orphan, Tom is brought up “respectable” by his Aunt Polly. His adventures are a series of boyish pranks and escapades — unlike Huck, he is a great reader of romance: particularly Dumas. He is also, although only some 12 years old, interested in the other kind of romance: notably his sweetheart Becky Thatcher. Twain went on to use Tom in other fictions and he inspired the most famous of British outlaw boy heroes, Richmal Crompton’s William Brown.
John Updike: Couples (1968)
Updike’s infamous portrayal of sexual promiscuity among the surburban middle classes remains one of his most controversial novels. Set in the fictional Boston town of Tarbox, it focuses on a small circle of friends, sexually permissive in the “post-pill paradise” of 1960s America. A huge commercial success, Couples also caused outrage among commentators who attacked its unashamed fascination with adultery and sexual hedonism. The furore led to Updike’s instant notoriety and his face on the cover of Time magazine. Forty years on, the novel is often credited with revolutionising the depiction of sex in literary fiction.
Vassilis Vassilikos: Z (1967)
A study of the military dictatorship which ruled Greece in the 1960s, Z revolves around the assassination of Grigoris Lambrakis, a democratic
politician killed by right-wing extremists in 1963. Vassilikos’s close examination of political corruption had a strong impact, and as a direct result of it the letter “Z” — from the Greek word zei, meaning “he is alive” — became a slogan for political activists. The letter, as well as the book, was banned by the junta. Z’s influence was amplified by Costa Gavras’s Oscar-winning film adaptation, which was released two years after the book was published.
Irvine Welsh: Trainspotting (1993)
Try to put the 1996 film out of your mind. This is a darker work; when it came out, its portrayal of Scottish junkies and psychopaths was seen by many as more an indictment of Tory-run Britain than a hip black comedy. But its use of the Scots vernacular, inspired by James Kelman, is superb and Renton, Spud, Begbie and the rest of the gang have been welcomed into the national consciousness.
Nathanael West: The Day of the Locust (1939)
The whole world is a soundstage for the clowns, tragedians and showgirls of this black-as-pitch Hollywood farce. Rattling around the fringes of the film industry, they play-act their lives then get violent when the reality doesn’t live up to he fantasy. We wouldn’t want to live in the kind of culture that West leads us through. But somehow, we suspect, we do.
Rebecca West: The Return of the Soldier (1918)
West’s small masterpiece centres on three women who in their different ways love Chris Baldry, a first world war captain sent home because of shellshock. Amnesia makes him forget his beautiful wife Kitty, fixing instead on the dowdy and socially inferior Margaret from whom he had parted 15 years before. The repercussions of his illness, and his brutal cure, are described with insight in prose as elegant and precise as the world of the Edwardian country house in which their tragedy takes place.
Edith Wharton: The House of Mirth (1905)
Wharton is at her magnificent, merciless best here as she punishes her heroine Lily Bart for putting riches and status before love. Bart, a ravishing socialite in turn-of-the-century New York, sets out to find a husband who can keep her in luxurious living — and ends up a disgraced, debt-ridden suicide. The novel witheringly shows the savage side of high society, an impeccably mannered world of bridge and betrayal that simply spits Bart out. Terence Davies’ film, which appeared in 2000 with Gillian Anderson as the lead, was shot in Glasgow.
Tom Wolfe: The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)
Sherman McCoy is a Wasp Wall Street banker finding it hard to get by on $1m a year. Furtively picking up his mistress from JFK, McCoy loses his way in the South Bronx, where he runs down a young black man. His victim is neglected to death in the nearby public hospital. The remainder of the novel deals with the destruction of McCoy by the various special-interest groups who run New York (Jewish politicians, Irish policemen, lack populists, the Gay Fist Strike Force) and by the gutter ress. He ends up “a career defendant” and — in an ambiguous climax — radically politicised.