Maria Edgeworth: Castle Rackrent (1800)
Castle Rackrent can claim many English literary firsts, but was most influential as the first regional novel. Set in Ireland before the arrival of
(short-lived) independence in 1782, this is a satirical saga of incompetent Anglo-Irish landlords, narrated in the vernacular by their disingenuous steward, Thady Quirk. The Rackrents are ably assisted in their decline by Quirk’s son Jason, whose designs on their land put class and property relations at the centre of the book. Edgeworth’s allegiance, however, remains ambiguous. The “Editor” insists that Ireland is now worthy of the 1800 Act of Union, while the Glossary” chortles about the Irish in a very present tense.
George Eliot: Middlemarch (1872)
The one Victorian novel whose greatness no one contradicts. Eliot’s massive “study of provincial life” was conceived as two works: one centred on the ardent young idealist Dorothea Brooke; the other on the young scientist Dr Lydgate. Dorothea marries the parson-scholar Edward Casaubon, only to discover his mind is unworthy of her. Lydgate, surrendering to what Eliot calls his “spots of commonness”, marries a woman unworthy of his talent or aspiration. Amidst swirlingly connected plots, Dorothea (now widowed) eventually finds fulilment. Lydgate does not. Set in the time of the first Reform Act (1832) and published just after the second, Middlemarch is Eliot’s most impressive meditation on progress and the individual’s contribution to it.
George Eliot: Silas Marner (1861)
Eliot’s finest pastoral tale. Marner is a linen weaver in the village of Raveloe, who once belonged to a religious sect from which he was unjustly expelled: in reaction he has become a miser. His store of gold is stolen by the son of the local squire; at the same time, a golden-haired foundling, later named Eppie, is left in his house. She humanises the miser and when her rich father reveals himself, Eppie refuses to leave her adoptive parent. The novel is notable for the sharpness of its rural detail, its tactful symbolism and its variation between high melodrama and the broad comedy of Raveloe’s Rainbow Inn.
Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man (1953)
A pioneering novel about being black in America, by a pioneer black American author. The novel was painfully wrestled out of the author who — possessor of one of the most famous writing blocks in literary history — never, over an 80-year life, completed another major work of ﬁction for publication. As the title indicates the novel revolves around the refusal of white America to “see” its black citizens. It is framed as a journal by an un-named African-American, following his post-college career. Allegorical in technique, the novel’s most famous episode is the so-called “Battle Royal” episode in which young gladiatorial blacks ﬁght, blindfolded, for the amusement of haughty white spectators.
Gustave Flaubert: Sentimental Education (1869)
Can youthful idealism withstand the disillusions of age? In tracing young Frederic’s desire for Madame Arnoux, a married woman, Flaubert
shows dreams struggling with reality, and questions whether ambition ever matches outcome. Set against the Paris revolutions of 1848, Flaubert’s ﬁnal and hugely inﬂuential novel casts a similarly dispassionate eye on political ideals — self-interest vies with apathy, institutions contend with individual expression, and champions of the oppressed become policemen. Flaubert asks what is ultimately of most value to us: hope or disappointment?
Theodor Fontane:Eﬃ Briest (1896)
Eﬃ von Briest, 17, gets married to a general twice her age, but her emotional life is stiﬂed by the tight net of social conventions in Bismarck’s
Germany. An aﬀair with another oﬃ cer ends in a pointless but lethal duel. A Prussian Madame Bovary by one of the masters of 19th-century realism, Eﬃ Briest still makes for rich and rewarding reading. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1974 ﬁlm adaptation is worth watching, even if its full title is less succinct: Those who have a notion of their capabilities and needs and yet accept the ruling system in their heads and through their actions and aﬃrm and even justify it thus.”
Richard Ford: Independence Day (1996)
In his sequel to The Sportswriter (1986), Ford picks up the story of Frank Bascombe, now a New Jersey estate agent, as he navigates the fraught emotional territory of a holiday weekend. An ex-wife, a disturbed son and a dangerous universe: all challenge the bland acceptance of what he calls his “existence period”. Ford’s attempt to diagram a certain kind of American everyman won the Pulitzer prize and a PEN/Faulkner award for ﬁ ction — it was the ﬁrst novel to be awarded both in the same year.
EM Forster:A Passage to India (1924)
“The sense of racial tension, of incompatibility, never left me,” Forster wrote of his travels in India. Englishwoman Adela Quested is eager to “see the real India”, but when she experiences a mysterious side of it in the Marabar caves she is overcome by the echoes and accuses the outing’s organiser, Dr Aziz, of sexually assaulting her. His trial fuels the prejudices of the British Raj — the Indians “ought to be spat at … ground into the dust” — and underlines the impossibility of true friendship between an Englishman and Indian until British rule ends. Forster’s ﬁnal novel, which provoked considerable debate over the “colonial problem”, won the James Tait Black prize. Sixty years later it was turned into an award-winning ﬁlm by David Lean.
Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections (2001)
An ambitious, almost encyclopedic novel about modern America, structured around the seemingly hackneyed idea of a dysfunctional family getting together for Christmas. But Franzen’s is a dark as well as a comic book; the Lamberts are unhappy and have made mistakes, and there’s plenty wrong with the shallow, commercial, pharmaceutically obsessed country they live in. The parents, Enid and Alfred, confront old age, illness and frustrated ambitions. Chip has been caught messing about with one of his students, Gary is a depressive, Denise has begun an aﬀair with her boss’s wife. The meanings of the novel’s title are multiple — ﬁnancial, familial, moral. It owes much to Don DeLillo’s ﬁ ction but is friendlier, and became a huge bestseller, perhaps the most recommended literary novel of the decade.
William Gaddis: The Recognitions (1955)
Gaddis’s huge novel is full of stories, but these often seem to be connected by theme rather than conventional narrative logic. The elusive central character is Wyatt Gwyon, intended by his family for the ministry but instead a forger of those objects of religious devotion: paintings. The novel renders the passion with which he creates truly original fakes, credited to Flemish masters. The other leading characters are also counterfeiters, like Otto, the playwright, who plagiarises authors he has never read, or the conman Frank Sinisterra. Much of the novel consists of dialogues in which ideas about religion, art and truthfulness are fearlessly elaborated.
Elizabeth Gaskell: Cranford (1853)
One of the 19th century’s ﬁnest novels of community. Cranford — an idyllic reconstruction of Knutsford, where Gaskell was brought up — is a village not too far from the mill town of Drumble (Manchester), largely populated by genteel spinsters whom Gaskell playfully calls “amazons”. The stories that make up the narrative (which was ﬁrst published in irregular instalments) revolve around two maiden sisters: the timid Miss Matty and the domineering Miss Deborah Jenkyns, daughters of a deceased rector. Matty is ruined by the failure of a bank and makes ineﬀectual but heartwarming attempts to recoup her losses through shopkeeping. All turns out well. Gaskell’s warm nature radiates through the novel.
Elizabeth Gaskell: North and South (1855)
The novel in which Gaskell set out to be scrupulously fair to the Lancashire mill-owners whom she had earlier criticised in Mary Barton (1848). Margaret Hale is transplanted from comfortable life in Hampshire to Milton-Northern (Manchester) when her clergyman father’s doubts force him to leave the Anglican church. Initially appalled, Margaret is gradually won over by the rough northern community and its tough (but moral) textile workers. Her southern softness tempers the hardness of the factory owner Thornton and helps bring about an acceptable end to a savage strike — the same industrial conﬂict that Dickens describes in Hard Times. Gaskell brings a distinctive feminine sympathy to the Victorian “social problem” novel.
André Gide: The Counterfeiters (1925)
When Bernard, a student, is told he is illegitimate, he runs away from home and ends up in the bed of his schoolfriend Olivier. Olivier’s uncle, the novelist Edouard, is in love with his nephew, who promptly heads oﬀ to the Mediterranean with the dastardly Comte de Passavant. Bernard becomes secretary to Edouard — who is working on a novel called The Counterfeiters. The tangled plot — which includes Olivier’s brother’s involvement with a gang of forgers — and large cast of characters are used to elucidate the novel’s themes of social authenticity and sincerity and to explore the possibility of an idealised homosexual relationship. While writing the novel, Gide kept a journal detailing its composition, which he published separately in 1926.
George Gissing: The Odd Women (1893)
A powerful and still underrated novel about the “woman question” in late-Victorian Britain. Gissing tells the story of ﬁve “odd women” — women without husbands — exploring their attempts to retain middle- class respectability without the ﬁnancial means to do so. Alice and Virginia Madden, left adrift by the death of their spendthrift father, are forced to take mechanical “genteel” work. Unwilling to share their fate, their younger sister Monica marries a wealthy man who makes her miserable. The “new women”, Rhoda Nunn and Mary Barfoot, take a more positive approach, training women for proper jobs. But then along comes the callous and rich Everard Barfoot …
George Gissing: New Grub Street (1891)
George Orwell said of this bitter, brilliant novel that it retains its capacity to disquiet. Though set in late 19th-century London, its study of the corrosion of the literary world by self-promotion and commercialism is more relevant today than ever. Edwin Reardon and Jasper Milvain are two young writers who both realise that the values of the new literary industry are base. Milvain plays the game and prospers; Reardon chooses not to compromise and fails.
Competition and commerce are everything — in the marriage market, as in the literary one — and not many classics get written when there’s no food on the table.
Nadine Gordimer: July’s People (1981)
Having been banned under apartheid because it showed South Africa in a negative light Gordimer’s novel — which describes the plight of the Smales, a white, middle-class family forced from their home in Johannesburg during a ﬁctional civil war against black South Africans — was then deemed racist by a panel of teachers in 2001. This lent value to Gordimer’s claim that segregation is indiscriminate in its systematic humiliation of all who live under it. Led to safety and protected by July, their faithful black servant, the Smales in turn become subservient to him.
Maxim Gorky: Mother (1906)
Mother was endorsed by Lenin as a “very timely” propaganda tool after the 1905 revolution and served as a model for Bolshevik ideology and socialist-realist writing. In a greasy factory suburb, Pelageya Nilovna is a
downtrodden woman whose only solace is religion. When her son, Pavel
Vlassov, declares himself a socialist, she is afraid and ashamed. In her eyes, socialists murder tsars. Yet through her love for her son, she overcomes her habits of subservience. She learns to read and when Pavel is arrested, Pelageya ﬁnds her own role, smuggling pamphlets to peasants.
Alasdair Gray: Lanark (1981)
A strange, huge picture of Glasgow written by an author as renowned for his artwork as for his writing. The novel, embellished with Gray’s elaborately emblematic title pages, has a deliberately forbidding structure. Its four books are presented out of sequence, a naturalistic narrative of a young man’s growth to self-consciousness in 1930s and 1940s Glasgow being enwrapped within a Kafka-esque fantasy about a parallel city called Unthank. In the fantasy, the hero, Lanark, ﬁnds himself in a kind of hell of all-powerful institutions and mysteriously knowledgeable persecutors. In the realistic story, Gray’s alter ego, Duncan Thaw, struggles to maintain his artistic integrity. The challenge to the reader is to follow the connections between
Walter Greenwood: Love on the Dole (1933)
An apprentice at Marlowe’s, an engineering ﬁrm, notices familiar faces disappearing and fears that before being old enough to claim an adult wage, he will join them on the dole as another “living corpse; a unit of the spectral army of three million lost men”. Not even love’s young dream provides a refuge from the deprivation and degradation of unemployment, while protest ends in death. Greenwood’s ﬁrst novel, a ﬁctionalisation of “the tragic and sordid side of poverty” near his hometown of Salford, moved middle-class readers during the depression years. The early-morning march of hobnail boots on cobbles and the clack-clack-clack of the cotton mills may document a distant time, but rising unemployment, pressure on wages and means testing still shatters lives today.
Thomas Hardy: The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886)
Hardy’s reworking of Oedipus Rex, set in the author’s native Wessex in the 1840s. Michael Henchard, a drunken journeyman labourer, sells his wife to a sailor at a local fair. On sobering up, he vows not to drink for 21 years. He rises in the world as a corn-factor and is elected mayor of Casterbridge (Dorchester, bleakly depicted), but his fall once again is precipitous, and he dies, as he began, a labourer. The novel is Hardy’s most powerful study of will and character and the irresistibility of fate.
Barry Hines: A Kestrel for a Knave (1968)
Neglected by his parents, bullied by his brother, beaten and belittled at school, Billy Casper has little hope of a future beyond the pit in his deprived northern town, a destiny signalled by the coal- heaps which loom over the playground. The ﬁ rst line describes Billy’s cold council-house bedroom at night — “There were no curtains up” — and his only comforts are stolen food, the late-night shipping forecast and Desperate Dan. That is, until he ﬁnds, rears and trains a kestrel: as he lets the bird take ﬂight, Billy’s own horizons seem to expand. The source of Ken Loach’s faithful 1969 ﬁ lm Kes, Hines’s book is a compelling and haunting portrait of the trials and limitations of British working-class youth.
Winifred Holtby: South Riding (1936)
Set in a ﬁctional Yorkshire, Holtby’s last novel, published posthumously, takes up her abiding themes of class and social justice. The central relationship, between the idealistic young headmistress Sarah Burton and the unhappily married squire Robert Carne, has striking echoes of the love aﬀair between Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. In 1974 Yorkshire Television serialised the book, with Dorothy Tutin and Nigel Davenport in the leading roles.
Victor Hugo: Les Misérables (1862)
The most popular novel among both armies in the American civil war. The innumerable pirated copies that circulated in the English-speaking world never quite decided how to translate the title (“The Wretched”, “The Poor Ones”) and, like the phenomenally successful musical, eventually trusted that the French words could translate themselves. Hugo’s massive narrative follows the career of Jean Valjean, a convict, imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. On his release, he steals some silver candlesticks from a bishop, who forgives him. This act of kindness sets Valjean on the path of righteousness. He becomes a successful industrialist, mayor and family man — although always haunted by his criminal past. Hugo introduces spectacular wartime and street-revolution set pieces. An inﬂuential (and much adapted) novel, Les Misérables was recycled by Thomas Hardy as The Mayor of Casterbridge.
Christopher Isherwood: Goodbye to Berlin (1939)
Even less thinly disguised in its autobiographical origins than Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935), Isherwood’s second Berlin novel is also more wide-eyed and panoramic in the way it records the mingling of Germans and émigrés under the Weimar Republic. There is Fräulein Schröder, an outspoken landlady, Anglophile barkeeper Bobby and decadent Sally Bowles, memorably embodied by Liza Minelli in Cabaret (1972), which was born out of a stage play adapted from the novel. “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking,” are the famous lines on the ﬁrst page; reading this novel is much like overhearing anecdotes in a crowded bar while history knocks impatiently at the windows.
justify it thus.”
Ismail Kadare: Chronicle in Stone (1971)
Based on Kadare’s own childhood in the town of Gjirokastër, Chronicle in Stone looks at Albania during the second world war through the eyes of a young boy. Greeks, Germans and Italians march through the town. Making use of the rawness of folklore and tapping into the strange logic of dreams, Kadare takes the lunacy of war and spins it into his own Balkan myth.
James Kelman: How Late It Was, How Late (1994)
Unemployed middle-aged Glaswegian Sammy ﬁnds himself in a police cell after a weekend of booze and ﬁghting. He seems to have lost his sight, though he remembers little of what has happened. Eventually released, he ﬁnds his girlfriend has left him and struggles vainly with the social security bureaucracy. Much of the story is devoted to Sammy’s attempts to satisfy his most basic needs. The third-person narrative does not merely inhabit his thoughts, it also uses a version of his demotic Scots, replete with obsenities, but charged with feeling.
Giuseppe di Lampedusa: The Leopard (1958)
The feudal authority of Fabrizio, prince of Salina, is threatened by the arrival in Sicily in 1860 of Garibaldi’s redshirts. Unable to decide if he should resist the Risorgimento or come to an accommodation with it, the charismatic astronomer prince agrees to his nephew’s marriage to a daughter of the local nouveau-riche. Their unhappy alliance signals the end of inherited power, leaving the prince without a role in life, even as the family’s wealth increases. Lampedusa’s only novel was attacked from right and left when it was posthumously published, but it was saluted by William Golding and EM Forster. In 1963 it was made into a Palme d’Or-winning ﬁlm by Luciano Visconti, with Burt Lancaster as the prince.
Philip Larkin: A Girl in Winter (1947)
The most famous poet of his era, Larkin as a young man published two novels, of which this is the second. Like its predecessor, Jill (1944), A Girl in Winter is a sensitive study of female sensibility — conceived at a period when Larkin (for whom sex was always a fraught topic) had embarked on his ﬁrst serious relationships with women. The “girl” of the title is Katherine Lind — a provincial librarian, as was the author at the time — involved, unsatisfactorily, with a young man. Published in austerity Britain, in a year which saw the worst winter of the century, the narrative is very much of its time. But no one reading it will fail to wonder whether there was not a great novelist struggling to get out of a great poet.
Nella Larsen: Passing (1929)
At separate tables in a rooftop cafe, two black women take tea and pass as white. It is a chance encounter between childhood friends. Irene is a respectable black woman committed to her home and family. Clare travels the world with her white husband who, unwittingly, calls her Nig. After meeting Irene and her Harlem Renaissance friends, Clare ﬁnds she cannot resist her “own people”. Passing broke literary ground as the story of two racially and sexually ambiguous women written by another. Social boundaries can be permeated, but not without cost.
Doris Lessing: The Grass is Singing (1950)
Nearly 60 years before winning the Nobel prize, Lessing was acclaimed for a stunning debut which tells the story of Dick and Mary Turner, farmers in a remote part of Rhodesia. “White supremacy” implies freedoms and luxury they have never known and the glory of the African landscape is oﬀ set by their squalor and frustration. Mary, desperate and isolated, seeks comfort from the couple’s black cook, Moses. The lure and contradictions of colonial life are brilliantly analysed as a tragedy unfolds.
Sinclair Lewis: Elmer Gantry (1927)
One of a grim trilogy attacking materialism and hypocrisy in American life, Elmer Gantry followed Lewis’s attacks on business, in Babbit (1922), and medicine, in Arrowsmith (1925). Here his target is dollar- driven evangelism. Elmer, a jock who lives for football, booze and girls, gets religion at college. By wholesale unscrupulousness he becomes “the Rev Dr Gantry” before falling into a honey trap, set by his secretary. He escapes. The end of the novel sees him triumphantly preaching his message: “Dear Lord, Thy work is but begun! We shall yet make these United States a moral nation.”
Sinclair Lewis: Main Street (1920)
Taken to live in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, by her new husband, free-spirited young Carol Milford is horriﬁed by the town’s conservatism. She dreams of making the place beautiful but struggles against America’s “comfortable tradition and sure faith”. “Would he not betray himself an alien cynic who should otherwise portray Main Street, or distress the citizens by speculating whether there may not be other faiths?” asks Lewis.
Colin MacInnes: Absolute Beginners (1959)
Never mind the disastrous 1980s ﬁ lm adaptation: Colin MacInnes’s novel is a peach. Not only is it a snapshot of London at a particularly febrile time — as postwar austerity gives way to the ﬁrst stirrings of the “swinging” era — it also examines a new ethnic melting-pot, as immigrants from the West Indies arrive in signiﬁ cant numbers. It’s all seen through the eyes of a never-named teenage mod, a perfect vehicle for MacInnes’ Runyonesque prose and mordant humour.
Mary McCarthy: The Group (1963)
An aﬀ ectionate portrayal of eight Vassar-educated girls making their way in Depression-era New York — and a hilarious lampooning of the men who hang around them. The novel remained on the New York Times bestseller list for two years and still strikes a chord. Imagine Sex and the City with a social conscience, with characters saying things like: “But before we were married,
we had an understanding that he should read Kafka and Joyce and Toynbee and the cultural anthropologists … so that semantically we can have the same referents.”
John McGahern: Amongst Women (1990)
Michael Moran is a former IRA guerrilla whose fails to adjust to civilian life after the Irish war of independence and is bitterly resentful of the new free state government. He takes it out on his family, for whom he is the ultimate patriarch. Beautifully written with suggestions of autobiography, McGahern’s Booker-shortlisted novel explores the complexities of rural, post-colonial Ireland through the experiences of one ruined man.
Joaquim Maria: Machado de Assis
The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1871) Narrated from beyond the grave, Brazil’s answer to Tristram Shandy takes the reader on a playful wander through the disenchantments of the life of the late Brás Cubas. Machado’s self-conscious novel cheerfully tosses realism aside, creating a book that combines comedy and melancholy to transform the stuﬀ of a disappointing life into art.
Julian Maclaren-Ross Of Love and Hunger (1947)
Julian Maclaren-Ross’s reputation as a boozehound screw-up obscures — unfairly, perhaps — the qualities of his ﬁrst full-length novel, which was drawn from his experiences selling vacuum cleaners door to door in Bognor Regis. Employing an appropriately louche prose style, he spins an enjoyable, self-deprecating yarn as his hapless hero tries to interest householders in the Sucko brand and whiles away his spare time romancing the wife of a fellow salesman. It’s all set in 1939; you can sense how the war curtailed Maclaren- Ross’s rootlessless, if nothing else.
David Malouf: Remembering Babylon (1993)
It begins with the unreality of a fairy tale: three children in a remote Australian settlement in the mid-1850s see a stranger, not quite human, balancing precariously on a fence, somewhere between earth and heaven. Their family takes hi in but contact with Gemmy Fairly, a white man who has lived with the blacks and is a stranger even to himself, has repercussions for the whole community. Malouf’s wonderful tale of alienation, otherness and love is told with compassion and insight.
Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain (1924)
Hans Castorp, a merchant’s son from Hamburg, visits a tubercular relative at a sanitorium in Davos. Fascinated with this place high up in the Swiss Alps, where illness is championed — not without vanity — as a triumph of the intellect over the body, he stays for seven years and falls ill along the way. Featuring lengthy debates between humanist freemasons and Jews-turned-Catholics, a long love-scene written entirely in French and a brilliant hallucinatory journey down the snowy slopes, it merits multiple readings. A novel for a lifetime not just a rainy afternoon.
Alessandro Manzoni: The Betrothed (1827)
Ostensibly the story of two lovers kept apart by a corrupt and lustful nobleman and his thuggish supporters, Manzoni’s digressive masterpiece takes in the whole sweep of 17th-century Italian history. With wry commentary on the abuse of power, epic set pieces from the Thirty Years war and graphic depictions of the horrors of the plague, it is the classic of 19th-century Italian literature and is as important in that country as the works of Thackeray, Dickens, Fielding and Hardy rolled into one.
Guy de Maupassant Bel-Ami (1885)
Maupassant turns his cynical imagination to the squalor and decadent gloryof late 19th-century Paris. There his splendidly moustachioed hero, Georges Duroy, immerses himself in the amoral world of political journalism and climbs to the top of society, over the bodies of colleagues and quickly discarded mistresses. At once detestable and delightful, Duroy works his charm on the reader as seductively as on the women he misuses. The result is a masterpiece — a page-turner as well as a vivid chronicle of a sordid world.
Rohinton Mistry A Fine Balance (1995)
One of the greatest novels of the late 20th-century. Two tailors, uncle and nephew, a student from northern India and a middle- class but impoverished widow struggle to survive in the political ferment of Indira Gandhi’s harsh emergency rule in the mid – 1970s. India comes alive in an inspiring contemplation of power and the powerless, of compassion and terror, of
comedy and cruelty. Mistry has the heart of Dickens, the sweep of Victor Hugo and the command of words of a great poet.
Alberto Moravia: The Time of Indiﬀerence (1929)
Moravia started his study of two days in the life of a middle-class widow and her troublesome children when he was 18, having been challenged by friends. The book was dismissed as a “mist of words” when he submitted it to the prestigious magazine 900, but he self-published to rapturous reviews and the ﬁ rst edition sold out within weeks. The Time of Indiﬀerence might lack the sophistication of his later classics but his caustic attack on middle-class decadence is still a precocious achievement.