Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française (2004)
Némirovsky, a bestselling novelist and a Russian Jew living in Paris, was taken to Auschwitz in 1942 and died the same year. Her handwritten manuscript was salvaged by her two young daughters who, orphaned and traumatised, did not release it for publication until 64 years later. The two unﬁnished novellas here (ﬁve were planned) detail with astonishing precision the wholly ignoble retreat from Paris as Nemirovsky witnessed it, and a year in a rural occupied France. Few heroes emerge in this take on French manners exposed in the most extreme circumstances.
Bao Ninh: The Sorrow of War (1994)
The English translation of Bao Ninh’s debut (and, to date, only published) novel demanded the attention of western readers not only as a rare account of the “American war” by a veteran of the Vietnamese People’s army, but also for revealing that the post-traumatic disorder of a generation, so central to the American experience of the Vietnam war, has been a universal experience. The author’s history is never far from view as the book’s narrator, Kien, struggles to reconcile the tender dreams of his youth with the brutal memories of a decade of war and its arid, drug-ridden aftermath.
Patrick O’Brian: Master and Commander (1969)
So massively popular are Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels that bookshops have a separate section just for them. At the time of his death in 2000, O’Brian was ﬁnishing his 21st novel in this massively successful seafaring series, over the course of which he seemed to encompass the entire world of the British navy in the Napoleonic wars. Whether you love the extrovert, impulsive, permanently hungover “lion in action, ass ashore” Jack Aubrey or the surgeon and intelligence agent Stephen Maturin, indeed whether you have ever set foot aboard a ship, O’Brian’s tales of naval derring-do are masterful in conception and execution.
Tim O’Brien: The Things they Carried (1990)
“They carried the common secret of cowardice … Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.” That Tim O’Brien, as a soldier in Vietnam, experienced ﬁrst- hand many of the things he writes about is not in doubt when the observations are this acute, but Things is ﬁction, and this 1990 novel is regarded as one of the most powerful of the Vietnam war. By creating the character of Tim O’Brien, O’Brien ﬁnds his way to comment on a war that he found nonsensical and repellent, as if normal narrative was simply too traditional to harness the absurdity and the horror.
Baroness Emmuska Orczy: The Scarlet Pimpernel (1905)
Melodrama, cliched prose and unsubtle political messages are all forgiven in Orczy’s ﬁrst of many journeys into the world of English aristocrat Sir Percy Blakeney and his alter-ego, the Scarlet Pimpernel, as he and his band of Englishmen attempt to rescue French aristocrats from Madame Guillotine in the French revolution. Orczy had huge success with her foppish, inane, kind-hearted, cold, proud, passionate and indefatigable Pimpernel and his wonderful wife Marguerite. Belief may need to be suspended as Orczy allows him to escape yet another tricky situation, but when the thrills are this swashbuckling, it is churlish to care.
George Orwell: Burmese Days (1934)
Drawing on the experiences of his ﬁve years as an oﬃcer in the Burma police, Orwell’s ﬁrst novel is a mordant aﬀ air. Flory, a timber merchant disillusioned with the Imperial racket, falls for a pretty girl sent out east to stay with her relatives. He is cut out by a glamorous army oﬃcer and wins her back, only to fall victim to the machinations of a native magnate. Steeped in essence of Maugham and crammed with impressionistic descriptions of the Burmese landscape, it also harbours many an early signpost from the road that led to Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Thomas Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
Routinely hauled into the starting line-up of the race to be the Great American Novel, Pynchon’s vast postmodern masterpiece from 1973 is more than capable of intimidating the other competitors with its sheer physical solidity. Its staggering intellectual weight is what really leaves a dent, however, using the development of the V2 rocket in Nazi Germany as a starting point for a novel that is as densely packed as grey matter and equally mysterious.
Rudolf Erich Raspe: The Surprising Adventures Of Baron Munchausen (1785) ?
Blowing up bears, being swallowed by ﬁsh, seeing oﬀ a pride of a thousand lions, visiting the moon (twice): every boastful big game hunter, self-aggrandising ﬁsherman or pub raconteur owes a debt to this 1785 collection of satirical tall tales, inspired by the anecdotes of a real German aristocrat. Raspe himself lived a shadily picaresque life but could only have been an amateur compared with the baron, whose stories leap from the sublime to the ridiculous — then keep on jumping.
Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)
Best “war is hell” novel ever. Published in Germany as Im Westen nichts Neues, it became an international superseller after its blockbusting 1933 ﬁlm tie-in. The story tracks the fortunes of six classmates swept up in the ﬁrst world war, as narrated by Paul Bäumer. The soldiers reserve their hatred not for the enemy but the armchair warriors on the home front. On the day that Armistice is signed, Paul, realising that he can never readjust to civilian life, walks into no-man’s-land and is shot. The Nazis banned the detestably “paciﬁst” book, couldn’t get their hands on Remarque and so arrested his sister on a trumped-up treason charge and beheaded her. A literal hatchet job.
João Guimarães Rosa: The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (1956)
Riobaldo, an old farmer living in the arid hinterlands of Brazil, tells the story of how he became the leader of a gang of bandits, revealing on the way that he may have sold his soul to the devil. Often referred to as the “Brazilian Ulysses”, Guimarães Rosa’s novel comes with a mythic heft, a complex masterpiece of storytelling that attempts to map those psychological territories that are as remote and wild as any backcountry.
Rafael Sabatini: Scaramouche (1921)
Sabatini’s swashbuckler certainly can do the fandango, twirling and ducking through Revolutionary France in the dashing company of its hero André-Louis Moreau. After a duel with a wicked marquis leaves his friend dead, the young man stirs up discontent against the upper classes and is forced to become a fugitive, joining a wandering theatre troupe as disguise. Those staples of historical adventures — honour, vengeance and dark family secrets — provide the kerosene; the political intrigue strikes the match.
Rafael Sabatini: Captain Blood His Odyssey (1922)
According to George MacDonald [Flashman] Fraser this is “one of the great unrecognised novels of the 20th century”. It’s 1685. Dr Peter Syn is an Irish surgeon, peacefully plying his healing trade in the west country. He tends a dying oﬃcer, in Monmouth’s rebellion, and is sentenced to death by (hanging) Judge Jeﬀreys. The sentence is commuted to transportation to the Barbadoes. There Syn turns buccaneer as Captain Blood, aka Capitano Pedro Sangre. Pirates of the Caribbean adventures ensue, before a happy-ever-after in Devon. The novel is indelibly associated with Errol Flynn’s 1935 ﬁlm depiction. Buckles never swashed more dashingly.
Jonathan Safran Foer: Everything Is Illuminated (2002)
Foer’s novel won the Guardian ﬁrst book award and praise from John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates. Others have been deeply irritated by this story of a young American Jew who visits Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. What do they hate so much? Chieﬂy the American’s local guide (and co-narrator) Alex, whose already shaky English is dangerously loosened by the gift of a thesaurus. “In Russian,” as Alex puts it, “my ideas are asserted abnormally well, but my second tongue is not so premium.” Oh, and there’s a farting dog.
James Salter: The Hunters (1956)
Drawing on his experiences as a ﬁghter pilot in the Korean War, Salter’s ﬁrst novel exudes the kind of chill you might experience at 40,000 feet. Captain Cleve Connell arrives in Korea determined to become a MiG-destroying ace: instead of glory, he ﬁnds disenchantment and pilots who have let their sense of honour curdle and their masculinity turn septic. War, Salter argues, leaves a man’s heart missing in action even before the rest of his body follows.
Walter Scott: Ivanhoe (1819)
After a series of bestselling Scottish novels, the Wizard of the North (still anonymous to his contemporary readers) turned to English history. The
story is set in the 12th century, at the time of the crusades. Saxon England is labouring under the “Norman yoke”. King Richard has been captured on his return from the Holy Land. The main strand of narrative (never Scott’s strongest point) follows the career of Wilfrid of Ivanhoe, a disinherited knight, who must choose in love between the Saxon beauty Rowena, and the beautiful Jewess Rebecca. Scott’s novel popularised the legendary Robin Hood, the medieval joust (the plot hinges on a great tournament) and idealised medievalism. It is probably, in terms of myths it propagated, one of the most inﬂ uential novels in English literature. Now less read than it deserves to be.
Anna Sewell: Black Beauty (1877)
The most famous animal story of the 19th century. The novelty of the work is that it is narrated by a horse (apparently sexless), which is miraculously able to talk like a well-brought-up Victorian servant. Black Beauty tells his life story from foal to colt to broken-in mount and ﬁ nally to broken-down hack. The work is strongly marked by Sewell’s passionate hatred of cruelty to animals and her campaign against the use of the “bearing reign”. The most good natured of quadrupeds, Black Beauty oﬀ ers a ﬁ nal message: “We horses do not mind hard work if we are treated reasonably.”
Irwin Shaw: The Young Lions (1949)
Allegedly incurring Hemingway’s wrath by encroaching on his territory, Irwin Shaw’s rangy account of the second world war marches across vast swathes of territory, both literal — Africa, Europe, America — and intellectual. Focusing on three young soldiers — the Jewish Noah, the accidental hero Michael and the Nazi Christian, characters later played by Montgomery Clift, Dean Martin and Marlon Brando in the 1958 ﬁ lm — Shaw’s ﬁrst novel opens out into a spiritual and emotional panorama of war.
Nevil Shute: A Town Like Alice (1950)
Jean Paget’s uncle believes women cannot handle money, and places her inheritance in trust: as his solicitor discovers, however, in wartime Malaya this “very ﬁne girl” handled trials beyond her uncle’s imagining. There is romance in Shute’s popular 1949 book, but the underlying taste is as sharp as quinine, its key passages detailing Jean’s forced march round Malaya with 32 other women and children in an account of dirty rice, dysentery and death that loses none of its horror for being rendered in Shute’s reticent, terribly British style.
Art Spiegelman: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale (1973-1991)
“No poetry after Auschwitz,” said Adorno, with serious implications for a book that attempts to represent the Holocaust and its aftermath as an extended cartoon. Maus exploded not merely any preconceptions about appropriate subject matter for a comic strip, but also suggested that the unspeakable might best be rethought through unexpected means. The relentless caricatures (Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs) remain challenging, even as they intensify a highly poignant depiction of ordinary aspirations in prewar Poland and Artie’s troubled relationship with his far-from saintly survivor father.
Stendhal: The Charterhouse of Parma (1839)
A romantic thriller that follows the fortunes of a young Italian nobleman, Fabrizio del Dongo, who somewhat accidentally ﬁnds himself ﬁghting for the French at Waterloo. He then heads to Naples to study for the priesthood, has plenty of aﬀairs, kills a man in a dispute over an actress and is caught and locked up in Parma’s highest tower, where he manages to fall in love yet again before eﬀecting a daring escape. Alongside all this are the intrigues of court politics involving Fabrizio’s glamorous aunt Gina and her lover, the urbane Count Mosca. Both Balzac and Tolstoy were heavily inﬂuenced by Stendhal’s panoramic realism.
Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon (1999)
If the phrase “post-cyberpunk science ﬁ ction” sounds altogether alarming, then you may disregard this novel. In fact Stephenson’s sprawling, picaresque epic at times reads like a straightforward history of the science of code-making and code-breaking in the second world war. But not for nothing is Stephenson known as “the Hacker Hemingway”, and his narrative also includes much heorising on the history of computing, the nature of money and mathematics. It ranges eﬀortlessly all over the globe, between a past and a present brimming with conspiracy theories and paranoia. A much loved, popular novel that almost transcended the cult label.
Laurence Sterne: A Sentimental Journey (1768)
Mr Yorick, a mischievous 18th century clergyman, who is his author’s alter-ego, narrates his thoroughly idiosyncratic journey through France. He meets and mocks both his fellow English travellers on their Grand Tours and the French philosophes whom he visits in their Paris salons (Sterne, as the celebrated author of Tristram Shandy, had recently cut a swathe through fashionable Parisian society). The sentimental traveller searches out not tourist attractions but “sentimental” encounters: touching meetings with those who are gifted with ﬁ ne feelings. Oddly enough, these are usually attractive young women who are happy to have their pulses felt by a sympathetic gentleman.
Robert Louis Stevenson Kidnapped (1886)
Stevenson’s most popular historical romance, set in 1751 in the aftermath of the ’45 Scottish rebellion. David Balfour, an orphan, comes to live with his villainous uncle, Ebenezer of Shaws. Having failed to murder his ward himself, Ebenezer has his nephew kidnapped, as a white slave, on the brig Covenant. The vessel runs down a rowing boat containing a Jacobite rebel, Alan Breck. He and David conspire to escape their captors and, on land, the brutal English soldiery who are still ravaging Scotland. After many adventures the two heroes — one “canny”, the other wildly romantic (Stevenson loved dualism) — make it to Edinburgh, where David’s rights are restored. Alan takes refuge in France.
Robert Louis Stevenson: Treasure Island (1883)
The ﬁnest boys’ adventure story produced in the Victorian period. Young Jim Hawkins helps run the Admiral Benbow inn, in Devon. A buccaneer, Billy Bones, holes up there — pursued, it transpires, by shipmates who deliver him the dreaded “black spot”. Jim discovers a treasure map in the dead Bones’s sea chest and, with the local squire and doctor, embarks to the West Indies to discover the buried treasure of the pirate Captain Flint. Also on board their vessel, the Hispaniola, is the villainous, one-legged sea-cook, Long John Silver, who takes over the vessel. Jim foils the mutineers and returns rich — but still aﬄ icted by nightmares of Silver and his parrot’s screech “Pieces of Eight!” Stevenson’s novel was much imitated. Without it, we would never have had Pirates of the Caribbean.
Robert Stone: A Flag for Sunrise (1981)
Stone is a former war correspondent and erstwhile member of Ken Kesey’s “merry pranksters” who writes tales of desperate jokers in dangerous places. A Flag For Sunrise deals out a dark farce of the Iran-Contra era, as a rag-tag troupe of misﬁts (nuns and drug smugglers, whisky priests and CIA operatives) jockey for advantage in a thinly-veiled Nicaragua. Dostoyevsky and Graham Greene are the obvious inﬂuences here, though Stone’s savage, seductive prose style is all his own.
William Styron: Sophie’s Choice (1979)
Hugely ambitious and extremely controversial, Styron’s rendering of a threeway relationship between a young southern writer, a Polish Auschwitz survivor and a Jewish New Yorker interweaves a host of complex themes (survivor guilt, ancestral guilt, madness and betrayal). The movie was Oscar-nominated; the book was banned in libraries across the States. But this is not just about provocative comparisons. Styron is a writer’s writer, capable of setting a pastoral idyll in Brooklyn, and the traumas narrated occur alongside a classic American coming-of-age story.
Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace (1869)
Tolstoy’s epic novel – the touchstone of 19th-century realism – sweeps from the glittering salons of Russian high society to the grisly horrors of the Napoleonic battlefields. Its dispassionate eye follows peasants, emperors, soldiers, and priests through decades, taking in life and death in all its forms. This is no heroic tale of good versus evil, of strategies and battle formations, but a vivid depiction of the banality, tedium and senselessness of war. In its time, it was so formally innovative that even Tolstoy himself didn’t consider it to be a novel in the conventional sense. He was so dissatisfied with the first version that he rewrote it and never felt he’d got it right. Its everyman hero, Pierre (played unforgettably on TV by Anthony Hopkins), blunders along, struggling to find meaning in his life, and each of the dozen or so central characters battle their own demons, searching for truth and peace. Their struggles are timeless, as is the unforgettable love story at its heart.
Mark Twain The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)
The novel is narrated by Huck (“Tom Sawyer’s comrade”) in the “Pike County dialect”. Huck is semi-“sivilized”, thanks to the iron discipline of the widow Douglas who has adopted him. Huck’s villainous father returns, eager for the $6,000 his son has inherited. Huck escapes, and drifts by raft down the Mississippi, with a runaway slave, Jim. After various adventures (and reunion with Tom) all comes well. At the end, the two young heroes intend to light out to the Indian territory — a sequel Twain never wrote. The novel has fallen into disfavour because of Huck’s promiscuous use of the N-word, although its treatment of race is commendably liberal.
Jules Verne: Around the World in Eighty Days (1873)
Master of the voyage imaginaire , Verne also revealed himself adept at mingling high adventure with Thomas Cook-style tourism. This pioneer romance of globalisation has always been among Verne’s most popular works in Britain for its ultra-English (as the French see it) hero, Phileas
Fogg, Esq. Fogg, having read of a new railway link in the Indian subcontinent, wagers his fellow Reform Club members that he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days. With his ingenious French “man”, Passepartout, he overcomes every obstacle, displaying across the globe the famous English sang –froid. The itinerary is meticulously chronicled. Fogg arrives back to foggy London, as he thinks, a day late — but he has forgotten that he has crossed the date line. He makes it to the club with seconds to spare.
Jules Verne: A Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864)
With Twenty Thousand Leagues, the most reprinted of Verne’s voyages imaginaires, this one subterranean rather than submarine. The “hollow earth hypothesis” — which fantasised a parallel world to our under the world’s crust — was both popular and subscribed to, even by reputable scientists, in the 19th century. In Verne’s fantasy, Professor Lidenbrock, inspired by an ancient manuscript, leads an expedition through an extinct volcano to an underground world that is still prehistoric — having never been exposed to an ice age — with mastodons, jungles, and humanoids. Verne’s tale was flagrantly ripped oﬀ (by Edgar Rice Burroughs, among others, with his “Pellucidar” series) but remains the best of its (scientiﬁcally) preposterous
Gore Vidal: Williwaw (1946)
Vidal was 19 when he wrote this, his ﬁ rst novel, published in 1946. And yes, he was living and working as a ﬁrst mate on board a ship in the Aleutian Islands, the location for this novel, but the achievement is not the similitude, rather the ability to express the tension and claustrophobia as the crew members wrestle with war, personal animosity, boredom (no one is seen working on a novel) and some really really bad weather. A williwaw is a snow-laden hurricane, and 50 years before The Perfect Storm was a bestseller, Vidal showed us how it should be done.
Voltaire: Candide (1759)
Our fresh-faced hero embarks on his picaresque journey across Europe and Latin America, which sees Enlightenment optimism sorely tested by — among other delights — rape, murder, syphilis, cannibalism, the wanton destructiveness of natural forces and the human cost of the western addiction to sugar. Not “the best of all possible worlds”, then, but certainly one of the best possible books about the limits of rationalism, the savagery of colonial exploitation and the vital importance of cultivating one’s own garden and independence of mind.
Kurt Vonnegut: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
Subtitled “Or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance With Death”, the most powerful anti-war novel to be generated out of the second world war. Vonnegut, like his ingénue hero, Billy Pilgrim, was captured in the Battle of the Bulge and imprisoned in Dresden, shortly before the ﬁrebombing in February 1945 which killed (as Vonnegut recalls) over 100,000 German civilians. The narrative opens with Billy “unstuck” in time. He is, perhaps, mad. Or, as he believes, he has been given the power of clairvoyance and time travel by extraterrestrial Tralfamadorians, whose prisoner he is. The Tralfamadorians have destroyed the universe by their bombing error but can enjoy the good moments of their previous existences. The narrative recoils
from graphic description of wartime atrocity to fanciful space opera. As Konnegut records, it was an immensely painful novel to write and, for all its incidental comedy and literary skill, remains painful to read. But necessary, none the less.
Evelyn Waugh: Put Out More Flags (1942)
Basil Seal, posh and feckless, has been a leader writer on the Daily Beast, a champagne salesman, a tour guide, a secret policeman in Bolivia, and an adviser on modernisation to the emperor of Azania – all way relationship between a young southern writer, a Polish Auschwitz survivor and a Jewish New Yorker interweaves a host of complex themes (survivor guilt, ancestral guilt, madness and betrayal). The movie was Oscar-nominated; the book was banned in libraries across the States. But this is not just about provocative comparisons. Styron is a writer’s writer, capable of setting a pastoral idyll in Brooklyn, and the traumas narrated occur alongside a classic American coming-of-age story.
Evelyn Waugh: Men at Arms (1952)
The ﬁ rst of the Sword of Honour trilogy, which was followed by Oﬃcers and Gentlemen in 1955 and Unconditional Surrenderin 1961. Guy Crouchback is the last of an ancient English Catholic family — miserable, childless, divorced and forbidden by his religion to remarry. At 35, the outbreak of war seems to give meaning to his life: he is commissioned into the Royal Corps of Halberdiers, an outﬁt somewhere between a prep school and a gentleman’s club. In Waugh’s mordent satire on the wartime army, bungling is standard, idiots are greeted as heroes and fools are unfailingly promoted. “Unquestionably,” wrote Cyril Connolly, “the ﬁnest novels to have come out of the war.”
HG Wells: The Island of Dr Moreau (1896)
The most morbid of Wells’s remarkable 1890s “scientiﬁc romances” and a classic fable of vivisection — a cause célèbre of the late Victorian period. The hero narrator, Prendick, is shipwrecked and ﬁnds himself on a Paciﬁc island, where he discovers that Dr Moreau (earlier hounded out of England for torturing animals) has perfected surgical techniques by which he can accelerate evolution. Under his Darwinian scalpel, animals are raised to quasi-humanity. But once raised, these “monsters” need to be kept in check by the sadistic inﬂiction of pain. Moreau is killed by a puma he is tormenting and rebellion breaks out. The animals revert to their natural animalism. Moreau’s last words are: “What a mess.” The novel revolted contemporary reviewers but hasfascinated posterity.
Robert Westall: The Machine-Gunners (1975)
Chas McGill’s collection of war souvenirs becomes more than a schoolboy pastime when he ﬁnds a crashed German bomber with its machine-gun still attached. After their school takes a hit during an air-raid, McGill and his friends make use of the free time to wage their own war against the enemy. The Machine Gunners, which was adapted into a BBC television serial in 1983, brilliantly evokes Tyneside in the second world war and the disruption to ordinary family life, while capturing the complicated relationships that exist between children and adults. It won the Carnegie medal in 1975, and in 2007 was selected by medal judges as one of the 10 most important children’s novels of the past 70 years.
Patrick White: Voss (1957)
Voss, a German explorer, sets out in 1845 to cross the uncharted Australian desert. Before leaving, he meets Laura Trevelyan, a young Englishwoman newly arrived in the colony, and they fall in love. The novel then intertwines Laura’s life in Sydney with the increasingly desperate travails of Voss’s doomed expedition. Though the couple never meet again, they appear to communicate through a series of heightened, dream-like visions that become more intense as Voss’s mind, beset by the sin of intellectual pride, fractures under the weight of the physical challenge he has undertaken. In 1985 White’s novel was adapted into an opera by Richard Meale, with a libretto by David Malouf.
Owen Wister: The Virginian (1902)
Not many writers get to invent a genre, but that’s what Wister did in 1902 with The Virginian, the Western novel that spawned a thousand books and even more ﬁlms. All the future cliches are here, but new-minted: the tall handsome stranger who learns how to be a man among the wide open spaces of the unspoiled West, magniﬁ cent landscapes, violent villains — who get their comeuppance — and a lovely schoolmarm endeavouring to instil civilised values in an uncouth bunch of frontiersmen. This book has all the freshness of a literary pioneer.
Herman Wouk: The Caine Mutiny (1951)
Soon after Willie Keith joins the US Navy in 1943, his dying father describes him as “much like our whole country – young, naive, spoiled and softened by abundance and good luck, but with an interior hardness that comes from your sound stock”. On board the Caine, an ageing minesweeper in the Paciﬁc, Willie grows up fast, but it is his involvement in mutiny and its aftermath that ﬁnally turns him into the man his father never was. Wouk won a Pulitzer prize for this dramatic account of the realities of warfare in the Paciﬁc.
Émile Zola: The Debacle (1892)
The penultimate book in Zola’s monumental sequence about a French family during the Second Empire, The Debacle chronicles the disastrous war between France and Prussia in 1870 and the Paris Commune of the following year, through the moving friendship between two men. Jean Macquart, earthy and pragmatic, wins the respect of the intellectual and mercurial Maurice Levasseur. Initially comrades, they ﬁght on opposite sides in 1871, with tragic consequences. Written only 20 years after the events it describes, Zola’s novel is a moving indictment of the waste and cruelty of war.