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novels on the State of the Nation that everyone must read (according to the guardian)

January 21, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Mulk Raj Anand: Untouchable (1935)

Bakha, 18, is strong and able-bodied. He is a latrine cleaner, a Dalit, an untouchable, and the novel traces a day in his life. Deep in thought and enjoying a sweet jalebi, Bakha brushes against a Brahmin. The crowd
hurls abuse at this “pollution”, leaving him in tears. Later, Bakha encounters Christianity (from a missionary who cannot explain Jesus), Gandhi (inspiring but confusing), and the fl ush toilet (distant technology proposed by a poet). Untouchable was the first novel to present the Dalits’ suffering; it did so without pretending there was an easy answer.
Natalie Cate

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James Baldwin: Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953)

Set over one Harlem weekend in 1935 — the birthday of 14-year-old preacher’s son John Grimes — Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical debut is an intensely physical account of the clashes occurring at every level of human existence: fathers pitched against sons, husbands against wives, the spiritual against the secular, black against white. Shifting perspectives reveal the treacherous secrets of John’s family, sexual infidelity, betrayal and the legacy of slavery bringing a biblical storm to the Harlem streets.
Victoria Segal


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Honoré de Balzac:La Comédie Humaine (1830-1848)

Balzac was famously a man of voracious appetites so it makes sense that he should have stuff ed his life’s main work into the compendious 95-volume cycle known, in tribute to Dante, as La Comédie Humaine. The ingredients of his rich literary stew include such famous works as La Cousine Bette, Eugénie Grandet and Le Père Goriot, which are all part of a densely packed attempt to document every aspect of mid-19th-century French life, from money to marriage, social status to sex.
Victoria Segal

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Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (1934)

A Tolstoyan portrait of the end days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, this compulsively readable novel follows the divergent fortunes of two cousins, the politician Abady and gambler/drunkard Gyeroffy, detailing the intrigues at the decadent Budapest court, the doomed love aff airs, opulent balls, duels and general head-in-the sand idiocies of a privileged elite whose world is on the verge of disappearing for ever. Banffy — a Hungarian count — also writes with extraordinary vividness of the natural beauty of his Transylvanian homeland. Two more novels — They Were Found Wanting and They Were Divided — followed, usually published as The Transylvanian Trilogy.
Adam Newey

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Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852)

A best selling anti-slavery novel, subtitled Life Among the Lowly,
that helped to intensify the confl ict between slave-owning and abolitionist states which led ultimately to the outbreak of the American civil war in 1861. Although committed to showing the cruelty of the slave-owning system, Stowe perpetuated several stereotypes, most obviously in the figure of the black slave Uncle Tom, who is portrayed as a deeply loyal and long-suffering family servant. The term “Uncle Tom” has long been used to describe a black person who is over-deferential towards white culture.
Kathryn Hughes

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Aphra Behn: Oroonoko or The Royal Slave (1688)

A novel written, some would say, before the genre was properly invented. Set in Surinam, which the author may or may not have visited, its hero is a highly cultivated African prince who is brought to the West Indies as a slave. Fortuitously, the princess he loves, Imoinda, also finds herself in Surinam. They marry but, unwilling to have his children raised in servitude, Oroonoko raises a slave rebellion. When this fails he kills Imoinda (skinning her face, lest her beauty be admired by others than himself) and then faces mutilation, torture, dismemberment and death while stoically puffing on his pipe. On the basis of Oroonoko, Behn can be seen as the mother of the English novel and fiction’s earliest critic of imperialism.
John Sutherland

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Arnold Bennett: Clayhanger (1910)

Crammed with details of Victorian life, the first book in Bennett’s trilogy about a Potteries family examines how one man, Edwin Clayhanger, is shaped by class, geography and ties of blood. Relinquishing his dreams of becoming an architect, Edwin settles down to the daily grind in his father’s office, slowly growing into the role that has been marked out for him. As he knuckles down, he learns to accept the weight of what the book’s fi nal words call “the exquisite burden of life”.
Victoria Segal


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Elizabeth Bowen: The Last September (1929)

It is 1920 and while the Irish war of independence rages outside the gates of their County Cork home, Sir Richard Naylor and his Anglo-Irish family continue their privileged life of tea and tennis. Bowen’s 1929 novel is a strongly autobiographical portrait of a lost class marking out its final moments — every garden party, every house guest and every flirtation is touched by a sense of impending extinction.
Victoria Segal

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André Brink: A Dry White Season (1979)

Afrikaner teacher Ben du Toit lives a comfortable life in 1970s Johannesburg. When a black cleaner, Gordon Ngubene, is arrested after investigating his son’s death in police custody, Ben is certain there has been some mistake. It takes the sight of Gordon’s mutilated body to break Ben’s faith in the apartheid government. Yet his family do not want to look and his search for the truth makes him dangerously vulnerable. Brink focuses on apartheid’s relentless creation of otherness but places hope in speaking out. In 1989 a film of the book spread the message, but it loses the subtleties of Brink’s exploration of an ordinary man’s moral rebellion.
Natalie Cate

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Charlotte Brontë: Shirley (1849)

Brontë intended her follow-up to Jane Eyre to be as “unromantic as Monday morning”, but she didn’t really succeed, given that it ends with a double wedding and features the moral renewal of a mill-owner previously oblivious to the plight of his workers. Nonetheless, Shirley is an important social novel, set in Yorkshire during the Luddite riots at the end of the Napoleonic wars, which revolves around two questions: the social consequences of industrialisation and the position of women. Shirley Keeldar, the heiress to whom the financially straitened mill-owner Robert Moore becomes engaged, is a woman with rare freedom and power; the other female characters are not so lucky. It was only after the publication of this novel that Shirley became a girl’s name.
Paul Laity

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Anthony Burgess: Earthly Powers (1980)

The nature and origins of evil are wrestled to the ground in Burgess’s masterpiece, which confronts an octogenarian writer with the seductions and horrors of the 20th century. Unable to reconcile his religion with his homosexuality, Kenneth Toomey wanders the world from the Paris of Joyce and Pound, via Nazi Germany and heyday Hollywood, to Malta where — mottled, sallow, emaciated — he awaits his death, sure of only one thing: that evil is innate to humanity.
Claire Armistead

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AS Byatt: The Virgin in the Garden (1978)

The first volume in Byatt’s celebrated Frederica quartet — see also Still Life (1985), Babel Tower (1996) and A Whistling Woman (2002) — opens in 1953 with the dawn of a new Elizabethan age and centres on a country house masque got up to commemorate the royal coronation. Frederica, a spiky teenager, and her more reflective elder sister, Stephanie, dominate proceedings. Symbolism is rife and not many novelists have produced a better take on what one character calls “the queer, in-between time” of the early 1950s.
DJ Taylor

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Erskine Caldwell: Tobacco Road (1932)

A saga of sharecropper life in the Georgia back country in the wake of the great Depression by the poor man’s William Faulkner. Middle-aged Jeeter Lester is an impoverished cotton farmer. He married his wife, Ada, at the age of 11 and the couple have had 17 children. Incest rages in the Lester household. Two offspring still live at home: harelipped Ellie Mae and car-crazy Dude. Dude attracts the attention of a woman preacher, Bessie Rice, who is twice his age and is disfigured with a boneless nose, but has a Ford car. Tobacco Road created an image of poor white trash that is still with us.
John Sutherland

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Albert Camus: The Plague (1947)

Often described as an allegory of German occupation and French resistance during the second world war, Camus’s novel about the reaction of an Algerian town to an outbreak of plague is broader in scope and ambition. Not so much of an allegory, then, as a Kafkaesque parable (Camus acknowledged the debt): it is about the human condition, in short, but never — unlike, say, his contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre’s work — heavy-handedly so.
Nicholas Lezard

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Alejo Carpentier: The Kingdom of This World (1949)

Carpentier’s suggestion in his preface that Latin American history is a chronicle of “loreal maravilloso” (“marvellous reality”) helped trigger a regional boom in writing. His novel is set on Haiti, an island steeped in myth and voodoo. Ti Noel is a slave when a rebellion begins in 1757. Matter-of-fact whether being beaten, raping his master’s wife or transfiguring into a goose, he witnesses the fall of cook- turned-king Henri Christophe, the birth of the republic and the death of the Haitian dream.
Natalie Cate

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M Coetzee: Disgrace (1999)

Told in an ominous present tense, this story of one man’s progress from powerful complacency to powerless dispossession is set in post- apartheid South Africa. David Lurie is a clever, chilly academic, whose seduction — it is almost rape, but “not quite” — of one of his students leads to his disgrace. Having lost his job he moves in with his daughter on her remote farmstead, but then is a helpless bystander when three black men arrive and rape her. His life is becoming a tuition in humiliation. Yet the bleakness of any paraphrase is belied by the beautiful exactness of the prose, which mimics the intelligence and coldness of the protagonist.
John Mullan

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M Coetzee: Waiting for the Barbarians (1980)

Coetzee’s first heavyweight novel is a haunting political fable set in a remote outpost of a carefully imagined empire. The central figure, the Magistrate, is appalled when a torturer comes to town to investigate rumours of a possible uprising by the nomadic barbarians. But the Magistrate is also a servant of the empire and his intervention in the case of a barbarian girl teaches him lessons about himself as well as the workings of power. Austere yet expressive, Coetzee’s novel has lost none of its resonance since the end of apartheid in his native South Africa.
Chris Taylor

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Douglas Coupland: Microserfs (1995)

“Bill is wise. Bill is kind. Bill is benevolent.” It’s 1993 and Daniel, one of a group of computer programmers working at the Microsoft “campus” in Washington state, is using his Powerbook to record the minutiae of their denumbed lives. These “children who fell down life’s cartoon holes” might hide behind their shell of geekdom — sterile shared housing, just-add-water noodles, corporate lawns, arcane references to pop culture — but Coupland reveals their underlying emotional codes and connections. Technology with a
human face.
Victoria Segal

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Daniel Defoe: Moll Flanders (1722)

The original title page of Defoe’s novel provocatively summarised the exploits of his endlessly resourceful anti-heroine. She is “Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief”. Born in Newgate Prison, she lives by her wits, her capacity to seduce men, and eventually her light fingers. After a trip to America she ends up back at Newgate, with the scaff old looming. Only luck rescues her, and makes her penitent. The tale is the more compelling because she is looking back ruefully on her misadventures in older age, examining her own motives with withering candour.
John Mullan

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Don DeLillo: Underwold (1997)

This novel really does attempt an anatomy of post-war America. It also combines the trickery of post-modern narration — a reverse chronology, sudden shifts of narrative perspective, interpolated passages of documentary reconstruction — with a simple and alluring fable. For the spine of this huge book is the story of what happens to a famous object, the baseball hit into the stands to win the World Series for the New York Giants in 1951, just as the Soviet Union is successfully testing an atomic bomb. The influence of nuclear paranoia and the secret industry of waste management (in which the protagonist, Nick Shay, is involved) shape the fates of its characters, whose stories are brought together by the circulating baseball.
John Mullan

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Don DeLillo: White Noise (1985)

Jack Gladney is nesting comfortably, teaching Hitler studies in a bland Midwestern college town, when a nebulously menacing “airborne toxic
event” nearby takes the stopper off his chronic fear of dying. It turns out that his life has been taking an experimental drug — Dylar — which is meant to muffle the same terrors. Attuned like no other novel to the perplexities that hum away at the margins of everyday experience, White Noise remains the most precise, and killingly funny, portrayal of the way we live now.
Lindesay Irvine

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Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

The titular cities are Paris and London. It is the best and worst of times: the age of revolution. Dr Manette has been falsely imprisoned in the Bastille by the Marquis St Evrémonde. The doctor, whose wits are gone, is rescued by a lawyer, Lorry, and brought to England with his daughter, Lucie. The wicked Marquis’s virtuous nephew, Charles Darnay, who loves Lucie, bears a striking
resemblance to the shiftless lawyer Sidney Carton, who later sacrifices himself on the guillotine to save the lovers and makes the immortal eclaration: “It is a far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.” The Victorians loved this novel.
John Sutherland

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Charles Dickens: Bleak House (1852-53)

A classic novel that helped to give lawyers their bad name. Bleak House is a vigorous satire on the old court of Chancery and the self-serving, pocket-lining nonsenses of the profession practiced there. Richard Carstone and Ada Clare are wards of the court in the eternal case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce; thrown together, they secretly marry. Also central are their friend, Esther Summerson, who nearly marries out of respectful devotion but loves another, and Lady Dedlock, who has a deep secret uncovered by the ruthless barrister Tulkinghorn. Guppy, a lawyer’s clerk, is unforgettable, as is the philanthropic and reprehensible Mrs Jellyby; Bucket is a very early detective. The 2005 BBC adaptation, starring Gillian Anderson, was addictive.
Paul Laity

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Charles Dickens: Dombey and Son (1848)

Written when the author was becoming more interested in narrative design and when the type of design he tended towards was palpably darker. The
novel opens with the frigid Mr Dombey being presented with the son he hopes will one day take over the family business. Mrs Dombey promptly dies and
young Paul (in a death scene of tear-jerking pathos) follows a few years later. Dombey — desperate for an heir — marries a cynical beauty, Edith Granger. She elopes with her husband’s chief clerk (and embezzler),
James Carker. A ruined Dombey finally realises the worth of Florence, the daughter he has always neglected. The narrative — Dickens’s most mature meditation on the ethics of capitalism — is haunted by ambivalent images of railroads, progress and death.
John Sutherland

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Charles Dickens: Hard Times (1854)

Dickens’s major “social problem” novel, written after first-hand investigation of the Preston cotton-workers’ strike that crippled Britain’s textile industry. The novel opens in the most progressive school in Coketown (ie Preston), which is run by a strict utilitarian, Mr Gradgrind, with a savage stress on “facts”, not “fancy”. Gradgrind’s particular friend, Bounderby, is a factory owner and — he would have the world believe — a self-made man (he is not, it transpires). In one of its subplots Hard Times argues for easier divorce — a cause dear to Dickens’s heart — which came about three years later.
John Sutherland

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Charles Dickens: Little Dorrit (1855-57)

Bubbles always burst; if only our financiers had learned from the story of Mr Merdle, in whose bank a deposit seems magically to accrue. Dickens targets greed in this novel, and pride, but he had two more specific targets — government bureaucracy (the obstructive Circumlocution Office) and the law of imprisonment for debt (his own father had been in the Marshalsea). The “little Dorrit” of the title is Amy, daughter of William Dorrit, who languishes in the debtors’ prison before discovering he is heir to a fortune. The hero is Arthur Clennam, with whom Amy is in love and whose hateful mother has long-ago wronged the Dorrit family. Riches arrive and disappear, the pretensions and hypocrisies of society are uncovered, and the inevitable union of Amy and Arthur is long prolonged. Dickens, as always, bashes us over the head, but he does it brilliantly — a battering for our times.
Paul Laity

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Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist (1838)

The work with which “Boz” demonstrated that fiction could be a powerful instrument for social reform. A woman arrives, exhausted, at the Mudfog
workhouse. She gives birth and dies. The orphan is named Oliver Twist. Under the new (1834) Poor Law the waif is underfed (famously, he asks for “more”) and abused and runs away to London, where he finds refuge in the thieves’ kitchen of the villainous Fagin and is put to work for the brutal housebreaker Bill Sikes. Oliver discovers that he is gently born and the victim of a criminal conspiracy. Fagin is hanged, Sikes — pursued by an angry mob — hangs himself. The novel was brilliantly illustrated by George Cruikshank, who later claimed that he, not Dickens, had had the principal idea for the story.
John Sutherland

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Joan Didion: Play It As It Lays (1970)

A short, desolate, wonderful tale of Californian hedonism that centres on the decline of a failed actor, Maria Wyeth, who recounts her life while in recovery from a breakdown. Her parents are dead, her marriage is over, her young daughter is in hospital. Drugs and sex make her life no less empty. In a scene that’s not for the squeamish, she undergoes a messy abortion. The only place in which she is happy is behind the wheel of her car, driving endlessly on the freeway. It’s all as bleak as it sounds but the sentences are
superb and the novel stands as a strong but undidactic reflection on hollowed-out decadence. Scott Fitzgerald isn’t far away.
Paul Laity

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Benjamin Disraeli: Sybil or The Two Nations (1845)

The “two nations” are the rich and the poor, and Sybil (part of a trilogy, with Coningsby and Tancred) is almost the archetypal state of the nation novel, a statement about the “condition of the people”. Long before he became prime minister, Disraeli was a member of Young England, a group that looked to paternalism to solve the problems of the industrial age. A sense of the oppression that inspired Chartism is channelled into a high romantic storyline. Charles Egremont is driven by his love for the beautiful Sybil Gerard, a radical’s daughter, to understand the motivations of the Chartists by the past and labouring to lay its demons to rest. Doctorow’s masterwork mounts an angry, impassioned study of the American left, contrasting hardscrabble 1950s radicalism with 1960s counter-culture. Daniel’s conclusion: “It’s a lot easier to be a revolutionary now than it used to be.”
Xan Brooks

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Alfred Döblin: Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929)

After his release from prison in 1920s Berlin, transport-worker-turned-hardman Franz Biberkopf tries and fails to stay on the straight and narrow: freedom, he soon realises, is its own kind of punishment. With unmatched streetwise liveliness, expressionistic density and a radical montage aesthetic, Döblin captures the sounds of the metropolis like few before him. Berlin itself, with its endless stream of crime and vice, emerges as Biberkopf’s ultimate nemesis.
Philip Oltermann


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EL Doctorow: The Book of Daniel (1971)

A novel spun from the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the pair of small-time communists who, accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets, were executed by the US authorities in 1953. The novel’s hero is the son of scapegoats, scarred by the past and labouring to lay its demons to rest. Doctorow’s masterwork mounts an angry, impassioned study of the American left, contrasting hardscrabble 1950s radicalism with 1960s counter-culture. Daniel’s conclusion: “It’s a lot easier to be a revolutionary now than it used to be.”
Xan Brooks

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John Dos Passos: U.S.A. (1930-36)

Originally three individual volumes — more than 1,200 pages in the Penguin complete edition — U.S.A. represents the high-water mark of inter-war American modernism. Large parts of it abandon straightforward narrative in favour of newspaper headlines and stream-of-consciousness collage. In between wander a dozen or so vagrant and only intermittently connected characters — tycoons, power-brokers, hoboes, aspiring movie actors, drunks — deviously at large in the pullulating anthill of early-20th-century transatlantic life.
DJ Taylor

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Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie (1900)

Dreiser’s first novel tells the story of 18-year-old small-town girl Carrie Meeber, bound for Chicago in pursuit of the American dream. Carrie’s relationship with her two lovers gives the book a moral daring but its lasting impact comes from Dreiser’s depiction of the hard-nosed exchanges of city life, financial and emotional. The atmosphere of “hard contract” at the shoe factory where Carrie first works; her sister’s grim domesticity; the beggars and shopgirls on Chicago’s streets: Dreiser deftly records the steely realities of modern urban living.
Victoria Segal

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.
Natalie Cate

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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.
John Sutherland

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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.
John Sutherland

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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.
John Sutherland

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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?
Emily Mann

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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.”
Philip Oltermann

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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.
Victoria Segal

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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.
Emily Mann

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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.
Paul Laity

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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.
John Mullan

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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.
John Sutherland

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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.
John Sutherland

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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.
Adam Newey

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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 …
Paul Laity

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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.
Paul Laity

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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.
Rosalind Porter

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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.
Natalie Cate

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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
the two.
John Mullan

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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.
Emily Mann

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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.
John Sutherland

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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.
Emily Mann

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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.
Kathryn Hughes

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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.
John Sutherland

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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.”
Philip Oltermann

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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.
Victoria Segal

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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.
JM

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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.
Claire Armistead

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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.
John Sutherland

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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.
Natalie Cate

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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.
Joanna Hines

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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.”
John Sutherland

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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.
Victoria Segal

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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.
Andrew Pulver

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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.”
Sam Jordison

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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.
Rosalind Porter

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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.
Victoria Segal

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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.
Andrew Pulver

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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.
Joanna Hines

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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.
Philip Oltermann

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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.
Sam Jordison

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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.
Sam Jordison

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.
Carmel Callil

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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.
Sam Jordison

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.
Sam Jordison

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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).
Xan Brooks

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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.
Paul Laity

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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”.
John Sutherland

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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.
Victoria Segal

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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.”
Victoria Segal

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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.
Victoria Segal

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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.
John Mullan

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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.
Carrie O’Grady

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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.
Nicola Barr

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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”.
Nicola Barr

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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.
Xan Brooks

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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.
Xan Brooks

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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”).
John Mullan

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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.
Charlotte Stretch

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.
Nicola Barr

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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.
Nicola Barr

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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.
John Sutherland

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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.
Emily Mann

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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”.
Nicola Barr


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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.
Nicola Barr


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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.
Nicola Barr

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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.
John Sutherland

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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.
Carmen Callil

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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.
Sarah Crown


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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.
Richard Lea

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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.
John Sutherland

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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.”
Nichola Lezard


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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
literary personalities.
Rosalind Porter

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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.
Charlotte Stretch

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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.
John Sutherland

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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.
Emily Mann

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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.
John Sutherland

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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.
John Sutherland

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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 Sutherland

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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.
Charlotte Stretch

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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.
Charlotte Stretch

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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.
Nichola Lezard


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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.
Xan Brooks

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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.
Joanna Hines

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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.
Andrew Gilchrist

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Tom Wolfe: The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987)

Sherman McCoy is a Wasp Wall Street banker inding 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.
John Sutherland

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