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novels about love that everyone must read (according to the guardian)

January 17, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Henri Alain-Fournier: Le Grand Meaulnes (1913)

Le Grand Meaulnes — translated as The Lost Domain or The Wanderer — is a magical fable of adolesence, erotic awakening and idealised desire. Narrated by 15-year-old François Seurel, it is the myth-like story of how his friend and hero Augustin Meaulnes, lost in a snowy country lane, stumbles upon a wonderful chateau and catches a glimpse of a beautiful girl — Yvonne de Galais — with whom he falls instantly in love. The rest of the novel relates Meaulnes’s attempts to find and claim his girl. But, sadly, this isn’t a fairytale and the characters have to grow up. According to legend, the novel is based on a fleeting encounter the author had in Paris with a beautiful girl called Yvonne, who was already engaged. Alain-Fournier died fighting on the frontline; he was only 27.
Lisa Allardice

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis: Dom Casmurro (1899)

The greatest novel by Brazil’s greatest writer. Machado de Assis, born in 1839, of mixed race, epileptic, a stammerer, who, despite early poverty, mastered French and English, translated Shakespeare and poured out stories, novels and poetry. This is the love story of Bento and Capitu, told in the first person and for good reason known as the Brazilian Othello. Sloe-eyed Capitu … is she faithful to their great love? For more than 100 years readers have come to different conclusions as to whether she was, or not. A masterpiece of tantalising, loving wit.
Carmen Callil

Giorgio Bassani: The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1962)

The Jewish community of Italy produced two great writers, Primo Levi and the author of this, one of the best books ever written about what it was to be a European Jew in the early part of the 20th century, and awake to find, with the rise of Mussolini (or Hitler), that every part of a special and enchanting Italian childhood — family, friends, and lovers — was destined to disappear. This is an elegy for all of them, a haunting and beautiful novel, perfectly filmed by Vittorio de Sica, and awarded an Oscar in 1971.

HE Bates: Love for Lydia (1952)

“Would you love me even if I am bad to you?” asks Lydia. The shy, upper-class girl soon discovers the delights of growing up, and has a string of affairs that are unusual for a girl in 1920s England. Bates is best known for The Darling Buds of May, which was a TV hit; this sequel was also adapted for television in 1977.
Kohinoor Sahota

Saul Bellow: More Die of Heartbreak (1987)

Why do gifted people find themselves “knee deep in the garbage of a personal life”? Kenneth Trachtenberg and his uncle Benn share this problem, Kenneth has troubles with his girlfriend, and Benn decides, after 15 years on his own, to remarry. But his second wife is “more beautiful, more difficult, more of a torment”. Bellow’s 11th novel is a modern love story, with the action relayed through a mix of conversations and phone calls.

RD Blackmore: Lorna Doone (1869)

Subtitled A Romance of Exmoor, the story is told by John Ridd, whose father was killed by the lawless Doones. A lifelong feud results. It is complicated when John falls in love with Lorna — supposedly daughter of the same Doone who killed his father. She is promised to the savage leader of the clan, Carver Doone, but John abducts her and is later knighted for service in the 1685 Monmouth rebellion. At his wedding to Lorna, a vindictive Carver shoots the bride. There is an epic fight to the death on the moors. Were it not for Thomas Hardy, this would qualify as the greatest regional melodrama in English literature.
John Sutherland

Elizabeth Bowen: The Death of the Heart (1938)

Portia, orphaned at 16, goes to London to stay with her half-brother and his wife. An outsider, because of her birth (the result of her father’s adulterous relationship) and by nature, she confides in her diary, which is read by her sister-in-law with unfortunate consequences. Shot through with Bowen’s sly wit, this is thought to be her masterpiece: Portia’s adolescent fixation on the feckless Eddie shows her desperate desire to belong and to be loved, and her family’s cool response to her gives a beady-eyed glimpse of English society between the wars.
Prudence Hone

Elizabeth Bowen: The Heat of the Day (1948)

The sinister Harrison tells Stella that her lover, Robert, is a traitor, but that she can keep him safe if she sleeps with Harrison and does not reveal what she has been told. Set during the second world war, Stella’s story is intercut with the lives of her son (in the army and heir to an estate in Ireland) and Louie, a vapid good-time girl who crosses Harrison’s path. Although the war provides background noise (guns, bombs, the drone of aeroplanes), it is the peculiar love-triangle that forms the core of the novel.

Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre (1847)

When Charlotte Brontë published her first novel it caused a storm. Readers and some critics were scandalised by the story of a young, plain governess who falls in love with her Byronic employer, unaware that he already has a mad wife incarcerated in the attic. The fact that Jane Eyre was subtitled “An Autobiography” raised the thrilling possibility that it was actually a real-life account of passionate goings-on amid the chilly country houses of the Yorkshire gentry. In the 1970s the book gained a new lease of life when it was installed as a key text in the emerging feminist literary canon and the phrase “the madwoman in the attic” entered popular discourse.
Kathryn Hughes

Charlotte Brontë: Villette (1853)

In Brontë’s most self-revealing novel, Lucy Snowe, the narrator-heroine, finds work as a teacher in Brussels (the Villette of the title). She has a strained relationship with the proprietress, Madame Beck; the school doctor, John Bretton, is attracted to her, but Lucy loses her heart to the martinet professor, Paul Emanuel. The couple plight their troth, despite obstacles thrown in their way by a sexually jealous Mme Beck. Before they can marry, Paul must work in the West Indies, where the slaves are proving unruly. On his return voyage he may, or may not, be drowned. Lucy declines to inform us, doubting the reader’s strength.

Emily Brontë: Wuthering Heights (1847)

The 21st-century’s favourite 19th-century novel begins with Mr Lockwood renting Thrushcross Grange, in wild Yorkshire. His landlord is Heathcliff, master of Wuthering Heights. Lockwood learns from his housekeeper how Heathcliff — a waif found in the Liverpool gutter — fell in love with the daughter of the house, Catherine; lost her to the genteel Edgar Linton; ran away; came back enriched; and devoted the rest of his life to revenge. The story moves into the present day (1801) with Heathcliff haunted by the ghost of the dead Catherine, who starved to death. The Heights are at last at peace.

Anita Brookner: Look at Me (1983)

“My name is Fanny Hinton and I do not like to be called Fanny.” Thus opens the third of Anita Brookner’s novels. She was the greatest interpreter in the English language of desperation, demonstrating always that this emotion should never be coupled with the word quiet, because underneath every stoic human countenance is a story of turbulence and passion. Fanny Hinton’s adventures in love and sophistication are, as ever, narrated in Brookner’s exquisite prose, laced with the ironic touch with which she transforms disaster into a special kind of delight.

AS Byatt: Possession (1990)

In this Booker-winning, bestselling novel (subtitled “A Romance”), Byatt makes great play with the notions of possession — between lovers, and between biographers and their subjects. When research assistant Roland Michell discovers — and then steals — a cache of letters from the London Library, he not only uncovers a clandestine relationship between two Victorian poets, but finds romantic fulfilment for himself. Part thrilling academic quest, part Victorian pastiche (with impressively rendered 19th century letters, diary entries and poetry), Possession restores sex to the Victorians and romance to the 20th century — and shows that while the language of love might change, love remains the same.

Truman Capote: Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958)

Those coming to Capote’s novella after the 1961 movie will find an altogether darker, rougher gem than the sparkling Hollywood version. Told by a struggling writer (nicknamed “Fred” after the heroine’s beloved brother), this is the story of Holly Golightly, a restless stray from the south, who makes her way in New York by asking men for “$50 for the powder room”. An attack of “the mean reds” can only be assuaged by jumping in a cab and going to Tiffany’s: “If I could find a real-life place that made me feel like Tiff any’s then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name.” In one of the most famous soggy cinematic endings of all time, Audrey Hepburn, George Peppard and cat enjoy a raindrenched clinch, but in the novella only Fred and the cat are reunited.

Peter Carey: Oscar and Lucinda (1988)

It is 1864. Oscar Hopkins, a young English clergyman, and Lucinda Leplastrier, an heiress, meet aboard a ship bound for Australia and fi nd they share a passion for gambling. On arrival, she buys a glass factory on a whim, and challenges him to transport a church built entirely of glass by boat from Sydney 250 miles up the coast. A gripping study of sin, guilt and obsession, in which love proves to be the ultimate gamble. Carey modelled Oscar’s character in part on the childhood recollections of Edmund Gosse in his memoir Father and Son. The novel won the 1988 Booker prize and was filmed in 1997 with Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes.
Adam Newey

JL Carr: A Month in the Country (1980)

In the slimmest novel to grace a Booker shortlist, the spiritual recovery of trench veteran Tom Birkin is charted as he restores a medieval wall-painting in a rural church. Much of the novel’s potency is rooted in what isn’t said, by Carr and his characters alike, including the very thing that returns Birkin to the land of the living: his impossible love for the vicar’s young wife, which Carr evokes in poetic, economic prose. Both Kenneth Branagh and Colin Firth made fresh-faced debuts in the 1987 film, which does justice to the novel’s slow pace.
Rosalind Porter

Willa Cather: My Ántonia (1918)

Jim Burden looks back, slightly mournfully, on his childhood friendship growing up in harsh prairie town of Black Hawk, Nebraska, with the bold, beautiful Bohemian girl, “Tony” Shimerda, whose resilience and strength symbolises the pioneer spirit, who has haunted him ever since. The friends are reunited many years later, when both are married — he unhappily and she the mother of 10 children. Cather’s story of unconsummated love in the American wilderness is among her best.

Willa Cather: A Lost Lady (1923)

Marian Forrester is a beautiful woman who delights her husband, her lover, and young Niel Herbert, the narrator of this enchanting tale. Cather was the great, elegiac chronicler of the prairies and small towns of the old American west, captured by her just as the coming of railroads changed it forever. The radiance and charm of the bewitching Marian sheds light on everyone she loves and betrays, her fate as troubling and inevitable as the passing of time, and the passing of love. Short, exquisite, this is Willa Cather’s most perfect novel.

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette: Claudine à l’école (1900)

This four-part series (with Claudine à Paris, Claudine en ménage and Claudine s’en va completing the set) shocked readers with its tales of the improper adventures of the teenage Claudine, yet there were Claudine plays, a Claudine uniform, and Claudine soap. Colette’s debut was published under the pseudonym of her husband, Willy, who is believed to have locked her in a room until she produced the books. Colette herself married three times, was rumoured to have had lesbian relationships at the Moulin Rouge and was involved with the Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio; she was also thought to have had an affair with her stepson.

Sidone-Gabrille Colette: Chéri (1920)

The six-year affair between the ageing courtesan, Léa de Lonval, and a young man, Chéri, is coming to an end. They thought that their relationship was a casual romance, but when Chéri is to be married they realise that they are in love. The sequel, La Fin de Chéri, was published in 1926. Stephen Frears adapted it for the screen in 2008 in a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer as the courtesan and Rupert Friend as her lover.

Joseph Conrad: Victory: An Island Tale (1915)

One of Conrad’s sea-dog narrators pieces together the story of Axel Heyst, benign hermit and amateur philosopher, who isolates himself from humanity on an island in the East Indies. Heyst chivalrously rescues Lena, a musician, from the female orchestra that entertains the hard-drinking European men of Sumatran trading outposts. “Funny notion of defying the fates — to take a woman in tow,” comments one observer. The lovers attract the attentions of a rapacious gang, who descend on them, searching for non-existent booty. Their amorous seclusion ensures them a tragic end.
John Mullan

Madame de Lafayette: The Princess of Clèves (1678)

Often called the first French novel, this historical fiction takes us to the world of 16th-century courtly romance. Mademoiselle de Chartres, who is beautiful, young and of a marriageable age, is betrothed to the Prince de Clèves. It is only when she meets Duc de Nemours that she falls in love for the first time. The love triangle raises questions of passion, duty and morality. The novel was published anonymously and has remained popular ever since.

Daphne du Maurier: The Parasites (1949)

You may think you know Du Maurier from the high drama of Jamaica Inn and the noir of Rebecca. But this is unlike anything else she wrote. Based partly on her own childhood, it follows three contemporary children: step-siblings Maria and Niall, and their half-sister Celia. Their parents are artists in the grandest tradition, and bring up their kids accordingly — rich food, late nights, sporadic attention. Maria becomes an actress, Niall a songwriter, Celia a would-be illustrator. All three are spoilt and selfish in their different ways. It adds up to a savage, bittersweet portrait of artistic temperament at its worst.
Carrie O’Grady

Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca (1938)

“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again” has become one of the most famous first lines in fiction. Narrated by an unnamed ingénue, the second Mrs de Winter, with the troubled figure of Maxim de Winter (the epitome of pent-up, pre-war British masculinity) lurking in the background, haunted by glamorous dead Rebecca and, of course, presided over by one of literature’s most sinister wicked stepmothers , the scheming housekeeper Mrs Danvers, all set in the spooky splendour of a Cornish, coastal country pile, has proved irresistible since Rebecca was first published. Alfred Hitchcock’s classily creepy 1940 film version starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine sealed its place in the public imagination — although Hollywood, predictably, was unable to sanction the morally ambiguous happy ending of the original.

Marguerite Duras: The Lover (1984)

The nameless narrator looks back at her adolescence in French-colonial Vietnam when, as a 15-year-old, she had a passionate affair with a considerably older Chinese man. The story is thought to be semi-autobiographical. Duras, who is also a film-maker, uses cinematic techniques such as flashback and repetition. The book won the 1985 Prix Goncourt and s old 700,000 copies in France. The 1992 film by Jean-Jacques Annaud was also a success.

George Eliot: Adam Bede (1859)

Eliot’s first full-length novel, and the work which made her (pseudonymous) name as Victorian fiction’s leading novelist of ideas. Set at the turn of the 19th century, in “Hayslope” during the Methodist revival, the story concerns Adam, a stern carpenter who is engaged to the pretty but flighty milkmaid, Hetty Sorrel. Hetty is seduced by the local squire, Arthur. He abandons her; she — pursuing him — kills their baby. She is sentenced to hang, but reprieved (by Arthur’s last-minute intervention) . With this novel Eliot raised Victorian fiction to a new level of intellectual and moral seriousness.

George Eliot: Daniel Deronda (1876)

Eliot’s last (massive) novel. Gwendolen Harleth (“a spoiled child”) marries the wealthy but selfish Henleigh Grandcourt. He treats her sadistically. Gwendolen’s path crosses that of Daniel Deronda, a young aristocrat of mysterious origins (even to himself). The intertwining narrative chronicles Daniel’s search for his roots, and Gwendolen’s increasingly wretched plight. Daniel befriends Mordecai Lapidoth (with whose sister, Mirah, he falls in love) and discovers that he is Jewish. In Genoa, Grandcourt drowns, as a paralysed Gwendolen watches from the deck of his yacht. The novel ends with Daniel and Mirah leaving for the Middle East. Recent appreciation of the novel has tended to value Eliot’s unusually sensitive investigation of Judaism.

George Eliot: The Mill on the Floss (1860)

Eliot’s most autobiographical work of fiction, and one of the great bildungsromane of its time, along with David Copperfield and Thackeray’s Pendennis. Maggie and Tom are children of the mill-owner, Edward Tulliver. The passionate Maggie is contrasted with her genteel cousin, Lucy. Tom is less clever than his sister, but moralistic. Old Tulliver is ruined by local lawyer, Wakem. Maggie’s love affair with the disabled Philip Wakem is prohibited by a vengeful Tom, who devotes himself to recovering the family mill. Maggie devotes herself to self-control. All is lost when brother and sister are drowned by a catastrophic flood which sweeps past the mill, but “in death they were not divided”.

Jeffrey Eugenides: The Virgin Suicides (1993)

One by one, in an unnamed American suburb, five teenage sisters kill themselves. It doesn’t sound much like a love story. But The Virgin Suicides is narrated (in the first-person plural, ingeniously) by the boys who looked on at the beautiful Lisbon sisters with awe and yearning — boys like Chase Buell, Woody Clabault, Vince Fusilli, Parkie Denton and Tim Winer, “the brain”. Years later, they piece together memories of their adolescence: the threshold wonder; the sudden, mysterious losses. When the boys follow neighbourhood heart-throb Trip Fontaine to pick up the Lisbon girls for the homecoming dance, the whole world seems waiting for them.
William Fiennes

F Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby (1925)

There is a love affair at the centre of this novel, between rich, charismatic socialite Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan. You might even call it romantic, for Gatsby appears to have everything he wants except Daisy, who is now married to another man. Yet you never directly know about their relationship. The doomed attachment is seen entirely through the eyes of the novel’s narrator, Nick Carraway. He has the lovers performing a drama that he is desperate to enrich with soulfulness. The romance and the final tragedy are the more haunting for being vicariously experienced.

F Scott Fitzgerald: Tender is the Night (1934)

When actress Rosemary Hoyt arrives on the French riviera, she’s seduced by the dash and verve of a group of American expats gathered around successful psychiatrist Dick Diver and his beautiful patient-turned-wife, Nicole. Outwardly ideal, their marriage (drawn in part from Fitzgerald’s own) is in fact fatally fl awed. As Rosemary is drawn deeper into their lives, she watches glamour give way to dissipation; Dick’s drinking escalates and his behaviour deteriorates, leading ultimately to his personal and professional disintegration. Almost a decade in the making, Fitzgerald’s elegiac romance is a narrative of failure: of ambition unrealised, relationships dishonoured, talent spent.
Sarah Crown

Penelope Fitzgerald: The Blue Flower (1995)

Few modern novels have been so acclaimed by critics and fellow novelists as The Blue Flower. Set in 1790s provincial Saxony, it is a parable of talent and desire (the blue flower a Romantic symbol of love and the unattainable), told through the story of the young German poet and philosopher Novalis, known to his family as Fritz. Poor Fritz falls hopelessly in love with 12-year-old Sophie von Kuhn, unremarkable in looks and certainly no match for him in brains, who dies a couple of years later from tuberculosis. Fitzgerald’s genius was to bring a remote period alive through an accumulation of domestic details with an extraordinary economy of words. Hailed as her final masterpiece, the novel is as brief, luminous and intellectually charged as the life of its young hero.

Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary (1856)

Emma Bovary, the wife of a kindly but dull country doctor, yearns for a life of luxury and romance that she has read about in popular novels. When a landowning libertine takes a fancy to her, she begins an affair which ends when he abandons her on the eve of their elopement. No sooner has she recovered than she takes up with a young lawyer with whom she has weekly trysts in a hotel room. As their passion cools, her extravagance increases, and she is lured into a credit trap from which only suicide can release her. Flaubert was prosecuted for obscenity when the book was first serialised, and it has been a bestseller ever since, becoming arguably the most famous realist novel.
Claire Armistead

Ford Madox Ford: The Good Soldier (1915)

Nobody gets what they want and nothing is quite what it seems in this masterwork of shifting perceptions, infidelities and immorality. Ford Madox Ford’s first title for his greatest novel, begun on his 40th birthday, was The Saddest Story. The Good Soldier is Edward Asburnham, the perfect English gentleman in every way — except for his fatal philandering. Recalled in rambling fashion by the emotionally desiccated Dowell (the ultimate unreliable narrator), this is the story of a 10-year friendship between two couples living in moneyed leisure in Europe, as a cure for the heart conditions of two of the spouses. These “bad hearts” are exposed for what they really are when it is revealed that the invalids have been embroiled in an affair for many years. Suicide, madness and misery ensue. Since its publication in 1915, writers have outdone each other in heaping superlatives on this slim, exquisite book: for Graham Greene it was “probably one of the finest novels of our century”.

EM Forster: A Room With a View (1908)

Forster’s acidic satire on the Edwardian travelling English would have remained among his lesser works (certainly compared to the later, more substantial statements that were Howards End and A Passage to India) were it not for the smart decision by the period-fi lm team Merchant Ivory to use it as the material for their affectionate mid-80s adaptation, thereby setting the template for corset rom-coms ever since. The admittedly slight social concerns are ballasted by a genuinely affecting against-the-odds love match between piano-playing Lucy Honeychurch and wide-eyed socialist George Emerson.
Andrew Pulver

John Fowles: The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969)

In 1969 John Fowles opened up the Victorian realist novel, with its driving marriage plot, to the instability of the existentialist age. Charles Smithson is a gentleman of independent means engaged to the conventional Ernestina while secretly falling in love with the intriguing Sarah Woodruff, a fallen woman who has been betrayed by the French lieutenant of the title. Set mainly on the Jurassic undercliff at Lyme Regis, the novel plays with the idea that the Victorian bourgeoisie — and the kind of novel that represents it — is on the brink of extinction. The book’s celebrated double ending meant that for a long time it was considered unfilmable, until Harold Pinter’s screenplay of 1981 proved this to be magnificently untrue.

Paul Gallico: The Snow Goose (1941)

Set on the desolate Essex marshes, this haunting novella of the friendship between the “mis-shapen and grotesque” reclusive artist, Philip Rhayader, and the “young, primitive inarticulate” yet beautiful Fritha, after she brings him a wounded snow goose to heal, made Gallico’s name and became a world wide bestseller. Accompanied only by the snow goose, Philip rescues countless men from the shores of Dunkirk in his little boat, but when the bird returns alone, the now grown-up Fritha knows she will never see the hunchback again. Sentimental? Undoubtedly. Heartbreaking? Absolutely.

Elizabeth Gaskell: Ruth (1853)

Ruth Hilton, an orphaned seamstress, is seduced and then abandoned by Henry Bellingham, a young squire. Rescued by a dissenting minister, Mr Benson, and his sister, and taken to live with them in his northern English parish, she passes as a widow and slowly builds a life of quiet respectability for herself and her son. But Bellingham’s return threatens all of them with exposure of the lie in which they have colluded. Gaskell’s sympathetic portrayal of a fallen woman was taboobreaking for the time, though Ruth’s eventual apotheosis, when she sacrifices her own life to save that of her seducer, may strike modern readers as overdone, just as it struck Charlotte Brontë as unjust to Ruth: “Why should she die?” she wrote to Gaskell. “Why are we to shut up the book weeping?”

André Gide: Strait Is the Gate (1909)

At the age of 10 Jerome falls in love with his cousin Alissa and vows to dedicate his life to her happiness. She, however, in response to her mother’s infidelity, dedicates her life to God. As the cousins grow, they come to very different understandings of the biblical text that gave Gide his title. Her severe religious morality will not allow her to accept Jerome’s love — though her journals show the reader that she is just as much in love with him as he with her — and on her deathbed she realises that the sacrifice she thought she was making to God, for the sake of both their souls, has been in vain. Gide almost certainly drew on his youthful attempt to woo his cousin in this, his most lyrically enchanting novel. AN

Lewis Grassic Gibbon: Sunset Song (1932)

The first in Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy, this is the great Scottish novel, told in a lilting, lyrical tongue as beautiful as the land it describes. The men of Kinraddie, Kincardineshire, go off quiet and brave to fight and die in the first world war — and with them passes a whole way of life, that of the peasant farmers, that of Old Scotland itself. Chris, the heroine, educated but shackled to the land, goes from girl to wife to widow in a soaring narrative that is as uplifting as it is heartbreaking. Andrew Gilchrist

Johann Wolfgang Goethe: The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774)

Legal trainee Werther meets Lotte at a ball. They dance and recite poetry; Werther falls in love. Albert, Lotte’s fiance, returns from a business trip; Werther gets depressed. Lotte and Albert marry; Werther shoots himself. This epistolary novel turned young Goethe into a national superstar, inspired at least half a dozen copycat suicides and even triggered a Werther-style fashion craze (yellow trousers, blue jacket). In plot terms, it’s hard to see what all the fuss was about, but there is something so archetypal about the forlorn self-absorption of Werther’s letters that reading them is not unlike listening to a classic pop record. Philip Oltermann

Henry Green: Living (1929)

A three-in-one — along with Party Going (1939) and Loving (1945) — from one of the high priests of English Modernism. Living draws on Green’s experiences of working in his family’s Birmingham factory. Loving is set in an Irish country house (above stairs and below) during wartime. Party Going features a gang of Bright Young People trapped by fog in a hotel at Victoria station while crowds seethe on the platform below. Each comes garnished with elliptical dialogue, bizarre symbols and the scent of trouble beyond the horizon. DJ Taylor

Graham Greene: The End of the Affair (1951)

“This is a record of hate far more than of love,” begins the novelist narrator Maurice Bendrix. The affair between Maurice and Sarah, married to the dull but decent civil servant Henry Miles, has been over for two years before the novel opens one rainy January night on Clapham Common in 1946. Maurice determines to find out why Sarah ended their relationship so abruptly — only to discover that instead of another lover, as he fears, she made a promise to God to renounce him after she believed he had been killed in an air raid. The last of Greene’s so-called Catholic books (dedicated to C — Catherine Walston, his affair with whom was the basis for the novel), it is one his best. Lisa Allardice

Thomas Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)

Hardy’s breakthrough Wessex novel, in which he tells a bundle of stories while creating a whole world (which, as Hardy reminds us, is forever gone). The sheep farmer Gabriel Oak loves the beautiful but capricious Bathsheba Everdene. His hopes are dashed when his flock is lost. Bathsheba, who inherits a farm, is subsequently courted by the dashing Sergeant Troy. They marry, he is unfaithful (his other love, Fanny Robin, dies with their child in a workhouse). Troy decamps and is thought drowned. After seven years, Bathsheba is legally a widow, and accepts an offer of marriage from the stolid farmer, William Boldwood. Oak, meanwhile, is employed by her as farm steward. Troy returns and is shot dead by Boldwood. Oak, on the foundation of this tragedy, finally wins Bathsheba. John Sutherland

Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure (1895)

Hardy’s last full-length Wessex novel provoked a storm of protest for anti-marriage doctrines. Jude Fawley, an orphan (with a mysterious scandal in his background), is inspired by the village schoolteacher, Phillotson, to educate himself. His rigorous programme of self-help ends when he is tricked into marriage by the carnal Arabella Donn. They separate and, now a stonemason, Jude goes to Christminster (Oxford), where he falls in love with a cousin, Sue Bridehead, a neurotic new woman. Their sinful union turns to catastrophe when their eldest child kills himself and his siblings. All ends tragically. This, Virginia Woolf asserted, is the only one of Hardy’s novels which could be accused of pessimism. It is fairer to see it as a powerful contradiction to Victorian optimism. JS

Thomas Hardy: Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891)

The story, subtitled “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented”, is Hardy’s most poignant chronicle of life’s ironies and the pain of the human condition. Tess Durbeyfield is the daughter of a Wessex carter, who is absurdly proud when told that his blood is that of ancient Norman lineage. Tess goes to work for the family who have (for cash) acquired the D’Urberville name. She is raped by the son of the house, Alec, and bears a child that dies. At her next place of work, the idealistic Angel Clare falls in love with her. On their wedding night, he discovers her impurity. The marriage is over. Alec reappears, as does Angel. Driven to murdering Alec, Tess is hanged. Angel consoles himself with her purer younger sister. Hardy never believed in angels. JS

Thomas Hardy: The Woodlanders (1887)

Hardy’s favourite Wessex novel and the one which most movingly chronicles his notion of “intelligent intercourse with nature”. The forester, Giles Winterborne, is loved by a peasant girl, Marty South, but does not return her love. Marty is obliged to sell her one physical attraction: her magnificent head of hair. It is acquired by the lady of the manor, Felice Charmond. Winterborne’s fortunes fail. He loses the woman he loves, Grace Melbury, to the dashing doctor, Edred Fitzpiers. He is unfaithful, but divorce is impossible. After a series of mishaps, Grace finds herself in the woods. Giles gives her shelter in his hut, sleeps outside, catches a chill, and dies. The novel ends with Grace and Marty grieving over his grave. JS

LP Hartley: The Go-Between (1953)

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” is the famous first line of LP Hartley’s novel about memory, class and sex. Leo Colston, now in his 60s, looks back at the long hot summer of 1900, which he spent at a Norfolk country house, visiting his wealthy school friend Marcus Maudsley. Twelve-year-old Leo unwittingly becomes a “go-between” for Marcus’s sister Marian and her farmer lover Ted — and ultimately an agent of both their disaster and his own. It is impossible to read The Go-Between and not be sucked into the claustrophobic intensity of that summer — the heat, Leo’s discomfort and burgeoning sexuality — and not feel changed, like the narrator, for ever. Its iconic status was sealed with a film adapted by Harold Pinter, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates; there are clear echoes in Michael Frayn’s Spies and Ian McEwan’s Atonement. LA

Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter (1850)

In the 17th-century puritan settlement of Boston, Hester Prynne is shunned and publicly shamed by the community for bearing a child out of wedlock. She is also condemned to wear a “fantastically embroidered” scarlet “A” on her dress. Unknown to her, her elderly husband — whom she believes to be dead — has returned, and is determined to discover the identity of the child’s father. His hounding of the town’s preacher leads to an intense and relentless portrayal of guilt and moral anguish. Hawthorne’s long preface, “The Custom-House”, which functions both as framing device and historical note, has become almost as celebrated as the novel itself. Adam Newey

Shirley Hazzard: The Transit of Venus (1980)

The Transit of Venus introduces two Australian sisters, Caro and Grace Bell, and tracks their inner and outer lives through the second half of the 20th century. Here is love in several guises: affairs in rented rooms and city parks; unrequited devotion, nurtured at a distance; marriages both dutiful and sophisticated. Hazzard’s epigrammatic sentences and short, lapidary paragraphs take a little getting used to. But be patient. Scene after scene has indelible richness and beauty: Grace and her son’s doctor escaping the rain; Caro and the physicist Ted Tice on a boat in Stockholm; Caro appearing naked beside her lover at an open window, his fiancee staring up at them from below. William Fiennes

Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms (1929)

Written when he was only 30 and drawing on Hemingway’s experiences as an ambulance driver in the first world war, this is considered to be one of the greatest war novels of all time. But it is also a story of love triumphing over war. Serving on the Italian front, Lieutenant Henry finds refuge in an affair with English nurse Catherine Barkley, emotionally wounded by the death of her fiance in the Somme. Their romance blossoms from escapism to true love and Henry deserts the army so they can be together. After a briefly blissful period in a hut in the Swiss mountains, Papa Hemingway punishes them both for their happiness, killing off poor Catherine in childbirth. If the final scene of a grief-stricken Henry leaving the hospital in a rainstorm doesn’t reduce grown men to tears nothing will. LA

Alan Hollinghurst: The Swimming-Pool Library(1988)

Hollinghurst’s debut novel was hailed as a ground-breaking work for its frank depiction of metropolitan gay life. Through the association of the privileged and promiscuous young aristocrat, William Beckwith, and the octogenarian Lord Nantwich, who asks him to write his biography, the novel chronicles more than half a century of gay experience. It is set in the hot, hedonistic summer of 1983 and while the spectre of Aids looms (the book is dedicated to one of its fi rst victims), the subject is more fully explored by the author’s Booker-winning account of Thatcher’s Britain — The Line of Beauty, which picks up where the earlier novel ends. Ginny Hooker

WH Hudson: Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest (1904)

In this exotic romance Abel leaves the city of Caracas for the uncharted forests. He settles in an Indian village and meets Rima, the last survivor of an aboriginal race. The book became a cult classic. Hudson was a conservationist and gained a reputation for his natural history writing. In 1959 the novel was turned into a film with Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins, but it was a box office failure. Kohinoor Sahota

Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

A landmark novel in African-American fiction, Their Eyes Were Watching God was written in only seven weeks, as the author was getting over a failed romance of her own. It was published to controversy in 1937 and rescued by Virago decades later. Through three marriages to three very different men, Janie Crawford, whose grandmother was born into slavery and dreamed of a better life for the heroine, finally finds both love and liberation with a younger man called Tea Cake. Hurston knew true love never runs smooth and the couple overcome rages and jealousies, as well as tough physical challenges. But it doesn’t end well for poor Janie. Hurston herself died in poverty and obscurity. Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker are all fans. LA

Aldous Huxley: Crome Yellow (1921)

In Huxley’s first novel, callow poet Denis Stone is invited to a house party at Crome (a barely-fictionalised Garsington Manor, home of Bloomsbury socialite Lady Ottoline Morrell and scene of many a real-world literary bash). As he falls ineffectually in love with his host’s niece, and fails to capture the experience in verse, the remainder of the guests disport themselves in a variety of inventively idiosyncratic fashions, ranging from the declaiming of portions of the house’s history to the losing of virginity on the rooftop. A crisp satire of the affectations of post-first world war lettered society. Sarah Crown

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day (1989)

When butler Stevens sets out on a road trip to visit his former housekeeper, Miss Kenton, who is on the verge of leaving her marriage, he tells himself that his motives, as always, are purely professional. Looking back over 30 years of loyal service to Lord Darlington, Stevens reveals a life of sterile duty, routine and denial — in which his chance of personal happiness never stretched beyond an evening cup of cocoa with Miss Kenton. When Miss Kenton confesses to her lost hopes of a life with Stevens, his realisation of his own wasted past is as understated yet shocking as if he had smashed the best china. This masterful study of repression, regret and a dying class system won the Booker in 1989 and was made into a Merchant Ivory film, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, naturally. LA

Henry James: Portrait of a Lady (1881)

Why does Isabel Archer go back to Gilbert Osmond? There can be few questions more often asked of the ending of a novel. The story of a young American woman “affronting her destiny”, James endows his heroine with every possibility for freedom and happiness — an inheritance, independence of mind and beauty — only for her to become trapped by the Machiavellian Madame Merle and the sinister Osmond. Not even a passionate embrace with the manly Casper Goodwood (is there a sexier kiss in all of literature?) can make her change her mind and renounce her duty. From the moment the dying Ralph entreats her “if you’ve been hated you’ve also been loved. Ah but, Isabel — adored!” the rest of the novel is a blur of tears. LA

Henry James: The Wings of the Dove (1902)

Kate Croyden (portrayed by Helena Bonham-Carter in the decidedly sexualised 1997 film), modern, clever and ruthless, is forbidden from marrying the impoverished Merton Densher. When a terminally ill American heiress — Milly Theale — falls for Densher, the couple persuade Milly that her affections are returned, hoping she will leave Densher her fortune. And this she does. Guilt, however, wrecks Densher and warns the reader to heed James’s message: that love had better not exist for anything other than its own sake. Rosalind Porter

Elfriede Jelinek: The Piano Teacher (1983)

Erika Kohut, a piano teacher at the Vienna Conservatory, has spent her entire life under the close watch of a domineering mother, to whom she owes her artistic success, but also a disturbed inner life. An affair with one of her students triggers a speedy decline into abuse and self-destruction. Not a love story in the conventional sense, but a powerful depiction of the way in which the ties with our parents affect our later relationships. Expressionistic, vivid and much more readable than critics of this 2004 Nobel prizewinner have it. PO

Yasunari Kawabata: Beauty and Sadness (1964)

Oki, a successful middle-aged writer, revisits Otoko, with whom he had a disastrous aff air when she was only 15 years old. Otoko is now an acclaimed artist and recluse living with her young maid and lover, Keiko. A story dealing with Kawabata’s usual themes of desire, betrayal and revenge ensues, written in his characteristically cool, spare prose. This unsettling novel is itself a work of great beauty and sadness. When he was 72, Kawabata, Japan’s first Nobel laureate, stuck his head in the oven and gassed himself. He left no note. LA

MM Kaye: The Far Pavilions (1978)

This long novel has spawned tours of India, a musical play, and a TV adaptation. It spans a quarter of a century of history in its story of Englishman Ashton Pelham-Martyn, who is brought up a Hindu and falls in love with the Indian princess Anjuli. The novel was inspired by 19th-century romantic epics, Kaye’s grandfather’s writings, and her Indian childhood. Director Peter Duffell’s famous adaptation in 1984 starred Ben Cross, Omar Sharif and Christopher Lee. KS

Nikos Kazantzakis: Zorba the Greek (1946)

A nameless narrator seeks life experience away from the books that have dominated his existence — and gets it in spades when he employs Zorba to be the foreman of his mine in Crete. The eponymous hero’s lustful energy and “great brute soul” are enchanting, while Kazantazkis has seduced generations of readers with his questioning philosophy and heady evocation of stolen love, the bonds of friendship, blue seas, wine drunk under the stars and a lost moment on a distant island. Sam Jordison

Milan Kundera: The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978)

The French philosopher Henri Bergson once described comedy as “a temporary anasthaesia of the heart” — it would make for a spot-on definition of Kundera’s fifth novel as well. A self-consciously clever work with a jumpy narrative focus, it doesn’t succumb to the more ponderous French style of his later novels, nor does it seem to have the same faith in love as a counter-political force that Kundera displayed in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It’s a sad book: a particularly melancholy orgy scene springs to mind, as does the final sentence — “their bare genitals stared stupidly and sadly at the white sand”. Which is to say — some might argue — that Kundera captured the essence of love quite successfully. PO

Milan Kundera: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1982)

Kundera ponders the French revolution, Hitler, the Bible and Nietzsche’s concept of eternal return — and that’s just the first four pages. Against the backdrop of the emerging Prague spring, several characters explore their sexual, political and artistic freedoms and loyalties: there’s Tomas, a young surgeon, his wife Tereza, a photographer, and Sabina, one of Tomas’s several mistresses. The image that most people associate with Kundera’s best-known work is Lena Olin’s Sabina wearing only lingerie and a bowler hat in Philip Kaufman’s 1988 film version. That’s not necessarily unintended: Kundera’s masterpiece manages a delicate balancing act between cerebral weight and sensual lightness. PO

Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos: Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782)

Laclos, an artillery officer from a provincial regiment, knew exactly what he was doing when he published Les Liaisons Dangereuses: “I resolved to write a book which would create some stir in the world and continue to do so after I had gone from it.” His central characters are aristocratic profligates who consider themselves above morality and amuse themselves by plotting the seduction of a young girl. The epistolary form enables Laclos to withhold judgment on his wickedly attractive protagonists in a way which still seems dangerous today. Glenn Close and John Malkovich gave unforgettable peformances as the malevolent lovers in Stephen Frear’s Academy award-winning 1989 film, based on the Christopher Hampton’s script for the stage. Claire Armistead

DH Lawrence: Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1960)

Constance Chatterley, the frustrated wife of a paralysed war veteran and mine owner, finds herself drawn to the family’s gamekeeper. Through her attraction to Mellors, and their famously explicit affair — rich in forget-me-nots and four-letter-words — Lawrence developed his ideal of the natural man, uninhibited by class and social convention. At first privately printed, its publication in 1960 led to the prosecution of Penguin for obscenity. Was it, asked the prosecutor, the kind of book “you would wish your wife or servants to read”? The collapse of the case, after a defence featuring several top scholars, became a landmark of freedom to publish works of literary merit. CA

DH Lawrence: The Rainbow (1915)

Banned as obscene for 11 years on publication in 1915, The Rainbow follows the turbulent lives and loves of three generations of the Brangwen family of Marsh Farm in Lawrence’s native Nottinghamshire. A moving paean to a vanishing pastoral England, an enlightened manifesto for female emancipation and a bold challenge to the realist novel — The Rainbow, like its equally controversial sequel Women in Love, is remembered by most of its readers for the sex. It remains potentially dangerous reading for romantically inclined teenagers. LA

DH Lawrence: Women in Love (1920)

Like many modernists, DH Lawrence was preoccupied with the possibility of unity and believed love could bridge — or further — the fragmentary nature of post-industrial life. Perhaps nowhere in the literary tradition is love permitted such messianic value than in his saccharinely titled fifth novel. Through the story of two couples struggling to negotiate their individualism within a relationship, the Lawrentian metaphysic is tried and tested. The most memorable scene in Ken Russell’s 1969 film is certainly when Alan Bates and Oliver Reed wrestle naked, but action is largely relegated to the almost cosmic dimension of the characters’ inner lives. RP

Rosamond Lehmann: The Echoing Grove (1953)

Two sisters, Madeleine and Dinah, meet again after a long period of estrangement. This intense, intricately plotted novel tells of the love triangle that existed between the sisters and Madeleine’s husband Rickie Masters, who died suddenly and unglamorously from a stomach ulcer — leaving them both to deal with his loss and betrayal. On publication the novel was dismissed as “very much a woman’s book” by John Betjeman and other critics, but since being republished by Virago has gained admirers of both sexes. Lehmann herself had a complicated personal life, including a 10-year-affair with the poet Cecil Day Lewis, which drove her to distraction when he left her for an actress. LA

Rosamond Lehmann: The Weather in the Streets (1936)

Lehmann’s readers would write to her constantly: “Oh Miss Lehmann, this is my story! — how did you know?” In everything she wrote Lehmann distilled the exact essence of what we actually feel when we love another human being. Olivia Curtis, the endearing heroine of this irresistible novel, has left home to work in London. She meets a gorgeous, older, married man, and their love affair and its outcome has become a bible for generations of women who did — and do — and who felt — and feel — exactly the same as Olivia. Carmen Callil

Anita Loos: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1925)

An anatomy of flapperdom. A New York “professional lady” is advised by one of her many gentlemen friends to put “all of my thoughts” on paper. Currently she is the other woman in the life of the Gus Eisman who sends her off to Europe for some cultivation. There she dances with the Prince of Wales, finds Paris “Deevine” [sic] and in Vienna flummoxes “Dr Froyd”. She concludes, “American gentlemen are the best after all, because kissing your hand may make you feel very very good but a diamond and safire [sic] bracelet last forever”. The character was immortalised by Marilyn Monroe in the film, Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend (1956). JS

Alison Lurie: Foreign Aff airs (1984)

Two professors are sent from America to London for research assignments: the 54-year-old, unmarried, unattractive Vinnie Miner, and the 29-year-old, recently divorced, handsome Fred Turner. They both gradually spend more time on romance than work: Vinnie has an unlikely affair with a sanitary engineer, and Fred falls for an aristocratic actress. This witty and charming novel won a Pulitzer prize in 1985. KS

Amin Maalouf: Samarkand (1989)

The poet Omar Khayyam is accused of mocking Islam, but the judge recognises Omar’s genius and spares him. He is given a book with blank pages in which to inscribe his thoughts, and through this we are transported to 11th-century Persia, complete with lovers, courts and bazaars. Maalouf’s story recreates the manuscript of Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, blending fact and fiction. KS

Thomas Mann: Death in Venice (1912)

When the ageing writer Gustav von Aschenbach catches sight of a young boy in Venice, his assumption that love is an ailment of the undisciplined character is dismantled. As a critique of stoical rationalism, Death in Venice shows how Aschenbach’s “path of least resistance” attitude to matters of the heart gains him professional stature, but is ultimately what kills him — what death relieves him of. Unlike many novels which examine love’s consequences, it is absolute in its endorsement of emotion, allowing even the most taboo of passions to be celebrated for their redemptive qualities. RP

Dacia Maraini: The Silent Duchess (1990)

Marianna Ucra, the daughter of an aristocratic family in 18th-century Sicily, has been left deaf and mute by an unspecified childhood trauma. Married to her ageing uncle at 13, she endures a life of mental confinement amid the decadent corruption of her family. But on the death of her husband, she finally starts to find the freedom she craves — as well as the truth about the events that caused her deafness. Marianna’s soundless world, in which all her other senses are heightened, is rendered with astonishing clarity. The novel brought Maraini, a winner of Italy’s prestigious Premio Strega, both critical and commercial success. AN

Javier Marías: A Heart So White (1992)

A mysterious suicide, an overheard plan for murder and casual art fraud: this Impac award-winning novel bears the hallmarks of a detective story, but Marías’s mysteries form the backdrop for something more existential. The narrator and his wife Luisa are both translators at high-powered political meetings, and the novel delicately riffs on themes of communication and misunderstanding between individuals. Richly layered but concise in its depiction of comic or tragic set-pieces, this is surely the first and last book to get romantic mileage out of a meeting between Margaret Thatcher and Juan Carlos of Spain. PO

Gabriel García Márquez: Love in the Time of Cholera (1985)

Fifty-one years, nine months and four days after Florentino Ariza was rejected for another man by the beautiful Fermina Daza, he finds her helping out at her husband’s wake. In the intervening years, he has made a fortune and sampled every variety of love, but has “not stopped thinking of her for a single moment”. Set in a steaming, disease-prone and politically unstable Caribbean country, and culminating in the reunion of the aged lovers aboard a riverboat, García Márquez’s novel delicately concludes that true passion is not the preserve of young bodies. CA

Somerset Maugham: Of Human Bondage (1915)

Philip Carey is miserable and lonely in small-town Blackstable. He is orphaned, brought up by his uncle, and is embarrassed by his club foot. He trains as a doctor in London, where he meets the loud and irresistible Mildred, but their affair nearly ruins him. This is the thinly disguised autobiography of Maugham’s life: he grew up in Whitstable, was orphaned and had a bad stutter. It is regarded as his masterpiece. KS

William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980)

Based on a true scandal in 1920s Illinois of an affair between a tenant farmer’s wife and her husband’s best friend, this tale of adultery and murder was first serialised in the New Yorker, where Maxwell worked as fiction editor for 40 years. The betrayal between the two families is reflected in the smaller betrayal of the uneasy boyhood friendship between the narrator and the murderer’s son. At barely over 100 lean, immaculately crafted pages, this humane novella depicts the devastating impact wreaked by adult passions. “There was nothing to be done about it. He didn’t want to not love her. It was as simple as that.” LA

Carson McCullers: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)

McCullers was just 23 when she wrote this aching parable of alienation, spotlighting the inhabitants of a Depression-era Georgia mill-town. John Singer is the deaf-mute who plays the role of father-confessor to a quartet of lost souls (glum restaurateur, adolescent girl, black doctor, drunken socialist). McCullers’s deft vignettes touch on issues of race, class and religion. They also give a voice to America’s hidden majority — the people who, in Thoreau’s words, “lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them”. Xan Brooks

Ian McEwan: Atonement (2001)

A broken vase, a mistaken letter, a sexual encounter in a library, a crime, a lie — as so often with the opening of a McEwan novel, it is hard to tell the exact moment at which events begin to spiral into catastrophe. Thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis — the go-between for her elder sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner, the son of their housekeeper — commits a sin for which she will spend the rest of her life trying to atone. What begins as an apparently nostalgic English country house novel set just before the outbreak of the second world war turns, again as always with McEwan, into something altogether darker and more complicated. One of the most justly celebrated novels of recent years. LA

Ian McEwan: The Child in Time (1987)

The central narrative of McEwan’s novel passionately opposes two kinds of love: a man’s love for a woman, and his love for their child. The full force of the latter is unleashed when Stephen’s three-year-old daughter Kate is abducted in a supermarket. (No one who reads the novel forgets the slow terror of this episode.) As Stephen searches obsessively for Kate, his love for her mother, Julie, seems to slip away and disappear. A peculiar sub-plot, in which Stephen’s friend, a Thatcherite MP, regresses into childhood, is thematically related, but can hardly match up to the story of love numbed by the loss of a child. John Mullan

George Meredith: The Egoist (1879)

A novel which many Victorians would have proposed as one of the greatest that their literary culture produced. The egoist is Sir Willoughby Patterne, a man brought up surrounded by wealth and female adoration. On coming into his inheritance, he announces his engagement to Constantia Durham — but she sees through him and elopes with another man. Willoughby tours the world for three years and when he returns he ignores the devotion of Laetitia Dale, who has always loved him. Instead he courts Clara Middleton, the daughter of a wine-loving clergyman. They become engaged, but confronted by Clara’s reluctance, he treacherously forms a second engagement with Laetitia. He is exposed. Laetitia remains true to her egoist. The novel embodies Meredith’s complex theory of the comic spirit and deserves to be read more than it is nowadays. JS

Henry Miller: Tropic of Cancer (1934)

First published in Paris, and banned almost everywhere else until the 1960s, Miller’s semi-autobiographical stories of sexual liberation no longer seem outrageous, but they are worth fussing over. His words leap from the page, imbued with passion for life on the seedy side of Paris, and rich in the earthy pleasures of wine, women and cursing. George Orwell called it “the most important book of the mid-1930s”. It remains just as vital today. SJ

Margaret Mitchell: Gone with the Wind (1936)

Journalist Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone with the Wind, her first and only novel published during her lifetime, over 10 years in secret, while convalescing from a riding injury — refusing to show the manuscript to anyone except her husband because she thought it was “lousy”. When it was finally published it was an overnight sensation, winning Mitchell the Pulitzer prize. The 1939 epic starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable was the highest grossing film in the history of Hollywood and sealed its fate as one of the most popular love stories of all time (the film was responsible for the famous “frankly”). It has, apparently, sold more copies than any book since, apart from the Bible. LA

Nancy Mitford: The Pursuit of Love (1945)

The Radlett girls, by now, are immortal. Their slang is dated, their snobbery unpalatable, and their upbringing, by a roaring Uncle Matthew in an unheated country house, probably illegal by today’s standards. Yet upper-class Linda Radlett and her sisters still hold their charm. The mercurial Linda flits from the London season to the Spanish civil war to the Paris salons, acquiring and shedding men along the way, to the delight and horror of her sisters and faithful friend Fanny (the “Hons”). Satirical yet affectionate, the novel draws on Mitford’s own upbringing, and provides a sepia portrait of what it meant to grow up longing for romance among the 1930s landed gentry. Carrie O’Grady

Nancy Mitford: Love in a Cold Climate (1949)

Mitford’s follow-up to The Pursuit of Love is, amazingly, even more brittle, sparkling and outrageous. The Radlett family are still in evidence, but they play second fiddle to the Hamptons, particularly young Polly, whose polite manner must surely hide a secret. Her mother, Lady Montrose, is a terrific old battleaxe, one of literature’s great gems; as is Cedric, who calls everyone “angel” and dresses up as Romance for a fancy-dress ball. The comedy becomes all the more entrancing when you realise how dark is the story it adorns. CO

Elsa Morante: Arturo’s Island: A Novel (1957)

Arturo lives on his father’s island, his mother is dead, and he is left in the care of a staff of black-clad women. When his father returns with a new wife, close to Arturo’s age, he is full of contempt for her. In a mix of Sophoclean drama and soap opera, things take a turn for the unexpected. The novel won Italy’s most prestigious literary award, the Premio Strega, and was made into a film in 1962 by Daniano Damiani. KS

Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood (1987)

Murakami’s best-known work is also his simplest; a straightforward story of boy-meets-girl-then-a-different-girl, elevated by deceptively mild, deliciously cool prose. Hearing a Beatles song on the radio, 37-year-old businessman Toru is jerked back to his student days, during which, after the suicide of his best friend, Kizuki, he comforted then fell for Kizuki’s lovely but fragile girlfriend, Naoko. When she retreated to a sanatorium in the mountains, however, he became involved with vibrant Midori; torn between the two, he risked losing both. Murakami’s novel is used with sadness for time’s passing; a quietly poignant anthem for doomed youth. SC

Vladimir Nabokov: Lolita, or the Confessions of a White Widowed Male (1955)

Like Joyce’s Ulysses, a scandalous bestseller, but also a major work of modern literature. The work’s vexed route to publication — over the barriers which Anglo-American censorship placed in its way — altered the notion of what was permissible in literature. The hero-narrator is Humbert Humbert (a pseudonym). Cosmopolitan to his core, he comes to barbarous America. Humbert is obsessed by “nymphets”, pubescent girls, “between the age limits of nine and fourteen”. One such is his landlady’s daughter, Dolores (Lolita) Haze. Humbert marries the mother to get at the girl. When the mother dies he and Lolita travel round America, as lovers (she increasingly unwilling) pursued by another sexual predator, Clare Quilty. All ends bloodily, with Humbert incarcerated for murder. JS

RK Narayan: The Painter of Signs (1976)

Raman’s life follows a simple routine: he lives with his aunt, he’s a sign painter and he spends his evenings in the temple. When he meets Daisy, a worker from the Family Planning Health Centre who is dedicated to bringing birth control to the people, he considers giving up his painting. This is a bittersweet love story full of humour, irony and warmth, set in Narayan’s fictional city of Malgudi. He was short-listed for the Nobel prize several times but never won. KS

Anaïs Nin: Delta of Venus (1978)

The Kama Sutra, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and Nin’s friends’ sexual encounters were just some of the sources for this story. Her fiction is titillating, sentimental and dream-like as it explores how sex is nothing without emotion. Nin was commissioned to write the book in the 1940s for a private collector and although it was originally classed as pornography, it was later praised as one of the finest examples of female erotica. KS

Cees Nooteboom: All Souls Day (1999)

Arhur Daane, a Dutch documentary film-maker, has lost his wife and child in a plane crash. He wanders round Berlin as he plans his next project, a film showing the world through his eyes. He meets a philosopher, sculptor and physicist. It is when he meets the young student, Elik Orange, that he finds himself on an unexpected journey. Nooteboom has been described by AS Byatt as “one of the great modern novelists”, and often been suggested as a candidate for the Nobel prize. Kohinoor Sahota

Michael Ondaatje: The English Patient (1992)

This is another novel where the multi-award winning film threatens to eclipse the Booker-winning original — and who could forget a luminous Juliette Binoche discovering frescoes by candlelight, an elegant Kristin Scott Thomas reading Herodotus by a campfire in the desert, or Ralph Fiennes staggering through the sand dunes with his dead lover shrouded in billowing white? Still, the novel — Ondaatje’s best — is well worth reading for the lyricism of the prose and the clever storytelling: even if the adulterous lovers aren’t quite such an intense focus as in the film. Lisa Allardice

Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago (1957)

Although completed in 1956, Doctor Zhivago wasn’t published in Pasternak’s native Russia until 1988; and the Kremlin compelled him to decline the Nobel prize which he was awarded in 1958 after the novel’s success abroad. It is set against the backdrop of the Russian revolution, but it is the story of Yuri’s grand passion for Lara that has kept its place in readers’ hearts. Has anyone ever made doing the ironing look so alluring as Julie Christie in David Lean’s 1965 epic starring the smouldering Omar Sharif? LA

Abbé Prévost: Manon Lescaut (1731)

A callow young toff falls for a beauty of shaky morals and follows her to the end of the world, shedding fortune, scruples and self-respect along the way. Sounds familiar? That’s not surprising, as Prévost’s novel — initially banned in France — inspired many less accomplished tales, as well as operas by Massenet and Puccini. Des Grieux, the narrator, gives a fascinatingly unreliable account of his years with a woman for whom luxury will always count for more than love. Phil Daoust

Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

This brief, exotic novel tells the story of Antoinette, a Creole heiress who is married off to an unnamed Englishman, falls in love with him but is gradually driven mad. By the end, she is incarcerated in an attic room, in a cold foreign country, but still dreaming of “the smell of vetivet and frangipani, of cinnamon and dust and lime trees”. Told in turn by Antoinette and her husband, the Mr Rochester of Jane Eyre, it is, as Francis Wyndham commented in his introduction, “an imaginative feat almost uncanny in its vivid intensity”. Prudence Hone

Henry Handel Richardson: Maurice Guest (1908)

In the 1890s, Maurice Guest, a poor English provincial teacher, goes to Leipzig to study music. He meets Louise Dufrayer, languid, exotic, a siren. The love Maurice comes to feel for Louise is as resounding and consuming as the music which rises and falls on every page. This is a novel in the great European tradition. Maurice Guest joins Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, as the lyrical sweep of Richardson’s prose reveals every intimate tremor felt by a human heart obsessed with the love of another. Carmen Callil

Samuel Richardson: Pamela (1740)

This story of a maidservant struggling to resist the advances of her sexually predatory master was the first complex novel of love in English fiction. Told in the heroine’s own self-questioning, agitated letters, it traces her feelings moment by moment. She is fi ghting to save her soul as well as her body. Mr B, the would-be rake, intercepts and reads those letters, and as a result falls in love with her. His intended victim conquers him with her writing. John Mullan

Samuel Richardson: Clarissa (1748)

In the longest novel in English literature, the passions of a brilliant libertine, Lovelace, and Clarissa, the intelligent, virtuous young woman whom he desires (“my frost-piece!”), are played out in exquisite slow motion. We have the correspondence of the heroine with her friend, and of the villain with a fellow rake, so we can see how these combatants are deceived by each other. Clarissa half-falls for the satanic but seductive Lovelace, and to Richardson’s horror many of the novel’s female readers fell for him completely. JM

Marilynne Robinson: Gilead (2004)

Few contemporary writers are as critically acclaimed as Marilynne Robinson. The Pulitzer prizewinning Gilead, rapturously received more than 20 years after Robinson’s first novel Housekeeping, could equally belong in a different category, as it is a novel-long letter from an adoring 72-year-old father, Reverend John Ames, who believes he is terminally ill, to his seven-year-old son. But as well as being a powerfully lucid expression of filial love and faith, it is the story of how two men achieve grace through marriage — one unexpectedly late in life, the other through an illegal union with a black woman from Tennessee. Set in small-town Iowa in 1956, Gilead is a quiet, slow-moving but ultimately majestic avowal of the redemptive power of love. LA

Françoise Sagan: Bonjour Tristesse (1954)

“A strange and melancholy feeling pervades me”, says Cécile , remembering being 17 and on holiday in the south of France, where she was seduced by sun, sea and her first lover. But her hedonistic lifestyle is transformed when her father decides to remarry. Written when Sagan was 18, the novel’s depiction of teenage sexuality caused a scandal, but went on to sell 850,000 copies in France. François Mauriac described Sagan as a “charming little monster”. KS

Kurban Said: Ali and Nino (1928)

Ali and Nino is the great romance — the Romeo and Juliet — of the Caucasus. Sparsely and movingly told by Said (whose own life was as quite as extraordinary as his book), it is written, engagingly, in the first person: Ali, a handsome young Azeri aristocrat and a Muslim, tells us the story of his courtship of and marriage to beautiful Nino, a Georgian princess and a Christian. The setting is Baku in 1920, in the last tortured months of a brief utopian period in that city when people of all nationalities and religions lived in harmony. What makes this story of doomed love different to many others is that it is not bigoted society nor their families who destroy Ali and Nino, but the brutal invasion of Azerbaijan by the Red Army. Soviet rule, it is easy to forget, only came to an end 16 years ago, but the Baku of Ali and Nino is still, just, recognisable. Bridget Keenan

James Salter: Light Years (1975)

Viri and Nedra Berland live with their two daughters in the Hudson valley. Viri is an architect, Nedra a witty, beautiful almost-artist; their gilded days are garnished with the names of painters, ballets, authors and wines. But time, unforgivingly, moves on. The idyll shows faultlines: infidelity, disease, age, loss, divorce. The daughters leave the shelter of childhood for the sexual fray. You feel a tension between the radiance of moments — a breakfast of chocolate and oranges, sunlit picnics on beaches and lawns, “the endless hours of consort” between man and wife — and their inevitable rush into the past. “Where does it go,” Nedra wonders. “Where has it gone?” William Fiennes

James Salter: A Sport and a Pastime (1967)

An American photographer borrows a house near Dijon. A younger man, Philip Dean, comes to stay with him and begins an affair with a local girl called Anne-Marie. The photographer describes their encounters with dreamy intensity and detail. We’re not sure if these are his own experiences, or his fantasies, or if he’s dissolved into a third-person narrator who knows everything. Salter has said that his ambition was to write something “licentious yet pure, an immaculate book filled with images of an unchaste world more desirable than our own.” Reading it, you feel that you too, like the photographer, are eavesdropping on the conduct of a love aff air: between the writer and his language, or between language and the world it describes. WF

Bernhard Schlink: The Reader (1995)

Fifteen-year-old Michael has a secret relationship with a woman more than twice his age: after school he reads her stories and they make love, until one day she vanishes. Years later, the boy — now a law student — discovers that his former lover used to be a guard in a concentration camp. When she is imprisoned for life, they resume a relationship of sorts: he records himself reading stories and posts the tapes to her. Schlink, who is also a lecturer in law, writes with an alert sense for moral ambiguities, yet he also makes an impassioned stand in defence of the redemptive power of love. Philip Oltermann

Erich Segal: Love Story (1970)

The novel originated as a screenplay for Paramount written by a young classics professor. Every age has its Romeo and Juliet. This was the one for the 1970s. It opens: “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?” The girl, Jennifer Cavilleri, is a Radcliffe music student. The narrator, Oliver Barrett IV, is a Harvard student. A tiff in the library leads to the ice-cream parlour and, inevitably, love over the scoops. His background is old money. She is Italian, the daughter of a baker. Oliver defies his family, she sacrifi ces her dream of studying in Paris. They marry but Jennifer is diagnosed with a fatal illness. The story is told by Oliver, after her death, with the novel’s famous motto: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” A generation of teenage boys fell for a freshfaced Ali MacGraw in the 1970s’ weepy with Ryan O’Neal as the preppy Oliver. John Sutherland

Isaac Bashevis Singer: Enemies, a Love Story (1972)

It’s 1949, New York. Herman Broder, who has escaped the concentration camps, is having an affair with three women: Yadwiga who hid him from Nazis; Masha his mistress; and Tamara, the wife he thought was shot dead. Herman is adrift in a world where “children could be dragged away from their mother and shot”. The novel was first serialised in the Jewish Daily Forward in 1966. Paul Mazursky’s film adaptation in 1989, starring Ron Silver and Anjelica Huston, was nominated for two Oscars. KS

Elizabeth Smart: At Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945)

The world might have been at war, but no less cataclysmic is the individual anguish of the broken-hearted, so claims Elizabeth Smart’s prose poem. The barest traces of a story of everyday adultery swells to heroic grandeur with lashings of biblical and literary allusions. While the unnamed lovers’ romance is painfully brief, the book was based on Canadian writer Smart’s affair with the English poet George Barker, which lasted 18 years and produced four children. A howl of tortured love and the agony of betrayal, it should be avoided by emotional cynics and literary ascetics at all costs. A favourite inspiration for Morrissey, apparently. LA

Dodie Smith: I Capture the Castle (1948)

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink,” so we are introduced to the eccentric, impoverished Mortmain family — 17-year-old Cassandra, our narrator and would-be novelist; Rose, her beautiful, bored elder sister; Thomas, the little brother; bohemian Topaz, their young stepmother and sometime artist’s model; and their father, an author suffering from writer’s block — all holed up in the crumbling Suffolk pile. Hope comes with the arrival of the wealthy American Cotton family and their two eligible sons as neighbours. Written while Smith was in Hollywood, but homesick for England, and set in the innocent prewar period, this utterly enchanting coming of age story should be given to every 14-year-old girl and revisited thereafter in times of flu and emotional frailty. LA

Ahdaf Soueif: The Map of Love (1999)

In 13 years of reading fiction by women since founding the Orange prize, Kate Mosse cites The Map of Love as her favourite. Soueif’s sweeping family saga describes two cross-cultural romances separated by nearly a century. Epic in its historical and geographical range yet rich in detail, the novel is also a love letter to Soueif’s native Egypt. Shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1999, it combines romance and politics with a rare passion. LA

Jacqueline Susann: Valley of the Dolls (1966)

The novel which, raunchily, redrew the map of women’s romance. For many years it was listed by Guinness as the bestselling work of fiction ever. Three young women come to postwar New York to make their fortune. The “dolls” of the title are prescription pills. The trio are brought together by a Broadway musical, in which they are each differently involved. Anne Welles is level headed, and eventually makes it in modelling. Neely O’Hara is lower class. She becomes an Oscar-winning film actress, and self-destructive addict. Jennifer North is blond, beautiful and doomed. Susann’s novel engages frankly (for the time) with sex, abortion, breast cancer and drugs. It’s manifestly a roman à clef — one of the pleasures in reading it is spotting Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland under thin disguise. JS

Graham Swift: Waterland (1983)

In this, Graham Swift’s breakthrough novel of 1983, the flat, liquid landscape of the Fens holds the teenage protagonists in a vice-like grip. The narrator Tom Crick is a middle-aged schoolmaster looking back on his war-time schoolboy romance with Mary, a sexually adventurous convent schoolgirl. Their eventual marriage will be childless, a lack which precipitates Tom into recklessly sharing his family history with his pupils. Shortlisted for the Booker, Waterland employed the techniques of fashionable magic realism in the service of the provincial realist novel. Kathryn Hughes

Junichiro Tanizaki: Diary of a Mad Old Man (1961)

“How could anyone with a face like this ever hope to appeal to a woman?” writes Utsugi, a dying old man, in his diaries. He desires his beautiful, westernised daughter-in-law, Satsuko: there is an age-gap, incest, and a bizarre foot fetish. This is funny, intelligent and passionate, and also semi-autobiographical as it was Tanizaki’s final work, written during his own illness. He is regarded as one of the greatest Japanese writers, and his work explores the destructive power of erotic obsessions. KS

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina (1877)

From the famous first line — “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” — we know there is only one place this story is heading and it isn’t to a happy ending. This is the ultimate adultery novel — with Madame Bovary in close second. Tolstoy does give us the pious Levin and Kitty to prove that love isn’t necessarily tragic, but no one really gives a damn about them. There’s a lot of stuff about the reform of the Russian peasantry too. But all we are really interested in is the fatal passion of poor Anna and her dashing Vronsky. Oprah Winfrey was recently responsible for making Tolstoy’s classic a bestseller again when she chose it for her bookclub. LA

Rose Tremain: Music and Silence (1999)

The winner of the 2008 Orange prize created a crystalline vision of early 17th-century Denmark in this vivid panorama of life at the court of King Christian IV. The young English lute player Peter Claire arrives during the dying days of the king’s marriage to his second wife and falls in love with one of the queen’s women. The glittering descriptions and use of the present continuous tense add to the immediacy. The review in this paper sums it up: “The crowning virtue of this novel is Tremain’s restlessly probing sympathy, so that if no character is of totally unblemished virtue, neither is anyone thoroughly bad.” PH

Ivan Turgenev: First Love (1860)

Sixteen-year-old Vladimir leaves Moscow with his parents to spend the summer at a house in the country. Out shooting crows, he sees a beautiful girl in the neighbouring garden. Zinaida, daughter of a down-at-heel princess, is 21 and a virtuoso flirt, and Vladimir falls for her, big time: “I had ceased to be simply a young boy; I was someone in love.” But Zinaida has a raft of grown-up suitors — including Doctor Looshin, Count Malevsky and a really annoying poet called Maidanov — and Vladimir is convinced she’s in love with one of them. When he discovers the identity of Zinaida’s lover, Turgenev’s wonderful novella enters a new and complicated dimension. WF

Anne Tyler: Breathing Lessons (1988)

Winner of the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Breathing Lessons’s structure is simple — a middle-aged couple, Ira and Maggie, spend a day driving to and from a funeral — but it is stuffed with more insight into human relations than many other novels. The couple have typical marital spats while quietly reflecting on their individual dreams and disappointments, particularly their son Jesse, a wannabe rock star, who has been a lifelong bafflement to his conventional father. With a deceptively light touch, Tyler creates a stunningly realistic, and ultimately optimistic, portrait of marriage. Hadley Freeman

Anne Tyler: The Accidental Tourist (1985)

Macon Leary is a reluctant travel writer, whose usual emotional frigidity degenerates to near-paralysis after his son is murdered and his wife leaves him. He takes refuge behind his similarly odd siblings and only re-emerges after meeting Muriel, whose chaotic ways shatter his neurotic rigidity. Despite the breathtakingly sad opening chapters, Tyler’s delicate perceptiveness gives the novel an understated warmth. William Hurt was so good in the 1989 film adaptation as Macon that he almost made up for Geena Davis, who bafflingly won an Oscar for her performance as Muriel. HF

Sarah Waters: The Night Watch (2006)

In a bold leap from the Victorian lesbiana of Waters’s previous hit novels, The Night Watch, told backwards from 1947 to 1941, traces the lives of its four lost characters as they pick their way back through the rubble and ruined lives of austerity Britain to the danger of the Blitz. With Pinter’s Betrayal as a template, The Night Watch records four love stories from sorry endings to romantic beginnings. And while war-ravaged London — immaculately rendered in both atmosphere 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read | 21 and detail — provides a dramatic backcloth, Waters’ is most interested in the inner conflict of her characters’ hearts. LA

Charles Webb: The Graduate (1963)

Dustin Hoff man in full diving suit in his parent’s swimming pool, a sultry Anne Bancroft as the seductive Mrs Robinson and one of the most atmospheric soundtracks of all time, mean there’s no getting away from the gargantuan movie with this one. A satire on 1960s upper-class suburban America, The Graduate is the story of an alienated college graduate having the mother of all identity crises. Benjamin Braddock is perhaps even more dissociated in the original, but otherwise the novel is written pretty much as a screenplay. LA

Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence (1920)

This look back at the rigid conventions of New York society in the 1870s, where “they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought”, is also an examination of duty and sacrifice. Newland Archer, engaged to the perfect but conventional May, falls in love with May’s exotic cousin, Countess Ellen Olenska, but marriage and May’s pregnancy come between them. Poignant, measured and wistful, it was a bestseller and won the Pulitzer prize — the first to be awarded to a woman. PH

Jeanette Winterson: The Passion (1987)

A French farmboy idolises Napoleon Bonaparte and becomes his personal cooker of chickens; a girl is born who can walk on water: realism and characterisation are not the point of this sinuous, casually brutal, often gorgeous novel, but Winterson’s readers would not really expect that. Rather, it is a meditation on the human waste of war, on necessary risk, and, above all, on passion, which brooks no dissent, clothes the world in colour, and clarifies everything — except when it doesn’t. Aida Edemariam

Mrs Henry Wood: East Lynne (1861)

Full-blooded Victorian melodrama that was extremely popular as a novel and even more so as a play (where the famous “Dead, dead and never called me mother!” originated). Lady Isabel Vane (vain by nature) is left bankrupt when her father, Lord Mount Severn, dies. She marries a high-minded lawyer, Mr Archibald Carlyle, who buys her former home, East Lynne, for her. Disastrously, Isabel is tempted to elope with the caddish Frank Levison. Carlyle divorces her (a legal option since 1857) and remarries. Thought killed, though only disfigured in a train accident, Isabel, disguised by green spectacles, returns as Madame Vine to East Lynne, where she serves, unrecognised, as governess to her own children. Melodrama ensues. The novel embodies Wood’s conviction that for a married woman, adultery is “far worse than death”. JS

Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road (1961)

Outwardly successful young suburbanites Frank and April Wheeler go from mutual tolerance and boredom to violent loathing as their lives of unquiet desperation begin to unravel. It is hard to think of a more unlikeable couple, or a more depressing novel, but this corrosive portrait of 1950s American suburbia and the death of the American dream is brutal and beautiful in its appalling honesty. Hailed as a masterpiece on publication in 1961, and rediscovered by a new generation of critics and writers, Revolutionary Road has achieved a hallowed status (Tennessee Williams, Richard Ford, Kurt Vonnegut and Nick Hornby are just some of its devotees) in modern fiction. LA

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  1. July 3, 2009 at 11:47 am

    That was a nice read

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