essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Personal culture is, well, personal, so a list of writers who have been most important to me in my 50 years of reading may well not resonate with anyone else. It’s a kind of summing up which I think is beneficial and I’m pleased to make it and post it. It’s in rough order of impact, and not just a list of ‘great’ writers, nor just of ‘favourite’ ones either. These are my most important authors, whose novels and stories have influenced me to be the person I am.
José Maria Eça de Queirós
The Maias 1888. Trans. Patricia McGowan Pinheiro and Ann Stevens 1965.
Eca de Queiros’ masterpiece was written in Bristol of all places. Both a lament and a poignant look at the limitations of human life, the depth of characterisation and dexterity of construction make this book more powerful than anything written by Balzac or Dickens.
The Makioka Sisters 1948. Trans. Edward Seidensticker 1958.
Written in Tanizaki’s discursive style, this novel follows his translation of Murasaki’s Genji and is a comparable picture, of a more modern Japan. Full of detail of a vanishing way of life, the book both celebrates, and mourns its passing, and is itself a thing of beauty.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle 1995. Trans. Jay Rubin 1998
Kafka on the Shore 2002. Trans. Philip Gabriel. 2005.
Murakami’s mix of pop culture, surreal fantasy and bitter existentialism deals brilliantly with the gap between the inner and outer worlds which everyone has to bridge. The seeker dealing with the bizarre while pursuing what he supposes a normal fulfillment is a common theme in Murakami’s books.
The Tale of Genji 10th century AD. Trans. Edward G Seidensticker 1976.
One of the earliest novels to have survived and still one of the greatest ever written, despite social and literary conventions that can be a barrier to modern readers. Murasaki shows great insight and sensitivity, and the book reveals her in far more detail than it does the eponymous Genji.
Act of Passion. Simenon Omnibus 1-14. The Family Lie, The Patient. Pedigree.
Simenon wrote over 200 books and the astonishing thing is that so many of them so expertly explore disturbed psychological states that result in crime. Collectively, this is one of the most comprehensive explorations in fiction of human nature ever made. The detective Maigret features in about a third of these titles.
Miguel De Cervantes
Don Quixote 1605. Trans. Tobias Smollett 1755; Trans. John Ormsby 1885
One of the best loved, most widely published novels ever written. At first a satire, by the end it has become a tragedy as the fool who tilts at windmills becomes someone who shows the world how inferior it is that windmills should be just windmills, and not giants. Written in a style of good hearted wisdom hard to resist.
The Brothers Karamazov 1880. Trans. Constance Garnett 1920.
This story of crime and punishment and the role of god is written with such power that it is impossible to read it without realising that the issues are central to one’s own life, not merely a story of 19th century Russia or a mere philosophical enquiry. Rated by many as one of the greatest books ever written.
A Suitable Boy 1994.
Not many novels run to 1500 pages, and not many that do become bestsellers. But A Suitable Boy is about India, and the novel is a great introduction to the many cultures, languages, religions and customs of the subcontinent, praised by many Indians for its accuracy. It’s hard not to get deeply involved in this four family saga.
The Sound and the Fury 1929.
As I Lay Dying 1930.
The force of tradition dominates these two early novels of Faulkner, written before his involvement with Hollywood, and they are among the best of his books. The honourable respect for one’s ancestors has become a kind of straightjacket and the writing renders brilliantly the viewpoint of the inbred aristocrats of the first and the poor farmers of the second book.
Star Maker 1937.
British philosopher Olaf Stapledon looked for a large audience for his ideas by writing fiction and found it. Star Maker is about the possible nature of god and of the universe. It takes ideas from Dante, astrophysics and metaphysics and combines them poetically to form a well constructed and absorbing tale.
W. Somerset Maugham
Of Human Bondage 1915.
The World Over: The Collected Stories 1951.
Somerset Maugham’s early autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage makes absorbing reading and is usually called his best work, but the collected stories are even better: he is one of the two or three greatest exponents of the genre. The variety of character and setting is extraordinary and Maugham is always entertaining.
The History of Tom Jones a foundling 1749.
One of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read, full of life, humour, parody and wit. The era comes alive in all its diversity. Fielding was influenced by Cervantes and influenced Austen, a fact most evident in the vigour of the characterisation. The book is a fine example of the values it inculcates, honesty and kindness.
The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman 1767.
Tristram Shandy has an unfair reputation as a precursor of the stream of consciousness technique. More importantly, it is one of the most charming and entertaining books ever written. Right from the start, when to start seems impossible because there is always something to impart before the start, Tristram meanders on, playing with time, memory and the nascent novel form: it’s a book about play.
The Inheritors 1955
Pincher Martin 1956
Free Fall 1959
Golding’s work has been overshadowed by the reputation of his first novel Lord of the Flies, but the next four he wrote (above) are among his best. Laden with symbol and allegory as all his work, these books broke new ground in subject matter and technique. The Spire in particular, whose plot pits pride and individualism against faith and collective effort, has an effect which resonates long after the book is finished.
Nineteen Eighty-Four 1948.
Long after emerging from this nightmare one wonders just how real it is and how accurately its detail might be reflected in the political events that make up the news of the day. Orwell said he was afraid 1984 might occur without anyone noticing and his book was designed to make that more difficult. A book no-one should ignore.
A Diversity of Creatures 1917
Actions and Reactions 1909
Debits and Credits 1926.
A man with divergent reputations, as an imperialist and a writer of tub-thumping verse, Kipling developed into a remarkably intuitive, highly imaginative writer of stories, and his best stories are among the greatest ever written. Far more poetic than his poetry, far more insightful than almost anyone else, the stories in these volumes reveal him, in his painful isolation, to be in tune with us all.
Martin Chuzzlewit 1844
Dombey and Sons 1848
Bleak House 1853
Little Dorrit 1857
Dickens’ ‘big four’ novels are all superbly plotted and rich in satire, humour, pathos and colourful characters. Gone is the coy humour of Pickwick, yet to come is the symbolism and darkness of Our Mutual Friend. These four books give us pure Dickens, with all his marvellous energy.
Conrad’s richly textured and evocative prose both involves the reader in his stories of men and women in extreme situations, at the end of the tether, and enables them to understand the emotions that drive them. The result is frequently very moving.
The Girl in a Swing 1980
Richard Adams’s achievement shouldn’t be overshadowed by the success of Watership Down. The Girl in a Swing is a passionate, sensual ghost story of enormous power; Maia is an epic precursor to the earlier Shardik; Traveller is a humane and disturbing account of the American Civil War from a horse’s viewpoint. A major novelist still awaiting recognition.
Nights at the Circus 1984
Wise Children 1991.
Angela Carter excelled in many literary forms. As a novelist she was both experimental and radical, yet her two final novels explore earlier forms of fiction: life on the stage and as a performance; family saga; the search for origins: Carter’s fascination with fairy tale and magic is still evident. Wise Children was written when she knew she was dying. It is a wonderful and moving celebration of life, and her best book.
The Magus 1966.
Fowles’ partly autobiographical novel which explores the working of myth in the subconsciousness, experienced as real events on the cusp of dream and everyday reality, has been a seminal work, both in the evolution of the novel and in the lives of many of it’s first readers. It even survived a terrible screenplay by Fowles to become a favourite film of mine.
A logical paradox defines the absurdity of our terms of existence in Catch-22, an extremely funny, profoundly tragic account of the futility of war, the powerlessness of individuals, and the blunderings of fate. An extremely reasonable reaction to the experience of the second world war becomes an universal statement of the human predicament.
Eva Luna 1988. Trans. Margaret Sayers Peden.
Eva Luna manages to be about many diverse things: a picaresque soap opera; the story of Latin America; the tale of a woman coming to self-determination; an autobiography; a description of the creation and nature of fiction: and yet never loses its narrative fascination. Allende uses very little dialog, and the characters, Eva herself included, are more ‘imaginary’ than most novelists attempt: but believable and in the end quite moving.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Last Tycoon 1941.
Scott Fitzgerald’s tragically cut short career produced one near masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, and The Last Tycoon, an unfinished book based on the life of Thalberg. A meticulous stylist, Fitzgerald describes characters and situations in an impressionistic style that approaches the mythic.
Sense & Sensibility; Pride & Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion 1811-1818.
Austen invented the novel of character and is one of its greatest exponents. Her understanding of human nature has rarely been excelled by any writer. Her beautifully executed prose depicts the society of her class and time with exceptional accuracy and insight and she has a delightful sense of the ridiculous in human behaviour. All her books are worth reading.
Robinson Crusoe 1719.
Beginning in journalism, like most of Defoe’s works, this attained universal stature. It’s full of scenes I’ve never forgotten: the collection of items rescued from the wreck; Friday’s footstep; the list of good and bad things. An enduring story of survival.
King of Paris 1956.
This fictional biography of Alexandre Dumas the father is written in the style of one of Dumas’ own romances. Dumas’ own life was as colourful as any romance, and the book succeeds magnificently in bringing the man and the period to life.
Funeral Games 2006.
The novel is about Mumbai so it needs a lot of room, but the connecting thread is a kind of battle between a policeman and a Mumbai mafia leader. It deals with political events such as partition, history, film, business, poverty, culture and many other issues. 900 pages of fascinating narrative, quite an achievement.
Police at the Funeral 1931
Dancers in Mourning 1937
China Governmess 1962
Hide My Eyes 1958.
Allingham was a phenomenally popular detective story writer whose plotting approached the ingenuity of Agatha Christie and whose detective, Albert Campion, was a scion of the British royal family. Over the years she developed considerable powers of characterisation while retaining her skills in plotting.
The Big Sleep 1946.
As literate as Allingham, Chandler made the crime story respected by critics and is still its most influential writer. This intricate tale of crime and corruption among wealthy Los Angeles families features crackling dialogue, fast paced action, and spawned one of Howard Hawk’s best films, starring Bogart and Bacall.
The Zebra Striped Hearse 1962.
Macdonald was a great writer who wrote crime fiction, confounding the ‘experts’ who like to put books into neat little categories. Runaway heirs, assumed identities, crimes from the past, corruption in high places, this book links them all through a confounding plot, with PI Lew Archer doggedly threading his way to a solution.
Philip K Dick
The Transmigration of Timothy Archer 1982.
This book deals with salvation, without being in the slightest bit religious. One of the best written of Dick’s mainstream novels it shows him to have been a talented social novelist who turned to the pulps when rejected by unenterprising publishers, where he created a reputation as the greatest SF writer.
Nickel Mountain 1973.
The Wreckage of Agathon 1970.
Not many writers can make compelling reading out of uneventful lives, but Gardner does just that in Nickel Mountain. The Wreckage of Agathon is the story of the great tragic poet of ancient Athens as he drinks his way to oblivion. Great novels from a major novelist.
A beautifully told tale of life in an English village, episodic (it was originally a magazine series) but full of charm. A pleasure to read.
Complete Short Stories 1927.
Wells was a master of the novel, and wrote a series of famous science fiction novellas, but his stories are one of his major accomplishments. The fantastic plays a part in many of these, as does the technique of magic realism and fable.
The Satyricon 1st century AD. Trans. William Arrowsmith 1959.
One of the few novels to survive from ancient times, the Satyricon has reached us only in the form of excerpts made by a medieval compiler from its 15th and 16th books. One of the greatest works of Latin literature, it shows a variety of styles, all of them both parodic and witty. A great inducement to students to learn Latin.
Satirical Sketches 2nd century AD. Trans. Paul Turner 1961 .
Lucian’s dialogues are among the most entertaining survivals from ancient Greek literature. They include a very funny trip to the moon, and many satirical and cynical jibes at superstition, ignorance and credulity. He is surprisingly modern in tone.
The Wind in the Willows 1908.
Mole and his spring cleaning, Rat and his boat, gruff Badger and garrulous Toad, the coming of spring in the fields by the river, the Wild Wood, Toad as the Washerwoman, the battle against the weasels and stoats, and the god Pan – read this at a certain age and you never forget it. Magic.
Doctor Dolittle 11 novels 1920-1947.
Concern for animals who were treated cruelly was the inspiration behind the creation of Doctor Dolittle, the little man who devotes his life to caring for them and in doing so learns their languages. I’ve loved them both as child and adult.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Treasure Island 1883
The adventure tale enters the realm of myth with these two books, which leave an indelible impression if read early enough. Long John Silver, Jim Hawkins, Billy Bones and Squire Trelawney occupy the same ground as Odysseus, Circe, Sinbad and Robinson Crusoe.
The Flowers of Adonis 1969.
This is one of only a few novels Sutcliff wrote for adults. It is an extremely powerful tale about the life and death of Alcibiades which delves deeply into his complex personality and is totally convincing throughout.
Henry Handel Richardson
Fortunes of Richard Mahony 1930.
Unfairly neglected, this is the tragic tale of the decline and fall of a gifted man who suffers betrayal, poverty and physical and mental illness. As in a play by Sophocles, it is a character flaw, minor in itself, which operates in an uncongenial setting to produce the tragedy. Very moving.
The Day of Judgment. Trans. Patrick Creagh. 1987.
A stunning evocation of life in a small town in Sardinia and of values very different to those we are accustomed to. It is also a summing up, a ‘judgment’ made by Satta about his own life. Exquisite.
Germinal 1885. Trans. L W Tancock 1970.
Zola’s greatest work (and one of the first novels I ever read) this gripping and colourful account of the lives of miners, the hardships and dangers of mining, strikes and exploitation by merchants and proprietors has attracted more than one film maker.
T. H. White
The Once and Future King. 1958.
White’s version of Malory is a strange combination of spoof and sermon. Although at times it seems to be more about the war than about King Arthur it succeeds brilliantly in updating the story for modern readers.
Complete Works of Oscar Wilde: Stories, Plays, Poems and Essays 1880-96.
Essayist, story writer, critic, poet, scholar, novelist, playwright and conversationalist, Wilde excelled in all these forms, yet his greatest achievement was the morality tale of his own life. One cannot help but learn from Wilde.
P G. Wodehouse
The Jeeves Omnibus 1915-74.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of English prose, Wodehouse has been entertaining us for almost 100 years. Jeeves is probably his greatest creation. The books are a rare example of pure entertainment achieving great art.
Lord of Light 1967
Creatures of Light and Darkness. 1969
Nine Princes in Amber 1970
The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth 1971.
Zelazny used myth extensively in his fiction, writing stories using gods from Hindu and Egyptian mythology as characters, then going on to create his own mythological system. He was one of the masters of the SF short story, and a ceaseless experimenter in his prime. His earlier work at least is unputdownable.
Moon Lake and Other Stories 1980.
Though some of her stories seem to plod, the best have the ability to evoke moods and impressions long hidden in the subconsciousness. Suddenly the way you once felt as a child seems to illuminate the story, a smell or a place comes vividly to mind to illuminate the interaction of her characters.
The Age of Innocence 1920.
Ostensibly concerned with life in society in New York at the turn of the 20th century, Wharton’s book is really about freedom, ways to achieve this and the sacrifices that need to be made to achieve it. It is also a touching love story.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.