1. TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES THOMAS HARDY
The one thing you could never say to Thomas Hardy is, ‘Cheer up – it might never happen.’ Happen it always does: lovers are forced apart, children die, innocents are hanged. But this cosmic doom is always framed by a strange beauty: of the English countryside, and of his prose.
2. MIDDLEMARCH GEORGE ELIOT
For at least 30 years Salman Rushdie has taken every opportunity to boast that he has never read Middlemarch. Why ever not? It has everything – wonderfully drawn characters, a series of beautifully interlocking plots and, in the pedantic Mr Casaubon, one of the great tragic/ comic figures in literature. And it also contains that rarest of literary qualities: wisdom.
3. COUSIN HENRY ANTHONY TROLLOPE
It might almost have been written by Samuel Beckett: a novel about prevarication and indecision, with an anti-hero who freezes whenever action is called for. Henry Jones is to inherit an estate, but his uncle, who can’t bear him, just has time to change his will before dropping down dead. Henry is the only person who knows the will has been altered to exclude him. He | doesn’t want to give up the estate, but neither does he have the nerve to commit a crime by destroying the will. Somehow, Trollope managed to create a fast-moving novel about someone doing nothing.
4. GREAT EXPECTATIONS CHARLES DICKENS
There are many things I wish I liked more, including whiskey, Howard Hodgkin’s abstract art... and Dickens. I enjoy him for long stretches, but then along comes a comic grotesque,
talking phonetically, and I can’t go on. But Great Expectations is clearly a masterpiece, and the mechanics of its plot are unsurpassable.
5. ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND
LEWIS CARROLL The White Rabbit, the Queen
6. CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY In many ways it’s a thriller. It certainly had a deep influence on Ruth Rendell and Patricia Highsmith, who were both excited by Dostoevsky’s exploration of the nature of guilt. For no good reason, a student drop-out murders a mean old woman with an axe. Almost against our will, we find ourselves hoping that Raskolnikov will evade detection. Dostoevsky creates a moral whirlpool into which the reader willingly plunges. of Hearts, the Mad Hatter and stubborn little Alice herself: they are not just part of the language but part of our lives. The world gone mad, but abiding by insanity’s own peculiar logic: by turns funny and frightening, liberating and claustrophobic.
7. THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN
‘You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The
Adventures Of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.’ Was any first sentence better designed to bamboozle and frustrate English pedants who insist on the supremacy of Correct English? And was any novel so full of life, fun, colourful description, scathing satire and adventure that knows no bounds?
8. THE BEAST WITHIN
There hasn’t been a novel by Zola that I haven’t enjoyed. He believed in realism, the earthier the better. This one is about sexual jealousy, and the way that technology – exemplified here by the train – can unleash the inner beast in man. The Beast Within sometimes veers toward melodrama but nevertheless remains as shocking and as raw as steak cut fresh from the carcass.
9. THE WAY WE LIVE NOW
‘I’m reading a Trollope,’ said my wife. ‘Which one? Jackie Collins?’ replied her lowbrow friend, quite innocently. This is the fastest-paced Trollope of them all, the longest, the most deliciously satirical, and also the most prescient: the dodgy financier Augustus Melmotte is feted by smart society, but then his carefully crafted empire starts to unravel...
10. JOSEPH ANDREWS
I read Joseph Andrews in my early 20s, before getting round to Fielding’s more famous Tom Jones, and this may be why I still prefer it. That an 18th-century novel could be so sexy and so funny was an eyeopener. Pleasure often takes a back seat to self-improvement where classics are concerned, but Joseph Andrews is one of the rollicking exceptions.
11. NO NAME
WILKIE COLLINS Like Patricia Highsmith, Wilkie Collins – friend and contemporary of Dickens – had a soft spot for liars and frauds. In the at times unbearably tense No
Name, his heroine dons a bogus identity in order to seduce her weedy cousin into marrying her in order to gain the fortune that, but for a fault in the law, should rightly be hers. Will she succeed in her duplicity? We all hope so.
12. NEW GRUB STREET
GEORGE GISSING A gripping, gloomy parable of literary life in Victorian London. Gissing contrasts the fortunes of the honest and impoverished Reardon and the slick and successful Milvain. Few contemporary authors could read this novel without asking themselves which of the two they most resemble. MARK TWAIN EMILE ZOLA ANTHONY TROLLOPE HENRY FIELDING
13. JUST WILLIAM
RICHMAL CROMPTON ‘I don’t want to behave like a civilized yuman bein’,’ says William Brown (no relation). The creation of a former senior classics mistress at Bromley High School for girls in London, William is the scruffy schoolboy who creates havoc wherever he goes. Fun fact: the original for William was Richmal’s brother John. In the Second World War, John served under Air Commodore Wigglesworth, who had been the original for the air-ace Biggles.
14. THE DIARY OF A NOBODY
GEORGE AND WEEDON GROSSMITH First published in 1892, this gentle satire on self-importance has been the inspiration for an amazing amount of comedy ever since. Like Jekyll and Hyde, Macbeth and Uriah Heep, the name of Mr Pooter, the prim diarist, has entered the language. We call someone ‘Pooterish’ if he or she mixes banality with self-regard. And the joke goes on: over the past decade, the Twitterati have given The Diary Of A Nobody fresh resonance.
15. THE EDUCATION OF HYMAN KAPLAN
LEO ROSTEN Surely the most touchingly funny book ever written, and one of the cleverest, too, full of verbal gymnastics. Boundlessly optimistic and self-assured, Hyman Kaplan has arrived in Thirties New York from Eastern Europe and is learning English at night school. ‘Who can tell us the meaning of “vast?”’ asks the tutor. Kaplan’s hand shoots up. ‘Vast! It’s commink from diraction. Ve have four diractions: de naut, de sot, de heast, and de vast.’
16. RIGHT HO, JEEVES
PG WODEHOUSE If you’re a writer’s writer then you’re generally not a reader’s writer, but PG Wodehouse is both. The only thing he’s not is an academic’s writer, because he is far too enjoyable, and requires no explanation. He wrote 93 books as well as hundreds of short stories. I have chosen Right Ho, Jeeves because it contains his funniest scene of all: the sozzled Gussie Fink-Nottle presenting the prizes at Market Snodsbury Grammar School.
17. HIS MONKEY WIFE
JOHN COLLIER Out in the Congo a bookish chimpanzee called Emily falls hopelessly in love with a schoolmaster called Mr Fatigay. Emily is thrilled to accompany him on a visit to England, but on arrival she discovers that he intends to give her to his haughty fiancée as a maid. Her fury knows no bounds. Funny ha-ha and funny peculiar at the same time.
18. SEVEN MEN AND TWO OTHERS
MAX BEERBOHM Max Beerbohm is best known for his one and only novel, Zuleika Dobson. To my mind, these short stories are snappier and cleverer, with elements of time travel and the supernatural as well as satire. The author presents portraits of cranky contemporaries who never really existed. Or did they? Though Beerbohm is often seen as old-fashioned, this extraordinary book was postmodern decades before the term came into being.
19. THE COLLECTED SHORT STORIES OF JORGE LUIS BORGES
If you can only take magical realism in short doses, then Borges is your man. In one story, a map is as large as the world it depicts. Borges’s stories are like vivid dreams in which, in a flash, the world is reduced and explained, and all in a couple of pages.
20. HENRY JAMES’S SHORT STORIES
It has been said of Henry James that he chews more than he bites off. Some people find his more monumental novels like Portrait Of A Lady or
The Golden Bowl too wordy and effortful. But his short stories have a greater sense of purpose and perhaps, as a result, linger longer in the memory.
21. THE COMPLETE STORIES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES
There are, of course, mysteries galore in the Sherlock Holmes stories. Why is a job advertised only for applicants with red hair? Who stole a document from the dispatch box of the secretary of state for European affairs? Needless to say, each has a satisfying solution. But the central mystery – and the one that has kept readers glued since they were published – is the mystery of Sherlock Holmes himself. He tantalises. The more we yearn to know about him, the less his creator reveals. Therein lies his magnetic pull.
22. THE COLLECTED STORIES OF WILLIAM TREVOR
A typical short story by Cork writer William Trevor will end with a character’s sudden comprehension of an essential truth about herself or some event in the past that has shaped her life. There is sadness in his stories, but beauty in the sadness.
23. THE STORIES OF JOHN CHEEVER
Cheever was a secret homosexual and a secret alcoholic. His short stories are about the secrets that lurk behind the curtains in the middle-class suburbs of America. Beneath the suave surface sheen of his sentences, anything can happen.
24. THE COMPLETE SAKI
Dark to the point of jet-black, often violent and sadistic, languid, worldly and tinged with camp, the Saki stories have influenced everyone from Evelyn Waugh to The League Of
Gentlemen. Unusually, their jokes have not aged: ‘I knew it was dawn because there were lark noises in the sky, and the grass looked as if it had been left out all night.’
25. CHEKHOV’S SHORT STORIES
We like to equate genius with obscurity and madness, but Chekhov’s is located in clarity and sanity. I find his plays ever so slightly boring, perhaps because boredom is one of their themes, and the theme leaks into the treatment. But his short stories pulse with the heartbeat of humanity; they are, as John Carey once said, ‘sanity raised to the power of genius’.
Who would have guessed that, after 250 years, there would still be new ways to write a novel?
26. A JUDGEMENT IN STONE
RUTH RENDELL Suspense is to fiction what melody is to music. Most novels rely on some measure of suspense. It’s the nature of narrative: the reader is pulled along by the need to know what happens next. But some novels accentuate the suspense above all else. This one begins: ‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.’ So in just 13 words we are told who did it and why. The second sentence goes: ‘There was no real motive and no premeditation; no money was gained and no security.’ How could you not read on?
27. TRUE GRIT
CHARLES PORTIS ‘People do not give it credence that a 14-year-old girl could leave home and go off in wintertime to avenge her father’s blood...’ In old age, Mattie Ross tells the story of her quest, all those years ago, for justice. It’s hard to think of a more perfectly realised novel than True Grit. There is so much to enjoy: the pluck of the voice, the cruddiness of the villain, and all the surprises along the way.
29. MAXIMUM BOB
DONNA TARTT JOHN LE CARRE
28. ROGUE MALE
GEOFFREY HOUSEHOLD It is 1938. The would-be assassin of an unnamed European dictator is being chased both by the British authorities and the murderous agents of this foreign power. They track him down to Dorset, where he is forced to burrow into an underground hole. The hunters and the hunted: the two vital ingredients of any thriller, ruthlessly distilled and then placed lovingly within the beauty of the English countryside. ELMORE LEONARD Funny and tense: a rare combination. Elmore Leonard used prose like no one else. Like PG Wodehouse, he created his own universe of spivs, idiots and chancers, and then invented a brilliantly compacted and electrified language to go with it. The Maximum Bob of the title is a Florida judge notorious for awarding the maximum sentence for any crime. Throw in a drug-addicted doctor, a crazy wife, numerous shady convicts and an alligator, and you have one of this great magician’s most perfect novels.
30. THE SECRET HISTORY
An elite group of college friends kills someone by mistake, and are then preyed upon by a needy fellow student who discovers their secret. A nervejangling study of cliques, guilt and paranoia.
31. THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD
I’ve tried reading longer and weightier and more complex books by Le Carré, but none has matched the perfect Rubik’s-cube intricacy of this, his third novel.
32. DEEP WATER PATRICIA HIGHSMITH
Hundreds of lesser crime writers still attempt to ape Highsmith’s spare, matter-of-fact style, but no one can do it quite like her. In her unsettling novels, the reader’s sympathies tend to be with what she called ‘my hero psychopaths’ rather than the victim. Any idea of a settled moral universe is sent spinning. She is the opposite of Agatha Christie. ‘Neither life nor nature cares if justice is ever done or not,’ she once said.
33. RESERVOIR 13
JON McGREGOR A 13-year-old girl goes missing from a village in the Peak District. Over the next 13 years her contemporaries grow up and leave home; some villagers split up, others get together. Shops open and close. Rituals of birth, death and marriage go on; each season brings fresh animals, fresh crops, fresh rumours. Reservoir 13 was first published last year. It has an entirely original voice, construction and point of view. Who would have guessed that, after 250 years, there would still be new and exciting ways to write a novel?
34. THE MEZZANINE
NICHOLSON BAKER It’s billed as a novel but has virtually no story. It is more of an extended tour around the tiniest of things: the obscure pleasure of drawing on an eraser with a biro, the mechanics of the paper drinking straw, the practice of pre-bunching socks before placing them on your feet. There’s even a four-page footnote devoted to the whys and wherefores of the grooves on the treads of escalators. The more obsessively detailed it grows, the funnier and more wonderful it becomes. The
Mezzanine turns nerdishness into art.
35. MARY SWANN
CAROL SHIELDS An unpublished Canadian poet dies in complete obscurity. Overnight, her reputation starts to rise and rise. Everyone wants a bit of her – the biographer, the feminist critic, the world of academia. Carol Shields wrote 10 sharp novels and lots of equally sharp short stories. It’s hard to know which to pick. Some, like Larry’s Party, are broader and kinder, but this merciless satire on the ambitions and pretensions of the literary world is hard to beat.
JEFFREY EUGENIDES ‘I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy...’ Thus begins the exhilarating tale of Cal, a hermaphrodite born to the child of Greek siblings. It’s a rollicking, picaresque fantasy, but so minutely grounded in everyday life that it’s a joy to suspend disbelief, and no effort at all.
37. TAMARA DREWE
A graphic novel based loosely on Far From The Madding
Crowd; in a just world, Posy Simmonds would have won both the Booker Prize and the Turner Prize, as she writes just as well as she draws. Wickedly observant of the contemporary scene (particularly as regards literary types and disengaged teenagers), and beautifully realised, Tamara Drewe can also claim to have the first plot in which mobile phones played a crucial role.
38. LIFE: A USER’S MANUAL
GEORGES PEREC A playful, labyrinthine, delightfully dotty French novel about jigsaw puzzles. The characters are all the residents of the same vast apartment block in Paris. ‘Every move the puzzler makes, the puzzlemaker has made before; every piece the puzzler picks up, and picks up again, and studies and strokes, every combination he tries, and tries a second time, every blunder and every insight, each hope and each discouragement have all been designed, calculated, and decided by the other.’
39. THE TEN-YEAR NAP
MEG WOLITZER Sharply drawn characters, a wry and witty narrative voice, a strong plot and a great contemporary theme: The Ten
Year Nap has it all. I discovered Meg Wolitzer a couple of years ago, then raced through her most recent five novels. It’s hard to choose a favourite but this exploration of the perennial clash between work and motherhood has everything she does best.
40. SAINT MAYBE
ANNE TYLER How to pick a favourite Anne Tyler? She is remarkably consistent. Saint Maybe is equal first with about seven others. Tyler is one of the few novelists who can capture family life, its joys as well as its constrictions. Her writing seems as natural as breathing: reading her is like living, only more so.
41. TINTIN IN TIBET
HERGÉ A boy at my boarding school regularly used to wake our dormitory by shouting, ‘Tintin! Tintin! Help me!’ during his nightmares. Age blunts the sense of sheer excitement you once felt while reading a Tintin book, but it also increases one’s appreciation of the draughtsmanship, the colours, the zest and the sheer joie de vivre.
42. THE RABBIT BOOKS
JOHN UPDIKE Updike published his first novel about the feckless, slobbish, selfish and unexpectedly loveable Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom in 1960. He followed it up with a Rabbit novel in each of the next four decades, ending with Rabbit At Rest in 1990. This meant, remarkably, that Rabbit – surely the prototype for Homer Simpson – seemed to live, and to die, in real time. There is something tantalising about the combination of Rabbit’s galumphing outlook with his creator’s precise and delicate prose. ‘My duty was to describe reality as it had come to me – to give the mundane its beautiful due,’ Updike once wrote. Remarkably, he succeeded.
43. THE BALLAD OF PECKHAM RYE
MURIEL SPARK The devil comes to south London in the form of Dougal Douglas, a corporate man hell-bent on temptation, ruin and destruction. Spark is the most aptly named of all novelists. Never has wickedness been rendered so nimbly.
44. SABBATH’S THEATER
PHILIP ROTH Filthy, scabrous, disgusting, unreasonable, angry, incontinent, misogynistic, deranged; so why is Sabbath’s
Theater so amazingly enjoyable? It’s to do with Roth’s furious energy, and the seductive power of his satanic glee.
45. MRS BRIDGE
EVAN S CONNELL She’s a well-off American housewife in the Fifties with a hard-working husband and two children. Life has been good to her, and in return she does her best to meet its exacting standards with fortitude. But she has a nagging sense that something is missing, whatever it may be. In short, tight-lipped scenes, Evan S Connell creates a unique mix of gentle humour and deepest melancholy.
46. THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS
JOHN WYNDHAM I hadn’t read John Wyndham since I was 13. Sometimes when you revisit a writer, you feel strangely deflated. But 50 years on, I read Wyndham’s eerie novels once again and found them even more powerful. In The Midwich Cuckoos, all the women in an English village fall pregnant at once and give birth to menacing children with weird kinetic powers. Both a creepy sci-fi adventure, and a deadpan satire on middle-class mores in the Fifties.
47. Revolutionary Road
Richard Yates For years, I thought F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night the perfect novel. I re-read it not long ago, and though many passages were still sublime, I noticed many more glitches, non-sequiturs and drunken rambles than I had before. Revolutionary Road has echoes of Tender Is The Night. Both portray the death of the American dream, the gradual destruction of domestic happiness. But to my mind, Yates tackles the theme with clearer eyes than Fitzgerald: his lyricism is less selfconscious, his vision less deceived.
48. ENDING UP
KINGSLEY AMIS Kingsley Amis turned irritation into an art form. This, his shortest novel, is a distillation of his hilarious misanthropy. A group of friends decide to share a house in the autumn of their years; within weeks they are getting on each other’s nerves. Revenge ensues. Humour can get no darker.
49. TO SERVE THEM ALL OUR DAYS
RF DELDERFIELD A shell-shocked World War One soldier takes up a post as a teacher in an unremarkable public school. This long, absorbing novel chronicles the ups and down of the following 22 years. Towards the end, he hears news of his former pupils as they return – or fail to return – from the next war. Written in straightforward, workmanlike prose, occasionally a teeny bit clunky in its characterisation, this novel transcends its solid, middlebrow roots by having so much to say about love, loss, teaching and the passage of time, and saying it so movingly.
50. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE
JD SALINGER The great American novel may still elude them, but this is surely the great adolescent novel. Sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield is awkward, randy, confused, uncomfortable, a self-proclaimed liar who can’t stop searching for the truth, with a burning zeal to sift the real from the phoney. We’ve all been there, and most of us have a nagging feeling of what we lost when we left it behind.
51. THE CUSTOM OF THE COUNTRY
EDITH WHARTON ‘Undine was fiercely independent and yet passionately imitative. She wanted to surprise every one by her dash and originality, but she could not help modelling herself on the last person she met.’ Posterity doesn’t always get it right, but it so happens that the three or four most famous Edith Wharton novels are also her best: and this one –with a most unexpected twist at its centre – is the best of all.
52. TWENTY THOUSAND STREETS UNDER THE SKY
PATRICK HAMILTON Hamilton was the master of the dingy, the drunken and the disreputable.
Twenty Thousand Streets is a trilogy of interlocking novels, all flowing from the same deadbeat London pub in the late Twenties and early Thirties. If you went into the same sort of pub today, you’d spot the same sort of characters, all let down by life. We are often told that John Osborne pioneered this sort of thing with Look Back In Anger: but Hamilton beat him to it by a good quarter-century, and did it far more acutely.
Mystery: Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes
AsK ALICE: Johnny Depp in Alice In Wonderland (2010) and Paula Wilcox, left, as Miss Havisham in Dickens’s Great Expectations (2013)