Wednesday, May 07, 2008

20 Favourite 20th-Century Novels



I guess this is a recipe for disaster, really. Once you get going it's very difficult to confine yourself to just twenty. The idea was prompted by looking at the line-up in the Auckland University English course "Novels since 1900," formerly convened and taught by the late David Wright. His list of eight - or nine, depending on whether you count John Barth as one or two books - was as follows:

It sure got me thinking, though. I've had to settle on a couple of lists (I'm sorry to say, since the point was supposed to be conciseness): one of English-language novels, one of foreign-language novels I've only read in translation. It's a desperately subjective list. See what additions (and subtractions) you'd like to make yourself:
  1. Joseph Conrad, Nostromo (1904)
  2. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)
  3. Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (1927)
  4. William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)
  5. Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (1946-59)
  6. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)
  7. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
  8. Janet Frame, Owls Do Cry (1957)
  9. Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet (1957-60)
  10. William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959)
  11. Philip K. Dick, Ubik (1969)
  12. Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffmann (1972)
  13. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974)
  14. Patrick White, A Fringe of Leaves (1976)
  15. Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School (1978)
  16. David Malouf, An Imaginary Life (1978)
  17. Troy Kennedy Martin, Edge of Darkness (1985)
  18. Dennis Potter, The Singing Detective (1986)
  19. Alan Moore, Watchmen (1986-87)
  20. Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)


I've cheated by putting in some trilogies and quartets of novels, but I guess I could settle on just one from each series if you want to get really purist about it. Obviously I had the advantage of being able to leave out all of David Wright's authors, also.

There are other features which some might find unusual: two TV-series, each of which seems to me every bit as complex and "written" as a great novel; two Sci-Fi novels; two Fantasy novels; one graphic novel; Australian and NZ authors jostling with the Americans and Brits ... Anyway, there it is.

If I could have, I'd have liked to fit in Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim (1954); Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962); Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers (1966); William Golding's Pincher Martin (1956); Philip Larkin's A Girl in Winter (1947); C. S. Lewis's Perelandra (1943); Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano (1947); Gerald Murnane's The Plains (1982); John Cowper Powys's A Glastonbury Romance (1932); Mary Renault's The King Must Die (1958); Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy (1994) -- something by Hemingway (A Farewell to Arms (1929) is probably my favourite), Kerouac (of course On the Road (1957)); D. H. Lawrence (perhaps Women in Love (1920)?); Wyndham Lewis (The Childermass (1928)); Norman Mailer (Ancient Evenings (1983)?); Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer (1934)?); Steinbeck (I guess it would have to be The Grapes of Wrath (1939)); Gertrude Stein (The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933)?); Evelyn Waugh (Brideshead Revisited (1945)?); and lots more graphic novels (including Blankets (2003), pictured above) but everything you put in means that something else has to come out. That's how I understand the rules of the game, at any rate.

Here's my companion list of foreign language novels (equally contentious, I hope):

  1. Jaroslav Hasek, The Good Soldier Svejk (1912-23)
  2. Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time (1913-27)
  3. Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (1924)
  4. Franz Kafka, The Castle (1926)
  5. Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (1928-40)
  6. Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (1943)
  7. Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters (1943-48)
  8. Italo Calvino, Our Ancestors (1952-59)
  9. Naguib Mahfouz, The Cairo Trilogy (1956-57)
  10. Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (1957)
  11. Stanislaw Lem, Solaris (1961)
  12. Mario Vargas Llosa, The Green House (1965)
  13. Milan Kundera, The Joke (1967)
  14. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
  15. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle (1968)
  16. Augusto Roa Bastos, I, the Supreme (1974)
  17. Gunter Grass, The Flounder (1978)
  18. Georges Perec, Life: A User's Manual (1978)
  19. Marguerite Duras, La Douleur (1985)
  20. Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1992-95)


No Brazilian writers there, I'm afraid: Jorge Amado or Clarice Lispector. No Chinese novelists either: I simply don't know their work well enough.

27 comments:

KD said...

Well, your list is an improvement on the Auckland U. list. But what's the massive bore Virginia Woolf doing there? I thought we agreed that what made your Edinburgh professor's dismissal of Book of the New Sun particularly silly was his claim that it paled beside Woolf's wordy maunderings. It's not like there aren't way better novels by women, if ya gotta balance yer list, like The Good Terrorist for one. I'd put Eyes of the Overworld by Vance ahead of everything Woolf ever wrote.
And where's Celine on that translated list? Ya givin' in to the life-lovers, the protoplasm-suckers, er sumthin?
John Dolan

Jack Ross said...

I dunno. I love Celine and all -- but it's more the idea of him than actually getting to the end of any of his novels ... Voyage au bout de la nuit, maybe.

As for Woolf -- well, yeah, I guess I was cheating there and trying to look halfway respectable. At least I didn't put in The Waves. Actually, maybe it should have been The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington. Her story "The Debutante" really irritates the hell out of my students ...

But be honest, Dolan, the bottom line is that you think Pleasant Hell should be on the list (just as I secretly think Nights with Giordano Bruno ought to be, too). And I agree with both of us!

I'd put in the Gene Wolfe ahead of Jack Vance, personally -- but I'd put in Soldier in the Mist before The Book of the New Sun -- a choice of excellences, obviously.

Richard Taylor said...

I disagree re Woolf: for me she is one of the greatest writers I would place "Mrs Dalloway" near the top.

I more or less read that list when I was a University in 1991 or so... Wright, Boyd, Black, Neil, and Smith presented them well.

Here is mine (this is always massively subjective):

'See what additions (and subtractions) you'd like to make yourself:'

This is like a game Jack -not disaster at all! I will number them in a provisional order...

..................................
1) James Joyce (I would include all his major works)


[Joseph Conrad, Nostromo (1904) - I read most of Conrad as a teenager -not sure about Nostromo -so long since I read it]



F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

For me this is good but I could never relate to it... when I had
my book stall I always sold copies of this as well as:

8) "Catch 22" by Heller, which I would put near the top.


6) Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

2)(1927)William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929)

Both of these writers are great for me and both those books.

I will add here (Pace Maps) [somewhere up the top!!] "Jealousy" by Allain Robbe-Grillet; and "The Oustider" by Camus as well as "Nausea" by Sartre. Also - "The Tin Drum" by Gunter Grass;

[Mervyn Peake, The Gormenghast Trilogy (1946-59) - cant comment - have read his works - Brett values him]

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (1954-55)

[This is a case where my son has all the movies and since watching them here at home I have become big fan of them (as movie it would rate highly) - my son read the book but I haven't - and I am meant to be the reader -my ex is a big fan of JRR]

5) Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
yes - but also "Pale Fire" for me.

12) (1955)Janet Frame, Owls Do Cry
Yes her work is great.

[(1957)Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet (1957-60) -
amiss of me, I have had it for
years but never read... but read all his brother Gerald's animal books years ago]

[William Burroughs, Naked Lunch - haven't read - read one auto biog book by him and one other -not impressed]

[1959)Philip K. Dick, Ubik - I just sold a FE of one of his - a posthumous novel - his books are highly valued by collectors but I haven't read any - I may have done when as a teenager I read many sci fi books and stories]

[(1969)Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr Hoffmann

I have read some of her stories and
have more here to read - she interests me a lot...but no novels by her.]

Proust's great series is clearly regat - I have read part of his first volume...it was wondeful to read.

I read recently two 'novels' by W.G Sebald.

[(1972)Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (1974) - I haven't read her]

7) Patrick White, A Fringe of Leaves (1976)

Yes - a great read, I love his books - but his other books - the first I read was "The Tree of Man"

[Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School (1978)... I read something by her but couldn't get into it - must try to get this one]

[David Malouf, An Imaginary Life -havent read]

[(1978)Troy Kennedy Martin, Edge of Darkness - havent read] (

10) 1985)Dennis Potter, The Singing Detective (1986) - great TV series!

[Alan Moore, Watchmen h.r] (1986-87)

Salaman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988) - [h.r. that] got half way through "Midnight's Children" - I was reading so many books that year I read it....

6) "The End of the Road" by Barth is great.


In there somewhere I would add: "Watt" (and other works) by Beckett; "various by Italo Calvino; "Bellfleur" by Joyce Carol Oates, "Man Alone" by John Mulgan,"Tropic of Cancer" and "Capricorn" by Miller, also quite few of Golding's books but I must read "Pincher Martin"; "100 Years of Solitude" by Marquez; I would add most of
the books on that initial list "My Antonia" I liked a lot as well as Forster's book; "Life A User's Maunal" by Perec"; Orwell's "1984" and "Animal Farm" (in fact all his books)

A very powerful novel I would like to put up there is "Last Exit to Brooklyn" by Selby.

I see you have some on your "foreign writers" list - I like a lot of those - I love Hesse but for me I think "Narziss and Goldmund is my favourite (I didn't finish the Glass Bead Game) Did you know Hesse wrote great long poem about his garden?

I would add: "The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Some books I have enjoyed and love or loved...Regards, Richard

Richard Taylor said...

"Nights With Giordorno Bruno" is certainly up there Jack - but how to get people to read it - I am the only person to have reviewed it...(I believe so far - but then who am I?) More should.

I think it is fascinating book - as strange (and sometimes as intriguing, original, "postmodern" erudite (yet sometimes "popullist as with your "sex" scenes etc!) (and sleepless - one of the (fellow travellers) of Derrida (forget his name -Alan Sondheim mentions him) talks of sleeplessness - has some philosophic-spych significance - hmmm... and your erotic robots!) and it is 'difficult' in the good sense for me, and beautiful; the language is sometimes (whether it is "found" or whatever or is 'all yours' is irrelevant) - it is hauntingly beautiful at times... ) as - well anyone such as Joyce or Perec and so on... writers such as Marquez corner both the "popular" market and the "erudite" market....hmmm

Bill Direen's high voltage book 'Song of a Brakeman' could well be up there...but/and your book I assume is part of an ongoing "project" - I feel you are misunderstood. I feel such as Boyd should pay attention to it...after all Nabokov is dead for Kreest's sake!

Joyce had no uncertainty that everything thing was basically done for his own glorification - this in some ways is paradoxically endearing given his other eccentricities (and he had good qualities despite his arrogance and so on and his other foibles)...hmmm...I
would certainly like to see more promotion of your books Jack - quite sincerely. Richard

(I don't know KD's work)

PS I forgot "The Crying of Lot 49" by Pynchon. Also I used to read a lot of Joyce Carey's books...

Richard Taylor said...

Italo Calvino, Our Ancestors (1952-59)

Yes - I even gave this to my mother to read - she liked it -this was the first Italo Calvino I read -incredble -

KD said...

Well are you talking about personal favourites? Or favourites on average? I wouldn't take Finnegan's Wake to the bath.

My 20 20th-c books are ones I HAD to read till I finished them, and that I had to read more than once:

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)
Anne of Green Gables by Louisa May Alcott (1908)
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (1934)
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again JRR Tolkein (1937)
For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway (1940)
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
Spinster by Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1958)
Our Man in Havana Graham Greene (1959)
The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander (1964-1973)
Norwood by Charles Portis (1966)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream by Hunter S. Thompson (1971)
The Persian Boy by Mary Renault (1972)
Tex by S.E. Hinton (1979)
The Halfmen of O by Maurice Gee (1984)
Sweet Valley High: Perfect Summer [ghost writer under Francine Pascal] (1985)
Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voigt (1987)
Back Home by Michelle Magorian (1987)
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1987)
Possession: A Romance by AS Byatt (1991)
Pleasant Hell by John Dolan (2003)

this is KD, not JD!! JD would die of embarrassment at this list.

KD said...

although... he does like anne of green gables

Jack Ross said...

I don't know -- it's somewhere between personal favourites and epoch-making texts. I don't seem to be able to make up my mind which.

I would have put in Fear and Loathing in Las Vega myself, but then I wondered if you could really call it a novel? I've been referring to it as a travel book in the Travel Writing course I've been teaching. Not that it makes all that much difference, except when one starts compiling lists ...

I haven't read some of the ones you mention -- should give them a go, I guess: Norwood, Dicey's Song, Back Home and -- Sweet Valley High. That last one sounds particularly attractive to me, I'm not quite sure why ...

jen said...

hey wow, KD, I was musing about my personal list before reading yours and Dicey's Song made it onto that too, as well as Magorian's Goodnight Mister Tom. I just wasn't going to tell anyone. I didn't go as far as Sweet Valley High but was also considering Paul Zindel and Robert Cormier. Definitely Russell Hoban's The Mouse and His Child.

As for 'grown-up' books, lots of the authors mentioned but also Christina Stead's The Man who Loved Children, Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, maaaybe Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions, Richard Hughes' A High Wind in Jamaica, Jean Rhys's The Wide Sargasso Sea, Plath's Bell Jar....

I'd go Voss over A Fringe of Leaves, Scented Gardens for the Blind or maybe The Adaptable Man over Owls Do Cry, Promethea over Watchmen and maybe Exterminator! over Naked Lunch.

Jack Ross said...

Since everyone's getting confessional, I think it might be time to reveal that my personal list would probably include Stephen King's The Stand -- I wish I could find more NZ novels to go in there, though, besides Janet Frame. I wish Wedde's Symmes Hole did more for me ...

maps said...

Here's my off the cuff totally subjective list - including short story collections and journals which have a 'novelistic' effect:

Jean-Paul Sartre, Iron in the Soul

BS Johnson, The Unfortunates

Aldous Huxley, Chrome Yellow

Ernest Hemingway, Fiesta

Alun Lewis, In The Green Tree

Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions

Brian Aldiss, Manuscript Found in a Police State

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four

Iris Murdoch, Under the Net

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose

JG Ballard, The Voices of Time

Michael Moorcock, Behold the Man

Michael Moorcock, The Oswald Bastable Trilogy

John Cheever, The Journals

Paul Bowles, The Stories

Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones

Frank Sargeson, Collected Stories

Don de Lillo, The Names

Michael Henderson, The Log of a Superfluous Son

Margaret Atwood, A Handmaid's Tale



How about a post on your ten or twenty favourite long poems of all time, Jack?

Jack Ross said...

I dunno. I can't help feeling it's kind of cheating to put in short stories and journals there -- novellas, sure: even book-length novel poems (Maximus, say. But Iris Murdoch, Maps!

maps said...

Hey I needed another token woman! I do like Murdoch's first novel though - a young man wanders aimlessly round postwar London, getting into a series of scrapes and reflecting, in a stoic English way, on the meaning or meaninglessness of life. It's like a cross between a Spanish picaresque novel, Sartre's Nausea, and a stuffy English drawing room novel. Then there's the association with EP Thompson and his brother...

I make no apologies for including several collections of short stories and Cheever's extraordinary journals in my list. The novels I like are mostly short and episodic, anyway. I run out of patience easily. A snack of Borges or Bowles or Ballard (whom I'm rereading with enormous enjoyment at the moment) is worth the three courses of a Tolstoy or Joyce.

Has anybody else here read the poems or stories or letters of Alun Lewis? If you haven't, you should - he's the most under-rated writer of the 20th century (I know that sounds very bold, but I couldn't really say the second or third most under-rated and sound very impressive, could I?)

There was a Kiwi novel I left off my list egregiously - Graham Billing's The Slipway, the greatest novel of alcoholism in the language, a two hundred and fifty page prose poem. You'd like it, comrade Taylor!

maps said...

My justified picks:
http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2008/05/top-twenty.html

KD said...

This is a good place to go to for library book selection purposes.

One candidate for the epoch-making list(this could go on forever): A House for Mr. Biswas

ps I haven't read Kathy Acker but I recommend the essay about her linked to this blog.

pps Yes, Sweet Valley High might appeal to you Jack. Beautiful twin blonde teens Jessica and Elizabeth romp around sunny California. I just read in one volume Jessica dates a vampire.

Skyler said...

I've moved best novels on to 'Best Children's Books' as I couldn't make up my mind on the best novels. My childhood favs includes: Roald Dahl, Danny, the Champion of the World; Cynthia Voigt, Tillerman Cycle; Anne Holm, I am David - read the full list and debate their merits at: http://readingthemaps.blogspot.com/2008/05/best-childrens-books.html

Skyler said...

Sweet Valley High was extremely popular when I was at school. I do remember some of the parents worrying it would lead us all down a corrupted moral path and that it was ''trashy" and poorly written - but we still loved it when we were 11!

Olivia Macassey said...

My list of favourites through sheer enjoyment, and favourites through admiration are two different lists... and my list of what I'd use to teach a course is a beast of a different kind. The trick is finding a list that could perform all three functions...

But I never get tired of Calvino's Invisible Cities.

Jack Ross said...

Good point, Liv. I guess I was thinking in terms of a combination of 1 & 2, whereas most of the comments have been in terms of 3. 20 would be far too many for a coherent course, in any case.

Another author I should perhaps have added is J. G. Ballard. Maybe The Drowned World or Concrete Island (though Maps did put in a collection of his short stories, I think) ...

jen said...

oh yeah, Mike Johnson's Lear!

Jack Ross said...

Absolutely! Why didn't I think of that? Or Dumbshow, for that matter ...

Tim Jones said...

Re Ballard - maps listed The Voices of Time, which is a novella. It comes as part of a collection of novellas - one each by J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss and Mervyn Peake - called The Inner Landscape.

When I was ten, I found this book in the Intermediate section of the Invercargill Public Library, which had an excellent YA SF selection. I had devoured the John Wyndham and John Christopher books, and happened on The Inner Landscape, probably consigned to the YA section due to its cover, while looking for more of this stuff.

The Voices of Time did strange things to my brain, which has never quite recovered.

Of the novels, I would pick either The Drowned World or Empire of the Sun.

Jack Ross said...

Yes, I remember "The Voices of Time" -- it had a deep influence on me, too. Like you, I used to read anything and everything science-fictional I could find in the school library. Ballard seemed to be flying in the face of every convention of the genre -- it wasn't till later that I started to read his novels, though. Those "mini-novels" he published in Moorcock's New Worlds anthology did my head in, too.

I would agree that Empire of the Sun has managed to survive even Spielberg's dreadful film. A little like Murakami, but with even more deadpan intensity.

harvey molloy said...

Interesting post, Jack. No Dhalgren? No J.G. Ballard?

harvey molloy said...

Actually, Jack, we share quite a number of novels. I love The Dispossessed by Le Guin as well.

Jack Ross said...

Dear Harvey,

I have slightly mixed feelings about Samuel Delaney. I read his books, but I wouldn't put him up there, I'm afraid -- a bit like Carlos Fuentes among Latin American novelists: immensely ambitious but yet somehow a bit shady and spurious.

As for Ballard, if you trawl through the (admittedly immense) correspondence above, you'll see we've been discussing him quite a bit. Which of his novels would be your pick? Crash? The Drought?

harvey molloy said...

Sorry, I should have read the comments more carefully, Jack. I'd go for Concrete Island which I prefer over Crash, mind you High Rise is also a great novel.