Here are a hundred works of fiction (novels, poems, stage and TV plays) which have satisfied me at one time or another. Many were re-read or re-experienced.
These items are not necessarily “the greatest” - whatever that means - since that would lead to arguments. Nor perhaps the profoundest (Otherwise I might have included Proust’s A la recherche..). Nor the best-written (How about W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz?) Nor even the most original (Say, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces?).
“When I say “satisfied” I mean works which have entertained me and left me with something to chew on. I took a nightmarish decision to restrict myself to one title per author (other than trilogies, tetralogies, etc).
I’ve tried to avoid obvious titles where possible. Also pretentiousness. The list is roughly chronological and advances even more roughly towards titles which have influenced me most. The final ten continue to influence me to this day.
This list is in no way complete and should prove conclusively, to those who have been formally educated, that I haven’t been. It exceeds my 300-word limit by a country mile.
100. A. A. Milne. Now We are Six (Poems). With me on her knee my mother recited “Sir Brian had a battleaxe with great big knobs on,” several times. It became mine for life.
99. Kenneth Grahame. Wind in the Willows. Have you ever met such a well-defined quartet of main characters?
98. Arthur Ransome. We Didn’t Mean To Go to Sea. Nominally for teenagers, actually for latent adults.
97. H. Rider Haggard. Alan Quartermain. Colonialism red in tooth and claw. OK then, non-PC now.
96. Hugh Lofting. The Dr Doolittle sequence. Then and now it was the innocence.
95. Gladys Mitchell. The Rising of the Moon. Early “subversive” whodunnit: Christina is a brilliantly realised supporting character. I fell in love with her, me still pre-adolescent.
94. Rudyard Kipling. Jungle Book. Good story inextricably tangled up with the fact I was a Wolf Cub (they’re now called Cub Scouts) at the time I read it.
93. E. Nesbit. The Bastable Family. A group of Victorian children who must look after themselves for long periods. As with the Arthur Ransome book (above) its readership occupies the no-man’s-land between childhood and the dim perceptions of growing up.
92. C. S. Lewis. The Screwtape Letters. Pro devil instructs apprentice devil how to corrupt the human race. It’s true, it’s great fun.
91. George Eliot. Scenes from Clerical Life. Preparation for the magnum opus, Middlemarch.
90. John Masefield. Cargoes (Poem). Why poetic rhythm matters, and sticks.
89. Tom Stoppard. Professional Foul (Play). Philosophy scrambled with soccer.
88. R. L. Stevenson. Kidnapped. Fast-clip adventure; super-memorable Alan Breck.
87. John Steinbeck. Cannery Row. Well-controlled folksiness in California.
86. Dorothy Sayers. Murder Must Advertise. Amateur detective, Peter Wimsey, issues a snob’s guide to high culture
85. Gerald Kersh. Prelude to a Certain Midnight. Gangsterism breaks out in London.
84. Henry Williamson. Dandelion Days. Leaden misery of schooldays transmuted to pure gold.
83. Stella Gibbons. Cold Comfort Farm. You’ll never long for the simple country life again.
82. William Blake. The Mental Traveller (Poem). “For the eye altering, alters all.”
81. Christopher Fry. The Lady’s not for Burning (Verse play). Hero wants to be hanged, heroine faces the stake. Yet it entertains.
80. P. G. Wodehouse. Very Good Jeeves. Class system turned upside down.
79. John Dryden. Fairest Isle (Poem/song.). “Sighs that blow the fire of love.”
78. John Lodwick. Stamp Me Mortal. Forgotten English novelist; forgotten plot; warm glow remembered.
77. T. S. Eliot. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (Verse collection). “McCavity! McCavity! He’s broken every human law, He breaks the law of gravity.”
76. Ian Sansom. A Young Wife’s Tale. Another forgotten English novelist/travel writer. Writes with great tenderness.
75. Oscar Wilde. The Importance of Being Ernest (Play/Movie). Archetypal comedy of manners; never bettered. Two well-brought-up young women at each other’s throats: X: “I call a spade a spade.” Y: “I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade.”
74. George Orwell. Coming up for air. Acutely depressing, physically decaying, overweight, lower-middle-class whinger views onset of WW2.
73. John Galsworthy. The Forsyte Saga. Everyone laughed at JG getting the Nobel Prize. Yet this family tale (several volumes, several generations) is sleekly told. A real page turner.
72. Edmond Rostand. Cyrano de Bergerac (Play). The big nose one. “Greater love hath no man...” yet gloriously told. Cyrano was the hero I wanted to be.
71. Sinclair Lewis. Babbit, Parodies the US conviction that life revolves round the act of selling things.
70. Aldous Huxley. Antic Hay. As funny as its title; pointless “lit” types lollygag in post-WW1 London.
69. Dylan Thomas. Under Milk Wood (Radio play). Welsh village exposed for all to see. Sample lines: Polly Garter: “Only babies grow in our garden.” Butcher Bynon: “... running down the street with a finger – not his own – in his mouth.”
68. Stendahl. The Red and the Black. Julian Sorel, something of a weak-need rogue but you gotta love him.
67. Oliver Goldsmith. She Stoops to Conquer (Play). Eighteenth-century heroine pretends to be lower-class to snag hero. I heard it first on radio; still terrific.
66. Ernest Hemingway. A Moveable Feast. Atypically un-hairychested prose; young couple enjoy life in 1920s Paris. Claims to be memoir but style is novelistic.
65. Isaac Asimov. I, Robot. Imagination at full-stretch. Compiles Three Laws of Robotics and explores them in this and other lively novels.
64. Gustave Flaubert. Madame Bovary. French provincial doctor’s wife fights rural boredom by overdosing on infidelity. Boy, does she regret it! Now somewhat out of favour for its anti-feminism.
63. James Thurber. My Life and Hard Times. The one where JT’s mother believes removing a light bulb causes electricity to leak away.
62. Thomas Mann. Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man. An exploration of immorality, but lighter in tone than, say, Joseph and his Brethren. Unfinished, not that you’d know.
61. Mark Twain. Critique on James Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Defects. Uses simple arithmetic to destroy JFC for ever and a day.
60. Albert Camus. The Plague. A testament to human goodness.
59. Robert Burns. My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose (Poem). “An’ I will love you still, my dear/Til a’ the seas gang dry.” Now I can sing it too.
58. Phillip Roth. Goodbye Columbus. Relentlessly hilarious yet critical account of growing up in a Jewish family. Especially hard on Jewish mommas. Portnoy’s Complaint had yet to arrive.
57. Charles Dickens. Great Expectations. Take just one detail: had there ever been a fictional heroine anything like Estella up to then?
56. Anita Brookner. Hotel du Lac. The heart of a middle-aged single woman comforted only by lonely money.
55. Herman Melville. Moby Dick. Tough for many wouldbe well-reads. Because I gulped it down in a week I often feel unnatural among the intelligentsia. It’s about whales and whaling. The initial sentence is a wing-dinger, thereafter you have to concentrate.
54. Marcel Pagnol. Manon des Sources. Recipe: Take a handful of Provencal peasants and a shortage of water; mix well. Could break your heart.
53. G. B. Shaw. The Devil’s Disciple (Play/movie). Brits vs. Yanks in the War of Independence. As often with Shaw, the villain, General Burgoyne, gets the best lines. Not surprisingly he’s played by Laurence Olivier in the movie.
52. Eric Ambler. The Levanter. Much detail about a ceramics factory, yet it’s all germane to this polished thriller set in Syria.
51. Jane Austen. Persuasion. Family lacks money to maintain their life-style. Heroine, Ann Eliot, is 27 and thus – by our standards - only a few steps away from a care home. I like the realism.
50. Anthony Trollope. The Way We Live Now. AT wrote 47 novels. I read about thirty of them then gave up. This is by far the best. High finance and embezzlement.
49. Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse Five. Worm’s eye view of carpet bombing of Dresden.
48. Henry James. What Maisie Knew. Child’s view of adult behaviour. HJ’s masterpieces can be hard going (The style! The style!) but this is much shorter and goes down like slippery elm food. Didn’t know he had it in him.
47. Olivia Manning. The Balkan Trilogy. Recently married Brit couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle, escape the Nazis’ overflow of Europe by travelling south-east. Best thing: Guy’s dominance gradually wanes and it’s Harriet who shoulders the responsibilities.
46. Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita. Yes, I know. Pervy and all that. And yet this may be the wittiest novel ever written. Alas, uncomfortable for US citizens.
45. Anthony Burgess. The Malayan Trilogy. Three of his earliest, all of a piece, a great sense of place, even poignant. Later novels tended to be show-offs.
44. Walter Raleigh. I Wish I Loved the Human Race (Poem). It spits with weary disenchantment.
43. John Updike. The Poorhouse Fair. That someone so young (26 when he did so) could write so tellingly about being old!
42. Honoré de Balzac. Le Père Goriot. Father sacrifices himself, degrades himself, for the sake of his daughter. In Paris – where else?
41. Beatrix Potter. The Tale of Peter Rabbit. As parents, VR and I read/re-read aloud books to our babes-in-arms, force-feeding them words. We never tired of Peter “bursting his buttons”
40. Noel Coward. Present Laughter (Play). A very junior reporter, I first saw this done by amateurs. I was trying hard to be cynical but laughed my head off. Still do. It’s bomb-proof.
39. Joyce Carey (He’s a man, by the way.) The Horse’s Mouth. No one has written more persuasively about how it feels to slap paint on to canvas. Or about immediately-post-WW2 London.
38. J. B. Priestley. Angel Pavement. Huge compendium novel (they-re out of fashion these days), interweaving a handful of characters locally based in pre-war London. Priestley’s from my home town, Bradford, and I used to think him uppity. Not here, though.
37. Leo Tolstoy. Anna Karenina. Proving that whatever Hollywood says gender incompatibility outweighs lerve and can prove fatal.
36. Hans Hellmut Kirst. Gunner Asch series. WW2 as seen by a low-ranking German infantryman who is more of a pain to Hitler than to the Allied forces. One of the war’s great survivors. Zestful and funny.
35. John Donne. To his Mistress Going to Bed (Poem). A perfect crutch for male adolescence. Sex without sentiment. What young man could not thrill to: “Licence my roving hands, and let them go”.
34. Malcom Bradbury. The History Man. Send-up of extreme left-wing lecturer in modern (ie, not Oxbridge) British university. Corruption from an unexpected source. Unbelievable mental cruelty. One laughs uneasily.
33. Muriel Spark. The Girls of Slender Means. Does more or less “what it says on the can” in sixties London. Beautifully selective English. Memorable line: “Fearful bad luck! Preggers! Wedding’s on Friday.”
32. John Osborne. Look Back in Anger (Play). Said to summarise the fifties – ie, “no causes worth dying for.” I preferred it for the language: Elderly woman referring to central character’s judgment on her: “He said I’d be a good blow-out for the worms.”
31. Ross Thomas. The Fourth Durango. But it could have been Chinaman’s Chance, Out on the Rim, Protocol for a Kidnapping, or a dozen others. Masterly thrillers, great dialogue, worldwide settings.
30. Joseph Heller. Catch 22. With every passing generation this novel helps re-establish the sheer madness of warfare. I saw it as a dark comedy; re-reading it revealed a far tougher – more intellectual – proposition than I remembered.
29. John le Carré. The Honourable Schoolboy. Possibly his longest novel; plenty of elbow-room for scuffling through the files where much of the drama is created.
28. Elmore Leonard. Cuba Libre. The US’s greatest dialoguist. Turns his back on Detroit/Florida and opts for Cuba at outbreak of Spanish-American war. Smuggling horses, for goodness sake.
27. Salman Rushdie. Midnight’s Children. Published in 1981; said to exemplify magical realism, making it a difficult read. For my money a clear-sighted, well dramatised account of India’s partition and independence.
26. Robert B. Parker. The Judas Goat. Spenser, Boston private-eye, pursues a case in London. Terse, formulaic, somehow appealing. One of my guilty secrets.
25. Mary McCarthy. The Group. US best-seller for two years. Eight Vassar girls have sex in previously unheard-of detail. Moderately serious. Better than it sounds.
24. J. D. Salinger. Catcher in the Rye. It’s all been said.
23. Hilaire Belloc. Tarantella (Poem). Better known for its first line: “Do you remember an inn, Miranda?” leading to “And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees.” Frisky, virtuosic rhyming from one who knows his trade.
22. Annie Proulx. The Shipping News. For me the hero is Newfoundland.
21. Barbara Trapido. Brother of the More Famous Jack. English family eccentricity in an assured debut novel that entertains you straight from the title.
20. Anthony Powell. A Dance to the Music of Time (12 volumes). Ambitiously claimed as British equivalent of Proust’s A la Recherche... but more like a plot outline. Skims over Oxbridge-educated elite during four or five decades. Best bits: three titles covering WW2. Stodgy style initially hard to digest. Included here because of the creation of Widmerpool – a literary one off.
19. Penelope Lively (Actually a Dame). The Road to Lichfield. Booker Prize finalist. Heavily domesticated, non-working. middle-aged wife goes in for a spot of adultery. Opens up a new form of eroticism for me.
18. Antony Jay, Jonathan Lynn. Yes Minister (TV series). Uncomfortably true account of how UK is governed. Side-splittingly funny but should we now be laughing?
17. Elizabeth Jane Howard. The Cazalet Chronicles (Four volumes or, if you like, five). Best seller sequence. Home Counties, numerous, upper-middle-class family up to and including WW2. Characterisation is fine; much better are the details about leisure pursuits and ways of earning a living.
16. V. S. Naipaul. A House for Mr Biswas. I ignored this for ages. Shouldn’t have done. I’m ashamed.
15. Michel Butor. La Modification. Man leaves Paris, travels by train to Rome to his lover. Intends to say he has found a job in Rome, will leave his wife and family, will live with his lover. Gradually doubt, fear and cowardice intervene. All in the mind.
14. Romain Gary. Gros Calin. Man keeps python as pet in his Parisian apartment. Go on! Imagine! Bet what you come up with isn’t as funny as this book.
13. Paul Scott. The Raj Quartet. India during WW2. Uneasy co-existence for the Brits. Read all four in one burst and sweat along with a long list of characters.
12. Alan Bennett. The History Boys (Play). What constitutes a great teacher? Why might society find such a paragon unacceptable?
11. Len Deighton. Trio of Bernard Samson trilogies (Hook, Line, Sinker, etc). Inter alia, a spy-story writer whose compact, seemingly emotionless, tense yet witty style of writing has got better and better over the decades. A joy to read for his plots, his characterisation and his technique.
10. Colm Toibin. The Master. One of two novels (the other’s by David Lodge) centering on real-life Henry James’s humiliation when writing for the stage. Unexpected from Toibin, proof of his width
9. Ford Madox Ford. Parade’s End tetralogy. Anthony Burgess rated FMF as the greatest British novelist of the twentieth century, so who am I dispute this judgment? These four novels centering on WW1 are about honour, obligation and “being a gentleman” in the old-fashioned sense of the word. I’d like to think that they provide a reference point for present-day Tories but that idea has been betrayed endlessly in the last four or five years.
8. Graham Greene. Our Man in Havana. How can a novel be simultaneously funny and dead serious? How can a Chief of Police in an authoritarian state be morally pure, or sort of? GG shows how.7. Anne Tyler. The Accidental Tourist. But they’re all good. A simple recipe: take the common folk of Baltimore and their quotidian concerns, mix them up, out comes platinum. I’d like to be able to write like AT, better still, imagine like her.
6. Scott Fitzgerald. Great Gatsby. A short novel, so here’s a short verdict: blissfully elliptical.
5. Patrick O’Brian. The Aubrey/Maturin series (20 titles). Historical novels are written now about then (ie, the past). I’m not normally a fan but I’ve read this series at least three times. The language is then, the social mores are then, the politics is then, the two central characters are precisely of their time. There’s fun, stirring adventure, affection, tragedy, contemporary science.
4. Michael Frayn. Copenhagen (play). Two scientists, German, Danish, familiar with the uncertainty principle, talk glancingly about progress in atomic physics in 1941. It would bore the pants off you, wouldn’t it? Yeah. It ran for over 300 performances in London, same on Broadway.
3. Colette. Le Blé en Herbe. The most delicious male adolescent’s daydream ever written.
2. Evelyn Waugh. The Sword of Honour trilogy. Waugh on war. So he wasn’t just limited to the Catholic church and Britain’s toffs. Irony that could break your legs.
1. William Wordsworth. Composed upon Westminster Bridge (Poem.). A sonnet, of course, the only real poetry for me. A title that’s hardly a title. But the way it starts: “Earth has not anything to show more fair”. Ah! In other hands it would be either fustian or boiler-plate. For decades I ignored poetry until these fourteen lines spoke out to me: “Stop being a twerp.”
Unnumbered. James Joyce. Ulysses. Some twenty percent I don’t understand and probably never will. I can live with that. Two widely differing men inhabit the parts of Dublin they’re familiar with. Finally they meet. A woman who is both fiercely individual and yet all women reflects on her life. Of course it isn’t that simple. But it’s vivid and human, it shows what can be done with language, and the reference to The Odyssey is far from coincidental. Having read it more than once I’m both humbled and pumped up with pride. The story lingers in my mind, never far away. I took a photo of the Martello Tower (yes, that one), not something I usually bother about. I dare say I’ll look at it again some day. But it’s the words that reach out:
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang”