Every man and his dog seems to think they are qualified to determine the list of the greatest novels ever written. Naturally they use the superlative “greatest” rather than merely contenting themselves woth “great”. After all their opinion is what counts and so their list is definitive.
Of course they are all merely opinions so I feel equally qualified to share my own vuews and have no illusions as to their true worth. They’re just what I think at the moment. No doubt if you asked me again later I would come up with a different list and order.
For the record though, my criteria for inclusion are: I enjoyed them; they are of significance as literature or in popular culture or both; they are well-written – which may mean different things in different genres, a well-written gothic novel will be written very differently from a well-written thriller etc; and they frequently spawned imitators whose flattery may be an indication of their importance as innovators.
100 All Quiet On The Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
Not anti-war as such but timely in view of the centenary of the First World War’s start. Lambasted by some critics as merely shallow cashing in on the misery of the recent war and therefore insignificant. Burned by the Nazis as decadent which cements its place in the significant category. Remarque himself said he was simply trying to express how alienated he felt based on his personal experiences in the war.
99 The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992)
Not a whodunnit – you know the answer to that pretty much up front – but a whydunnit. It also explores the impact on the perpetrator(s). So it breaks new ground.
98 One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
An epic multi-generational tale that doesn’t take over 700 pages when less than 300 will do. Marquez more or less invented magic realism as a genre with this novel. I found it confusing chronologically and spellbinding in equal measures.
97 Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
Hammett was for me the father of hard-boiled crime fiction. I prefer the anonymous Continental Op – a thinly disguised Pinkertons Detective based on Hammett’s own experiences – who is the hero of this violent story to the smoother Sam Spade of The Maltese Falcon so it gets my vote.
96 The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)
A kind if existential answer to Neitzsche and his assertion that a life has meaning through the weight or import of the person’s actions. Here the ephemeral lives and loves of a handful of people in Communist Czechoslovakia during and after the 1968 Prague upeising and its supression by the Soviet forces show that life goes on regardless of bigger events.
95 Rememrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust (1913 – 1927)
At seven volumes this is a real case of never mind the quality feel the width (of bookshelf space taken up). By treating this as one novel I am at least spared the task of trying to pick one of the seven as the representative greatest. If I did that there is also the risk that I’d be misunderstood as translaters are forever giving them names that are either very similar ir indeed potentially interchangeable. Even the whole is now referred to as In Search of Lost Time which although a more literal teanslation of Proust’s French title loses something of the elegiac wuality that for me permeates the whole series and makes it special.
94 The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (1926)
No spoiler alert. This novel was a game changer. It is a meticulously plotted book with a unique twist that has been copied by countless novelists, many of them much lauded, since the much derided, by those with literary pretentions anyway, Christie came up with it. That Christie invented the concept of the unreliable narrator is arguable – it is all about perspective as we shall see when it comes to Wilkie Collins – but she insisted, with accuracy, that she always gave the reader all the clues to draw the same correct conclusion as Poirot but also exercised her right to misdirect attention as is allowed to any magician.
93 The Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
I read this book as a schoolboy for my O-levels more than 30 years ago. I went to a comprehensive in Sheffield which is about as far from the public school background of the schoolboys in this tale as it is possible to get. Golding’s power to make them real to me and to sear images in my mind that time has not even begun to erase gets this novel a place in my list.
92 One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962)
A late entry into the beatnik/early entry into the hippie counter-culture. I still cry every time I read the end. For what “They” did to McMurphy who was never insane though he might well have been pathologically criminal. And for what he did for the Chief and the symbolism of the empowerment the Chief gained from him.
91 Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847)
The ultimate gothic novel with impossible heightened love and sensual sexuality of a type not seen before in respectable Victorian novels. Published under the penname Ellis Bell – presumably the fictional brother of her older sister Emily’s nom de plume Currer Bell – as no-ine at the time would have accepted a book like this written by a woman. No wonder the teenage Kate Bush was so inspired.