We’re getting closer to the “Hit Parade” now…
40 Gigi by Colette (1944)
Almost contemporary with, and providing a French alternative perspective to, Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s. The theme is treated with a lighter more comic touch but there are definitely some barbs in there to be found. I find the two principal characters in this more rounded and developed as human beings.
39 North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1854)
A tough examination of the impact of the Industrial Revolution on Victorian England which provides a more balanced take than does DIckens in Hard Times which covers much the same ground. It also focuses on women’s lives (both poor and rich) in these circumstances which is outwith the scope, or arguably, the capabilities of Dickens.
38 Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee (1959)
It is easy to look back with nostalgia on the life in the countryside before the coming of the motor car and while Laurie Lee’s novel, based on his own childhood in rural Gloucestershire, is evocative of this era it is no elegiac piece on its passing but rather a poetic but wryly humourous backward glance. It breathes life into characters who might still be found in the area but they are no archetypes but flesh and blood creations for whom the reader feels affection because the writer recalls them from his own life with the same affection.
37 The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
I found this a really tough book. The central character is by his own admission a coward whose failure to act at a critical point in his life provides the spring to drive the second half of the book. It tackles difficult themes and places them in a difficult and, to the western reader, alien location which might serve as an excuse to distance oneself from the events. But it is the very human failings of the central character and his slow and convoluted path towards redemption that give this book its heart.
36 Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott (1820)
Argued by figures such as Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin to have been one of the principal causes of the Victorian infatuation with the medieval past, this novel could be said to have started the gothic revival (think everything from the Palace of Westminster onwards), the pre-Raphaelite movement and the Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris et al. Not bad for one novel. The central character, Ivanhoe, has become synonymous with heroism but, in fact, he is not the great warrior that he is often portrayed but rather a competent knight who inspires loyalty in others by his own honesty and loyalty. This makes the novel ground-breaking in a way that is rarely appreciated by those who come to it via Hollywood.
35 Tales of The Alhambra by Washington Irving (1832)
Not so much a novel as a collection of writings by the author about and inspired by the Alhambra Palace in Granada in which he was living at the time. As such it mixes straight description with factual historical tales, suitably embroidered and myths and legends with some (albeit occasionally tenuous) link to the place. It provides a link between the early 17th century Cervantes take on chivalry and the Spanish/Moorish dichotomy in the fantastical Don Quixote and our own modern world view of the Christian-Islam divide, showing that there was far greater common ground than either earlier or later perspectives might portray.
34 The Citadel by A.J. Cronin (1937)
A powerful fictional work that had a profound impact on the way the English medical establishment was perceived, exposing the flaws and self-serving nature of the profession (as distinct from its practitioners “at the coal-face” so to speak – I choose my words carefully here). Its themes may have indirectly influenced Nye Bevan in his thinking behind the setting up of the National Health Service (or indeed, given Cronin’s own work and the setting of the novel in the heart Bevan’s own Welsh coal-mining and health work in Tredegar may have been influenced by Bevan). This is no political tub-thumper though. The central character’s growth and maturing are key to the books enduring power.
33 Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001)
I found this book incredibly frustrating. It takes the unreliable narrator concept to a whole new level. And that’s what I like about it. The very fact that in the end, you the reader, are presented with the decision that what you have just read includes two mutually contradictory, indeed, mutually exclusive versions of events, neither of which may be true, and asked you which to believe. Its grounds for doing so are that this is a work of fiction and so you know neither is in fact true. This messing with my head was just so damn clever that I had to include it in my list of Greatest Novels because it is still there, even now, years afterwards, nagging away at me. Which truth/fiction do I want to believe?
32 The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881)
This is another novel that troubles me greatly but for very different reasons. I find myself plain annoyed with the central female character for making a bad choice then apparently deciding to live with the consequences but with get outs when it suits her. Is this because she decides not to make the ultimate break with convention and follow her much trumpeted desire for independence? Or is that my 21st century mind rebelling at what was an irreconcilable 9th century dilemma? Either way, it is one of the few attempts by a 19th century male writer to get inside the head of his female lead and for that it is worthy of inclusion here.
31 Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner (1984)
This presents another woman central character exploring what she wants out of life. I never find the premise for her arrival at the hotel convincing but then that itself is a function of where she is in her life (or where she has failed to get to). She seems too pliable and to see herself mainly in relation to others, but then, as so many novels show, this is an accurate world view from many women’s perspectives. What I like though is that through a series of nothing very significant happening observations, the woman does come to terms with herself and makes a decisive move forward. So I buy into the ultimate optimism. Or at least that’s what I think it is.