So now we are getting into the serious business end of the list…
30 The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
I think I read this novel when I was too young. I didn’t like Jay Gatsby and thought he was a waste of space. Later I came to realise that this was at least in part the point that Fitzgerald was making. This entire social milieu was a waste of space, and money made on the back of honest men’s toil. Now I find that you don’t have to like a character to feel sympathy for them and to find them believable as a human being.
29 From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming (1957)
The one where Bond dies at the end…or does he? For me this has the best plot of any Bond novel and has all the strengths – the attention to detail and narrative drive – of the series and has few of the weaknesses – the snobbery and the misogynist take on the world. For once the lead female role is not seduced by Bond but sets out to seduce him,. The setting is Balkan rather than Caribbean which gives it a grittier edge than many of the other books in the series. The acid test is that this would stand on its own as a classic spy thriller regardless.
28 Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899)
A short novel which has cast a long shadow. Some have focused on the psychological aspects of the novel and the characters of Kurtz and Marlow. Others have focused on the unflinching depiction of terrible acts carried out by the colonials in exploiting and oppressing the natives of the Congo. Subsequent black criticism has found the book racist either directly, or indirectly by its failure to criticise the racism displayed by characters in the novel. There is, of course, some truth in all these perspectives, which is what makes it such a disturbing read and why it earns its place in this list.
27 Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein (1961)
This appealed to me as a teenager because it challenged just about every social norm prevalent at the time I grew up. It also encapsulates what it is to feel alienated. Maybe I read more into it than Heinlein intended. I felt the whole thing was a metaphor – it can’t be meant to be taken literally, it’s Sci-Fi, for Chrissakes. I was disappointed that it went off on the religious cult tack but at least it was better written than anything by L Ron Hubbard (not saying much).
26 I, Claudius by Robert Graves (1934)
Based on the literary conceit that they are the rediscovered lost autobiography of the eponymous Roman emperor, this novel and its sequel, Claudius The God, provide a fascinating perspective on the Roman court and the treachery that underpinned the rule of the dynasty of the Caesars. It makes the Borgias look positively saintly. Claudius is immensely sympathetic as a character – not the fool his family believe him to be but a very mortal God who spends much of his life, fearing for his life and expecting death imminently at the hands of his plotting relatives should he ever be discovered to be anything other than harmless old uncle Claudius.
25 Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse (1927)
Often regarded as a counter-culture novel, with extensive sex and drug use featuring prominently throughout the novel, I found this a profoundly sad book. It showed the downside of the feelings of isolation and alienation that an individual who does not fit in, or thinks he does not fit in, with society experiences. In a way its central character, Harry Haller, could be viewed as another Jay Gatsby without the trappings of high society. It is interesting to contrast the disillusionment with the American Dream in Fitzgerald’s book, with the conscious shift into the world of magic and mythic unreality in this European novel.
24 The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima (1963)
This is a story of how a man loses his way through misplaced love for a woman. It is always going to end badly for him once he does so. HIs destiny is the sea and he is destroyed by forces he cannot understand or begin to tackle because they are of the land. At this level the book mythologises the intimate, personal tragedy and makes it epic. The whole becomes a metaphor, not to be taken literally but to be interpreted. And yet it is essentially still a simple, personal tragic story. Moving and human. The Japanese mind, so alien to a European reader, proves not so alien when concepts of love and honour are at stake.
23 Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)
Of course it is a satire, poking fun in a very unceremonious way at all aspects of 18th century society. But is is also a fun story, a series of adventures out of which the hero emerges triumphant through his courage and ingenuity. It clearly parodies the fantastic travellers’ tales with which those who had been abroad regaled those who, like the vast majority of that time, has never strayed more than a few miles from the place they were born. Here be giants indeed.
22 The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)
More hard-boiled than Hammett? I think not. But I’m in love with his prose style. Perhaps almost as much as he was himself. After all, the plot is far too complicated to explain. Chandler himself famously responded that he had no idea who killed the chauffeur whose death is pivotal in the plot. He didn’t care. He wanted to nail the atmosphere and characters. Have them behave in psychologically credible ways under the circumstances. So if he was a little wooly about precisely what those circumstances were, well what difference did it make?
21 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
I always preferred Huckleberry Finn, the young ragamuffin, to Mr Goody Two Shoes Fantasist Tom Sawyer. The book portrays southern US society of its time accurately. So there are racist attitudes aplenty – but it is clear that Huck Finn does not share them and his companion Jim is a fleeing slave. Twain’s stance is therefore clearly anti-racist and, in that, decades ahead of his time. But, being of his time, he uses the word “nigger” and this retrospectively lands him in hot water. To which I would respond that he uses it in an accurate reflection of the society he describes. Within the book it used by racists and non-racists. The former use it in a way that they would have done then that is unacceptable now – accurate reporting is the defence. The latter use it in a non-pejorative sense because that is the only word they have and we can’t superimpose our language backwards on them. Enough discussion. It is brilliant and insightful into the innocent minds of the young and the poisonous minds of their elders and not so betters.