I’m off to Italy next week. For a holiday, I cram my suitcase with as many books as possible. None of this kindle malarkey – I need a page to turn, fusty soft paper, and a purloined beer mat as a marker.
Here are my favourite ten novels, one per author – otherwise it would have been exclusively Greene and Waugh – and written in the author’s mother tongue. It’s not an attempt to find the most intellectual, the “best”, or perhaps critically acclaimed books.They are just books I thoroughly enjoy and feel any reader would devour.
The Great Gatsby – F.Scott Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald was arguably the biggest waste of literary talent; he often preferred a good time to a day at the typewriter. Thankfully though he put down his martini long enough to write this era defining gem. A book so dazzlingly bright and subtly dark it constantly captivates the reader. An allegory of the jazz age, that like the protagonist is high, loud, and brash yet ends in a bloody depression.
Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
In my humble opinion, though a romana clef, this is the most impressive piece of storytelling. It’s a juggernought of a novel, spanning DECADES of decadence, destruction, and love – both unrequited and consumed. Sebastian, in youth, is the most fascinating character in literature and in old age as one of its most reviled. The novel depicts how we all age, change both physically and metaphysically. Like Carraway in Gatsby, Charles is the ultimate outsider seduced by elegant wealth yet ultimately shunned. Divine.
The Human Factor – Graham Greene
This is Greene at his pathos-driven best. Using spies, he sets out an examination on man’s betrayal of man. Greene’s contrite Catholic depressive manner shines though with every word. His lack of adverbs tighten every description and set the melancholic tone. They also help the reader understand the depths of Castle’s ultimate betrayal. He leaves us, as always, with a glimmer and belief that all failing of men began once with the desire to do good.
The mating season-P.G.Wodehouse
“Mr.Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.” E.Waugh
Wodehouse is the greatest trivial novelist and Jeeves and Wooster his finest characters. Bertie Wooster’s irreverent, often irrelevant, narrative floats from page to page like a plume of Turkish cigarettes at the Ritz during afternoon tea. Wodehouse is without doubt the funniest writer to put pen to paper, often making the most earnest men snort out in laughter. Bertie and the inimitable Jeeves tear through town and country causing the lyrical chaos.
I’ll go to bed at noon – Gerard Woodward
The middle book of Woodward’s magnificent trilogy about the troubled Jones family. It focuses on the break up family, alcoholism, and failure of people who live outside usual social parameters. Written by a poet there is a wonderful lyrical flow amongst the tale of sombre prose. A wonderful tale that moved me to laugh and cry in equal measure. A must read.
The Happy Prince – Oscar Wilde
Though only 22 pages long this fable is earth shatteringly beautiful. Reminding one that when he forgot his lust for fame, Wilde’s writing is second to none. Though about a migrating sparrow and a gilded statue, this parable of vanity, cruelty, and beauty moves me to tears every time.
The life of Pi – Yves Martell
Outside theology and philosophy this is the only book to change my outlook on life. Set in India and then on a marooned boat, Martell attempts to look at life in all its frivolous glories in a very un-pompous way. A young orphan stuck on a boat with a Bengal tiger should be ridiculous but written in a soft yet violent tone it locks the reader in. The world created is magical and mystified me at every turn. Exquisite and though provoking.
Richard Burton diaries
Technically not a novel. Burton captures his life-long method acting as a failed author wonderfully in his deliberately verbose diaries. He bears his ambiverted soul on each differing page. A life so un ordinary it could only be the work of fiction, it is dominated by his two loves drink and Liz Taylor – often he had several large vodkas and a couple of vicious argument by breakfast. He was surprisingly erudite and a prolific reader. A glimpse into a wonderful life full of ups and many downs.
Fear and loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S Thompson
A search for the American dream is the lose blurb for the drug fuelled gonzo antics of Dr.Thompson and his attorney. Each line so vivid and mad that when I put the book down I felt rather like it was I who had dropped acid. Often a cartoon of himself in life, he plays up to the public persona magically in this epic tale of frivolous excess. Indeed the book is carnage but it is expertly written by a man at the height of his powers.
One Day – David Nichols
Set on St Swithuns day every year, this is by far and away the worst written book on this list. However it resonated with me as I lived their lives and made the same mistakes. It is the ultimate page turner, offering the reader despair and hope at every page. It is an amazing feat to keep the reader engaged with an annual gap but the characters of Dexter and Emma, with all their massive failings, become almost like people we know. Not for erudition but a book for those who want to be engaged and have a good old weep.