This is just a silly list of some of my favourite 20th century books: some are seen as ‘important’, some as ‘classics’ but what binds them together is that over the years I have gained so much enjoyment and stimulation from each and everyone.
Love’s Coming of Age – Edward Carpenter Carpenter was a socialist reformer with connections to the many ‘sexologists’ across Europe who were, at the start of the twentieth century investigating and writing about sexuality and gender. Carpenter is a fascinating creature (see Sheila Rowbotham’s biography) who published one of the first writings on homosexuality in Britain, republished in this volume as ‘The Intermediate Sex’. Innocent, naïve and sometimes plain wrong, but still a fascinating glimpse of earlier reforming attitudes and a ground breaking publication.
Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf The sound of worlds colliding. As Clarissa Dalloway trots across London preparing for her party she criss-crosses with Septimus Smith, a war veteran gripped by the shell shock. Probably Woolf’s least icy novel and one with bite and a playful modernism which doesn’t alienate the reader.
Collected Short Stories – Katherine Mansfield A contemporary of Virginia Woolf, Mansfield died young having completed a number of volumes of short stories which filled Woolf with envy. On the periphery of ‘modernist’ writing, Mansfield wrote with a lighter pen than Woolf, allowing character to take the place of experiment, producing warmer but no less thrilling stories. ‘At the Bay’ is, for me, the perfect beach read.
After Leaving Mr McKenzie – Jean Rhys Neglected for many, many years, Rhys’ novels and stories are written in a very sparse style, usually about lonely women trying to find a life in the bedsit-land of pre- and post war Europe. Broken women in broken lands have never been so beautifully written about, in a way which is true yet never descends into miserablism.
The Children Who Lived in a Barn – Eleanor Graham Possibly my favourite book from my childhood. A group of children find themselves having to fend for themselves when their parent’s plane disappears. A book for children trying to find their way in the world, searching for freedom. Terribly middle class and rural, but this working class boy from the industrial north east loved it. Here’s why
Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham I’ve always struggled with science fiction (and yes, I understand the irony coming a lifelong Dr. Who fan), with the possible exception of John Wyndham. Why? Perhaps because Wyndham is focussed on how the extraordinary affects the ordinary. Even this, his most famous book, sidelines the terrible titular carnivorous plants for the story of humanity surviving a cosmic calamity.
The Bell – Iris Murdoch Is Iris Murdoch read these days? I love her books, with this volume possibly the most ‘Murdoch’ of the lot: a closed community of oddballs, sometimes queer, all wrestling with existential angst. Sounds po-faced but Murdoch manages to bring a light touch and bright characters which make it a great read.
The Vet’s Daughter – Barbara Comyns I only recently discovered this great, peculiar novel, with its pitch black humour and bonkers story about a young girl who, abused by her family, discovers she can literally ‘rise above it all.’
Hemlock and After – Angus Wilson A much neglected writer, Wilson was hugely popular during his lifetime, often surprisingly so given the frequently, positively queer aspects of some of his stories. ‘Hemlock…’ concerns the attempts of novelist Bernard Sands to establish a writers’ colony while he coming to terms with his failing marriage, his younger male lover and his next door neighbour, Mrs. Curry, who procures young people for paedophiles…
The Driver’s Seat – Muriel Spark A chilly, stylish tale from Ms. Spark. A woman travels towards to her own murder. Spark was one of our most stylish novelists, each of her tomes different from the last, each unexpected, each an adventure. This is just one of them but, as a fan of horror fiction, my favourite.
Complete Cookery Course – Delia Smith There are, of course, many twentieth century cookery writers who are important: Elizabeth David, Madhur Jaffrey to name but two. But Delia Smith is the person who taught a country to cook, with fool-proof recipes and a no frills style. Every child should be given a copy of this book when they leave school.
Oranges are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson Based upon Winterson’s Pentecostal upbringing in Lancashire, ‘Oranges’ was funny, touching, frightening and defiantly queer just when we needed it. The calling card of a major talent.
A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole Ignatius J Reilly is one of the great monsters of literature: a preposterous braggard and would-be bully who blusters his way through life, attempting to stamp his mark on the world because, well, he is right and everyone else is wrong. A novel which the great John Waters has stated is the only novel he would wish to turn into a film can only be a truly great thing.
Wise Children – Angela Carter I sometimes think that Angela Carter is one of the most overrated writers of the twentieth century, but when she was good (‘The Bloody Chamber’, ‘Nights at the Circus’) she was great, and I think that Wise Children, her romp through the life of theatrical twins Dora and Nora Chance and their bonkers, bawdy family, is the toppermost of the poppermost.
An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro Ishiguro is a beautiful, careful, writer whose words come together to produce delicate yet rich and powerful stories. This was the first Ishiguro I read and is still my favourite: In post-war Japan artist Masuji Ono looks back over his work, trying to come to terms the fact that some of his greatest work is marred by their association with the terrible mistakes of his country’s recent past.
Homosexuality in Renaissance England – Alan Bray Way back in 1982 when this slender tome was published, the history of LGBT people was a narrow, almost invisible area of study, with very little known about lesbian or gay life prior to the Victorians (Foucault’s assertion that the ‘homosexual’ only came into being following the creation of that word in 1869 did nothing to help this). Bray’s book went some way to filling gaps, giving us a glimpse of the everyday life of the ‘Molly’ (as some gay men were nicknamed) in London and the isolated queers of rural towns and villages. A ground breaker.
The Orton Diaries – Joe Orton The diary of the last two years of playwright Joe Orton caused a frisson of homophobic delight when published in the 1980s. With tales of grubby gay sex, hobnobbing across London theatreland, queer goings on in Morrocco and walk on parts from Kenneth Williams, this book had it all – and still does.
Regeneration – Pat Barker My mother introduced me to Pat Barker via the grim but great Union Street, about a serial killer killing prostitutes in a northern city(!?). Barker shifted gear with this, the first part of a trilogy about the affects of warfare on masculinity. Psychiatry, shellshock, sexuality: A heady brew.
Generation X – Douglas Coupland I came late to Coupland, thinking him a trendy flash-in-the-pan, but soon learned the error of my ways. Coupland writes about the here and now, what it means to be alive in the moment with all that moment’s implications: what does the internet say about us and how do it’s interactions affect us? In essence, each of his novels is a window into a world we will soon forget: in Generation X we peep into the world of the 1990s when the most highly educated generation in history could afford to lounge around and wait for the world to present them with a life.
What a Carve Up! – Jonathan Coe Probably the best satire about 1980s Britain you will ever read. Thoughtful, witty and so true, with the awful Winshaw family embodying the traits of every vile Conservative you ever met.
Sexual Personnae – Camille Paglia A shockwave of passion and learning from across the Atlantic. Paglia’s learning is unsurpassed yet her writing – despite her being a lifelong academic – is full of wit, humour, passion and accessibility. You won’t agree with everything she says, but the ride is exhilarating.
Modern Nature – Derek Jarman Painter, filmmaker, gardener, activist, Derek Jarman’s diaries are a time capsule of the early 1990s when the AIDS epidemic took hold in Britain and queers like Jarman refused to sit back, helpless. Angry, poetic, this and the second volume which takes us through to Jarman’s death are heart breaking but essential for students of queer history.
Happy Like Murderers – Gordon Burn Probably the most disturbing book on this list: the story of the serial killers Fred and Rosemary West, from the twisted and sordid lifestyle they created to the murders and beyond, this is a compulsive read but one which lingers like syphilis. A true vision of the depravity of human nature.
The Artist’s Widow – Shena Mackay From a lifetime of great writing, this is possibly my favourite Mackay novel: warm, funny and touching in telling the story of Lyris Crane, a painter whose work was overlooked in favour of her husband, John who has recently died. It is a novel about London, about the clash of generations, about art and yet still finds time to eviscerate the selfishness of the ‘BritArt’ generation of artists from the 1900s.