Ten novels I have loved or have influenced me

My son, James, nominated me to post on Facebook pictures of ten novels that I have loved or have influenced me over 10 days. I usually resist these Ponzi schemes, but I went along with this and enjoyed it greatly. I also nominated other friends, who also rose to the challenge and have given me an excellent reading list.

Here are my ten novels:


Day 1: When you read The Leopard  by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa you are in Sicily at the time of the Risorgimento, enjoying being with the Prince in his decaying palace with his prayers, astronomy, and fornicating, feeling the heat, enjoying the food, and worrying about the emerging Mafia. And the description of the Prince dying is for me the best account of that experience we all await with awe. I’ve read it three times and will hope to read it at least twice more before I die. It’s also one of the few great novels that made a great film.

Les Mis

Day 2: The 19th century produced greater novels than the 20th century (a point to debate endlessly), and perhaps the greatest of them all was Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. It is an astonishing novel not only in the complexity of its plots but also in its insights, poetry (even in English), and political and moral messages. An ideal read for lockdown in that it will absorb enormous amounts of time (it’s 1200 pages long), the novel will takes you to places you would never otherwise visit. Hugo wrote the book in the Channel Islands while exiled from France, and the complicated process of printing the book (typescript to Belgium via England, proofs back, corrected proofs back again) is in itself a saga.


Day 3: Middlemarch, one of the few books that I have read three times, was famously described by Virginia Woolf as “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.” Each time I’ve read the novel with its wholly real characters (all flawed, of course), evocation of the early 19th century, poetry, and deep insight I’ve enjoyed it more. The novel is like Bach’s music in that you can never tire of it and always find more. A young Sikh friend who scorns novels read it and loved it. A character in Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (another possible candidate for this list) makes the case for Middlemarch: “But I too hate long books: the better, the worse. If they’re bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they’re good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch.’ Seth is teasing himself: Middlemarch is about half the length of A Suitable Boy.


Day 4: I might have chosen several Steinbeck books as I think him one of the greatest writers. Travels with Charley, his farewell to America, is a beautiful book, and for pleasure, comfort, humour, and the joy of being human there is little to beat Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, and Tortilla Flat. But his “big books” have more power. I might have gone for Grapes of Wrath, which I read 40 years ago, but I’ve gone for East of Eden, which I read six years ago and Steinbeck thought his greatest work: “It has everything in it I have been able to learn about my craft or profession in all these years….everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this.” Now that I spend much of my time rereading I want to reread both East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath.

Monte Cristo

Day 5: I don’t really believe in a hierarchy of books that I like, just as I don’t believe in a hierarchy of composers and artists. (That’s not to say, however, that some are not better than others.) But for years I would list The Leopard, Love in the Time of Cholera, and The Count of Monte Cristo as my favourite books. Yet it must be 30 years since I read The Count of Monte Cristo, and I’ve read it only once. For many in Britain it was considered a children’s book, but the children must have read a drastically shortened version that excluded the best literary account I know of the “locked-in syndrome” and of being stoned and contemplating making love with a statue that comes to life. The novel is an adventure story with many other glories. It’s time for me to reread it.


Day 6: The Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell is perhaps a cheat in this exercise as it is 12 novels, but the whole 12 are often described as “the greatest English novel of the 20th century.” The whole is also often called the English equivalent of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, but “the Dance,” as us cognoscenti call it, is an easier and funnier read. Each of the 12 novels stands alone, but the whole is very much greater than the sum of the parts—as characters disappear and reappear in different guises, just as they do with those of us fortunate to have had a long life. The 12 novels span British upper class and Bohemian life from the 20s to the 50s with three volumes set during the Second World War. They are full of memorable characters, not least Widmerpool, a socially awkward boy who rises to be Lord Widmerpool with few discernible talents. I’ve met several Widmerpools in my life; I may even be one.


Day 7: Nothing, I find, is more comforting than a Trollope novel. Reading Trollope is like sitting by a fire with a warm whisky after a hot bath with the rain beating on the windows. But he can also be read with great pleasure while sitting high on Cornwall’s cliffs on a summer’s afternoon or stuck, tired and jet-lagged in Newark Airport. I’ve read all six of both the Barchester and Palliser novels and am halfway through rereading the Palliser ones. A remarkable thing about both series is that the books get steadily better as you read them in order. The Way We Live Now, which I’ve read only once, is widely regarded as Trollope’s masterpiece, but I opt now for He Knew He Was Right, a powerful portrait of morbid jealousy. One of the many things I love about Trollope is that he writes convincing strong, smart, and lovable women while most of his men are fools, knaves, or both. What man couldn’t fall in love with Lady Glencora Palliser?

Crime and punishment

Day 8: The Russians know things that the rest of us don’t know—you can read it in the novels and hear it in the music. Perhaps to write a novel like Crime and Punishment you need to have been blindfolded and about to be shot before being at the last minute pardoned, spent ten years in prison in Siberia, and be an epileptic. That would explain why Crime and Punishment and Dostoevsky’s other novels are unique: who else has had such experiences?  Virginia Woolf wrote about Dostoevsky’s writing: “Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture. Out of Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading.” I reread Crime and Punishment last year, but probably 50 readings are needed to get to the bottom of it.

Abide with me

Day 9: I can’t think of a book, fiction or non-fiction, that has said more to me about grief than Elizabeth Strout’s Abide with Me. It also taught me much more about myself and the world, and I read its clear prose and enjoyed the story with much pleasure. What more can anybody ask of a novel? I’ve also read My Name is Lucy Barton and Olive Kitteridge, and I’m just coming to the end of Olive, Again. I’ve enjoyed them all greatly and continued to learn more about humanity. I’ve also appreciated the way that Maine—and Strout’s love for the state—runs through all the novels. I agree with what Hilary Mantel, arguably Britain’s best writer, has written about Strout: “A superbly gifted storyteller and craftswoman in a league of her own….She teaches us that there is almost always more to know about human beings, even the ones we are close to.” Indeed, maybe Strout is a new Jane Austen, revealing great depths in a confined space.


Day 10: Here I am at the final day in this sequence, and I’m bothered by the huge number of novels I have had to leave out: In Search of Lost Time, which I have read only once over 40 years but want to read again; all the Dickens, Thackeray, and Hardy novels; Portrait of a Lady and many other Henry James novels; the Cazalet Chronicles, surely the best possible lockdown read; Under the Volcano; Moby Dick (how could I leave that out?); The Magic Mountain; all the novels of Graham Greene and Muriel Spark; “that’s enough, Ed.” I have to conclude with one book from Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Philip Roth, three of my favourites writers who are all filed together in my mind. I’ve opted for Humboldt’s Gift, which Bellow described as “a comedy about death.” As such it is a huge success in that almost every sentence is funny or insightful about death and life and often both.




11 thoughts on “Ten novels I have loved or have influenced me

    • Excellent.

      My ten would be shorter, and generally less highbrow. Its interesting that favourite novel, like favourite films, quite often relate to the message you needed or the stage of live you were at when you read them, so I’m not saying these are the best novels in the world, they were just significant to me at a certain time, when i read them.

      Finn Family Moomintroll: Tove Janssen
      Treasure Island: Robert Louis Stevenson
      Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen
      The Onion Eaters: JP Donleavy
      Our man in Havanna: Graham Greene
      The Grapes of Wrath: John Steinbeck
      The Glittering Prizes: Frederic Raphael
      For Whom the Bell Tolls: Ernest Hemmingway
      The Catastrophist: Ronan Bennet
      Cloud Atlas: David Mitchell
      Bel Canto: Ann Patchett

      Oh, thats 11… I’m sure I’ll remember more

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: Ten favourite novels from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Australasia | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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