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 Day 19

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A CounterPunch Reading List

100 Best Novels in English, Since 1900

by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and ALEXANDER COCKBURN

In my study hangs a hand-colored photograph of James Joyce ambling down the Rue Saint Jacques on the Left Bank of Paris. The photograph was a Christmas gift to our household from Alexander Cockburn. As was so often the case with presents from Alex, this wasn’t something he’d just bought on a sudden whim through e-Bay (a mode of commerce he was, it can now be disclosed, seriously addicted to for several years) with us in mind. Alex liked to test-drive his gifts and we grew to cherish his (often quite visible) fingerprints on them. A few years earlier, he’d been given two photographs of Joyce from our mutual friend the late Ben Sonnenberg, the former publisher of Grand Street. The photographs had migrated from his room, to his study and up to the old CounterPunch tower, before one of them was wrapped in well-thumbed copies of the Anderson Valley Advertiser and sent by UPS to Oregon City, where it landed on X-mas Eve 2008.

I look at that photograph many times a day and think of Alex. Joyce was one of our favorite writers (though neither of us could make heads-0r-tails of Finnegans Wake) and each year on Bloomsday we’d try to top each other with a juicy quote from Ulysses. So it’s no surprise that James Joyce’s Ulysses leads our list of the 100 best novels in English.

Alex and I both studied English Literature, Cockburn at Oxford, me at American University in DC 15 years later. During our 20 year friendship, we talked about novels, films and poems nearly as much as we did politics and certainly found greater enjoyment in long-ranging debates about the relative merits of Waugh, Stendahl and Proust. Before Alex died, we’d been working on putting together two lists of our favorite novels written since 1900, similar to the very popular lists we’d done years before for nonfiction books in English and in translation. We set some ground rules. First, one of us had to have actually read the book and convincingly described its merits to the other. Second, we limited each writer to one entry; otherwise, novels by George MacDonald Fraser and Patricia Highsmith might have dominated the list. Third, each of us had unlimited preemptory challenges to be invoked against writers we hated. Thus no: George Orwell, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, David Foster Wallace or Jonathan Franzen. Fourth: the novels had to have been published after 1899, which meant that one of Alex’s favorite books, the rousing Dumas-like adventure set in Richelieu’s France Under the Red Robe by Stanley Weyman (1894) just missed the cut. We didn’t distinguish between so-called genre fiction and serious literature, thus you’ll find a gripping thriller like John Masters’ The Deceivers lodged very near Vikram Seth’s novel-in-verse The Golden Gate. 

Unlike our previous lists, this time we chose to rank the books. Why? Because people tend to feel more passionately about novels than treatises on the surplus-value theory and we hoped that our list would give CounterPunchers something new to fight over. Here though the rankings are tilted more toward my own biases, since Alex and I had only gotten round to slotting the first 25 or so books before he died.

We hope that our novels list confirms some of your own tastes and at other times confounds you, irritates you and turns you on to some fresh reading pleasures. As Alex was fond of saying: “By the quality of life, art and freedom that radicals commend, so will radicals prevail.”

In a few weeks, we’ll publish our list of the best novels in translation since 1900. In the meantime, there’s much reading to be done. Better hurry, before all the beaches disappear…

–Jeffrey St. Clair

 

1. Ulysses: James Joyce (1922)

2. Absalom, Absalom!: William Faulkner (1936)

3. Gravity’s Rainbow: Thomas Pynchon (1973)

4. Native Son: Richard Wright (1940)

5. Orlando by Virginia Wolff (1928)

6. The Rainbow: DH Lawrence (1915)

7. Under Western Eyes: Joseph Conrad (1911)

8. Invisible Man: Ralph Ellison (1952)

9. The Violent Bear It Away: Flannery O’Connor (1960)

10. Tropic of Cancer: Henry Miller (1934)

 

11. The Golden Notebook: Doris Lessing (1962)

12. The Sun Also Rises: Ernest Hemingway (1926)

13. Wide Sargasso Sea: Jean Rhys (1966)

14. The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse (1938)

15. Tender is the Night: F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934)

16. Giovanni’s Room: James Baldwin (1956)

17. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

18. At Swim-Two-Birds: Flann O’Brien (1939)

19. On the Road: Jack Kerouac (1957)

20. JR: William Gaddis (1975)

 

21. Pale Fire: Vladimir Nabokov (1962)

22. End of the Affair: Graham Greene (1951)

23. Red Harvest: Dashiell Hammett (1927)

24. Mumbo Jumbo: Ishmael Reed (1972)

25. A Lost Lady: Willa Cather (1923)

26. The Hound of the Baskervilles: Arthur Conan Doyle (1902)

27. Far Tortuga: Peter Mattheissen (1975)

28. The Iron Heel: Jack London (1908)

29. Jazz: Toni Morrison (1992)

30. The Grapes of Wrath: John Steinbeck (1939)

 

31. Their Eyes Were Watching God: Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

32. Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess (1964)

33. Riddle of the Sands by Erksine Childers (1903)

34. The Thinking Reed by Rebecca West (1936)

35. Catch 22: Joseph Heller (1961)

36. Beat the Devil: Claud Cockburn (1951)

37. The Indian Lawyer: James Welch (1990)

38. The White Hotel: DM Thomas (1981)

39. Neuromancer: William Gibson (1984)

40. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold: Evelyn Waugh (1957)

 

41. Light Years: James Salter (1976)

42. Almanac of the Dead: Leslie Marmon Silko (1991)

43. Death of the Heart: Elizabeth Bowen (1938)

44. The Monkeywrench Gang: Edward Abbey (1975)

45. Things Fall Apart: Chinua Achebe (1958)

46. Slaves of Solitude: Patrick Hamilton (1947)

47. The Left Hand of Darkness: Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)

48. Novel on Yellow Paper: Stevie Smith (1936)

49.  A Feast of Snakes: Harry Crews (1976)

50. Vida: Marge Piercy (1975)

 

51. The Man in the High Castle: Philip K. Dick (1962)

52. Naked Lunch: William Burroughs (1959)

53. A Place of Greater Safety: Hilary Mantel (2006)

54. Voss: Patrick White (1957)

55. Dog Soldiers: Robert Stone (1974)

56. Animal Dreams: Barbara Kingsolver (1990)

57. Cat’s Cradle: Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

58. Sometimes a Great Notion: Ken Kesey (1964)

59. Mask of Dimitrios by Eric Ambler (1944)

60. The Known World: Edward P. Jones (2003)

 

61. Written on the Body: Jeanette Winterson (1993)

62. Disgrace: JM Coetzee (1999)

63. Call It Sleep: Henry Roth (1934)

64. July’s People: Nadine Gordimer (1981)

65. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939)

66. The Black Prince: Iris Murdoch (1973)

67. Julian: Gore Vidal (1964)

68. The Killer Inside Me: Jim Thompson (1952)

69. An American Dream: Norman Mailer (1965)

70. If He Hollers, Let Him Go: Chester Himes (1945)

 

71.  The Secret History: Donna Tartt (1992)

72. Flaubert’s Parrot: Julian Barnes (1984)

73. Matterhorn: Karl Marlantes (2009)

74. The Last Good Kiss: James Crumley (1978)

75. Salvage the Bones: Jesmyn Ward (2011)

76. Underworld: Don DeLillo (1997)

77. The Radiant Way: Margaret Drabble (1987)

78. Regeneration: Pat Barker (1991)

79. Snow Crash: Neal Stevenson (1992)

80. Ray: Barry Hannah (1980)

 

81. Tripmaster Monkey: Maxine Hong Kingston (1989)

82. The Golden Gate: Vikram Seth (1986)

83. Lucky Jim: Kinglsey Amis (1954)

84. Day of the Locust: Nathaniel West (1939)

85.  Gateway: Frederick Pohl (1977)

86. Machine Dreams: Jayne Anne Phillips (1984)

87. Two Serious Ladies: Jane Bowles (1946)

88. Mr. American: George MacDonald Fraser (1980)

89. Zuleika Dobson: Max Beerbohm (1911)

90. The Dogs of March: Ernest Hebert (1979)

 

91. The Deceivers: by John Masters (1952)

92. Sleeping Beauty: Ross McDonald (1973)

93. The King Must Die: Mary Renault (1958)

94. Tree of Smoke: Denis Johnson (2007)

95. House of Splendid Isolation: Edna O’Brien (1994)

96. Lucy: Jamaica Kinkaid (1990)

97. Affliction: Russell Banks (1989)

98. Gaudy Night: Dorothy L. Sayers (1935)

99. Flicker: Theodore Roszak (1991)

100. Greenmantle: John Buchan (1916)

 

(With many thanks for their valuable input, even when it was ignored: Ben Sonnenberg, Kimberly Willson-St. Clair, Daisy Cockburn, Joshua Frank, Ron Jacobs, Carl Estabrook, Christine Karatnytsky and JoAnn Wypijewski.)

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.