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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: One More Time: Fifty Great 20th Century Novels

This column originally appeared on December 27, 2000. We are periodically asked to run it again, and have. This weekend, we were asked to run it one more time. Given what’s going on in America and the world, it semed like a capital idea to us.

Peggy Clifford, Editor

FIFTY GREAT 20TH CENTURY NOVELS

Compiling lists of the best of this or that is always subjective and subject to debate, which is probably why we enjoy compiling such lists. In the past year or so, there have been many lists of the best books of the 20th century. Most recently, CONTEXTS, a literary magazine from Dalkey Archive Press issued their list of major 20th century writers. So I decided to try my hand at it.

My criteria were as follows: 1) books I have actually read; 2) books of high writing style; 3) books of critical acclaim; 4) books of historical importance (i.e., consciousness-raising); and 5) books which in many cases influenced other writers and readers. My lists are admittedly idiosyncratic and personal, however, here goes:

James Joyce,

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST

AS A YOUNG MAN

James Joyce, ULYSSES

Thomas Mann,

THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN

F. Scott Fitzgerald,

THE GREAT GATSBY

Ernest Hemingway,

THE SUN ALSO RISES

Mikhail Sholokov,

AND QUIET FLOWS THE

DON

Boris Pasternak,

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO

Upton Sinclair, THE JUNGLE

Eli Weisel, NIGHT

Jerzy Kosinski,

THE PAINTED BIRD

Erich Maria Remarque,

ALL QUIET ON THE

WESTERN FRONT

Albert Camus,

THE STRANGER

Andre Malraux, MA’S FATE

John Steinbeck,

THE GRAPES OF WRATH

George Orwell, 1984

George Orwell, ANIMAL FARM

Chinua Achebe,

THINGS FALL APART

J.D. Salinger,

CATCHER IN THE RYE

John Hersey, HIROSHIMA

Ralph Ellison,

INVISIBLE MAN

William Faulkner,

THE SOUND AND THE FURY

Robert Penn Warren,

ALL THE KINGS MEN

E.M. Forster,

A PASSAGE TO INDIA

Joseph Heller, CATCH-22

Kurt Vonnegut,

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE

Joseph Conrad, LORD JIM

Joseph Conrad,

HEART OF DARKNESS

William Styron,

SOPHIE’S CHOICE

Edith Wharton,

THE AGE OF INNOCENCE

D.H. Lawrence,

SONS AND LOVERS

Franz Kafka, THE TRIAL

Arthur Koestler,

DARKNESS AT NOON

Alexander Solzhenitsyn,

ONE DAY IN THE LIFE

OF IVAN DENISOVICH

John Dos Passos,

USA TRILOGY

Leslie Marmon Silko,

CEREMONY

N. Scott Momaday,

HOUSE MADE OF DAWN

William Gaddis,

THE RECOGNITIONS

Sinclair Lewis, MAIN STREET

Hermann Hesse, SIDDHARTHA

Joseph Roth, RADETZKY MARCH

Richard Wright, NATIVE SON

Carlo Levi,

CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI

Graham Greene,

THE QUIET AMERICAN

D.M. Thomas,

THE WHITE HOTEL

Gabriel Garcia Marquez,

ONE HUNDRED YEARS

OF SOLITUDE

Thomas Keneally,

SCHINDLER’S LIST

Iris Murdoch,

THE BLACK PRINCE

Gilbert Sorrentino,

MULLIGAN STEW

Philip Roth,

THE GREAT AMERICAN

NOVEL

Robert Coover,

THE UNIVERSAL

BASEBALL MACHINE

After compiling this list, I waited a few days and tried to look at it with an objective eye. A couple of things struck me: it is a heavily western-European list and it is heavily a white male list. Not surprising since both are my limitations. An Egyptian or African or Peruvian would, no doubt, compile a different list. Nonetheless, given the criteria I imposed on myself, this is, I believe, a good list to stimulate discussion.

I can certainly say that every book on the list makes for wonderful reading. Some are utterly terrifying- NIGHT, SOPHIE’S CHOICE, THE PAINED BIRD, HIROSHIMA; others are hilarious – MULLIGAN STEW, THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL; others are stylistic tour de forces – THE SOUND AND THE FURY, ULYSSES, THE RECOGNITIONS, THE WHITE HOTEL; and others so capture the 20th century landscape that they not only give perspective to the century, but actually help to define it -1984, HEART OF DARKNESS, CATCH 22, THE GRAPES OF WRATH, THE TRIAL, THE STRANGER, and INVISIBLE MAN. And, finally, some are simply instant classics which beautifully combine all the elements of story, style, and content. These would include THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, SONS AND LOVERS, and ALL THE KING’S MEN.

I welcome responses from any interested readers.Paul Cummins is Executive Director of the New Visions Foundation.

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