My top twenty
I make no apologies for including several collections of short stories in my randomly ordered top twenty. The novels I like are mostly short and episodic, anyway. I run out of patience easily. For me, a snack of Borges or Bowles or Ballard (whom I'm rereading with enormous enjoyment at the moment) is worth the three course meals of a Tolstoy or Joyce. If you disagree, hit me with your own list...
Jean-Paul Sartre, Iron in the Soul
Why wasn't this epic of French resistance and indifference to Nazi occupation ever made into a Hollywood blockbuster? Because Sartre's main character was an ascetic communist, or because the novel's brusque cuts from one scene and character to another would be anathema to plodding Hollywood directors? Iron in the Soul is that near-impossible thing - a philosophical action-thriller.
BS Johnson, The Unfortunates
BS Johnson was that rare beast amongst novelists - a social realist with an avant-garde technique. This 'book' was actually a box filled with loose pages which could be arranged in any order the reader chose. Stuffy British librarians were outraged, and tried to glue the pages to the inside of the box. The form of Johnson's novel may be unusual, but it is perfectly suited to his story. The protagonist of The Unfortunates is a jaded football reporter who visits Nottingham to record a dull game between two second-rate sides, and finds himself deluged by memories of an old friend from the city who died at a young age from cancer. The fractured, epiphanic form and Johnson's lilting stream of consciousness prose make The Unfortunates a strangely beautiful novel.
Graham Billing, The Slipway
Graham Billing was one of New Zealand's most gifted novelists, but he was also a legendary drunk, and this two hundred page prose poem is an incomparable record of the highs and lows of alcoholism.
Ernest Hemingway, Fiesta
Hemingway before his prose got paunchy. A bunch of American exiles exchange decadent Paris for the pagan energy of Spain in bullfighting season. 'I admired the way Hemingway made drunk people talk', Evelyn Waugh said.
Alun Lewis, In The Green Tree
A collection of stories and letters charting Lewis' passage through wartime India to Burma, where he blew his brains out at the edge of a latrine. Lewis was the most under-rated writer of the 20th century (I know that sounds very bold, but I couldn't really say the second or third most under-rated, could I?)
Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
Vonnegut 'stylises his acquiescence' to capitalist culture, Ron Silliman claimed back in the '80s. Phooey.
Brian Aldiss, Manuscript Found in a Police State
Alright, it's more of a long short story than a novella, but I'm putting it on my list because of Aldiss' unique ability to write science fiction and medieval fantasy at the same time.
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-four
Yes, I know, it's an unfinished and badly flawed book, but that just makes it more fascinating, if you're the kind of person who's as interested in a painter's studio as the works on the gallery wall. Whole academic careers have been made untangling the diverse influences on show here. Is Goldstein Trotsky? Was Orwell satirising America and postwar Britain, as well as the USSR? Does the poorly-formed and thus especially revealing character of Julia prove his essential misogyny? Over to you...
Iris Murdoch, Under the Net
A young man wanders aimlessly round postwar London, getting into a series of scrapes and reflecting, in a stoic English way, on the meaning or meaninglessness of life. Under the Net is like a cross between a Spanish picaresque novel, Sartre's Nausea, and a slightly stuffy English comedy.
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Forget about the film, which favoured plot over the novel's numerous digressions into anecdote and theology. Apart from an intellectual feast, The Name of the Rose was a parable about the dangers of superstition and fanaticism. Eco was writing against the Cold War, but his book is just as relevant to the Bush era.
Don de Lillo, The Names
Hammer-wielding members of a mysterious cult dedicated to unifying the word and the world commit a series of ritual murders in the Mediterranean, the Near East, and India. A self-loathing American businessman investigates, and discovers the complicated linguistic formulae behind each killing. The plot doesn't make a lot of sense, but when you can write sentences as evocative as de Lillo's it doesn't really matter. This is a book saturated with the white light of Greece, the claustrophobic dark of the alleys and passageways of Jerusalem, the smoke of remote Indian villages, and the madness of religious fanaticism. Forget about 24 or Martin Amis' exercises in Islamophobia - if you want to understand Mohammed Atta and his friends you ought to read this book.
JG Ballard, The Voices of Time
Forget about sci fi - Ballard is writing about the visionary present. Read him before you end up marooned for weeks on a traffic island, or hunted through a gated suburb by a demented business exec.
Michael Moorcock, Behold the Man
Neurotic young intellectual Karl Glogauer moves through Judaism to Christianity to paganism, before hopping into a time machine and travelling back two thousand years to find out first-hand about the veracity of those stories in the Bible. Back in sixth form my devoutly Christian economics teacher caught me reading Behold the Man in class and confiscated it. After she made the mistake of reading for herself she had nightmares for weeks.
Michael Moorcock, The Oswald Bastable Trilogy
Oswald Bastable crosses and recrosses the twentieth century, passing through many different timestreams. During his travels elsewhen Oswald encounters Stalin as a Georgain warlord, Mick Jagger as an officer on a Royal British air force zeppelin, and Gandhi as the President of South Africa, which has been renamed Bantustan. Moorcock's trilogy is a series of thought experiments in utopia and dystopia.
John Cheever, The Journals
De Lillo, Cheever...why are all the great American poets of the second half of the twentieth century novelists?
Paul Bowles, The Stories
Forget about those blowhards Kerouac and Burroughs, who were too busy being notorious to write well - Bowles is the only Beat worth reading. Unlike his more fashionable fellow travellers, he understands that extreme subject matter requires extreme verbal control.
Jorge Luis Borges, Ficciones
The master. Leaving this book off the list would be like leaving Sgt Peppers off the list of twenty greatest albums of all time.
Frank Sargeson, Collected Stories
In an age when Kiwi writers usually fled overseas, lured by the parasitic 'scenes' of London or New York, Sargeson dug in at Takapuna and waited for the world to come to him. The world came.
Michael Henderson, The Log of a Superfluous Son
A young Kiwi bloke lets his militaristic Dad down by refusing to join the slaughter in Nam. Instead, he takes a job shovelling crap out of a ship carrying cattle from New Zealand to the slaughterhouses of Korea, via a string of isolated islands. He keeps a record of the drunken, chaotic journey in an old partially filled school diary, and Henderson skilfully blends together narratives of adolescent and adult brutality. This is a Kiwi Heart of Darkness.
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale
The best - ie, the least pleasant - dystopia ever written. Fans of John Wyndham's cosy apocalypses will find themselves tested.