Monthly Archives: October 2012

E-books and audiobooks

I’m pleased to report that all my backlist will soon be available in digital editions. I Must Confess is out now for both Amazon UK and Amazon US and elsewhere. Fly on the Wall and Service Wash are both in preparation as we speak and should be available this side of Christmas 2012, fingers crossed. Watch this space.

And if you feel the need for some hands-free reading, the James Lear canon is now available in audio versions, voiced by the lovely Daniel Carter. I’m saying he’s lovely although I’ve never met him, but I feel that we’re close as he’s read my sexual fantasies out loud for money.

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My Top 100 novels: the list in full

Actually it’s 101, because I realised towards the end I’d left something out.

101. Excellent Women, Barbara Pym

100. Bel Ami, Guy de Maupassant

99. Naked Lunch, William Burroughs

98. Cold Snap, Francis King

97. One Day, David Nicholls

96. Enigma, Robert Harris

95. Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

94. How Far Can You Go?, David Lodge

93. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks

92. Song of the Loon, Richard Amory

91. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres

90. Mockingbird, Walter Tevis

89. Peyton Place, Grace Metalious

88. Now and Then, William Corlett

87. The King Must Die, Mary Renault

86. Candy, Terry Southern

85. A rebours, J-K Huysmans

84. La religieuse, Denis Diderot

83. Narziss and Goldmund, Hermann Hesse

82. In Cold Blood, Truman Capote

81. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

80. Mr Norris Changes Trains, Christopher Isherwood

79. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

78. Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake

76. The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien

75. The Flower Beneath the Foot, Ronald Firbank

74. Trilby, George du Maurier

73. Notre Dame des Fleurs, Jean Genet

72. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov

71. Tipping the Velvet, Sarah Waters

70. City of Spades, Colin MacInnes

69. Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg

68. The Way of All Flesh, Samuel Butler

67. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Angus Wilson

66. What a Carve Up!, Jonathan Coe

65. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

64. London Belongs to Me, Norman Collins

63. Villette, Charlotte Bronte

62. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce

61. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

60. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

59. Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein

58. Les liaisons dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos

57. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

56. Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis

55. Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll

54. Thank You, Jeeves, PG Wodehouse

53. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

52. The Wapshot Chronicle, John Cheever

51. A View of the Harbour, Elizabeth Taylor

50. Finn Family Moomintroll, Tove Jansson

49. I, Claudius, Robert Graves

48. At Swim Two Boys, Jamie O’Neill

47. Candide, Voltaire

46. The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst

45. The House of Seven Gables, Nathaniel Hawthorne

44. Brighton Rock, Graham Greene

43. Parents Worry, Gerard Reve

42. Hangover Square, Patrick Hamilton

41. The Hound of the Baskervilles, Arthur Conan Doyle

40. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne

39. The Good Companions, JB Priestley

38. La Dame aux Camélias, Alexandre Dumas

37. City of Night, John Rechy

36. New Grub Street, George Gissing

35. Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson

34. The Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann

33. The War of the Worlds, HG Wells

32. My Antonia, Willa Cather

31. Nana, Emile Zola

30. The Body in the Library, Agatha Christie

29. The Diary of a Nobody, George and Weedon Grossmith

27. Augustus Carp, by ‘Himself’ (Henry Howarth Bashford)

28. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien

27. The Go-Between, LP Hartley

26. The Man of Property, John Galsworthy

25. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins

24. The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot

23. Good Morning, Midnight, Jean Rhys

22. Vanity Fair, William Thackeray

21. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

20. Dracula, Bram Stoker

19. Manon Lescaut, Abbé Prévost

18. The Old Wives’ Tale, Arnold Bennet

17. The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy

16. A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole

15. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

14. The Silver Chair, CS Lewis

13. Myra Breckinridge, Gore Vidal

12. A Room with a View, EM Forster

11. Barchester Towers, Anthony Trollope

10. Little Me, Patrick Dennis

9. Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess

8. Salem’s Lot, Stephen King

7. Cakes and Ale, W Somerset Maugham

6. Le Père Goriot, Honoré de Balzac

5. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

4. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Anita Loos

3. Queen Lucia, EF Benson

2. Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh

1. Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens


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1. Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens (1864-65)

It had to be Dickens, didn’t it? To me, Charles Dickens is the novelist to which all other novelists aspire. He’s the benchmark, the gold standard – and if I had allowed myself more than one book per author, my Top Ten would probably have been entirely Dickens. I didn’t always feel this way. As a young man, I found him dense and even turgid. I couldn’t handle his direct expression of emotion, and like many others dismissed him as ‘sentimental’. So for a long time I avoided him, and concentrated on more left-field and modern stuff. Then one day in my thirties I thought ‘You know, all these novels I’m reading just aren’t satisfying me, I want something I can get my teeth into.’ So I read Our Mutual Friend. I can still remember the effect of reading that opening chapter – without doubt the greatest in world literature – on the tube going to work at the BBC. I was thunderstruck. Over the next two or three years I read the entire Dickens canon, alternating with other books but always impatient to get back to the real stuff. Our Mutual Friend remains my favourite, partly because I never got over that initial impact, but also because it seems the most profound, the most effectively plotted, the most complete work of art he created. It’s complicated and heavy, of course, but endlessly entertaining, inspiring and moving. Around about the same time I was reading Dickens I was also discovering classical music after a lifetime of pop, and it was a similar experience. Mahler’s Second Symphony came as a shock from which I’ve never recovered. Ditto OMF. My favourite novel of all time.

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2. Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh (1930)

Hard to choose between Vile Bodies and its immediate predecessor Decline and Fall, but I’ve gone for this because it’s the novel I would most like to have written myself. (I know, I know.) I love everything Evelyn Waugh wrote up to and including The Loved One; after that I think it goes a bit awry, and I’ve never liked the Sword of Honour trilogy. As he got older, Waugh seemed to distance himself from his comic-satiric genius, as if he thought it was unfitting to a man of his status. But the comedies are the works that have endured, and none is better than Vile Bodies. It’s bitter and sharp, sometimes vicious, sometimes sad, and at times highly literary. The love story of Adam and Nina is very moving in its dry-as-martini way, and the grotesque supporting cast (Agatha Runcible, Mrs Ape, Miles Malpractice etc) is straight out of Restoration comedy. Above all I love the strong drive of the narrative – the story starts with a disaster from which everything unfolds like the petals of a particularly noisome flower. And oh God what a great title.

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3. Queen Lucia, E.F. Benson (1927)

It would be cheating to put ‘The Lucia Books’ so I’ve picked the first of the six in the hope that newcomers might start here and keep on reading. Benson’s novels are yet another of my ‘greatest comic achievements in the English language in the 20th century’ – and I can’t think of any group of novels that has brought me as much pleasure as these. They’re trivial, pointless and repetitive, they deal with a slice of life so tiny as to make Jane Austen look like Tolstoy… and yet they’re some of the most profound things I’ve ever read. Benson had an instinctive understanding of what makes people tick: not the big issues of life, but the small talk, the rivalry and longing and curiosity that animates most of us most of the time. Well, me anyway. I think he also knew that we need to laugh, to be cheered up and entertained, and that’s why I always turn to these books in times of trouble. I can honestly say they have given me greater sustenance and consolation than religion, philosophy or politics ever could.

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4. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Anita Loos (1925)

One thing I’ve realised while compiling this list is that the quality that matters to me more than any other is delight – that is to say that the whole reading experience transports me on to a level of pure enjoyment. Not necessarily comedy – although comic novels probably do it more often for me. It’s about entering into a world where everything – story, character, dialogue, prose style – works together to make reading one of life’s greatest pleasures. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes epitomises this quality for me. Lots of people know the Marilyn Monroe movie, but I’m not sure how many have read the book – which is much funnier and much sharper. The faux-naive diary narrative is a hoot, of course, but scratch the surface and you’ll see why GPB has been described as ‘the greatest work of American philosophy ever written’. Indeed, I have often tried to live my life according to its precepts. The heroine, Lorelei Lee, is probably my favourite character in all fiction, and I often find myself writing and speaking in her voice. The sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, is just as good.

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5. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (1856)

French novels feature quite a lot on this list, principally because French is the only foreign language I know well enough to read in. But that’s not the only reason. Many of the great French writers have a moral and artistic outlook that forms a good counterpoint to the English tradition: there is no way that a nineteeth-century English author could have written Madame Bovary. It is the novel of adultery, and it ushered in a new treatment of sex in literature, with the consequences of which we are still living. Flaubert presents one simple narrative and concentrates all his resources on delivering it in the most powerful way possible. Everything – the famous descriptions, the scalpel-sharp language, the plotting – focuses on Emma’s disastrous marriage and escalating despair, and comes to a climax with her death, recounted in three chilling words: Elle n’existait plus. There have been so many attempts to render the story on stage or screen, all of them doomed – which makes me wonder if some novels are just too perfect ever to be adapted.

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