The Nobel Literature prize is the most prestigious literary award in the world and has been running since 1901. Many of the greatest novelists, poets, politicians, journalists … and Bob Dylan … have won the award in its long history and I would like to champion some of the work from these great authors. Now, I’m not going to claim to have read every author that has won the prize, nor am I going to pretend that I have read every novel from every author that I have read, as together there must be well over 2000 texts … not going to happen … So I will say, that there is a bias to Western authors on this list, so you have been warned, but I hope there will be some you haven’t read and it gives you a reason to walk into your local bookshop.
This list is obviously inspired by Kazuo Ishiguro, who last week became the most recent British recipient of the award, and his book, The Buried Giant, I recommended yesterday … so check it out.
I have also included the date the novel was published, the country of the author, and date the author was awarded the prize.
- Disgrace by JM Coetzee (1999) – South Africa, 2003
I first read Disgrace at university when I had to write an essay on it, which does sometimes take the fun out of reading a novel. Whilst I was reading it, it never quite grabbed me, but seeing as it was only a couple hundred pages long, I finished it in a couple of hours. It was only afterwards when I started thinking about it critically, that I realised what a well-conceived and crafted novel it is. The novel is called Disgrace and that’s what it’s about, with Coetzee exploring various aspects of the word and what it means, like Franzen did in (Freedom and The Corrections). The novel features a university lecturer who loses his position because of an ill thought out affair with a student. This leads him to stay with his daughter in the country, where they fall victim to a vicious attack that leaves a trail of heartache in its wake. The book is extremely powerful and for anyone wanting to learn how to construct a novel, they need look no further than Disgrace.
“It’s admirable, what you do, what she does, but to me animal-welfare people are a bit like Christians of a certain kind. Everyone is so cheerful and well-intentioned that after a while you itch to go off and do some raping and pillaging. Or to kick a cat.”
-Disgrace – JM Coetzee
- Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata (1935-37) – Japan, 1968
I spoke about Snow Country before, when I listed the best Japanese novels of all time and I felt like I couldn’t leave it off this list, either … even though I was tempted to include Kenzaburo Oe’s The Silent Cry here instead, but I find Oe’s writing a bit too dense at times. It is a criminal shame that only Kawabata and Oe have won the prize in Japan, especially considering the wealth of great writers that have been shunned or overlooked (like Mishima or Tanizaki). Snow Country is about a man’s repeated trips to a remote mountainous town where he falls in love with a young Geisha (who due to her standing, is little more than a glorified prostitute). The novel is beautifully written and expertly paced and is a great introduction to Japanese literature.
“The stars, almost too many of them to be true, came forward so brightly that it was as if they were falling with the swiftness of the void.”
-Snow Country - Yasunari Kawabata
- Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (1922) – Germany/Switzerland, 1946
I always find that Siddhartha is a strange book for a German to have written in the 20s as it’s all about Buddhism and Eastern mythologies. The novel is lyrical in style and concerns a young man called Siddhartha, who goes on a journey to find himself at the time of Gautama Buddha (who founded Buddhism). The novel is considered a bible by many students and hippies a like and I can assure you that you won’t be the same after reading it … plus it’s tiny, so can be devoured in one sitting.
- The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929) – USA, 1949
Faulkner is one of the most pre-eminent modernist writers that ever lived (along with James Joyce and Virginia Woolf) and his novel, The Sound and the Fury, is the best showcase for his talents. The novel features a family over the course of around 30 years and their disastrous decline. The novel is famous for featuring a variety of different narrative styles and because it is told from a few different points of view, with each one often detailing the same events, only told from different perspectives. This is one of the first instances of this style of storytelling. And of course, with it being a modernist text, it features some stream-of-consciousness sections ... which you either love or hate.
“Clocks slay time... time is dead as long as it is being clicked off by little wheels; only when the clock stops does time come to life.”
-The Sound and the Fury – William Faulkner
- The Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954) – UK, 1983
The Lord of the Flies is a school classic and if you didn’t read this during your education, (or To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, or The Great Gatsby), then you are either lying or didn’t go to school. Most of you will already know the story, but let me recap … it features a downed plane on a deserted island, where the only survivors are a large group of schoolboys. The boys start to fall into sub-groups and try to function as a society, but vying for power and schoolyard bullying soon become real (and fatal) problems, which is only compounded by the boy’s fears that the island is home to some terrible beast. Think Lost, but with kids. The novel’s themes are still very current today, as the book explores the idea of toxic masculinity and the problems that men cause when the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality pervades society (which is why the recently announced all-female film version doesn’t exactly make sense).
- The Outsider/The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942) – France, 1957
Depending on whether you live in the UK or US, Albert Camus’ book, L’Étranger, is either known as The Outsider or The Stranger … I happen to prefer The Stranger as The Outsider reminds me too much of the trickster God from the Dishonored Series. A classic in existentialist literature, The Outsider (as it’s known in the UK) has inspired hundreds of copycats the world over. The story is simple: a young man’s mother dies and the day after the funeral he, almost randomly, kills a man and is sentenced to death. It is a key text in existentialist literature and in the French absurdist movement that lay underneath a lot of French art throughout the 20th Century.
“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can't be sure.”
-The Outsider – Albert Camus
- The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952) – USA, 1954
Ernest Hemingway is considered by many to be the greatest American author of all time and is most famous for his novels set during various wars on mainland Europe. For this list, however, I have decided to go with the novel that was explicitly mentioned by the Nobel committee when he was awarded the prize, The Old Man and the Sea, which plot-wise, is very far removed from his more famous work, such as A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls. This little novella features one man on a boat trying to catch a fish … imagine The Life of Pi without a tiger and you’re pretty close to the story. The novel’s plot is actually quite inconsequential and I say that for two reasons: Firstly, the plot is a simple device used to explore masculinity, pride, and aging; Secondly, the novel is a masterclass in prose construction, as throughout its hundred or so pages, there is not one wasted word and it is crafted to perfection and, for me, this is the real reason that the book is so special.
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939) – USA, 1962
I know many of you will be disappointed that I’ve chosen Steinbeck and haven’t picked Of Mice and Men, however, although it is more famous (and arguable more loved), The Grapes of Wrath is often considered the greatest American novel … and with good reason. The novel is set during the Great Depression and follows the fortunes (or misfortunes) of the Joads, who are a family that have lost most of what they hold dear, partly thanks to the Dust Bowl, and so they decide to head out to California, in search of work, their happiness, and their dignity. It is an American classic because of its accurate historical depiction and its haunting prose concerning a family on the brink of losing everything, even each other.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987) – USA, 1993
I spoke about the next two entries on last week’s list ranking the best magical realism novels of all time and so I know what you’re thinking … You’re assuming I’m letting my personal love of the sub-genre affect my ranking of this list … but that’s not quite true. Whilst I do love the magical realism elements in both of these novels, there is no denying how important they are to the world of literature. Beloved is another novel, like The Grapes of Wrath, that is often cited as the best American novel, and it’s easy to see why. The story features an escaped slave who murders her own baby, rather than see it grow up on a plantation. A much older version of the child returns to the ex-slave, Sethe, years later, and begins to wreak havoc. It’s harrowing and beautiful in equal measure. A novel every human should read at least once.
“Sweet, crazy conversations full of half sentences, daydreams and misunderstandings more thrilling than understanding could ever be.”
-Beloved – Toni Morrison
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967) – Columbia, 1982
And now we get to the novel that helped popularise the magical realism sub-genre in fiction. I was tempted to put Love in the Time of Cholera here, as I mentioned this entry last week, like Beloved, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a novel where the magical becomes mundane and the mundane becomes magical. It is a wonderfully dense novel (in a good way) and details the founding of a small Columbian town and details it’s rise and fall, through many, many generations of the founding family. It is a chocolate box smorgasbord of a novel full of twisty delights … sorry for the mixed metaphor there, but I got excited.
“It's enough for me to be sure that you and I exist at this moment.”
-One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez
What novels would you have put up here, let me know below or on Twitter @MugwumpBlog as this list is by no means definitive!