Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945). Waugh was one of the twentieth century’s great satirists, yet this novel, widely considered his best, is not satiric. It is, instead, an examination of Roman Catholic faith as it is used, abused, embraced, and rejected by the Flytes, an aristocratic English family visited by alcoholism, adultery, and homoeroticism.
How German Is It by Walter Abish (1980). Abish wields not pen, but scalpel, vivisecting Germany’s cult of appearances and culture of denial. His protagonist is Ulrich, whose father was executed for plotting against Hitler.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980). This is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, their eccentric and remote aunt.
1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray (1984). In a fleabag Scottish motel, divorced and depressed, Jock McLeish once again seeks consolation and strength through massive doses of alcohol and sadomasochistic sexual fantasies (some starring a woman named Janine). Through frank, complex language Gray takes us inside the addled mind of a powerless man seeking to impose some control over his life.
1984 by George Orwell (1948). Orwell’s reputation as an antiauthoritarian arises in large part from this novel set in a totalitarian future in which citizens are constantly reminded “Big Brother is watching” as they are spied upon by the Thought Police and one another. In this landscape, Winston Smith is a man in danger simply because his memory works.
A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul (1979). A fictionalized account of the violence and political tyranny that gripped Zaire after its independence from Belgium, the novel focuses on an African of Indian descent named Salim who opens a small store at a bend in the Congo River.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962). The linguistic virtuosity of this futuristic tale—told in nadsat, a russified English—lures us into an unwilling complicity in the drug-fueled bouts of ultraviolence committed by Alex and his droogs (comrades).
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1980). “The funniest novel of the twentieth century,” said Donald Harington of this sprawling picaresque, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize after Toole’s suicide. Its blustering, bumfuzzled antihero is Ignatius J. Reilly, an unintentionally hilarious, altogether deluded, and oddly endearing student of man who lives with his mother in New Orleans.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (1889). Few writers made ideas as entertaining as Twain, whose gifts are on full display when he transports an ingenious American named Hank “The Boss” Morgan to sixth-century England.
A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (1951–75). Powell’s panoramic series of twelve freestanding novels, grouped in four “movements,” charts the careers of four public-school friends from 1921 to 1971 against the backdrop of rapidly changing London.