The best novels to challenge hardcore readers

The Books I Picked & Why

The Rings of Saturn

By W.G. Sebald, Michael Hulse

Book cover of The Rings of Saturn

Why this book?

What makes a great novel? One that will be read forever? Top critics and commentators such as Harold Bloom and Nicholas Royle say the greatest fiction is written in a foreign language that somehow or other we understand. It is strange, unusual, uncanny, yet tells us profound truths about the human condition. The Rings of Saturn did even more for me; I thought it was miraculous. On the face of it, the narrator simply hikes through East Anglia. But he blends reportage, history, philosophy, mental ruminations, and much else in a melancholic commentary on life. Even translated from German, Sebald’s writing is mesmeric. Rings is a text that shapes your thinking in new ways. Sebald and his four peculiar ‘prose fictions’ would surely have won a Nobel prize had he not died in a car accident in 2001.

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The Green Child

By Herbert Read

Book cover of The Green Child

Why this book?

First published in 1935, The Green Child is among the strangest books you’ll ever read. It enchanted me, forcing me to believe that Olivero, a South American dictator, could fake his own assassination, return to his roots in England, and save a speechless translucent creature, the Green Child, from her sadistic husband. I revelled in the exquisite writing – Sir Herbert Read was a renowned stylist who penned the classic English Prose Style -- and the improbable’s being made real. At one time Norton Professor of Fine Arts at Harvard, Read called his novel a philosophical myth to which ‘all types of Fantasy should conform’. It was his only long fiction. One reviewer called it an ‘organic fusion of thought and imagination into a crystalline beauty’.

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The Loser

By Thomas Bernhard

Book cover of The Loser

Why this book?

Another crazy narrative, The Loser is 169 pages devoid of chapters and paragraphs. Its narrator explains how he and his friend Wertheimer got to study with the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. But they become so overwhelmed by his talent, so smitten, that the narrator gives up any attempts to become a concert pianist. Wertheimer commits suicide. Let yourself be hypnotised by this novel’s strange repetitions, its relentless tone, its odd philosophising, and unusual reportage. Bernhard, an Austrian who died in 1989, studied music then became a poet, playwright, and novelist. His fictions won Germany’s three most prestigious literary prizes, and many commentators believe they form among the 20th-century’s most important bodies of literature. 

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Mrs. Dalloway

By Virginia Woolf

Book cover of Mrs. Dalloway

Why this book?

No great events, nothing unusual happens in Mrs. Dalloway’s 140-odd pages. It took my breath away, though, because of Virginia Woolf’s microscopic examination of her main characters’ personalities through their own thoughts. You reach a point where it’s hard to believe the writer knows so much about them, knows how their minds work. And all this takes place in a single day in central London. Clarissa Dalloway, wife of an MP, is putting on a dinner party that night and she needs flowers. What a ridiculously creaky springboard from which to launch one of the world’s greatest novels! But it works, rewarding the persistent, avid reader. First published in 1925, Mrs. Dalloway will be read forever.

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By Herman Melville

Book cover of Moby-Dick

Why this book?

A long book, Moby-Dick tells you all you need to know about 19th-century American whaling, detailing scrimshawing, how to measure a whale’s skeleton, and the intricacies of whales’ tails. But the novel is also about the men who go after Leviathan, in particular, Captain Ahab, and the tragedies that often befall them. What makes the novel so strange is its sustained allegorical character. The White Whale – Moby Dick – may represent evil, and Captain Ahab’s chase after it the grapple between good and evil. You might think it means something else – up to you. And only in the last 40 or so of nearly 500 pages do we witness this duel from ringside seats. It’s a breathtaking book, one of the greatest and the strangest.

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