Top 10 Novels of the 1930s | Books
BBeing asked to compile a list of the 10 best novels of the 1930s is a bit like being asked to tap dance on the back of a crocodile: impossible to do and even harder to fake. But there. Below is my list, but there are several omissions that I think I need to be upfront about. There is no Steinbeck, no Hemingway, no Woolf – although the 1930s saw her publish two books, The Waves (1931) and The Years (1937). Nor is there a barnstormer du jour, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936), or Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New Word or, indeed, JRR Tolkien’s fantastic The Hobbit (1937) . Eric Ambler is also absent, despite the visceral power of The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) and although Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh are on the list, neither Brighton Rock (1938) nor Scoop (1938) make it. Likewise, 1934’s Murder on the Orient Express is a seminal but missing work – ultimately, because I think Marple is more revealing than Poirot.
Ten years is hard, so the corpus I have chosen reflects, I hope, the era: the 1930s are a great decade in the history of the world. In Britain, it can almost be said to be considered the very last decade of the long 19th century. There were imperial conferences, the empire lasted and Britannia ruled the waves. It was almost like the 1890s again. Yet as the old order clung on, seemingly unchanging as ever, change was everywhere – internationally, politically, but also in literature and society.
My list therefore aims to reflect the period as well as to reflect what I believe to be some of the most enduring and important works in the English language of this decade, omissions aside.
1. Anthony Powell’s Afternoon Men
Forget what you think you know about Anthony Powell, whose 12-novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time was published from 1951 to 1975, and remains one of the defining works of 20th-century English fiction. Written when he was in his twenties, Afternoon Men was his first novel and is more like the Rachel Papers than Proustian sublimity. Light, funny, dark and licentious, it follows the drunken exploits of a young man named William Atwater, who works in a museum, and his circle of friends and their various romantic misadventures.
2. George Orwell’s Burmese Days
Before George Orwell was the man who deconstructed Russian totalitarianism and communism in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, he was aiming for what was then a very contemporary evil – the British Empire. In Burmese Days, which was first published in the United States in 1934 for fear of libel suits, Orwell brought his first-hand experience as a policeman in Burma to give the world a very important and voluminous book on the dreadful daily life. daily inequities of colonialism. Telling the story of a British timber planter through his trials of life, love and friendship – and in particular his desire to help an Indian friend in times of need – Burmese Days exposes the very human evils of colonial rule. In this, it is a bit like a passage to India from 1924. But without the happy ending.
3. death of the heart by Elizabeth Bowen
“The ice that morning, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments. These joined or, parting, left channels of dark water, along which slowly indignant swans swam. The opening lines of Bowen’s powerful sixth novel, of Irish descent, published in 1938, set the stage for a story of psychological complexity and insight that was a bestseller of the year. When a 16-year-old orphan moves in with her wealthy half-brother and his wife in pre-war London, and falls in love with her sister-in-law’s friend, life changes dramatically.
4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
“Last night I dreamed that I was going back to Manderley.” With some of the most famous first words in fiction, we embark on a suspenseful gothic tale that was one of 1938’s bestsellers, became a 1940s Hitchcock-directed film, and survived the test of time. When a young woman in Monaco marries an older, wealthy man and returns with him to her West Country estate, the past catches up with everyone.
5. To the right Ho, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse
Jeeves, who first appeared in 1915, is an Edwardian immortal who had barely taken off in 1934 when this second full Jeeves and Wooster novel appeared. Considered by some to be the best of the series, John le Carré has declared it one of his favorite books, and Stephen Fry is a noted admirer. Gerald Gould, reviewing it for the Observer, described it as “one long scream from start to finish”. He has great comic conceit: that Wooster is fed up with friends asking Jeeves for help, so insists on solving their problems on his own. In the end, only one gentleman can save the day. Jeeves and Bertie, of course, continued until 1974.
6. Snape Male by Geoffrey Household
Geoffrey Household’s ‘man on the run’ novel, set in 1938 and published in 1939, tells the story of an unnamed man who has just attempted to assassinate a foreign dictator – readers can assume he it was about Adolf Hitler – and who is now on the run in Britain from his agents who are determined to kill him. Despite a nod to Richard Hannay (Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps was published in 1915), it is nonetheless a political thriller of its time like no other and one that has cast its own shadows, being cited as an influence for none other than the Rambo series.
seven. Istanbul Train by Graham Greene
If you can only include one novel that features the Orient Express, then it must be Graham Greene’s first real commercial success, Stamboul Train, published in 1932, and written, he says, as “an entertainment.” And it doesn’t disappoint…although, of course, since it’s Greene, the book is so much better than that. He gives us a delightful collection of troubled souls for the three-day trip aboard the Orient Express to Istanbul with a whiff of despair, sex, poverty, disease and, of course, buckets of danger. Possessing a contemporary vivacity, it’s all intertwined with themes of politics and crime – which foreshadowed 1938’s gritty tour de force Brighton Rock.
8. Tender is the night by F Scott Fitzgerald
Published in 1934, and steeped in the warmth and dazzling contrasts of the Riviera sun, Tender Is the Night continues to amaze and delight with its Hardyesque tale of American expat Dick Diver, a man who seems to have it all, but who soon has nothing left. Based on Fitzgerald’s own experience with marriage, infidelity, Hollywood and psychological illness, Tender Is the Night is the kind of book that can make you feel uncomfortable.
9. The Murder at the Parsonage of Agatha Christie
The book that launched a thousand copycat murders – as well as one of the world’s most famous detectives. The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) is the first complete novel to present “that terrible Miss Marple” as she is first introduced to us. “She’s the worst cat in the village,” says the speaker. “And she always knows everything that’s going on – and comes to the worst conclusions.” The curate is more charitable: “I rather like Miss Marple,” he says. “She has, at least, a sense of humor.” As it happened, the world saw it in its own way. The Thirteen Problems, a collection of short stories by Miss Marple, followed in 1932, with another collection in 1939. Eleven more novels followed.
ten. vile bodies by Evelyne Waugh
No one satirizes as seriously as the British, and Waugh is more sincere than most. In vile bodies (1930), he eviscerated the aristocratic Bright Young Things generation of socialites in interwar Britain, developing the darker side he had already touched on in Decline and Fall and broadening the scope of this attack. Few books of the time say as much, with so much pleasure, about a certain slice of life in the 1930s – one which, without knowing it, was coming to an end.