The Master and Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Michael Glenny

This weird and wonderful novel, rooted in rebellion against the regime, has influenced other writers the world over. The devil makes a personal appearance in Moscow accompanied by various demons, including a naked girl and a huge black cat. When he leaves, the asylums are full and the forces of law and order in disarray. Only the Master, a man devoted to truth, and Margarita, the woman he loves, can resist the devil’s onslaught.


George Eliot

Seen by many as the pinnacle of English literature, Middlemarch contains all of life: the rich and the poor, the conventional and the radical, literature and science, politics and romance, but above all it gives us a vision of what lies within the human heart, the roar on the other side of silence. Dorothea is bright, beautiful and rebellious. Lydgate is the ambitious new doctor in town. Both of them long to make a positive difference in the world. But their stories do not proceed as expected and both they, and the other inhabitants of Middlemarch, must struggle to reconcile themselves to their fates and find their places in the world.

Selected Stories

Alice Munro

It’s no suprise that so many fellow writers are in awe of Alice Munro. Her territory is the secrets that cackle beneath the façade of everyday lives, the pain and promises, loves and fears of apparently ordinary men and women whom she renders extraordinary and unforgettable. Her writing is so precise as to pin her characters to the page, laying their lives bare.

Swann’s Way (In Search of Lost Time, vol 1)

Marcel Proust, translated by C. K. Scott-Moncrieff, D J Enright and Terrence Kilmartin

In the opening volume of Proust’s great novel, the narrator travels backwards in time in order to tell the story of a love affair that had taken place before his own birth. Swann’s jealous love for Odette provides a prophetic model of the narrator's own relationships. All Proust's great themes – time and memory, love and loss, art and the artistic vocation – are here in kernel form, and you can see him wielding his sentences masterfully, in the way that no one else can.

The Complete Short Stories

Franz Kafka

The second collection of short stories on the list, this volume contains all of Kafka’s shorter fiction, from fragments, parables and sketches to longer tales. Together they reveal the breadth of Kafka’s literary vision and the extraordinary imaginative depth of his thought. Some are well-known, others are mere jottings, observations of daily life, given artistic form through Kafka’s unique perception of the world. Inspiration indeed.

War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy, translated by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear

The father of Russian literature, Tolstoy’s enthralling epic moves from the dramatic lives of Russia’s upper class in St Petersburg and Moscow to the throes of the Napoleonic Wars as the men struggle to hold the French at bay. His are some of the most vital and involving characters in literature, linked by their personal and political relationships and brought together by war. War and Peace is rich, wise, constantly surprising, heart-breaking and hugely rewarding.

Madame Bovary

Gustave Flaubert, translated by Adam Thorpe

Flaubert’s writing and Thorpe’s translation are both as beguiling as this novel’s central character. Emma Bovary is an avid reader of sentimental novels; brought up on a Normandy farm and convent-educated, she longs for romance. At first, Emma pins her hopes on marriage, but life with her well-meaning husband in the provinces leaves her bored and dissatisfied. She seeks escape through extravagant spending sprees and, eventually, adultery. As Emma pursues her impossible reverie she seals her own ruin.

Slaughterhouse 5

Kurt Vonnegut

A cult classic, Slaughterhouse 5 is one of the world's great anti-war books. Prisoner of war, optometrist, time-traveller – these are the life roles of Billy Pilgrim, hero of this miraculously moving, bitter and funny story of innocence faced with apocalypse. Centring on the infamous fire-bombing of Dresden in the Second World War, Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through time reflects the journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we are afraid to know.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller

Italo Calvino

You go into a bookshop and buy If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. You like it. But alas there is a printer’s error in your copy. You take it back to the shop and get a replacement. But the replacement seems to be a totally different story. You try to track down the original book you were reading but end up with a different narrative again. A novel without comparison, Calvino’s bending of the form is exuberantly playful. He leads you through many different books including a detective adventure, a romance, a satire, an erotic story, a diary and a quest. But the real hero is you, the reader.

Aubrey’s Brief Lives

John Aubrey

Last on the list, but by no means least (there were many more we, and our authors, would have loved to include):

This book marks the invention of modern biography with its short ‘lives’ of the prominent figures of Aubrey’s generation and the Elizabethan era, including Shakespeare, Milton and Sir Walter Raleigh. Frank and fascinating, they have been plundered by historians over the centuries since Aubrey penned them. The only non-fiction book on this list, Aubrey’s series of unforgettable portraits of the characters of his day is still more alive and kicking than in any conventional work of history.

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