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Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Next up in our series looking at decade-defining novels, we're going back to the 1930s, probably the 20th century's most slippery decade to define. The cocktail-fuelled Spend-O-Rama of the 1920s was over. The Great Depression was in full sting. Poverty was rife. Capitalism seemed dead. The British Empire was declining, and the Nazis held an Olympics. Sandwiched between the worst economic crash the world had ever seen and the joint-worst war the world had ever seen, it was a difficult decade in many ways. But of course, writers still wrote.

Some sought to tackle the troubles of the time head-on, writing about race and poverty, sexuality or institutional control. Others, meanwhile, worked on ways to forget, creating new worlds through which to escape, worlds of mystery, wonder and hope.

With that in mind, here are 20 books, each of which played some part in defining the 1930s.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930)

An intimate and affectionate portrayal of life in America's Deep South, As I Lay Dying charts the death of a southern matriarch, and her family's journey to bury her among her own people, 'a hard day's ride away' in Jefferson, Mississippi.

Told from 15 different perspectives – including that of the dead woman herself – the story teems with life, eccentricity and complex rivalries in a corner of America that felt largely forgotten by much of the country at the time. Never was this more the case than when Faulkner first picked up a pen to write it, the day after Wall Street crashed on 24 October 1929.

Considered today to be a modernist tour de force, the novel's magnetic monologue prose superglued Faulkner's reputation as a pioneer – alongside the likes of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf – of stream-of-consciousness writing.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf (1931)

The Waves, considered to be Woolf's most experimental work, artfully evades genre. It might not even be a novel; nobody's really sure – Woolf herself called it a 'play-poem'. Blurring the line between prose and poetry, Woolf stitches together a patchwork of soliloquies spoken by the book's six characters, each of whom are believed to have been based on Woolf's own friends and family.

The Waves starts with each of them as children, and follows their lives through their innermost thoughts and feelings – the loves, the losses, the failures and triumphs. Each voice, ultimately, is an attempt to define who they are.

Considered by many to be Woolf's masterpiece, it was also one of her most personal projects, soaked through with her obsession with water and the sea. In fact, after she drowned herself a decade later, her husband engraved the book's final words on a plaque where he scattered her ashes: 'Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death! The waves broke on the shore.'

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (1932)

When Cold Comfort Farm won the prestigious Femina Vie Heureuse Prize in 1933, everyone was pleased. Everyone, that is, except Virginia Woolf. 'I was enraged to see they gave the £40 to Gibbons,' Woolf wrote to a friend upon hearing the news. 'Who is she? What is this book?'

The book, in fact, was a sensation. It was a brutally funny spoof – one of the first of its kind – of the rural 'loam and lovechild' novels by the likes of DH Lawrence and Mary Webb and, earlier Thomas Hardy.

Set in an unspecified 'near future', some time after 'the Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of 1946', the book charts the adventures of recently orphaned Flora Poste. She moves in with her rustically eccentric relatives in Sussex, each of whom is afflicted by some pathological emotional problem. And, of course, the farm is cursed.

Not only did it give the English language the phrase 'something nasty in the woodshed', but it also redefined a new sort of comedy, the influence of which can, it could well be argued, be traced all the way to modern spoof culture, in movies such as, say, Withnail & I or even Hot Fuzz.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

Before Orwell, there was Huxley. Nearly two decades, in fact, before George Orwell wrote his timeless take-down of totalitarian statecraft 1984, Aldous Huxley was refining his own horrific vision of a capitalist dystopia. Brave New World was a much softer version of Orwell's brutal premonition of a future society.

In Huxley's premonition, there is no war or poverty, no illness or unhappiness and certainly no human ugliness. Humans, now, are bred in test-tubes, organised into a pre-ordained caste system and doped into compliance with a drug called 'soma'. Limitless consumerism keeps the populace addicted to desire while enforced promiscuity puts paid to sexual frustration. Only Bernard Marx wants out of this engineered utopia and his attempt to do so sets off a series of events that threaten to shake the new world by its knees.

It is also shot through with a keen sense of the power of words to manipulate thought and influence change – an idea that shouldn't seem so foreign to readers today. 'Words can be like x-rays if you use them properly,' says one character. 'They’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.'

The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck (1931) 

Published in 1931, Pearl S Buck's drama of family life in rural China spent two years at the top of Publisher Weekly's bestseller lists and won her a Pulitzer Prize. Eight years later, Buck, who spent much of her childhood in China, became the first American woman to win a Nobel for literature.

The novel tells the story of a Chinese farming family as they struggle to survive in a fast-modernising world and rise above their low-born past. It was successful as much for its elegant style as for its poignant themes, from women's rights to the importance of family, morality to class conflict.

For many Western readers of the time it was their first insight into a country as far-flung as China, painting such a sympathetic portrait of the farmer Wang Lung and his wife O-lan that it has been hailed as a key factor in preparing Americans of the 1930s to consider China as an ally in the forthcoming Pacific War with Japan.

Burmese Days by George Orwell (1934)

Before he set off to Spain to fight Franco's fascists, before he became enthralled by the plight of England's downtrodden, George Orwell's head was still in Burma. He'd been a military policeman there throughout much of the 1920s, but had grown disillusioned with the British Empire's 'corruption and imperial bigotry'. So he wrote Burmese Days, his first novel, to vent his disgust at the British colonial system as the sun was finally beginning to set on it.

It tells the tragic story of a jaded British teak merchant in Burma and his struggles with the hypocrisy of colonialism, its tools of oppression, and its exploitation of indigenous populations.

The book also proved such a cutting critique of imperial ambition that Orwell was forced to first publish in America amid libel fears in Britain. But more importantly, few other novels of the time better took the temperature of the British public's darkening mood towards its Empire. Burmese Days remains as one of the essential novels of the 20th century as well as a valuable historical record of the dying days of British rule overseas.

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (1934)

The Queen of Crime, the Duchess of Death, or just Mary Westmacott... Agatha Christie had many names and a unique genius: to keep readers guessing until the final page. And Murder on the Orient Express was her masterpiece. Having travelled on the train many times herself (she called it ‘the train of my dreams’), she was said to have been inspired to write the mystery after the train stopped in the middle of the night due to tracks flooding in a violent storm. ‘My darling,' she wrote to her husband Max, 'what a journey! Started out from Istanbul in a violent thunder storm. We went very slowly during the night and about 3 AM stopped altogether.’

That letter would transform into her most famous book: a brilliant detective hunting for a killer aboard one of the world’s most luxurious passenger trains. It became one of the bestselling books of all time, the most famous of all her mysteries, and her launchpad to immortality as the biggest-selling author in history, matched – not beaten – only by Shakespeare.

The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil (1930-1943)

A 32-year-old mathematician named Ulrich is tie-clip deep in an existential funk. He's bored at work, his moral compass has lost its north, and his ambivalence towards his fellow man has become crippling. He is, in short, a man without qualities.

Musil's is a brick of a book, dense in places, but well worth the read, if not least for the colourful cast of characters that swirl around Ulrich: a snooty beauty from Austria, her Prussian mogul boyfriend, Ulrich's mistress, a high-ranking government official, and a sex murderer named Moosbrugger.

Musil spent his entire life writing The Man Without Qualities, and died before he could finish it. But that didn't matter, in a world tumbling head-over-heels towards all-out war, closures of any kind were hard to come by. In spite of that, it has come to be known as a colossus of modernist literature, about the little man being chewed up in the gears of the machine.

Mary Poppins by PL Travers (1934)

Before there was Dick van Dyke, Julie Andrews, and the spoon-fulls of sugar, Mary Poppins lived in the mind of English author PL Travers. And yet, quite unfairly, Disney's version of the eccentric nanny who can slide up bannisters and pull entire armchairs from her carpet bag did a proper number on her literary counterpart.

In fact, literary Mary Poppins was quite different. For a start, she's a real cockney. She's strict and rather vane, always admiring herself in the mirror. Pretty, however, she is not.

Published in 1934, the book was an immediate success and made P. L. Travers a household name, even though she was said to be angry over the decision to market it as a children's book. As for the film, creative differences ended in her allegedly being frozen out of the project, her name appearing only in minute type in a copyright footnote after the credits.

Mary Poppins' legacy, however, is unquestionable – a social satire for the ages, that gently poked fun at the way middle-class families brought up their children, and a children's classic that's hard to beat.

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20 books that defined the 1920s

20 books that defined the 1940s

 

South Riding by Winifred Holtby (1936)

Published a year after her premature death at 37, Winifred Holtby's South Riding moved all who read the visceral portrait of a rural Yorkshire community struggling with the squeeze of economic depression.

It follows a headmistress who returns to her hometown in Yorkshire for a challenging new post. She wants to encourage her pupils to be more than just housewives, to challenge and inspire them. But here, ambition is a concept hard won.

It is a story that sways in the winds of time and place: England was still reeling from the First World War (many of her characters have lost a limb or a love), the economy is flapping and times are tough for everyone in the fictional town. But through this, she paints a vivid picture of community spirit, its stoicism and humour – just the stuff that would help such communities through the next terrible war waiting just over the horizon.

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (1936) 

One of mainstream literature's earliest explicitly lesbian novels, Nightwood proved a sensation upon publication in 1936 and a milestone for gay literature in general. It was - is! - an exotic, bleak, and utterly involving tale of expats, drifters, love and pain in decadent Paris of the 1920s. The story centres on Robin Vote, an American expat who marries the son of a self-styled baron before floating from lover to lover leaving all manner of destruction in her wake.

It is a novel whizzing with feeling and lyricism. 'We are but skin about a wind, with muscles clenched against mortality,' she writes in a typically bleak but poetic passage. 'Life, the pastures in which the night feeds and prunes the cud that nourishes us to despair. Life, the permission to know death.'

In his introduction to the novel when it was first published, T.S. Eliot called Barnes' language 'astonishing'. As for Barnes, she once told a friend that she wrote it with her own blood 'while it was still running'.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)

This book is so, so much more than just the most famous - and brutal - break-up line in literary history ('My dear, I don't give a damn'). It is a story about collapsing worlds, rape and murder, slavery, starvation, war and doomed love that reverberated through that troubled year of the Nazi Olympics and the outbreak of the Spanish civil war.

Set around the American Civil War, the Pulitzer-winning epic reflected many of the West's Depression-era anxieties of the time, not so distant from some of the ones we face now. As Rhett Butler, heroine Scarlett O'Hara's perpetual sparring partner, notes, 'There’s good money in empire building. But there’s more in empire wrecking.'

But Gone with the Wind was a book that also offered hope, embodied in Scarlett, whose undentable hope in the face of repeated disappointment inspires right up to the beautiful final line: 'After all... Tomorrow is another day.'

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien (1937)

As the global economy buckled under the weight of a previous decade of corporate excess, people needed an escape; a fantasy in which to plunge far away from the realities of financial collapse. So when JRR Tolkien – an Oxford University professor of Anglo-Saxon – opened the door to his seemingly limitless imagination, the world walked straight in. The Hobbit – and its multiverse of dragons, orks, dwarves and magic rings – changed the fantasy genre forever.

Previously, fantasy had been seen as the sole domain of children. But the world Tolkien had created – steeped in allegory and thinly veiled adult themes – was one that adults could get lost in too. It paved the way for The Lord of the Rings trilogy in 1955 which, together, created a new mass market fictional genre, and a cultural phenomenon whose flame burns as bright today as it ever has.

Writing in The Times, his friend, The Chronicles of Narnia author CS Lewis, wrote, 'The professor has the air of inventing nothing. He has studied trolls and dragons at first hand and describes them with that fidelity that is worth oceans of glib "originality."'

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

Staging protagonist Janie Crawford's 'ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny', Hurston's most famous work has become an icon of early intersectional feminist literature and celebration of female sexuality. It did not, however, go down well at the time. Not, at least, with her African-American contemporaries who accused her of dumbing down her black heritage, and not confronting directly issues of race. 'Her novel is not addressed to the Negro,' wrote civil rights superstar Richard Wright, 'but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy.'

Her books went out of print, and she became a literary ghost, and was buried in an unmarked grave. It was not until the 1970s that The Colour Purple author Alice Walker stepped in to reanimate the forgotten author and cheerlead for her greatness. In an essay entitled 'Looking for Zora', she declared: 'We love Zora Neale Hurston for her work, first, and then again … we love her for herself.'

Anthem by Ayn Rand (1937)

There weren't so many contemporary Russian writers doing the literary rounds in America in the 1930s, but Ayn Rand had always been a mould-breaker. Having grown up in Soviet Russia, before moved to America in her 20s, she had a fair idea of life in a real-life dystopia, where individuality is suppressed. Anthem was her first response.

Equality 7-2521 is a man on his own. The world has entered a new Dark Age. Having been brought up in a world where thinking for oneself is a crime, and so is love. But he is different, and determined to break free.

Anthem never reached the same dizzy heights of Rand's later works like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, but this taut novella was where she dug the soil for ideas on objectivism and individualism that would make her a household name.

Uncle Tom's Children by Richard Wright (1938)

'For all the load of bitterness and hate they carry his stories come alive as art,' The New York Times wrote of Uncle Tom's Children after its publication. It was Wright's first outing as a fiction writer and, like his previous work, it gleamed with molten anger. A bitterly evocative collection of stories about intimidation and killing in America's South, it laid bare the desperation felt by African Americans living under the Jim Crow laws at the time.

It was by no means his most famous book, but it deserves a place on any 1930s list by virtue its fearlessness in singling out racism as the most dangerous poison in America's blood at the time. Also his first book, it proved the start of a literary career that would make Wright one of America's most influential writers. And his voice, unflinching and proud, that the NYT said was 'too honest even for 1930s America', helped lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and still echoes today.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

This was a book that set new standards for the psychological thriller, with one of the most famous heroines in English fiction. And yet, unlike Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet, Rebecca's heroine has no name (Rebecca is in fact the dead wife of the narrator's new husband).

A young orphan gets swept off her feet by a much older English gent, marries him but finds neither she, nor his grand country pile, can shake the haunting spectre of his dead wife, Rebecca. It is a tale of love, jealousy, obsession and possession.

It was an instant bestseller that has never gone out of print. It inspired an Oscar-winning film by Alfred Hitchcock and a wealth of spinoffs. Another testament to its power: British prime minister Neville Chamberlain even took a copy with him when he flew to Germany to meet Hitler in 1939.

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Waugh's mind was certainly a free-flowing fountain of genius – Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Brideshead Revisited etc. – but Scoop was his masterstroke. The late-author Peter Hitchens called it 'a novel of pitiless realism; the mirror of satire held up to catch the Caliban of the press corps, as no other narrative has ever done save Hecht and MacArthur’s “Front Page”.'

Which is to say, you won’t read a more astute satire of Her Majesty’s Press than Scoop. The Daily Beast mistakenly dispatches its mild-mannered nature columnist to cover a war (because he shares a surname with the paper’s star-reporter). His complete lack of journalistic nous, however, comes in handy when a naïve blunder leads to the scoop of the year.

Readers laugh as loud now as they did in 1938 at the technicolour characters, absurdity of 20th-century journalism and pinpoint persiflage of what is widely acknowledged as the unrivalled masterpiece of Fleet Street lampoonery.

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien (1939)

Widely considered to be O'Brien's (real name Brian O'Nolan) tour de force, and one of the funniest debut novels of the 20th century, At Swim-Two Birds is weird, wild and witty in that Irish way that makes one want to kiss the Blarney stone. James Joyce called hailed its 'true comic spirit'. Dylan Thomas called it the book 'to give your sister if she's a loud, dirty, boozy girl'. And Clockwork Orange's anarcho-brain Anthony Burgess wrote of it: 'If we don't cherish the work of Flann O'Brien we are stupid fools who don't deserve to have great men.'

A heady blend of autobiography, fantasy, folklore and farce, it follows an unnamed Irish literature student, layabout and sometime flaneur who lives with his uncle who works at Dublin's Guinness brewery. The student is writing a book but can't control his characters who come to life, do their own thing and take advantage of their dopey creator.

It is, in short, a mind-bending labyrinth of creativity and wit – and as woozy a portrait of Dublin as you could hope to find, up there with Ulysses by James Joyce.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)

In the 1930s, John Steinbeck was angry. He was livid with the capitalist greed that, as he saw it, had torn the heart out of the American Dream. So he wrote The Grapes of Wrath. 'It is a mean, nasty book and if I could make it nastier I would,' he wrote to a friend. 'I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this. I've done my damnedest to rip a reader's nerves to rags.'

It did its job; its portrait of a family torn apart by poverty and desperation in the Great Depression is one of the greatest of great American novels. It's an epic human drama of false hope, thwarted desires and the life-changing power of generosity that became a national sensation upon its publication, won him the Pulitzer, and hoiked him to the summit literature's Mount Olympus.

The fact some called him a 'liar' and a 'communist', burned the book and had it banned in libraries served only as a testament to its influence and power. 'I can't think of another American writer,' later wrote the playwrite Arthur Miller, 'who so deeply penetrated the political life of the country.'

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