A flatlay of books about prison books

Image: Vicky Ibbetson/Penguin

The prison cell is the perfect microcosm for a psychological novel. It raises issues of power and liberty, shame and repentance, memory and hope. Its claustrophobic walls can represent narrow-mindedness, social restrictions, the womb, the grave or the confined cubic centimetres of the human skull. No wonder, then, that so many great works of literature have been set inside prisons.

Springtime in a Broken Mirror by Mario Benedetti (1982)

After a brutal military coup, Santiago finds himself a political prisoner in Montevideo. We piece together his story through splintered glimpses of his cell in the ironically named Libertad jail, and of the lives of his family as they adjust to the terrors and temptations of exile in a distant country. Mario Benedetti was the literary editor of the newspaper Marcha in Uruguay until the military government closed the paper in 1973 and he himself went into exile, in Argentina, Peru, Cuba and Spain.

Falconer by John Cheever (1977)

Ezekiel Farragut, a college professor and heroin addict, is sent to Falconer Correctional Facility for the murder of his brother. In his filthy cell, he recalls his traumatic childhood and troubled marriage and finds himself falling in love with a fellow inmate. ‘It is rough, it is elegant, it is pure,’ said Saul Bellow. ‘It is also indispensable, if you earnestly desire to know what is happening to the human soul in the USA.’ Towards the end of his life, Cheever taught at Sing Sing maximum-security prison, New York State, which provided some of the material for this novel.

The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1861)

Dostoyevsky spent four years in a Siberian prison camp at Omsk in the 1850s, performing hard labour with his hands and feet shackled. The House of the Dead tells the fictional story of Aleksandr Petrovich Goryanchikov, who murdered his wife and experiences a spiritual awakening over the course of 10 years at a labour camp, but the novel is infused with Dostoyevsky’s first-hand experience: the wooden plank beds, the cabbage soup swimming with cockroaches and the strange ‘family’ of desperate convicts.

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940)

Rubashov is an indignant and ageing Soviet revolutionary, imprisoned during a political purge and awaiting his show trial and execution. Koestler’s novel is both a tense drama of prison psychology and a damning indictment of totalitarian government. "Brilliant as this book is as a novel, and a piece of prison literature," wrote George Orwell, "it is probably most valuable as an interpretation of the Moscow 'confessions' by someone with an inner knowledge of totalitarian methods." It was first published in English translation. Having arrived in Britain without an entry permit, however, Koestler was in prison himself when the book first appeared.

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov (1935)

This is the nightmarish story of a teacher, Cincinnatus C., sentenced to death for obscure metaphysical reasons. He dances, watches spiders, writes down thoughts and repeatedly enquires about the date of his execution. Elements of the novel have been compared to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Franz Kafka’s The Trial and James Joyce’s Ulysses; Nabokov himself called it "a violin in a void". He wrote it in a single fortnight "of wonderful excitement and sustained inspiration".

The Tunnel by Ernesto Sabato (1948)

In his prison cell, the deranged painter Juan Pablo Castel recalls his obsession with the fascinating María Iribarne, which ultimately led to her murder. He saw her for the first time at one of his own exhibitions and came to believe that she might be the only person capable of understanding him. This dark, existential novel was rejected by several editors before it was published in the avant-garde literary journal Sur. Albert Camus commissioned a translation for the French publisher Gallimard, and it was highly praised by Thomas Mann and Graham Greene.

The Room by Hubert Selby, Jr. (1971)

Selby takes us into the unhinged mind of an insane criminal, locked in a cramped remand cell, recalling his violent childhood and dreaming about the horrible revenge he will wreak on those who have imprisoned him. His brutally vivid fantasies involve rape, murder and torture. Selby called it "the most disturbing book ever written" and he could not bring himself to reread it for 20 years.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1962)

Based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experiences in a Soviet labour camp in Kazakhstan, this novel describes a day in the life of a prisoner serving a 10-year sentence: a gruelling regime of hard manual labour, freezing conditions and brutal punishment. "There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch," concludes the narrator. "[. . .] The three extra days were for leap years." This was the first government-sanctioned account of the Gulag to be published within the USSR.

Henry Eliot is the author of The Penguin Classics Book and The Penguin Modern Classics Book.

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