Set in wintry wartime England, A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin is a reflective tale of lost innocence and disappointment. The titular girl is twenty-something librarian, Katherine Lind, a refugee living in an unnamed provincial town, where the harsh winter is threatening to become a state of mind. Memories of her first visit to England, a girlhood interlude with her penpal, Robin Fennel, contrast bitterly with her current lonely situation, but when fate causes Robin to resurface, memory and expectation play their usual sly tricks.
Pottering about in her nicely linoleumed kitchen one day, Dorothy Caliban is startled to be confronted by a green sea-monster named Larry. Half-man, half-frog, he is an escapee from a nearby research institute, on the run and wanted for murder. He is also curiously attractive, and a welcome diversion for the sad and fragile housewife. Billed as an amphibious cult classic, Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls is a clever and captivating read. Seemingly the decidedly uncommon tale of an inter-species love affair, but actually a delicious skewering of the American patriarchy.
The artist Marina Abramovic’s endorsement of Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima piqued my curiosity and, sure enough, this book really is something else. A fast-moving, surreal noir novel originally published in 1968, Life for Sale is about a man who offers his life up for sale. What he expects to be a carefree, albeit lethal, experiment, turns out to be a whole lot more complicated involving gangsters, vampires, hallucinogenic beetle powder and poisoned carrots. Darkly comic and totally twisted, this book will appeal to all fans of surreal fiction and Japanese literature.
A novel of doomed love in 1920’s Berlin, Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali is a Turkish treasure. It tells the story of Raif, an introspective and solitary young man who leaves Turkey for the bright lights of Weimar Berlin. In this city of flourishing intellectual and cultural freedoms, he encounters Maria, an enigmatic artist who will come to transform his melancholic life. Told in two parts by an unnamed narrator, we follow Raif’s journey of discovery, as the free-thinking Maria challenges his notions of romantic love, gender roles, and self-reliance.
First published in 1962, Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck captures a momentous period in the writer’s life. Ageing, ailing, and concerned that he has lost touch with the American spirit, Steinbeck invites us on a road trip. Complete with customised camper van and a poodle named Charley, we motor thousands of miles under wide skies, in search of the essence of modern America. From his love affair with Montana, to misgivings about Texas, Steinbeck considers the ways that his country has changed since his wandering youth. In this gem of a travelogue, we’re in the finest of company.
The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant is an unjustly neglected American gem. A deliciously peculiar novel, comic and melancholic in equal parts, it takes us to a down-at-heel New York at the turn of the 1950’s and the dreary life of daydreamer and rent collector, Norman Moonbloom. Norman’s days are spent chasing rent from hapless tenants, whilst attempting to dodge their numerous demands, complaints, and often riotous domestic dramas. Too sensitive for the world of the mercenary slumlord, he will undergo a quiet epiphany against a disintegrating backdrop of leaking taps and treacherous wiring.
On a mission to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ the nation since 1922, this year marks the centenary of the BBC, a British institution both beloved and beleaguered. In the wonderful 1980 novel, Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald, we join the corporation during the intense years of the Second World War, where nightly bombing requires the staff to bed down in the concert hall and the canteen possesses only one communal teaspoon, tied to the till with string. Despite the Blitz-induced discombobulation, when the nation gathers round the radio at 9pm each evening, the Beeb is there for them.
With the most English sounding of titles, Egyptian 1964 classic Beer in the Snooker Club by Waguih Ghali portrays Ram, a penniless and charming Egyptian Copt who lives well off his wealthy aunts, his own father having lost a fortune on the ‘bourse’. Seduced by the sophistication of Europe, Ram and his friend Font travel to London to immerse themselves in the political and cultural ideas of the time. Meanwhile, Egypt is going through its own political upheaval with the end of British imperialism, Nasser’s revolution and a burgeoning Communist movement. Which side, if any, will Ram come down on?
If your experience of transformative insect fiction is limited to the Kafkaesque, then it’s high time you met the ‘heralding quiver’ of cockroach antennae in The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector. A novel that demands the utmost concentration, this Brazilian modern classic tells the story of a somewhat intense sculptress, who discovers a large cockroach in her home. Her initial attempt at extermination leaves the creature slowly dying in front of her eyes, a protracted process that sparks a full-blown existential crisis. Enlightenment, madness, or possibly both, await.
Leo Gazzara is hovering on the brink of both turning thirty and plunging into an existential crisis. Keen to avoid respectability, his days are spent avoiding hard work, his nights indulging in the hedonistic thrills of city life. Originally published in 1970, Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich is an Italian cult classic. Here translated into English for the first time, it captures those heady days when Rome was the capital of glamour. A boozy, smoky and intoxicating novel, it tells the story of the year Leo’s dolce vita turned sour.