50 book that made Completeworks what it is

The books that we have read, reread and will read again.

 
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Rachel Cusk – Outline

Disconcerting and occasionally outlandish, this novel moves through the conversations that its narrator has with those around her as she moves to Athens to teach a summer writing class, chronicling our failed attempts at connection and, as one character describes, “the disgust that exists indelibly between men and women”.

 
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Iris Murdoch - the sea, the sea

A theatre director pines after his lost love, determined to free her from what he sees as her tormenting marriage.  Manipulative and self-righteous, his attempts at justifying his own moral decisions are as exhausting as they are hilarious.

 

Jean-Philippe Toussaint – Television

The narrator resolves to quit watching TV, which he blames for his inability to write his novel, and then spends the remainder of the novel procrastinating writing and consumed with obsessive thoughts about the television he’s missing.  Astute and very funny, Toussaint taunts our lacking cultural attention span.

 
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Anna Akhmatova - Complete Poems

Born into Russia’s glittering high society, Akhmatova’s poetry is effusive about love.  During the cultural suppression of Stalin’s regime, Akhmatova allegedly relied on her friends to memorise her poetry.  She would quickly write a poem, pass it to a friend and then burn it once it was memorised. 

 
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W.G. Sebald – Austerlitz

A gloomy masterpiece, this novel centres around an architectural historian who is forced to explore his murky past.  A haunting exploration of the past and its memorialisation in the buildings that survive.

 

Rachel Cusk – Transit

Sparse prose and cuttingly understated observational comedy meet in this story about a recently divorced writer who moves into a filth-ridden home amidst its renovation.  A builder describes the house as a “can of worms”, much like the divorce itself.

 
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Daniel Defoe - Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Foe added the ‘De’ to his name to improve his literary appeal and it worked: Robinson Crusoe is cornerstone novel which pivots around a stranded castaway and his quest to return home, hailed as one of the great English novels.

 
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Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis - The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas

Composed of rapid, unpredictable chapters, the protagonist tells his own story from beyond the grave.  Devoid of sentimentality, the book is charming and refreshingly brief.

 

Jean Rhys - Wide Sargasso Sea

A seething response to Jane Eyre, Rhys’s novel imagines the life of Rochester’s first wife Bertha.  Her blistering piece humanised the ‘madwoman in the attic’ figure, sparking a wave of creative responses- including a song by Stevie Nicks.

 

W.G. Sebald - The Rings of Saturn

Walking along the Suffolk coast prompts Sebald’s despondent reflection on the relationship between man and the environment.  His chillingly accurate prophesy of many of today’s most pressing issues- over-reliance on fossil fuels, destruction of natural habitats, incessant pollution- will seize you.

 

Jose Saramago – Blindness

As a swiftly spreading epidemic causes more and more people to lose their sight, social collapse surges from the disaster.  Saramago shies away from glib political or social declarations, instead richly focussing on a small group of characters and their unsettling responses to the chaos that surrounds them.

 
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Elizabeth Bishop – Poems

Acutely shy, a survivor of childhood abuse, a closet lesbian and, later, an alcoholic, Bishop’s poetry is often described as impenetrable, determinedly impersonal. Her reticence could also be described as a muted gratitude for that which she has: after all, her most famous line bereaves: ‘The art of losing isn’t hard to master’.

 

Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping

Two orphan sisters are living in remote Idaho, passed from relative to relative until their aunt Sylvie, a compelling and elusive character, stays with them.  A testament to outsiders and nomads, Robinson describes this transient existence as ‘Their lives spun off the tilting world like thread off a spindle, breakfast time, suppertime, lilac time, apple time.’ 

 

Nadine Gordimer - Burger’s Daughter

Following her father’s death in prison, Rosa Burger reaches for an understanding of her own identity within the turbulent political climate in South Africa in the mid-Seventies.  Uncomfortably truthful, Gordimer’s work is immediate and vital.

 

Nadine Gordimer - July’s People

Set in a fictional civil war, during which the South African Apartheid system has been overturned, the story follows a liberal white family who are forced to flee Johannesburg to live in the native village of their black servant.  Banned in South Africa after its publication, the book is a subversive and chilling study of race relationships.

 

Wislawa Szymborska - Poems New and Collected

An authority on doubt, Szymborska argues that ‘I don’t know’ is the most important phrase we should cling to.  An adroit, comic scepticism of her own art, and its strangeness, dances throughout her poetry.

 

Paul Celan - The Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan

A lacerating personal history- born to a German-speaking Jewish family, Celan was forced to work in a labour camp during World War II while both of his parents died in a Nazi concentration camp- estranged Celan from his own language.  His past destroyed the potential of art for art’s sake and, instead, Celan’s poetry is troubled and careful.

 

Emily Dickinson - Complete Poems

Famously considered an eccentric by her neighbours, Dickinson’s reluctance to leave her house became notorious.  Adrienne Rich, a feminist critic, speculates that Dickinson ‘chose her seclusion, knowing that she was exceptional […] Neither eccentric nor quaint, she was determined to survive’.  Whether you buy Rich’s theory or not, Dickinson has been hailed as one of the greatest female poets with an extraordinary breadth of work.

 

Margaret Atwood - The Handmaid’s Tale

Set in a dystopian America where women are deprived of basic rights, used as breeding vessels and forbidden from reading, Atwood’s novel follows one rebellious handmaid.  Following this novel’s explosion of popularity in the me-too climate of 2018, Atwood has announced an upcoming sequel due to be released this September. 

 

George Orwell- Down and Out in Paris and London

Writing as a struggling young writer, Orwell documents his time living in squalor and gives a voice to a poverty previously unspoken of.  Between infested hostels and dishwashing jobs, this remarkable memoir grows towards a generosity of spirit.

 
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Arundhati Roy - The God of Small Things

This sprawling and deft novel is set in a landscape of vertiginous ruin, constantly shuffling between present and past as a twin brother and sister meet in Kerala for the first time in twenty-five years.  A furiously successful debut novel, Roy is equally known for her lush descriptions and stinging politics.

 

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah

A dissection of modern race relations, spanning Nigeria, England and the US, this novel follows two teenage lovers who each move west.  At times scathing, at others tender, this book is an authentic portrayal of alienation and migration.

 

Cormac McCarthy - The Road

In a sickening post-apocalyptic terrain, a father and son trek south in an utterly bleak attempt at survival.  An unflinching portrayal of devastation, poverty and sheer tenacity.

 

William Faulkner - Light in August

Set in the deep south of America during the 1930s, Faulkner explores layers of social alienation through a range of misfit characters.  A gothic-modernist hybrid, the novel pushes insistently against the sentimental form that was popular in the South during this period.

 

Ralph Ellison - Invisible Man

‘I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.’  Caught between willed ignorance on one side, and an enforced seal-concealment on the other, Ellison’s novel portrays the structures that maintain racism with tragi-comic wit.

 

Joan Didion – South and West

In 1970, Didion decided to spend a month travelling the deep south from Louisiana to Mississippi in the hopes of converting the experience into an article.  Although the article remained unwritten, her published notes describe the grotesque heat and rank decay of the towns she travels through, and her ensuing disorientation: ‘They have mastered the art of the motionless.’

 

Zadie Smith – NW

Based in northwest London, Smith’s novel follows four locals who grew up on the same council estate.   A master of urban realism, Smith captures the cadences and splintered pulse of her childhood home with expert precision.

 

Elizabeth Hardwick - The New York Stories of Elizabeth Hardwick

The greatest moments in these stories come when Hardwick’s sharp gaze fixes on a fellow New Yorker: a handsome man she spots reading in a library, a tatty bookshop owner.  Her pinpoint writing immortalises these brief people-watching encounters with joyous accuracy.

 

Elizabeth Strout - Olive Kitteridge

Thirteen narratives are woven together around the hefty, loquacious character of Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher living in small-town Maine.  A polished exploration of community and the ways in which people think they know one another- and themselves.

 

Jennifer Egan -  A Visit from the Goon Squad

Its structure straddling between a novel and a short story collection, Goon Squad is aptly a text about relationships and interconnection.  Moving from one character to the next (and then often back again), Egan elegantly demonstrates how humans impact one another, simply by force of proximity.

 

Kazuo Ishiguro - Never Let Me Go

Set in a skewered school called Hailsham, this novel spans the story of three young people who find out that they are clones, created to serve as organ donors.  An uneasy novel that revolves around Ishiguro’s characteristic themes: friendship, memory and the fragility of life.

 

V.S. Naipual - A Bend in the River

Built around a tension between being and becoming, told from the perspective of an Indian man living in a newly independent African nation, Naipual studies in deft prose the national and individual impact of historical colonisation.

 

Hanya Yanagihara - A Little Life

A shattering novel, Yanagihara’s text opens with the jaunty promise of four college friends striding out into New York in the pursuit of burgeoning careers.  A slow revelation of brutal childhood trauma soon unfolds in a novel that refuses to yield to our cultural fixation on redemption narratives.

 

Tom Stoppard - The Coast of Utopia

A daring, dramatic trilogy about a group of revolutionary Russian intellectuals in the nineteenth century: ‘We were discussing transcendental idealism over oysters, and one thing led to another’.  A word of warning: it lasts over nine hours in total.

 

Jenny Erpenbeck - Go Went Gone

Richard, a retired classics professor living in Berlin, embarks on a venture to discover more about the refugees protesting in his city.  His emerging awareness, and budding relationships with the refugees, is tenderly described by Erpenbeck in lucid prose.

 
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Zbigniew Herbert - The Collected Poems

A notable postwar Polish poet, Herbert’s poetry is precise and deeply ironical.  Despite widespread recognition that he is owed the Nobel prize, Herbert remains nonchalant about the impact of poetry: “It is vanity to think that one can influence the course of history by writing poetry.  It is not the barometer that changes the weather.’ 

 

Thomas Bernhard – Correction

An austere portrayal of a scientist who has committed suicide, propelled by his own terrifying genius and obsessive pursuit of perfectionism.  A strange and disorientating tale of endless revision.

 

Peter Nadas - A Book of Memories

The story is composed of three first-person memoirs, refracted through alternating perspectives and sliding memories.  Love affairs, family secrets and betrayal are unearthed in supple, twisting writing.

 

Joseph Brodsky – Selected Poems

Born in Russia, Brodsky moved to America in his thirties and lived there until his death in 1996.  He was a fervent believer in faithful translation, trying to carry the sound and rhythm of his Russian poetry into English.

 

Marina Tsvetaeva - Selected Poems

Capturing the horror of life during and in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917 in lyrical and sensory verse, Tsvetaeva explores the sound of language as much as its meaning.

 

Samuel Beckett - Malone Dies

In a bare, rhythmic monologue, Malone spills out fragments of stories from his deathbed, his mind ‘flayed alive by memory’.  His struggling narration satirises the frustrations of the creative process, famously summarised by Beckett as ‘Fail again, fail better’.

 

Colm Toibin - The Master

A bold fictional biography, Toibin recreates four years from the life of Henry James, creating an image of a solitary man whose art functioned as consolation.  A tricky genre, Toibin masterfully treads the line between imaginative extrapolation and meticulously researched representation. 

 

Rainer Maria Rilke - The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

Rilke’s only novel is an unsettling, semi-autobiographical account of a young man living in Paris, obsessed with the lurking inevitability of death.  Its acute self-awareness pre-empts the modernist movement that followed its publication and is reputed to have majorly influenced existentialism.

 

Elizabeth Bowen – Collected Short Stories

Scenes of the scarred landscape of London during the Blitz are vividly captured by Bowen in her tightly crafted short stories.  An unsettling preoccupation with the unnatural also pervades this short story collection.

 

Graham Greene - Brighton Rock

Anarchic to its core, Greene’s novel centres on a young mobster called Pinkie trying to cover up his involvement in a murder.  A thrilling piece, saturated with Catholic images of heaven and hell, that seethes with youthful energy.

 

Andrei Kurkov - Death and the Penguin

Set in post-Soviet Kiev, Kurkov’s absurdist satire centres around a struggling writer who is hired to write obituaries for powerful political figures (most of whom are still living).  His pet penguin Misha gloomily overlooks as increasingly unsettling events start to take hold in a surrealist masterpiece.

 

Virginia Woolf - To The Lighthouse

The most autobiographical of Woolf’s novels, To The Lighthouse experiments with means of perception and how they can be portrayed.  Artistic failure and grief are depicted with agonising accuracy, with a sense of time seeping away.

 

Jeffrey Eugenides - The Marriage Plot

A postmodern interpretation of the nineteenth-century romance novel plot built around three college students in the US in 1981.  They deconstruct their own narrative as they create it, using critical texts borrowed from their literature course: one character analyses her budding relationship using Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse, borrowing words from the text.  Self-aware and wry, it’s an addictive read.

 

Han Kang – The White Book

An autobiographical and lyrical meditation on the death of the narrator’s sister, occurring just two hours after she was born.  Structured around an accumulation of white things that become part of the mourning process, Kang engages with the way that grief can be mapped out and made tangible.   

 

Jennifer Egan - Manhattan Beach

Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Egan’s novel studies an Irish family living in Brooklyn.  One of the central female characters becomes a diver and the novel revolves around the ocean, as inconstant as the characters who surround and swim through it.

 

 
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