Passing is not just about a black woman who lives her life ‘passing’ as a white woman. It’s also about secrecy and hypocrisy and the universally human fear of being ‘found out’. It was a very important book of the time, when conversations about race, class and gender were beginning to open up, despite prejudice still seeming, to many, a stone-set human right.
The story follows Irene and Clare, two mixed-race friends who reunite in a Chicago hotel after years of not seeing each other. Clare, Irene learns, has been living as a white woman with a racist husband who has no idea of his wife’s background. Clare, on the other hand, remained in the African-American community but refuses to acknowledge the racism that holds back her family’s happiness. They soon become consumed by the other’s chosen path – until events conspire to make them confront their lies.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
All Quiet on the Western Front was a ground-breaking book that changed how the world saw the First World War. There is little glory to be found in it: war is hell, no matter what side you’re on. And Remarque’s remarkably humane account of life in the German trenches during the early days of the Western Front showed the English-speaking world, for the first time, what it was like for the soldiers who lived in the same mud but spilled different blood from the other side of the barbed wire.
Remarque became one of the most articulate spokesmen for his generation, one that, in his words, was ‘destroyed by war, even though it might have escaped its shells.’ It is widely thought to be one of the greatest books about the experiences of war ever written.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover was the book that shattered British squeamishness about sex into pieces (institutionally, at least). Telling the story of an affair between a young, married aristocrat and her also-married gamekeeper, it became notorious for its graphic descriptions of sex and seductive language, four-letter words and other forms of nighttime naughtiness (though it doesn’t always happen after dark, here).
It was first published privately in Florence, then in France, but was not released in Britain for a full 32 years after DH Lawrence wrote it, following a landmark obscenity trial that became one of the most important cases in British literary and social history. It has since been anointed a ‘sacred text’ for British democracy and freedom of expression.
The Weary Blues was the most important book by the Harlem Renaissance’s most famous author. Hughes rose to fame fast and furiously amid a cultural movement that marked the first time in US history that white America began to pay attention to African American literature. And with this collection of poems, he – alongside a handful of others – gave voice to a generation.
With his masterful use of language, tone and rhythms of jazz and blues music of the time, he spoke personally and powerfully to the experiences of Black Americans. While the titular The Weary Blues (included in poetry anthology Blues Poems) is his most famous poem, it is Our Land that contains one of the most memorable lines in 20th-century literature: “I, too, am America.”
Kafka wrote the trial between 1914 and 1915, but it wasn’t published until 1925, a year after he died (mainly because his chronic self-esteem issues led him to make his best friend promise to burn his manuscripts after his death. Fortunately for the world, the friend ignored his dying wish). The Trial is a dark, melancholy story of confusion and existential dread, about a man suddenly arrested for a crime that’s never revealed to him.
The novel was one among a small oeuvre that compelled the poet WH Auden to call Kafka “the Dante of the 20th century.” The book, in short, encapsulated the growing fears of the time surrounding totalitarian oppression, alienation and bureaucracy in the modern world. And it’s influence on contemporary thinking was profound. We’re all conflicted, torn between worlds, trapped in situations from which we can’t escape. The Trial embodies that modern malaise, and even spawned a word for it (we all know it): Kafkaesque.
“We are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature,” Virginia Woolf told an audience a year before she published Mrs Dalloway, her fourth novel, to rapturous critical reception in 1925. She may not have been talking about her own work, but for the nearly one=hundred years since its publication, it has been near universally credited with changing the game of writing about the philosophy of life, high society, and most of all, the psychology of feminism.
Written in the same stream-of-consciousness style pioneered by Joyce in Ulysses, it follows Clarissa Dalloway, a high-society hostess in post-war England as she prepares to throw a lavish party, across a single day. “Mrs. Dalloway was the first novel to split the atom,” The Hours author Michael Cunningham famously wrote. “It is one of the most moving, revolutionary artworks of the twentieth century.”
More than once has Fitzgerald’s masterpiece about the delusion of decadence in the age of excess been branded ‘the greatest of great American novels’. Which says a lot for a book that can be read in a day. It’s brilliance, in part, lies in its brevity.
Echoing Noel Coward’s words in 1925, when he sang, ‘Cocktails and laughter, but what comes after?’ Fitzgerald used The Great Gatsby to call out the unbridled hedonism of the Jazz Age, which roared through the 1920s, and led to the devastating economic crash of the 1930s. ‘I was within and without,’ says protagonist Nick, ‘simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.’
Reviews upon its publication, however, were mixed. Influential critic HL Mencken said it was ‘in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that.’ And yet, history proved it a piece of prescient genius, a book woozy on its own foresight, not to mention its gorgeously taught, lyrical prose.
This is a timeless classic that nevertheless defined it’s time. Loos, then a Hollywood screenwriter, was inspired to write it during a trans-America train trip with the movie star Douglas Fairbanks and his leading lady. Watching the screen sire, she concluded her ‘strength had to be rooted (like that of Samson) in her hair: she was a natural blonde and I was a brunette.’
The result of these musings became a jazz-age classic that has endured all the decades since (not to mention a 1953 movie adaptation starring Marilyn Munroe). Her gold-digging protagonist is a witty, seductively ironic and superhumanly smart carve up of a society obsessed with looks.
This has proved the ultimate decline-of-empire classic, backdropped by the British Raj and the Indian independence movement in the 1920s. When Adela Quested and her ageing travelling companion Mrs Moore arrive in the Indian town of Chandrapore, they are put out by its repressed and prejudice atmosphere. So they set out to find the ‘real India’. They engage the charming and respectable Dr Aziz as their guide, but after a mysterious incident at the Marabar caves, he is thrust into the eye of a scandal that grips both British and Indian sides of the imperial coin.
It was, said celebrated Indian novelist Anita Desai, Forster’s ‘great book… masterly in its prescience and its lucidity.’
PG Wodehouse is, without a doubt, England’s preeminent genius of gentle comedy. There is not an author of any period in history whose writing better embodies his or her particular time and space. In Wodehouse’s case, bumbling Bertie Wooster and his bacon-saving butler Jeeves have become synonymous with that shrinking gene pool of upper-class Edwardian England, where wars were won on cream tea and croquet and lunch could last a lifetime.
It wasn’t just that his comedy was clever, but that it was so painstakingly precise in its lampoonery of the era. But it was the author and social satirist Evelyn Waugh who said it best, during a BBC broadcast in 1961: ‘Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.’