Now that we have landed in the 2020’s it is interesting to compare what we are reading now with what our grandparents or great-grandparents were reading in the 1920s.
The most recent decade has seen a diverse range of literature with work such as The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and The Fault In Our Stars by John Green topping lists of most popular work.
In the past year Margaret Atwood’s entertaining but predictable The Testements shared the Booker Prize with Bernardine Evaristo’s wonderful Girl, Woman, Other. But how do these compare to what our grandparents were reading in the post-war years? Who were the big names?
One of the first things of note in the 1920’s was the welcome rise of the woman writers of the decade. I make no apology for including more than one by Virginia Woolf, I have also selected Dorothy Parker, Anita Loos and Gertrude Stein. The 20 books I have chosen are all ones I have read and would happily recommend, they are books which I believe remain relevant one hundred years after they were published.
20 best books of the 1920s (in my opinion)
To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (Published 1927)
Perhaps the most autobiographical of all Woolf’s works, she described To The Lighthouse as “easily the best of my books”. This introspective book uses a stream-of-consciousness techniques as the author considers art, beauty, life and the polarisation between the genders.
A Passage to India by E.M. Forster (1924)
Based on Forester’s experiences in India, A Passage to India relates the story of the trial of an Indian man, Dr. Aziz, who is accused of assaulting a British woman. A Passage to India is often listed as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and the film adaptation, made in 1984 picked up two Oscars, proving the enduring appeal of the story.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929)
Another book inspired by personal experience, in this case Hemingway’s time working for the Italian ambulance service during World War I. A Farewell to Arms is an unforgettable story of the fear, fraternity and courage of soldiers on the Italian front line.
Big Blonde and Other Stories by Dorothy Parker (1929)
Dorothy Parker was well known for her sharp wit and humour. She was an extraordinary writer and one of the few female writers admitted to the Algonquin Round Table, a group of writers and performers who met over bootleg cocktails in the 20s.
Big Blonde, is a sad and acerbic story of life that charts the experience of an ageing blonde woman. It won Parker the O. Henry award.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
It is inevitable that the 20s saw a good number of novels that deal with WW1. This book, inspired by Remarque’s own experiences is hailed by many as the best war novel ever. It is a story about the irreversible damage of war, revealing the gruesome realities of the trenches and the alienation felt by men after returning home from war.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos (1924)
If any fictional character of the 1920 seems likely to be immortal, it is Lorelei Lee, the not-so-dumb blonde who knew that diamonds, not beaus were a girl’s best friend. Marilyn Monroe portrayal of her became the archetype of the footloose, good-hearted gold digger, with an insatiable appetite for orchids, champagne, and precious stones.
Here are her “diaries,” created by Anita Loos in the Roaring Twenties, as Lorelei and her friend Dorothy barrel across Europe meeting everyone from the Prince of Wales to “Doctor Froyd” – and then back home again to marry a Main Line millionaire and become a movie star. In this delightfully droll and witty book, Lorelei Lee’s wild antics, unique outlook, and imaginative way with language shine. (Source Goodreads)
Nadja by Andre Breton (1928)
Breton’s dreamlike account of a man falling in love with a woman in 1920s Paris is credited as the first Surrealist romance. The narrative is accompanied by 44 images that capture people, events and places that the pair encounter.
Beyond the Pleasure Principle by Sigmund Freud (1920)
Having suggested that most human behaviour was driven by the sexual instinct, Freud’s 1920 essay marked a turning point and see him developing his theories on other impulses, including the death instinct. Freud’s theories on mans desire for self-destruction remain controversial among psychoanalysts today.
The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein (1925)
Stein was ‘the’ female cult literary figure of the 20s. Famous for her salons in her Paris home with Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Joyce, Picasso and others. In The Making of Americans, she charts the history of two wealthy families over three generations and examines relationships close up.
The Castle by Frank Kafka (1926)
Sadly, The Castle was not published until two years after the author’s death. It is Kafka’s story of one mans struggle against bureaucracy as he tries to gain access to the Castle. The book looks at the futility of chasing an unattainable goal. Published unfinished in 1926 by Max Brod, Kafka’s friend, it ends appropriately mid-sentence.
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)
Woolf’s extended essay signals a turning point in feminist thought. Using the essentials required to write, ie, time, a degree of financial independence and a room of one’s own, it argues the desperate need for feminine discourse in literature.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1922)
Four women leave a damp dreary London for a month-long sojourn in Italy after responding to a classified, appealing to “those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine.” The Enchanted April became a bestseller in England and America and made the Italian village of Portofino a must visit destination.
Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda (1924)
Nobel Prize winner, Neruda was only 19 when the erotically charged Twenty Love Poems came out. The collection is sensual and passionate, and made Neruda’s name as a poet.
The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G Wodehouse (1923)
Wodehouse’s resourceful Jeeves appeared first in 1919, but this later collection of stories is one of his best. It’s a classic collection of Jeeves to the rescue as Wooster’s pal Bingo Little falls for a teashop waitress, amongst many others. A wonderful read.
Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau (1929)
This is the dark and twisted story of two siblings, Elizabeth and Paul, who play very dangerous power games. The book which is without doubt Cocteau’s best novel, was written in a single week while the author was battling opium addiction. More than his other work, Les Enfants Terribles establishes Cocteau as a leader in the avant garde movement.
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
This portrait of a day in the life of Mrs. Clarissa Dalloway is Woolf’s greatest work. The book observes the title character as she makes final preparations for a party and explores themes of homosexuality, mental illness, feminism and existentialism.
Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley (1928)
Huxley’s satirical portrait life in the 20s is peopled by characters based on key figures of the era, including Katherine Mansfield, D.H. Lawrence, and Nancy Cunard. The title, a play on the musical technique, foreshadows the way the novel is structured through linked stories and repeated themes.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)
The novel that won Wharton the 1921 Pulitzer Prize—making her the first woman to ever receive the award, is a tale of desire and betrayal among the affluent New York Set in the 1870s. It follows Newland Archer, a lawyer torn between two women: his near perfect fiancée and the not so perfect Countess Ellen Olenska.
The Enormous Room by E.E.Cummings (1922)
An autobiographical work based on Cummings’ own experience in a French concentration camp during World War I. The story is, as you would expect grim in parts, but ultimately it is an upbeat collection os character portraits brought to life through Cummings’ skilful and eloquent voice.
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (1922)
This was Hesse’s 9th novel and charts the spiritual journey of Siddhartha, a man who turns away from everything he knows and possesses for a life of contemplation. But the journey is not simply and Siddhartha battles lust, greed and boredom to succeed.