Jonathan Coe's 6 favorite books

The award-winning English novelist recommends works by Heller, Fielding, and O'Brien

Jonathan Coe
(Image credit: Alexandre Isard/Corbis)

Something Happened by Joseph Heller (Simon & Schuster, $16). A classic example of “‘difficult second novel’ syndrome,” Heller’s follow-up to Catch-22 met with a puzzled critical response. For me, this deadpan narration of the daily comedies and tragedies of office worker Bob Slocum now looks like Heller’s finest achievement.

The Fountains of Neptune by Rikki Ducornet (Dalkey Archive, $13). Ducornet’s extraordinary novel is almost impossible to summarize. A middle-aged man emerges from a coma and spins for his therapist surreal, fantastic stories of his childhood in a French coastal town. It’s a great argument for the anti-realist tradition in modern fiction, and for the premise that sometimes more is more.

Amelia by Henry Fielding (Broadview, $25). Fielding continues to fascinate me, and never more so than in his final major novel. A somber comedy with a victimized heroine at its center, Amelia reflects both Fielding’s increasingly troubled preoccupations with social and legal injustice and his love-hate relationship with the work of his great rival, Samuel Richardson.

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At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien (Dalkey Archive, $14). Along with Tristram Shandy, this cerebral Irish comedy ties for best postmodern novel ever written. Enclosing stories within stories, O’Brien makes us reflect on the fraught, often absurd, relationship between writers, their characters, and their readers. The jokes are frequent and exquisitely precise.

I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal (New Directions, $15). A panoramic trip through pre- and postwar middle-European history, as observed by the best kind of witness: a bystander — in this case, a naïf who waits tables in Prague. A master of rueful comedy and tender eroticism, Hrabal was, for all his eccentricity, a major figure in 20th-century world literature.

Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann (Virago, $16). Lehmann is one of the novelists I return to often. Her first novel is a tender—some might think rather precious—coming-of-age story about a shy young girl’s fascination with the glamorous cousins who live next door. But the lush, descriptive prose is magnificent, as is Lehmann’s rendition of tremulous adolescent feelings.

Award-winning English novelist Jonathan Coe is the author of nine works of fiction, including The Rotters' Club and The Rain Before It Falls. His latest, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, was published in March by Knopf

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