Tono-Bungay by H G Wells (1909)
Perhaps the best of all state-of-nation novels. Wells's account of a boy's journey from the margins of his humble upbringing in the suburbs to the centre of an exciting life working for his eccentric Uncle Teddy has real verbal swagger. Wells celebrates London as "the richest town in the world, the biggest port, the greatest manufacturing town, the Imperial city - the centre of civilisation, the heart of the world". The prose is rough, hectic, sometimes sublime. There are moments of great drama and poignancy; there are exotic journeys and experiments in aviation. "To be modern," wrote Marshall Berman, "is to experience personal and social life as a maelstrom, to find one's world in a perpetual state of disintegration." He must have read Tono-Bungay.
Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad (1911)
There is no greater "British" writer this century than the Polish-born Conrad. From the publication of his first novel, Almayer's Folly, in 1895, he wrote works of almost unrivalled complexity, saturated as they were in the darkness of the world and its events. Under Western Eyes, arguably the first great espionage novel, is a work of urban extremism, owing much to the psychological nihilism of Dostoevsky, whom Conrad always professed, disingenuously, to loathe. In this novel, and before that in The Secret Agent (1907), Conrad indulged his fascination with the superfluous man, the morose, isolated fanatic of perpetual indignation who has no moral compass and in a corrupt, autocratic society can find no release for his energies. From the opening pages, when a senior Russian government official is assassinated by a young radical, you are drawn into a world of concealment, intrigue and betrayal.
The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford (1915)
This study in self-deception and moral dislocation is set in a shadowy prewar German spa town and is notable for its slow glide towards personal disaster, its canny time-shifts and its unreliable narration - it's not until late in the book that you realise that even the narrator has been deceived by his own account of marital betrayal. This fiction, with its suspensions, narrative absences, secrets and aporias, leaves much unsaid. A wonderful example of oblique storytelling, and a prescient insight into a public world on the very edge of dissolution.
Women in Love by D H Lawrence (1920)
No one who has read Lawrence, even those who hate him, can ever forget his stumbling, verbose, life-devouring attempt to find a new way of writing about the modern world. Lawrence loathed the mechanical society of mass man - teeming cities, the factory, the collective - and Women in Love is a despairing, enraged attack on a new order in which the old organic bonds between man and nature have been severed, and humans, deprived of their societal instinct, are reduced to a state of atomised barbarism. The interplay between the four central characters, and the depiction of a Europe in the grip of a mortal sickness, make this Lawrence's most accomplished novel.
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)
To read this novel for the first time is to see the world in a new way, as if the lenses of your eyes have been rinsed. A simple story of a privileged upper-middle-class family and their friends enjoying a summer day on a Hebridean island is set on the eve of the first world war, and is made startlingly complex by Woolf's acute focus on the shifting patterns of consciousness. The energy of the novel is concentrated around the beautiful Mrs Ramsay, mother, wife and friend. Woolf writes from inside her characters' minds, her narrative proceeding through loose association and connection, so that we have a sense of internal time, in a state of constant flux, and of the inexorable linear movement of external time. The novel is split in two by the Great War. When, ten years later, some of the same characters return to their island, Mrs Ramsay and two of her children are dead, and the world has been irrevocably changed. Only the promise of the unifying capacity of art remains.
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (1934)
The greatest (and cruellest) of Waugh's satires of the society crowd. The prose has a wintry burnish, and the dialogue is faultless - especially in the scene where the adulteress, Brenda Last, thinks that her lover has been killed in an accident only to discover, in horrified relief, that it is in fact her son. After her unhappy husband, Tony Last, loses his cherished country mansion, he travels to Brazil, where he becomes lost in a rainforest and ends his days reading the complete works of Dickens to a madman. Laughter in the dark.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
This satire of totalitarian excesses remains perhaps the greatest British response to the second world war and the strengthening of communist tyranny. What is often forgotten, though, is that the novel is also a compelling love story and an exercise in nostalgia for a more gentle England that has all but disappeared. The prose is clanky in places - Orwell was writing at great speed and in poor health - but the intelligence and clear-eyed driven clarity of the narrative are undiminished.
Crash by J G Ballard (1973)
The original reader of this novel at Jonathan Cape famously exclaimed: "The author of this book is beyond psychiatric help." In fact, Crash is a lyrical, hallucinatory, even comic meditation on the connections between sex, celebrity, eroticism and violent death. The drowned worlds, scorched cities and overgrown jungles of Ballard's early fiction; his focus on the new global media landscape; his fetishism of motorways, high-rises and car crashes - almost alone among contemporary British writers Ballard wrote about the late 20th century in its own idiom. As John Gray has written, it wasn't so much that Ballard foresaw events such as the death of Princess Diana. Worse, he understood that they have become inevitable.
A Perfect Spy by John le Carre (1986)
From the beginning, le Carre had an urgent subject - the cold war - and a compelling preoccupation - secrecy. He is, like Conrad, addicted to secrecy as a way of life and as an extended metaphor through which to understand human motivation (public and personal betrayal are inextricably bound up in his novels). He shows how the double agent, addicted to duplicity and loyal only to himself, lives in a condition of extreme isolation. A Perfect Spy can be read as a thriller, as a complex family history, as a study in memory, as an exercise in multiple narratives and time-shifts; and as a metaphysical quest, where the actual search for a missing person, Magnus Pym, is mimicked on a more local level by Pym's own search for the deceitful father whom he hates but never really knew. In every way, it is exceptional.
The Enigma of Arrival by V S Naipaul (1987)
The best novel about Englishness to be published since the war. It is a pastoral elegy reflecting on the period Naipaul lived on the Wiltshire estate of the reclusive aesthete Stephen Tennant. Naipaul, a self- consciously alien presence in an emblematically English setting, describes watching the sun set over Stonehenge. This disorients him; he feels of the landscape, yet apart from it, a "stranger here with the nerves of a stranger". The narrator monitors the slow decline of his aristocratic neighbour and of the villagers around him. He watches the changing seasons, the play of light, but never allows the reader to forget that his presence in this shifting, haunted post-colonial landscape is part of a larger historical project, which carried him from Trinidad to Wiltshire. A work of sustained self-questioning melancholy.