Those who visit this blog regularly will know of my devotion to contemporary fiction, the shiny and the new. But I’m not really a one-trick pony in my reading. One of the metrics in my annual reading stats is the number of books I’ve read published before I was born in 1960, and while it may not be a large number, it’s usually more than a handful, (often aided by Simon and Kaggsy’s biannual reading weeks – the next is 1936 in mid-April).
So, it occurred to me to start a new series of posts picking out some of the old books that I’ve read, decade(s) by decade(s). I arbitrarily decided to start with the 1940s, and on consulting the trusty spreadsheet was delighted to find a full decade in the 21 titles it filtered out for me. (‘Buy’ links all go to Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.)
1940 – Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
Norman and his friend Henry invent an eighty-year old woman as a game, and post her a letter. When she turns up, complete with cockatoo and harp, she proceeds to create havoc in their sleepy town. How can Norman get rid of her? A superb comedy with brilliant characters that turns quite dark. Great fun and one of Simon’s favourite novels. Full review here. BUY
1941 – Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton
Subtitled ‘A story of darkest Earls Court’ this is the story of George Bone’s obsession with Netta. George is an undiagnosed schizophrenic who suffers from ‘dead moods’, and you can sense that things with Netta are not going to work out in a rather bad way. Absolutely wonderful writing. I’ve been planning to read more Hamilton ever since this one, but somehow haven’t made time for it. Full review here. BUY.
1942 – Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak
This psychological thriller is one of my absolute favourite SF/Horror novels. It has a mad scientist keeping a human brain alive in his lab and working out a way to communicate with it, at which point the brain takes him over by telepathy and drives him mad. It sounds like a schlock-horror pulp, but is written with deadly seriousness. Donovan’s Brain may not have the best writing, but it does have a philosophical side that explores ethics and other scientific dilemmas amongst the many other moral issues raised by the story. Full review here. BUY.
1943 – Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe
This novella recounts the story of a Parisian housewife, who returns home from holiday with her husband with another man’s telephone number. It’s clear she loved her husband Jean, and still loves him in a fashion too, but she can’t forgive him for denying her her own career. So she embarks on an affair. Suffused with longing and desire, Marie pleasantly surprised me. The story manages to achieve balance without melodrama, but plenty of passion as we are exposed to Marie’s inner mind. Full review here. BUY.
1944 – Fair Stood the Wind For France by HE Bates
Written and set during WWII, the story of a British airman injured in a crash, the French farming family who look after him, and the girl he falls in love with is a beautiful thing. But it is not without its horrors–the Germans round up fifty people from the town and shoot them to show who’s in charge. This quiet novel in which much goes unsaid, is sparingly written, achingly tender, yet full of human drama that drew me in again (yes, a re-read!). It is a book to savour. Full review here. BUY.
1945 – The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Funny and frothy, Mitford’s novel follows the life and loves of Emily, who at the beginning is fourteen-years-old and lives with her Aunt Emily, her mother, known as the Bolter, having abandoned her when she was just one month old, and her father now being on his fifth wife! Her best friend is Linda, one of Aunt Emily’s daughters, and boy do they have fun over the years. Strong hints of auto-fiction in this great comedy of manners. Full review here. BUY.
1946 – Where there’s love, there’s hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo
This little mystery was the only work that this husband and wife team wrote together; individually, both were giants of Latin American literature from Argentina and had a close association with Borges. It’s a locked room mystery, featuring a snobbish doctor who has gone to a hotel to write his book, only to be caught in a sandstorm. Full of literary allusions and an obvious homage to Christie, I found this a little too clever for its own good, but an interesting read. Full review here.
1947 – The Plague by Albert Camus
Camus’s classic has undergone a renaissance since the Covid-19 pandemic began! It describes lockdown in an Algerian port town, as rats bring plague. There is plenty of philosophy in this novel – from the bar-room type to earnest discussions, and the townsfolk go through all the classic stages from denial to anger to acceptance as life struggles on and the plague isn’t totally killed off by the winter. Quelle surprise! An interesting if not particularly enjoyable read. Full review here. BUY.
1948 – Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon
One of the very best of Simenon’s non-Maigret works–his romans durs–Set in an unspecified occupied country, Dirty Snow is the story of one young man’s fall. Frank Friedmaier is nineteen. Fatherless, he lives with his mother Lotte who runs a whorehouse. Frank is itching to show that he can play with the big boys at Timo’s – the bar they all frequent. He decides it’s time to make his first kill … Told entirely from Frank’s perspective, this novel is really bleak. He is an amoral piece of scum; friendless, increasingly cold and emotionless. Compelling and nasty. Full review here. BUY.
1949 – Little Boy Lost by Marganita Laski
Hilary Wainwright goes to war leaving his wife and new baby in Paris to follow on, but they never do as the Nazis take Paris. Lisa later dies working for the resistance and the baby disappears. Five years later Hilary returns to find out what happened to his child – a colleague Pierre has found a likely candidate in a Catholic orphanage in a little town some way from Paris – but is this child really little John? The depiction of life immediately after the war in France is gripping, with ‘collaborateurs’ and a thriving black market. Full review here. BUY.
I hope you enjoyed the tour of my reading from the 1940s. Which decade shall I tackle next?