October 25, 2011

The criteria: a brief word. That the writer have a substantial oeuvre, that I have read him or her more than once and generally with greater pleasure. The list is international, by language (not nationality) and includes poets, novelists, essayists and memoirists, but not playwrights. Living writers under fifty are not included. Exclusions are, with examples of each: 1. Empty Reputations (Toni Morrison); 2. One-book writers (Gabriel Garcia Marquez); 3. Downhill Writers (Philip Roth, V.S. Naipaul); 4. Flashes in the Pan (Leslie Epstein); 5. The incomplete (Martin Amis); and 6. Blind Spots (William Faulkner). The asterisks note writers I know to be greatly undervalued or insufficiently translated – otherwise all these writers are available in English. The ranking is purely personal, a matter of taste: there are many writers I esteem, but do not enjoy reading. Naturally, this being my own reading list, the English language dominates.

  • Joseph Conrad (Eng)
  • W.G. Sebald (Ger)
  • Constantin Kavafis (Grk)
  • John Berryman (Eng)
  • G.T, di Lampedusa (It)
  • Joyce Cary (Eng)*
  • Nathanael West (Eng)
  • Jorge Luis Borges (Sp)
  • William Trevor (Eng)
  • Czeslaw Milosz (Pol)
  • Rose Macaulay (Eng)*
  • Evelyn Waugh (Eng)*
  • John le Carré (Eng)
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald (Eng)
  • Somerset Maugham (Eng), ex aequo, Victor Pritchett (Eng)
  • Stefan Zweig (Ger)
  • Georges Simenon (Fr)
  • Sybil Bedford (Eng)
  • Louis Ferdinand Celine (Fr)
  • Henry Livings (Eng)
  • Paul Léautaud (Fr)*
  • Isaak Babel (Rus)
  • Mishima Yukio (Jap)
  • Seamus Heaney (Eng)
  • Kawabata, Yasunari (Jap)
  • Saul Bellow (Eng)
  • Gunther Grass (Ger)
  • Philip Larkin (Eng)
  • Vladimir Nabokov (Rus)
  • P. G. Wodehouse (Eng)
  • Flann O’Brien (Eire)
  • W.H. Auden (Eng)
  • Eugenio Montale (It)
  • Hubert Butler (Eng)*, ex aequo, Edmund Wilson (Eng)
  • W.B. Yeats (Eng)
  • Arthur Koestler (Ger/Eng)
  • Marcel Proust (Fr)
  • Italo Svevo (It)
  • Werner Bergenruen (Ger)*
  • Osip Mandelstam (Rus), ex aequo, Marina Tsvetavaya (Rus)
  • Aleksander Wat (Pol)*
  • Walter de la Mare (Eng)
  • Franz Kafka (Ger
  • Josek Skvoretsky (Cz)
  • Leonardo Sciascia (It)
  • Nicanor Parra (Sp), ex aequo, João Cabral de Melo Neto (Port)
  • Jorge Bolaño (Sp)
  • Luigi Pirandello (It)
  • Alexandr Solzhenitsin (Rus)
  • Ford Madox Ford (Eng)
  • Miklos Banffy (Hung)*
  • R.P. Warren (Eng)
  • Sinclair Lewis (Eng)
  • Machado de Assis (Port)
  • R.C. Hutchinson* (Eng)
  • Nirad Chaudhuri (Ind)
  • Cesare Pavese (It)
  • L.P. Hartley (Eng)
  • Anthony Burgess (Eng)
  • George Orwell (Eng)
  • Konstantin Paustovsky (Rus)
  • G.S. Desani (Ind)
  • Joseph Liebling (Eng)
  • Jaroslaw Iwaskiewicz (Pol)*
  • Beppe Fenoglio (It)*
  • Gustaw Herling (It/Pol)
  • A.E. Coppard (Eng)*
  • Theodore Dreiser (Eng)
  • John Auerbach (Heb/Eng)*
  • Graham Greene (Eng)
  • Sinclair Lewis (Eng)
  • R.K. Narayan (Ind)
  • Paul Morand (Fr)*
  • Hans Fallada (Ger)
  • Mario Vargas Llosa (Sp)
  • T.E. Lawrence (Eng)
  • Naguib Mahfouz (Eg)
  • Delmore Schwartz (Eng)
  • Tanizaki Yunichiro (Jap)
  • Arturo Barea (Sp)* ex aequo, Emmanuel Bove (Fr)
  • Peter Cary (Eng)
  • Georges Simenon (Fr)
  • Francois Mauriac (Fr)
  • Dacia Maraini (It)
  • Aharon Appelfeld (Heb)
  • Angus Wilson (Eng)
  • Macedonio Fernandez (Sp)*
  • Clive James (Eng), ex aequo, Joseph O’Neill (Eng)
  • Alexandros Papadiamantis (Gr)*
  • Jacob Picard (Ger)*
  • Knut Hamsun (Nor)
  • Paul Scott (Eng), ex aequo, Robert Byron (Eng), J.D. Salinger (Eng)
  • Richard G. Stern (Eng)
  • Raymond Chandler (Eng)
  • Marilynne Robinson (Eng)
  • William Gerhardie* (Eng)
  • Norman Douglas (Eng)
  • Rudyard Kipling (Eng)
  • Alberto Moravia (It), ex aequo, Umberto Saba* (It)
  • James Joyce (Eng)



The Crime List, also ranked, is as follows:

Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler, Ian Rankin, Nicholas Freeling, Andrea Camilleri, Arnaldur Indridason, Elmore Leonard, Francisco Gonzalez Ledesma, Alessandro Tabucchi, Akimoto Tegaki, Peter Temple, Martin Cruz Smith, Yasim Kadare, Vladimir Volkoff, Wastberg & Soderling


Discussion, lapses of memory & such to me KB


  1. October 25, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    Named my son after Joseph Conrad: Maxwell Conrad Mullen.

    Nathaniel West has always been among my favorites of all time, including The Dream Life of Balso Snell.

    Great list.

  2. John Penuel
    October 27, 2011 at 9:00 am

    Ha! I’ve often fantasized about translating Léautaud’s diary. Strange fantasy, I know.


    • PB
      October 27, 2011 at 2:22 pm

      Well John, you should, we could: were there but world enough and time. The persistence
      of the man and his cats (like Celine’s!). To do a selection, alas! does not fit the bill. I have a wonderful photo of PL on my wall and it was John and Chantal Hunt who urged him on me. Oh yes, a CIA man, but a literate one. (It was another CIA man, Mike Josselson, whjo turned me on to Bergenruen!)

  3. David Mackenzie
    November 18, 2011 at 9:44 am

    A fascinating list. My personal favourites – Borges, Kafka, Joyce – are there, as well as others I have enjoyed greatly – Hamsun, Flann O’Brien. To my embarrassment there are some I’ve never even heard of – who is R P Warren? Surprised that DeLillo, Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy don’t get a mention, though I can maybe see why. My big plea, however, would be for the inclusion of Jose Saramago who wrote at least one great book – ‘Balthasar and Blimunda’ – and several others which are very fine indeed – ‘All the Names’, ‘History of the Seige of Lisbon’, ‘Blindness’.

  4. David Mackenzie
    November 18, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Ah! My apologies to the memory of the great man of American letters, R. P. Warren! I still have an edition of ‘Understanding Poetry’ by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, which I bought in 1968. He’s always been Robert Penn Warren to me – the ‘R. P.’ threw me!

  5. Konstantin Vronski
    December 28, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    Of the whole doyen`s list I have read the half or at least a third (a book or two of Ernst von Salomon but not Obras Completas,) but reading in Russian translations, as I often do,- like 1/6 of the paria world- makes it very different that reading in English, German, French, Spanish, alas my Italian is still shaky. Is it the same in American English? And yes, surprisingly few French names for Messr Keith Botsford. Kiev described by Konstantin Paustovsky looks like the Kiev of my youth but I never heard anyone from any country mentioning Paustovsky (whose 5 volume completed works is an excelent reading) while being in Kiev; the same holds true of Leskov.
    Will my PhD dream on Michael Josselson finally come true?

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