Charles Palliser's Top Ten List

Author Photo And Bio
Photo of Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser (born 1947) is a best-selling American-born but British-based novelist known for using modern literary techniques to tell intricate, Victorian tales. His first novel, the international bestseller The Quincunx (1989, Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction), is a Dickensian mystery set in 19th century England rich with family secrets, mysterious clues, low-born birth, high-reaching immorality, and the fog-enshrouded, enigmatic character of London itself. His other novels include The Sensationist (1991), Betrayals (1993), The Unburied (1999), about an unworldly academic who becomes involved in three mysteries – one current two ancient – in the eerie English town of Thurchester; and Rustication (2013), which begins in 1863 and involves a dilapidated old mansion, a student who has left Cambridge under a cloud and a series of threatening letters sent to the townspeople of Thurchester.

1. Adolphe by Benjamin Constant (1816). Adolphe is a privileged and refined young man, bored by the stupidity he perceives in the world around him. After a number of meaningless conquests, he at last encounters Ellenore, a beautiful and passionate older woman. Adolphe is enraptured and gradually wears down her resistance to his declarations of love. But as they embark on an intense and tortured affair, Ellenore gives way to a flood of emotion that only serves to repel her younger lover - yet he cannot bring himself to leave her and his procrastination can only bring tragedy. Partly inspired by Constant's own stormy affair with Madame de Staël, Adolphe (1816) is a penetrating psychological depiction of love that plumbs the depths of the passions, motives and inconsistencies of the human character.

2. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien (1939). Here's how Jorge Luis Borges described this novel: A student in Dublin writes a novel about the proprietor of a public house, who writes a novel about the habitues of his pub (among them, the student), who in their turn write novels in which proprietor and student figure along with other writers about other novelists. The book consists of the extremely diverse manuscripts of these real or imagined persons, copiously annotated by the students. At Swim-Two-Birds  is not only a labyrinth; it is a discussion of the many ways to conceive of the Irish novel and a repertory of exercises in prose and verse which illustrate or parody all the styles of Ireland. The magisterial influence of Joyce (also an architect of labyrinths, also a literary Proteus) is undeniable, but not disproportionate in this manifold book. Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that dreaming and wakefulness are the pages of a single book, and that to read them in order is to live, and to leaf through them at random, is to dream. Paintings within paintings and books that branch into others help us sense this oneness." 

3. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (1824). One of the supreme masterpieces of Romantic fiction and Scottish literature, this sardonic novel is a terrifying tale of murder and amorality as it tracks one man's descent into madness and despair. It follows a young man who, falling under the spell of a mysterious stranger who bears an uncanny likeness to himself, embarks on a career as a serial murderer. The memoirs are presented by a narrator whose attempts to explain the story only succeed in intensifying its more baffling and bizarre aspects. Is the young man the victim of a psychotic delusion, or has he been tempted by the devil to wage war against God's enemies?

4. Anton Reiser by Karl Philipp Moritz (1785-90). (See Charles' appreciation below).


5. The Golovlyev Family by Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1876). Searingly hot in the summer, bitterly cold in the winter, the ancestral estate of the Golovlyov family is the end of the road. There Anna Petrovna rules with an iron hand over her servants and family, until she loses power to the relentless scheming of her hypocritical son Judas. One of the great books of Russian literature, the novel is a vivid picture of a condemned and isolated outpost of civilization that, for contemporary readers, will recall the otherwordly reality of Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.

6. The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (1947). England in the middle of World War II, a war that seems fated to go on forever, a war that has become a way of life. Heroic resistance is old hat. Everything is in short supply, and tempers are even shorter. Overwhelmed by the terrors and rigors of the Blitz, middle-aged Miss Roach has retreated to the relative safety and stupefying boredom of the suburban town of Thames Lockdon, where she rents a room in a boarding house run by Mrs. Payne. There the savvy, sensible, decent, but all-too-meek Miss Roach endures the dinner-table interrogations of Mr. Thwaites and seeks to relieve her solitude by going out drinking and necking with a wayward American lieutenant. Life is almost bearable until Vicki Kugelmann, a seeming friend, moves into the adjacent room. That’s when Miss Roach’s troubles really begin. Recounting an epic battle of wills in the claustrophobic confines of the boarding house, this novel, with a delightfully improbable heroine, is one of the finest and funniest books ever written about the trials of a lonely heart.

7. The Tale of the Genji by Shikibu Murasaki (c. 1001–1010 c.e.). Reputedly the world’s oldest novel, this immense epic romance chronicles the (mostly amorous) adventures of Japanese Prince Genji, a lowborn youth who is adopted by an emperor and grows into a handsome prodigy both irresistible to women and obsessively preoccupied with them. Genji’s peregrinations outside the hermetic world of the imperial court stimulate an elaborate panorama of the life of the period; the author’s depictions of Genji’s various and ingenious sexual conquests still dazzle.

8. The Dukays by Lajos Zilahy (1949). The Dukays are the oldest aristocratic family in Hungary. This sweeping novel traces their decline following World War I. Count Dukay's castles and thousands of acres aren't enough to stem the tides of Nazism, fascism and communism while two sons and two daughters are forces to find their way in a strange new world. 

9. Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane (1896). Set in Bismarck's Germany, Fontane's luminous tale of a socially suitable but emotionally disastrous match between the enchanting seventeen-year-old Effi and an austere, workaholic civil servant twice her age, is at once touching and unsettling. The author's taut, ironic narrative depicts a world where sexuality and the enjoyment of life are stifled by narrow-mindedness and circumstance. It is considered by many to be a pinnacle of the nineteenth-century German novel whose tale of adultery ranks with Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary

10. The Maias by Eca de Queiroz (1888). Our hero Carlos Maia, heir to one of the greatest fortunes in Portugal, is rich, handsome, generous and intelligent: he means to do something for his country, something useful, something that will make his beloved grandfather proud. However, Carlos is also a bit of a dilettante. He drifts along, becoming a doctor and pottering about in his laboratory, but spends more and more time riding his splendid horses or visiting the theater, having affairs or reading novels. His best friend and chief partner in crime, Ega, is likewise engaged in a long summertime of witticisms and pleasure. Carlos however is set on a dead reckoning course with fate―with the love of his life and with a terrible, terrible secret...

Appreciation of Karl Philipp Moritz’s Anton Reiser by Charles Palliser

When I first encountered this autobiographical novel by the German writer, Karl Philipp Moritz, I found it hard to believe it was describing a childhoood and adolescence lived in the 1760s and 1770s. That’s how acute and fresh is its depiction of the humiliations endured by a clever boy from a poor background who becomes the recipient of charity in order to obtain the education that will give him the respect and celebrity he craves. The fact that he is clearly gifted does not deter those who are from “superior” backgrounds or in positions of power over him from patronising and insulting him. Even on later readings I feel myself blushing with vicarious embarrassment at the treatment inflicted on the boy. There is a horrible moment, for example, when he is translating from a valuable book owned by a powerful man who likes him and has helped his career. Reiser turns over a page too quickly and nearly tears it. His patron is outraged and withdraws his favour and thereby crushes Reiser’s self-confidence and so this trivial incident has a grave effect on his life. The novel was written a mere ten or fifteen years after the author’s own adolescence—shortly before his early death—and the pain of his experiences is still vivid. Although Reiser endures hurtful slights and unjustified accusations of dishonesty, there is no self-pity and no sentimentality in the book. Reiser is shown as a sympathetic character but one with many failings. It is an extraordinarily perceptive exploration of an individual’s psychology.