Okay, so the Forties were mostly war-torn and exhausted, and people had yet to discover the twin regal wonders of Elvis Presley and Burger King, but it did have a hell of a literary output, despite the existence of paper rationing. Sit back and let us take you on a whistle-stop tour of ten of our favourite novels from the 1940s…
1. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1940)
One for adult as well as kids, this short novel by French aviator and aristocrat de Saint-Exupéry tells the story of a fictional aviator who crashes in the Sahara only to meet the eponymous little Prince, who has fallen to Earth from an asteroid. It’s a beautiful tale about creativity, love, responsibility and exploration, and, man, is it sad… The illustrations alone are worth the price-tag. Check it out.
2. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
Another Frenchman, existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, is behind our next choice, the rather grim story of Algerian Meurseult, who murders an Arab man and has to renconcile himself to the consequence of his actions. Not a fun read, but definitely thought-provoking – which is the aim of all good art, right? Anyway, if you’ve ever wondered whether or not the universe is indifferent to mankind, then this is the text for you. An intellectual feast.
3. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers (1940)
Set in a mill-town in Georgia in the 1930s, this is the story of a deaf man, John Singer, and his various acquaintances – and who doesn’t love books about misfits having a terrible time? This is considered a classic of Southern Gothic, a subgenre you might more usually associate with Flannery O’Connor, and it’s grotesquely captivating. One to read and reread.
4. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith (1948)
From the author of One Hundred and One Dalmations comes this bildungsroman about Cassandra Mortmain, a teenager living in a decrepit old castle with parents who are flogging the furniture to buy food. It’s a love story (of sorts) and a comedy of manners, with a spattering of literary in-jokes that’ll keep the more geekish of the book-nerds entertained – the family’s pets are called Heloise and Abelard… Definitely a coming-of-age classic.
5. 1984, George Orwell (1948)
While the year 1984 has come and gone, Orwell’s narrative is timelier than ever. 1984 presents a startling and haunting vision of the world, so powerful that it is completely convincing from start to finish. No one can deny the power of this novel, its hold on the imaginations of multiple generations of readers, or the resiliency of its admonitions. A legacy that seems only to grow with the passage of time.
6. Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake (1948)
The first of the Gormanghast trilogy, Titus Groan introduces Peake’s readers to the castle, and the likes of Lord Sepulchrave, Fuschia Groan, Titus himself, and Steerpike, the manipulative kitchen boy who remains one of our favourite literary bad guys of all time. We can’t imagine contemporary fantasy without Gormenghast – the series mixes Regency manners and social comedy with themes of madness, isolation and the weight of tradition in a modern Gothic parcel that beats anything Downton Abbey has to offer.
7. Finn Family Moomintroll, Tove Jansson (1948)
Tove Jansson is a Finnish superstar and beloved worldside for her Moomin tales and characters, though, of course she did write other books too, lest we forget. Still, we keep coming back to the adventures of Moomintroll, Sniff and the others – they’re cute and melancholic and mysterious all at once, and they live in the most fantastic big blue house. This particular book is the third in the original series, though it was the first to be translated into English, and it’s got all the magic and weirdness we associate with the Moomins. If you didn’t read it as a child, read it now!
8. Delta Wedding, Eudora Welty (1946)
Not only of Welty’s best known books, Delta Wedding is still brilliant – it’s set on a family wedding in the Missippippi delta in the 1920s, where all and sundry are gathering for a wedding, and our narrator is the superbly-named Laura McRaven. Welty’s an excellent writer, of course, and a fantastic observer of social interactions, so this one is a treat from start to end. We only wish it were more widely available.
9. La Vie Tranquille, Margeurite Duras (1944)
Set in the city of Bugues, narrator Francine talks about his family, their feuds, deaths and descents into madness – not a cheerful jaunt, then, but it’s so psychologically complex and astute that, again, it’s a real shame it’s not more popular in English translation. Still, you heard it from us first.
10. The Pearl, John Steinbeck (1947)
You just can’t go wrong with Steinbeck, and The Pearl, much like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, is short and unforgettable: Kino needs money to pay the doctor to save his child’s life; he finds an enormous pearl, but it brings nothing but misfortune. A really, really bleak look at the transfigurative power of greed, this won’t bring you any cheer, but it may make you rethink the worth of your jewellery.
Needless to say, it’s impossible to do an entire decade justice with just ten novels. However, this is our pick of the bunch. If you’ve got any others you think have aged like a fine literary wine, we’d love to hear about them in the comments below.