Some Nearly Forgotten 1950s Novels that are Exceptionally Good

The Fifties are known as an unquestioning conformist time, so I’ve picked some really good offbeat unconventional books written in the Fifties.  Four of the books below also ended up as offbeat movies.

“Absolute Beginners” by Colin MacInnes (1959) – Set in 1958, this novel shows that the youth culture in London was way cool even before the Sixties.  It was the second book of MacInnes’ London Trilogy, but it surpassed the other two books in popularity.  Julien Temple made “Absolute Beginners” into a super fine movie in 1986 (I own the DVD) which contains the song “Absolute Beginners” sung by David Bowie.

“Wise Blood” by Flannery O’Connor (1952) – Most famous for her short stories, O’Connor also wrote this ‘comedy of grotesques’ about a would-be itinerant preacher and his hapless followers.  This novel is a rich example of Southern Gothic.  It was made into a good movie by John Huston in 1979.

“Contempt” by Alberto Moravia (1954) – Alberto Moravia is one of my very favorite writers.  I must have read about ten of his novels, most of which were made into movies.  I like Moravia’s bluntness here, because this really is a novel about a woman’s contempt for her husband.  Brigette Bardot played the woman in Jean Luc Goddard’s 1963 movie based on ‘Contempt’, and it probably was her best role.

“The Groves of Academe” by Mary McCarthy (1952) –  If you want a novel written by a woman that you can laugh yourself silly to while reading it, this is it. It is about Henry Mulcahy, a literary instructor and James Joyce expert.   He describes his colleagues thusly.  “Possibly they were all very nice high-minded scrupulous people, with only an occupational tendency toward back-biting and a nervous habit of self-correction”.  As far as I know, this novel has never been made into a movie, but it could make a great one even today.

“Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon” by Jorge Amado (1958) –  Jorge Amado was a writer who wrote colorful stories about the people of Brazil.  I never get tired of his novels.  ‘Gabriela’ is one of his finest, a romantic comedy masterpiece by Amado who wrote several masterpieces.  It was made into a movie in the Eighties starring Sonia Braja.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. I apparently don’t know my ’50s novels–except for some Viragos.

    I tried to read Colin MacInnes because he is Angela Thirkell’s son, and I love her humorous novels, but didn’t get through the first novel of his London trilogy. It had more to do with library due dates than anything, though, and perhaps I should try again. T

    Good list!

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  2. Hi Frisbee,
    Don’t be so modest – I recall your Elena Ferrante review in which you mention her similarity to Alberto Moravia, and I thought this is great, someone else who realizes what a tremendous writer Alberto Moravia was. For the last ten years, I’ve read more books by Alberto Moravia and Graham Greene than any other writers.
    Did not know that Colin MacInnes was Angela Thirkell’s son. Thanks.

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  3. Over here Absolute Beginners is an absolute classic. If you want to get a visual feel for when and where the novel is set check out the photographic work of Roger Mayne.

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    • Hi David Burke,
      Thanks for the tip. I went to Google Images and entered Roger Mayne. Those are some fantastic examples of street photography. They really give you a feel for the era and the people who lived there. I can certainly see why Roger Mayne is a famous photographer.

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  4. […] Some Nearly Forgotten 1950s Novels that are Exceptionally Good (I can vouch for Wise Blood, the others beckon.) […]

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  5. Wonderful stuff. Its only sad that so many authors disappear from view. I think also, books seemed to last longer in those days – books would stay on the shelves of bookshops for years whereas today they disappear in a few months.

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    • Hi Tom,
      It’s always a question of what to keep and what to throw away. I’m sure even today we are throwing away some books that should be kept and keeping some books that should be thrown away.

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  6. I read Wise Blood for the first time last summer. This novel definitely should be resuscitated.

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