Authors have often been bound to the cruelties of their own obsession. When inspiration strikes in all hours of the day, when writing a single sentence can exhaust the most firm-footed of minds, and when literary greatness may be subject to mere luck, it is not difficult to see why insanity has been a topic of great interest for novelists since the early 19th century. Here are ten novels that explore the artful underpinnings of madness within society and within the mind:
Djuna Barnes – Nightwood (1936)
Barnes herself called this novel of ill-fated passions the story of “a soul talking to itself in the heart of the night.” Based on a actual 8-year love affair she had with an American artist named Thelma wood, Barnes chronicles the destructive love life of an American heiress in the cultural milieus of Paris and Berlin just years before the continent would dissolve into chaos.
Barry Unsworth – Losing Nelson (1999)
One of the most celebrated British authors of historical fiction, Unsworth offers a very different treatment of the genre by having his protagonist, a man obsessed with Horatio Nelson’s life, descending into madness and murder as he “investigates” the famed war hero’s execution of Italian revolutionaries.
Antonia White – Beyond the Glass (1991)
Referred to by some as the British Bell Jar, Beyond the Glass is the semi-autobiographical story of White’s eventual admittance into a psychiatric institution and the subsequent experience she has living a dual life with a broken consciousness. Her last novel, White communicates the frustrations of mental illness with a tyrannical and ultimately destructive relationship based on corrupted Catholic mores.
Charlotte Brontë – Villette (1853)
The Brontë sisters were no strangers to including trauma and everyday mental illness in their groundbreaking novels, and Charlotte’s novel about Lucy Snowe, a schoolteacher struggling to make ends meet as a schoolteacher in the fictional country of Villette, challenges conventional models of reading by implicating her delusions and hallucinations into the narration.
Graham Greene – Brighton Rock (1938)
Set in the seedy underworld of Brighton during the 1930’s, Greene follows Pinkie, an 17 year-old sociopath mob boss who tries who struggles to cover his tracks after murdering a journalist who may reveal his culpability. At once an examination of Roman Catholicism in a broken society and also an introspective look at the destructive capabilities of adolescence, Pinkie is a terrifying look at lost morals and the effects it has on innocent people.
Herman Hesse – Steppenwolf (1927)
Written at the peak of a midlife crisis, Hesse’s novel about a down-and-out intellectual attempting to find reason for higher intellectual pursuits through vice is a mix of psychadelia and high art. Steppenwolf puts much emphasis on the volatile nature of illusion, and how the 20th century’s descent down the rabbit hole threatens to destroy the links between knowledge and pleasure.
Franz Kafka – The Trial (1924)
When a man named Josef K. is arrested one morning for an unknown reason, it sets off a virtually-interminable quest to get at the heart of a crime he fears does not exist. Both a satire of society’s endless legal quandaries and a look into the fragile mind of a persecuted man, Kafka’s unfinished novel is–without monsters, demons or ghosts to haunt the reader–the great nightmare of 20th century life.
R.K. Narayan – The English Teacher (1945)
When an Indian English teacher’s wife succumbs to illness soon after his wife moves to live with him, his journey for spiritual solace ends up being much more profound and mysterious than he expected.The English Teacher is a painful but ultimately hopeful novel about the vicissitudes of happiness and sorrow after in a world where answers to the more pressing questions are few and far between.
Malcolm Lowry – Under the Volcano (1938)
When Malcolm Lowry finally received critical acclaim for his entrancing and moving tale about an alcoholic expat in Mexico, it had come at the end of many years of mental instability, drug addiction and alcoholism. Under the Volcano is an examination of both personal and societal madness hitting their apex only months before the world would erupt into global war once again.
Vladimir Nabokov – Despair (1934)
One of his earlier Russian Novels, Despair prefigured many of the themes that would later adorn works like Pale Fire and Lolita. Set around an unreliable narrator’s supposed doppelganger and his eventual murder, Nabokov dissects the language and mannerisms of delusion in ways only an obsessive novelist can understand.