The two-time Booker Prize–winning author’s most recent novel is Parrot and Olivier in America (Knopf).
The Radetzky March (1932)
By Joseph Roth
One could say this great novel is “about” the end of the Hapsburg Empire. I think it’s about the sentences, the light, the sad sweet poetry of loyalty and hubris, our ludicrous expectation that the world will always be the same.
Blood Meridian (1985)
By Cormac Mccarthy
A very modern book that everyone calls biblical. As with all great fiction, you’ll get drunk and die of the language.
Midnight’s Children (1981)
By Salman Rushdie
Still my favorite of his novels, and what could be more modern, more historical than India’s independence and partition? Saleem Sinai has Gogol’s nose and Rushdie’s musicality and wit.
Riddley Walker (1980)
By Russell Hoban
What do you call a future that feels like an apocalyptic past or a possible parallel of the scary stupid present? I call it a work of genius. An entire invented history and lexicon, one of the masterworks of the past 40 years.
Specimen Days (2005)
By Michael Cunningham
A heart and imagination that can embrace the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and a love story between an android and a sexy lizard.
War and Peace (1869)
By Leo Tolstoy
Its original title was The Year 1805. When the first part of it was published, you might have called it a historical novel—it was certainly, from its birth, about the past. Tolstoy refused to call it a novel.
An Artist of the Floating World (1986)
By Kazuo Ishiguro
If the past is a foreign country, what is a foreign country in the past? This doubly magnificent invention gets better and more miraculous every year.
The Eye in the Door (1993)
By Pat Barker
The second of three books—the “Regeneration” trilogy—all of which deal with World War I and its aftermath. You can smell and taste the time and place, but most magically, you enjoy the wonder of a female novelist inhabiting male sexuality in all its grimy spitting sweaty truth.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)
By Michael Chabon
Who knew there were comic strips in historical novels? Zap. Bam. Oooooof. Shazam! Chabon surely busts apart the pigeonhole.