There's been a blooming sack-load of superb posthumous works of literature. We know because we wrote this article on exactly that - fine novels that the authors, cruelly, never got to hold, never got to flick through, never got to satisfyingly add to their own personal bookcases.
Less common are books of blinding brilliance that were penned and published while the author was still alive, but signalled their swan song from the literary world. Here's 18 of the finest final novels.
The Winter of Our Discontent - John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s last work published in his lifetime came out to mixed reviews in 1961 but is, for our money, a wonderful read. Atlantic Monthly reviewed it as a Steinbeck classic: "The morality in this novel marks Mr. Steinbeck's return to the mood and the concern with which he wrote The Grapes of Wrath" they gushed and the Swedish Academy agreed, awarding Steinbeck the Nobel Prize for Literature. He wrote the novel to address the moral degeneration of American culture during the 1950s and 1960s and when it first came out US reviews were, on the whole, negative. Post-Watergate it resonated rather more with many a critic rapidly backpedaling.
The Optimist Daughter - Eudora Welty
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Optimist's Daughter (1972) is believed by most to be Welty's best novel. Written after a lengthy hiatus from the typewriter poet Howard Moss wrote in The New York Times, that it was "a miracle of compression, the kind of book, small in scope but profound in its implications, that rewards a lifetime of work". The plot focuses on family struggles when the daughter and the second wife of a judge confront each other in the limited confines of a hospital room while the judge undergoes eye surgery. A quote from the book: "For her life, any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love." is on Eudora's headstone.
1984 - George Orwell
George Orwell’s last novel, published in June 1949, seven months before the author’s death, was an instant success. V. S. Pritchett, reviewing the novel for the New Statesman stated: "I do not think I have ever read a novel more frightening and depressing." Yeah, yeah. We concur. If you haven't read it send yourself, immediately, to room 101 and take that rat cage with you. (You'll also find Orwell's 1984 at the top of our best dystopian novels list, too)
Atlas Shrugged - Ayn Rand
Despite selling well, Atlas Shrugged was generally disliked by critics. Rand scholar Mimi Reisel Gladstein later wrote that when the novel was released, "reviewers seemed to vie with each other [for] the cleverest put-downs". The winner of that particular competition was probably the reviewer for Time magazine who asked: "Is it a novel? Is it a nightmare? Is it Superman?"
But what do critics know? Not a lot, it seems. According to a 1991 survey done for the Library of Congress, Atlas Shrugged was situated between the Bible and M. Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled as the book that made the most difference in the lives of 5,000 Book-of-the-Month club members and Modern Library's 1998 online poll of the 100 best novels of the 20th century found Atlas rated number one.
The Confidence Man - Herman Melville
If the Confidence Man were an angst teenager you'd often catch it bleating on about being so misunderstood. It portrays a Canterbury Tales–esque group of steamboat passengers whose interlocking stories are told as they travel down the Mississippi. "Long mistaken for a flawed novel," said scholar Robert Milder "The book is now admired as a masterpiece of irony and control, though it continues to resist interpretive consensus."
The novel includes several satires of 19th century literary figures with characters representing Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Edgar Allan Poe inspired a beggar in the story.
Interesting aside: The book came out on April Fool's Day 1857, the exact day on which the story begins.
Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë
Okay Trivial Pursuit fans, okay. We know. She only wrote one novel so we've hardly had to break a sweat with this one, but having hit perfection on the first attempt Emily passed away just a year after it was published. Although Wuthering Heights is now widely regarded as a classic of English literature, it received mixed reviews when released in 1847. In the second half of the 19th century, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre was considered the best of the Brontë sisters' works, but following later re-evaluation, critics began to argue Wuthering Heights was superior.
Passing - Nella Larsen
African American writer and prominent participant in the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen's Passing has achieved canonical status in many American universities. The book explores the limits that society of the mid-1920’s imposed on all women, with black women having a life of particular hardship. Passing is considered perhaps the finest example of tragic mulatto and remains a compelling reminder of the human impact of racial prejudice.
Daniel Deronda - George Eliot
Most of Eliot’s prior novels dealt largely with provincial English life, but here she introduced a controversial storyline for which she was both praised and slammed. The novel deals not only with the coming of age of Gwendolyn Harleth, a young English woman, but also with Daniel Deronda’s discovery of his Jewish identity which in turn exposed the anti-semitism of the period. Not her finest work, but one of her bravest and most important.
Finnegans Wake - James Joyce
James Joyce spent 17 years writing Finnegans Wake and once said he expected people to spend 17 years reading it. It sure is a battle - perhaps the most difficult book you will ever read - but it's a fight that's ultimately worth having, for this is the apex of Joyce's art. The entire book is written in a largely idiosyncratic language, consisting of a mixture of standard English and neologistic multilingual puns and portmanteau, which critics believe were attempts to recreate the experience of sleep and dreams. Like we said a battle, so get your warface on. And your specs.
Kim - Rudyard Kipling
In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Kim No. 78 on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century and in 2003 the book was listed on the BBC's The Big Read poll of the UK's best-loved novels. It's a barn-stormer that you should read to your son one day, but enjoy for yourself tomorrow.
The Reivers - William Faulkner
A bestselling novel that landed the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1963. It made Wills (yeah, we're calling him "Wills") one of only three authors to be awarded it more than once. It's a refreshingly simple page-turner when compared to Faulkner's usual brain-troubling literary tinkerage. Take it on your summer hols, which we realise as we type this is depressingly months and months away.
The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde
A first and last novel from a literary genius, if you haven't read it go and sit on the naughty step, immediately. It first appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine and reviewers were quick to condemn the novel’s immorality. The Scots Observer reviewer asked, “Why must Oscar Wilde ‘go grubbing in muck-heaps?" and The Daily Chronicle said it would "taint every young mind that comes in contact with it.” So vitriolic was the reaction that W H Smith withdrew every copy. Wilde revised it for the final novel to try and ease the backlash, but it still took something of a pounding from the prudes. If that's not reason enough to buy the uncensored version, which Harvard University Press published in 2011, we don't know what is.
Jude the Obscure - Thomas Hardy
Speaking of taking a hammering from the critics, Thomas Hardy's Jude The Obscure garnered such hostility that he ditched writing forever. One critic called it "the most indecent book ever written". Still having called time on novels he instead became one of the greatest English poets of the 20th century. Brilliant for poetry, sad for fiction, because Jude The Obscure is a dark, angry masterpiece and in which you sense Hardy had much more prose writing in him.
The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Let's be honest, you don't need approval from us on this one when you consider that admirers of the novel include Albert Einstein, Cormac McCarthy and Kurt Vonnegut. Hell, Sigmund Freud called it "the most magnificent novel ever written", Franz Kafka felt immensely indebted to the book for influencing his work and James Joyce said it made a deep impression on him. Still, add ShortList.com to the end of that list, eh?
Island - Aldous Huxley
Having written a Brave New World in 1931 it took Huxley three decades to pen his utopian counterpart: Island. For us it was worth the wait. Granted we weren't alive, but you know what we mean. Huxley himself saw Island as one of his most provocative works and so taken by the book was the Maharaja of Kashmir that he wrote Aldous asking where he might get some of the psychedelic drugs that feature prominently. Aldous, so the story goes, gave him Timothy Leary's address.
The Awakening - Kate Chopin
Famed for its free-thinking leading lady who refuses to be chained by the expectations of society, The Awakening is a milestone in feminist philosophy which was condemned by most male reviewers the moment it was published. While Chopin did not completely abandon her writing career in the wake of The Awakening's harsh reception, she was crestfallen and her literary output dwindled from then on. She died five years later of a cerebral hemorrhage. The Awakening sold poorly and was largely ignored until the mid-twentieth century, when it was recognised as a masterpiece.
The Glass Bead Game - Hermann Hesse
The Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Hermann Hesse in 1946, three years after the publication of The Glass Bead Game. Quite right too. This sprawling epic is as much art as it is literature and proves to be fascinating tale of the complexity of modern life as well as a modern classic. Not a pool-side page-turner, necessarily, but it's an important one to get down your eyes at some point during your earthly existence.
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker - Tobias Smollett
George Orwell praised Smollett as "Scotland's best novelist" while Charles Dickens was also known to be a great admirer. The Expedition was the last of the great man's "picaresque" comedies and is considered by most to be his best and funniest work. Presented in the form of letters written by six characters, the comedy arises from differences in the descriptions of the same events by the participants which vary wildly, revealing amusing characteristics of the teller.