Sun, sea, sand, text: the 10 hottest highbrow books for the beach

Ditch domestic thrillers and romcoms and pack fiction by literary giants with seaside settings instead. From Death in Venice to Persuasion, how to be one up on the beach

Robinson Crusoe (1719) by Daniel Defoe

Crusoe’s rescue of Friday from cannibals on the beach in the seminal castaway tale initiates their ... friendship? Or master-slave relationship? Or both?

Persuasion (1817) by Jane Austen

A trip to Lyme Regis is the novel’s turning point, with Anne’s response to Louisa’s injury when she falls on the Cobb (authorial punishment for being a flirty, impulsive show-off) leading Wentworth to view the heroine afresh. The Cobb makes its second appearance in fiction 150 years later in John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Ciarán Hinds as Captain Frederick Wentworth in the 1995 film adaptation of Persuasion.
Slice of Lyme … Ciarán Hinds as Captain Frederick Wentworth in the 1995 film adaptation of Persuasion. Photograph: Allstar/BBC

“The Lady with a Lapdog” (1899) by Anton Chekhov

Romance blooms on the seafront at Yalta between a jaded Muscovite and another holidaymaker, both married, but does it have a future? Often acclaimed (eg by Nabokov) as one of the greatest stories ever written.

Death in Venice (1912) by Thomas Mann

Staying on the Lido, distinguished author Gustav von Aschenbach becomes the obsessive, besotted stalker of Tadzio, a pretty Polish teenager, observing the boy daily from his deckchair. Filmed three times (notably by Visconti in 1971) and turned into a Benjamin Britten opera, Mann’s holiday novella is better known today than all his longer fiction.

Within a Budding Grove (1919) by Marcel Proust

Proust’s Parisian narrator decamps in the second book of In Search of Lost Timeto Balbec in Normandy, where he is attracted to a group of “jeunes filles en fleur” on the sands led by the bewitching, elusive Albertine. Their on-off relationship is at the centre of all the sequence’s remaining novels bar the last.

Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce

As befits a book named after Homer’s sailor, the great Dublin novel begins by the sea in the Martello tower of Telemachus. In Nausicaa, 12 chapters later, dusk finds Leopold Bloom peering pervily at young Gerty MacDowell as she sits (aware of his gaze) with friends on rocks on Sandymount Strand. A strong claim to be fiction’s first masturbation scene outside porn.

New wave … Jennifer Jones and Jason Robards in the 1962 film adaptation of Tender is the Night.
New wave … Jennifer Jones and Jason Robards in the 1962 film adaptation of Tender is the Night. Photograph: Allstar/20th-century Fox Photograph: Allstar/20 CENTURY FOX

Tender Is the Night (1934) by F Scott Fitzgerald

The most full-on instance of classic beach fiction, as its main setting is the French Riviera, where a love triangle – psychiatrist Dick Diver, his Zelda-based wife Nicole, starlet Rosemary – plays out amid a set of American expats and tourists. Dick’s decline is marked by how well he performs such seaside stunts as aquaplaning behind a speedboat and headstands on a diving board.

“First Love” (1948) by Vladimir Nabokov

Also a chapter of his autobiography Speak, Memory, this is a mini-memoir of a 1909 family holiday in Biarritz, where the future writer played with Colette (aged nine to his 10) by the sea. It forms the template for similar scenes throughout his work, with the objects of desire always young but the male figures (as in Lolita) sometimes older.

Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) by Thomas Pynchon

A wartime Côte d’Azur holiday for Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop is actually a means for the creepy British scientists observing the American to make him fall on the beach for a sexy Dutch spy (a giant octopus supposedly menacing her is part of this bizarre honey-trap). John DugdaleThis French opening to part two, which nods to Proust, transforms Pynchon’s second world war epic from a London novel to a European one - Slothrop escapes, and heads north towards Germany.

The Sea, The Sea (1978) by Iris Murdoch

Autocratic theatre director Charles Arrowby retires to write his memoirs in a seaside cottage on a rocky coast (Cornwall?), but the past becomes uncomfortably real when he runs into his first love from 40 years earlier in a nearby village. Twenty-seven years later, John Banville would use a not dissimilar setting and set-up in another Booker winner, The Sea.


John Dugdale

The GuardianTramp

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