Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – the Classics

While bringing down books from the loft, I realised that I had some very ancient, almost forgotten books there, which have travelled with me across many international borders and house moves. Some of them are strange editions of old favourites, while some are truly obscure choices. I thought I might start a new series of ‘Spot the Weirdest or Most Obscure Book on my Shelf’. Although it can also be interpreted as ‘Books which don’t receive the buzz or recognition which they deserve.’ I would love to hear of anything on your shelves which you consider unusual or obscure or deserving of wider attention? How did you get hold of it? Why do you still keep it? What does it mean to you?

I inherited some of these classics in cheap editions from my parents, who felt they had to provide me with a good selection of English-language classics, but couldn’t afford to spend too much money on them. They hadn’t necessarily read them themselves (hence the faux pas in allowing me to read Tom Jones and Moll Flanders at the tender age of 11 or so). I steadily added to them, and not just because I studied English literature. They are still books where I can find solace and fun again and again. Most of them are very well known, no obscurities here, so I shall instead highlight three of my favourites, and it was hard to keep it to just three. I also wanted to include Daphne du Maurier, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford, Oscar Wilde…

Christopher Marlowe: The Complete Plays

Marlowe is a fascinating and mysterious character in his own right, and this has led to a renewed interest in his plays. But he was also a very talented writer, a real poet, and who knows how he might have developed if he had not been killed at such an early age. Tamburlaine should be performed nowadays, because it offers an alternative discourse to the Christian tradition. For all of Tamburlaine’s failings as a human, for all of his tyrannical tendencies, he is also presented as a figure to inspire admiration. He becomes wiser and more inspirational in death than he ever was in life. Meanwhile, Doctor Faustus is full of compassion for a man’s self-delusion and flaws: in his pursuit of absolute beauty and knowledge, Faustus hurts himself above all. Talk about unlikeable characters, and yet making the audience empathise with them!

Laurence Sterne: Tristram Shandy

The most eccentric, wildly experimental, iconoclastic novel of all times, it just breaks all the rules and gets away with it with humour and brilliant characterisation. Who can resist the bumbling good-hearted charm of Uncle Toby? Or the pedantic and stubborn Mr Shandy who picks up an opinion as a man might pick up an apple, it becomes his own, and he would rather lose his life than give it up? Who can forget the scene when Tristram’s mother reminds her husband to wind up the clock at a crucial moment? It is not a book for everyone. Parts of it are frustrating, repetitive and dull. Some are an absolute riot. It’s not a book to read all in one sitting. It’s made for dipping in and out, for going off on a tangent, for experiencing the sheer joy and exuberance of language and storytelling. Let me try and reproduce one of my favourite parts, the beginning of Chapter XL, in which the narrator describes his storytelling style.

The Portable Dorothy Parker

Although she is much quoted for her mordant wit (and this Viking Portable edition of her works has never been out of print), I can’t help feeling that Dorothy Parker is underestimated. She is not just facile poetry and satire, just like Jane Austen is not proto-chick lit. Her life and her circle of rather second-rate but very sociable writers have overshadowed her literary accomplishments. Her poetry is minx-like and acerbic, and can feel a little dated nowadays, although it’s what she is best remembered for (and her dismissive, corrosive reviews of plays and books). But in her short stories she can take off her plastic mask and display real emotions, all the fragility of life and love. Her frantic soliloquies like The Telephone Call  or The Little Hours will be instantly recognisable to those who have waited for a lover to call or struggled with insomnia. They sound wholly natural, like the unfiltered blog posts of today, but are in fact much harder to do than it looks. Not a word is out of place. And then there is the heartbreaking, unsentimental drama of The Lovely Leave or Big Blonde. She takes the smallest of canvases, and paints all our fears of mortality and of being alone and unloved.




30 thoughts on “Most Obscure on My Bookshelves – the Classics”

  1. Bloody love all of these – agree with you about Marlowe, he really should be produced more often. There was a student production of Tamburlaine when I was at uni but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen revivals of Edward II (which is really good!) or The Massacre At Paris (which is at least interesting). Tristram Shandy is also wonderful 🙂

    1. Yes, uni seems to be the only place where anyone ever experiments with Marlowe, but no professional theatres. More’s the pity! Lawrence Sterne feels so grown-up at times (particularly in A Sentimental Journey) and so juvenile at others. I can’t imagine him as a clergyman, somehow…

      1. I kind of can (imagine him as a clergyman), mostly because I know a few clergymen and they’re rather…youthful, shall we say! You’re so right about professional theatres though, when was the last time a place like the National or the Old Vic staged a Marlowe play?! Probably even Middleton gets more respect…

    2. Time for smugness here. I’ve not only seen a revival of Edward II but it was with Ian McKellen in the title role and, if memory serves, Timothy West in support. It was about fifty years ago at the Edinburgh Festival.

      The reason I’m uncertain about West’s participation is that they were doing the Marlowe in rotation with WS’s Richard II and, while I know McEllen was the lead in both when I saw them, I can’t recall if West played in both or just the Shakespeare.

      My mum took me. I think she’d forgotten the details of Edward’s demise.

      1. Oooh, so jealous… I love it when parents slip up for the sake of good literature. Those are usually the occasions we remember best! (My mother took me to see a very bawdy staging of the opera Lulu by Alban Berg. She nearly ran out at the interval…)

      2. Yes, it was indeed Timothy West as Mortimer. It was performed in tandem with Shakespeare’s “Richard II”, with McKellen and West as, respectively, Richard and Bolingbroke.

        Timothy West returned to Edinburgh Festival in 1971 to play Lear. It was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw in the theatre (I was only eleven at the time) – and I’ve been a Shakespeare nut ever since!

        1. It’s so much better to see Shakespeare performed than studied at school… Envious of these performances, although I did see a very good Richard II with Ralph Fiennes as Richard and Linus Roache as Bolingbroke.

        2. Thanks for the confirmation of my hazy memories, argumentativeoldgit (say, how come you’re named after me?). To be honest, for me if anything West, always one of my favorite actors, was the bigger attraction over McKellen.

          I actually ran into him, sort of, a number of years aftrerwards. We’d stopped in a Devon village for a pub lunch and, vaguely recognizing one of the people at the next table, I said hello in the usual polite way and he said hello back. Was it someone I’d played cricket with, something like that? It was only a few minutes later that I saw the poster on the wall for the village fete, today, with West as the guest for the Grand Opening. Duh. Much laughter.

  2. Oh, I do like Dorothy Parker’s wit and intelligence, Marina Sofia. I’m glad you have some of her work. And I hadn’t thought of Tristram Shandy in a very long time. Isn’t it fun when you meet up with those sorts of books again? Your attic is a real treasure trove!!

    1. I am quite glad that I didn’t throw away my books from long ago. Of course, these are favourites within favourites, since they are the books that I have bothered to pack and take with me when I first moved abroad. There are piles of treasures awaiting me at my parents’ home…

  3. Love all of these 🙂 I wanted to reply to you & Elle but for some reason the button won’t come up – just to say I saw Edward II at the National back in 2013 & it was great, which just makes the neglect of Marlowe all the more baffling…

    1. I’ve been militating for more people to read her stories for years. I think she is woefully underrated in that regard. Or remembered for the wrong things, perhaps.

  4. I have not read these authors yet though I might get to Dorothy Parker before the others. I have my own modest share of unread/forgotten authors including Shakespeare and Nietzsche. I plan to read them after retirement.

    1. Ah, famous last words… I realised that if I left everything till my retirement, I risk being exhausted once I retire, and not having any fun along the way…

  5. Your post just reminded that my father, who was an avid reader (5 books at a time, all categories, fiction and non-fiction), would reread Tristam Shandy and Tom Jones every five years or so. I would hear him laughing at 2 a.m. downstairs, and know he was reading one of those books again.
    I haven’t tried to get into Tristam Shandy myself, but laughed looking at those diagrams by the author.
    I have not read any of Dorothy Parker’s short stories, will put those on my enormous TBR pile, and hope that I get to it. I remember a Lillian Hellman short story about her, when she went to Parker’s husband’s funeral. Hellman asked her if she could get anything for her. Parker replied, “Yes, my husband.” Hellman said she couldn’t do that. Parker then said, “Well, then get me a ham on rye with mayo.” She was a brilliant wit.

    1. How lovely, sounds like your dad and I would have got on like a house on fire! Yes, I’ve made it my life mission to promote Dorothy Parker’s short stories, as I feel they have been unfairly neglected, although most people have heard of her.

  6. I love all three books you mention, though I do hope they aren’t obscure!

    How can one not warm to a book in which the title character is accidentally circumcised by a falling window sash?

    1. No, I don’t think they are obscure, but then I would hope that none of the classics are… that’s why they remain classics.
      As for the falling window sash… ’twas nothing, I did not lose two drops of blood by it… British understatement…

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