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.