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.

 

 

 

Friday Fun: For the Terminally Lazy…

… Or should that be ‘the truly wise’? Because there is no better place for reading, especially when you are poorly, as I am at the moment. (Perfect timing for the long Ascension weekend in glorious sunshine – boo!) Besides, I can’t help but remember that doggerel rhyme by Dorothy Parker:

Daily dawns another day;
I must up, to make my way.
Though I dress and drink and eat,
Move my fingers and my feet,
Learn a little, here and there,
Weep and laugh and sweat and swear,
Hear a song, or watch a stage,
Leave some words upon a page,
Claim a foe, or hail a friend—
Bed awaits me at the end.

Up, and out, and on; and then
Ever back to bed again,
Summer, Winter, Spring, and Fall—
I’m a fool to rise at all!

Bed with a view, from architecturendesign.net
Bed with a view, from architecturendesign.net
Or you can turn your back on the view, from quadcityhome.net
Or you can turn your back on the view, from quadcityhome.net
Some like to live dangerously in their beds, from architecturendesign.net
Some like to live dangerously in their beds, from architecturendesign.net
This one has a handy reading chaiselongue. From fivestarbrewing.com
This one has a handy reading chaise longue. From fivestarbrewing.com
For camping (or should that be 'glamping'?) fans, from architecturendesign.net
For camping (or should that be ‘glamping’?) fans, from architecturendesign.net
For those who prefer bunk beds, from viralnova.com
For those who prefer bunk beds, from viralnova.com

 

 

 

Most Underrated Authors (Personal Selection)

Well, of course I owe it to everyone (and myself) to put a more positive spin on things.  It’s easy to vent about overrated books. It’s easy to be harsh with authors, especially when we cannot replicate their success.  But which books deserve a wider audience?  Because this is how I choose to define ‘underrated’ -not in terms of critical appreciation, but which should be better known. I try to stick to books which were either written in English or are easily available in translation. The issue of how little foreign literature is translated into English (although crime fiction seems to be the exception here) is a separate rant, which I will leave for another day.

1) Patricia Highsmith:

Yes, everyone has heard of The Talented Mr. Ripley (or at least lusted over Jude Law at his most gorgeous as Dickie Greenleaf in the Anthony Minghella film).  But Patricia Highsmith has written some of the most chilling psychological thrillers in the world.  So of course she is underrated, because she is usually shunted into the ‘just another crime fiction writer’ category.  What is perhaps most unsettling about her work is that her criminals/murderers are not evil monsters: instead, they are portrayed as confused, vulnerable humans, who find ways to justify even their most vile actions.  Very much like you and me, in fact.

2) Dorothy Parker:

Everybody quotes her witticisms, most people have heard of her ‘Men seldom make passes/at girls who wear glasses’, she was the most acerbic critic.  But how many have read her short stories?  They are funny and brilliantly observed, as you might expect. Her first-person monologues are as true-to-life and fresh (and as good an insight into tortured female psyche) as the day they were written (try ‘The Telephone Call’ or ‘The Little Hours’).  But they are also poignant and terribly painful at times.

3) Jean Rhys:

Speaking of poignant stories of no-hope, grim exploitation and cynicism, nobody does it better than Jean Rhys, especially in her short stories.  Like Barbara Pym (another underrated writer) she was forgotten and out of print for nearly two decades.  She is still largely unknown, with the exception of  ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, the story of Mr. Rochester’s first wife.

4) Tove Jansson:

I adored the Moomins when I was a child, but only now, when I am rereading them with my children, do I realise just how much of a craftswoman the Finnish artist and writer really is.  The books work on many levels – they are absurd, funny, highly imaginative, yet also tinged with melancholy and asking profound questions.  And she has written books for adults too!  ‘The Summer Book’ brings back so many memories of childhood, a beautiful and unsentimental description of the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter.

5) Maj Sjӧwall and Per Wahlӧӧ:

I’ve written about them before but they really are one of the earliest and best, most influential writers of crime fiction (of the police procedural type).  Whether you care for their Marxist leanings or not, you have to appreciate their realism, their deceptively simple prose, their subtlety and their questioning of all the values and treasured beliefs of society.

Looking at this list, I notice that my underrated authors are virtually all female (or a husband-and-wife team).  I wonder if there is something subconscious at work there, that I feel women’s literature (or the so-called women’s topics) are still regarded as somehow second-class.

What is your opinion?  Which authors have I missed out?  Is it easier to neglect women authors?  Thank you all so much for your honest and illuminating comments on the overrated books post.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on books and authors we should know better.