Most Obscure from My Shelves – Anglo Favourites

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?

On the top of my centre-right bookshelf I have an odd assortment of old editions by favourite authors (many of which I bought second-hand at school jumble sales). Here are three which I have read many times and probably will reread in the future.

Sylvia Plath: Letters Home

This book represents my ‘way into’ Sylvia Plath, who became one of my favourite poets (she still is, by the way, although I am less interested in her biography by now). I found this rather massive book in the English language bookshop in Vienna when I was about 12 and had no idea who Sylvia Plath was. In fact, I thought it was going to be a bit like Daddy-Long-Legs, which was a book I loved at the time (the film too, with Cyd Charisse). Clearly, my parents had no idea who she was either, or they might not have approved the purchase of it for their overly dramatic, moody, poetically inclined pre-teen. But of course, this is the carefully sanitised version of Sylvia that her mother got to see. Nevertheless, impressive enough to make me scoop up everything else she had ever written or that had ever been written about her.

Elizabeth Goudge: The Herb of Grace

This is one of those books I came across at a book sale. Although the cover was pink and yellow (an uneasy combination of colours), I picked it up because I loved the author, having read The Little White Horse aloud to my mother while she was cooking, and also enjoyed The White Witch, The Middle Window and The Heart of the Family (I laboriously ticked all the other books I’d read on the inside cover). Again, I must have been 12-13 at the time and I’m not sure what I got out of this book about post-war trauma, adultery, forgiveness, love and friendship, other than the many references to The Wind in the Willows. Goudge’s style feels old-fashioned and quaint nowadays, has perhaps not aged as well as Barbara Pym or Elizabeth Taylor, but she was my introduction to that kind of writing, which one might call the ‘furrowed English middlebrow with an ironic raise of the eyebrow’. I don’t mean any contempt, by the way, as I love this writing style, although as I grew up I tended to prefer the more mordant wit of Muriel Spark or Nancy Mitford.

Now that I am reading the Cazalet chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, I can say that this trilogy reminds me of that better-known series.

Lawrence Durrell: Monsieur

Having adored Gerald Durrell’s evocation of his family’s life in Corfu, which we had read out to us in class while we were doing arts and crafts (I was always far more interested in the book than in the crafty side of things), I borrowed Lawrence Durrell as soon as I could from the library (ah, the charms of benign neglect by parents and librarians!). The baroque prose and evocative landscapes of the Alexandria Quartet enchanted me. I soon graduated to the Avignon Quintet, of which this is one, perhaps my favourite, with its description of Christmas in a crumbling chateau in Provence (yep, the love of chateau and France have been a constant in my life). What would I think of it twenty-odd years later if I were to reread it? I now prefer the more pared down style of writing, so would it give me indigestion from all the riches?

Most Obscure on My Shelves – the Austro-Hungarian Empire

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?

We’re at the lower centre-left bookshelves now (I always go bottom to top, for some reason) and this is where my literature in German resides, as well as my Nordics. I have a lot of Scandinoir, obviously, including the entire collection of the Martin Beck novels, which is one of my favourite crime fiction series ever. I also have a lot of Tove Jansson and live for the day when everyone will appreciate her as much as I do. But I have written about these before, so my choices are slightly more obscure now. And when I looked more closely, I realised they all represented different parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Elias Canetti: Die gerettete Zunge 

Translated into English as ‘The Tongue Set Free’, this is a memoir of Canetti’s peripatetic childhood and youth in Vienna, Zürich, England and Bulgaria. A book with multicultural references and influences which will resonate with any ‘Third Culture Kid’, it is also an insight into the life of a well-educated Jew in the early 20th century in Central Europe. This book tells me more about being European than many contemporary writers. We are all creatures of many different facets, where worlds collide and merge.

What gives a man worth is that he incorporates everything he has experienced. This includes the countries where he has lived, the people whose voices he has heard. It also takes in his origins, if he can find out something about them… not only one’s private experience but everything concerning the time and place of one’s beginnings.

Brigitte Hamann: The Reluctant Empress

This is the English translation of what is generally considered the definitive biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sissi), the romantic, unhappy, complex figure who has been adulated and booed at, and who found her death on the shores of Lake Geneva. The author was a well-respected German historian who lived in Vienna for most of her life, and her books are not only well-informed and meticulously researched, but also fun and readable. She also happened to be the mother of my earliest childhood friend, and I spent many happy days at her home when I was a wee mite. Her book Hitler’s Vienna, proving that Hitler’s anti-semitism and ideology of hatred was nourished by the Austrian capital just before the First World War, proved controversial of course in Austria. She passed away last year.

Franz Kafka: Tagebücher (Diaries) – 1910-1923

OK, I admit, Kafka is anything but obscure, but he was one of my major literary influences as I was growing up. In this volume, Max Brod gathered together pretty much all of the fragments of notebooks which Kafka had bequeathed to him, and they are the ultimate inspiration for anyone who is struggling to be a writer. He scribbles about everything – self-hatred, moaning about his friends, complaining about his work, about the world, how hard it is to write – but  he also writes about his dreams and fragments of fiction and ideas for stories. I may admire his finished work more, but it’s above all this diary (and Virginia Woolf’s) which made me a writer.

 

 

Most Obscure on My Shelves – the Far East

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 wish I could say I had a large selection of Chinese, Korean and other literature, but who am I kidding? My main contact with the ‘Orient’ has been via Japan. I’ve tried to stay away from my obvious favourite fiction, however, like Dazai Osamu or Genji Monogatari or Mishima Yukio. None of those are obscure enough…

Charles A. Moore (ed.): The Japanese Mind

I was rather smitten with this when I first started studying Japanese, but in the meantime I’ve recognised it for what it is: another brick in the wall of the myth of Japanese uniqueness. This – in a simplistic nutshell – is the propensity for both Western and Japanese historians, anthropologists, literary critics, philosophers and social scientists to claim that Japanese culture is so different from anything else that it is impossible for anyone outside Japan to truly understand it (or make any valid critical study of it). The words ‘enigmatic’ and ‘paradoxical’ appear so many times throughout this book. While I agree that Japan can seem quite alien to those who have grown up in the Western canon, there are so many Korean and Chinese influences, Buddhist influences and similarities of Shintoism to other pagan religions. Besides, can it not be said of any culture that it is quite unique (especially in the way it mixes and matches and borrows from others)?

This is not the cover page of the edition I have, because that one is white and does not come out well against the background.

Fujiwara Teika (ed.): Hyakunin Isshu – transl. and annotated by Iulia Waniek

A Hundred Poets with One Poem Each (the literal translation of the title) is a Japanese anthology of poetry from the early 13th century. Many of the poems, however, are much older, going back to the 7th century, and the reason why we still have them today is thanks to Fujiwara’s tireless enthusiasm in collecting them. It remains to this day one of the most popular poetry  books in Japan – there is even a New Year’s card game based on intimate knowledge of the poems. The edition I own has each poem in Japanese plus translation, and a bit of commentary/history alongside each one. The poems were translated into Romanian by my former sensei at university, a talented Japanologist and now a good friend. For those of you who are not fluent in Romanian – really, how can you NOT be? – you can read the poems in English, with lovely illustrations and explanations on this site.

Theatre performance

Ruxandra Marginean Kohno: The Creative Tradition of Nō Theatre

I can’t resist boasting about another of my talented friends – a former classmate at university, who went on to complete her Ph.D. on the Nō Theatre in Japan, at the prestigious Waseda University in Tokyo. Proving, once and for all, that Japanese culture can be understood and interpreted in a fascinating way by a Western scholar. The author goes beyond the ‘obvious suspect’ which is Zeami (one of the greatest actors and creators of Nō), looking especially at ways in which this type of theatre has been adapted and modernised following the massive cultural changes of the Meiji period (1868-1912), when Japan opened up to the Western world. Ruxandra has a special affinity with theatre, since both of her parents are actors, and she effortlessly weaves in references to Eric Hobsbawm, Umberto Eco, Foucault and Gadamer. This is a revised, bilingual version of her Ph.D. thesis (Japanese/Romanian), published in Romania in 2009.

 

 

Most Obscure on my Shelves – the Viragos

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 others are truly obscure choices bought half a lifetime ago at book sales. 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 will spare you my professional books (anthropology, social sciences, business etc.), although I might mention the odd ‘professional’ one which has had a significant impact on me.

I’ll start from the right hand side of my bookshelves to the left, in true Japanese writing fashion. It so happens that all of them are Viragos today.

Gillian Slovo: Every Secret Thing

This is a memoir of Gillian’s remarkable and famous parents, Joe Slovo and Ruth First, South Africa’s pioneering anti-apartheid white activists. It is a wonderful historical picture of a country in turmoil, but also an intimate family portrait, warts and all. What does it feel like to come second to political commitments? What does it feel like to live with two wonderful, difficult, complicated people? As the author says in the introduction: ‘It was written in the heat of my passion to try and work out what my parents meant to me, and what they meant to the country to which they devoted their lives.’

I have a special additional fondness for Gillian, since she was (together with Sarah Dunant) my tutor for a brief but life-changing Faber writing course. So it’s a signed copy and very precious.

Nell Dunn: Up the Junction

When people bemoan the lack of working class voices in fiction, I usually point them in the direction of the Angry Young Men, but it’s true that there have been fewer of those in recent decades. And where were the Angry Young Women? Well, Nell Dunn qualifies as one of them. Although she originally came from a privileged background, she lived in Battersea and South London and came to know at first hand the young girls whose voices she so accurately captures in this collection of short stories, published in 1963. The grimy, less reported side of the Swinging Sixties, the stories feel like eavesdropping on conversations – they’re in equal parts comic and shocking, gritty and resilient. The film based on the book sanitised some of the darker aspects.

I read this book ages ago, borrowing it from the British Council library in Bucharest in my teens. I’ve never found it since, but then came across this battered copy at a charity shop in Manchester a couple of years ago.

Angela Carter (ed.): Wayward Girls and Wicked Women

The third Virago book is this anthology of stories of what one might call today ‘Nasty Women’, extolling those unfeminine virtues of discontent, impatience, sexual disruption and bad manners. These subversive stories by Leonora Carrington, Katherine Mansfield, Colette, Bessie Head, Luo Shuo, Jamaica Kincaid and others are all about being ‘not nice’. We find witches and prostitutes and fraudsters. Some of the stories are dark, some are funny, some are both and might make you squirm. It was one of the first books I bought when I came to London to study for my Ph. D. (about charismatic women in new religions, incidentally). But I’ll leave you with a quote from Angela Carter herself:

And all these disparate women have something else in common – a certain sense of self-esteem, however tattered. They know they are worth more than that which fate has allotted them. They are prepared to plot and scheme; to snatch; to battle; to burrow away from within, in order to get their hands on that little bit extra, be it of love, or money, or vengeance, or pleasure, or respect.

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?