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.

 

 

 

All that Fuss about David Foster Wallace

A few months ago, when I started getting serious about writing (again), someone pointed me in the direction of a website called ‘I Write Like’. Clever little robots analyse a sample of your writing (in English) and tell you which writer (living or dead) you most resemble. Imagine my surprise when it came up with ‘David Foster Wallace’ after I cut and pasted a chapter of my WIP.  Surprising, because: 1) my novel is crime fiction, and 2) I had never heard of this author.  (Yes, my grasp of contemporary American fiction is a little shaky.)  So I ignored this first result and submitted another text.

Same result.

By now, I was getting convinced that this was the default setting of the website, no matter what your input was.  So I tried a poem.  And got Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  What does one of the world’s funniest books have in common with my rather moody and depressing poetry?  Anybody’s guess!

So, although I was unconvinced by the analytical tool, this website did make me curious about David Foster Wallace.  I started reading up on him.  And boy, was there a lot of stuff written about him!  Most recently, a biography by D.T. Max entitled Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.  This, in turn, led to an outburst by Bret Easton Ellis on Twitter, culminating in him calling David Foster Wallace ‘the most tedious, overrated, tortured, pretentious writer of my generation’.

Well, with an intro to like that, I just had to read the man himself!  Wouldn’t you?  (I am cheating a little bit with the timeline here: in fact, I had bought ‘Infinite Jest’ just before the summer holidays and intended to polish it off during my inactive, very long-seeming days on that nondescript beach in Greece that my husband’s family calls home.) I am about halfway through this doorstopper of a book: page 508 of its 1079 pages (including endnotes). And I can tell you two things for sure:

1) This book is not made for beach reading (although it is good for dipping in and out of).

2) I do not write like him at all.

Or at least I hope I don’t. Not that I disliked his style.  I was, by turns, amused, fascinated, bemused, indifferent, enthusiastic, critical, passionate and infuriated.  It is not an easy read and you have to be in the mood for it – which is difficult to sustain over that many pages.  It is a book breathtaking in its ambition: to capture all of contemporary American society, which is why it’s probably best read in several sittings, across many months.  Although individual passages glowed with insight and humour, although there was beautiful writing which made me want to reread and quote, I did find the cumulative effect rather wearisome.  There, I said it!  Does that mean I am siding with Bret Easton Ellis?

No, not really, because I don’t understand why he is attacking David Foster Wallace himself for the halo of sentimentality and mantle of sainthood that his readers and followers have bestowed on him. It’s like accusing Van Gogh of commercialisation because his ‘Sunflowers’ sell so well, or Shakespeare of insisting that people use his newfangled word inventions.

I may have no wish to write like David Foster Wallace myself, but I can still enjoy reading him (in small gulps).  If we only liked reading people like ourselves, the world would be a very bland place. I find some of the imitators of David Foster Wallace tiresome and pretentious.  I find all imitators tiresome, unless it’s a clever sequel or deliberate satire. And I dislike literary pretentiousness, so well satirised in the character of Monica in Woody Allen’s ‘To Rome with Love’. I am sure more have praised ‘Infinite Jest’ and its author than have actually read it or him.  Isn’t that what happens with other famous works such as Ulysses, Remembrance of Things Past and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman?

Which, by the way, all three happen to be heartbreaking works of staggering genius.  Not easy, but stick with them!

* Gorgeous new graphic design for Tristram Shandy at Fast Company: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1663094/wanted-tristram-shandy-gets-a-stunning-graphic-makeover