A hilarious romance by a precocious nine-year-old. The fantasies of a septuagenarian foot fetishist. An aristocrat’s life spent doing nothing on a sofa. Just some of the riches contained in 10 little-known books that deserve to be treasured.
Most novels come, have their day, and are gone. For ever. Most deserve their “do not resuscitate” label. Every so often, though, a novel rises from the grave to claim its belated fame. On 5 July last year, addressing the nation on the Today programme, Ian McEwan did a revival job on Stoner – a novel published to modest praise in 1965 and long out of print. John Williams’s bleak, but exquisitely written, chronicle of a second-rate prof in a third-rate American university went on to become the 2013 novel of the year.
What other dead and forgotten works would one dig up from the dusty vaults of the British Library? Everyone will have their own overdue for resurrection list: here’s my top 10. Not all of them are what the critics would call “great novels” (a couple most certainly are) but they are, I can guarantee, great reads. And what more do you want from a work offiction?
10. Nightmare Alley, William Lindsay Gresham, 1946
Gresham killed himself in 1962, alone, in a one-night hotel room, his pocket full of business cards reading: “No Address. No Phone. No Business. No Money. Retired.” Gresham’s novel popularised the term “geeks”. Forget Mark Zuckerberg. Gresham’s grim story is about the carnival “wild man” (alias “Geek”), the luckless down-and-out employed to bite the heads off living chickens in travelling carnivals. Along with The Grapes of Wrath and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, this is a great American Depression-era novel. Read and shudder. And relish.
Keynote line: “A third of life is spent unconscious and corpselike.”
9. The Young Visiters, Daisy Ashford, 1919
Young Miss Ashford wrote novels after tea and before bedtime (a strict half-past six) for the delectation of her father, a Whitehall civil servant. Pater duly copied the stories out, retaining his clever daughter’s quaint grammar and spelling and stunningly precocious plots picked up from romance novels left around by her older sisters. The narrative opens (imagine the ubiquitous “[sic]” after all the misspellings): “Mr Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking peaple to stay with him. He had quite a young girl staying with him of 17 named Ethel Monticue. Mr Salteena had dark short hair and mustache and wiskers which were very black and twisty.”
Ethel has “a blue velvit frock which had grown rarther short in the sleeves” (so, one must suspect, did young Daisy have such a frock). She is given to “sneery” looks and a “snappy tone” when crossed. It gets funnier. And never fool yourself that nine-year-olds don’t see what grownups get up to.
Keynote line: “My life will be sour grapes and ashes without you.” (Mr Salteena, when Ethel marries elsewhere. The old lecher has to make do with one of the maids at Buckingham palace: “a plesant girl of 18 with a round red face and rather stary eyes”.)
8. The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa, 1991
Pessoa, a minor figure in the minor Lisbon literary world, kept body and soul together during his lifetime by office servitude. It was not a long lifetime. He died in 1935, aged 47, of cirrhosis. He was a “discreet alcoholic” – a discreet everything, in fact. In his remains was found a large trunk stuffed with 25,000 sheets of manuscript. The sheets were jigsawed together – rather like the Dead Sea scrolls – by a troupe of Pessoan disciples, who delivered it to the world half a century after the author’s death. There is no plot, merely a thematically arranged series of world-weary aperçus and epigrams, of the deepest Portuguese gloom and existential perplexity – eg “Who will save me from existence? It isn’t death I want, or life, it’s the other thing.” The other thing? Answers, please, to a clerk mournfully drinking himself to death in Lisbon.
Keynote line: “All I ever asked of life was that it should pass me by without my even noticing it.”
7. The Diary of a Mad Old Man, Junichiro Tanizaki, 1961
Most of us read novels most intensely at two stages of life. First in early adolescence – when one lives with one’s nose in a book. Secondly in late life, when one has time to “get round” to the books one has always promised oneself. I am struck in bookshops by racks, newly erected in the last decade, offering “teen fiction”. If walk-in, walk-through bookshops survive (not a certainty), I shall expect soon to see racks spring up labelled “old guys’ novels”.
Junicho Tanizaki’s (very) old-guy novel is set in 1950s Tokyo. The “mad old man”, Mr Utsugi, is in his late 70s. The author was in his mid-70s when he published the book, with only a couple of years to live. Utsugi is decaying – the last flickers of his life are “mad” sexuality: that flame never dies. In this terminal phase of his life, his geriatric lust is directed towards his daughter-in-law, who, in return for large amounts of cash, allows him to indulge his rampant foot fetishism on her tiny extremities. Grim and comic in tone, Tanizaki’s novel does not once mention the second world war.
Keynote line: “I haven’t the slightest desire to cling to life, yet as long as I live I cannot help feeling attracted to the opposite sex.”
6. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler, 1982
There are novels so good that you pass them on to others to read. There are other novels so good that you want to keep them to yourself, as a kind of secret, like Silas Marner’s gold under the floorboards. This is one for the floorboards.
The novel takes the form of a mother’s long flashback as she lies, blind, on her deathbed. She valiantly kept together what the world would think a happy American family. It wasn’t. The Tull family’s “togetherness” distils nothing but poison. The one amiable offspring, Ezra, sets up an eatery in the Tulls’ native Baltimore (Tyler’s home territory) to which he gives the rueful name “Homesick Restaurant”. Their home is indeed sick. The last we see of Ezra, he may have cancer but he’s afraid to go to the doctor in case it’s cancer. Tyler believed this was her best novel. It’s never, I think, quite received its critical due.
Keynote line: “You think we’re a family. You think we’re some jolly, situation-comedy family when we’re particles, torn apart, torn all over the place and our mother was a witch.” Ding dong.
5. Cockfighter, Charles Willeford, 1962
Willeford achieved late-life fame with his Hoke Mosley crime novels – now regarded as classics of Miami noir. He himself regarded Cockfighter as his legacy book. Cockfighting (of which Willeford wholly approved) is presented as something archetypally manly (only male birds fight) and quintessentially American. “As every cocker knows,” the novel tells us, “honest Abe Lincoln was once a cockpit referee.” George Washington was a fan. The cockpit incarnates the American frontier spirit as symbolically as did the corrida for Hemingway. Cockfighting is illegal in the US, although it is still a very popular, particularly in the south. One closes the novel, almost wanting to see one of the horrible things.
Keynote line: “‘What matters is not the idea a man holds but the depth at which he holds it.’ Ezra Pound.” (Cockfigther’s epigraph).
4. The Ice House, Nina Bawden, 1983
This novel should carry a health warning for male readers. “Read at your Discomfort, Men.” Bawden’s own, typically acidic, three-word summary was “adultery in Islington” – a joke on the scorned “orgasm in Hampstead” school of fiction. The main line of the plot is embroidered with subplots, all tending to the same jaundiced view about marriage and the visceral distaste which women (all of them, as we understand) feel for men. There is painfully lingering attention in the novel, for male readers, on the unaesthetic properties of the naked (but hirsute) male buttocks, unsightly paunches and general smelliness. Flesh of their flesh? Not for the missus. And the “ice house”? An image for the frigid prison that marriage with a man represents for every woman. Bawden raises female scorn to an art form.
Keynote line: “He was born second-rate.” (They all are.)
3. The Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Xueqin, 1792
This novel has been recommended as “the best starting point for any understanding of Chinese psychology, culture and society”. Mao instructed that it should be read five times. At twice the length of War and Peace, it is not a quick read (the Penguin Classics translation is split across five volumes, under the title The Story of the Stone). Nor is it very easy for occidental readers to get their heads round. It starts in heaven with a stone politely requesting passage to earth from a Taoist priest and a Buddhist monk. A child is duly born with a piece of jade in its mouth. The novel that ensues has a vast overarching narrative and a seething mass of episodes centred on some 600 characters – the population of a small town – and the up-and-down chronicle of two great clans. A strange and fascinating reading experience. You’ll need five holidays, though, if it’s your beach book.
Keynote line: “The Best Chinese Novel You’ve Never Heard of.” (John Minford, professor of Chinese literature)
2. Elective Affinities, Wolfgang von Goethe, 1809
This is not a novel that, on the face of it, has much going for it in the readability stakes. What the title means could be one of the tougher questions on University Challenge. The German is even more of a mouthful:Wahlverwandschaften. There’s a nice surprise, however, for anyone who clambers through the titular barbed wire. What follows is a crystalline novella that poses a teasing everyday question: why do we fall in love with some people and not others? What “chemistry” is at work to create the sexual sympathies and antipathies which shape our lives? The plot of every Mills & Boon romance is formulated in this novel with geometrical precision. Thomas Mann read Elective Affinities five times before embarking on the perverse compounds of paedophile love he chronicles in Death on Venice. One reading will convince you how good this novel is.
Keynote line: “Man is a true Narcissus; he delights to see his own image everywhere; and he spreads himself underneath the universe, like the amalgam behind the glass.”
1. Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov, 1859
For my money (six shillings, when I first bought the Penguin Classic in 1957) the most enjoyable, and saddest, novel ever written. In the late 1940s – a peculiarly frantic period of British life – the critic VS Pritchett wrote a witty piece revolving around the paradox of what he called “the Russian day”. It must have been longer than our 24 GMT hours, Pritchett speculated. Russian upper classes seemed – if Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Turgenev were to be believed – to have so much burdensome time on their hands. Clocks moved slower; weeks dragged; months crawled under the vast Russian skies and across the endless steppes. Life, for the Sashas, Pierres and Myshkins, seemed permanently on hold.
Goncharov’s novel is set in the period shortly before the emancipation of the serfs – a period in which, as in the antebellum American south (“Peel me a grape, Beulah”), serfdom has rotted all willpower in the serf-owning class. Goncharov eponymously calls the Russian disease “Oblomovitis”. Oblomov is “a gentleman by birth and a collegiate secretary by rank” who could more accurately be called an upper-class layabout. Lying about is, in fact, his main occupation in life. He can barely be bothered to get out of bed (where he’s discovered as the story opens), unless it’s to lumber across to his sofa and pass the day there, dressing-gowned, doing nothing other than wait for bedtime to roll round. He lives on the revenue of an estate, a thousand miles away from St Petersburg. The estate is worm-holed by parasites more energetic than he can be bothered to be. Oblomov does not care. No landlord is more absentee.
The novel describes, at extraordinary length, the Oblomovian day. He eats voraciously and unmercifully nags his luckless serf, Zakhar, who has “boundless loyalty” to the master whom nonetheless (like everyone else) he cheats whenever he can. Friends call. Oblomov never calls back.
This “sublime sluggard”, as Pritchett calls him, is contemptible but lovable, and even – in a perverse way – admirable. He embodies “the poetry of procrastination”. In the climax (so to miscall it) of Goncharov’s narrative – after nothing happening apart from gorging, loafing, bickering, not working and not marrying (his friend gets the girl, Olga) – Oblomov is found, years on, now living in reduced circumstances in the country, still loafing, still scoffing, still serenely at peace with his world. He is stuffed, nowadays, on homelier fare than in St Petersburg, by his housekeeper, Agafya, who treats him rather as French peasants might do a particularly valued Strasbourg goose. Oblomov has a stroke and is paralysed (had he ever been anything else?) and five slow years later dies, well short of the statutory three-score-and-10; although doubtless his lifespan felt positively Methuselean to him. Boredom makes life longer.
Oblomov’s departure happens off-stage. One cannot call it an “event”. In a sense it can barely be said to happen. So torpid is his life in his final years that it is indistinguishable from rigor mortis. He drifts out of life as he drifted into it, and through it, leaving nothing behind him but a word, “Oblomovitis”. His monument.
The novel can be read as a parable of Russia in terminal pre-revolutionary decay. Or it can be read as high comedy (which is howSpike Milligan travestied it in his long-running 1960s stage version). Or one can read Oblomov as a profound allegory of the human condition. “Oblomov? C’est moi.”
Keynote line: VS Pritchett catches the charm of this novel, and of the long-day fiction of Goncharov and his ilk. It can stand as the novel’s keynote line: “In all those Russian novels we seem to hear a voice saying: ‘The meaning of life? One day all that will be revealed to us – probably on a Thursday.'”