Neglected No More: Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road

Although it was a National Book Award finalist when first published in 1961, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road has been a perennial on lists of neglected books, starting with David Madden’s first Rediscoveries compilation in 1971.

As the old joke goes, death was a good career move for Yates. Slowly but steadily, his star has been rising since his passing in 1992, despite the fact that as late as 1999, Stewart O’Nan was writing in the Boston Review of “The Lost World of Richard Yates: How the great writer of the Age of Anxiety disappeared from print.” However, it’s safe to say that it’s now reaching its apogee with the impending release of the Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio.

In anticipation, two of America’s biggest literary magazines, the Atlantic and the New Yorker published feature reviews of the book by two “first call” critics–Christopher Hitchens for the Atlanticand James Wood for the New Yorker. Of the two, Wood’s is the must read, as his often are–respecting, insightful, but cutting when necessary, as in this comment:

That first novel was Revolutionary Road (1961)—the basis of a new movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet— and it could be said to have dissolved its creator’s career even as it founded it, because Yates never published a novel half as good again. To put it brutally, he had about ten good years. His later fiction was compulsive but not compelling, necessary to him but not to his readers, who would always chase the fire of his first novel in the embers of its successors.

Having read all of his novels short of Cold Spring Harbor and most of his short stories, my experience of reading Yates was very much one of chasing the fire.

Thirty years after first reading Revolutionary Road, I can still remember the amazing scene in the hospital, where Yates subtly shifts the point of view to that of Shep Campbell so that he can land the narrative punch with maximum impact. After locking us into April Wheeler’s perspective, we wander off with Shep to grab a cup of coffee only to come back and find that April is dead. It remains one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever experienced in reading.

After that, I went on to read most of Yates’ work over the next year, and although he often succeeds in drawing the reader into the world of failure, disappointment, and desparate dreams, The Easter Parade aside, he never quite manages to bring the pieces together as well.

In further recognition of Yates’ ascendancy, Everyman’s Library is releasing in January 2009 a one-volume edition collecting his three best books: Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade , and his first short story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.

Reading Hitchens’ and Wood’s reviews reminded me of one aspect of Revolutionary Road‘s story of the disillusioned young couple, Frank and April Wheeler. Their dream for escaping the conventional suburban Connecticut life they believe they should abhor is to run off to Paris, where April will get a job working at NATO Headquarters (then still in Paris) and Frank will work in his writing. Ironically, this is very nearly what Fred Holland and Sally White do in George Goodman’s A Time for Paris, recently reviewed on this site. And after Fred and Sally have their European adventure and lived Frank and April’s dream, what do they end up doing?

Getting married and settling down in the suburbs outside New York City.

UW Press to Reissue “Two Kinds of Time”–Forgotten Classic China Travel Book

Cover of UW Press reissue of 'Two Kinds of Time'On the rare occasions when I’m back in the U.S., I always try to take time to stop by a public library and do some browsing through back issues of Book Review Digest. This evening, flipping through the 1950 volume, my eye was caught by the entry for Graham Peck’s Two Kinds of Time. Here is what Robert Payne had to say about it in the Saturday Review:

The present work, jam-packed with anecdotes, incidents, observations, theories, portraits, drawings, obscene jokes, quiet jokes, terrifying jokes, even ordinary jokes, has everything to commend it. It bursts at the seams, but so does Gargantua and Pantagruel. He has not written the modern Chinese Gargantua and Pantagruel, but he has done the nearest thing to it.

I took down the title, of course, and when I got back to the hotel, quickly googled it. To my surprise and pleasure, I found that this book, cited by numerous writers as one of the best books ever written about China by a Westerner, is about to be reissued in full, unabridged form for the first time in nearly sixty years–and from my alma mater, the University of Washington Press.

Peck, a Yale graduate, artist, and heir to a small hairpin fortune, first arrived in China in January 1936 while on a round-the-world trip. He ended up spending the better part of a year there before returning to Derby, Connecticut, where he then spent two years writing up his notes and collecting dozens of drawings into his first book, Through China’s Wall, which was published by Houghton in 1940. The book’s critical reception was superlative: “… the most important, the most fascinating travel book on China”; “remarkably unadulterated travel writing, transmitting observation and experiences close to the sensations of the moments when they occurred to a man of unusually balanced and sensitive intelligence”; “a better characterization in a paragraph than most venerable sinologists could achieve in a volume.” And, as Time‘s reviewer put it, “It is part exquisite travel book, part exciting history, part exotic philosophy.”

Peck returned to China in 1939 and remained there for the next six and a half years, surviving Japanese air raids, accompanying Mao’s Communist forces, and working for the U.S. Office of Information. He then left China for good and returned to his family home in Derby, Connecticut. Although he wrote several children’s books and collaborated with the veteran “China hand” John K. Fairbanks on China: The Remembered Life, it appears that Peck spent most of the rest of his life after 1946 looking backward, not forward. He died in 1968 at the age of 54.

Two Kinds of Time will be published on 30 October 2008 by the University of Washington Press.

Nobel Committee Salutes Neglected Books

In an indirect tribute to neglected books, the selection committee awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature to the French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, who has managed to be successfully ignored by most of the English-speaking reading public for the last forty-some years. But this neglect is understandable, at least in the eyes of Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, who told an Associated Press reporter, “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature …That ignorance is restraining.”

For a quick and admittedly crude assessment of where the US and UK stand with respect to other countries in the recognition of Monsieur Le Clézio’s work, I checked a variety of online bookstores to see how many of his books were currently in print and available for sale. Here are the results:

Overall, this rough survey suggests that U.S. publishers are not doing too bad in keeping up with Le Clézio’s work, at least compared to other countries. And though his novels have never rated very high with any but a small circle of academics and fans of the avant-garde, the fact is that the Atheneum Press was a faithful supporter, issuing fine hardback editions of most of his major novels until the mid-1970s. With the celebrity of a Nobel on his side, Le Clézio is certainly back in demand, and there is a good chance that at least some of these now out-of-print English translations will be coming back. So, in spite of Mr. Engdahl’s assessment, the American publishing industry and reading public tends to be pretty responsive to the Nobel Committee’s championing of a neglected writer–certainly more than they are to this site’s!

Harper Perennial reissue of “The Moonflower Vine” by Jetta Carleton Confirmed

Cover of new Harper Perennial reissue of 'The Moonflower Vine'Easily the most popular neglected book on this site, Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine is now firmly planted in Harper Perennial’s release schedule for the first quarter of 2009. In fact, you can pre-order it on Amazon today–if you’re willing to wait about six months to get the book, that is. A sneak peak at the cover is shown to the left. Jane Smiley, who wrote about the novel in her 2005 book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, will provide the foreword for this new edition.

Neglected Books and Movie Tie-ins

As I read Nicholas Lezard’s review of the new Pushkin Press edition of Stefan Zweig’s novel, The Burning Secret, I thought, “I think I saw this movie.” And sure enough, thanks to IMDB, I quickly confirmed my suspicion: it was filmed in 1988, under the same title, starring Klaus Maria Brandauer and Faye Dunaway.

About a month, ago, my wife and I watched the DVD of “Separate Lies”, starring Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson. It’s a perfect sort of movie for tired married people to watch on a quiet weeknight: human drama, a bit of tension, a murder, good acting, and well-dressed characters. Not great art, but certainly fine craft. But one credit caught my end at the opening: “Based on the novel, ‘A Way through the Woods’, by Nigel Balchin.

I recognized Balchin’s name from this page–his World War Two novel, The Small Back Room, is mentioned a number of times. Its story was also, incidentally, filmed in 1949, a Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger production. A Way through the Woods proved, upon a bit of research, to be a 1951 novel motivated, according to Clive James in what is perhaps the most extensive work on Balchin easily acccessible, “The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin“, in part by the break-up of Balchin’s own marriage due to infidelity.

Just this year, Persephone Classics , a model publisher of neglected books, had the biggest break in its history when Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a novel by Winifred Watson that Persephone rescued from oblivion, was made into a film starring Frances McDormand and Amy Adams, thereby raising the book’s visibility and sales considerably.

I won’t start excavating the many other examples available of film versions of neglected books–but I will recommend paying close attention to the writing credits: you never know when a good (or even bad) movie will lead you to discover an even better book.

Old Street Books publishes Max Blecher’s “Scarred Hearts”

UK publisher Old Street Books has just released the first English translation of Scarred Hearts, a 1937 novel written by the Romanian-Jewish novelist, Max Blecher. The publisher provides the following precis on the novel:

It is Paris in the 1930s and Emanuel, a young Romanian student, finds himself dangerously ill with spinal tuberculosis. He is sent to a sanatorium near the French coast where for a year he remains wrapped in a plaster body cast – the conventional treatment for his disease in the thirties.

In the eerie, isolated world of the sanatorium Emanuel discovers that life goes on. He suffers his horrendous cure and his body slowly deteriorates – but, unexpectedly, he falls in love. This tender, doomed love affair between two patients is at the emotional core of an rare, unforgettable novel that leaves the reader with a fresh understanding of what it means to be human.

In his introduction to the book, Paul Bailey calls it, “… a masterpiece, and all the more poignant for being so beadily accurate about human behaviour in extremis. It is a book to live with, to read again and again, as only great literature demands us to.” Its recent German translation has sold well and been cited as a notable work by several papers.

Writing in the The Independent, on the other hand, Mark Thwaite rates it, “… a weak pastiche of Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Sadly, this is a lost classic that did not need to be found.” The Financial Times reviewer found it, “an elegant and powerful rejoinder to Emmanuel’s despair at life’s futility.” The always fair-minded Complete Review takes a more balanced view:

Like many books in the briefly flourishing sanatorium-genre (think The Magic Mountain), Inimi cicatrizate [the original Romanian title] describes an isolated world standing almost still, full of longueurs and the frustration of not being able to move towards a future, many of the patients almost completely immobilized in a body-armour that keeps the world even more at bay. Blecher conveys this atmosphere more convincingly than most: presumably writing from experience helps, though occasionally he seems almost too close to his material, trying but unable to maintain the distance that he’s trying to achieve in this fiction.

A site visitor alerted me to another work by Blecher now available in English–in this case for free, from Titled Adventures in Immediate Unreality (from the Romanian original ÃŽntâmplări în irealitate imediată ), it’s translated by Jeanie Han and available in an easy-to-read 97-page PDF file.

Terry Teachout on Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

In Commentary magazine “Contentions” blog, critic Terry Teachout salutes the fine series of reissues from New York Review Books and reflects on one of its titles, Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes:

Originally published in 1956, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes was a deliberate attempt to write a novel in the style of Dickens and Trollope whose subject matter was unambiguously contemporary. It tells the tale of Gerald Middleton, a wealthy, washed-up historian who at the age of sixty upends his comfortable but unsatisfying life by investigating a Piltdown Man-like archaeological fraud for which the great friend of his schooldays turns out to have been responsible. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is at once deeply felt, brilliantly witty and morally serious to the highest degree, a combination of traits rarely to be found in a single novel.

This is a far more generous view than Time magazine’s reviewer took when the book was first published in 1956:

Angus Wilson is a social satirist with an itchy trigger finger. The novel is his shooting gallery, and the characters he sets up as targets not only have clay feet but clay minds and clay hearts as well. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is his longest, cleverest and most annihilating display of literary marksmanship to date, and after it is all over, what hangs in the air is the acrid odor of an unrelenting misanthropy.

Wilson’s renown may be back on the rise again. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is back in print on both sides of the Atlantic–from NYRB in the US and Faber Finds in the UK. His work is certainly worth a look for anyone who wants the richness of a 19th century novel combined with the moral complexity of a 20th century work.

Catching Up

I wanted to take a quick moment to note some items of interest to neglected books fans:

Reviews of two novels by Vance Bourjaily

Malaysian blogger Raj Dronamraju recently posted reviews of two novels by Vance Bourjaily. Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Man Who Knew Kennedy'Bourjaily’s is among the names most often mentioned in the emails I receive from site visitors. Dronamraju covers the two Bourjaily novels I’ve always been most intrigued by: The Hound of the Earth (1955) and The Man Who Knew Kennedy (1967). Hound is about a scientist involved in the construction of the first atomic bomb who deserts the Army in disgust with the results of his work and spends seven years as a fugitive. Kennedy is about a man of the same generation who briefly comes into contact with John F. Kennedy in the war and is more elegaic in tone. Dronamraju describes Bourjaily’s writing as, “… a cross between Nelson Algren and Dostoevsky ….Like Dostoevsky, he is a master psychiatrist and shows motivation very well without being too transparent….Like Algren, he speaks in a hard boiled voice with a lot of similes and metaphors.”
[Editor’s note: Kennedy takes its title from another neglected book, Sinclair Lewis’ 1928 short fiction, The Man Who Knew Coolidge (subtitled “Being the soul of Lowell Schnaltz, constructive and Nordic citizen”) is a set of monologues by a Babbitt-like character that one reader summed up as, “… all voice, a very long-winded voice that won’t shut up, even long after ceasing to amuse readers (at least this one).”]

Release of Strange Harbors, its 15th annual anthology of international writing in translation

Each year, the Center for the Art of Translation, based in San Francisco, releases a compilation of poetry and prose translations, often of writing little-known in the English-speaking world. This year’s anthology includes an excerpt from a 1986 Spanish novel, Beatus ille, by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated by the renown Edith Grossman as A Manuscript of Ashes, along with pieces from over two dozen other writers.

Forgotten Book Fridays

I finally came across Forgotten Book Fridays a tag-team blogging effort launched by Patti Abbott, aimed at garnering “recommendations of books we love but might have forgotten over the years” from a group of fellow book bloggers. In the course of a little over four months, a growing army of bloggers have provided recommendations, both on Patti’s site and their own. The majority of titles proposed and discussed so far have been mysteries and thrillers, but with such a diverse group, everything from Peter Beagle’s lovely fantasy, A Fine and Private Place, to Dumbo the Flying Elephant has popped up. There’s no simple way to keep track of all these posts, although the search string, “forgotten books Friday” works pretty well.

Amazon’s Kindle brings a few neglected books back to e-life

I’m still a die-hard, old-wave real-book reader, but I was pleasantly surprised and impressed to find that there are a few titles still out of print but now available in e-print thanks to Amazon’s Kindle. And I’m not counting the many freely-available public domain texts Amazon repackages at a mark-up.

Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, for example, which is consistently recognized as one of the finest SF novels of the 20th century–and is actually, if we can be so adult as to free ourselves from the bounds of genre apartheid, one of the finest novels of the last century, period. Thirty-some years after I first read it, Dying Inside remains one of the most touching human tragedies I’ve ever read. Yet it’s been out of print for years and doesn’t show up that often in the SF shelves of your local used bookstores.

It’s a classic tale: a man with extraordinary gifts wastes them for most of his life and only begins to appreciate his error when those gifts are clearly and rapidly on the wane. The fact that the gift is telepathy in no way diminishes the power of Silverberg’s narrative. Indeed, it gives the story an elegant and ironic twist: David Selig’s tragedy is that he must come to grips with life as an ordinary human.

So, if you’re a Kindler, I encourage you to download a copy for a mere $5.75. Or you can make do with a used paperback edition for a little as 96 cents plus shipping.

Harper Perennial to reissue Jetta Carleton’s “The Moonflower Vine” in 2009

Robert Nedelkoff just passed along the news that Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine, which has easily generated more responses from readers of this site than all other featured books combined, will be reissued by Harper Collins under their Harper Perennial label in April 2009. I’m sure there are many who hope that this time Carleton’s fine novel will get the critical and popular attention it deserves.

Michael Frayn’s “Sweet Dreams” on OneBook

Gary Smailes invited me to nominate a neglected book for his OneBook blog. Gary set up OneBook as a living project to which he invites a variety of writers to discuss the book they’d recommend to others–the desert island book, if you will–if they could only recommend one.

It was easy for me to pick my OneBook: Michael Frayn’s Sweet Dreams (featured here on this site). There are so many delightful and wise things to be found there that I find myself turning to it again and again–reading it five times now since I first discovered it back around 1978. Sadly, it remains out of print in the U.S., but Gary’s graciously included links to the UK paperback edition still available through

An Interview with John Seaton, editor of Faber Finds

Serendipity has always played a large role in my experiences with neglected books, and serendipity today led me to pass a very interesting and enjoyable hour with John Seaton, editor of the new Faber Finds series. When I learned of Faber’s new venture into republishing a large and diverse list of out-of-print titles, I took up their public invitation and sent them an email offering my perennial nominee, W. V. Tilsley’s Other Ranks. A few days later, I got a reply from John himself, expressing interest and asking for help in locating a copy.

As it happened, I was scheduled to come to London for a project management conference a few weeks later, so I offered to drop off a copy of my own photocopy while in the city. John invited me to stop by for a chat. So after a day full of project management methods and practices, I headed to Faber and Faber’s offices on Queens Square. Along with discussing Tilsley’s book, I took the opportunity to interview John about the series in general.

Faber Finds is both bucking a trend and setting one. Most mainstream British publishers, John explained, have become focused on their front list (the new releases) and near backlist–the recent releases–and allowed much of their deep backlist–the titles that sell a few copies a year for a decade or more–to evaporate. In the same way, most major booksellers devote their shelf space to these titles, leading to something of a tunnel vision effect.

At the same time, however, print-on-demand technology has matured to the point where new models of production and distribution become possible. Faber Finds is among the most innovative applications of print-on-demand to emerge to date. The idea came from Stephen Page, CEO of Faber and Faber, who brought John into the firm specifically to launch the venture. Faber’s target is not the High Street retail customer, but what Chris Anderson referred to as “the long tail.” Publishers with extensive backlists have long been challenged to balance the steady, if undramatic revenue from sales of older titles with the expensive of storing and managing the physical stock. With print-on-demand, publishers now have the opportunity to continue offering their backlists while limiting their costs to the initial “capture” and as-ordered printing of the books.

Part of the “long tail” argument is based on the diminishing unit costs of involved in digital production. Although it costs Faber roughly £4 pounds to print a book of some 300 pages, this is considerably less than that of printing and holding a physical stock of several hundred or several thousand copies for years or decades. And the print-on-demand unit cost is, if anything, bound to go down, while the warehousing costs can only go up.

At the same time, the Internet has opened up a sales channel that makes it far easier for customers to locate and buy lesser-known titles. I can remember, for example, looking up the publishing information about Michael Frayn’s slim book of philosophy, Constructions; going information in hand to my local bookstore and submitting the special order; then waiting months for my copy to arrive. If Constructions were available through print-on-demand, on the other hand, I could find it, order it like any in-print title, and have a copy delivered to me in about the same time as any in-print title. The availability of a new discovery and ordering capability courtesy of the Internet, combined with print-on-demand, is a perfect example of the “long tail” effect.

Print-on-demand has been around for years. Companies such as Kesslinger offer a rich catalog of out-of-copyright titles on this basis. But most of these companies merely scan in and reprint images taken from old editions. Faber and Faber has always been a press known for its high standards of culture and style, and Faber Finds is very much in keeping with this tradition. They scan to text, proofread the result, and then integrate any black-and-white images into the text. Then they print the text on good-quality stock in an attractive typeface, and bind it into a sturdy trade paperback format featuring a unique computer-generated graphic for each title. John was somewhat apologetic for the design of the books, but I think he should be proud. There is a big difference between minimalist and generic. And there is nothing generic about the look of Faber Finds titles.

In keeping with the “long tail” model, Faber Finds is not starting out with a modest list, gingerly testing the waters. Instead, the series debuted with 100 titles and John has managed to clear the rights to another 300 titles. Faber plans to announce 20 to 30 new titles each month. If the business case proves sound, the list could grow into a thousand or more, which would easily surpass any other venture into republication of neglected books to date.

John and I discussed some of the potential effects of this new approach to publishing titles well in the margins from the standard canon of great books. I’ve long felt that the tendency to view literature as the exclusive domain of a few great authors and books rather than a broad, varied, and wonderfully unpredictable melange of the great, the good, the respectable, the near-misses and glancing hits, and even the occasional utter failure is reinforced by the tendency of non-“great book” titles to go out of print. A professor can hardly teach a lesser-known book if a student can’t buy a copy in the college bookstore or check out copy 23 of 37 from the library. With the Faber Finds model, Angus Wilson has a chance of keeping a spot on a modern English novelists syllabus alongside William Golding and Doris Lessing

Angus Wilson, in fact, is one of the authors John takes some personal satisfaction in having rescued. John came to Faber after spending three decades at Penguin. Penguin had stood by Wilson, keeping many of his novels in print through the 1970s and 1980s, when realistic novels were languishing in the critical doldrums, but they finally tossed in the towel over a decade along. Ever since, Wilson, inarguably one of the most significant English writers since World War Two, has been essentially out of print and out of circulation. Faber Finds will bring all of Wilson’s novels back in print–as it will those of P.H. Newby and, if negotiations go well, Joyce Cary.

At the far end of the spectrum from Angus Wilson and Joyce Cary stands another writer Faber Finds will bring back to print in August 2008. Roy Horniman’s novel Israel Rank has kept a small place in history for being the inspiration for one of the finest of all British comedies, the 1949 film, “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” Even though the novel sold a respectable number of copies when first published in 1907 and was republished in 1948 while Graham Greene was working for Eyre and Spotiswoode, printed copies have become as hard to find as skeletons of the dodo. John was finally able to locate a copy though a distant relative of Horniman’s, and this sly satire of Edwardian mores and anti-Semitism will finally be available for a price quite a bit less than that of a mid-sized car.

Not that Israel Rank is a lost masterpiece. The point of Faber Finds is not to rescue a few great books that have become forgotten, but to make available–at a reasonable price for both consumer and publisher–a large number of fine books that merely fell victim of a bad business case for a few decades. Children’s books are coming as well, says John, as well as color images in a year or two. Altogether, Faber’s expedition into the “long tail” of the publishing business is one of the most exciting “mash-ups” I’ve heard of, and it was a genuine pleasure to get a chance to get an insider’s view of what I hope will be history in the making.

SUNY Press added to Publishers List

Susan Petrie from the SUNY Press kindly pointed out a number of little-known and forgotten titles they’ve released in recent years. In particular, their Women Writers in Translation series has brought out such books as:

The Ravine, by Nivaria Tejera

“Set in the Canary Islands at the outset of the Spanish Civil War, The Ravine is the provocative, disturbing account of a child’s experience with war.”

Become Who You Are

“… [A]bout a woman, Agnes Schmidt, whose husband has died and who is grappling with finding an identity for herself as an aging widow—reflecting the restrictions imposed especially on aging, widowed women who often yearn for a life and identity of their own.”

The Education of Fanny Lewald

” … [T]he autobiography of the most popular and prolific German woman writer of her period (1811-1889). The author of more than fifty books of fiction, travel memoirs, and articles about current events, Lewald was a friend or acquaintance of many of the prominent intellectual, artistic, and political figures of nineteenth-century Europe.”

And, for you James Fenimore Cooper fans, if there are any, there’s also a dozen-plus of his books, including such long-forgotten titles as Lionel Lincoln: or, The Leaguer of Boston, which the SUNY website tells us was, “… [A] radically new experiment in historical fiction. To recreate its events with the utmost accuracy, Cooper visited Boston in person in 1824 to study buildings and terrain, examine battlefields, read affidavits, consult records of the weather, and compare primary sources. George Bancroft declared in 1852 that Cooper had ‘described the battle of Bunker Hill better than it is described in any other work.'”

New from NYRB Classics: First English translation of Stefan Zweig novel

NYRB Classics continues to set the standard for publishing long-lost treasures. Its latest release is of particular note: The Post-Office Girl is the first English translation (by Joel Rotenberg) of Rausch der Verwandlung (trans: “The Ecstasy of Transformation”). This novel was found among Zweig’s papers after he and his wife committed suicide in Brazil during World War Two and only published in the original German in 1982.

The novel tells the story of Christine Hoflehner, a postal clerk in a small Austrian town: 25, but already on her way to become a career fonctionnaire:

Her hand with its pale fingers will raise and lower the same rattly wicket thousands upon thousands of times more, will toss hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of letters onto the cancelling desk with the same swiveling motion, will slam the blackened brass canceller onto hundreds of thousands or millions of stamps with the same brief thump.

Then, out of the blue, she gets an invitation to join a wealthy aunt in Switzerland. She’s exposed to money, glamor, fashion, society … and then sent back home. As an old tune from World War One put it, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm, After They’ve Seen Paree?” Well, as Zweig shows with his typically bitterly realistic touch, you can’t … but neither can Christine just leap over the walls of income, expenses, class boundaries, social mores. You’ll have to buy a copy of the book yourself to find out how it ends. And you probably don’t even need the publisher’s cheap-shot description of the novel as “Cinderella meets Bonnie and Clyde” to entice you, if you’re a fellow lover of fine neglected books.

The Village Voice polls writers on favorite obscure books

Source: “Our Favorite Writers Pick Their Favorite Obscure Books”, the Village Voice, 13 May 2008

In an attempt to get folks thinking about something other than best-sellers for their summer reading lists, the Village Voice polled sixteen writers to name their favorite obscure book. At least one suggestion is utterly cryptic: of Jim Dodge’s Fup, which has been in print forever and had its steady stream of fans, Colum McCann writes, “The less said about it, the better.”

On the other hand, Jennifer Egan got me interested in Harold Q. Masur’s detective novels from the 1940s and 1950s with these opening lines from You Can’t Live Forever:

It started with a summons, a brunette, and a Turk.

The summons was in my pocket, the brunette was in trouble, and the Turk was dead.

Egan writes, “In his savvy, stylish novels of the ’40s and ’50s, Masur manages to wink continuously at the detective genre even as he revels in it.”

Novelist Donna Tartt offers Blood in the Parlor, by Dorothy Dunbar, commenting that, “Each of the 12 stories is an account of a 19th-century murder told with a light, macabre sense of humor. I’d love to see it back in print with illustrations by Edward Gorey.” Ed Park names an early novel by Harry Stephen Keeler, whose goofily bizarre mysteries have been rediscovered lately and who now has his own society of fans. Jonathan Ames nominates The Lunatic at Large, one of several of the prolific Scots comic writer J. Storer Clouston you can read or download online from Project Gutenberg. Between this article and this site, we may be able to put a dent in the sales from Oprah’s book club.

“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” brings Neglected Writer Winifred Watson to Screen

Released by Focus Films in March 2008, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” brings to the big screen the novel of the same name by Winifred Watson, one of a generation of British women writers sometimes referred to as “the middlebrows”.

The film probably owes its existence to the fine work of Persephone Books, which reissued the book in 2000 and has devoted itself to rediscovering writers such as Watson, E. M. Delafield, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and others. And thanks to the film, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day has sold over 23,000 copies, by far the press’ best seller to date.

Watson lacks a Wikipedia entry so far, but you can read her Independent obituary online at

Faber Finds: a Major Neglected Books Series Launches

Debuting June 2008: Faber Finds, the biggest venture into republication of neglected books since the start of NYRB Classics. In the words of the publisher, the aim of the series “is to restore to print for future generations a wealth of lost classics.”

With an initial list of 100 titles, Faber Finds will already be well on its way to keeping pace with NYRB Classics. The first set includes a few books that appear on a number of lists on this site–Keith Douglas’ Alamein to Zem Zem, which Faber reissued back in 1992 and Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, for example–but some other previously unmentioned ones, such as A Sword for Mr. Fitton, the first of a series of novels along the lines of the Patrick O’Brien’s popular Jack Aubrey stories, and Miss Willmott of Warley Place, a biography of one of the first woman landscape gardeners that currently fetches over $100 in first edition.

Faber promises that the list “will grow and embrace fiction, thrillers, sci-fi, memoirs, biographies, history, poetry, travel books, popular science and books for younger readers.” The publisher also invites readers “to let us know what you’d like to see back in print” by emailing suggestions to [email protected]. You can even enter a prize drawing for a free copy of P. H. Newby’s Something to Answer For, which won the very first Booker Prize back in 1969.

A most welcome addition to the bookshelves.

“Bison Frontiers of Imagination” reissues from the University of Nebraska Press

A site visitor tipped me off to a series of reissues of neglected and long out of print science fiction classics from the University of Nebraska Press, which already deserves credit for keeping many of the works of the fine American novelist Wright Morris in print.

Titled the Bison Frontiers of Imagination, the series includes over 50 titles now. Each title includes an introduction or afterword by a worthy science fiction writer or critic such as John Varley, an original cover painting, and, in some cases, original illustrations as well. In keeping with the press’ long-standing practice, the reissues are high-quality trade paperback editions.

Some of the titles will be familiar to fans of neglected books: Charles Finney’s The Circus of Dr. Lao, M.P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud, and David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus all appear on more than one list on this site. Perhaps not all of the titles are of equal literary and historical merit (I remembered cringing at the wooden characters and cliches when I read When Worlds Collide back in 8th grade), but this worthy university press earns a standing ovation for its commitment to these pioneering works of speculative and science fiction.

The Outmoded Authors Reading Challenge


Imani, a “Jamaican lost in Canada”, and a bunch of other Blogspot bloggers have joined together to issue “a reading challenge for all interested in exploring authors who were kicked out of the “in” crowd”. “The idea behind this challenge”, states the site, “is to give some needed attention to authors who have fallen by the way side.”

Their Rules and Requirements are simple:

  • The challenge will last for six months and end on February 29th 2008.
  • During that time you may choose to read however many books by however many authors you like.
  • For reviews or any author-related information or musings you think would be interesting, please submit it to the blog as well as to your own, if you like.
  • With each post you add the relevant tags/labels such as the author’s name (“Dawn Powell”), whether it’s fiction or poetry, a review or a news item (“news”), perhaps a quote from a good essay you found on one of the writers you’d like to share (“essay”) and so on.

The list of outmoded authors is posted on the right side of the blog, linking to sites or pages with information about each. It includes such well-known, but certainly less-read, authors as Walter Scott, Somerset Maugham, and John Galsworthy — and such truly little-known and largely unread writers as Alfred Chester and the Catalan novelist Mercè Rodoreda.

I encourage all fans of neglected books and authors to participate — as the site says, “Owning a blog isn’t required.”