Bruce Allen recommends the work of François Mauriac

Cover of 'A Mauriac Reader'Bruce Allen wrote recently to recommend the novels of François Mauriac:

I wonder how many readers remember François Mauriac (1885-1970), whose best novels (e.g., Thérèse Desqueyroux, Vipers’ Tangle, Woman of the Pharisees, A Kiss for the Leper, and at least a half dozen others) began appearing in English translations during the 1960os.

An un-apologetic Catholic apologist, Mauriac has always been marginalized as a writer of narrow sympathes and range. But at his best he’s an eloquent composer of stark tragedies of ancestral and faith-driven conflicts framed as allegories of sin, redemption, and retribution – often complicated by the unruly realities of sex and greed. No novelist ever understood, and engaged the seven deadly sins (and all the other un-numbered ones) as well as Mauriac. He ought to be revived every generation or so, and readers who’ve never sampled the brimstone pungency of his best work have missed out on one of the great 20th century bodies of work.

François MauriacFortunately for would-be readers, a good deal of Mauriac’s work is in print and easily available for purchase online. All of the above books are in print, as are several less-known works: The Frontenacs, The Mask of Innocence, and Young Man in Chains. Actually, A Kiss for the Leper is in print by virtue of its inclusion in A Mauriac Reader, which collects it and four other novels under one cover, with an introduction by Wallace Fowlie. Farrar, Straus and Giroux have heroically kept it in print for over forty years now.

Mauriac is often compared with Graham Greene: both Catholics, both dedicated to writing about modern and his struggle with sin. “I have tried to make the Catholic universe of evil palpable, tangible, odorous. If theologians provided an abstract idea of the sinner, I gave him flesh and blood,” Mauriac once remarked. Asked about the comparison, however, Greene drew a fine distinction between their works: “Mauriac’s sinners sin against God wheareas mine, however hard they try, can never quite manage to.” Mauriac also won, in 1952, the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honor that eluded Greene.

The Late Great Creature, by Brock Brower

R. W. Rasband writes with a strong recommendation for Brock Brower’s 1971 novel, The Late Great Creature: “In a time when both Stephen King and satirical comedy are so popular, I don’t understand why this novel isn’t more well known.”

In his review on, Rasband wrote of the novel:

The movie documentary “Stone Reader” is about great books that have been lost to public memory or somehow never gotten the attention they deserve. My nomination for a “great lost book” is Brock Brower’s The Late Great Creature, an amazing 1971 novel that needs to be resurrected for a certain-to-be large, appreciative audience. The title character is Simon Moro, the greatest horror Cover of first U.S. paperback edition of 'The Late Great Creature'movie star of the 1920’s and ’30’s (he’s like Lon Chaney Sr. to the nth degree.) We learn of his fall from fame, and his attempted comeback in the phantasmagorical year of 1968. In his prime he made “Ghoulgantua”, the most terrifying film ever made (about a combination Frankenstein’s monster/vampire.) He created the famous monster “Gila Man” (a sort of werewolf lizard) during the war. Later he was blacklisted for political reasons, went to Germany to make a legendary, unreleased horror movie about the Nazi concentration camps that was supressed by both West and East Germany, and gradually sank into obscurity. Then low-budget Hollywood came calling with an offer to make a cheap Roger Corman-style Edgar Allen Poe rip-off titled “Raven!”

The novel has an amazing storytelling virtuosity that suggests, as one critic put it, a younger Nabokov raised on creepy old horror movies. There are three narrators: Warner Williams, a terminally-slick magazine writer who provides the basic back story of Moro’s amazing career. There’s also Terry Cowan, the amoral, cynical director of “Raven!” And there’s Moro himself, who drops some pretty big surprises in his narration that make you question all that has gone before. Like Bela Lugosi, Moro struggled with demons (including drugs and poverty) but Moro developed some real heroism and hard-won insight. As he says, “Where there is no spine, there is no tingle.” He looks out at the corrupt America of the 1960’s and decides to shock it back to its moral senses by scaring the country to death during the publicity tour for his new movie. He does this in grotesque, hilarious ways that you have to read for yourself.

The book is wonderfully satrical about celebrity culture and is also a loving tribute to the horror genre. It’s stunningly verbally agile. There are lines that will stick in your head forever. It’s also got a thrillingly intricate plot, that as you unravel it through the three narrators, will amaze and delight you. In a way it reminds me of Michael Chabon’s “Wonder Boys” in its compassionate yet blisteringly funny and painstakingly accurate portrait of artistic losers run amok. I read this in high school and it remains one of my very favorite books. You should get hold of a copy immediately, any way you can.

Time magazine’s reviewer was equally enthusiastic when the book first came out:

If this were all Brower had done, The Late Great Creature would be only one of the funniest tours de force of the past few years. But he has done more. With few illusions of ever returning to the great days of Saturday matinee catharsis, he illustrates the salutary nature of terror—its ability to exorcise fears of evil and death. He also toys gracefully with the paradox that fiction is capable of more truth than journalism. The truth about Brock Brower, an experienced freelance journalist, is that he must now be reckoned with as an extraordinarily capable novelist.

As recounted in an article in Publisher’s Weekly back in 2005, however, such positive reviews and even a National Book Award nomination couldn’t get Brower the time of day or a publisher. It was nearly 30 years before he attempted fiction again. The result, Blue Dog, Green River, a somewhat mystical tale of Blue Dog, a one-time chicken thief, was published by the admirable David R. Godine Press and is still in print.

Some Recommendations from Maura Kelly

Maura Kelly, a prolific writer for journals ranging from The New York Times to The Daily Beast and Marie Claire, wrote the other day to give this site a thumbs up. Prodded for a few of her own neglected favorites, she offered the works of James Salter, including Light Years, A Sport and a Pastime, and his memoir, Burning the Days. After decades of genuine neglect–books long out of print, periodic mentions by admiring fellow writers–Salter’s star has finally risen and one might fairly call him America’s best-known neglected writer. All of his books are back in print; he’s been a featured writer in the New York Times, and clocks in with over 300,000 hits on Google. None of which helped pay the rent forty years ago, of course.

She also mentioned John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction, which sparked a fair amount of controversy when it first appeared back in 1978. In th John Gardner in 1978book, Gardner attempts to hold the high ground against contemporaries such as Bellow, Mailer, and the fearsome nouveau romans of Robbe-Grillet and others. He argues that,true art “clarifies life, establishes models of human action, casts nets toward the future, carefully judges our right and wrong directions, celebrates and mourns.” Whether his criticism was valid or not, it certainly helped make the book perhaps the best-selling work of literary criticism of its time. In a thoughtful piece for the Atlantic, published back in 2005, the novelist Mary Gordon argues–convincingly, I think–that Gardner was pretty much dead wrong. King Lear, for example, is certainly a work of true art, but one could hardly say that he’s a model of human action. A striking example of human action, yes. A model to be emulated, though? I side with Gordon’s much more straight-forward approach: that it’s the raising of “intriguing and unanswerable questions” that marks great fiction.

Gardner’s own novels, particularly Nickel Mountain and October Light, had a certain cult classic status among college students back in the 1970s, although I suspect the sales had as much to do with the fine cover art by Paul Bacon, which was a distinctive blend of the Gothic and the psychedelic that promised something much different from the grim tales of life in upstate New York one found inside the covers. I suspect that, in the long run, Gardner’s Grendel, a fierce retelling of the Beowulf tale from the perspective of the monster–a somewhat experimental piece more like shudder Barth’s Chimera than Middlemarch, that will maintain his artistic reputation.

Brooks Peters recommends The Gilded Hearse, by Charles Gorham

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Gilded Hearse'Brooks Peters, who writes one of the most consistently interesting blogs around (, passed along a plug for Charles Gorham’s novel, The Gilded Hearse, which sounds like a terrific guilty pleasure:

It’s not exactly unknown but seems to have been overlooked lately. Perhaps “forgotten” is a better word since I can’t imagine too many people putting it on their top ten lists. It’s a rather scathing look at the publishing business just before the early beginnings of World War Two. Set in Manhattan in 1938 (but published in 1948), it details a traumatic day in the life of a book exec named Richard Eliot who battles his own demons while depicting his circle of friends and business associates in a very unflattering light. The day is set against the backdrop of the Munich compromise which is not too subtly broadcast throughout the text whenever someone happens to turn on a radio.

The firm, Hutchinson’s, could be several well-known publishing houses of the era, complete with the white-shoe editors, the burly, brusque, hard-drinking salesmen and the neurotic, ambitious “suits” who handle the brash marketing side. None too subtle (the writing style is sort of a cross between Grace Metalious and A. J. Cronin) , it is nonetheless very revealing of past attitudes and mores, as well as a fascinating relic of a time when the publishing world was just beginning to turn corporate.

Gorham nails the ambiance of New York in the late 30s, the jazz bars, the sleazy saloons, the drunken book-signings in overly perfumed department stores, the overt anti-Semitism within polite society (in contrast to the genocide on the horizon in Germany), the sad, listless Village bohemians, and throws in a few hilariously drawn “fags” and “fairies” and one appalling lesbian stereotype to give the story some typical pulp grit and edge. One effeminate book editor named Graham Fatt, who swishes amid his Oriental art, keeps “a large jar of KY” in his purple-hued bathroom.

There’s also plenty of sex between heterosexuals, abortions, lecherous cads, adulterous wives fornicating on trains. One character admits she went “to bed” with a colleague, then corrects herself by saying “to berth.”

Cover of 'Make Me an Offer'The Gilded Hearse was also published several times as Make Me an Offer. Time magazine’s reviewer took a great big haughty sniff when the book first came out:

As an indictment of the book business, The Gilded Hearse is neither good burlesque nor significant exposure. Few readers will be surprised to learn that book salesmen often haven’t read the books they sell, that salesgirls in bookstores are often dumb, that book publishers are increasingly less concerned with literature than with bestsellers. Those with the kind of taste that Gorham deplores will be quickest to see that The Gilded Hearse is just superficial enough, spiced with just enough bedroom business, to make it a likely Hutchinson book.

Brooks sums up just why what Time dismissed as trash seems like a bit of tarnished gold today:

… I thought I’d share the title with you in case any of your readers are eager to take a trip back in time to an era when the book business was a relatively insular world, dominated by a lost generation of self-hating alcoholics and men on the make. All in all, a fun, if purely nostalgic, read.

“He Lived for Money, Women, and Power” trumpets the cover of one paperback reissue of The Gilded Hearse. Toss in drinking, classism, and bigotry to boot–ah, the good ol’ days.

Brooks also recommends another Gorham novel and promises a future post on his own site about Gorham’s life and works.

Gorham also wrote the early gay-themed novel McCaffery, about a lusty male hustler, which is equally graphic. I’m a big fan of his lurid style. It’s pulp fiction with a trenchant eye for detail and nuance, and an insider’s perspective. Gorham’s life story itself reads like one of his novels. I’ve been in touch with Gorham’s daughter Deborah, a noted scholar, about doing a piece on him for my blog, but have been wrapped up in too many things recently to give it my full attention. I hope to get it done soon.

The Changing Face of New England, by Betty Flanders Thomson

Jack Ayer, professor of law emeritus at the University of California Davis and author of the Underbelly blog, writes to recommend Betty Flanders Thomson’s 1958 book, The Changing Face of New England. In a recent post on cellarholes–the remnants of long-abandoned New England farmhouses–he includes a long quote from Thomson’s book. An even longer excerpt can be found in the online archives of American Heritage magazine.

Nearly twenty years after her New England book, Thomson published a study of the landscapes of the Midwest, Shaping of America’s Heartland. Both titles are now long out of print, unfortunately, as they are highly regarded for their quality of writing and science. Indeed, Connecticut College still remembers Thomson with an annual award for its best student in botany.

Robert Chandler recommends the works of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Robert Chandler, translator of Andrey Platonov’s Happy Moscow, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate write to recommend “[A]nother great, and still more recently discovered, writer from the 1920s and 30s: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky”:

I included one of his stories, ‘Quadraturin’, in my Penguin Classics anthology Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (Penguin Classics). There is also a small anthology of his work published by GLAS: Seven Stories.

And NYRB Classics are bringing out another volume [Memories of the Future] in the next few months.

His work is translated by Joanne Turnbull, and her translations are very, very good indeed. [Turnbull won the 2007 Rossica Translation Prize for Seven Stories.–Ed.]

There is a bit about him at the Complete Review.

You can read his short story, “Quadraturin” online at the Glas website ( and another, “Yellow Coal”, at You can also read about Krzhizhanovsky on Wikipedia and Ellis Sharp’s blog.

D. G. Myers recommends Perry Miller’s “The Raven and the Whale”

Regular visitor Texas A&M professor D. G. Myers recently posted a thoughtful and appreciative review of Perry Miller’s 1956 book, The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville, and the New York Literary Scene. He compares it to Louis Menand’s Puliter Prize-winning 2002 book on James, Holmes, and Pierce, The Metaphysical Club, writing that, “The result is a human comedy, a collection of lively anecdote and a war-memorial to men who cared passionately about raising up from scratch what Miller calls “an independent, a completely native and unique, literature” in America.”

Myers also rightly notes that not all neglected books are ones that fade from the spotlight, like Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Some are, in his words, “books that are even more likely to be neglected, because they were not widely bought and read to begin with.” Such books have certainly become more and more my focus as this site matures.

Two Recommendations from Kevin Michael Derby

Kevin Michael Derby, about the only person, it seems to have noticed my post about the works of historian Kenneth S. Davis, wrote with two recommendations for books worthy of rediscovery:

• The Age of the French Revolution, by Claude Manceron, consisting of the following five volumes:

        • Volume 1: Twilight of the Old Order, 1774-1778

        • Volume 2: The Wind from America, 1778-1781

        • Volume 3: Their Gracious Pleasure, 1782-1785

        • Volume 4: Toward the Brink, 1785-1787

        • Volume 5: Blood of the Bastille, 1787-1789

“Manceron was a unique historian who decided to chart the French Revolution through a hundred lives of key individuals. This leads to a vivid and often over the top narrative which offers little in the way of analysis and often proved incoherent in the way of descriptions. Manceron is all over the place and his narrative reminds me of Eliot’s “heap of shattered images.” Now he takes us to Rome for a papal election. Next stop is outside Philadelphia where General Washington retreats from Howe’s redcoats. Now to Versailles where Marie Antoinette is dancing. Meanwhile in the country, Robespierre studies law. Manceron makes no secret of his biases. He is a fan of the revolution and even dedicates volumes to modern day leftists like Allende and Mitterrand. Manceron also felt the need to jump out from behind the curtains and interrupt his narration with odd asides and comments, often shaking his fist at the leaders of the Church and other reactionaries. Still other times, he smugly asserts that the lead players of the Revolution were more heroic and had more dynamic adventurers than nomads and explorers. Manceron promised there would be at least ten volumes. He died after writing five, just as the Bastille was captured. While I can not claim to know more about why the Revolution occurred, I know the lead characters and their various motivations better having read the five volumes. These books really deserved better than to be forgotten despite the flaws. They make the French Revolution accessible.”

Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne: Misadventures of an English General in the Revolution, by Francis J. Huddleston.

“Perhaps the strangest biography that I have ever read. While attempting to offer a life of the losing commander of the battle of Saratoga and a celebrated playwright of his times, Huddleston makes a number of asides including all of the following: there are too many scholars attempting to prove Shakespeare did not write his plays; whether or not actresses should take to the stage in skimpy night attire; what happened to French soldiers after the Great War; why they should not sell snacks on trains despite the declining quality of full meals served on trains; how horses from Spain are overrated by gamblers and equestrians alike; why the Prince of Wales both then and now-both George IV and the future Duke of Windsor-needed to find better mentors; why the British needed to adapt khaki uniforms sometime in the 1870s or 1880s; thoughts on what an Irish military museum should include; speculations on the exact nature of the Gulf stream; advice that if you are going to recite a limerick at the table with old friends and the first line is sexually suggestive, make sure the second line is too otherwise it will be a severe letdown for your companions; yelling “Are we downhearted?” is not a good way to convince your boss that your team does not have low morale; and many more comments, all of which have nothing to do with the life of General Burgoyne.”

Thanks for the recommendations, Kevin–I’ve already sent off for the first of Manceron’s volumes and am looking forward to reading it.

As always, readers are encouraged to provide their own recommendations–especially when they’re as interesting as these.

Jane White

Cover of UK paperback edition of 'Quarry'Brooks Peters wrote with a recommendation of Quarry, a 1967 novel by Jane White. As Brooks describes Quarry,

It’s a British novel from 1960s about three adolescent boys who kidnap a boy and keep him in a cave in a quarry. It’s been compared to Lord of the Flies. It got great reviews when it came out. I’ve just finished it and thought it was extremely well done. But a real enigma. I can’t figure out what it is really about except perhaps the breakdown of society.

Richard Freeman, in the Saturday Review, wrote that Quarry,

… is an allegory with a variety of more or less cosmic overtones. The action takes place not in a normal, pastoral English summer, but in an arid wasteland during a fierce heat wave. Images of darkness and light are strewn about and the cave is philosophically associated with the one in Plato’s Republic. The victim, especially, is given much symbolic weight to bear as a universal scapegoat…. [U]ltimately, the book is about the complex symbiosis between prosecutor and prey. If Quarry is less richly imagined than Lord of the Flies and lacks its verbal distinction, it is nevertheless an extraordinarily assured first novel, and is even superior to Golding’s in its control of allegory, the bare bones of which are less frequently allowed to obtrude.

Other reviewers compared White favorably with Iris Murdoch. Her second novel, Proxy, received mostly positive reviews in the U.K. but was uniformly panned in the U.S.. From what I can determine, White went on to publish four more novels:

She also published a memoir, Norfolk Child, in 1973. Despite the fact that reviewers of her later works offered such praise as “Miss Young writes well of marriages and the forces that mold them”; “a haunting, macabre quality reminiscent of Iris Murdoch”; and “an abundant mixture of lyrical and symbolic”, White seems to have disappeared from the publishing scene entirely after 1976. I haven’t had a chance to sample White’s work, but on the surface at least, she appears to be a worthy candidate for reconsideration.

Added 22 November 2009

Jane White, autho of QuarryBrooks Peters added the following biographical information, along with a photo of Jane White, from the dust jacket of Quarry:

“Jane White was born in Cambridge in 1934, and her family moved soon afterwards to a remote farmhouse in Norfolk. Her father is an historian and University Lecturer at Downing College, Cambridge. Jane White was educated at home by a governess until the age of nine, then at a Convent boarding school. At eighteen she won a State Scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge. She read for an honours Degree in English and graduated with an upper second Degree. She worked as an assistant in a large public library for nine months prior to Cambridge and took various vacation jobs as a waitress — also as general help in a Maternity Hospital.

She was employed for five years with the B.B.C. World Service as a News Clerk in the News Information Department. In 1961 she married a lecturer in German at Birkbeck College, London University. She has one small son, and lives at Godalming Surrey.

Jane White has written plays, poetry, verse dramas for as long as she can remember. Her first novel was completed at the age of nine. She is much interested in acting, and took part in various amateur productions at Cambridge, once venturing as far as the Edinburgh ‘Fringe’.

Her interests include theatre-going, films, both good and bad, music of all kinds, and reading.”

Thanks, Brooks!

The Horrors of Love, by Jean Dutuord

Rabbi David Wolpe writes to recommend a favorite title that’s now long out of print and largely forgotten: Jean Dutourd’s 1963 novel, Les Horreurs de l’amour, released in English in 1967 as The Horrors of Love. This description of the book and its plot comes from Time magazine’s original review:

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Horrors of Love'The Horrors of Love is an often ridiculous, sometimes funny tale of a middle-aged member of the French Chamber of Deputies who becomes tragically involved with his young mistress. At first glance, the story seems to be as obviously and simply French as a pair of lovers sneaking off to a bedsitter in the Square St.-Lambert. Yet it is not only the Gallic spirit that intrigues Dutourd, but the human spirit as well.

The rambling story unfolds in a dialogue between Dutourd and a friend. As they stroll in Paris, they discuss the unhappy case of Edouard Roberti, the 52-year-old Deputy who has been sent to prison for killing his mistress’ brother. It is apparent that Roberti, a respectable, loving father and husband, was all too ordinary—not so much evil as weak, not so much stupid as pitifully vain. By way of examining how it was that such a commonplace, decent man could become trapped in a senseless and sordid mess, Dutourd’s dialogue ranges through all sorts of philosophical detours. Courage and cowardice, honor and honesty, art, letters, manners, politics and morals become way stations as the two friends chat and argue.

This is not the first mention of The Horrors of Love in these pages. In the Los Angeles Times’ 1999 feature, Forgotten Treasures: A Symposium, John Lukacs called it a “stunning exception” to the overall decline of the novel. Lukacs wrote,

One oddity about it is that it is written in the second-person singular; it is a long dialogue between two super-intelligent Frenchmen (both sides of Dutourd’s own character) walking through Paris, ambling in and out restaurants, reconstructing the pride and fall of a Parisian politician who gradually falls in love with his younger mistress and ends up in jail. It is a delicious and profound work of art, from beginning to end. Andre Maurois likened it to Proust; but in some ways it is better than Proust, sprightlier and more imaginative. The language itself is superb.

And in nosing around the Net, I found a third strong thumbs-up from the fine novelist, Diane Johnson, in an issue of Archipelago from a few years back:

My first choice would be Jean Dutourd’s The Horrors of Love, which is translated into English and was published in the sixties. It is an incredible tour de force — a dialogue running to more than 600 pages, between two men who are walking through Paris, talking about the fate of a politician friend of theirs who was brought down by an erotic entanglement. Urbane, wise, humane, funny, even suspenseful — this is a worthy successor, as someone said, to Proust. Dutourd is the greatest living French novelist, and the only witty one since Proust; and before that? Voltaire? Laclos?

Jean DutourdPraise such as this makes me want to hang my head in shame for not having read it yet, even after skipping past used copies in bookstore stacks perhaps a hundred times over the year (I think it was a Literary Guild selection, so there are plenty of cheap used copies out there in the U.S.).

Dutuord, who’s managed to put out nearly a book a year since 1946, is still living and, I assume, writing. His 1950 satirical fantasy, A Dog’s Head, was reissued by the University of Chicago Press as part of its Phoenix Fiction series in 1998 and is still in print. His other novel of that year, Au bon beurre, scenes de la vie sous lâ Occupation, translated as The Best Butter has been called the best French novel to come out of World War Two.

Looking for reader recommendations: Great city novels

I am in the process of watching the fifth and last season of the remarkable HBO series, The Wire. For me, it’s one of the best things ever done in the medium, and knowing there are no more to follow leaves me looking for a great big messy jaded city novel to sink myself into. Others have already made this comparison, but The Wire was really like a novel in David Simon’s willingness to take time to let the story unfold through detours into minor and major characters, to move up and down the social strata, to delve into intrigues high and low.

But what can one novels compare to The Wire? I can think of a few: Bleak House, at least in its span of social class and its unforgettable opening description of London; some of Zola’s Paris novels, such as Money. Mark Smith’s loose baggy monster Chicago novel, The Death of the Detective. I recently devoured a pretty good novel, William L. White’s What People Said, with a similar range but in the far tamer setting of several Kansas towns of the early 20th century.

But I’m putting out a call to other readers: can you offer some other suggestions? There must be a few more juicy word-packed book that can compete with the likes of The Wire.

Small World, by Carol Deschere

The fact that Carol Deschere Berendt, mother of John Berendt, author of the best-selling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The City of Falling Angels, once published a novel, Small World, under her maiden name, would not in itself qualify the book for mention here.

But, as Syracure Post-Standard writer Laura T. Ryan noted two years ago in her blog, Karen DeCrow, a pioneering feminist and one-time president of the National Organization for Women, was passed along a copy back in the late 1970s. DeCrow was so moved by the book that, “… she typed up a 5-page letter and sent it to everyone she knew in the publishing world, hoping to get it re-released.” Ryan quotes from the letter:

Twelve years before publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963), Carol Deschere wrote a novel which could have spurred the feminist revolution, had enough women read it. In Small World, a simply written and simply plotted novel, Deschere tells us the story of a bright, educated, and cultured woman who leads the life of a middle-class housewife. Her husband is kind and generous, her children are intelligent and obedient, her home is stylish and comfortable.

Her world, however, is so small that it revolves totally around food, clothing, furniture, and an occasional outreach of interest to music, art, and literature. The novel takes place during one of the critical periods in American history: World War II had just ended, the alliances of nations in the world were dramatically shifting, capitalism as an economic system was being seriously questioned for the first time in a century, and the seeds of the Cold War period were being developed in the United States. Yet Kay Hiller, the hero of the novel, does not deal with these issues, despite the fact that she is both bright and intellectual….

… For women who dream of art, music, literature, and affairs of state there are few alternatives — lovers, suicide, or worst of all, resignation. With the broadening of the small world for women, hopefully novels about Emma (Bovary), about Kay, will become historical documents.

As Berendt himself describes the book in an interview on Barnes & Noble’s website,

The story concerns a family of four living in upstate New York. It’s charming and beautifully written. Carol Deschere, the author, happens to be my mother, and the family depicted in her novel closely resembles our own. The book sold about 2,000 copies and, although my mother never wrote another book, Small World was a life-changing experience for me, because in addition to making me enormously proud of her, it showed me for the first time how real life could be transformed into words and stories and published in a book for all to read. It also planted the first seed in my mind that I might become a writer one day.

Deschere died last year at the age of 92. Small World remains out of print–in fact, a quick search of located a grand total of three copies, at $48, $200, and almost $1,000, respectively. Two reviewers on Amazon remembered it fondly enough to post 5-star reviews of the book, so Karen DeCrow is not alone in hoping that this book may someday find its way to republication.

An Appreciation of “The Fortunes of Richard Mahony,” by Henry Handel Richardson

Tony Spors writes in with a personal appreciation of the Australian novelist Henry Handel Richardson (nom de plume of Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson)

“How I do hate the ordinary sleek biography. I’d have every wart and every pimple emphasized, every murky trait or petty meanness brought out. The great writers are great enough to bear it.” These are the words of Henry Handel Richardson, a woman writer from Australia who lived from 1870 to 1946. Yes, woman writer, for like George Eliot, she wrote under a male pseudonym.

Mrs. Richardson applied this principle of exact unrelenting truth she stated above to her own fiction. Her masterpiece, completed in 1929, is The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, a trilogy of novels, which tells the story of a family living in the gold fields of frontier Australia, immigrated from Ireland, having to cope with the devastating effects of the young doctor father’s severe mental and physical deterioration from syphilis. I’ve read It is based quite closely on Mrs. Richardson’s own childhood.

I read this trilogy of novels about at the same time in my life as I was reading the great Russian novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. The trilogy, being over 900 pages, is related to these Russian novels in size. But more importantly The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney, is similar to these Russian novels in its penetrating psychological realism Not often will you find a novel written almost eighty years ago that deals this honestly with no sugar coating or sentimentality with the severe mental illness of a young doctor head of a family. You can feel for the young mother and her children having to face the growing ostracism by her neighbors caused by her husband’s bizarre behavior. Of course, the doctor’s patients drop away after several of his episodes, and the family is reduced to poverty.

But not only is this family’s story courageous. Henry Handel Richardson is a writer of the very top rank. Although here in the United States she is little known beyond the movie of her novel The Getting of Wisdom which was made by Bruce Beresford in 1978, in Australia Henry Handel Richardson is considered a classic novelist. Sentence for sentence, the writing holds your interest as only the best novels do. Here is a writer in English we can read without the filter of translation.

Later in my reading life, I discovered Patrick White, another writer from Australia, whom I consider probably the greatest novelist ever to write. I can’t help but think he must have read Henry Handel Richardson in his youth. If you like one of these writers, you will probably like the other.

Since The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney is divided into three separate novels, I would recommend a reader start with the first volume, Australia Felix, and see if you are not hooked as I was into reading the other two volumes, The Way Home and Ultima Thule.

If you’re happy to deal with raw text instead of a physical book, you can find Australia Felix, The Getting of Wisdom, and her first novel, Maurice Guest on Project Gutenberg. Or you could wait for the release of Monash University’s authoritative publication of her complete works. And if you’re really patient, you can wait until film director Bruce Beresford finds backers for his mini-series based on Richard Mahony. — Ed.

Doug Anderson Recommends Some Neglected Titles

Doug Anderson of the Blue Guitar Press writes to offer a few suggestions for books well worth rediscovering:

· The Junior Bachelor Society by John A. Williams

Williams has a tendency to go overboard racially (in my opinion); that is Black = oppressed and Good vs White = oppressor and Bad, but sometimes he overcomes this tendency and knocks it out of the park. A couple more titles come to mind: Mothersill and the Foxes and Captain Blackman. Thudermouth Press, recognizing a neglected writer, brought out a few of his novels in the 80s, including his one critical success, The Man Who Cried I Am. He still didn’t catch any kind of popular or critical wave. With !Click Song a racial bitterness sets in though not more so than many another Post War African American writer.

· William Hickling Prescott’s History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella and History of the Reign of Philip the Second

I would like to see a university press or some adventurous small press reprint William Hickling Prescott’s History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella and History of the Reign of Philip the Second published in the mid 19th century by Lippencott & Co – three volumes under each title. These are general histories and yes, written by the quintessential white male of old. Even so, anyone looking for perspective on a world-dominant America can’t go wrong reading about Europe’s first powerful empire after the fall of Rome. Prescott is always readable, informative and, blush blush, that horrible word: entertaining.

· The Tinieblas Trilogy”by R.M. Koster

Koster wrote these wild wonderful novels (The Prince, The Dissertation, Mandragon) about his fictional Central America in the 1970s and then reality gobbled them up and turned them into non-fiction in the 1980s. Even so they are great books. Full of life and expert writing they enthrall and delight. They might not be forgotten but they are way, way under appreciated.

· An unclassifiable novel: What the Maid Saw: Eight Psychic Tales, by Yasutaka Tsutsui, translated by Adam Kabat, published by Kodansha Intl in 1990

Say I could only use the word “riveting” once, for one book that I have read in my life until now; I would use it for this novel: riveting. [Tsutsui has several other books available in English translation, including the memorably-titled Salmonella Men from Planet Porno. — Ed.]

Doug adds a last recommendation taken from one of this site’s Sources:

I note that you site Anthony Burgess as a source for overlooked novels. How about Burgess himself? Does anyone read his M/F at all? I found it larky and generous and full of mischief – but – seemingly, very unread.

I assumed that Burgess is now solidly fixed in the ranks of writers critically recognized and perennially in print, but a quick search on a few of my own favorites among his many novels — the Enderby tetralogy, Napoleon Symphony, and ABBA ABBA — reveals that most are, in fact, available only as second-hand copies.

Twenty Suggestions from Will Schofield

In his email tipping me off to Paul Dry Books, Will Schofield mentioned that Mr. Dry asked him to do three things to prove he was qualified for an internship with Dry’s publishing house. One of these was to prepare a list of twenty out-of-print books. Well, Will not only got the job but has now worked there for over seven years. I asked him if he’d be willing to share his list, and he kindly forwarded it, along with updates on each book’s status today.

As Will writes,

When you read these paragraphs, remember that they are the enthusiasms of a nervous and dorky 23-year-old college drop-out who was frittering his life away: living in the cultural wasteland of Northeast Philadelphia, catering, selling tambourines, drinking, and going into massive debt buying rare books and records. I still stand by the list. Most of the works mentioned remain (and probably will remain) neglected.

Perhaps this post will help gently nudge one or two titles back into the limelight.

Products of the Perfected Civilization by Chamfort, translated & introduced by W. S. Merwin.

Published by North Point Press in 1984. French aphorist and philosopher with no works currently available in English.

[2007 update: the Merwin book seems to still be out of print, but Douglas Parmee’s selection and translation is available from Short Books: Chamfort: Relections on Life, Love and Society Together with Anecdotes and Little Philosophical Dialogues.]


Locus Solus by Raymond Roussel (1877-1933, France).

Eccentric genius millionaire who composed the majority of his works using a strict system of word associations and puns (as detailed in How I Wrote Certain of My Books). This particular book is incredibly scarce, the few copies that occasionally surface going for at least $50. It’s considered his best book (and the translation is very respected). Published by John Calder and University of California in the seventies. Roussel’s admirers include John Ashbery, Foucault (who wrote his first book on Roussel, titled Death and the Labyrinth, now out of print), Duchamp, Apollinaire, Blanchot, Calvino, Gide, Proust, Cortazar, and Queneau.

[2007 update: Still out of print.]

Difficult Death by Rene Crevel (1900-1935, France).

A beautiful autobiographical novel by one of the original surrealists, Rene Crevel (he was gay and they were generally a homophobic bunch), written in 1926. Ezra Pound has said of Crevel: “He will be read more and more as the wind carries away the ashes of the ‘great names’ that preceded him.” I’m inclined to agree. It was last published by North Point Press in 1986. I’ve come across only one copy on all out of print book searches in the past six months!

[2007 update: this is still out of print, but you can now easily find the book on The excellent press Archipelago Books recently published Crevel’s My Body & I.]

Mood Indigo (Grove 1968, tran. John Sturrock) or Froth on the Daydream (Quartet, trans. by Stanley Chapman) by Boris Vian (died in 1959).

Vian is a cult figure in France and should be in America. Also out of print is his collection of jazz writings, Round About Close to Midnight. Never in paperback, the excellent Blues for a Black Cat: The Selected writings of Boris Vian was published in the early 90s by University of Nebraska. He is an amazing, idiosyncratic writer. Raymond Queneau even called Mood Indigo, “The greatest love novel of our time.”

[2007 update: Tam Tam Books is bringing out translations of Vian’s books. They published Brian Harper’s new translation of L’ecume des Jours as Foam of the Daze (great title), as well as translations of I Spit on Your Graves, Autumn in Peking, and The Dead All Have the Same Skin (forthcoming). Dalkey Archive reprinted Heartsnatcher recently. Nebraska did publish a paperback version of Blues for a Black Cat.]


Killachter Meadow — six stories by Aidan Higgins (Grove Press 1960).

I just came across this very scarce book by Irish writer Higgins. It seems that many of his books are out of print. From the back cover: “In the title story, he tells of a macabre family of sisters living a desolate life on a ruined estate in South Africa, spilling their melancholy and venom on one another, until the eldest slips matter-of-factly into the river to die.” Sounds good to me.

[2007 update: Still out of print]


Journals by Denton Welch (published by Allison and Busby in the 1980s).

An incredible British writer. Exact Change books has recently reprinted his first novel . Welch was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident at the age of 18. He started writing after the accident and didn’t stop until his death at 31. He was apparently an amazing and prolific poet as well, but the poems have only been published in an out of print volume called Dumb Instrument (Enitharmon Press, edition of 1000) which was a mere 58 pages long.

[2007 update: still out of print.]


Film as a Subversive Art by Amos Vogel.

The absolute bible for followers of international avant-garde/interesting cinema. Should be used in every college film course, but remains inexplicably scarce. My copy seems to be inscribed to Martin Scorcese.

[2007 update: D.A.P./C.T. Editions brought this back into print in 2005]


Gathering Evidence by Thomas Bernhard.

The Austrian writer’s autobiography is currently unavailable, I have no idea why. Also, it seems that his very first novel, Frost, has never been translated into English. A huge gap therefore exists between the very early work On the Mountain (published only much later when Bernhard was famous, I think) and his Gargoyles. Bernhard also wrote a couple of novellas around this time (1965-70) for which he was awarded numerous prizes. It looks like University of Chicago will be publishing these soon.

[2007 update: Random House seems to keep this sporadically in print with their “value publishing” imprint. It deserves better. Knopf brought out Frost in a translation by Michael Hoffman. Chicago did indeed release Bernhard’s Three Novellas, but not until 2003, and it seems to have not made it into paperback.]


The Ship by Hans Henny Jahnn (1894-1959).

Considered by many scholars to be one of the greatest German writers of the century, Jahnn has been completely overlooked by America and Britain. His novel, Das Holzschiff, was translated by Catherine Hutter as The Ship and published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1961. It is the first, and only translated, part of a trilogy. The book is bleak, beautiful, and incredibly strange. More people should at least know it exists. There is one other volume in English called Thirteen Uncanny Stories, from about 1984, which might still be available. This book contains extracts from his longer works. I shall spend my life trying to raise the profile of this forgotten writer.

[2007 update: I haven’t done a very good job raising his profile. At least there is now one critical work available in English, Thomas Freeman’s The Case of Hans Henny Jahnn: Criticism and the Literary Outsider. The French have rediscovered him already. I should also mention that Jahnn was gay; that fact, coupled with his violent imagery, seems to have scared the hell out of critics for years.]


Juan de Mairena by Antonio Machado (trans. Ben Belitt, Univ. of California 1963).

The book is subtitled “Epigrams, Maxims, Memoranda and Memoirs of an Apocryphal Professor. With an Appendix of Poems from the Apocryphal Songbooks.” All of the prose works by Machado, “Spain’s finest modern poet,” are long gone or untranslated.

[2007 update: still Out of print]


• Villy Sorenson

Considered one of Denmark’s greatest contemporary writers. He writes short stories exclusively. The few I’ve read are fragmented, disturbing, and often hilarious. His first collection of stories — translated as Strange Stories and also as Tiger in the Kitchen — has been out of print since 1957. His other collections in English, Harmless Tales (Norvik Press Series, 1991) and Tutelary Tales (Nebraska 1988), are out of print also.

[2007 update: still nothing in print]


Building Poe Biography by John Carl Miller.

From a book review by Marguerite Young, 1977: “John Henry Ingram, a clerk in the savings bank department of the London General Post Office, spent a lifetime saving Poe from the slanders of Griswold (Reverend, shabby poet and author of a malicious Poe biography). Working in his after hours when the bank was closed, Ingram authored biographies of this long-neglected genius as well as literary biographies of Oliver Madox Brown, Elizabeth Browning, Robert Burns, Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Chatterton. Each of these biographies was magnetized, almost without exception (as John Carl Miller points out), by an author who had associated with Poe or had been a child-prodigy poet or had died at an early age or had left a reputation that needed redemption from slander. Miller did his work at the University of Virginia in the Ingram’s Poe Collection, which contains enough material for two additional volumes. The present fascinating work of literary detection contains letters that, along with Miller’s analytical comments, are here published for the first time. They bring into sharper focus many of the mysteries surrounding the poet’s life and death.” I have not tracked down a copy of this yet. I don’t know if these letters have been published again elsewhere, or to what extent the author comments on them.

[2007 update: I still don’t know if these letters are published elsewhere. Young wrote about this book and the Feikema book below in her collection Inviting the Muses, published by Dalkey Archive.]


A Night of Serious Drinking by René Daumal.

Ex-surrealist, Sanskrit scholar, poet, philosopher, and a pupil of Gurdjieff, Daumal is best known to English-speaking readers as the author of the short novel Mount Analogue, which has been reprinted many times. Roger Shattuck has called the book “… a rare and mysterious account, superbly translated, of what today would be called a ‘trip.’ Daumal mixes satire, fantasy, and allegory (plus a subject index!) into a fiction that runs a mere 130 pages instead of the 700 a contemporary American novelist would need.” Someone named Gerard Joulie wrote: “Basing its inspiration on the Rabelesian metamorphosis of drink, A Night of Serious Drinking has no other project than to engage its readers in conversation… Daumal presents an oasis, an instrument for distinguishing the essential quality of research, a manual on how to think…”

[2007 update: back in print from Tusk Overlook. They have also reprinted his Mount Analogue (reportedly a big inspiration for Jodorowsky’s movie “Holy Mountain”) and Le Contre Ciel. Nebraska Press brought out his You’ve Always Been Wrong (Exact Change cancelled a planned paperback edition due to a low number of preorders). It looks like his City Lights collection, The Powers of the Word, may be out-of-print at the moment, hopefully not for long.]


The Death of Lysanda by Yitzhak Orpaz (trans. from the Hebrew by Richard Flint (Cape Editions, 1970).

“Naphtali Noi, publishers’ proofreader, scholar and recluse, lives in a rooftop room absorbed in his stuffed animals and his vision of the calm and beautiful Lysanda. With the appearance of Batia, the corpulent motherly figure who infiltrates his monastic seclusion, Noi’s image is banished, his peace destroyed. Written in taut and vivid prose, this story contains within its compact framework a volume of ideas, images and implications.” Haven’t read this one either, but this is from the first page: “Underneath this advertisement was a news item about a man who killed his wife and told his interrogators: ‘I had a headache and couldn’t sleep all night. I got up in the morning and wandered around the yard. I saw a big rock. I picked it up and dropped it on my wife’s head.’ The wife’s name was Eve. I was taken by the clear, restrained, almost classical style of the paragraph.”

[2007 update: Still out of print.]


A Dark Stranger (and others) by Julien Gracq (New Directions, 1951).

Great French writer, whose four novels were all translated at some point. Two are still available from Columbia University Press. His first novel, The Castle of Argol, was last printed in a huge hardcover edition by Lapis Press (now defunct). This novel is stunning and unavailable at the moment. I have never seen a copy of A Dark Stranger (and others), and there is only one listed on Addall.

[2007 update: still out of print, but Turtle Point is bringing out translations of his non-fiction works, and Pushkin Press brought out a beautiful compact edition of Chateau D’Argol. A Dark Stranger is still very hard to find. See my post at for a scan of the amazing cover image.]


O the Chimneys by Nelly Sachs (1967, FSG).

A good friend of Paul Celan (their correspondence was recently published) and an incredible poet herself. She won the Nobel Peace Prize. Her poetry has remained unavailable for too long. I think FSG did two volumes.

[2007 update: Green Integer is finally restoring her to print (Collected Poems I and Collected Poems II in November 2007.]


The Golden Bowl by Feike Feikema (aka Frederick Manfred).

Published by Grosset Dunlap/St. Paul Webb in 1944. It may be the only edition. Marguerite Young wrote: “another lyric performance, a dexterous biography of the elemental forces which threaten a various pioneering population, among them, an albino. Much of the novel reads like a folk ballad, the meditative passages being underscored like the refrains of a song.” A description by an online bookseller: “Set in the dust bowl in the dark years of the 30s. Story of Maury Grant, wanderer, hobo, pilgrim in search of a faith, and of his contempt for a land which brought him to bitterness and confusion.” I’ve never seen or read the book.

[2007, nothing in print. I think Larry McMurtry has written about Manfred.][Editor’s note: as Frederick Manfred, he wrote a number of novels about life on the Plains before and after contact with white men. Of these “Buckskin Man Tales”, Conquering Horse is in print from the University of Nebraska Press.]


The Quest by Elisabeth Langgasser (1899-1950, Germany).

I recently found out about this book and tracked down a copy. This women’s literary career was cut short by the Nazis, who banned the publication of her work for 10 years, from 1936 to 1946 (she was half Jewish). From 1946 until her death five years later, she published seven books of prose and poetry, most of them considered her major works. The Quest, her last novel, is the only one translated into English (Knopf, 1953). The jacket says it delves into the spiritual devastation of the Germans after the war.

[2007 update: nothing in print]


The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by Joao Guimaraes Rosa (1956, 1963 Knopf).

Jorge Amado says in his preface, “The English-reading public will make the acquaintance of one of the greatest books our literature has produced, brutal, tender, cordial, savage, vast as Brazil itself.” This books goes for $100 to $200 these days and, again, for inexplicable reasons, has never been reprinted. The same goes for Rosa’s other books. I’ve heard it towers over Marquez from at least one person.

[2007 update: There must be serious rights issues with this book, because it has a cult following, and now sells for $300 online, but has never been reprinted.]


A Life Full of Holes by Driss ben Hamad Charhadi (1964, Grove).

This book was dictated to and translated by Paul Bowles. Charhadi, aka Larbi Layachi, could not read or write, but possesses an extraordinary gift for telling stories. This cycle of stories tells of the author’s teenage years, spent living on the streets of Morocco, working crappy jobs, trying to sell pot, and sometimes stealing to survive. An intense and wonderful book which has been out of print for years.

[2007, still no reprint. Rain Taxi wrote about it back in 2001 as a great lost book. Again, there must be serious rights issues, because the book is way too good to have stayed out of print for so many years. Thank you to Ian Nagoski for handing the book to me at the exact right moment, when my own life was obviously full of holes.]

This Slavery, by Ethel Carnie Holdsworth

Chris Lynch writes to recommend the 1925 novel This Slavery by the British writer Ethel Carnie Holdsworth.

In Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory, Bridget Fowler writes of This Slavery:

It centres on women workers in a Lancashire textile mill. Their experience is conveyed through the story of two sisters: Hester, who enters a loveless marriage to a mill master, and Rachel, who becomes a strike leader. At the climax, as the workers starve in a bitter strike, Hester unexpectedly retails news gained confidentially from another employer; thus, despite her own death, she helps the strike succeed. In this novel, it is a woman, Rachel, who criticises the economistic narrowness of many trade unionists, and Rachel who reads Capital and dreams. Less lyrical but more compelling than her dreams are the novel’s small realist details, of women’s tiredness, for example, or of hunger: “We seem to do nothing but talk and think about grub…. Our bodies get in the way. We’re a set of pigs kept grovelling in the ground.” Or again, in ironical reflections on workers’ endurance: “To starve quietly, unobtrusively and without demonstration, is perhaps the greatest art civilisation has forced on the masses.”

Chris adds, “I have been collecting her books for a couple of years now (a very difficult task as they are almost impossible to find). I plan to contact publishers to see if any of them would be interested in reprinting this remarkable book.” A quick check through the obvious sources (,, and produced a sum total of two books by Carnie-Holdsworth, neither of them This Slavery.

Chris has written an article on Ethel Carnie Holdsworth on Wikipedia. Two others articles on her life and work, one by Dr. Kathleen Bell and one by Nicola Wilson can be found on, a site about the history of the cotton milling industry in Blackburn, England, once known as the weaving capitol of the world.

He also mentions that Trent Editions will republish her last novel, All on Her Own (1929) in 2007.

Three Recommendations from Chris Kearin

Chris Kearin writes to suggest a few neglected books he’s discovered:

· Flying to Nowhere, by John Fuller

Photo of John FullerA very short novel that got lost in the shuffle when first published because it had the misfortune to appear at roughly the same time as Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a much longer, louder, and easier to read book with which it has some superficial things in common (monks, murder, Middle Ages). Fuller is the British poet, not to be confused with the American writer of the same name. The book begins with an amazingly vivid description of an unsuccessful attempt to land a horse on a rocky island from a small boat, and the writing remains at the same level throughout, even as the story gets stranger and stranger.

· The useful plants of the island of Guam, or, to give its full title, Contributions from the United States National Herbarium Vol. IX: The Useful Plants of the Island of Guam; with an Introductory Account of the Physical Features and Natural History of the Island, of the Character and History of its People, and of their Agriculture, by William Edwin Safford

Kearin writes about this book on his “Dreamers Rise” blog. There, he quotes the botanist Edgar Anderson, who wrote of Useful Plants:

Under this modest title is hidden one of the world’s most fascinating volumes. The author, who apparently came as close to knowing everything about everything as is possible in modern times, was professionally both a botanist in the United States Department of Agriculture and a lieutenant in the United States Navy. In this latter capacity he served for a year as assistant governor of Guam. In somewhat over four hundred pages he not only takes up all the native and crop plants of any importance, but also touches on such subjects as the history of pirates in the Pacific, how floating seeds led to the discovery of ocean currents, the grammar of the native language, the actual anatomical means by which stinging plants attain their devilish ends, and the aspect of the various kinds of tropical vegetation on the island, each of these digressions being developed with finicky regard for accuracy and appropriately embellished with authoritative footnotes.

Oliver Sacks also discovered this odd classic, and wrote of it in his The Island of the Colorblind:

I had thought, from the title, that it was going to be a narrow, rather technical book on rice and yams, though I hoped it would have some interesting drawings of cycads as well. But its title was deceptively modest, for it seemed to contain, in its four hundred densely packed pages, a detailed account not only of the plants, the animals, the geology of Guam, but a deeply sympathetic account of Chamorro life and culture, from their foods, their crafts, their
boats, their houses, to their language, their myths and rituals, their philosophical and religious belief.

All in all, it sounds like one of the few things the Government Printing Office has published you’d care to take to a desert island. Most of Safford’s other publications were articles for scientific journals. Among them is the intriguingly titled, “The Potato of Romance and Reality,” from the Journal of Heredity, which can be downloaded for Oxford Journals’ outrageous single-article price of $23.

· Los autonautas de la cosmopista (o, Un viaje atemporal París-Marsella), by Julio Cortazar and Carol Dunlap

A travel journal, done in mock-heroic style, of a six-week journey along the autoroute from Paris to Marseilles. Unfortunately it’s never been translated, but I did post a sample here.

The World of the Thibaults, by Roger Martin du Gard

Cover from first U.S. edition of 'The Thibaults'Reader Chris Leggette recommends Roger Martin du Gard’s family saga, Les Thibault, a series of seven novels published in the U.S. in two volumes: The Thibaults and Summer 1914, and then in a two-volume set, The World of the Thibaults. Clifton Fadiman included it in his compilation, Reading I’ve Liked, but as you can see from his New Yorker review below, the work held second candle in his eyes to Jules Romains’ Men of Good Will. Contemporary reviewers such as Mary McCarthy and Malcolm Cowley also had mixed feelings about The World of the Thibaults — ironically, feelings not dissimilar to those expressed by other reviewers by the time Romains reached the end of his own saga.

A few years ago, Timothy Crouse, best known for his comic account of the press coverage of Nixon’s second presidential campaign, The Boys on the Bus, helped translate and revive Lieutenant-Colonel de Maumort, a massive novel Martin deu Gard left unfinished at his death. Its release in 2000 led John Weightman to write in The New York Review of Books,

The 1930s now seem so far away that many members of the younger generation outside France, and even in France, may never have come across the works of Roger Martin du Gard. Yet, in his day, he was famous enough to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but even that international accolade is no guarantee of survival. Witness the case of René-François Sully-Prudhomme, the very first winner in 1901, who is now no more than a name in the reference books. But Iremember how eagerly we read Martin du Gard’s novels before the war. Now, having looked at them again, together with this unfinished, posthumous volume, which has taken so long to appear in English, I feel that they have a permanent quality. They may seem rather staid and old-fashioned compared to the overpowering intellectual and emotional fluency of Proust, but they have the merit of defining a certain kind of average Frenchness — that is, bourgeois anti-bourgeoisism — which existed strongly at the time, although it may have evaporated to some extent since then, just as Englishness is no longer what it was in those days.

Other Views on The World of the Thibaults

· Andre Gide, letter to Roger Martin du Gard, 17 March 1936

I do not want … the weekly mail to leave tomorrow without telling you of the immense joy, the profound satisfaction I felt after the first reading [of Summer 1914, the seventh volume of Les Thibault]. It was a difficult contest; you have won….

Dear friend, I believe that this book is destined to create a stir, to have a considerable success. Everything is said in it that needed to be said, with a perfect honesty in its presentation–so that even the most stubborn reader’s deepest convictions will be shaken…. Yes, I believe that this book has a considerable power of persuasion aside from its literary merits. But it is as a man of letters that I want to speak to you, and I can find nothing to say but praise. Some chapters are tours de force of skill and precision. You have written nothing better.

· Mary McCarthy, The New Republic, 26 April 1939

The machinery of the plot works with extreme awkwardness. It is, an a sense, a novel about time, yet the author’s only notion of conveying time’s passage is, after each gap of several years, to have two characters tell each other the events of the interim….

But The World of the Thibaults is not simply the study of a French family. Martin du Gard has taken Tolstoy for a model and, with this family for a center, has attempted to show a society as a whole. Thus the work contains, besides the usual elements of a novel, generous trial samples of modern science, modern literature, modern art, practical politics, religion, war, socialism and pacifism. The difficulty is, however, that these topics have not really been woven into the novel, but merely added to it. The result is not so much a novel of history as a historical grab-bag.

For all its encyclopedic qualities, The World of the Thibaults is not an important book. It is, however, a genuine literary curiosty. Industry and seriousness have been called in to substitute for talent, and the result is a work whose learned obtuseness is, so far as I know, unequaled in fiction.

· Malcolm Cowley, The New Republic, 10 March 1941

With glazed eyes and swollen lids, I have just finished The World of the Thibaults in the complete English translation — both volumes and all the 1,900 pages. It isn’t fair to blame Roger Martin du Gard, a kindly man and a conscientious writer, for the dull headache that comes from reading too much. Yet I wonder whether this business of writing oversize novels hasn’t been carried much too far, since Marcel Proust first set the fashion. Is there any human subject that can’t be treated in a hundred or at most two hundred tliousand words, instead of spinning the story out to nearly a million? Is there any reason for believing that a novel published in eleven books — as this one was in France — is eleven times or even twice as good as a novel in one reasonably large volume with a beginning, a middle and an end, and not too many extraneous incidents?

Isn’t it possible that giantism in fiction is quite as unhealthy a symptom as giantism in business or architecture or armies? The least one can say is that the author who writes an inordinately long novel is like the orator who delivers an inordinately long speech; he is disregarding the capacity for attention of his audience. Either the book must be leisurely sampled over a period of .weeks, in which case the reader is likely to have forgotten the beginning before reaching the end; or else it must be read as a reviewer’s chore, hour after hour and day after day, in which case it leaves one with aching eyes and perhaps a blurred picture of the author’s intentions. And the author, too, is running a risk. Any man who sets out to write a 2,000-page novel is betting against fate and human experience that he can remain unchanged until the book is finished….

Summer 1914 is the work for which Martin du Gard will be remembered and for which he deserved to receive the Nobel Prize. In the easy-running translation by Stuart Gilbert, it can be enjoyed almost as much as in the author’s pedestrian French. Yet it would have been better, I think, if it had been written quite independently, without regard to the family affairs of the Thibaults and the Fontanins. Standing alone, without seven other books as an introduction and without an epilogue, it would be even more impressive. It could then be read for itself, and with clearer eyes.

· Clifton Fadiman, The New Yorker, 1941

In 1939 there was published in this country The World of the Thibaults a book containing rather less than half of his Thibault series. Now, bearing the title, Summer 1914, the remainder is available in another book. The entire series, under the general heading, “The World of the Thibaults,” thus appears in two thick volumes, equivalent to eleven in the original French. Those who have not read “The Thibaults” may find “Summer 1914” somewhat puzzling. It is advisable to tackle the whole job or not tackle it at all. That means a total of 1,879 pages, but they are 1,879 pages that offer you a solid, almost tangible experience. They are pages for grown-ups….

In “The Thibaults” the emphasis was all on individuals and their relation to society; in Summer 1914 society itself almost ursurps the canvas. For me, there is a certain loss of power and originality….

But when du Gard concentrates he approaches magnificence: in his study of the Fontanin family, in his agonizingly perceptive account of the love between Anne and Antoine, in his heartbreaking record of the slow decay of the mind and body of Antoine. As a whole, The World of the Thibaults is unquestionably an impressive work. That world is now dead, its final hours having lasted from 1918 to 1939…. Someone had to write its epitaph, and for that epitaph to be clear it was necessary to go back to the roots of the Thibault world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This was du Gard’s task, to which he has now devoted two decades of his life. The task, one presenting almost insuperable difficulties, has been presented with honor…. You may not read him with absorption; you will read him with respect.

· Time magazine, 24 February 1941

In 1937 when Martin du Gard’s award was announced, the question arose why — if the Nobel committee wanted to pick a long, social French novel — it did not crown Jules Romains’ longer, as yet unfinished Men of Good Will. The question is still valid. Both works cover the same period, both are fraught with the desire of idealists to stop the war, both are written with objectivity approaching self-effacement. The general impression left by Men of Good Will is rich, vascular, forthright; of Les Thibault nervous, sinewy, tangled. Men of Good Will chronicles a whole society, Les Thibault a family and its immediate connections. Romains cut into French life at scores of levels, pulled out hundreds of characters. They are alive, but they are polished as flawlessly as marble. Some are almost too pat to his purpose.

Martin du Gard’s people have the puzzling surfaces of real people whom he has studied closely but not entirely understood. At times their motivations stretch thin to the vanishing point, and their behavior seems perverse and arbitrary. But in some ways they are even more alive than Romains’ people. Doubtless Romains’ book is a greater work of art; but Les Thibault may be the better novel.

· Albert Camus, Lyrical and Critical Essays

Perhaps, in Martin du Gard’s eyes, the only guilty person is the one who refuses life or condemns people. The key words, the final secrets, are not in man’s possession. But man nevertheless keeps the power to judge and to absolve. Here lies the profound secret of art, which always makes it useless as propaganda or hatred…. Like any authentic creator, Martin du Gard forgives all his characters. The true artist, although his life may consist mostly of struggles, has no enemy.

· David Tylden-Wright, The Image of France: Studies in Contemporary French Literature, 1957

When in 1937 Roger Martin du Gard was awarded the Nobel Prize for Summer 1914, the seventh part of The Thibaults, it seemed a fitting reward to mark not only the completion of a mammoth and magnificent achievement but also a life or remarkably disinterested devotion to literature…. He has never attempted or wished to be an exceptional writer in the sense of shunning the duller, more ordinary side of life. Rather the reverse. his aim, it has always seemed, has been to reflect life itself, with its tedium, its limitations and its complexity, not raised on the pedestal of a particular point of view but life in the round, in the rough, as it appears to, and affects, ordinary people such as, for example, the Thibaults.

· Masterplots, Revised Second Edition

The eight-part novel cycle The World of the Thibaults was inspired by the author’s desire to emulate for his own time the accomplishment of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In fact, the work’s style and pessimism is closer to Roger Martin du Gard’s countryman Gustave Flaubert than to the Russian author. Although the historical background of the action in the novel is of interest, it is the powerful depiction of human relationships that constitutes the book’s chief merit.

In many respects, the most influential character in the vast novel is old Monsieur Thibault, the patriarch of the Thibault family. A complete hypocrite, he announces to the world that his conscience is clear, yet he is concerned only with his own convenience and peace. Cloaking his craving for power and authority under a guise of fervent religiosity and philanthropy, he actually has no sense of either religion or generosity. He possesses no love for his sons, demanding only that they be completely docile. Any contradiction or sign of individuality throws him into a rage. For all of his big gestures, he is a petty man. Everyone automatically hides feelings from him, for one never can tell what his reaction might be. He forces his family into hypocrisy. By avoiding all introspection, Monsieur Thibault unknowingly condemns himself to a life of petty pride and cruelty, a life so alone that he must find his only consolation in public honors and the “knowledge” that he is a “good man.” As he grows older, however, the fact of approaching death terrifies him increasingly, and he desperately seeks some kind of immortality, as if he subconsciously realizes how futile his busy life actually has been.

The volumes of the series are crowded with fascinating, well-drawn secondary characters. These include Monsieur Chasle, the middle-aged secretary of Monsieur Thibault, who is suddenly revealed to have his own life, his own preoccupations, fears, and miseries. The reader becomes aware of many other lives lurking in the background, and beyond them still others. In the volume entitled The Springtime of Life, the adult Daniel and Jacques experience the bohemian life of Paris, encountering characters such as Mother JuJu, the retired prostitute, and many colorful girls of the streets, as well as the rich Jew Ludwigson, who sells Daniel’s pictures. Earlier, in a powerful scene at young Jenny’s sickbed, the Rasputin-like pastor Gregory chants and prays and condemns with equal fury and somehow saves the girl’s life….

The graphic realism of the sickbed and death scenes, and, in the seventh volume, Summer 1914, the dramatic buildup of the war, as the European nations are swept relentlessly to destruction, are impressive achievements. Even more impressive, however, is the fact that as the focus of the novel expands, the author never loses sight of the individuals who make up the world. For this vast, panoramic survey of society and the meaning of life, as well as for his earlier novel of the Dreyfus affair and atheism, Jean Barois (1913), Martin du Gard was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1937.

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John Baker recommends The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Cover of early UK edition of 'The Hole in the Wall'

Novelist John Baker puts in a plug for this site in his own blog.

He also recommends a neglected book not yet listed here: Arthur Morrison’s The Hole in the Wall. Morrison, a novelist and short-story writer, is most often remembered for a series featuring the detective Martin Hewitt, but before that, he wrote several grim and violent books about life in the London slums. Tales of Mean Streets and A Child of the Jago are still in print, and you can find one of his Martin Hewitt collections at Project Gutenberg.



JFK’s Favorite Books

From Mrs. Kennedy, by Barbara Leaming:

Jackie, starved for conversation about books and ideas, was captivated when, early on, Jack gave her two of his favorite books as a way of explaining to her who he really was. None of the young men touted by her mother had ever done anything like that. One of these books was John Buchan’s Pilgrim’s Way (Memory Hold the Door in the U.K.), from which Jack had derived the credo that public life is “the worthiest ambition,” politics “the greatest and the most honorable adventure.” The other was Lord David Cecil’s The Young Melbourne, set in a world of complex and fascinating political men, the Whig aristocrats of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, who moved constantly and determinedly between episodes of high political seriousness and those of intense pleasure.