Smugging up on forgotten authors, from the Guardian Unlimited

In his Guardian Unlimited blog, author Sam Jordison writes,

I’ve recently been indulging in the literary equivalent of schadenfreude. Not so much pleasure in someone else’s misfortune, as pleasure in everyone else’s lack of knowledge.

It’s not an admirable emotion, I know. Even so, I can’t help it. I’ve just started reading one of the finest writers I’ve encountered for a long time — and my enjoyment is only heightened by the certainty that very few others in the UK have even heard of him, let alone shared the delights of his superb prose.

We fans of neglected books must admit, like Jordison, that a certain amount of the pleasure in discovering them is the knowledge that we’re among the lucky few to have made the discoveries. In this case, the discovery was the works of the writer, Alfred Chester:

They are strange contradictory books. Marked out by Chester’s superb prose, they’re both surreal and unflinchingly true to life, at once light, witty and imbued with heavy existential angst. They deal with everything and nothing. They are sometimes brutal and hilariously waspish, but always humane. Essentially, for all their 1950s existentialism, they are unlike anything else. As Chester himself said in description of The Exquisite Corpse: “… it is probably the most unlike book you have read since childhood. And probably also, the most delicious.”

As one of his commenters points out to Jordison, Chester’s works might be rare in the U.K., but thanks to the efforts of the Black Sparrow Books, long a supporter of such neglected writers as John Sanford and Ed Dorn, three of his books are currently in print, and a fourth is due for reissue later this year:

Jordison invites his readers to suggest an “unsung genius” of their own, and among the names proposed in response are:

  • M. R. James, a Victorian writer of ghost stories whose works are readily available in collections from Penguin and Oxford World Classics.
  • Delano Ames, who wrote dozens of mysteries between 1932 and 1972, including a series featuring Dagobert and Jane Brown “full of arch conversation and bizarre wealthy characters.”
  • James Hanley, an Irish novelist whose 1985 Times obituary was headlined “Neglected Genius of the Novel”. Hanley’s books are out of print in the U.S. but he had at least the honor of his own tribute website (now in archive). You can pick up a copy of A Dream Journey, one of his late and most highly-praised novels, for as little as $0.03 on Amazon. What are you waiting for?

And one of the commenters is even kind enough to mention the Neglected Books page. Thanks!

2 thoughts on “Smugging up on forgotten authors, from the Guardian Unlimited

  1. From what I can determine, this book was either published by some fly-by-night press or cooked up in the author’s head and communicated by word-of-mouth and urban myth. Sounds suspiciously like Joe Gould’s An Oral History of Our Time. Would that it actually existed–but I doubt it does.

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