“Breakthrough” Neglected Books, from Lingua Franca magazine

June 11th, 2007

Lingua Franca, the now-defunct “Review of Academic Life”, has a regular feature called “Breakthrough Books”, where academic experts recommend the groundbreaking books in their various fields. Way back in June 1997, the field in question was neglected books. The magazine asked thirteen writers and academics to share their favorites. Here is a sample of their responses:

• Terry Castle, professor of English at Stanford and author of Noel Coward & Radclyffe Hall: Kindred Spirits

The extraordinary Irish novelist Kate O’Brien is virtually unread today, but her sometimes sentimental-sounding titles — Pray for the Wanderer, As Music and Splendour — conceal works of great beauty, intellectual precision, and moral candor. The pellucid Mary Lavelle (1936) — about an Irish governess’s sensual and emotional awakening in Spain-is perhaps her most subtle, ardent, and delighting fiction.

And I continue to be amazed by the (relative) neglect of Elizabeth Bowen — a novelist, in my view, far superior to Virginia Woolf. Her early novel The Hotel (1927), in which a young woman staying with friends in an Italian pensione falls painfully in love with a Madame Merle-like older woman, is at once heartrending, fierce, and almost achingly well written.

• Wendy Lesser, editor of The Threepenny Review and author of Pictures at an Execution

Two neglected books that I am always recommending are Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows (1956) and Ford Madox Ford’s tetralogy about the World War I, Parade’s End (1924-1928). Ford’s portrait of a society dealing with a despised war and its returning veterans will remind my generation of our own Vietnam era; and for readers who love great characters, none can beat Christopher Tietjens and his malicious wife, Sylvia.

The Fountain Overflows is a book that nobody I know has read without my recommending it, yet it is one of the great turn-of-the-century novels. It is about sibling rivalry, musical families, genteel poverty, unreliable fathers, the death penalty, the newspaper business, the market for old master paintings-and it is also, despite all this plot, an invitingly autobiographical, intimate book.

• Sandra Gilbert, professor of English at UC-Davis, author of Ghost Volcano: Poems

Because I am myself a poet as well as a critic, I have a special fondness for fiction produced by poets, a frequently overlooked genre. Karl Shapiro’s novel Edsel is a case in point. Published in 1971 (and currently out of print), it’s been virtually forgotten. Yet it’s a scandalously funny account of the travels and travails of poet-professor Edsel Lazarow, marked by the same verbal pyrotechnics that give Shapiro’s poem “The Bourgeois Poet” (1962) its satiric zing.

• Timothy Brennan, professor of English and comparative literature at SUNY Stony Brook and author of At Home in the World: Cosmopolitanism Now

Even among Caribbean writers, George Lamming is shamefully unheralded, while being in some ways the English Caribbean’s last word. Natives of My Person (1972) is his (and my) favorite. Nothing like it has ever been written anywhere, with its weird mock seventeenth-century prose, its setting in a slave ship off the Guinea coast, and its fantastic allegory of women’s oppression as the intimate result of the triangular trade.

No one thinks of reading Fyodor V. Gladkov’s Cement (1925), because we all suppose Soviet socialist novels are junk, but it’s among the shrewdest and most inspired treatments of the pathos of organizations and the sacrificial impulse of the makers of new worlds.

• William Gass, author of The Tunnel and Finding a Form: Essays

Wyndham Lewis’s greatest novel, Self Condemned (1954) — written after he had gone blind, in Canada and about Canada, in condemnation of Canada, in condemnation of himself for inexplicably abandoning England and coming to Canada, whose bleak unlit winters bore upon even a blind man-was received with some interest in Canada but with unopen arms, selling 7,000 copies during its first two years there. Not bad for Lewis, not bad for Canada, but even in Canada it failed to achieve the audience it ought to have had, an audience which, had it been there, would have condemned the book just as its protagonist, Harding, was condemned…. The book’s movement is glacial and grinding, the writing brilliant, the mood cold and sterile, but the hotel is set on fire (as Lewis’s was) only to become a fire hose’s frozen shell, like Harding himself, who, after his no-longer-loved wife is crushed under a car where she’s rolled herself, is empty enough now, hollow enough now to become an American academic.

The complete article can be found online at http://linguafranca.mirror.theinfo.org/Special/books.9706.html

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