Which forgotten novel do you love?, from the Guardian Unlimited

Source: http://blogs.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/09/plucked_from_obscurity.html, Guardian Unlimited Books Blog, 2 September 2007

Following up on The Observer’s feature, “How did we miss this?”, in which 50 contemporary novelists were asked to name the books they considered most “shamefully undervalued,” its literary editor, Robert McCrum, took to his blog to invite readers to recommend their favorite “obscure, half-forgotten, probably out-of-print titles.”

As in The Observer feature, the recommendations include a fair number of in-print, critically recognized, and well-established books neglected only in the assessment of those who proposed them: The Bell Jar? In the Heart of the Country? Le Grand Meaulnes? They may not be Moby Dick, but they’re certainly not “obscure, half-forgotten,” or out-of-print.

But it’s worth a look for the genuinely obscure works that pop up in and amongst these:

• Bernard Gilbert’s “Old England” series

Gilbert “envisaged a sequence of 12 books each in a different form : poetry, drama as well as prose” depicting aspects of “Old England.” In a 2006 post in the Codisdead, writer and artist Herbert Read’s review of one of these books, Old England: A God’s-Eye View of a Village, is quoted in which Read wrote,

His book is so completely planned and neatly executed that it comes into the category of those works of science that in conception give evidence of a poetic mind…. In our own time it will stand as a diagnosis of the diseased heart of the country. In another age it will mean as much as, and even more than, Piers Plowman means to us.

Thinks I to Myself, by Edward Nares

First published as “Says I, Says I” by “Thinks-I-to-Myself Who”, this “Serio-Ludicro-Tragico-Comico Tale”, popular in the early 1800s, is a tongue-in-cheek “autobiography” penned by an English clergyman. The narrator fills his story with all sorts of asides and commentaries, such as this lament upon the decline in the servitude of servants:

It used formerly to be a matter of convenience for any master or mistress to communicate an order or direction through a third person: to tell the butler, for instance, to tell the coachman to wait at the table, or the footman to ask the groom to carry a letter to the post; but this round-about mode of communication is now properly put end to; Mr. Butler no longer dare presume to tell Mr. Coachman to wait at table, nor Mr. Charles the footman Mr. Bob the groom to carry a letter to the post; Mrs. Housekeeper to tell Miss House-maid to help her prepare the sweetmeats; nor the nurse to ask the laundry-maid to bring up little Miss’s dinner.

The full book can be read online or downloaded from Google Books.

• Katharine Topkins’ All the Tea in China

Poster christopherhawtree writes of this 1960s novel,

Nothing like it. Seething, erotic, with an extraordinary meditation upon a woman’s view of depressing a car’s throttle pedal, something I have never seen mentioned anywhere else (it’s hardly a subject one can broach in polite company). Topkins wrote “Kotch”, filmed with Jack Lemmon, and later wrote novels with her husband. I lent my copy to somebody at Virago – it screams out to be a Modern Classic, but I never got it back… It’s not quite Lolita but getting that way. A wonderful novel.

8 thoughts on “Which forgotten novel do you love?, from the Guardian Unlimited

  1. I actually find it quite hard to find relatively unknown books– the closest, maybe, are the novels of Charles Portis, but even they have a small cult and came back into print in uniform editions some years ago.

    Certainly you can go to the library and find acres of forgotten books, but open them up and purple prose that reeks of its time inevitably gasses out. Sometimes I’ll see an old movie which seems to give some actress a juicy part or capture some piece of its time, and I’ll hunt down the book it was based on– and inevitably the movie has done it the ultimate favor of turning something that died with its time into a remembrance of that time. The little details of the period, the performances have life on the screen after they died on the page with the author’s style.

  2. There are certainly more deservedly forgotten books than undeservedly forgotten ones, and in more than a few cases, the neglect should have started on the editor’s desk instead of on the shelves of countless libraries and remainder tables. But I invite you to try any of the Featured Books on this site or any title off one of the Sources lists and see if you don’t find it equal to any good contemporary book and worth your time in reading it.

  3. One of the most popular posts on my site since its inception has been a review of the English editor and critic E. O. Parrott’s delightful “How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry” (Penguin, 1992). It uses self-descriptive verses by a variety of writers to explain many poetic forms. An example is Martin Fagg’s “A form with very tight parameters, / Heroic Couplets use pentameters.”

    This wasn’t just the most popular poetry post on One-Minute Book in 2006 — it was also one of the top ten in any category. E.O. Parrott http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2006/11/20/ is far more popular than Stephen King on my site. And it would be wonderful if “Neglected Books” could feature his book. It isn’t just witty and engaging — it’s much more informative than many other poetry dictionaries and similar books, because Parrott covers some forms that others don’t. How many authors still try to make fun for nonscholars to learn what a nonet or tanka is?

  4. Thanks for the recommendations, Janice. I see that the book is out of print and available for as little as £0.05 on Amazon.co.uk, so it certainly qualifies. I’ve kept John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason, a similar guide to prosody, admittedly less tongue-in-cheek, handy for years.

  5. “Rhyme’s Reason” is excellent, too. One difference between Hollander’s book and Parrott’s is that “How to Be Well-Versed in Poetry” is much longer, so it covers many more verse forms, including some really obscure ones that — you could argue — Parrott has almost singlehandedly kept from dying out in trade books. The other difference is that Hollander wrote all of his own examples. Because he’s a good poet, they’re good examples. But Parrott’s book is an anthology of work by scores of contributors (including Parrott), so you get a wonderful variety of styles of wit — from gently droll to bitingly satirical. I’d think that many people would want to own both books.

  6. Agree with “All the Tea in China.” by Katherine Topkins Read it as a teenager in the 70s– over and over and over. Spot-on portrayal of a dysfunctional overbearing family in Seattle in the early 1960s and the effects on their victim-lek daughter, and her brutal husband. Loved the more sturdy character of the

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