“How did we miss these?”, from the Observer

September 16th, 2007

Source: http://books.guardian.co.uk/reviews/generalfiction/0,,2160644,00.html, The Observer, 2 September 2007

“[B]ooks that seem to speak only to you are, in some ways, the most treasured,” writes Robert McCrum, The Observer’s literary editor, in his introduction to a recent cover feature. The magazine’s editor asked 50 contemporary novelists to name “the novelist or poet whose work they believe to be shamefully undervalued.”

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'The Balloonist'Their responses show that undervalue, like value, is very much in the eye of the beholder. Given the wealth of academic attention paid to Flannery O’Connor’s work and the fact that A Good Man Is Hard to Find, it’s hard for me to agree with M. J. Hyland’s nomination of the book. For several other writers, it’s the work, not the author, that’s undervalued: Thackeray, Samuel Johnson, and Edith Wharton are secure in their respective spots in the literary canon, but Pendennis, Rasselas, and The Reef are hardly the titles most likely to be associated with them.

Only few genuinely neglected titles pop up on this list. Philip Pullman proposes The Balloonist, one of the many out-of-print wonders by the late MacDonald Harris, of whom he writes, “Actually, it’s almost impossible to read any of Harris’s first pages without helplessly turning to the next, and the next.” Although Julien Green’s Midnight (recommended by John Mortimer), Hans Fallada’s The Drinker (Beryl Bainbridge), and Frans Gunnar Bengtsson’s Viking saga, The Long Ships (Michael Chabon) are all now out of print, each has had one or more reissues within the last decade or so.

The most significant aspect of the feature is its demonstration of the resurrection of works of the English novelist and short-story writer, Elizabeth Taylor, “the author of some of the finest and subtlest English novels of her time,” in McCrum’s assessment. Three novelists nominate her works, which can now enjoy a revival on the order of Barbara Pym’s in the early 1980s, thanks to new editions of such works as Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Angel, At Mrs Lippincote’s, and In a Summer Season from Virago Modern Classics and a 2005 film of “Mrs. Palfrey.”

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