I stumbled across writer Lee Sandlin’s website (www.leesandlin.com) and was delighted to find, on his “Enthusiasms” page, a list titled, “Ten Novels That Not Enough People Have Read.” Lee is one of the finest essayists working in America today. His remarkable piece on the mythology of World War Two, “Losing the War,” is included in the recent compilation, The New Kings of Nonfiction (and also available online on his website). I couldn’t resist writing him to express my interest in the list and to ask for a few words about the books. I figured he would get back to me eventually, but a couple of hours later, back came an email with the following comments.
- · Armed With Madness, Mary Butts
- A deliriously unstable version of an English country-house story, about summer guests at an estate who think they’ve found the Holy Grail–something like a Virginia Woolf novel spiralling frantically out of control and throwing off startling ideas and images in all directions.
[Editor's note: Armed With Madness and a companion novel, Death of Felicity Taverner, have been reissued in a one-volume edition by McPherson & Company.]
- · Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrlees
- A unique fantasy novel from the 1920s, light-years away from Tolkien and his imitators, about a stodgy provincial country infiltrated by a sinister fairyland.
[Lud-in-the-Mist is in print from Cold Spring Press, with a foreward by novelist Neil Gaiman.]
- · Memoirs of a Midget, Walter de la Mare
- De la Mare was a conservative British poet who’s fallen into unjust obscurity; this is his longest and best novel, which treats a fairytale premise with fantastic intensity –as though a Hans Christian Andersen story had been rewritten by Conrad.
[In print from Paul Dry Books.]
- · The Asiatics, Frederic Prokosch
- The first novel of a young American writer, published in the late 1920s, highly praised by the likes of Camus, Gide and Mann, about a hitchhiker travelling across Asia; hallucinatorily vivid, even though you suspect (and Prokosch later admitted) that the author had never actually set foot in Asia.
[The Asiatics is in print from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, with an introduction by Pico Iyer.]
- · The Curlew’s Cry, Mildred Walker
- A slow, evocative, and beautiful novel by a forgotten American regionalist, published in the 1950s, about the lifelong friendship between two women in Montana.
[The Curlew's Cry is in print, as are all of Walker's books, from the University of Nebraska Press.]
- · A Legacy, Sybille Bedford
- A richly imagined and elegantly told autobiographical novel about the intertwined lives of three European families at the end of the 19th century, which slowly turns into an understated parable about what the legacy of European culture really means; the sequel, Jigsaw, about a young woman’s sexual awakening on the French Riviera in the 1920s, is just as good.
[In print, as are a number of Bedford's books, in attractive editions from Counterpoint.]
- · The Stone Book Quartet, Alan Garner
- This series by a British writer, ostensibly for children, is a stunningly beautiful evocation of the author’s family history, told through a succession of small, emblematic, fervently re-imagined moments of daily life.
[Currently out of print in the U.S., but it's available as a Harper Perennial Modern Classic from Amazon.co.uk.]
- · The Dead of the House, Hannah Green
- I’ve never read anything like this book. What appears at first to be a shapeless and garrulous memoir of suburban America in the middle of the 20th century gradually reveals itself to be a visionary prose poem about the way time and history are interfused in the American landscape.
[In print from Turtle Point Press. Of the book, the normally-subdued Publishers Weekly wrote, "Green is known for being a perfectionist in her writing, and this long-out-of-print work is absolute proof. The characterizations are flawless, the descriptions excellent and the overall effect sublime."]
- · Peace, Gene Wolfe
- An old man recalls his life in small-town Illinois, and his memories open up into a weird carnival of dreams and reveries; the best book I know of about the surreal underside of the American heartland.
[In print, although in an utterly unappealing edition, from Orb Books.]
- · The Fortunate Fall, Raphael Carter
- A garish, dark, exhilaratingly original take on 1990s sci-fi cyberpunk, by a writer who seems to have since disappeared without a trace.
[Out of print and selling for as little as two cents on Amazon.]
Many thanks, Lee!