Saturday, September 1, 2007

50 underrated novels

The Guardian's Observer does like its lists, and it brings another one with a list of 50 underrated novels compiled from selected "celebrated writers". None of our noble selections were included -- Elizabeth Bowen is mentioned-- but on a first browse I spotted some eye-catching suggestions.

Elizabeth Taylor received 3 mentions: Angel, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and Blaming -- woo, go Virago! -- suggested by Charlotte Mendelson, Jane Rogers and Jenny Diski respectively. This proves that they are all in sync with many litbloggers. I never knew that the name belonged to anyone other than the Hollywood actress before I started reading book blogs. At first I wondered a) since when did Taylor write novels and b) why would anyone care enough to waste time reading them. It took me a while to figure out there were two very different persons. ;)

I have The Obscene Bird of Night by Jose Donoso, recommended by a Nicola Barker, which I got because I wanted more translated literature and decided to browse the Verba Mundi backlist. I only had a vague idea of what it was about but Barker's description sounds promising.
It would be a crass understatement to say that this book is a challenging read; it's totally and unapologetically psychotic. It's also insanely gothic, brilliantly engaging, exquisitely written, filthy, sick, terrifying, supremely perplexing, and somehow connives to make the brave reader feel like a tiny, sleeping gnat being sucked down a fabulously kaleidoscopic dream plughole.
Who doesn't like dream plugholes? (Does anyone recognise any of the "celebrated writers" yet? I don't.)

Here's one author I recognise. John Banville recommends Langrishe, Go Down by Aidan Higgins, describing it as a "elegiac, bittersweet" book that "probably did not suit the mad mood of the [60s]". Based on my small sampling of 60s fiction I'd have to agree that "bittersweet" was not the predominant tone, so the contrast alone makes it worth a look. A.S. Byatt (to whom The Observer unfortunately gives the first name "As") gives heady praise to a collection of Ford Madox Ford novels called Parade's End -- that Amazon edition is published by Carcanet who also offers two Djuna Barnes books -- ranking it above Howard's End and Mrs Dalloway. I am both pleased that one of my absolute favourite writers likes Ford, for I hold The Good Soldier as about the closest one can get to a perfect novel, and that she considers his other work worth pursuing. Based on the Broadview edition I read the introduction gave the impression that The Good Soldier was the only interesting thing Ford ever wrote.

I don't expect that I'll ever read an Ian Rankin book, but his very concise description of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg piqued my interest in his taste.
Barmy and scary and predating Jekyll and Hyde. And written by a shepherd who barely read any books. A Scottish classic, a world classic, yet hardly anyone, writers excepted, has actually read it.
Besides who can resist reading about someone's hopefully spicy account of his sins? I did like that one James Hogg poem I read in The Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien. More importantly there's a NYRB classic edition (an Outmoded favourite) which boasts a detail from a William Blake painting. Sold!


Bybee said...

I'd like to join this challenge, if it's not too terribly late. If it is, no worries.

I was surprised and pleased to see Mary Robison and Breece D'J Pancake recommended in this article.

Dorothy W. said...

Thanks for the link -- it's an interesting list. It makes me want to read even more E. Taylor -- I've read two novels but not the ones they mention. And I've got the Hogg on my shelves and wanted to read it this year -- will I get to it? I don't know. Oh, and did you see the Tristram Shandy reference? :)

Imani said...

Bybee, you are welcome to join -- I've left membership open until the end of January next year. :) I've sent you a blogger invite.

Mary Robinson's name rang a faint bell when I came across it, but no firm associations came to mind.

Dorothy I'm afraid I didn't. *blush* Clearly that movie I watched didn't give me all the best information about the book. ;)

Dorothy W. said...

Well, it wasn't on the list, exactly, but it was mentioned by the person who listed Rasselas.

Anonymous said...

Do read Parade's End - I'm reading it at the moment and it's excellent. A different kettle of fish to the Good Soldier though.

Ted said...

There was a good write-up of E. Taylor in the September Atlantic.