At the start of C.D. Rose's witty, playful new novel, Who's Who When Everyone is Someone Else, the narrator, who may or may not be Rose himself, arrives by train in an unnamed central European city to give a series of ten lectures on the theme of "lost, forgotten or unjustly neglected books." In a style that might remind you of Ishiguro's The Unconsoled (but funnier), the lecturer wanders the city in a haze of misunderstandings and missed connections between delivering his lectures, which pertain books that may or may not be real. We asked C.D. Rose -- the real C.D. Rose -- to tell us about books that he feels have lost the battle for lasting literary fame, despite their virtues. He came up with eleven. By sheer good luck, they are still available in print. Perhaps they will rise from obscurity with his help?
A stepbrother and sister are made to spend a holiday together in an isolated part of rural Wales to bond their new family. The children discover a set of plates in the abandoned attic of their holiday cottage, and what seems an innocuous discovery soon takes a more sinister turn. The Owl Service looks at the complications of the family as well as retelling some ancient Welsh legends. Although reasonably successful at the time of its 1967 publication, and later made into a deliciously eerie TV film, the fact that YA as a genre hadn’t really been established (much less the idea of ‘crossover’) didn’t help Garner. In an age where it has, and fantasy literature forms one of its cornerstones, Garner (whose other books such as The Weirdstone of Brisingamen are also well worth checking out) is overdue recognition.
The guy who wrote The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables of course - he probably needs no introduction. But Hawthorne was also a fervent writer of rather dark Gothic tales, of which Rappaccini’s Daughter is one of the finest. A prescient parable about genetic manipulation, amongst other things, this novella tells the story of a young student who becomes enamoured of Beatrice, a girl who only seems to exist in the garden her mysterious father (the titular Rappaccini) has grown.
Although well known in Norway, this coming-of-age tale is like no other. A quiet girl, Unn, moves to a remote village in frozen Norway, and rapidly befriends Siss, before vanishing in an ‘ice place’ – a frozen waterfall. Siss spends the rest of this brief novel trying to make sense of her friend’s disappearance, entering an ice palace of her own making. A moving, brief novel about loss, loneliness and the difficulty of growing up, written with the spare simplicity of an ancient tale.
Before her untimely disappearance at sea at the age of 37, Quin was becoming known as one of a small group of radical, experimental British working-class writers. Her reputation sank after that, and she is only now being rediscovered (partly thanks to Jennifer Hodgson’s recent new edition of her short works, The Unmapped Country.) ‘A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father’ the book begins, and grows only stranger after that. Though challengingly hallucinatory in parts, the book is also a fine description of the unglamorous side of a British seaside town (Brighton) in the early 1960s.
Trieste, Italy, 1943. A wounded sailor awakes from a coma to find himself bereft of memory. A kindly doctor believes the man is Finnish, and helps him relearn his language and send him home to Helsinki. As we read on, whoever, we discover that precisely none of this seems to be true. A playful yet eminently readable tale about language, memory and missing homelands.
Best known for her later life reworking of Jane Eyre, The Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys led a fascinating though complicated and difficult life moving between the Caribbean, Paris and London, largely in various states of destitution. This collection of stories recounts this life, at turns bitterly funny, sharply observant and strangely moving.
A book with a name more bizarre than anything I could have invented, this is exactly what its title says. A compendium of descriptions of nearly 200 unusual ailments by a variety of authors, including some SF/Fantasy aristocracy such as China Miéville, Neil Gaiman and Michael Moorcock.
‘In the winter of 1916 I found myself in St. Petersburg with a forged passport and without a copeck’ begins one story – and what story that begins thus could be anything less than great? While aficionados of the short form, and of Russian literature, will surely already know Babel, his work remains bafflingly unread by a wider public. This is a shame as the writing is so accessible and direct, conjuring witty portraits of life in a shtetl in the earlier Autobiographical Stories and as serving in the nascent Soviet army in the Red Cavalry ones. Babel encapsulates the Russian genius of being bitter and tender – as well as wickedly funny - throughout.
Mixing a certain kind of down-at-heel English provincial realism with a dark strain of the macabre, Aickman’s stories, written throughout the 1950s and 60s, earned only little respect at the time, and he later gave up writing to become a conservationist. There is no explicit horror here, nor even anything so obvious as a ghost: everything is hinted or suggested, and the palpably uncanny of the seeming-everyday revealed through accumulation of small detail. His work, perhaps simply too odd for its time, is now being re-evaluated through the publication of several collections. This one marks a fine starting point.
Though widely recognised as a Science Fiction writer (perhaps best known for Solaris), the Polish Lem was also a fine writer of postmodern fables and parafiction. A Perfect Vacuum is a collection of reviews of and prefaces to some dozen non-existent books, including Simon Merrill’s Sexplosion and Alfred Zellerman’s Gruppenführer Louis XVI. His genius consists of us being thankful to have read about such improbable works, while also glad they don’t actually exist.
A neglected masterpiece of American WWII literature. Though having served in the US Army in North Africa and Italy, Burns eschews macho war writing heroics and turns his fascination and his empathy to the city of Naples and its inhabitants in the grim immediate post-war period. He wrote two later novels, both of which bombed, and later returned to Italy, where he sadly drank himself to death in Florence in 1953.