An interesting article appeared in The Guardian promoting some lesser known classics published by Penguin Classics. I admit to having read only one of the selections but I do have a couple of the titles hanging around my bookshelves. Which titles do you consider adding to your reading list in the next few weeks?
You might ask whether a book can justify the term “classic” if it only has a handful of readers. I believe it can. There are three essential criteria for defining a classic: it must have endured a number of years; it must have intrinsic literary quality; but, most crucially, it must still be alive, to be able to connect with readers, thrilling them with flashes of recognition and revelation. This is the brilliant paradox at the heart of a classic: it may have been written centuries ago, but its kernel of truth still feels startlingly contemporary. So it doesn’t matter how many people admire a classic; the important thing is what it can do to you. There’s even a particular pleasure when you make a literary connection and you know you’re among a limited number of initiates. “Few people love the writings of Sir Thomas Browne,” wrote Virginia Woolf, for example, about the esoteric 17th-century essayist, “but those that do are the salt of the earth.” So I recommend striking out and investigating those more shadowy shelves. What follows is a personal selection of some less well-known classics. I hope you enjoy these and that they lead you to other lesser known passages in the marvelous library of world literature.
Petronius, The Satyricon, cAD64
Several books are said to be the world’s first novel, but my money’s on the uproarious Satyricon by Gaius Petronius, a tour de force of Latin prose. It follows the bawdy misadventures of Encolpius, a teacher of rhetoric, and his handsome 16-year-old lover Giton, as they travel around Italy having their affections and libidos tested in a series of orgies, banquets, shipwrecks and erotic scrapes with sacred geese. The centrepiece is an unforgettable banquet hosted by the vulgar millionaire Trimalchio, a veiled portrait of the psychotic Emperor Nero. Petronius was Nero’s “arbiter of taste”. According to the historian Tacitus, his entire life was devoted to pleasure: “Others achieve fame by energy, Petronius by laziness”. The work exists in fragments, but that is part of its charm: episodes flit across the pages and the reader is left to imagine or reinvent the overarching narrative.
Lady Sarashina, As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, 11th century
I lie awake,
Listening to the rustle of the bamboo leaves,
And a strange sadness fills my heart.
This medieval Japanese work has no title and we don’t know the name of its pseudonymous female author, but nonetheless its haunting, dreamy vignettes have survived for a thousand years, and are now considered one of the jewels of Heian literature, studied by schoolchildren across Japan. The book is a mosaic of a lady-in-waiting’s melancholic memories, dreams, poems and accounts of pilgrimages to mountain shrines and palaces.
Śivadāsa, The Five-and-Twenty Tales of the Genie, c13th century
Vikramāditya was a mythical Indian king who features in many ancient Sanskrit tales: he was 10ft tall and legendarily wise. In this Indian classic, Vikramāditya’s realm is under threat from a mighty necromancer. At a cremation ground he meets a gruesomegenie, who has somehow inhabited a corpse swinging from a tree. This hideously animated cadaver starts speaking to Vikramāditya, telling him tales, each of which ends with a riddle. The stories feature parrots, body-swapping, tricksters and fairies. If Vikramāditya can answer all the riddles correctly, the genie will tell him a final tale that includes the secret to defeating his enemy.
Marguerite de Navarre, The Heptaméron, 1558
A bridge is swept away by floodwater high in the Pyrenees and five men and five women are left stranded in a remote abbey. Over the course of the seven days it takes to repair the bridge, each member of the eclectic party tells seven stories, in near-emulation of Boccaccio’s The Decameron. The book is a treasure trove of Renaissance repartee, with stories ranging from lessons in morality to lewd ribaldry, and the storytellers have a lively discussion after each tale, which is often just as entertaining as the story itself. The Heptaméron has traditionally been attributed to Marguerite, queen of Navarre, a patron of the writers François Rabelais and Pierre de Ronsard. She was a leading intellectual of 16th-century France, the doyenne of a literary salon known as the New Parnassus, and she almost became the first wife of the future Henry VIII of England.
Margaret Cavendish, The Blazing World, 1666
A maverick and feminist who championed animal welfare, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle was the first female scientist to attend a meeting of the Royal Society. She is best remembered for this utopian romance, one of the earliest examples of science fiction. A beautiful young lady journeys to another world, accessed via the north pole, where animals talk and war is conducted with the aid of submarines and aerial bombardment. As empress of this strange world, she outlaws war, religious conflict and gender inequality, and learns how to teleport to parallel universes. In a metafictional twist, she also comes across the writings of “the Duchess of Newcastle; which although she is not one of the most learned, eloquent, witty and ingenious, yet she is a plain and rational Writer”.
Jan Potocki, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, 1805-15
Composed in Poland, written in French and set in Spain, this book claims to be the transcript of a mysterious manuscript written by a Walloon named Alphonse van Worden. Alphonse is detained at a roadside inn by an exotic company of brigands, cabbalists, noblemen, coquettes, Muslim princesses and Gypsies, and proceeds to record their strange, nested stories over the course of 66 days. The book is regarded as one of the greatest masterpieces of European literature. The author, Count Potocki, was a Polish aristocrat who spent time as a novice Knight of Malta and became the first aeronaut in Poland when he flew above Warsaw in a hot-air balloon. Eventually, believing himself to be a werewolf, he took his own life with a silver bullet, modelled on the knob of his favourite sugar bowl.
ETA Hoffmann, The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, 1820-2
A highly intelligent cat, Murr, has written a swashbuckling memoir – a strange enough premise. For blotting paper, however, Murr ripped pages out of a biography of a musician called Johannes Kreisler, and these fragments have accidentally been set by the printer, spliced randomly throughout the narrative, so the book alternates between the tomcat’s autobiography and the life story of the anguished genius Kreisler. This eccentric, witty and intricately structured novel was the last major work by ETA Hoffmann, who considered it his magnum opus. It was inspired by his own “dark tabby” and has been described as “one of the funniest and strangest novels of the 19th century”.
Comte de Lautréamont, Maldoror, 1868
Isidore Ducasse was born in Uruguay, the son of a French diplomat. He travelled to France as a young man and adopted the nom de plume Comte de Lautréamont, inspired by the eponymous Byronic hero of a novel by Eugène Sue. He died during the siege of Paris in 1870, at the age of just 24, but he is remembered for his hallucinatory prose poem Les Chants de Maldoror, essential reading for all horror fans. The titular antihero meets angels and gravediggers, lunatics and creepy children in a delirious, blasphemous and extremely weird story. “May it please heaven,” writes Lautréamont at the beginning, “that the reader […] find his rugged and treacherous way across the desolate swamps of these sombre and poison-filled pages.”
Emilia Pardo Bazán, The House of Ulloa, 1886
A mild-mannered priest, Father Julián Alvarez, is sent to the remote country estate of the grand Ulloa family, to order the affairs of the roistering Don Pedro, Marquis of Ulloa. Once there, he finds himself sinking into a mire of political corruption and sexual intrigue, and his ineffectual attempts to reform the household lead ineluctably towards tragedy. Surprisingly, given this narrative arc, the novel is sparklingly funny with several laugh-out-loud moments. It combines, as Nicholas Lezard puts it, “comedy, farce, realism and heightened-pitch hysteria with a dash of gothic”. It is the masterpiece of Countess Emilia Pardo Bazán, who wrote 19 novels and more than 500 short stories, essays and travelogues. She was a prominent feminist in 19th- and early 20th-century Spain and a professor of literature at Madrid University.
MP Shiel, The Purple Cloud, 1901
Matthew Phipps Shiel was born on Montserrat of mixed parentage. He sailed for England in 1885, claiming to be King Felipe of Redonda, a small, uninhabited rocky islet in the Caribbean. (The current king of the micronation Redonda is the Spanish author Javier Marías.) Shiel studied medicine in London and wrote detective stories. In The Purple Cloud, Adam Jeffson is the first man to reach the north pole, but on his return journey he discovers he is also the last person left alive on Earth: an insidious, sweet-smelling cloud of poisonous gas has enveloped the world and destroyed all animal life. He wanders the empty streets of London and the rest of the deserted globe, slowly descending into madness, dressed in Turkish costume and burning cities to the ground, until he discovers that he may not be the sole survivor of the calamity.