My Top Ten Most Neglected Fiction Classics
1. The Blue Room (Georges Simenon): Simenon wrote over 400 novels, and although he was not taken seriously during his lifetime, he is now acknowledged as an important Belgian author whose talent lay in creating deeply psychological characters using the simplest language possible. Lauded by Andre Gide as a great writer, Simenon was, to put it simplistically, crime fiction’s response to Camus: his stories are filled with the dread of existence, the futility of human action and the insanity of urban life. The Blue Room is my favorite of his; it tells a simple tale in a complicated way, proving that flashbacks should not be as taboo as we are told, and showing just how effective it can be to have most of the novel’s action take place in a single setting. This is a dark novel, but a beautiful one.
2. The Beast Within (Emile Zola): Zola is required reading in France, but even his most famous novels in the English-speaking world are barely read. This is a shame. Zola was the champion of 19th-century French Naturalism, a literary movement that focused on “the real world” and refused not to show the grittier aspects of life among the lower classes. The Beast Within is a violent, disturbing look at the indifference with which one can commit a murder, and it is written in the simple style that Zola adopted for his entire literary career. Zola often shocked his contemporaries; even today his novels can cause strong discomfort in unsuspecting readers.
3. Other Voices, Other Rooms (Truman Capote): When people talk about Capote, they usually talk about his masterpiece of nonfiction, In Cold Blood. By far the most overlooked of his novels, Other Voices, Other Rooms is, to my mind, the greatest work he penned. It is fundamentally flawed, as are most first novels, but even its occasionally overwrought prose and its cruelty cannot stop this from being a superbly moving story about sexual awakening in the American South. There is something so demonically brilliant about this book that I am surprised so few people have read it.
4. Europeana (Patrick Ourednik): What would the history of 20th-century Europe sound like if it were captured in attention-grabbing sound bites and presented as a novel with no protagonist? Europeana is by far the most neglected work in his list, and that is ridiculous: it’s a masterpiece unlike any other because it takes an ostensibly impossible idea (that of fairly assessing the entirety of a century of history) and puts it into practice in a delightfully pithy and laconic way. Ourednik’s choice of details is what makes this book so moving. He picks exactly the sort of silly moments in history that most people forget and uses them to tell the story of Europe. All in 120 pages, no less.
5. The Pathseeker (Imre Kertesz): Not much is said about this wonderful, Nobel Prize-winning novelist from Hungary in the English-speaking world. Too bad, because as a Holocaust survivor and extremely talented writer, Kertesz has a lot to say about human nature, and a very eloquent way of saying it. The Pathseeker is the story of a man whose trip to an unnamed village in Eastern Europe turns into a nightmarish journey of self-discovery. As we discover, if we pay close attention to the details, this “Commissioner” is far less innocent than he likes to present himself; and his role in the Final Solution, though only hinted at, acquires the status of true horror.
6. Naomi (Junichiro Tanizaki): If you enjoyed Lolita, you will most likely enjoy Naomi, a 1920s novel about a grown man who marries a young girl whose naivety and inexperience attract him beyond reason. The problem is that Naomi is far more complicated than she seems, and the protagonist is less clever than he thinks; the result is psychological torture, manipulation, and sexual infidelity of the most deplorable kind. The prose is solid and never pretentious, and the author is careful never to reveal too much at once; the result is fantastic.
7. Boy (James Hanley): This is the most overwhelmingly sad novel I have read. Written in the 1930s and promptly banned for its obscene content, it resurfaced in the 1980s and has become a cult classic. It tells the story of a boy who runs from home after his father’s abuse becomes too much to bear, and takes refuge on a ship. Sadly, nothing goes right for him, and the end of the book is so horrifically pessimistic and depressing that you can’t help but feel that part of your own innocence has been stolen somehow. Read it.
8. Miguel Street (VS Naipaul): One of my favorite comic novels, Miguel Street is the story of a neighborhood in Trinidad populated by conmen, artists, prostitutes, sparring spouses, psychopaths and very silly children. Every chapter can be read as a short story, but the book is best enjoyed as an organic whole. Some parts of the novel are downright hysterical, while others showcase Naipaul’s talent for writing about the “depressingly amusing and amusingly depressing” thing we call human life. I recommend this without hesitation to anyone who wants to see what Naipaul was up to early in his career.
9. The Unvanquished (William Faulkner): Few casual Faulkner readers seem to know of this book’s existence; I think it’s time to correct that. The Unvanquished is a novel told in vignettes, and its subject is the American Civil War. A white boy and his black best friend (and slave), only barely aware of the war at the start of the novel, must come to turns with the war’s significance in a series of brutal events that lead up to the murder of the white boy’s father. Though it starts out quite lightheartedly, the novel gains in profundity as it progresses, and offers us one of the very few instances in Faulkner’s oeuvre where the Civil War is used as a setting for the narrative.
10. The Blind Owl (Sadeq Hedayat): An unusual and extremely disturbing novel about madness from one of Iran’s most important modernists, The Blind Owl was banned for years because of its problematic way of dealing with sex and violence. The narrator is a man whose grip on reality is frail at best, and whose story reads like an extended dream sequence filled with surrealist humor and horrific depictions of the effects of lapses in good judgment. Be prepared to picture a woman being cut up into pieces and shoved into a suitcase in the opening pages.
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"I could have done worse!" exultantly cried the murderer Lebret, sentenced at Rouen to hard labor for life. — Félix Fénéon