Tales of reconstruction | Daily News


Tales of reconstruction

Some nominations for out-of-print books that deserve to be rediscovered and republished
“Un, due, tre, fuoco” by Ekaterina Panikanova, 2012; Books, wooden board, nails, ink | Courtesy the artist & z2o Sara Zanin Gallery Rome
“Un, due, tre, fuoco” by Ekaterina Panikanova, 2012; Books, wooden board, nails, ink | Courtesy the artist & z2o Sara Zanin Gallery Rome

I read Turkey Hash, Craig Nova’s first novel, in 1972, drawn to it by a review that declared it “carried the kick of a nail poked into a live light-socket”. I was not disappointed. It is a stark, bleak view of the underbelly of Los Angeles life, written in a charged, cleverly wrought prose that marries Hemingway’s monosyllabic heft with a dystopian lyricism that Scott Fitzgerald would not disown. Nova proved himself a master of this particular tone of voice: a kind of wised-up urban syncopation, unashamed to celebrate and enhance the low-rent quotidian surrealism that the city had to offer. A young writer’s novel – full of swagger and bravura, happy to take risks with narrative and prose, unflinching in its clear-eyed, raw honesty – Turkey Hash (long out of print, mysteriously) was, I believe, one of the most remarkable American first novels of the twentieth century.

Richard Canning

Noodlot (Fate, but translated into English as Footsteps of Fate) is an 1890 novel by the Dutch writer Louis Couperus. It was translated by Clara Bell the following year, and read by Oscar Wilde, who wrote Couperus – an apparently highly respectable married man, living in The Hague, though the truth is somewhat more complex – a fan letter.

I’ve always thought that elements of the plot structure of Noodlot subconsciously influenced Wilde in the shaping of The Picture of Dorian Gray – though of course endless other books can make a similar claim. Both novels feature a ménage à trois. The key difference lies in gender: although deeply queer in its focus on the playing out of an adolescent passion between boys into adulthood, Noodlot focuses on the break-up of a heterosexual marriage – between Frank and Eve.

Frank’s childhood friend Bertie – who, destitute, now lodges with Frank – grows fantastically jealous of Eve, and hides her letters to Frank to imply her estrangement. Disaster follows, the story ends melodramatically, with some critics seeing the shadow of Ibsen’s Ghosts. Reviewers were horrified by the novel and its stage adaptation, seeing them as perverse and potentially corrupting. But Edmund Gosse was enthusiastic, and kept the English translation in print. Wilde’s correspondence with Couperus led, indirectly, to the commissioning of a Dutch translation of Dorian Gray.

Pushkin Press has brought into print fine new English translations of several of Couperus’s novels, but not this seminal fin-de-siècle study in obsession and derangement.

Patricia Craig

Mary Ellmann’s prescient and engaging Thinking About Women (1968) challenges what she calls “phallic criticism” – “Books by women are treated as though they themselves were women, and criticism embarks … upon an intellectual measuring of busts and hips”.

It wasn’t long before a new wave of feminist insight, argument and reassessment was sweeping all before it. Ellmann’s pioneering study was somehow, unfairly, sidelined in the subsequent rush to assert ideas of equality in every branch of women’s writing. But, like Brigid Brophy’s collection of polemical and invigorating essays and reviews, Don’t Never Forget (1966), Thinking About Women is deeply attuned to intimations of dissent from the patriarchal orthodoxy of the day.

In a different genre, the historian A. T. Q. Stewart’s The Narrow Ground: Aspects of Ulster 1609–1969 (1977) treats the Northern Irish conflict in terms of its idiosyncrasies and continuities, to consistently illuminating effect.

Richard Davenport-Hines

Frederick York Powell was a lecturer in law and an authority on Icelandic literature. His only books on English history had been written for schoolchildren, when he became Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford in 1894. The two volumes of Oliver Elton’s Frederick York Powell (1906) – containing his biography, and a selection of lectures and essays – always repay re-reading.

Powell had a bracing mind. His sentences were nimble and provocative: he had the directness of a man whose best friends were fishermen, prize fighters and a chimney sweep. His avid, erudite reading and love of physical beauty produced a rare and clarifying stylist. Powell’s empathy for foreignness, his love of “heathendom”, and his reviling of meretricious historians – “flourishing on imposture” and hawking “miserable old threadbare lies” about national exceptionalism – have resounding aptness today.

So, too, does his repulsion at political liars and professorial tricksters: “an ignorant democracy cannot last long”.

Jonathan Gibbs

How short our memories are. Lawrence Norfolk’s three other published novels remain in print, but one outlier – In the Shape of a Boar, 2000 – seems to have fallen by the wayside. Norfolk made his name with maximalist historical novels (The Pope’s Rhinoceros, Lemprière’s Dictionary) as intricate as anything written by Umberto Eco, but this is a far stranger proposition.

The first of its three parts takes the form of a Greek epic in prose and gives an account of the hunting of a monstrous boar sent by Artemis to terrorize the land, complete with dense scholarly footnotes. The second part starts in Paris in the 1970s and tackles the shadow of horror and retribution in the Second World War. The third, far shorter, part ties the two sections together.

It is an astonishing performance, ambiguous and erudite, and one of the more original British novels of the past twenty years.

Edmund Gordon

The Northern Irish writer Brian Moore received no shortage of acclaim in his lifetime, and two biographies were published in the years immediately after his death in 1999, but only a couple of his novels (The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, 1955, and Black Robe, 1985) appear still to be in print.

My favourite is The Mangan Inheritance (1979), a feverish, almost Dostoevskian inquiry into the vexed relationship between ancestry and identity in a chaotic modern world. It follows a failed poet and recent widower called James Mangan who travels from America to Ireland in the hope of discovering some link to his famous nineteenth-century namesake. Cue a story teeming with lunatics and doppelgängers, violence and incest, and tinged with the uncanny atmosphere of nightmares. Moore wrote some of the most immersive and emotionally powerful fictions of the twentieth century, and The Mangan Inheritance is for my money his most intellectually nourishing work.

I wish someone would republish it; I fear my dog-eared Flamingo paperback can’t survive another reading. - Times Literary Supplement

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