Happening upon an un-Yelped food truck that sells you the best tilapia wrap ever. Scanning inadvertently into a raging blues station no one ever listens to.
These are the joys of finding the lesser-known.
You may have been at the dollar store and picked up a book you never heard of, or you stumbled on one during an Internet search. And it turned out great.
Regardless of how it happens, pleasure doubles when we take in something that isn’t getting the love it ought to have. And for sciolism — the show of superficial learning — there’s nothing like it. (“Then I happened across a tiny shop where I found an Edwardian translation of Pindar’s ‘Odes to the Tittleweed.’ Such beauty.”)
Some books I’ve found may be generally familiar but I was oblivious about; others are so-called lesser works by well known authors. I enjoy a lot of contemporary fiction, but most the obscure were written years back. Which adds to the magic.
Here are five I took to:
The author of Brideshead Revisited and the Men at Arms trilogy, Evelyn Waugh is rightly considered one of the towering stylists of the past century. Earlier in his career, he let loose with a burbling wit and spot-on satire.
Scoop is peopled with characters of amiable isolation and what you might call socially acceptable faults. Few of the figures are wicked but none are above committing intuitive mischief. In the country house where the action starts, everyone lives in their own world, to the extent of surrounding themselves at dinner with their own condiments. They talk about each other in front of each other, leap-frogging to outlandish conclusions. And Waugh knows better than anyone how to back into a joke. Elsewhere he keeps running gags going for just the right length. In fact, the line “up to a point” is appropriately one of the best of his running gags.
(2) West With the Night
Writing at a time when jobs still had special suffixes to indicate gender, the aviatrix Beryl Markham gives us a memoir that is a lesson on narrative barnstorming. West With the Night. As she races to break an Atlantic speed record, her story jettisons all sense of controlled time. We’re taken through the farm of her childhood, through laughable bureaucrats and frogs with vestments and the African who laughed at the airplane because it is so perfect. The chaotic growth of Nairobi — rather than a clock — marks time, and we see the city become bored with all kind of flyer except the type on film. Read this book and see like I did how to illustrate every one of the senses and how really to do humor with understatement. There is one arguable flaw. Apparently it was almost entirely ghostwritten. But so what. After all, while we want our pilots to be sound, this is the age of the unreliable narrator, isn’t it?
(3)The Uncle Fred stories
Putting the greatest humor writer amid a list of obscurity is not funny. Nor does it make sense to try to rank the works of the only perfect writer. (A challenge: Find a sag or a muddle or a gag that goes too short or long in any P.G. Wodehouse work after he found his voice.) But if you’re looking to hot things up a bit, then between spending time with Jeeves and Wooster, go see the less known Uncle Fred. That is, Frederick Altamont Cornwalis Twistleton, fifth Earl of Ickenham.
I am angry at the world for not insisting I read Wodehouse until late into my grown up years. Stupidly, he used to be housed in the humor section instead of fiction or literature in most bookstores. You might as well shelve truffles next to the potting soil. In any event, you will grin from cover to cover and ear to ear as you read of the English lord who knows the only way to spread joy and bring people to happiness is by letting go with the perfectly placed impish prank. Right, ho.
(4) Israel Potter
First, read his Bartleby the Scrivener, even if you would prefer not to. The name Herman Melville raises fears of solemnity and an 1800s intellectual miasma, at least for me. Why didn’t they tell us in high school that Melville, as much as anyone, knew funny? Come to think of it, re-reading the classics away from the classroom, you realize they pretty much all did humor really good. In Bartleby, I think we might get the first satire of the cubicle. In Israel Potter Melville offers us an honest and unwitting con-man. (Best chapter: 20, where the trope of mistaken identity is taken up a ship’s mast.) And with Melville we laugh at the same time we watch the characters find identity and possibly meaning.
(5)The Coming Race
He did open one of his books by noting the darkness and storminess of a night. But Edward Bulwer-Lytton is better than that. Only unfairly have we consigned unto him all the purpled and blossoming sins of Victorian bombast and sobriety. (Truthfully, that previous sentence does capture some of his occassionally bloated style.) His works set in ancient Rome are real trips. In The Coming Race, I’m pretty sure he’s playing a long joke on us. A hundred years ago, when science started looking up, authors began peopling the darkness there with aliens. When Bulwer-Lytton wrote awhile earlier, the technology of deep drilling and mining had captured the public’s fancy.
We go into the Earth thinking we’re entering an Elysian field, only to realize that the perfectly run society is a monotonous Hades. The supposedly civilized race we find is in fact fiercely bigoted and despises “Koom-Posh,” their term for messy democracy. We don’t realize for some time how arch these beings are. But the author does offer a few clues early on: Instead of laughing, they emit “a soft sibilant sound.” They seem also to have developed the first elevator music.
A few others:
Heart of a Dog. Slapstick, double takes, a nervous breakdown in front of a talking dog: Even without understanding the cutting anti-Soviet satire, you’ll love this like I did. It’s written by Mikhail Bulgakov, who also wrote the wondrous magical realist The Master and Margarita.
The Emperor. In a work of journalism that reads like science fiction, we watch the dissolving of the softly enigmatic ruler of Ethiopia, a man who is today the object of Rastafarian worship. Haile Selassie’s one moment of energy comes when he is pushed into a green Volkswagen at the end of his reign: “You can’t be serious! I’m supposed to go like this?”
Orlando. For me, no writer can better create an ethereal world of layered image and feeling than Virginia Woolf. I’m in love. This work is considered one of her lighter works; I think it’s a charm.
The Star Thrower. My father gave me this book of essays when I was youngish. Loren Eisely looked at bones and saw numinosity. If he lived a few decades later, he might have been the Carl Sagan of anthropology.
My Life as Emperor. A rumination on power written by Su Tong just a couple years after Tienanmen Square, the title character is frivolous, derisive and spiteful, but his poetic heart and physical ambivalence to blood – even blood he has shed himself – make him soberly compelling.
Manalive. In law school I procrastinated with the help of Chesterton’s essays, telling myself at least I was still in the library, reading. His fiction offers the same addictive frenzy, mystery and paradox.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. A strange book with every theme and none. Plus lots of madness and fear.
Three Men and the Bummel. Jerome K. Jerome is the kind of old time writer you are sure must be writing today, his style is so fresh and awareness so clear. His earlier travelogue in a boat is classic. Here, he takes us on side trips that split your sides.
The Ides of March, by Thorton Wilder. Written as letters from Julius Caesar and others, a nearly perfect way to retell an old story in a new way.
Hell, since we’re on the topic, five songs that should be more popular (YouTube versions; authorized, I hope):
- One Hippopotami, Allen Sherman
- Pizzica de Banda, Mascarimiri. (Picked this up on a trip in southern Italy)
- Passport to the Future, Jean-Jacque Perrey (Had this in our basement jukebox growing up.)
- In the Upper Room, Mahalia Jackson
- Staying Alive as performed by Darlene Edwards
For the record, some other writers I get weak-kneed over and plead with the muses to offer me just a daub of their inspired talent: Austen, Bellow, Christopher Buckley, Borges, Doctorow, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gideon DeFoe, Gaiman, Le Guin, Garcia Marquez, Christopher Moore, Toni Morrison, Patrick O’Brian, Pratchett, Tom Wolfe and Gene Wolfe (with Virginia, part of my favorite lupine triumvirate).