Title Menu: 10 Great “Minor” Works by Major Writers
The great writers of the ages were hardly (often) one-hit wonders. In praise of diversity, the staff at OLM celebrate the lesser-known b-sides of some pretty well known pens.
John Cotter, Executive Editor
No, the other Richard. Not Now is the winter of our discontent but his predecessor of a hundred years prior, the de-throned Plantagenet whose regicide in 1400 more-or-less kicked off a game of thrones between the rival houses of Lancaster and York. Though written later and with at least as much mastery as the better-known III, II is less often performed (though that’s slowly changing) and far less well-known. This is a shame, because its story is as intricate as you like and its titular regent is a captivating mystery. Was he a vain and thoughtless popinjay who drove the country into debt and stole the fortunes of his subjects to make it right, or was he a well-meaning philosopher in the wrong job, doing the best he could to hold together a fractious and hypocritical gentry?
Richard III is more pulse-pounding; Henry IV 1&2 more endearing; Henry V more rousing and adventurous, all true. But Richard II is more varied and thought-stirring and surprising. The usurping hero Bolingbrook ends up coming off like a bully, the lazy king a sage, the wise old councilor a blowhard. And has any line of Shakespeare’s the rending force of that simple “for you have but mistook me all this while,” when Richard lands on a Welsh beach, fresh from victory in Ireland, glowing with pride, only to be told his kingdom is taken away, his family in shame, and his own forces powerless to reverse it, now or ever? There in the course of fifteen minutes on-stage Richard blanches, bluffs, withers, rises, sees his ruin, and wakes to a nightmare. His couriers are stunned. He accuses them, begs forgiveness, beseeches:
Cover your heads and mock not flesh and blood
With solemn reverence: throw away respect,
Tradition, form and ceremonious duty,
For you have but mistook me all this while:
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me, I am a king?
Elisa Gabbert, Contributing Editor
U and I, Nicholson Baker’s first nonfiction book (Granta, 1991), sees the author doing what he does best: hyper-analyzing something superficially undeserving of the attention, much to the reader’s delight. It’s less about John Updike than it is about Baker’s weird obsession with Updike – weird not because Updike isn’t worthy but because Baker takes his fandom to such absurd, neurotic heights, approaching an imaginary rivalry: “Hardly a day has passed over the last thirteen years in which Updike has not occupied at least a thought or two,” he writes, then goes on to list all the Updike books he hasn’t read. A wonderful quick, funny read for anyone who has ever felt the anxiety of influence.
Rohan Maitzen, Senior Editor
During Elizabeth Gaskell’s lifetime it would have sounded absurd to call Mary Barton a lesser-known or minor work. Her first novel, it was a literary, not to mention a political, sensation — a shot across the bow of a comfortable bourgeoisie too at ease in its own privilege to see what both Gaskell and her contemporary and fellow Mancunian Friedrich Engels saw: the looming threat of revolution. But such is the power of Masterpiece Theater that today Gaskell’s name is most likely to call up images of Judi Dench being winsomely poignant as Miss Matty in Cranford or Richard Armitage smoldering as North and South’s brooding captain of industry, Mr. Thornton.
There is some justice in Mary Barton’s overshadowing. Cranford has a timeless comic charm (who having read it can forget the cow in flannel pajamas, or Mrs. Forrester’s recipe for retrieving swallowed lace literally from the bowels of poor kitty?). And North and South is a more polished and subtle novel than Mary Barton, its Pride and Prejudice plot both rewardingly romantic and deftly serving Gaskell’s conciliatory goals. But Mary Barton, like many first novels, has the energy and fearlessness — if also the flaws — of absolute commitment. Its opening scenes of home and family immerse us sympathetically in the lives of its working class characters; each disaster that befalls them makes it more and more difficult for us to forgive their complacent oppressors. Yet forgiveness, on both sides, is indeed Gaskell’s message, and to that end she serves up melodrama, pathos, romance, and one unforgettable boat chase. You’d have to be hard-hearted indeed not to be moved by the final confrontation between the chief representatives of the novel’s class war:
Mr. Carson stood in the doorway. In one instant he comprehended the case.
He raised up the powerless frame; and the departing soul looked out of the eyes with gratitude. He held the dying man propped in his arms.
John Barton folded his hands as if in prayer.
“Pray for us,” said Mary, sinking on her knees, and forgetting in that solemn hour all that had divided her father and Mr. Carson.
No other words would suggest themselves than some of those he had read only a few hours before —
“God be merciful to us sinners. — Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us!”
And when the words were said, John Barton lay a corpse in Mr. Carson’s arms.
So ended the tragedy of a poor man’s life.
To top it all off, this very sad story has a very happy ending, as Mary and her sweetheart relocate to Canada. What more could you ask for — and what are you waiting for?
Kathleen Rooney, Contributor
It’s easy to overlook how many books with female protagonists have plots that hinge on whether or not their main character will end up with the right man, but pretty much every book in Muriel Spark’s consistently hilarious and engaging oeuvre proves a brilliant exception to this monotonous rule. The title character of Spark’s most famous novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, is unforgettable and deservedly renowned, but the heroine of her lesser known Loitering with Intent is equally memorable and arguably more fun.
Smart, talented, acidly witty and unapologetically ambitious, Fleur Talbot is an aspiring novelist in post-World War II London. In need of funds to support herself while she completes her debut, Warrender Chase, she takes a job working for the Autobiographical Association, run by the manipulative Sir Quentin Oliver who preys upon the egos and vulnerabilities of the group’s members, all of them grotesque to varying degrees. Published in 1981 and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, then reissued by New Directions in 2001, the novel takes its title from the legal phrase meaning to linger or hang around with the intent of committing an offense. This speaks to Spark’s ability to dramatize the experience of being a writer, operating with the magpie mind necessary to “steal” from life to create textured fiction, as when Fleur explains: “I was finding it extraordinary how, throughout all the period I had been working on the novel, right from Chapter One, characters and situations, images and phrases that I absolutely needed for the book simply appeared as if from nowhere into my range of perception. I was a magnet for experiences that I needed.”
In addition to offering a depiction of being an artist that is free of mystification or bullshit, Spark also portrays the elderly in a way that is neither flat nor sentimental. One of Fleur’s truest friends and allies is the nonagenarian Edwina, the irrepressible mother of her antagonistic boss. Every scene with Edwina in it is a delight, as when Fleur and her journalist friend Solly are walking with Edwina in the park and talking about how Fleur should be shaping her novel: “I said, ‘Dottie’s sort of the general reader in my mind.’ ‘Fuck the general reader,’ Solly said, ‘because in fact the general reader doesn’t exist.’ ‘That’s what I say,’ Edwina yelled. ‘Just fuck the general reader. No such person.'”
The drive and determination of Fleur for literary achievement propels the story, making this a page-turner, one that only gets weirder and more compelling when the real life events surrounding Fleur seem not just to end up in her book, but rather to actually be influenced by what Fleur is writing. And Fleur’s confidence as both a woman and a writer is refreshing and even inspiring. “I wasn’t writing poetry and prose so that the reader would think me a nice person,” she explains, “but in order that my sets of words should convey ideas of truth and wonder, as indeed they did to myself as I was composing them. I see no reason to keep silent about my enjoyment of the sound of my own voice as I work.” The truth and wonder of this book are undeniable.
Justin Hickey, Editor
If you truly love non-fiction, you’ve probably got fingers wedged in several enormous books at once—a history, a biography, maybe a collection of nature essays. Should you need a break from epics but perhaps want to cleanse your palate all the same, science writer Dava Sobel can help. The Planets, her brief, conversational cruise through the Milky Way, aims to satiate our intellectual cravings for mythology, history, and of course, astronomy. She begins with her own childhood love of the solar system, and from there jumps to the Sun (in the chapter evocatively titled “Genesis”) before continuing planet-by-planet toward that little putz Pluto. And lest this volume be considered dabbling in too great a pool of knowledge, here’s Sobel cornering some cold science in the same glowing prose that makes Galileo’s Daughter absolutely invigorating:
The vast, variegated clouds, which are all anyone ever sees of Jupiter, constitute only a thin veneer surrounding the planet; they comprise less than 1 percent of its forty-five-thousand-mile radius. Underneath the clouds the atmosphere grows denser and hotter because of mounting pressure, and the weather stranger. Here the carbon content of methane and other trapped gases may be crushed to tiny diamonds in the sky. Gradually the gases cease to behave as gas, as they dissolve into a sea of liquid hydrogen.
Each of the twelve chapters features a giddily-colored illustration by Lynette Cook, ranging from the silly (Mars and its War of the Worlds invaders) to the sublime (the god Mercury gracing an amphora against the night sky). They all sit beautifully in the smallish Penguin trade paperback, and make you wish the publisher sneaked similar surprises into every release.
Maureen Thorson, Poetry Editor
This 1925 satirical novella, in which mad science meets Soviet bureaucracy and comes out worse for wear, has the dubious distinction of being the first of Bulgakov’s novels to be banned — and by no less a person than the soon-to-be-banned-with-prejudice Soviet premier, Lev Kamenev. Bulgakov’s plays had been driving lesser censors bananas for a while, but it took the long arm of officialdom some time to catch on to the counter-revolutionary possibilities of his genre-bending early novels, which read like mash-ups of H.G. Wells and H. L. Mencken. Bulgakov was able to get two of these – Diaboliad and The Fatal Eggs – through the system, but beginning with Heart of a Dog, he was to find himself almost entirely blocked by a Stalinist theory of literary criticism (“anything we don’t understand is a threat”) that left generations of Russian readers to thrill to stolidly plotted novels about cement.
One can see why Heart of a Dog would render censors both baffled and suspicious. The book’s ostensible hero, Professor Phillip Phillipovich Preobrazhensky, is a surgeon who maintains privileges — a seven-room apartment, servants, luxurious meals — unattainable by most citizens, due to his treatment of high-level party and military officials. He’s an endocrinologist of sorts, a specialist in the 1920s fad for rejuvenating the system by implanting animal glands into humans in need of a pick-me-up. In pursuit of revolutionary new treatments, the Professor adopts a stray dog, Sharik, and replaces his testicles and pituitary gland with those of a man killed in a bar fight.
Sharik survives the operation only to turn, over a matter of weeks, into a human being – losing his fur, standing on two legs, and gaining the power of speech. But whereas Sharik the Dog was a rather likeable specimen, Sharik the Human (or Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov, as he soon dubs himself), is a fink of the first water. In fact, the operation has given him the personality of the man whose glands he inherited – a lay-about balalaika player with the personal habits of a rat and the social consciousness to match.
But while Citizen Sharikov’s antics cause the Professor and his household no end of headaches, he seems to bloom under the conditions present in 1920s Moscow. He befriends Shvonder, the officious Chairman of the House Committee (a minor functionary in charge of managing residents in the building in which the Professor lives. He, of course, hates the Professor and his seven rooms) and eventually becomes a subofficial of the Moscow Pest Control Bureau. Naturally, Sharikov’s in charge of ridding the city of stray cats.
In the aftermath of a cat-related domestic disaster, Phillip Phillipovich discusses the Sharik situation with his protégé, Doctor Bormental:
“Shvonder, of course, is the biggest fool of all. He doesn’t understand that Sharikov represents a greater threat to him than to me. At this stage he’ll make every effort to sick him onto me not realizing that, if someone in their turn decides to sick Sharikov onto Shvonder, there’ll be nothing left of him but a few flying feathers.”
“Yes indeed. The cats alone are proof enough of that. A man with the heart of a dog.”
“Ah no, no,” Philip Philipovich said slowly in answer. “You, Doctor, are making a very great mistake. Pray do not libel the dog. . . . At this stage Sharikov is exhibiting only residual canine behaviors and, understand this, chasing cats is quite the best thing he does. You have to realize that the whole horror of the thing is that he already has not the heart of a dog but the heart of a man. And one of the most rotten in nature!”
After Sharikov denounces the Professor to the Soviet secret police, something has to be done. The Professor solves his problem in just as fantastic a way as he generated it, but the epilogue suggests he’s learned nothing from his adventure in playing God. He’ll continue to tinker with human nature, recklessly ignoring the potential monstrosities along the way.
Sam Sacks, Founding Editor
One of the great keynote works of the modern era, The Education of Henry Adams rang in the 20th century with its moods of anxiety and guilt and its convictions of failure and imminent disorder. In a kind of anti-Emersonian commencement address, Adams predicted that humankind would fall further into the thrall of new and astounding technology. Because few people would actually understand how such technology worked, it would beguile the masses like sorcery, and its cult-like worship would cast the world into a new Dark Age. After Adams died, his brother Brooks compiled three of his essays expanding on these ideas into a weird and brilliant book of almost lunatic pessimism called The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma (to which Brooks also contributes an incongruously good natured introduction). Here Adams attempts to formulate a sort of grand unified theory of history, drawing from complicated and contentious scientific theorems to explain the course of civilization and its possible outcomes. In particular he applies the Second Law of Thermodynamics—which states that the steady dissipation of energy will result in the eventual destruction of the universe—to democratic politics, arguing that entropy, not progress, is the unremitting force to which society is subject. Instead of gradually perfecting themselves, democracies were actually sliding further into chaos. Since Adams wrote his essays before World War I, there is a certain chilling prescience to his doomsday pronouncements. But the power of the writing is in its sharp sense of failure and inner turmoil. Adams’ main desire is not to warn society of pending disorganization but, in the way of the immortal European artists and humanists, to synthesize all the branches of modern knowledge into a coherent system. What he seems to realize is that science had become too arcane and specialized for the educated layman to entirely grasp (critiques that he misunderstood fundamental aspects the scientific principles he worked with only confirm his premonition). Even as he made his arguments, Adams was aware that his very project was becoming obsolete, and that soon knowledge itself would be too splintered, too abstract and inaccessible, to array against the forces of confusion. In other words, this is an essential 20th-century book.
Steve Donoghue, Managing Editor
Myself as Witness by James Goldman
Best Known For: The Lion in Winter
Oh sure, when you hear “Gerald of Wales,” you automatically think of Topographia Hibernia, the 1187 work that flew out of scrivener cells and apothecary shops, was translated into all four Western languages, and made its author a household name. In fact, you probably so instinctively link this author to this work that you sometimes find yourself surprised when somebody – at a party or trendy cafe, say, or on Reddit or the Huffington Post – reminds you that Gerald of Wales wrote major works continuously throughout a very eventful life at the court of England’s King John. For nearly ten years around at the turn of the century, he fought a long and outspoken campaign to be named Bishop at gorgeous St. David’s Cathedral in his native Wales, making the journey to Rome three times to petition the Pope in person — and, in the process, locking horns with King John, who always had one worried eye squinted at Wales. So the reading world received Gerald’s gripping autobiography, De Rebus a se Gestis, with even more fascination than it had his account of the quarrelsome, illiterate Irish. Those readers thrilled to take in Gerald’s insider tales of his fight with Rome – and with the King, who at one point, Gerald scandalously reveals, waited until after he’d received a very large nonrefundable bribe from the Welsh clergy to “consider” Gerald’s case, and then stingingly wrote, “You think I’d set you up as the head of potential Welsh rebellion, with my own hand? Satan take it!”
Gerald would have been mildly chagrined that his fame today rests on a book he dashed off in three months rather than on the far more substantial and learned work he wrote later in life, and that same chagrin was certainly felt by American writer James Goldman, who shot to fame for his 1966 play The Lion in Winter and won an Academy Award when he adapted it for Hollywood in 1968. Goldman did a lifetime of first-rate work in addition to The Lion in Winter, and in many ways the pinnacle of that work was his 1979 novel Myself as Witness, which follows the woeful life and times of the aforementioned King John, who lives forever in the shadow of his titanic parents, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine – as he reflects at one point while looking at the tower cell to which Henry confined Eleanor after she’d “led too many civil wars against him”:
[John] paused and looked around the room. “She hated Father, too. She loved him once, I think, but that was long before I can remember. If I listen, I can hear them vilifying one another. And it’s true she raised an army and she fought against him but, Sweet Jesus, how could he have put her here? She was his Queen. There is no crime so great, he had no right, how could he face himself and keep her in this room?”
He started for the door as if a force were pressing him. Then, at the threshold, he turned back. His eyes met mine. “How could my father do the things he did?”
I had no answer. I have never had one.
And who’s John talking to in that scene? Why Gerald of Wales, of course.
Jack Hanson, Contributor
At age 34, Aldous Huxley had already written 15 books, including volumes of poetry, short stories, and two well crafted, if limited, comic novels. Of course, he would go on to write the frighteningly prescient Brave New World. But it’s the novel he produced at 34 that stands–to my mind–as Huxley’s crowning achievement, Pointer Counter Point. Though standard social realism, juggling half-dozen or so intertwined plotlines about the intellectual class of 1920’s London, it’s a profound exploration of opposites: reason and passion, science and art, power and romance; all of these ideas are brought into conflict through a cast of characters so vivid that the reader both longs to know them in life and, at the same time, to never, ever know such people—they’d be unbearable. As the musical title suggests, this delicate material is handled with precision and care in a lyricism capable of both savagery and sympathy. Point Counter Point is a big and ambitious book, but it rewards its reader in a way few novels do.
Thank goodness, he reflected, as he walked along whistling, ‘On the Wings of Song’ with rich expression, that was the end of Ethel Cobbett so far as he was concerned. It was the end of her also as far as everybody was concerned. For some few days later, having written him a twelve-page letter, which he put in the fire after reading the first scarifying sentence, she lay down with her head in an oven and turned on the gas. But that was something which Burlap could not foresee. His mood as he walked whistling homeward was one of unmixed contentment. That night he and Beatrice pretended to be two little and had their bath together. Two little children sitting at opposite ends of the big old-fashioned bath. And what a romp they had! The bathroom was drenched with their splashings. Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Greg Waldmann, Editor-in-Chief
James McPherson’s thousand-page Battle Cry of Freedom is the greatest single volume on the years of the American Civil War. But after you read it you should dive into more granular work, like Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering and the diaries of Mary Chesnut. One of the best is McPherson’s own For Cause and Comrades, a short and sensitively curated volume that tries to explain why the men of the North and South fought each other, largely by letting them speak for themselves–excerpts from their letters take up over half the book.
McPherson wisely chose not to correct spelling and grammatical errors, reminding us that in war, it is usually the poor who are made to give up the most. For a generation conditioned to view combat with the futility of Iraq and Afghanistan close to mind (just as their parents saw it in the long shadow of Vietnam), a few sentiments in these letters will sound familiar. “I could be at home,” writes a farmer drafted into the 57th North Carolina, “if it warent for a fiew big rulers who I cannot help but blame for it. . . . These big fighting men cant be got out to fight as easy as to make speaches. . . . They lay at home feesting on the good things of the land . . . while we poor soldiers are foursed away from home.”
But what is most striking to the modern ear is the piety and conviction of the overwhelming majority. “I should make but a poor soldier if I had not faith in God’s answer to prayer,” wrote a captain in the 8th Connecticut, and perhaps he was right: McPherson’s evidence suggests that the most devout soldiers were less afraid to die. (“A poor devil who cant believe [in the afterlife] hasn’t that support,” said one non-believer.) The letters are also filled with grand paeans to national glory and righteousness. “Some modern readers of the letters,” McPherson warns, “may feel they are drowning in bathos. In this post-Freudian age these phrases strike many as mawkish posturing, romantic sentimentalism, hollow platitudes. We do not speak or write like that anymore.”
In this passage he quotes four letters, each deploying a litany of common phrases (“glorious cause,” sacrifice “on the country’s altar,” “hearts bleeding,” etc). But these letters, he explains, were never meant for us.
Perhaps readers will take another look at the expressions by soldiers quoted… above when they learn that all four of them were subsequently killed in action. They were not posturing for public show…They were writing during the immediacy of their experiences to explain and justify their beliefs to family members and friends who shared—or in some cases questioned—those beliefs. And how smugly can we sneer at their expressions of a willingness to die for those beliefs when we know that they did precisely that?
- August in Open Letters Monthly — and an Interview Once again it’s a new month and so we’ve got our new issue up. One neat new thing is the graphic “slider” at the top of the site, which showcases a range of pieces from the magazine (and which will also include new blog posts and highlights from Open Letters Weekly). We think this adds a bit of dynamism to […]
- Absent Friends: It Wasn’t What He Wanted In this monthly feature, Steve Donoghue revisits the great life and writing of Gerald of Wales, a continuously frustrated candidate for the Archbishopric of Wales.
- Book Review: Louisa Catherine – The Other Mrs. Adams Cultured, erudite, and passionate, Louisa Catherine Adams had a long and fascinating life as wife to John Quincy Adams on the road to the presidency, and that life at long last has a superb biography