Wrong End of the Shelf: Strange Books I Love
Why we should be seduced away from the reading mainstream.
For me it started with the plotless symbolist novel ‘À Rebours’ by Joris-Karl Huysmans, in which the hero locks himself away in his house near Fontenay to live in artificial decadence rather than follow the natural order.
The strangest thing that happens in the (non) narrative is when a tortoise dies after having lots of jewels glued to its shell. It’s a lot less shocking now than it was in 1884 but Huysmans’ book has disturbing resonance in a time of pandemic, as its denial of the outside deep-dives into the solipsistic self.
From Huysmans I romped through the baroque gothic, from Maturin’s ‘Melmoth the Wanderer’ and ‘Nightmare Abbey’ to Firbank and Wilde and ‘The House on the Borderlands’. My biggest modern passion (for a short while only) was BS Johnson, who was excised from ‘The Book of Forgotten Authors’ because he was unforgotten by a few. The experimentalist wrote curiously cold satires and hacked narratives into new forms. Jonathan Coe wrote his definitive biography, which in many ways is more satisfying than Johnson’s troubling novels.
Johnson took experimentalism to an extreme. Frustrated by linear storytelling, he rejected the limitations of the written word. Perhaps he was born too early; he would have loved the playfulness of the internet. I first encountered his work in my late teens, in ‘Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry’. Malry attempts to run his life on a bookkeeping system but discovers that life debits far more than it credits, and resorts to acts of terrorism in order to keep his account in balance.
Johnson’s ‘House Mother Normal’ describes a shocking evening in an old people’s home from the perspectives of the eight inhabitants, the events repeated in in decreasing order of their lucidity. ‘The Unfortunates’ is the infamous ‘book in a box’, its chapters presented unbound so that the reader can choose them in any order. ‘Albert Angelo’ has a hole cut in some pages that reveal a future event in the book. We need to be tested by such writers.
Along the way were other writers like R C Sherriff, most famous for the play ‘Journey’s End’ (which is surprisingly funny and clearly the model for ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’) but also ‘The Hopkins Manuscript’, an unclassifiable novel which is sort of about why the myopic British might not even notice the end of the world.
Then we get to the impossible-to-pin-down Ann Quinn, whose menacing seaside-town novel ‘Berg’ became a European hit but not in the unimaginative UK, where malign influence only reached us through Henry Green and Rex Warner. And of course there was Brigid Brophy, whose passion for Mozart brought her to ‘The Snow Ball’, an odd reimagining of ‘Don Giovanni’ at a modern-day London ball.
Mix into these the cruel, poetic clarity of Paul Bowles (the film version of ‘The Sheltering Sky’ always felt to me like a betrayal of the source novel) and strange catalogue-and-timetable obsessed Magnus Mills, along with ‘Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf’, David Madsen’s gleefully revolting trawl through the horrors of Catholicism, and you get an idea of an alternative literary agenda.
By avoiding anything with the taint of populism I missed out on so much that was good that it’s taken me decades to catch up. What I had lacked was a guide to the good popular stuff. It took me until this year to read ‘Jane Eyre’ and I still haven’t finished ‘Middlemarch’. My reading life ran the wrong way around; alt.fiction was the stuff you were supposed to get to after a good grounding, not before, and it affected me forever.
Above are the largest and smallest books I own, from 1860 and 1760 respectively. They are worthless but so filled with peculiarities of the past that to dip into either one is to lose a day.
The books I once read may have been experimental but they were readily available. Others of equal fascination could always be found in forbidding reference sections. And I suppose the strangest of these started with the Bible.
The gospels and acts constitute a ‘greatest hits’ package selected and edited over four centuries, with all of the unpopular bits shed until what was left were just the crowd-pleasers. We know there are many revelations and fables excised – more than three-quarters of the New Testament – and annoyingly the so-called ‘Biblical Apocrypha’ has all the best bits, but they also contain the shark-jumping moments even the most devout couldn’t get their heads around.
Like the part about Lilith, and how Eve is Adam’s second wife. And then there’s the half-sister. And when Paul’s lady friend Thecla gets thrown into the arena nude and fed to seals. Or when the post-crucified Jesus kick-boxes Satan in Hell. And when Andrew and Mathias get fed to cannibals who are wiped out by acid-puking statues. There’s nothing in the Aeneid about avenging seals. Not even Virgil or Homer could match this nonsense.
One of the key reveals of the last 60 years comes with new text that suggests Jesus cut a deal with Judas to ‘remove the man who clothes me’ and make him a martyr who could found a religion, this version being no more or less apocryphal than any other.
Colourful renderings of the unknowable extended to nature, too. Scientific and geographical discoveries were taken on trust, so we had books of bizarre rainbow-coloured sea creatures in ‘The Fish Book of 1580’, and dozens of others featuring mermaids, sea dragons and fish with legs that followed you around barking (possibly another household pet then). And plants that screamed or moved about, or blew poison darts, all subject to the fancy of the finder.
Captain Cook’s books happily restored some balance, one set featuring pages of colourful tapa cloth cut from New Zealand tree bark. There are only around sixty copies in existence, and were once sold out of a little shop on the Strand.
At least these books were fanciful but harmless; it turned out that the volume which could kill more people in the world than any other was not the Quran or The Anarchist’s Cookbook but the Bible. However, there were others that would have become lethal had they been taken up. Some had poisoned pages, or hid secrets so big that they were written in impenetrable codes – so their authors would have led you to believe.
One of the first I recall hearing about was the Voynich manuscript, found in 1912 by Polish book dealer Wilfred Voynich. The tome is filled with drawings of non-existent plants and its gibberish language seems to be a shorthand cipher, but has never been translated. Considering Voynich sold the British Museum over 3800 other books over 30 years this could all have been a masterful con trick, but the language, though impenetrable, is said to have internal rhythms of Celtic origin.
In 2009 its pages were carbon dated to the early 15th century. It’s now at Harvard University, where bottomless pockets ensure that most literature ends up. Returning to large and small books, the biggest medieval volume is the Codex Gigas, written in Bohemia by Herman the Recluse, who was walled up alive until he got the Devil to help him bang out his immense tome. Satan makes a guest appearance in his masterwork, looking more like a character from a kids’ cartoon than evil incarnate.
As for small books all bets are now off; thanks to laser technology they keep getting tinier and tinier each year, which rather robs the image of nuns blinding themselves over text obsolete.