Wrong End of the Shelf: Strange Books I Love

Books

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.

 

 

19 comments on “Wrong End of the Shelf: Strange Books I Love”

  1. Barbara Boucke says:

    To be honest, I have to say that the authors you mention in most of your post aren’t people I’m familiar with and that probably won’t change at this point in my life. What interested me the most was your last paragraph. I grew up in a small town which had a fairly good library. However, the books in the “teen section” bored me to tears – to use an old expressiion. So, I went looking in the “adult section”. Heaven forbid – the librarian reported me to my mother who didn’t – for whatever her reason – argue with the woman. What saved me was going to high school in a nearby much larger community. Not only did the city librarian there not care beans about what I read, but the nun I had for English gave us a very interesting reading list including Rølvaag’s “Giants in the Earth” and Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” and – yes – “Jane Eyre”. Irregardless of what direction your reading life has gone – you READ – and that’s what matters!

  2. Roger says:

    “Perhaps he was born too early; he would have loved the playfulness of the internet.”
    Did you see any of Johnson’s playful TV films, Admin? I liked them much more than his books.

    There were a lot of other French decadent eccentrics who are worth reading – Marcel Schwob, who invented Imaginary Lives, Alfred Jarry and the immortal Ubu, Pierre Louÿs , pornographer and stylist…

    One unclassifiable living English novelist is Robert Irwin, whose books are astonishingly varied – his themes include he memoirs of a French double-agent in the Algerian War; a housewife obsessed with housework, a mediaeval noble in the Wars of the Roses with an eccentric view on things…

  3. Paul C says:

    I dropped English Lit at school at 13 (I didn’t fancy Chaucer and the Brontes) and had to find my own way through the valley of the shadow of books too – by reading lots of first pages at random and the capsule biographies on the back of Penguins. My local library was poor and dull so I ransacked old bookshops (all gone now) and luckily my gran collected books for hospitals and her house was a huge midden of mad books,
    I love A Rebours by Huysmans which I read due to the blurb : ‘The strangest book I have ever read’ – Oscar Wilde. Who could resist that ? The tortoise is not as memorable as the blasphemous Black Supper sequence in which all the food and alcohol are black. I’m astonished anyone got right through Melmoth the Wanderer – impossible I found.

    If you are looking for offbeat books now I’d recommend Philip Hoare’s England’s Lost Eden and Spike Island. Dazzling prose and unclassifiable digressions on some forgotten byways of history. Fiction : try the bizarre short stories of Steven Millhauser and Gerald Kersh. I’m glad I found my own way through the wonderful world of books rather than the conventional populist guff – the weird and odd kind of books are definitely the ones for me too.

  4. Brian says:

    Memoirs Of A Gnostic Dwarf was eventually republished in a revised edition with an amusing cover more in keeping with the book’s content although it did annoy a few Christians; but that was most likely the intent of the image.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Choosing what to read. Everyone does it to a greater or lesser extent. Some people accept the limits set by parents, librarians, or the law while others don’t. We are just past Freedom to Read Week so the idea of reading limits is fresh in my mind.
    The publisher’s reader is the first bar to pass. No one gets to read a book if it doesn’t get printed. A publisher may feel they are “daring” in their choices but they still put fences around what they choose or refuse to print.
    The bookseller is the next bar. What they choose determines what is available to the reader. “I wouldn’t have trash like that in my shop,” tells you quite a bit about the shopkeeper. There is a gradation in this availability, too, since the owner’s choice of shelf location tells you what they are encouraging you to read. Availability “behind the counter” or “in the back room” gives you an idea as to the owner’s world view.
    The reader is the last bar. Buy the book, take it home, open it up … and then what? Do you keep on reading or reject what faces you?
    Librarians do the same as the booksellers. What makes it onto the shelves, what is available only on request, what is age barred (one of the silliest bars, because it is irrelevant.)
    Before damning those who try to put fences around available choices, though, I would ask whether you’ve ever read something that damaged your consciousness, made you think of others or yourself as filthy. It’s unpleasant and that experience is often what is behind those bars. (I know that younger readers are seldom as pure as their seniors would like to believe, but whatever.)
    There’s a lot more there than you might think at first and I know this post is very prim and artificially non-judgemental but I do aim in that direction.
    Solipsism (and I looked it up to be sure) has a lot to say for itself. In the end belief is what you are convinced (by what?) is beyond the experience of your senses. We all create that realm for ourselves. For some it is devils and angels, for others it is an infinity of what we see (hear, smell, etc.) around us at any given moment, for others it is the possibility of Metamorphosis. You choose and then live your life accordingly.
    (I’m afraid to go back and read this.)

  6. Brooke says:

    @Helen. I thought of you when I read of the NY Public Library’s celebration of badass women librarians. I.e. those who changed what, when and how we (all of us) read, thus promoting the novel idea that libraries should help readers find and access materials of personal interest and enjoyment.

    Fences…there’s no point; whatever it is can be found and purchased via the web. Most arguments about fencing (Huck Finn, To Kill A Mockingbird, Lady Chatterly…) are inane. Of course in the USA, we are extremists…hence announcement “Biden removes Dr. Suess…” when in fact the estate and publisher have decided to cease publishing some titles.

    Solipsism.. I think you’ve made a logical error. Solipsism cannot say alot FOR itself, only TO itself. As Wittgenstein realized after he’d written the Tractatus and found himself in a locked room.

    Cheers..

  7. Brooke says:

    ..avoiding anything with the taint of populism… as an outsider, I had to read the prescribed standard English works. I’m rather grateful. The background helped me understand Bowles and Quinn when I have an opportunity to read their works. I grasped their intellectual heritage and worldview that they were reacting to. And I learned to be a parallel reader–e.g. Faulkner and Melvin Kelly.

  8. Liz Thompson says:

    Librarians. At 15, I spent over 20 minutes arguing with the librarian that I was entitled to read Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. It was locked away, and quite definitely unsuitable. As I had already read the Canterbury Tales, unexpurgated (the school library, not the classroom editions), I argued fiercely, incensed by the attitude. I produced my school-issued list of recommended reading, pointing to the Rabelais entry. The argument switched rapidly from my right to read it, to which (blasphemous!) school I attended. Once they found out my school was in a different town and county, the cupboard was reluctantly unlocked and I got the book. I often wonder if they wrote to the grammar school to complain.
    NOTE. I was bored by the book, clearly anti-clerical, and it really didn’t extend my knowledge of anything except anti-clericalism.

  9. Davem says:

    I’m sure Chris has got it, but I came across many of these books, and myriads of others, in The Madman’s Library: The Greatest Curiosities of Literature by Edward Brooke-Hitching

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Brooke, I’m flattered. You meet all sorts even in school libraries. I had a mother “protecting” her 7 year old son from people who hunt and a largeish group of parents who banned all books mentioning magic – while Harry Potter was rampant! I will assist kids to comply with parental mandates without criticism but I wouldn’t stop a student from borrowing anything they want. I did have a father surprised that I chose the books for the library without any sort of recommended list let alone a banned one. We’ve come a long way since those age related library lists.

  11. admin says:

    I like the idea of being a ‘parallel reader’, Brooke!

  12. Brooke says:

    Helen, given that children spend almost all of their time thinking magically, what did the parents think they were going to accomplish?!% You needn’t answer….

  13. Jonah says:

    Good news in St. Louis: Once again, city public library branches have re-opened (although with restricted hours, visits limited to 30 minutes, no public seating, the racks of magazines and periodicals removed). This partial re-opening happened in mid-summer last year, only for the public library to shut down again in November due to the pandemic upsurge, with services limited to on-line requests and outside pick-ups. To be able to browse the stacks and make discoveries made my day. Picked up “Oranges and Lemons” and the most recent Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond.
    I doubt if I’d find any of the strange books mentioned above. In the past 20 years I’ve discovered some forgotten authors there, even before reading Fowler’s book: Margery Allingham, Edmund Crispin, Georgette Heyer (I prefer her Regency romances over her hefty war histories). The only thing is the city’s public library (and possibly as libraries all over) is removing older well-read books from the shelves, stashing them in the unseen stacks in the main library downtown, putting shinier newer publications on display instead (which, true, are sometimes reprints of older works as well as new novels). Browsing a branch’s stacks is still rewarding, but limited.
    The city’s library still has a deep treasure trove in the stacks, although I have discovered books I checked out in the last 15 years are now no longer in the system (removed for lack of readers? in poor condition?). The stacks are down to only 3 novels by Margaret Forster, maybe most known for “Georgy Girl” because of the movie, although it’s not her best. However, I was able to request 3 novels by another “forgotten author” C.Y. Lee, so overlooked his obituary didn’t appear in The New York Times until two months after his death. His novels of Asian-American life include “Flower Drum Song”, the basis of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical (the novel is more somber, less happy than the musical, but couldn’t you say the same thing about “Oliver Twist” and “Oliver!”).

  14. Helen Martin says:

    Ah, the philosophy behind weeding. We were reminded that we had limited shelf space and we should be providing what our patrons want. Repairs don’t get done – too expensive no matter who does it. If a book hasn’t been borrowed in (name an arbitrary time period) then it is not earning its shelf space so weed it out. You are not a library of record (unless you are!) so giving shelf space to that obscure little tome that no one reads is wrong. If there is historical importance then send it to the appropriate library. I tried to explain this to my mother and had about as much positive reaction as you would imagine. She was all for keeping the book about a couple’s automobile trip across the mountains in 192- but it belonged in either the B.C. provincial library or the Vancouver one. Alternatively, it could have gone into the provincial archives, but in any event not in our little unconnected rural library.

  15. Jonah says:

    Helen, thank you for the explanation of a library’s weeding policy. Perfectly understandable. Even the St. Louis main public library’s stacks, which in my imagination, reaches depths below ground nearing Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, has only so much shelf space. In a fantasy world, one of the long-gone multi-storied downtown department stores would have been converted to an enormous library, home to all wanted and unwanted books, an equivalent to a “no kill” animal shelter. (The old Famous-Barr store had floors numbering up in the teens. The escalators to the very top floors became narrower and narrower, the escalator steps switching from metal to wooden slats).
    With bookstores disappearing or closed with only mail/on-line order or pick-up service, finding out-of-print books no longer at libraries can be daunting, the prices discouraging. Has it only been since the pandemic began that prices have gone sky-high? Sellers are asking hundreds of dollars for the six Dr. Seuss books removed from publication only last week, despite hundreds of thousands of copies in existence.
    The day the used bookstores re-open and book fairs come back will be a great day!

  16. Brooke says:

    Christopher, Octavia Butler featured in New Yorker article–must read!

  17. Lyn Jackson says:

    I was surprised at the removal of DrSeuss books. If all material that offends someone is removed we will have nothing to read. Even the wonderful Wodehouse has some offensive sentences in his earlier books.We can’t judge with 2020 sensibilities.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    Well, yes we can, Lyn. The question is to what extent should we? Antisemitic writing was common until WWII but there were many people who found it offensive at the time so we are certainly free to criticise an author of the period for, at the very least, insensitivity. The same could be said of anti Asian references and slurs against the poor or black people.

  19. Helen Martin says:

    Well, yes we can, Lyn. The question is to what extent should we. Antisemitic comments were common in pre-WWII writing but there were many people who found this offensive so we are certainly free to accuse those writers, at the very least, of insensitivity. The same could be said of anti Asian remarks or slurs against the poor or black people. How much a part of the author’s makeup is the negative material and what affect does his/her attitude have on the book? One of our most popular Governors General was John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir, who wrote a number of popular adventures, including the Thirty-Nine Steps. I have a half dozen of them and re-read them every once in a while. Very spine strengthening, but there is no question but that there is a streak of antisemitism in the man. I symbolically spit on the ground as I pass and mutter at him. I don’t recommend him to others. It was my father who warned me about him and I think Dad had read him back in the thirties.

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