When I write about a book over on the obscure end of the spectrum, I try to place it in one of two categories. The first is: Should Be Read More Than It Is, or Books for Everyone. For example:
John Galt, The Entail, a Scottish family saga, tragic and comic.
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Beach at Falesá, thoughtful adventure in the South Seas.
Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet, love and greed, greed and love.
Sholem Aleichem, Tevye the Dairyman, so funny, so sad.
Victor Hugo, his poems, not at all forbidding, huge in spirit.
Theodor Storm, Immensee, a short delicate reverie about an old love affair.
Gérard de Nerval, Sylvie, a short delicate reverie about an old love affair.
Prosper Merimeé, Carmen, a short delicate reverie about an old love affair, while waiting to be hanged.
Herman Melville, Clarel, a jolly vacation lark.
One of these does not belong, but I’m not sure which one. I’ll fix that later. My guess is that many people would enjoy, even love, these books, far more than their reputation would suggest. They are not particularly difficult, or weird. Some of them, like Storm, are beloved in their own literature, not remotely obscure. English-language readers should catch up.
Am I wrong that people like short delicate reveries etc?
The second category: Should Not Be Read More Than It Is, or Not for Everyone, Oh No No No. Such as:
Gérard de Nerval, Les Chimeras or Aurélia, esoteric poems and a descent into madness.
Bysshe Vanolis, The City of Dreadful Night, visionary pessimism.
George MacDonald, Lilith, a desperately peculiar dream novel.
S. Anski, The Destruction of Galicia, low-intensity genocide at firsthand.
Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, Kantian idealism in a handy pre- postmodern semi-novelistic form.
Roberto Bolaño, Nazi Literature in the Americas – Bolaño is surely clear enough with that title: Stay Away!
Just trying to stick with things I’ve written about,* but I could add many example to both lists. I could create more categories, too, like Famous Books That Are Perhaps Read Too Much, where I would include Wuthering Heights, Moby-Dick, The Brothers Karamazov, and so on, weird books that do not seem to have properly signaled their weirdness.
Most people do not want too much weirdness, do they? Some readers, of course, jaded, ravaged by ennui, only alive out on the edgy edge of edginess, scoff at the exquisite domestic beauties of Theodor Storm or Victor Hugo (poems about his grandchildren! How bourgeois!) and demand the dangerous, the esoteric, the stark raving mad. The City of Dreadful Night is just where they want to spend their time. A descent into Hell, whether with Dante or Herman Melville, is their idea of good fun. These readers are right - it is fun!
When I write about books, I try to communicate this difference. I have no idea if I succeed. I am in no way arguing here about the merit of the books in the two categories. Both lists above contain books of extraordinary artistic value. They all have their aesthetic purpose; they all succeed, or at least fail in fascinating ways. Both groups include innovations, human insights, great writing. I’d hate to have not read them, and hope to revisit every one. But universalism has its own value. I hope I make that clear.
All of this is just a throat-clearing preface to the rest of the week, which I will spend with a novelist who is much read and anything but obscure. The book at issue, though, belongs in that second group. Does it ever! Not for Everyone, and then some!
Welcome, if that’s the right word, to Salammbô week. There will be some interesting challenges.
* I could put in links, but that little search box in the upper left works well enough, I hope.