Earlier this year, I posted a piece called Forgotten but Not Gone on the Library's blog. The article briefly summarized the lives and careers of nine exceptionally prolific, once-popular, now largely forgotten authors from decades past who continue to occupy substantial real estate on our fiction shelves. In response, Library member Kim Davis recently sent us the following article highlighting a few of his prolific forgotten favorites. We hope you enjoy reading about these intriguing figures from our fiction collection and find some future reading here, as well. Can't get enough? For more unjustly neglected has-beens, never-weres, and also-rans, see this article by Library staff on their favorite Neglected Books. —Steven McGuirl, Head of Acquisitions
With the Middle East interminably in crisis, rising tensions in Asia, and political turmoil in Europe, is the world marching inexorably towards global war? And is there anything right-thinking men and women can do to stop it? I’d like to read a novel about that.
But wait — I did. Just last year, while recovering from a hip replacement. That took about six weeks, and reading the novel took a little longer. It was Men of Goodwill
by Jules Romains
(1885-1972) — twenty-seven volumes in the original French edition, and considered by some to be the longest single novel ever written.
It’s also yet another example of a major work of fiction, acclaimed in its day, now all but forgotten. The fourteen volumes of the English edition (published, 1933-1946) sit, fat (around 500 pages each), dusty, and mostly unmolested in the shelves of Stack 6. For some reason, the publisher, Knopf, changed the color of the binding from red ochre to dark blue halfway through the series, perturbing the uniformity of appearance, but reflecting the novel’s darkening themes.
And the themes are multiple, and the cast of characters (including real-life figures; politicians, priests, and poets) is dizzying. But at the center of the book is the fatalistic march to the trenches of Verdun, and the desperate but futile attempts of the two main characters, Jallez and Jerphanion, to alter history’s course.
If that’s not enough, there are love stories, rural idylls, and a murderer worthy of Dostoevsky. It’s a book which requires time, and richly repays it.*
Romains, a member of the Academie Française, president of PEN, and frequent Nobel nominee (never winner), is an altogether more substantial figure as author than Robert W. Chambers
(1865-1933). But he’s probably less well-known right now, thanks to the first season of HBO’s True Detective
, which used motifs from Chambers’ work, in lieu of more conventional clues, to create an atmosphere of deep dread around a murder investigation.
Specifically, True Detective
creator Nick Pizolatto borrowed liberally from Chambers’ 1895 short story collection, The King in Yellow;
(1895) there are references to the murderer as “the yellow
king,” and his sinister lair is called “Carcosa.” Chambers’ book is certainly a minor classic of weird fiction, and acknowledged as such by H.P. Lovecraft. The first story, “The Repairer of Reputations,” set in a future (1920) New York, and featuring lethal chambers to exterminate unwelcome immigrants, will make your head spin.
It’s to be found in Stack 5, and unlike his other works, still circulates regularly. Alongside it, you’ll find the novels Chambers was much better known for in his subsequent best-selling heyday: wildly melodramatic romances and historical fictions. He published some sixty or seventy novels altogether—who’s counting? The Library owns far fewer . For a taste of Chambers at his most extravagant, I recommend The Danger Mark (1909), in which our heroine Geraldine battles not only the attentions of various unsuitable suitors, but also an addiction to alcohol developed by taking nightly nips from a cologne bottle. But how could she escape fate?
“It ruined your father and your grandfather! Darling, I couldn’t bear to tell you this before, but now I’ve got to tell you! It is in your blood…”
The British writer John Lodwick
(1916-1959) falls somewhere between Romains and Chambers in terms of reputation, and indeed achievement. He was lauded, when alive, by Anthony Powell and other peers. His first book—Running to Paradise
(1943)—won a prestigious award, and his novels were reviewed on this side of the Atlantic by the New Yorker
. But his personal life was chaotic; his character, volatile to say the least. Meeting Lodwick for the first time, the poet W.S. Merwin sensed violence in Lodwick; a “theme of violence” in his life, and the occasional glimpse of violence in his personal demeanor, “like the fin of a shark.”
He lived largely as an expatriate, first as an unpublished playwright in Dublin, later in France and Spain. When the Second World War broke out, he joined the French Foreign Legion. Separated from his unit in action, he found himself held as prisoner-of-war by the Germans (he escaped), as a thief by the French police, and then by the French forces on suspicion of desertion. It turned out he’d been identified as missing in combat and awarded a “posthumous” Croix de Guerre.
The rest of Lodwick’s war reads like a Hollywood script. Recruited by British Intelligence as a hopelessly unsecretive secret agent; fighting with partisans in the Balkans; and finally joining the legendary Special Boat Service as a commando, and fighting the Nazis in Greece. **
The core of Lodwick’s work, his most deeply engaged fiction, is to be found in a series of tragi-comic novels based on episodes in his complicated private life and displaying an almost pathological obsession with adultery and its consequences: Something In the Heart
(1948), Stamp Me Mortal
(1950), Somewhere a Voice is Calling
(1953), and Starless Night
(1955). Also worth reading, the Graham Greene-like study of a professional killer, Brother Death
(1951) and the autobiographical The Asparagus Trench
Some of those volumes are sitting in Fiction M-Z, less read than they should be (others can usually be found in used editions online). As the poet Christian Wiman has written, it’s “difficult to predict what the readers of the future will choose to preserve, but one thing is certain; they won’t choose much.” Sadly, we’re overlooking some gems.
Kim Davis is a London-born writer and editor who has been a New York resident for 20 years, and a Library member for most of them.
*There are some interesting reviews and comments about Men of Good Will on the Neglected Books page.
**A biography of Lodwick was published in late August 2017: A Forgotten Man: The Life and Death of John Lodwick, by Geoffrey Elliott