Like me, Phyllis Rose frets about the zillion fine books out there that nobody bothers with. Why their neglect? She reasons that it’s because no one pedigreed has championed them.
The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose, FSG, 288 pages, $26.
By Gerald Peary
Are you ridiculous like me, beating yourself up about all those iconic works of fiction you somehow haven’t gotten to? Deep in my life, the list of world classics that have eluded me is imposing, intimidating. (Ulysses, The Idiot, The Pickwick Papers, Mansfield Park, Daniel Deronda, Don Quixote, Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, 2666, etc., etc.) But I’m also anxious about neglecting the oeuvre of out-of-fashion writers. My basement is piled high with this second category: such ex-luminaries as Conrad Richter, Louis Bromfield, Booth Tarkington, Erich Marie Remarque, Howard Fast, Kay Boyle, Vita Sackville-West, Anatole France. Piled high, but mostly unread. But surely some of their forgotten books are also first-rate?
And even further: what about the works of writers with no reputation whatsoever? Who knows their worth without giving them a chance? More guilt!
A pal and I, both bibliophiles, once formulated this simple experiment to expand the perameters of what we read. In a seedy used bookstore, we each picked out a dusty, cheaply priced book which we’d never heard of, which we pledged to stay with to the final page. My poor friend slogged through—I’ll never forget the klunky title—The Trouble With Turlow. This 1961 novel (funny doings at a nun-run Catholic women’s college) proved numbing, valueless, correctly lost. Fie on author Fallon Evans! But my book was a lovely surprise, a crusty memoir by a sea captain who’d been pals with Jack London. A discovery!
And another discovery: literary critic Phyllis Rose, so close to my heart.
Though she’s penned a biography of Virginia Woolf and a tome on reading Proust, Rose is anything but a high-modernist snob. She’s egalitarian in her fiction reading taste (Harry Potter, Sarah Paretsky, Elmore Leonard), and, like me, she frets about the zillion fine books out there that nobody bothers with. Why their neglect? Rose reasons that it’s because no one pedigreed has championed them. Well, perhaps she should be the one to step forward with the credentials, the credibility, to uncover some of these lost volumes, proclaim their worth, and, most essential, lead others to them also. Thus her witty, spirited, delightfully book-giddy The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading (FSG, $26).
Rose’s splendid ambition for The Shelf: through “extreme reading,” to burst open the literary canon. And this is how she concocted her noble experiment: a Manhattanite, she belongs to the private New York Society Library on East 79th Street, which has been about since 1754, with George Washington among its earliest members. Like all antiquarian libraries, this one has squirreled away plenty of antiquated books, just what Rose was aiming for. She decided to search out a random shelf of fiction on which, she explains, “there had to be a mix of contemporary and older books, and one had to be a classic.” A classic she hadn’t read. She also wanted works by both men and women, and no writer with more than five books sitting there. Of these, she pledged to read three.
At the New York Society Library. Rose adopted LEQ-LES as a shelf of one’s own. It ran from William Le Queux to the equally unfamous Alain-Renè Le Sage, with such obscure in-betweens as Etienne Leroux and Margaret Leroy. Who? And who? The famous book she’d sample for the first time was Mikhail Lermontov’s 19th century Russian classic, A Hero of Our Time. LEQ-LES, declared Rose, “…would do just fine. More than fine.”
And so she started checking out books from LEQ-LES and going home and reading them. In whatever order grabbed her.
She started with Etienne Leroux’s One from the Devil, enticed by a Graham Greene quote on the back about how Leroux’s novels “tease, they trouble, the elude.” At first, Rose enjoyed what seemed a well-composed mystery in the Agatha Christie vein. But then she was frustrated. The plot stopped, there was not the vaguest attempt to solve a key killing. Things turned overly “experimental,” sputtered and went dead. No closure anywhere. Why had Greene endorsed it?
Disavowing literary theory, Rose showed no wish to deconstruct Leroux’s elusive mystery, or any other book she read. And opposing New Criticism, which adheres religiously to the text, Rose felt that what was revealed on the page often wasn’t enough. To comprehend One from the Devil required outside research. It needed to be contextualized. As she would do often in The Shelf, Rose learned much more about the book in her hand by booting up the Internet.
Wikepedia informed her of Leroux’s life. He was an Afrikaner writer in mid-20th century South Africa, and his writing “antagonized traditional Afrikaners.” It was “artsy, self-conscious, pretentious,” and could be seen, Rose realized, as oppositional in the culturally sterile, South African police state. Only because he wrote so weirdly was he not banned. “As I learned about Leroux from outside sources,” says Rose, “I gained a respect I did not have when reading it.” That respect extended to Rose attending Leroux’s 1989 funeral, via YouTube. And mourning him to a point. “I am not the one to rescue him from obscurity, however,” Rose said.
Rose felt hopeful about the other Leroux on the shelf, Gaston Leroux,, and she would read three of his many books on her library shelf. He’s the French author of countless once-popular works including–and this is what excited her– the 1910 The Phantom of the Opera. To this point, Rose had adored all manifestations of this spooky story, from the Lon Chaney-starring silent film to The Phantom on Broadway. Different from most intellectuals, she was not put off by the musical’s cheesiness. “Some people find it bombastic, but I am with those who consider this composer [Andrew Lloyd Weber] as the Puccini of our time.”
She started by checking out the writer’s life on gaston-leroux.net. She liked him: an amiable, urbane Paris court reporter who turned easily to crime fiction, after studying up on Poe and Conan Doyle. Before getting to The Phantom of the Opera, her Gaston Leroux special treat, Rose chose two of his mysteries, featuring a certain Joseph Rouletabille, a smooth young detective for the French police. She read The Yellow Room and The Perfume of the Lady in Black, the first installments of a seven-book Rouletabille series. Disappointment. “Inanities of the plot,” said Rose, and the characters “have little more depth than Miss Scarlett, Colonel Mustard, and Professor Plum.” The Yellow Room, Rose noticed “… had a five-star rating on Amazon, and I respect that. But to me it seemed a shell game.”
On to The Phantom of the Opera. “…I assumed it would be delicious, lingering on my palate like dessert,” Rose said. Not exactly. Another creaky novel from Leroux, and dreadfully plotted. “The scene in which the chandelier falls takes place a third of the way through the book. Christine… disappears halfway through, never to reappear. The second half follows the insipid Raoul through the cellars of the opera house….Many irrelevant pages concern the disappearance of forty thousand dollars from the pockets of one of the managers of the opera…” And it’s established very early that Erik is a man, not a ghost, a ruinous spoiler from the clueless author.
Still, Rose’s fan girl charitable judgment: “Despite its flaws, I found the novel riveting. …a female Faust story about a girl who sells her soul to the devil in exchange for artistic greatness… A bad book can tell a great story.”
Rose is also a feminist. She was concerned that her shelf had writings of only three women. As always, women were underrepresented. She reiterated the claims of others that book review sections steer strongly toward male writers, and that guy readers overwhelmingly read guy books and sneer at “chick lit.” Hmmm. What about me? It’s true that I’ve stayed away from Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner, and the Twilight books, but I think I’m a fan of literary fiction regardless of gender. Or am I? I keep lists of books I read, so what about the last three years?
The good news is that some of my most cherished books recently have been written by women, including Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathanael P., Edna O’Brien’s James Joyce, Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index and, a reread, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. The sobering news is that I’ve read only 27 books by women but 100 by men since January 2012. I had an especially egregious half year in 2013. This cave man didn’t read a single book by a woman until August! Shame!
Perhaps I can begin to make amends by ordering on-line the two women authors whom Rose championed in The Shelf, after she encountered their works for the first time. The first, Rhoda Lerman, got great reviews for her smart, sexy, female-centered Jewish novels in the 1970s (Call Me Ishtar, The Girl That He Marries, God’s Ear). But she got increasingly spiritual, and stopped writing fiction for a new life more satisfying, raising, breeding, and selling Newfoundland dogs. Rose knew all the details because she telephoned Lerman and made a friend. “We met twice at my place,” Rose said, “for hours and hours of wonderful talk.” And then Lerman went back to her Newfies.
Rose was equally taken by Just Like Beauty, a 2002 novel by Lisa Lerner, which portrayed “a world in the near future where women are systematically trained to give men pleasure…. Most of this novel is pretty scary, especially the way teenage boys are permitted to torture girls.” Why had this excellent book disappeared? And why had Lisa Lerner disappeared? Rose did her special research, and tracked down those who’d been at Farrar Straus when the book was published. Here was the sad story: everyone at FSG loved the book and had the highest hopes for its success. Everything fell apart with Richard Eder’s negative New York Times review.
For The Shelf, Rose exhumed Eder’s critique, published a dismissive section from it, and then went for Eder’s cajones: “What I saw in this review was a man so threatened by a novel’s subject that he cast about for ways to attack it.” Again, Rose searched out the actual author, who lived in Brooklyn. Yes, that review had devastated her. Lerner: “After that I dropped off the map. I decided to adopt a child as a single parent. I went to India and brought a toddler home from an orphanage…”
There are more chapters in The Shelf about other books from LEQ-LES, all of them interesting, with one caveat. Rose insisted on including for many of the books the most intricate plot descriptions. I tried at first, but finally skipped over these tedious paragraphs.
And Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time? Rose read it three times in different translations before being convinced of its greatness. Her advice: bypass the one you’d most likely gravitate to, the translation in the 1960s by Vladimir Nabokov. Go for the newest one, in 2009, by Natasha Randall. A woman translator. For the first time, Rose didn’t feel that the book was hopelessly sexist, for the first time she sympathized with the author’s “scorn for the life he led in society, his resentment of its conventions.” Perhaps that’s why, near the end of The Shelf, she writes so movingly of Mikhail Lermentov’s absurd death in an absurd duel, when he was 26.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.