Ten Masterpieces You’ve Never Heard Of

Did it make the New York Times Best Seller List? Or  win the Booker Prize? Is it being hailed as the great American novel arrived at last? Maybe not, but to your dedicated bibliophile there’s no pleasure like tripping across an undiscovered masterwork, a secret book. Whether it’s a just-published chapbook from a back alley press or a centuries-old tome unearthed in the library stacks, the simple ink and paper seem to transmute into gold as you hold it. It is you and you alone who have unlocked this treasure chest, and the glory of the book is yours, second only to the shadowy author you have resurrected!

Below, some of our Whistling Shade contributors catalogue their favorite obscurities. Enjoy the books—if you can find them. Happy hunting!

The White Witch of Rosehall

by Herbert G. de Lisser

She is said to have stood four feet eleven inches tall, but her psychic powers towered over an enormous plantation span­ning 6,600 acres with more than 2,000 slaves.

   Her name was Annie Palmer, born in 1802 in England (some say France). Her family moved to Haiti and soon her parents died of yellow fever. Annie was adopted by a Haitian voodoo princess and became an eager apprentice.

   She moved to Jamaica to be the mistress of Rose Hall, the name of the Great House that commanded the sprawling sugar and rum plantation. The house, one of the most notable of Jamaica, is located just seven miles east of the international air­port at Montego Bay, and is open for tours today.

   A woman of wanton and insatiable desires, she had the power to fulfill them. Her first husband and two subsequent died (it is believed) by her hand. A mistress of voodoo, she used it to terrorize the slave population. It amused her to take male slaves into her bed at night, but once she grew bored, murdered them.

   The story may have disappeared but in 1927, H.G. de Lis­ser, a Jamaican newspaper reporter and editor, brought the tale to life in his historical novel, The White Witch of Rosehall.

   It opens in 1831 as a young bookkeeper from England, Robert Rutherford, arrives at Rose Hall to take a post and start his apprenticeship in the sugar industry where he hopes to make his fortune.

   Although Rutherford is taken by Annie's beauty, he is shocked by his first experience of her. She rides down to the fields on horseback to watch a male slave and then a female slave take 10 savage strokes of the lash. He tries to intervene and is driven away. She watches with quiet satisfaction. The novel only grows more macabre as each chapter unfolds.

   But while it suffers the normal excesses of gothic fiction, The White Witch of Rosehall also provides a detailed picture of plantation life of that time and place, eschews Gone With The Wind slave caricatures and underscores the tragedy and pathos of real people being held as property and chattel.

- Curtis West

Cassell's Dictionary of Slang

by Jonathan Green

Do you spit with that much cough? Phr. [1910s-20s] (Can.) a phr. used to acknowledge that one has heard a companion break wind.

 

While most books are designed to be read in an all-too-familiar, chapter by chapter, linear mode, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, by British lexicographer Jonathan Green, begs to be appreciated in an entirely natural, random fashion. Instead of chapters, the entire text of slang words and phrases is arranged alphabetically. So, for instance, if the letter “s” is calling your name, you may turn to page 1085, scan the conveniently situ­ated vertical columns and arrive at:

 

slabbing n. [1970s+] sexual intercourse with a corpse; thus slab boy, a necrophiliac. [the corpse is laid out on a mortuary slab]  

 

One quickly sees the utility of having 70,000 quirky and often surprising entries at one’s fingertips. And, while some might choose to refer to the publication as a “reference” book, a cursory scan reveals what is in reality a work of high literary accomplishment. In this case, the author is humanity itself, exercising its collective imagination with the etymologically muscular English language. Let’s take a look at another prime example of organically grown eloquence, by opening the book to, say…page 480, where we find:

 

get off/out at Broadgreen, to phr. [20C] to per­form coitus interruptus, i.e. withdrawal well before ejacu­lation (cf. GET OFF AT EDGE HILL; GET OFF AT GATESHEAD; GET OFF AT HAYMARKET; GET OFF AT HILLGATE; GET OFF AT PAISLEY; GET OFF AT RED­FERN; LEAVE BEFORE THE GOSPEL). [Broadgreen is the station before Edge Hill which is the station before Liver­pool Lime Street]   

 

Reading further down, we find that the train stations men­tioned in this expression reflect its popularity in the geograph­ically disparate cities of Liverpool, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Bristol, Edinburgh, London, Glasgow and Sydney. In one sim­ple phrase, we’re given a colorful picture of local subculture, valuable information on rail destinations and insightful social commentary on erotic behavior.

While it’s true that over half of  the entries refer to sexual intercourse, human genitals and masturbation, there are also many commonplace, familiar selections such as diddly-squat, muckety-muck, yackety-yak and “you left the barn gate open.” For the true connoisseur of slang, though, the whole kit and caboodle is here. If you’re full of your shirt and ready to leap nine hedges, pick up Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang at your favorite used book store. It’ll take the sole off your shoes!

- Britt Fleming

The Black Book

by Lawrence Durrell

In 1936, a 24-year-old Lawrence Durrell asked his friend Henry Miller to throw the only typescript of his experimental, wildly bohemian third novel, The Black Book, in the Seine if it didn’t meet his approval. The book survived, and a patina of self-made myth lingers around the theatrical request. Putting aside Oedipal struggle (The Black Book was strongly imitative of Miller’s Tropic of Cancer) one can also imagine Franz Kafka ask­ing Max Brod to burn his entire body of work, another request for literary erasure not followed to the letter. In Durrell’s case, the novel was finally published in suitably libertine company in 1938 in the Villa Seurat Series along with Miller’s Max and the White Phagocytes and Anaïs Nin’s Winter of Artifice.

The Durrell of The Black Book was largely forgotten. He had been publishing novels since 1935, but achieved his great­est commercial and critical success with The Alexandria Quartet, a sequence of novels published between 1957 and 1960: Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1959), and Clea (1960). The novels jointly tell an epic story of intrigue and romantic entanglement in Egypt in the late 1930s through the immedi­ate post-war era, a singular achievement that combines the mildly experimental with the retrograde. In brilliant, anachro­nistic language, Durrell essentially repeats the same narrative in the first three novels, with all but Mountolive narrated by the English schoolteacher Darley, who offers reportage from the locus of the drama. An undisclosed, omniscient narrator tells the third installment.

Durrell envisioned the Quartet as an exploration of the relativity of perspective (true “science fiction” in his words), but the end result is less experimental than he claimed. Rather than a kaleidoscope of viewpoints, the novels offer a gradual, more or less sequential, disclosure of information.  Percep­tions of characters’ motives change, not through any radical perceptual disentanglement of time and space, but through dogged reexamination and chance encounters with witnesses and evidence. What endures is Durrell’s extraordinary, poetic language, as well as the exotic milieu.

The Black Book is a wilder animal. Time has treated it well, and it had decades to incubate after its initial publication: in the USA in 1960 and not in Great Britain until 1973, when poten­tial charges of obscenity would have been mitigated by a suc­cessful defense of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It succeeds, partly because Durrell’s later work has justified the self-indulgence of his youth, but also because it represents something unique, a work of craven precocity and an explosion of verbal energy that seems to embody adolescence itself. Vir­tuosic without obvious purpose, untethered to material events or seasoned experience, it captures a kind of youthful solipsism that can only be lived in the moment:

 

In the open car, under the milky brilliance of the sky, [I] confess my sins and ponder on the Logos with the pre­cocity of adolescent despair. I have the sensation of dying, from the roots of the toes upward, being consumed like the asphodels after a late season…The summer is like a drain, choked with filth and bloody rags. This desk is the pulpit from which I infect the world with my despair.

 

The Black Book conjures events and perspectives unique to youth; its scenarios are too artificially dark, moping and pessi­mistic to have been mediated by experience. It is essentially a fantasia: narrator Lawrence Lucifer catalogs the lives of artists and hangers-on in a seedy London hotel, longing to escape the sterility of England, and yearning for the spiritual warmth of Greece. The novel is populated by a rogue’s gallery of ill-fated bohemians, including a stock good-natured whore, Melissa, who poetically dies of tuberculosis, all buoyed along on a raft of literary allusions and fevered language: Rémy de Gourmont, Stendahl, and Petronius all make appearances, perhaps as a latent yen for adult supervision.

The rest is extraordinary, dense prose poetry, and The Black Book’s title serves it well. It is more of an impression, an opaque coloration, or a writhing artifact than a real novel. The kernel of The Alexandria Quartet is visible in its torturous medi­tations on life and love, but unlike Durrell’s more genteel, later works, The Black Book breaks its tether and plunges into linguistic worlds of pure sensation, shaking off the burden of concrete reflections. Lawrence Lucifer asks: "I question myself eagerly. Is this amusia, aphasia, agraphia, alexia, abulia? It is life.''

But The Black Book bears little resemblance to life. It is something inescapably feral and alien, yet somehow richer for it.

- Sten Johnson

Maya Explorer: John Lloyd Stephens And The Lost Cities of Central America and the Yucatan

by Victor Wolfgang von Hagen

Indiana Jones and Laura Croft are but trivial Hollywood imaginings compared to John Lloyd Stephens (1805-1852), American explorer, writer, and the man who rediscovered the Mayan civilization.

   A Wall Street lawyer and politician, Stephens headed to Europe on doctor’s orders to recover from an ailment, but instead found a passion. He became absorbed in antiquarianism and explored the ancient cities of Europe and the Middle East.

Along the way, he found brief references to ancient king­doms deep in the jungles of Mexico and Central America. (The year was 1839 and the journals of the conquistadors lay forgot­ten in the imperial archives of Madrid. They were discovered four years later.)

   He set off to find them, traveling to Honduras with Fred­erick Catherwood, an architect and draftsman. After many tri­als (including arrest and prison), the party was finally allowed by authorities to embark on their search for the lost city of Copan.

   “The jungle was nigh impenetrable. Thorny plants tore their flesh. Their mules were mired to their bellies in swamps. The heat made them faint. Swarms of fever-bearing mosqui­toes were their constant companions.”

   By accident, they stumbled across a towering statute of a man—and then with machetes flashing, hacked and cut through the jungle, revealing the magnificent Mayan city of Copan—100 square miles—untouched since it was abandoned sometime around 800 AD and now only inhabited by monkeys, snakes, rodents, brightly plumaged birds, and wild pigs—a civilization without a name or a documented history. Stephens later bought the site for $50 from the owner, a local farmer. With Catherwood, he went on to discover other cities includ­ing Palenque and Uxtmal.

   Stephens wrote a two-volume book on the subject, enti­tled “Incidents of Travel In Yucatan” which is richly illustrated with Catherwoods’s engravings.    That book is detailed and pon­derous, but the adventure comes wonderfully alive in Victor Wolfgang von Hagen’s florid and erudite 1947 biography of Stephens, “Maya Explorer” which includes Catherwood’s images.

Von Hagen, an American explorer, archaeological histo­rian, anthropologist and travel writer, wrote extensively on these subjects between 1945 and 1965. Find this book and then head south. This “lost” book with fill your journey with mys­tery and wonder.

- Curtis West

The Assistant

by Robert Walser

According to the sales slip book mark in my copy, I bought this 301-page book at Micawbers on October 3, 2007, proba­bly in preparation for long cool nights when reading novels is rich and wonderful.  

It’s now summer 2010.  I’m currently on page 166. According to Walser, he wrote his novel, published in 1908, in six weeks, gripping his racing pen at a desk in a Berlin flat. He made better time than I.

He’d come to Berlin with his brother, according to his translator, to make his fortune.  His brother fit in with Berlin society in spite of the bumpkin Swiss accent the two shared. Robert did not. O, weh.  The book (his third; the manuscript to his second is lost) was rejected in a contest, possibly because Walser demanded an 8000 Marks advance.

Joseph, Walser’s protagonist, is one of those sensitive young men Willa Cather liked to place in the prairie’s slip­stream and watch him fly or crash.  I worry for Joseph. I daw­dle re-reading paragraphs to admire the lovely writing. I fear the ending.  Another young man dying in a snow drift clutching a real red rose?  Too, too sad.  Instead of finishing The Assistant, I polish off another book.

I’ve just done something I can’t ever remember doing in my long life as a reader: I’ve flipped through Walser’s pages and read the book’s last three paragraphs.  Joseph isn’t crushed!  He’s alive!  How will that happen? Gimme that book. I read on.

- Sharon Chmielarz

World Light

by Halldor Laxness

Iceland is a small island nation of barely 300,000 people—about the population of St. Paul—and yet it has its own lan­guage and literary traditions dating back to the Elder Edda. Although off on its own in the North Atlantic, the country is by no means immune to global economics (their banking sys­tem recently collapsed) or literary movements. And so Halldor Laxness, although he writes about sheep and volcanoes and Nordic demons that dwell inside mountains, is preeminently known as a social realist in the tradition of Dreiser and Upton Sinclair. Laxness traveled widely, including to the United States, where he wrote a draft of Independent People (1935). He tried to make it in early Hollywood, but with little success, and at one point had his passport confiscated by immigration offi­cers (it was returned after Sinclair interceded on the Ice­lander’s behalf).

Independent People continues to be Laxness’ best known work in America, and if you’ve heard of him at all it is probably through this book, or as a recipient of the Nobel Prize (1955). Chronicling a crofter’s epic struggle against both elements and entrepreneurs, Independent People has a strident anti-materialist theme, and cumulates in a tacit endorsement of Communism. But Laxness set aside such dogmatic concerns in his next major novel, World Light (Heimsljos), which appeared in four parts between 1937 and 1940.  The story of a failed artist loosely based on the life of poet Magnus Hjaltason Magnusson, the novel is broader in scope and more complex in structure than Independent People, and the author here seems to be looking at Iceland with his own eyes and heart, rather than the through the lens of economic doctrine.

The luckless hero, Olaf Karason, is an orphan raised in a benighted rural district in a house with only a few books. Nev­ertheless he is drawn to poetry, and begins composing poems of his own. His verses are never very good. As Magnus Mag­nusson, who did the first (and still only) English translation of World Light in 1969, notes in his introduction, “He was not—and this is central to Laxness’ treatment of the theme—a good poet abused and misunderstood by society, but a bad poet all too well understood by society, a writer of mediocre doggerel who nonetheless expresses the yearning of mankind for enlightenment, for culture, for lyricism in the midst of squa­lor.” As a young man Karason begins his dreamlike and quixotic travels across Iceland, working odd jobs, tutoring, and earning money writing poetry on demand. Various characters that cross his path use him for their own ends, such as the politician Peter Threehorse, the faith healer Thorunn of Kambar and the folk balladeer Reimar. The social and economic currents of Independent People surface in World Light as well, but here they are reflected against the background of a poet’s lyric quest for beauty, distilled through richly vivid prose like the scene end­ing below, where Karason is invited in for coffee by a pretty girl named Meya of Brekka:

 

She came right up to him and he felt her closeness for a moment as she opened the door for him and made him go, and he saw in her eyes that hot, wordless dreamland which is sometimes in a girl’s eyes when she looks at a man, and then she closed the door behind him and he stood outside her door and looked at the cottage, entranced as if at a vision, and loved it. It has perhaps been one of life’s loveliest mornings.

 

Impractical and prone to romantic flights, Karason, as one might predict, spends much of his life extricating himself from various fiascoes and indiscretions; for much of the book he is either being jeered at or deluded by others. Yet World Light is never painful to read, and more often comic rather than mel­ancholy. All obstacles seem to be overcome (or rather, dis­carded) by the hero’s joi de vivre, and this is what makes the book rise above its genre of socio-realism to be come some­thing truly unique and memorable. Olaf Karason might be a failure and a fool, but we love him, in the same way, perhaps, that Halldor Laxness loved Iceland.

- Joel Van Valin

The Dakota or Sioux As They Were In Minnesota In 1834

by Samuel W. Pond

This is a lucid, early ethnography of the Eastern bands of the Dakota.  Despite his (overt and plainly stated) missionary bias against "heathen" religion, Pond is arguably the preemi­nent outsider authority on the language and culture of the Dakota during the 1800s.

Along with his brother Gideon, Samuel Pond spent his formative years on the East coast.  The Pond brothers con­verted to Christianity in their early twenties, but found no one who needed converting out East.  The challenge of converting the "heathen" Dakota People to Christianity drew the Ponds to Minnesota in 1834, and by the time they moved on in the 1850s they had become amateur outsider-experts in Dakota language and customs.  

Though Samuel Pond's contact with the Dakota began in 1834, he did not pen his memoirs until his retirement in the 1870s, and only after some twenty years spent learning Dakota language and culture from direct participant/observation experience. I trust his account because it is written without any of the New-Agey, Dances-With-Wolves-style fawning or politically correct romanticizing of an alien culture. In fact, one gets the impression that Pond didn't particularly like or appreciate some aspects of Sioux life.  Yet his respect for the Dakota is palpable, and he takes extraordinary care in describ­ing objects and practices of their culture in value-neutral lan­guage (he spends an entire paragraph pointing out that the "war tomahawk" is merely a hatchet, used for wood cutting). He deconstructs the myth that these hardworking plains people are pure and noble or brutal and warlike by nature—thus humanizing them in the process.

Pond’s works begs the question: does one need to love their subject in order to understand it? Clearly, one of the author’s intensions is to create empathy for the Dakota. The reader will not find much exuberance in his stoic, unexcitable, old-man-voice, but Pond may have been aiming more for scholarship than titillation. He was one of the very few whites in his time (or any other) who bothered to become fluent in the Dakota language, and his notes and essays on that subject reportedly became the uncredited source material for Riggs’ and Williamson’s more celebrated lexicographies.   

Most ethnographic works created prior to 1900 were crafted by missionaries like Pond, which makes it easier to place his rant about the superiority of Christian values in the last chapter in its proper context.  Sadly, even contemporane­ous indigenous authors like Charles Eastman were forced to pander to Christian concerns in order to bring their message to a wider audience. But in the writings of Samuel Pond, the Christian agenda is easily held apart from general observations. Readers must understand that Pond took decades getting to know the Dakota in order to convert them, and while he failed in that, he did succeed in leaving a clear-headed account of the Dakota as he saw them.

- Justin Teerlinck

The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker

by David Boyer

In 1968, the first and only book by David Boyer, The Side­long Glances of a Pigeon Kicker, was published ... a seemingly sig­nificant (though vanished) piece of literature, especially in the disillusioned protagonist genre.  Jonathan finds himself in a world that doesn’t make sense to his sensitive intelligence—reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye’s (1951) Holden Caulfield. The people around him are self-centered, callous and, in a word, crazy.

In John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Angstrom, Updike’s disillusioned protagonist, turns to sex when modern life smothers him. Benjamin of The Graduate (1963) pretty much does the same thing. Jonathan needs more than sex to shake him from his slump. I wouldn’t want to give away the ending, other than to say that it’s entirely satisfying.

The Sidelong Glances of a Pigeon Kicker garnered enough attention that a movie was based on it entitled Pigeons (though finding the movie is nearly impossible). Finding out anything about David Boyer is almost as difficult. One person I met online wrote: “I spent an evening with Mr. Boyer almost 38 years ago. His wife played a wonderful accordion in their hand-built cabin in Vermont. He was extraordinarily charismatic with a generous open personality.” Deborah Diesen, a librarian and exceptional children’s author, did some online snooping for me and learned this interesting fact: “I found a section of a biography of John Cheever which discussed his friendship with Phil and Mimi Boyer, and how he encouraged their son David to go to Cheever's agent with what became Pigeon Kicker.” It’s hard to find much more about Boyer ... at least online. Some additional detective work by Diesen strongly suggests that Boyer died in 1999.

- Jeff Vande Zande

The Writings of Christine de Pizan

selected and edited by Charity Cannon Willard

I first became acquainted with Christine in, of all places, a Hallmark anthology. It included a sweet little love poem of hers that began:

 

If frequently to mass I go,

My beauty there I fain would see;

Fresh as a new-blown rose is she.

 

There is nothing that quite sums up the Medieval mindset as going to church to check out a pretty girl! But Christine de Pizan (also spelled “de Pisan” ... her family came from Pizzano, near Bologna, though she herself was born in Venice) was much more than a poet of courtly love. The daughter of an astrologer, she grew up in Paris, in the shadow of the court of Charles V. Married at fifteen and widowed at twenty-five, she parlayed her writing talents and education into a career to sup­port her three young children. Her output  included poetic tales (The Tale of Poissy), treatises on philosophy (The Book of the Mutation of Fortune), etiquette and morals (The Book of the City of Ladies), prayers, history, politics, and even warfare (The Book of the Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry). An English translation of this last book was among the first printed by Caxton in 1489, almost sixty years after her death. In modern times, however, her fame mostly rests upon The Book of the City of Ladies, which defends the value of women and refutes the idea, in currency among most (male) writers of the period, “that the behavior of women is inclined to and full of every vice.”

The City is filled with the usual Medieval devices (for example, the three great Ladies that appear to Christine, per­sonifying Reason, Rectitude and Justice) but there is also a lot of sound good sense that would be still instructive, to both ladies and gentlemen of our own time:

 

For, as regards their fear that their daughters might do something foolish, one need only instruct them in wisdom when they are young, making sure that the mother herself sets a good example of integrity and learnedness, for if the mother lives foolishly, she will hardly be an example for the daughter.

 

Christine’s quiet, almost prim voice make it easy to forget the tumultuous times she lived through. Born in 1365—just a decade or so after the Black Death—her life was encompassed by the Hundred Years’ War, and her final years illumined by the blazing meteor of Joan of Arc (her last work was The Poem of Joan of Arc). Heady times. Still, it’s Christine’s ballades I’m most drawn to, those timeless little ditties about love and May­time. Willard’s book contains a couple dozen of them, some perhaps appearing in English for the first time. Her translations are more accurate than sonorous, but they give, as through a stained glass window, a dim glimpse of a brilliant lyric poet. The rest of The Writings of Christine de Pizan is filled out with excerpts from her various prose pieces, and here the transla­tion is on much firmer ground, although the flowery style in vogue in medieval France comes across as a bit loquacious in modern English.

Christine de Pisan died around 1430, the year before a very different sort of poet, Francois Villon, was born. The decline of courtly manners had already begun...

- Joel Van Valin

Lost Splendor: The Amazing Memoirs of the Man Who Killed Rasputin

by Prince Felix Yussupov

He was a man of such perfect androgynous beauty, that dressed like a woman, and attending the Royal Opera House in Moscow in the golden era of Tsarist autocracy and Romanoff family rule preceding the Russian Revolution of 1917, clutches of Calvary officers would chase after him, transfixed by his feminine personage.

   But for Prince Felix Yussupov, it was just another night (and day) of “splendor.” Married to the niece of Czar Nicholas II, he was a nobleman of vast riches, the lord of many feudal estates and palaces and a man who enjoyed the good life as few have before or since.

He recounts it all in an autobiography that details the uber-opulent lifestyle, including: fantastic episodes at night­clubs; adventures with the gypsies of St. Petersburg; grand tours of Europe; balls and parties of mythical proportions; occasional spasms of guilt over the plight of the serf; experi­ences in spiritualism and occultism; great loves—and a pro­clivity for cross-dressing, and (intimated), other activities of the same order.

A royalist, he despaired over the corruption of the impe­rial court and was horrified over the influence and rise to power of the sinister, dark-bearded, monk Rasputin.

He and his good friend Grand Duke Dimitri and others lured the “great healer and mystic” to dinner, feeding him cakes and red wine laced with enough cyanide to kill five men. Ras­putin was unaffected.

And so begins one of the longest assassination attempts in history, almost comic in its repeated attempts to kill the mad­man, who rises again and again.

But, Rasputin’s eventual demise was too late—the Bolshe­viks stormed the Palace, the Romanoffs were murdered, the foundation for the future Soviet Union was formed, and the Prince escaped to exile in Paris, where he lived out his life, committing his memoirs to paper in 1952, in a remembrance that is as engaging and fantastic as the Prince himself.

- Curtis West