A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about A Silence Shared, a lovely rediscovered classic by the Italian writer and artist Lalla Romano (tr. Brian Robert Moore). First published in 1957, this haunting, dreamlike novella was recently reissued by Pushkin Press in a beautiful new edition for a whole new generation of readers to enjoy.
In many ways, that review reminded me of just how much interest there is in these rediscoveries from the past at the moment. Naturally, trailblazing publishers such as Virago Press and Persephone Books have been championing this area for several years; but other, more recent imprints are also contributing to the renaissance, enhancing the current demand for these fascinating rediscoveries. It’s certainly an area that chimes very strongly with my own reading interests, especially women writers from the mid-20th century.
So, to cut a long intro short, I thought it might be interesting to highlight some of my favourite rediscovered classics from recent years – I’ve deliberately avoided selecting anything from Virago or Persephone as they probably warrant posts of their own at some point!
Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (1953)
Every now and again, a book comes along that captivates the reader with its elegant form and glittering prose. Maud Martha is one such book, painting an evocative portrait of the titular character’s life from childhood to early adulthood. Over the course of the novella, which is written as a series of short vignettes, we follow Maud Martha through childhood in Chicago’s South Side, her early romances as a teenager, to marriage and motherhood, moving seamlessly from the early 1920s to the mid-’40s. I loved this book for its gorgeous, poetic prose and beautiful use of imagery. A wonderful rediscovery courtesy of Faber Editions, a fascinating imprint dedicated to showcasing radical literary voices from around the world.
(Other Faber Editions to seek out include the captivating Mrs Caliban, a subversive feminist fable by Rachel Ingalls, and the excellent Termush, Sven Holm’s unnerving post-apocalyptic dystopia, still wildly relevant today.)
Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Cespedes (1952, tr. Ann Goldstein 2023)
Recently reissued by Pushkin Press, Alba de Cespedes’ novel Forbidden Notebook is a remarkable rediscovered gem of Italian literature, a candid, exquisitely-written confessional from an evocative feminist voice. The novel is narrated by forty-three-year-old Valeria Cossati, who documents her inner thoughts in a secret notebook with great candour and clarity, laying bare her world with all its demands and preoccupations. For Valeria, the act of writing becomes a confessional of sorts, an outlet for her frustrations with the family – her husband Michele, a somewhat remote but dedicated man, largely wrapped up in his own interests, which Valeria doesn’t share, and their two grown-up children who live at home. As the diary entries build up, we see how Valeria has been defined by the familial roles assigned to her; nevertheless, the very act of keeping the notebook leads to a gradual reawakening of her desires as she finds her voice, challenging the founding principles of her life with Michele.
I adored this illuminating exploration of a woman’s right to her own existence in the face of competing demands. (Fans of this book might also appreciate Anna Maria Ortese’s stories and reportage, Evening Descends Upon the Hills, another superb reissue from Pushkin.)
O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker (1991)
First published in 1991 and more recently reissued by Weidenfeld & Nicolson as part of their W&N Essentials series, O Caledonia was Barker’s only novel. It’s a dazzling gem of a book, rich in a wealth of vivid imagery – clearly the product of a highly imaginative writer with a sharp eye for detail and an affinity for outsiders. Ostensibly a coming-of-age narrative, the novel blends elements from a range of literary traditions, from the Gothic novel to Classical Myths, skilfully weaving them into the fabric of the text. Andy Miller (of Backlisted fame) described it as Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle meets Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a description that certainly rings true. There’s also a dash of Barbara Comyns here – Barker’s prose is expressive and evocative, portraying a world that combines the sharply recognisable with the macabre and the surreal. A kaleidoscopic, jewel-like novel with a noticeably poignant touch.
Valentino and Sagittarius by Natalia Ginzburg (1957, tr. Avril Bardoni 1987)
The publishing arm of Daunt Books has been championing the critically-acclaimed Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg for the past five years, and rightly so – she is a marvel! Last year, I loved All Our Yesterdays, Ginzburg’s rich, multilayered novel following two very different neighbouring Italian families during the Second World War. It’s a truly remarkable book, a story of ordinary people living through extraordinary times.
Luckily for UK-based readers, Daunt has also just reissued two of my favourite Ginzburg novellas, Valentino and Sagittarius, in gorgeous new editions. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships, the tensions that arise when one person behaves selfishly at the expense of those around them. When viewed together, they highlight how foolhardy we can be, especially when investing all our hopes in a particular individual or venture – the fallout for the surrounding family members is often painful in the extreme. So, two brilliant novellas here, each representing an excellent introduction to Natalia Ginzburg, a writer whose insights into the minor tragedies in everyday life are remarkably astute.
The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim (1909)
Over the past five years, Handheld Press has been reissuing forgotten gems from a variety of 20th-century writers, including Rose Macaulay, Margaret Kennedy and Sylvia Townsend Warner.
Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Caravaners is a satire of the highest order, not least because the novel’s narrator – the German baron, Otto von Ottringel – is a colossal ass, a pompous, insufferable individual with absolutely no self-awareness. The novel focuses on a caravanning holiday through the countryside of Kent, ostensibly to mark the von Ottringels’ silver wedding anniversary. What von Arnim does so well here is to let the reader see how Otto is perceived by those around him, even though the novel is narrated entirely from the baron’s own viewpoint. In short, this is a brilliantly-written book, one that casts a sharply satirical eye over such subjects as misogyny, class differences, power dynamics in marriage and Anglo-German relations during the early 20th century – not to mention the delights and follies of caravanning in the inclement British weather!
(Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford’s Business as Usual is another Handheld favourite, also warmly recommended here.)
More Was Lost by Eleanor Perényi (1946)
In many respects, the NYRB Classics imprint is the quintessential source of rediscovered gems. Their list is chock-full of literary gems from the past, beautifully recovered in their stylish trademark livery.
There are so many options to choose from here, but I’ve plumped for More Was Lost, a remarkable memoir by the American-born writer Eleanor Perényi. In essence, the memoir covers the early years of Eleanor’s marriage to Zsiga Perényi, a relatively poor Hungarian baron whom she meets while visiting Europe with her parents in 1937. It’s a gem of a book, both charming and poignant in its depiction of a vanishing and unstable world, all but swept away by the ravages of war. By turns beautiful, illuminating, elegiac and sad; a rare book that feels both expansive in scope yet intimate in detail.
(Dorothy Baker’s superb novel, Cassandra at the Wedding, and Olivia Manning’s equally brilliant School for Love would also be excellent choice from the NYRB Classics list.)
Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (late 1970s, tr. Geraldine Harcourt)
I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind. Originally published as a series of short stories, Tsushima’s novella focuses on a year in the life of a young mother recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting – an apartment located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Reissued by Penguin in 2019 as part of their Modern Classics series, it’s a wonderful rediscovery – strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling.
(Irmgard Keun’s evocative novella Gilgi, One of Us is another favourite PMC, a striking portrayal of a determined young woman set in Weimar-era Cologne.)
Chatterton Square by E. H. Young (1947)
Probably the richest, most satisfying entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series so far, Chatterton Square is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. On the surface, Chatterton appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families – one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance that Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes it a particularly compelling read – more so than my description suggests. Set in Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a place modelled on Bristol’s Clifton – the novel features one of the most pompous fictional characters I’ve ever encountered: Herbert Blackett, a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to his more relaxed neighbours.
(The Home, Penelope Mortimer’s brilliant but painful exploration of life after a separation, and Tea is So Intoxicating, a delightful social comedy by Mary Essex, are also fully deserving of mentions here.)
So, there we have it – a lovely selection of literary gems for you to peruse!
Do let me know your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books. Or maybe you have a favourite rediscovered classic you’d like to share with others. If so, please feel free to mention it below.