The ten most UNDER-rated novels
This piece is (obviously) a bookend to the Most Over-rated novels article and should at least form a kind of “Ten books you should read before you die.” If you’ve read all of them, I hope they’ve made you as happy as they did me. If I inspire you to read one of them, either for the first time, or again, you will have made me very happy, for reading, while on the face of it, is a solitary activity, it is at its very base, a sharing of consciousness, and if this sharing expands beyond the original, writer / reader paradigm, it gains vastly in strength and power. If you don’t believe me, take those “ultra-memes,” The Bible and the Koran and realise that it was simply word-of-mouth, paid advertising and reader recommendations that made them the commercial success stories that they are today.
Which is not of course to say that the following list of brilliant books are as top-heavy with profound wisdom, diet plans and handy life style hints.
#1[1984 (George Orwell)].
This utterly remarkable workis, in my opinion, highon the shortlist for finest novel ever written. It foretells a dystopian society where an autocratic government rules with a mixture of total electronic surveillance, total control of public discourse and extreme ultra-violence. When Orwell wrote the book it was seen as science fiction, now that the year 1984 is passed, it can be recognised as documentary since the human race has successfully created several versions of Orwell’s nightmare vision, on Earth, for real. Cesceseau’s Romania certainly fit the bill, and Cold War Russia made a good attempt at creating the state without the technology. Present day China appears to have been created as a state by using Orwell’s work as a handbook, in exactly the way that the forces of decency and righteousness have adopted it as something between a sacred text and a rallying flag. It is a book so good it should be compulsory. Read it, or read it again, watch your government closely
2[ “Animal Farm” (George Orwell)]
Either the most pessimistic book ever written, or the most realistic and truthful, depending on your emotional makeup. The book tells the story of a standard British farm, told through the eyes of the animals. On the face of the evidence the animals realise that they are being horribly exploited by the humans and rebel against them. Over the course of the book the animals turn the farm into a self sustaining society, no longer run to attract external profit, but simply to feed the animals. At first this new society is almost a paradise, but soon power corrupts the political structure, infighting results and before long the new society has become almost a carbon copy of the one that it replaced.
The book was originally written as a brutal satire of events surrounding the 1917 revolution in Russia, which started well and then became corrupt, rotted and was taken over and turned into an autocracy headed by Josef Stalin that was very much worse than the Tsarist system the initial revolution had replaced.
While the book was written as a kind of club to beat the Soviet Union with, the truth contained within it is very much deeper, and nastier than that. Any popular revolution, it implies, will quickly collapse into the something like the system it replaced under the weight of some sort mixture of built-in stupidity and baseline corruption. The Populist French revolution of 1789 produced a dynasty of emperors, the Cuban revolution produced Castro. Putin owes his position to the reverberations of the 1917 revolution. Trotsky>Lenin> Stalin> Scum followed by the second revolution. It is hard to imagine what Chairman Mao would have made of the present situation in China but it’d be a fair guess to say he’d have mixed feelings. Would America’s founding fathers be happy with the plutocracy the place has become? I bet they wouldn’t.
“Animal Farm” is an utterly good book, deceptively simple to a cursory examination, deeper than a coal mine if you try getting your hands dirty. Roll your sleeves up and get into it, you won’t be disappointed.
*Copyright (C) Alex Rieneck 2021 All rights reserved.
3**[”The Great Gatsby” (F Scott Fitzgerald)]
This book is commonly accepted to be just about the apogee of American Literature, and its pretty easy to see why. In its short length it crams in just about everything – in divine balanced prose. At its heart “The Great Gatsby” is pure U.S “Money Porn”( a work dealing with the pleasure of money and wealth) and an expose of the soft rotten core of the monied classes in the United States during the “Roaring Twenties” – right after the carnage of WW1 (which left the U.S mostly untouched) – a rotten core which was to lead directly the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great depression.
To quote Fitzgerald, ‘But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which endlessly drift over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes Doctor T. J. Eckleburg.’ ‘But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood over the solemn dumping ground.’
Eckleburg looks down on the passing traveller as if they are riding in a toy train through the orange sunset to a existentially uncertain destination.
The central plot of “Gatsby” is ultimately not nearly as important as the broad brush strokes of the books background, Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan is a stinking rich example of septic old money – and an entrenched racist, exactly the kind of individual who bankrolled the early st of Hitler’s career. The Zeitgeist of the nineteen-twenties suffuses the book, with the obvious inference that the huge eyes of Doctor Eckleburg, which watch over the ash-heap of the past, must be seen as obviously Jewish eyes and (presumably) responsible for the war and, by extension, everything else. Such attitudes were common at the time. Of course neither Fitzgerald or T.S Eliot had any idea in the 1920’s how odious their anti Semitic views would become scarcely a decade later when Hitler’s holocaust made the civilised world abandon any form of anti-semitism as repugnant and thoroughly disgraceful and poisoned many readers reactions to “Gatsby” and some TS Eliot.) Still “Gatsby” is a product of its time, and its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses, leaving it as one of the pinnacles of twentieth Century Literature.*
4 [The Day of The Locust (Nathanael West)]
A largely forgotten classic , “The Day of The Locust” is an effective ‘bookend’ work – wallowing in the rancid core of Los Angeles in contrast to “Gatsby’s” New York.
“Locust” is set in the proletarian end of the film industry, among the dirt-poor bit players, movie odd-jobbers and less easily classified hangers on of the industry, who have been attracted like moths to a light by the glamour and the possibility of money the industry promises. Where”Gatsby’s” characters have so much money they have lost the understanding of how to spend it, in “Locust” the characters have been attracted to the city by a kind of wordless need that has remained unfulfilled for so long that it has curdled, rotted, and in many cases made the characters malignant. Todd Hackett lives and works in this society, as a lower- level scenery artist for one of the studios. Todd once had plans to be a “real” artist but has sold them out to work as a commercial illustrator. Todd sees, and falls in lust/love with a girl who happens to live close by.-Faye Greener is a struggling bit part player in any studio that will have her. She is a girl of reasonably lax, tropical morals, but she is not interested in Todd. The book is interwoven with highly visual hallucinatory passages where Todd considers his masterwork-to-be; a huge painting that exposes all the iniquities of Los Angeles and its population of pointless human caricatures against a backdrop of an armageddon of flaming destruction. It appears that Todd’s visions are prophetic rather than purely artistic since the climax of the book encompasses just such events. Closing the prophetic circle, during these events Todd has gone quite mad. “The Day of the Locust” is, perhaps in keeping with its setting, quite a lurid novel, and also given its characters, a work that tends towards melodrama. However both these themess in tandem tend to make the book into a kind of beautiful iridescent fun that is all too rare in this world. The film, with Donald Sutherland as the hapless Homer Simpson (yes I know) – but the book dates from 1939, 16years before Matt Groening (creator of “The Simpsons”) was born. However in my opinion the film suffers badly from the lack of Nathanael West’s vivid prose and continual insights into the human condition. Very Highly Recommended.
5[”Fata Morgana” by William Kotzwinkle. ]
Iridescent, hallucinogenic magic-realism does not get any better than this. In my opinion this book stands equal tp Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” – and packs a very similar punch into a far lower page count. Which is not to discount Pynchon’s masterpiece, however I must say that after reading “Gravity’s Rainbow”, I actually felt as if I might have damaged my brain, whereas halfway through reading “Fata Morgana” for the second time I realised that I had read it before – and not dreamt scenes of it the night before, in my sleep.
This book is the rarest magic.
6[”My Brother Jack” (George Johnston)]
A reasonably easy choice for the best book I’ve ever read “My Brother Jack” is basically the life story of David Meredith, a simulacrum of the author – if you look at the book as autobiography at one remove you won’t be far wrong – but you can relax “My Brother Jack” is infinitely better than other lightly- disguised autobiographies masquerading as novels.
“David Meredith” is born a sensitive bookish“milksop” into the dirt-poor outer suburbs of Melbourne Australia, bduring the first world war. His earliest memory is being taken to greet the troopship that has brought his father home from “the front” in Flanders. Davy’s father is, from the first, big, loud and frightening. He also later proves to have one fuck of a case of malignant P.T.S.D. Davy’s life changes utterly. His mother, a returned war-veteran nurse, turns the house into an unofficial convalescent home for war wounded she is too soft-hearted to let go of.
Davy grows, recounting the story of his life with blissful clarity and remarkable wisdom, slowly becoming a professional writer, until another vast armageddon rises up and sweeps him up into its arms. David becomes a War Correspondent in World War Two, and in a kind of mangled way, comes to terms with his demons, and sees outside himself for the first time. It is an utterly fascinating journey, supremely well told, that sweeps the reader along into an equivalent insight into themselves, by a big dose of the raw magic of literature.
7[”Childhoods End” (sir) Arthur C. Clarke ]
Arthur C.Clarke started his career in the 1950’s writing for such magazines as “Astounding Tales.” He went on to share an Academy award nomination with Stanley Kubrick for “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 1969. The Climax of “Childhoods End” is the very peak of his astoundingly “big vision” Science Fiction – in fact for imagination stretching visions on Bob Shaw’s “[Orbitsville]” trilogy is bigger than Clarke- and Clarke is far the better writer.
Big Science Fiction not really your thing?
Maria is a young orphan living in the care of her horrible governess and the (worse) vicar in a massive decrepit country house in Britain in the 1940’s The house, Malplaquet has a long and noble history, going back many hundreds of years into the past, but its glories are fading into a plethora of quaint and endlessly delightful details. Maria’s only friend is Cook who lives in the kitchen with her dog Captain and travels the long corridors of the house on her bicycle, ringing her bell at the corners for safety. The dog, Captain trots along beside her. despite being reasonably well cared for Maria is basically a very lonely child with a very limited range of social contact. It is fortuitous, symbolic and frequently very funny when she makes an utterly wonderful and unexpected discovery in the unexplored wilds of the large estate and the book becomes, by turns, whimsical delightful and profoundly wise.
I first encountered “[Mistress Masham’s Repose]” when I was about ten and it was read to me by my mother. At the time I just thought it was a great story and did not appreciate its hidden wisdom until I read it again as an adult. It was only then that I developed understanding of how it had helped form my world view an give me the foundations of becoming a somewhat responsible adult.
If you’re looking for a book to read your children, nothing would please me more than if you carried on the tradition by reading them “[Mistress Masham’s Repose”- I think you’ll enjoy the experience yoursel]f