When I ask people about their favorite classic novels, I usually get a similar response from everybody: Jane Austen, A couple Brontës’, A few Dickens’, an odds-and-ends collection of complex modernist tomes, and of course a dystopian novel or two to garnish the collection. Here are a few great novels you have probably not heard of, but were nevertheless significant influences for some of the more common works on your bookshelf:
The Monk – MG Lewis (1796)
Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho was a landmark of the gothic genre, but it favored using rational explanations over the supernatural. MG Lewis’ horrifying depiction of evil within the Catholic church from the perspective of an outwardly pious but internally evil monk is as brutal today as it was two centuries ago. However, just like Marquis de Sade’s controversial and pornographic novels, The Monk has struggled to maintain its literary prominence because of the inherent subject matter.
Cranford – Elizabeth Gaskell (1853)
Between Jane Austen’s early 19th century work and George Eliot’s peak in the 1870’s, Elizabeth Gaskell chronicled the social conflicts of rural England with a simple but transcendent voice that saw beyond the facades of men and women with an observant and sympathetic eye. Cranford is about a small English town taken over by women when the men must move to nearby Drumble to work, uprooting the long-standing gender dynamics and changing the social landscape indefinitely.
The Water Babies – Charles Kingsley (1863)
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a standard of Children’s literature, but a similar-yet-completely-different work, Kingsley’s Water Babies, used the concept of fairy-tale parable to explore Darwinian evolution and the issues of social progress. When Tom, a ten-year old chimney-sweep, falls into a mysterious pond, he explores an undiscovered world of water-borne creatures from whom he learns how to understand this complex and industrializing world.
The House by the Medlar Tree – Giovanni Verga (1881)
Charles Dickens and Emile Zola took great pains in dissecting the sheer difficulty of succeeding in the cutthroat world of industrializing England and France, but Verga’s story about a poor Sicilian family facing disaster goes beyond the conventional naturalist work to portray the impossibilities of a happy life in a newly-unified Sicily. Some of the most vivid realism of its day, The House by the Medlar Tree presented with stark lucidity what many other authors did in the late 19th century–bridge the gap between the old world and the new by depicting in great detail the impending consequences.
Against the Grain – Joris-Karl Huysmans (1884)
Oscar Wilde was known as the unofficial king of late 19th century decadence, a movement exemplified by excess, debauchery and boundless pleasures. However, Huysmans’ study of a lavish life in response to 19th century materialism and industrialism is an ode to the dying grandeur of aristocratic Europe, as its main character, the Duc Jean de Esseintes, lives and dies by his own rules, away from the boorish “respectability” of the rising bourgeoisie.
Effi Briest – Theodor Fontane (1895)
Largely overshadowed by the great 19th century novels of adultery (See: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina), Effi Briest has nevertheless survived in large part because of the praise of Thomas Mann and Samuel Beckett. Similar to Bovary for its subtle social critiques of rural life and marriage, Fontane’s tragicomic tale remains notorious for its ability to make the most erudite of readers weep uncontrollably.
Le Grand Meaulnes – Alain-Fournier (1913)
A book that famed novelist John Fowles claims has “haunted” him all of his life, this mysterious novel from this even more mysterious novelist has shown up in the oddest of places, appearing in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and even being the supposed influence for F.Scott Fitzgerald’s naming of The Great Gatsby. When a 15 year-old boy arrives at a school in the countryside, his adventures to a lost mansion filled with aristocratic extravagance enamors the narrator to no end, yet it marks the pivotal turning point of his youth, where the mysteries of love and the unknown painfully fade away before his eyes.
The Charwoman’s daughter – James Stephens (1912)
A little over a decade before James Joyce would publish his monstrous, groundbreaking Ulysses, Stephens’ novel about a sixteen-year old girl called Mary depicted the slums of early 20th century Dublin with colorful, imaginative language. The Charwoman’s Daughter contrasts the pains of poverty with simple pleasures, and it reminds that reader that the language can always transcend the ugliness of daily life by painting a more poetic and beautiful landscape.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Robert Tressel (1914)
The subgenre of working-class literature was, in the early 20th century, largely overshadowed by the works of Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis. On the other side of the pond, though, Tressell’s jab at the vacuity of capitalism, where everything from daily life to the basic rhythms of work are revealed to be subject to the mechanisms of efficiency, became a cult classic among the working poor. Although it fueled brief socialist movements in England, the book has been largely forgotten for its surprisingly subtle treatment of the system that degraded the working class to destitution.
Locus Solus – Raymond Roussel (1914)
Panned by critics and largely forgotten during his own lifetime, Roussel’s surrealist novel about a lonely estate owner who creates macabre tableaux out of the dead is more of a poetic labyrinth than a straightforward tale. However, the ambiguity of his storytelling and the playfulness of his prose has helped revived the strange novel, and contemporary thinkers like Michel Foucault and poets like John Ashbery have credited this book as major influences of their work.
Crome Yellow – Aldous Huxley (1921)
Huxley’s first novel has since been overshadowed by his dystopian Brave New World, but Crome Yellow is nevertheless a hilarious satire of British life and culture at a time when art and literature are marred by highfalutin pretension. When a shy poet goes to a country estate with his love interest, he meets a litany of ridiculously-named characters, many of them representing the decaying aspects of an intellectual class Huxley was quickly becoming a part of.
The Last Days of Mankind – Karl Kraus
Kraus’ 800-page play has been read much more than performed, and his penchant for using both documents and personal accounts of the First World War to chronicle the fall of the Habsburg Empire has placed it among the great post-war novels of the 1920’s. Both an indictment of political language and an elegy to a lost empire, Kraus uses repetition to reinforce the impending doom awaiting the Austro-Hungarians, who must find whatever silver lining is left amid their impending suffering.
The Enormous Room – E.E. Cummings
E.E. Cummings is largely remembered today as the grandfather of nonsense poetry, but his autobiographical war novel about being imprisoned in a large cell with several others during the First World War was to introduce many of the themes Cummings would extrapolate for the rest of his literary career. Far from the playful rhythm of his verse, The Enormous Room can be read as an anarchist text, the room symbolic man’s place in relation to the government imprisoning them and the government supposedly helping them.
Confessions of Zeno – Italo Svevo (1923)
An acquaintance of James Joyce and Sigmund Freud, Svevo rarely revealed his secret passion of writing, but his hilarious and thought-provoking Confessions of Zeno used Freud’s psychoanalytic studies to create a character as unpredictable as he is miserable, inextricably bound to the desires of his subconscious. When Zeno tries to quit smoking, for example, he shapes his whole life around the act of quitting, and the performance thereof becomes the source of all his happiness and misery.
One, None and a Hundred Thousand – Luigi Pirandello (1926)
Pirandello is continuously featured in World Literature anthologies for his famous Six Characters in Search of an Author, a meta-theatrical play that brought him international attention. One, None and a Hundred Thousand, on the other hand, is on the surface a simple tale about a man alienated by his self-image, but at its heart is an exploration of the limitations of language, and how he are estranged from those around us because of such linguistic barriers.
Blindness – Henry Green (1926)
These days, Henry Green is seen more as a influencer than a great figure himself, but Blindness is a literary masterpiece that displays the sheer breadth of his abilities. Green uses parenthetical statements and an idiosyncratic sentence structure to describe innovative methods of interpretation in a state of blindness. One of the great unsung architects of modernist literature, Green uses the concept of blindness to show that we are inherently blind to the true nature of reality.
Berlin Alexanderplatz – Alfred Doblin (1929)
Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos are still read today for their treatment of gritty urban life at the beginning of the 20th century, but Doblin’s sharp language, playful narration and honest depiction of life in down-and-out Berlin is both thrilling and cinematic. Using several forms of print–such as newspaper, street signs and popular music–Doblin (along with fellow Berliner Bertolt Brecht) would later influence the use of multimedia in late 20th century literature.
A Day Off – Storm Jameson (1933)
Storm Jameson did what Tressel did with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, chronicling the difficulties of working-class urban life during the depression in England. The narrator travels through London’s West End dreaming of a better life, but ultimately pushed to a state of mental weariness because of the endless pressures of domestic life. Without displaying her message too blatantly, Jameson picks apart the misconceptions of urban life amid the futility of abject poverty.
The Man Without Qualities – Robert Musil (1933)
Of all the great few-thousand page masterpieces that were released in the first half of the twentieth century, Musil’s The Man Without Qualities is most often overlooked. A simple plot told in accessible language, Musil tells the story of Ulrich, an unassuming man who finds many lovers, joins a nationalist planning committee, then ends up in an oddly-spiritual relationship with his sister. Though unfinished, the novel is written with a philosophical elegance reminiscent of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.
Independent People – Halldor Laxness (1934)
Laxness is now known as the grandfather of Icelandic fiction, but that’s probably the reason you’ve never heard of him. Heavily influenced by the Icelandic Sagas, Independent People tells the story of a man who begins growing the claws of Grimur, the demon-monster from the ancient poem. At once a reclamation of his heritage and also a journey through his home country, Laxness details the rise and falls of his beloved homeland with mythic undertones in a style the magic realists would eventually adopt.
Hopscotch – Julio Cortazar (1963)
A surrealist tale, a puzzle, a game, a metafiction — Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch defies most if not all of the conventions of novel writing in this story about a man trying to come to terms with his place in the world in Bohemian Paris. Unlike the work of Hemingway and Henry Miller, Cortazar does away with the romanticism of Paris and isolates the author-figure from society, and in a novel that proclaims its own insignificance, it becomes very difficult for them to affirm their place in the world.