Recommending a great author is easy. Recommending a lesser known or overlooked classic in that same author's repertoire, on the other hand, considerably less so.
So, as it's Mark Twain's birthday, throwing caution to the literary wind, we've attempted to disinter the works by celebrated figures that just don't get the acclaim they so richly deserve, kicking things off with the man himself.
Pudd'nhead Wilson - Mark Twain
Hastily written to fend off debt collectors, Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson has come in for a lot of panning since it was first serialised by Century Magazine. Don’t let that deter you from seeking it out. Taking place over three different decades, the plot hinges on a mixed race slave who swaps her infant son with her master's baby, and, as with a lot of Twain’s oeuvre, slavery, racism, human endeavour, and the birth of America are just some of the major themes incorporated into what is a powerful tale.
The Adolescent - Fyodor Dostoevsky
Much maligned by scholars in 1875, The Adolescent (also known as Raw Youth, and Discord, before that) continues to polarise opinion a century on. Some deride it as unworthy of Dostoyevsky’s canon on account of not reaching the philosophical heights of The Idiot, others cite erratic shifts in tone between comedy and drama; yet for those wise enough to appreciate the novel’s low-key themes (following the bastard son of a skirt-chasing landowner who sows his seeds in more than just an agricultural sense) and how deftly Dostoevsky gets across the inner turmoil of a young man hell-bent on finding love and escaping to the city, will uncover a gem.
The Crossing - Cormac McCarthy
The second chapter in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy is also, at least in our eyes, the finest. More poetic if less acclaimed than spiritual precursor All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing is bleakly brilliant as McCarthy describes a young cowboy’s savage journey from New Mexico to Mexico during the WW2 period: surviving gun fights, wolf attacks and a cracked, scorching terrain that save for arguably Blood Meridian, has never been as violently and mercilessly described by McCarthy.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland & End of the World - Haruki Murakami
Still ploughing your way through 1Q84? Those other 245,000 pages can wait - a much more accessible way of sinking your teeth into the great man's work can be found in this clumsily-named (we imagine it looks better in Japanese) short novel, published two years before the internationally-acclaimed Norwegian Wood . This lesser trumpeted book revolves around those two titular narratives: Hard Boiled Wonderland (‘hard boiled’ a nod to the work of Raymond Chandler) and The End of the World, and packing in every unconventional plot device from unicorns to dream-collectors, it's a thrillingly odd slice of philosophical lit.
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar - Edgar Allan Poe
In truth, a short story rather than a proper novel, but nonetheless a cruelly overlooked achievement. Reading like an actual scientific account, and concerning a hypnotist who puts a man in a trance at his very moment of death, the story was taken for fact by many members of the public after it was published in a monthly New York periodical in 1845, with Poe, only adding to his own infamy, opting not to brand it as fiction. This unlikely layout might even explain why the tale is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Poe’s other short stories, though if you are looking to gain an insight into the master of macabre, there are few better ways than this.
The Clergyman’s Daughter - George Orwell
While we’re often told that [insert genius here] is his or her worst critic, George Orwell - dismissing The Clergyman’s Daughter as “bollocks” and leaving instructions that he didn’t want it republished after his death - was far harsher upon himself than any critic could ever be. Wrongly, we should add, as this depression-era tale of a naïve house-worker who ends up on the streets after succumbing to an illness, stands as one of his most undervalued works. Admittedly, it misses Orwell's usual lucid prose, being more experimental in format, yet it still manages to get to the heart of underclass issues, asking the sort of questions that so strongly underpin the socialist's more lauded works.
From A Buick 8 - Stephen King
Stephen King writing another tale of a supernatural motor? Rehashing old ideas? Not at all - for our money, it tops Christine. Yes, part homage to H.P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond, and part influenced by the writer’s own near fatal motor experience in the summer of 1999, this tale, unlike Christine, is a slow burner, leaving you wondering as to what genre it actually fits into as King gradually introduces us to a murderous Roadmaster which entices a band of Pennsylvania State Patrolmen. By going easy on the gas, King builds a masterful, nerve-wrangling swell of suspense, making for a thrilling climax, which, in a lesser writer’s hands, would have been a dud.
A Gun For Hire - Graham Greene
Fun fact: one crucial event in A Gun For Hire, also known as A Gun For Sale, directly ties in with Brighton Rock, setting the events for Greene’s later, more distinguished hard-boiled offering. That aside, the two novels couldn’t be more different. While the latter dealt with domestic gangland issues, this one took aim at an international spy incident, introducing us to Raven, a high-level assassin whose murder of the Minister of War raises the possibility of war across Europe. Doused with pre-WW2 angst, it makes for a spellbinding read.
Cassada - James Salter
Eighty-eight-year-old Salter saw a resurgence in popularity last year with the release of his sixth novel All That Is. However, it’s his out-of-print 2000 novel Cassada (a re-penned version of his 1961 book Arm Of Flesh) – about a US Air Force pilot stationed in Germany in the Fifties and itching for conflict – that’s worth tracking down. Salter, a former pilot himself, writes with startling precision, and the ending is like a punch to the gut.
Young Hearts Crying - Richard Yates
Frankly, we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to Richard Yates. Sadly overlooked during his life, it was only years after his death that he was finally given the appreciation he truly deserved. While it doesn’t have the devastating emotional impact of Revolutionary Road, Young Hearts Crying makes an excellent companion piece, telling the story of a similarly hopeful couple who fall apart over the years. Wonderfully prescient in its depiction of hipster culture all the way through to its forward-thinking take on divorce, it’s still a horribly well-observed look at how difficult maintaining one’s own dreams can be when in the constraints of a couple. Bitter at times sure but realistic to the end.
(Images: Rex, Mike Corley)