According to the poet Ezra Pound, literature is the news that stays news. This spring and summer have seen that old saw cut deep. First Penguin Classics found that the paperback edition of Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada not only flew off the shelves but inspired TV discussions on the moral challenge of resistance to the Nazis. Here was a German novel of 1947 that (in a riveting new translation by Michael Hofmann) proved able to press the hottest buttons.
Then Arrow re-released To Kill a Mockingbird to mark a half-century since its original publication in 1960. For the past month, Harper Lee's 1930s Alabama saga of small-town racism and the righteous man who stands tall against it has occupied high places in the charts. In fact, Lee's only novel has just achieved a level of UK sales success that it never approached the first time around.
Both books may be special cases – and both hint at a widespread hunger for intelligent fiction that asks its readers to imagine the costs, and the risks, of personal courage and ethical responsibility. But their capacity to outperform new novels that arrive quivering with hype tells a wider story about one of the more cheering trends in publishing now.
Classic fiction, especially of the 20th century, has never done brisker business. Penguin, for so long the market leader in the rebranding of fine old books as smart fresh reads, constantly re-invents its august backlists. Most recently, the "Penguin Decades" have repackaged postwar landmark novels – by Kingsley Amis or Margaret Drabble, David Lodge or Susan Hill – with a look that fits each book to the temper of its times. Beyond the Anglosphere, Penguin's Central European Classics list takes its readers on a journey through the region's modern history and culture in the company of its defining voices, such as EM Cioran, Karel Capek and Czeslaw Milosz. Outside the Penguin empire, Vintage Classics has found new ways to re-display the treasures deep in the cellars of assorted Random House backlists.
The Oxford World's Classics stable also benefits from periodic makeovers, last year scoring a coup with its outstanding new translations of Kafka. Perhaps most encouraging, however, has been the mini-boom in independent classics imprints.
Pushkin Press has won admirers with elegantly crafted editions of European writers, recruiting a new British readership for the work of Stefan Zweig. Oneworld Classics, an offshoot of the enterprising Alma Books, has extended its 20th-century range thanks to the acquisition of John Calder's classics list, with its avant-garde giants such as Duras, Robbe-Grillet and Pirandello. Relative newcomer Capuchin Classics has a quirkily intriguing catalogue of modern gems, from Norman Douglas in the 1920s to Michael Bracewell in the 1990s. London Books, a specialist in the capital's radical fiction, has re-issued John Sommerfield's metropolitan panorama of the 1930s, May Day. And Persephone Books still delights a faithful readership with rediscovered work by mid-century women writers, from Winifred Holtby to Irène Némirovsky.
Such outfits know that they can spread the word over fertile ground. Wary of corporate spin, today's book clubs, bloggers and stubbornly independent readers love to come across an unearthed jewel from the past rather than submit meekly to the Next Big Thing. More power to the awkward squad's collective elbow.
To celebrate the second lives of titles from the past, we asked writers to nominate a work from the first six decades of this century (1900-1960) that they would like to see in the bestseller limelight again. Here are their selections: some still on active service, some merely sleeping, a few quite lost from view. So enjoy a summer of the old and gold.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
She was the most prolific African-American novelist from the 1920s to the 1950s. Born in the Deep South, she worked as a maid and took evening classes for ten years in order to get to university. In her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Janie Woods marries twice before finding love with an itinerant labourer, Tea Cake. Beautifully imagistic and drenched in Southern vernacular, it is about an independent woman ahead of her time who, like the author herself, forges her own path.
The Masters by CP Snow
The Masters holds up so well. I wish it could find a new readership. No one else ever quite got the male worlds of colleges, work, money-making and politics. Snow would have found Mandelson P a wonderful model for some character.
The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor by Cameron McCabe
In 2001, Harvill Press launched the London Fiction Series to bring lost masterpieces back into print. Four titles appeared before Harvill was swallowed up by Random House. The next tranche would have included the 1937 novel The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor. This excellent avant-garde crime novel is narrated by film editor Cameron McCabe, also credited as the book's author. McCabe, whose real name was Ernst Julius Bornemann, left Germany for Britain in the 1930s. He wrote in English, his style varying between stripped-down and lyrical.
From The City, From The Plough by Alexander Baron
An autobiographically-based, soldier's-eye view of the Normandy landings, this is an unforgettably powerful and profoundly compassionate account of the horror of the war, and the ordinary heroism of the men who fought it. From The City, From The Plough (Black Spring Press) was a huge popular success in 1949 but was later forgotten, perhaps because its author, an East End Jew and sometime communist, never had much to do with the literary establishment. Baron went on to write a string of fine London novels, but this is the place to start.
The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones by Charles Neider
You've probably never heard of The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones (1956; University of Nevada Press), or its author either. But I suspect you're more familiar with both than you know. Especially if you've seen Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks, which is Neider's novel renamed. Among the scriptwriters Brando employed was Sam Peckinpah, who picked Neider's brains, knowing that Hendry Jones was Billy the Kid in mufti. His version of Billy's brief life is hailed as his masterpiece. But Neider's book is better, better than any other book on the subject of men, horses and death, expect Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry. Not a far-fetched comparison when you consider that Neider - though American-raised - was Odessa-born.
Collected Stories by Isaac Babel
As a young journalist in his native Odessa, Isaac Babel was told by an editor that he "must know everything", and knowing everything might be his credo as an artist. My copy of his Collected Stories came out in 1957, which is when I bought it. I have lived with it ever since. Babel was a Jew who fought in the Cossack army, a fact that should alert anyone to the ironies and contradictions of his short life. He writes simply, but he is not a simple writer. Like his hero Maupassant, he captures life's messiness in a few telling sentences. I love his craftiness, his wiliness, his moments of purest farce and tragedy.
Now In November by Josephine Johnson
Now in November, the story of a dirt-poor farming family in the Midwest during the Great Depression, is a forgotten classic. Beautifully written, full of subtle characterisations, this remarkably mature novel (Johnson was 24 when she wrote it) deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize in 1935. Exploring the complex emotional interplay between the three Haldmarne sisters and their parents against a gloriously evoked backdrop of changing seasons and growing poverty, it brilliantly captures adolescent intensity and the uncertainty of "a world all wrong".
Selected Stories by Lu Xun
I was 31 when I discovered, on a public library shelf, Lu Xun's Selected Stories, beautifully translated by Gladys and Xianyi Yang. Clear, beautifully structured, unpretentiously poetic, these stories include intimate portraits of abandoned widows and disillusioned intellectuals, visits to the village opera or a childhood home, and a stark and moving account of lost love. Lu's complete fiction is now a Penguin Classic, The Real Story of Ah Q and Other Tales of China.
Party Going by Henry Green
What is it about Henry Green? Highly regarded in his lifetime, he was forgotten in the country he lived in and wrote about, England, and outside. Nothing – not John Updike's championing, or James Wood's – has helped. I first read Green's Party Going – an account of a single night spent in a hotel after all trains have been cancelled due to fog – in an omnibus edition with an introduction by Updike. I was struck by Party Going's strange title, idiosyncratic syntax, radical originality, and its rapturous – and subversive – attention to beauty. He is the great English novelist after Lawrence.
Harmonium by Wallace Stevens
Any good novel has a fighting chance of being rescued from obscurity by a film project or a cult revival. Things are more grim for poets, even the great ones. Some of the pieces in Wallace Stevens's 1923 collection, Harmonium, are well known -"The Emperor of Ice Cream," "Peter Quince at the Clavier" - but the book deserves to be read as a whole. Fifteen years ago, I found one of its poems, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," pasted on the wall of a New York train, and it reawoke my interest in poetry.
Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim
Von Arnim is generally remembered, if at all, for her sentimental Elizabeth and her German Garden. But Vera (1921) is her masterpiece. A black and caustic comedy, it unforgettably anatomises and subverts the clichés of married love. At its centre stands the possessive, infantile and murderous Everard Wemyss, controlling his young wife Lucy. Laugh-aloud funny, Vera keeps its reader aghast and fearfully enthralled: "You can talk about everything to your Everard... He is you."
Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
I meant to go for neglected masterworks by women. But did I really want to opt for Jean Rhys's smoke-blue, boozy elegies to victimhood? Stevie Smith's Novel on Yellow Paper suddenly seemed arch. Maybe Christina Stead's searing The Man Who Loved Children? Or that brilliant portrait of political corruption, Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men? I opted, finally, for the shorter of Nabokov's two great defences of the free individual against the state, Invitation to a Beheading (1935), older sibling of Bend Sinister (1947). Beautiful and weightless as a dream, it speaks up for pity and courage.
The Rector's Daughter by FM Mayor
My great lost book is FM Mayor's The Rector's Daughter, first published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press in 1924, and one of those dazzling unrequited love-stories that exist largely in the subjunctive. In a novel of white-hot passion, the buttoned-up spinster Mary Jocelyn and her married admirer exchange only a single, illicit kiss: everything else is communicated by the fleeting glimpse and the pregnant silence. He goes back to his wife, and she dies of influenza, leaving only a relationship that might have been, set down with extraordinary delicacy and tact.
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