Millions Quiz: Out of Print Gems

November 11, 2009 | 8 books mentioned 27 3 min read

So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.

Today’s Question: In honor of the 10th anniversary of NYRB Classics: What out-of-print book would you like to see become an NYRB Classic?

covercoverEmily: With presses like Dover, Everyman, the Library of America, Broadview, NYRB, and the Persephone Press (not to mention Oxford and Penguin classics series) doing excellent rediscovery and reprinting work of all kinds, I don’t often find myself longing for a new edition. The one great—nay, I would go so far as to say glaring—exception is the work of Ogden Nash, perhaps best know for epigrams like “Candy/Is dandy/But liquor/Is quicker” and “The Cow”: “The cow is of the bovine ilk;/One end is moo, the other, milk.” Yes, there is a “best of” anthology arranged by Nash’s daughters and printed by Ivan R. Dee, and, yes, he’s in Library of America’s American Wits: An Anthology of Light Verse, but what I long for is a chronological, scholarly “complete works” volume: I want America’s great comic poet to be taken seriously.

Those who’ve only encountered “Custard the Dragon” or Nash’s epigrams (my favorite, which he composed with Dorothy Parker: “Hoggamus higgamus,/ Man is polygamous,/ Higgamus hoggamus,/ Women monogamus”), might question whether Nash is a serious artist deserving of such attention, but if you’ve read poems like “Don’t Look Now, But Your Noblesse Oblige Is Showing,” “Curl Up And Diet,” “Don’t Wait, Hit Me Now!”, or “Bankers Are Just Like Anybody Else, Except Richer”, you know that Nash is a keen social observer with a satirical edge (an edge sharpened by the Great Depression), and an approachable, conversational stylist reminiscent of Frank O’Hara (think “Ave Maria”). Nash’s conversational style sometimes obscures his sparkling wordplay (Cole Porter-ish), his deft, innovative use of meter, and his subtle allusiveness, but look again at poems like “Pastoral” or “Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man” or “Columbus.”

covercoverGarth: This year, a panel at the PEN World Voices festival prompted me to explore the work of an author who was barely on my radar: Andrey Platonov. I devoured The Foundation Pit in one gulp, on a plane, intoxicated by the discovery of a sensibility as potent, distinctive, and hard to describe as Kafka’s. I’ve since moved on to the stories in Soul, in an impressive translation by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson. A certain novelist friend of mine, who’s also a reputable critic, assured me that Platonov’s other major novel Chevengur, is even better than The Foundation Pit, and that a Chandler translation already exists…in the U.K. Apparently, the unreconstructed character of Platonov’s socialism makes Chevengur a tough sell for U.S. audiences. His response to Stalinism was not to abandon utopia, but to turn it into an organizing principle for his art. Still, this is one of the major stylists of his age. We deserve to have his work in print domestically, no matter how undomesticated it may be.

coverMax: I was introduced to Vasily Aksyonov via his epic Generations of Winter. Here is the twentieth-century Russian analog of the multi-generational epic, tracking the Gradov family through the tragic and tumultuous decades spanning 1925 to 1945. It is a historical period deserving of the weightiness of the once exiled Aksyonov’s novel, and yet the book is not widely known or read. But at least it is still in print. The rest of Aksyonov’s books are unavailable in the U.S.

While Generations of Winter was published after the fall of the Soviet Union (it became a mini-series on Russian television), his dissident novels, originally banned from the Soviet Union, may be more important. The New York Times this year called The Burn and The Island of Crimea “increasingly phantasmagoric and outspoken in their dissidence.” The Burn, the Times said “is a surreal, jazz-inspired riff on the plight of intellectuals under Communism, and Island of Crimea imagines what life would have been like on the Black Sea peninsula if the White Army had staved off the Bolsheviks there during the Russian Civil War and their descendants had flourished.” See also: Vasily Aksyonov, Giant of Russian Literature, Dies at 76; Sonya’s recent championing of another hard-to-find contemporary Russian author.

Let us know what out-of-print books you’d like to see returned to print.

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  1. I would love for them to publish some Marcel Ayme–his work is all but unavailable in English, and I’ve wanted to read some since falling in love with the musical version of his short story Le Passe-Muraille.

  2. Susan – It’s great to see a comment from someone herself responsible for getting some great stuff into print. (Run out and read Robert Walser, everybody.) I second your appeal for the Uwe Johnson. I read about it at The Complete Review, and am kind of dying to read it. Also, what about Heimito von Doderer’s The Demons? A Nazi, I know, but NYRB’s already done Ernst Junger, so why not? (Or is it already in print…with some of these things, it’s so hard to tell.)

  3. P.S.: Speaking of twentieth-century multiple generation Russian epics…Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows is due out from NYRB Classics in December…and is considerably shorter than the great Life & Fate, for those on the go.

  4. The Colour of Blood by Brian Moore. So many of Moore’s titles deserve to be brought back into print, but this one is my favorite. It works as a thriller; it works as an exploration of faith under duress; it works as a character study. Really, any way one looks at it, it works.

    Neither the Sea Nor the Sand by Gordon Honeycombe. A haunting gothic romance. And zombies are all the rage these days. Cash in, NYRB Classics. Cash in!

    Either The Burning Court or The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr. I believe there are a handful of Carr titles still in print, but I’m pretty sure neither of these are.

  5. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, the great Brazilian novel by João Guimarães Rosa, is long out of print. This book is a watershed of language and longing. It deserves to be rescued from the cult to brave the flow of the mainstream.

    A new translation, by Gregory Rabassa, was supposed to be in the works(?). But a republication of the old translation will be welcome rain.

  6. Dear Shryh,

    I’m also an admirer of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. When you mentioned her other work, I hoped perhaps the Persephone Press, a London boutique publisher that puts out gorgeous editions of lesser known books by and about women (with a particular focus on C20th British women’s experiences) might have reprinted some of S’s other titles titles. I checked and sadly, no luck there, but Persephone does have quite a bit in the DS ilk–if not the thing itself,


  7. The Very Model of a Man by Howard Jacobson. He’s widely acknowledged as a great novelist (in the UK, if not the US), and this is his most ambitious – and I think best – novel. But it went very quickly out of print. Where is the justice?

  8. I seconded “The Devil to Pay in the Backlands.” This book GENUINELY deserves a place in being published, specifically by NYBR, a place I know will do it justice. NYBR is renowned for publishing foreign, “lost” classics, and this is the one that everyone has missed. If they do this one, they will be doing all of the American speaking world a favor.

  9. Vasily Grossman’s Everything Flows is due out from NYRB Classics in December…and is considerably shorter than the great Life & Fate, for those on the go.

    I just read it; you can read my brief review at the Library Thing page for the book. Even briefer summary: it’s powerful and well worth reading, but not really a novel.

    My own nominations: Jim Quinn’s American Tongue and Cheek (a superb work of populist linguistics), the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names, and The Penguin Book of [language name] Verse (I have Greek, Russian, German, Latin, Italian, and French; they’re well-chosen bilingual editions that no adventuresome poetry-lover should be without).

  10. Pretty sure ‘I Capture the Castle’ is still available as a Vintage classic (in the UK), so surely you can get it in the US?

    My vote for the novel that most deserves to come back into print is ‘Children of the Arbat’ by Anatoly Rybakov. It is outrageous that it is not currently available, though I believe Random House still holds UK rights.

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