Three Books I Fell in Love with in 2015
Note: I spent most of 2015 reading older, relatively obscure titles because those sorts of books were my crack this year. Books written before the rise of pop culture often hit the spot for me in a way other books don’t. So if you want a take on this year’s releases, consult any one of the several best of 2015 lists floating around in the blogosphere.
The books listed here aren’t books I merely enjoyed, or found mildly satisfying.These are books I absolutely fell in love with, that I can’t wait to re-read at some point. Books of such awesome dark beauty that I smile just thinking of them. (And, maybe, simultaneously cringe…but in a good way.) These are books that offer windows to places deep in the recesses of troubled brains.
So, with no further ado, on with the list.
#3. The Revelations of Dr. Modesto by Alan Harrington (1955)
My take on this book: it’s a dark comedy about psychological nihilism, teeming with astute madness.
Our protagonist, the insurance salesman Hal Hingham , is alienated and miserable. Employed, but so unsuccessful he’s only kept on because of nepotism. Dating a steady girlfriend, but only going through the motions and never even trying to make any physical advances. He’s even sexually harassed by his repulsive landlady.
Then one night he reads a magazine ad placed by the eponymous Dr. Modesto, offering the balm of “Centralism”–a self-help philosophy. Our hero comes to find that Centralism demands the complete erasure of one’s personality. ( Its first commandment: “Since your self grates on others, and makes you miserable, get rid of it.”)
Dr. Modesto encourages his reader to replace his or her personality with a pseudo-personality that constantly changes in response to its surroundings. The goal is to always be at the center of whatever crowd you’re surrounded by; to be utterly and completely average in each and every surrounding. If, in the morning, you’re surrounded by Republicans then you must try to be an average Republican (neither too harsh nor too soft). If, in the afternoon, you’re surrounded by Democrats then you must try to be an average Democrat (neither too strident nor too wishy-washy).
From that premise, dark hilarity ensues.
This is a short, episodic novel. Hingham isn’t a superbly-drawn character. But, in a way, he doesn’t have to be because the novel is driven by the idea that all people (even “successful” ones) are miserable in the same way that Hingham is. So the characterization lacking in the depiction of Hingham is compensated for by the description of all sorts of other souls living lives of quiet desperation.
When added together, all the characters in the book seem to create a composite characterization of humanity that is both pitiable and chilling. Although this is by no means a work of horror fiction, it has one of the most disturbing endings I’ve read in a while.
This book is out of print in the U.S. I found it at a Half-Price Books outlet center in Bloomington, Indiana.The copy I have is a late-’80s edition. I don’t believe the book has been released in a new edition since then, which is a real shame. So, to get it, you may need to check out Abebooks.com or the used booksellers on Amazon.
#2 The Maimed by Hermann Ungar (1923)
“…(a) horrible book, sexual hell, full of filth, crime and deepest melancholy…” — Thomas Mann on The Maimed
“This Hermann Ungar has a terrible preference for — what is the most simple way to say this — for bad taste, for the miasma of the soul, for stale, sweaty, dirty situations and his lack of sympathy for those with weak or sensitive nerves borders on the perverse.” — Gerhardt Pohl on The Maimed
I won’t write quite as much about this book, as I’ve spent a fair bit of time this year evangelizing on behalf of it . Ungar reminds me a bit of early Kafka, but with far more of a transgressive edge to him (leading me to dub him “The Dirty Kafka”).
Our protagonist Franz Polzer is somewhat similar to Hal Hingham: alienated, miserable, and professionally undistinguished. They even share the same dilemma of being sexually harassed by a repulsive landlady!
But, in contrast to Harrington’s sketchy characterization of Hingham, Ungar does give us a superb, unsparing, merciless characterization of Polzer. We get to know, in rich detail,the way his mind writhes with anxiety, trauma, and (ultimately understandable) preoccupations with degeneracy and debasement.
A small Czech publisher, Twisted Spoon Press, has published an English translation of this book (available in both print and ebook editions).
#1: The Seven Who Were Hanged by Leonid Andreyev (1908)
Seven criminals (some of them failed assassins, some just mundane murderers) face their imminent executions–each in their own unique way.
What is striking about Andreyev’s novella is his mastery of characterization. This is Dostoevsky-level characterization.
He plunges the reader deep, deep into the minds of each of the seven (and, remarkably, the assassins’ intended victim too). So what we have is in fact eight portraits of very unique personalities and belief systems encountering death.
To pull off this sort of characterization with even one character surpasses the ability of most writers. To do it equally well with eight characters almost seems like showing off.
I read this translation (available for free). There are others available, as well.
Andreyev is one of those authors whose obscurity is a crime. So I do what I can to let people know about him. (Honestly, though, that could be said of all three of these authors. I urge you to read these books and, if you dig them, spread the word. They’re too damned good to be forgotten.)