Some Almost Forgotten 1920s Novels that are Exceptionally Good

Here are some wonderful novels from the 1920s that are hardly remembered.

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)   Nella Larsen, both Danish and black, was born and raised in obscurity, showed up at the New York Harlem Renaissance, wrote the two incredible short novels ‘Quicksand’ and ‘Passing’, and then returned to obscurity as a nurse.  This novel is the story of two light-skinned  women and the confusion of being between two worlds.  Here is a quote from Nella Larsen:

    If sex isn’t a joke, what is?

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Read about the valuable, moving, and successful effort by Light-Skinned-ed Girl to provide a suitable gravestone for Nella Larsen.

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The Desert of Love by Francois Mauriac (1925)  –  This is one of Mauriac’s unregenerate novels before his conversion to Christianity.  It is about a love triangle between a woman, her doctor, and the doctor’s son.  This is a wicked good book, a sexy French novel.  I’ve read most of Mauriac’s unregenerate novels.  Here is a quote from Mauriac:

    I believe that only poetry counts, and that only through the poetical elements enclosed in a work of art of any genre does that work last.  A great novelist is first of all a great poet.

I agree, because it is easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a  needle than for a writer who writes clumsy sentences to become a great novelist.

Dusty Answer by Rosamond Lehmann (1927) – There are several novels mentioned in ‘When Things of the Spirit Come First’ by Simone de Beauvoir, but only one novel is mentioned twice.  That novel is ‘Dusty Answer’, Rosamond Lehmann’s first novel which was both a critical and popular success.  Rosamond Lehmann was a beautiful woman who kept making the wrong choices in men over and over and over.  Before I knew hardly anything about Rosamond Lehmann, I read all her work, so I can attest that her novels ‘Dusty Answer’, ‘Invitation to the Waltz’, and ‘The Ballad and the Source’ are superb.  I think England should put up a monument which says, “England is the home of Rosamond Lehmann, world-class novelist – we have lots of writers who claim to be world-class novelists, but Rosamond Lehmann is the real thing.”

Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett (1923)  Arnold Bennett was a professional writer who now doesn’t get the recognition he deserves.  ‘Riceyman Steps’ takes place in a second-hand bookstore.  I will leave it to Margaret Drabble who says of Arnold Bennett :

    Bennett’s books I think are very fine indeed, on the highest level, deeply moving, original and dealing with material that I had never before encountered in fiction, but only in life: I feel they have been underrated, and my response to them is so constant, even after years of work on them and constant re-readings, that I want to communicate enthusiasm.’

I agree, I’ve read several of Bennett’s novels including ‘The Card’, ‘Anna of the Five Towns’, and ‘The Old Wives Tale’, and haven’t been disappointed yet.   Riceyman Steps is one of his best.

‘Grand Hotel’ by Vicki Baum (1929) – This is the great hotel novel about the people staying in a nice hotel in Austria.  This is a simple idea for a novel, but a fine idea.  Somebody should try it now.  Of course, the movie of this novel with Greta Garbo is wonderful, but I read the novel first which is exceptionally fine.  Vicki Baum wrote over 50 novels and left us some great quotes:

    Marriage always demands the greatest understanding of the art of insincerity possible between two human beings.
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    Fame always brings loneliness. Success is as ice cold and lonely as the North Pole.
    There are shortcuts to happiness and dancing is one of them.

 

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9 responses to this post.

  1. Great post Tony … I would love to read the Lehmann. Haven’t heard of it. And I’ve been thinking for a long time that I’d like to read some Bennett again. He’s one of those quite forgotten authors isn’t he? Out of fashion? I haven’t read Riceyman’s Steps so I might look it out – sometime!

    In Australia – not quite forgotten, but not remembered often enough, is Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo (1929).

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  2. Hi Whisperinggums,
    There was a big Virago revival of Rosamond Lehmann in the Eighties, but I still don’t think it went far enough. Some of the problem might be that although she lived to 1990, she only wrote one novel after 1953. Also there are so many English woman novelists in the ’40s and ’50s who haven’t gotten the recognition they deserve, many get lost in the crowd.
    I was thinking of putting in ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’ , but apparently that book is getting the recognition it deserves as it finished so high in the Australian poll. Besides I have a whole entry on Henry Handel Richardson that I’m saving for later.
    Katherine Susannah Pritchard, an author I haven’t heard of.

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    • Coonardoo shared a prize with The house is built by M. Barnard Eldershaw (a literary collaboration of Marjorie Barnard – remember her! – and Flora Eldershaw). Anyhow, Coonardoo is memorable for dealing, rather early, with relationships between white men and black women. Prichard was highly political, and a one-time member of the Communist Party here.

      And back on the 1920s. I guess you are familiar with Elizabeth von Arnim? I wonder if she has risen well enough out of the “amost forgotten” ranks?

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      • Hi Whisperinggums,
        I’m afraid that Elizabeth vom Arnim has not risen for me out of the ;’forgotten’ ranks as I haven’t heard of her before. What did she write and where is she from?

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        • If you don’t know her I think you’re in for a treat if I read you correctly. She was actually born in Australia but lived all her adult life in Europe. Her most famous book (these days) iss one written in the 1920s – Enchanted April. It was made into a film a decade ago?? She wrote quite a bit of fiction. I really enjoyed Mr Skeffington – a woman of a certain age who decides to go back and find her previous beaus/lovers to find out what went wrong. (It too was made into a film, back in the 1940s but I haven’t seen it). Her other most famous work – and the first one I read back in the 1980s – is the semi-autobiographical “novel”, Elizabeth and her German garden. She is witty and quite black. I’ve read about 5 of her books, and have another, Vera, in my TBR now.

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  3. You’re the only person I’ve ever heard of besides me who has read Riceman’s Steps. I was thinking about writing a post about bookstores in literature but I never got around to it.

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    • I would be interested reading a post on bookstores in literature. I’m sure there are a lot of them, but can’t think of them at the moment.
      I was lucky to discover in the late Seventies a book called “Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature” by Martin Seymour Smith. This book is an excellent guide to the literature from 1900 to 1970. The book is still very useful to me. If you ever get a chance to pick up this book, go for it. That is where I first learned of Arnold Bennett, Francois Mauriac, and Rosamond Lehmann who all became favorites of mine. Smith is very praiseful of Bennett and says that “Riceyman Steps” is Bennett’s best book, so I read it. You and I may be the only people in the United States who have read “Riceyman Steps”!

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