19th through mid-20th century book recs needed, some restrictions apply
December 8, 2018 10:36 AM   Subscribe

I am creating a book group in which our tastes after about 1940 do not overlap. I'm looking for novels from about 1800 to 1940, available in English (translations are more than welcome; if there are several translations, do you recommend one?), but not the really famous ones. See inside.

We would like to read books that none of us have read before. Because of a cross-generational literature major problem, this rules out many of the "classic" novels that are well-known to Americans - all of Dickens, all of the Brontes, all of Austen, all of Tolstoy, all of Dostoevsky, all of the Brothers Karamozov and most of the "if you read one read this" novels by, eg, Stendahl, George Sand, Turganev, Woolf, Smollett, Faulkner,Thackeray, Melville, Neale Hurston and figures of similar fame. We are hotly divided over the interestingness of Proust and have agreed to forgo him; we in general do not care for Zola or Balzac. I loathe Hemingway. We do not feel up to Thomas Hardy until at least after the next election.

Also, for Reasons, we would like to avoid purely tragic novels. They don't need to be Dickensian in their happy endings, but not so much of the people getting ground down by poverty and death. We're not looking for pure memoir, either; the books need to be fiction.

Anyway, recommend me your recommendations!
posted by Frowner to Media & Arts (46 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Is EM Forster is out?
posted by Winnie the Proust at 10:47 AM on December 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

In the more genre/mystery way, I recently read Armadale by Wilkie Collins and enjoyed it a lot - the female antagonist gets a lot of fascinating POV, one of the main characters is POC, and the whole psychology of the mystery and all the secrets are fascinating. Definitely a gothic mystery / gothic romance.

More of this year's reading list: Lud-in-the-Mist is a very good fantasy novel. ER Eddison's The Worm Ourobos is also fantasy, and very stylised - I personally enjoyed it, might not be your cup of tea if you don't like sagas.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 10:49 AM on December 8, 2018

Have you gotten as far down Maugham as The Razor's Edge? I don't think it's anyone's top choice of his, but it's really very good and has a happy ending that's also sort of an interesting comment on the idea of happy endings.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:53 AM on December 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Anthony Trollope's The Warden is great. It might be too famous though.
posted by middlethird at 10:55 AM on December 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Henry James wrote a lot of novels. I'm going to assume that the "read one, read this" from him would be Portrait of a Lady; the most accessible (truly, it does not present the same challenges to the reader as you may have heard as some of the others of this period) of his later works is The Ambassadors. I think this would actually be a great book to read in an intergenerational group, as it has a lot to do with relations between the old(er) and young.

Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, despite the title, is not memoir. A haunting lead-up-to-WWI novel.

Joseph Roth's The Radetzky March is a towering classic and will give a glimpse into a world that will probably be delightfully foreign for most of your readers. Roth has made a (deserved) comeback lately; when I was in school, he was for German-major specialists only, so he may have escaped English-major attention.

I don't know if Thomas Mann is even on the "read one, read this" list. If not, go straight to The Magic Mountain. If he is, Doktor Faustus, about a composer who sells his soul to the Devil (?) in order to invent the 12-note system, is pretty amazing, but get a modern translation, as older English translations make the old-fashioned German of the original now doubly old-fashioned.

Alfred Doblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz is technically stunning, but very long and definitely edging near the unbearably grim. (For a modernist novel in English, I haven't read it yet, but why not Manhattan Transfer?)

Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi I read many years ago and remember as delightfully melodramatic. Considered one of the foundations of modern Italian national identity.
posted by praemunire at 10:57 AM on December 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Also, I've never read The Good Soldier Svejk, but it's been on my list for a while.
posted by praemunire at 11:09 AM on December 8, 2018

(Um..looking at this question I see that I jumbled it up - I started out with a list of novels and then changed it over to a list of authors. Only The Brothers Karamozov survived the first list, giving rise to the unsettling idea of a universe where Mitya, Vanya, Aloysha and Pavel are novelists - sort of the Bronte sisters of 19th century Russia. If they were, we would none the less leave their novels out because they would be far, far too depressing for this book group.)
posted by Frowner at 11:13 AM on December 8, 2018 [5 favorites]

Edward Bulwer-Lytton's (yes THAT Bulwer-Lytton) The Caxtons: A Family Picture (1849) is one of the most hilarious books I have ever read. No living person I have ever met has read this book. Bulwer-Lytton is mocked for his outrageous run on sentences, but he really is a delightful writer!
posted by a humble nudibranch at 11:17 AM on December 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm going to suggest some American authors from 1880-1920 or so.

Will Cather - My Antonia
William Dean Howells - A Modern Instance or The Rise and Fall of Silas Lanpham
Nathaniel Hawthorne - anything but The Scarlett Letter.
Frank Norris - The Octopus
posted by Arctostaphylos at 11:21 AM on December 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Maias by José María Eça de Queirós is a sprawling, leisurely-paced 700 page novel about the romantic entanglements of wealthy, mildly bohemian types in Portugal in the 1880s.

The other thing that sprang to mind was The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, which I find falls outside your time period — it was published in 1959 — but is a fairly old fashioned novel, in a good way.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 11:22 AM on December 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you are interested in a weird, melodramatic, and astonishingly queer romp (why wouldn't you be?), Lady Audley's Secret should definitely make your list. In the same vein, Woolf is canonical as all get-out, but no one ever reads Orlando (except my students!), and everyone should.
posted by dizziest at 11:23 AM on December 8, 2018 [8 favorites]

Would Japanese novels around the Meiji and Taisho era work? In that case you'd be looking at:

Natsume Soseki's famous novels like Botchan, Sanshiro, or I am a Cat

Tanizaki Junichiro - Naomi, Some prefer nettles, and The Makioka Sisters

Ogai Mori - Vita Sexualis (er... make sure everyone is OK with this one), The Wild Geese

Kawabata Yasunari - The Dancing Girl of Izu (wonderful)

The Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories is a good place to start although some of the short stories are after your range. Couldn't tell you if a lot of them are tragic - Botchan is not, nor is Vita Sexualis or the Dancing Girl of Izu.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 11:26 AM on December 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh! A work that may not be at the exact same level of literary merit as the others I've listed but which is at least slightly lighter fare (still plenty of sadness, but more towards melancholic than utterly tragic) is Vicki Baum's Grand Hotel. This is the novel that was adapted into the film in which Greta Garbo declaims, "I want to be alone."
posted by praemunire at 11:27 AM on December 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I recently read Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker and really enjoyed it. I knew nothing about the author or the book, just randomly found it at a book sale and thought it looked interesting. It was published in 1944, maybe close enough to your cutoff to be all right. Walker has some other books published before 1940. It reminded me of Willa Cather's books. (You didn't mention Cather. She wrote a lot of books so it seems likely you could find one no one has read. I liked The Professor's House.)

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett might be too well-known for you, but I'll mention it anyway.
posted by Redstart at 11:29 AM on December 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Also, Jane Bowles's Two Serious Ladies was published in 1943, but is worth stretching your limits a bit if you haven't read it. It might also be interesting to dig into early Harlem Renaissance stuff? Richard Bruce Nugent's Gentleman Jigger was written in the late 1920/early 1930s, though not published until later, and Jessie Redmon Fauset's novels all fit into your time period.
posted by dizziest at 11:33 AM on December 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Sarah Grand's The Beth Book is one of my favorite overlooked novels. It's a female bildunsgroman and the heroine is delightful. It's not as grim Grand's other famous work, The Heavenly Twins. That one is about syphilis and Victorian hypocrisy, but also worth a read.

Seconding Lady Audley's Secret or really any Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Also East Lynne by Ellen Wood.

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes is gorgeously written and has queer themes.
posted by incountrysleep at 11:35 AM on December 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Also (sorry, I can't stop), Summer Will Show or Lolly Willowes, or really anything by Sylvia Townsend Warner.
posted by dizziest at 11:37 AM on December 8, 2018 [4 favorites]

H.G. Wells? Jules Verne? Mary Shelly?
posted by nickggully at 11:43 AM on December 8, 2018

Might not be considered “literary enough” for your group, but Margery Sharp’s novels are clever, and some (including pre-1940 titles) are back in print.
posted by elphaba at 11:45 AM on December 8, 2018

I'd like to recommend Dorothy L. Sayers' crime novels about Lord Peter Wimsey. These are essentially novels of manners, with clear delineations of the British class system, the consequences of war (esp. WW I), various philosophies, and the pangs of love. Beautifully written, erudite, witty: they repay reading and re-reading.
posted by MovableBookLady at 11:55 AM on December 8, 2018 [7 favorites]

On the less-well-known-novels-by-famous-novelists front, I enjoyed some of Aldous Huxley’s early novels (though it’s a long time since I read them). Crome Yellow, Antic Hay and Point Counter Point are all satires of literary London; the first two are shorter, lighter and frothier, while PCP is a bit more serious, though still satirical.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 12:10 PM on December 8, 2018

Melville's Typee
Perhaps some Ford Madox Ford (though maybe too much of a downer?)
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper's Iola Leory
James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man
Dreiser's Sister Carrie
Pauline Hopkins's Of One Blood
posted by TwoStride at 12:29 PM on December 8, 2018

Your book club seems to suffer from an abject lack of Dorothy L. Sayers. Read Gaudy Night. It is just a magnificent novel; the mystery aspect is tertiary.

Have you read Virginia Wolfe, particularly Mrs. Dalloway; or Zora Neale Hurston, particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God? (Any of the lesser-known novels might be less likely to have been previously read, of course.)

Winifred Holtby's South Riding is a timely novel well worth reading.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:34 PM on December 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

I recently read Crotchet Castle, Headlong Hall, and Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock and found them quite funny. They're short, too.
posted by Hypatia at 12:37 PM on December 8, 2018

Thirding Gaudy Night - I maintain that it is the great forgotten feminist novel of the twentieth century. (You do need to know the conditions of Harriet and Peter's meeting to fully grasp the storyline, but reading a wikipedia will get you through. Gaudy Night is Sayers' best book, by far.

Also, I just read Independent People, by Halldór Laxness, and it was breathtaking. I don't know if it's the most cheerful novel I've ever read, but it's surprisingly un-grinding, and I really cannot express how wonderful it is. It's set in rural turn-of-the-century Iceland, and has a lot to say about people and how they work.
posted by kalimac at 1:08 PM on December 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier is, as TwoStride says, a downer, and yet it's a fun downer (if there is such a thing). One of the most unreliable narrators ever.

Seconding Sylvia Townsend Warner.

If Anthony Trollope is too well known, you can take a stab at Margaret Oliphant's Chronicles of Carlingford series (starts off with two short stories, then enters novel territory with The Doctor's Family).

James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is off the beaten path and definitely unusual, but may be too dark for what you want.

May Sinclair's Mary Olivier: A Life.

Olive Schreiner's The Story of an African Farm.
posted by thomas j wise at 1:51 PM on December 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Oh, man, I was thinking about recommending Laxness, glanced at my edition, saw "1955," went "??? that is later than I thought," but shrugged. But I guess I misread--1955 is the year he got the Nobel, not the year Independent People was published.

Thing is, though, it is great, but I would call it fairly grinding. The characters suffer from brutal poverty and there are lot of resulting psychological distortions. I would've put it in the "great, and not total misery from beginning to end, but might be too grim to fit your requirements" pile with Berlin Alexanderplatz.
posted by praemunire at 2:00 PM on December 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

I read Charles W. Chesnutt for the first time this year and have become mildly obsessed. The Marrow of Tradition (1901) was my favorite, and I still can't get over what an interesting novel it is and how well it holds up among even today's top-tier realist novels about American racism. I don't think it was purely tragic, but given its subject matter, it's still permeated with ongoing tragedy. (The House Behind the Cedars was all right, though I'd definitely consider it All The Tragic.)
posted by mixedmetaphors at 2:22 PM on December 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White is a great read. Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda (so much fun). Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat will make you laugh out loud. It's a little outside your time period, but I think you might also enjoy Barbara Pym--Some Tame Gazelle and Excellent Women are both wonderful.
posted by zoetrope at 3:05 PM on December 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

Plum Bun: A Novel Without A Moral by Jessie Fauset.

Anything by Fauset in general, in fact. From Wikipedia: “Jessie Redmon Fauset (April 27, 1882 – April 30, 1961) was an African-American editor, poet, essayist, novelist, and educator. Her literary work helped sculpt African-American literature in the 1920s as she focused on portraying a true image of African-American life and history.[1] Her black fictional characters were working professionals which was an inconceivable concept to American society during this time.”

For something completely different, I have a huge sweet tooth for the romances of Mary Jane Holmes.
posted by frumiousb at 3:15 PM on December 8, 2018

My coworkers (librarians) had a field day with this question.

I mostly have author suggestions: Elizabeth Gaskell, Charlotte Riddell, Mary Braddon, and Clarice Lispector (translated from the Portuguese) are the standouts.

I say you should read The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery.
posted by gideonfrog at 4:10 PM on December 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, is a historical trilogy set in medieval Norway. Pretty grim, pretty religious, powerfully written.
posted by MovableBookLady at 4:29 PM on December 8, 2018 [6 favorites]

Samuel Butler would be an interesting choice. The Way of All Flesh is almost outlandishly tragic in parts but it’s also very funny. Erewhon is a delight.

I think Henry Green is best known for Loving and Living but I just finished Back and was really taken with it.

I also recently read Dangerous Liaisons for the first time and was left wondering what took me so long. I read the New York Public Library illustrated edition.

Everyone should read Flann O’Brien all the time.
posted by otio at 4:37 PM on December 8, 2018

H Rider Haggard wrote adventure novels in the 19th Century. Definitely of their time and place (consider that a warning) but kind of interesting to see where a lot of Hollywood adventure tropes come from. She, King Solomon's Mines, and Allan Quatermain are probably the best.

The Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood is a combination of 2 novellas first published separately in the 1930s, so I think it meets your cutoff date even though the combo came out in 1945. Not really tragic, but considering they're set during Hitler's rise to power there's a lot of darkness there.
posted by Quietgal at 5:01 PM on December 8, 2018

Enthusiastically seconding Elizabeth Gaskell and Barbara Pym; I would also suggest Dawn Powell.
posted by littlecatfeet at 5:38 PM on December 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Passing by Nella Larsen
posted by Crystal Fox at 6:08 PM on December 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

"I say you should read The Blue Castle by LM Montgomery."

YASSSSSS. Also yes to Gaskell. And quadruple yes to Passing by Nella Larsen which is not a scary book but was nonetheless one of the most freaking terrifying things I've ever read! I felt like it really gave me a window into the utter terror of being a black person passing for white during the Jim Crow era. (Plus it's a lovely novel on its literary merits, totally outside of making me feel heart-pounding terror.)

What about Booth Tarkington, an Indiana-based author who's one of only three novelists to win the Pulitzer twice (alongside Faulkner and Updike), but who isn't much read these days? Many of his books are available free because they're out of copyright. I've enjoyed reading his novels very much!

The Studs Lonigan trilogy is another classic midwestern prewar piece and is well-regarded by American lit specialists. My grandfather was assigned it in high school (when it was pretty hot off the presses) and remembered it as the first book he ever read that was about "boys like him" (i.e., poor ethnic Catholics in Chicago) and the first time he realized literature could be interesting and about real people and real situations, and it kindled a life-long love of reading in him and turned him from an underachieving school-skipping young lout into an autodidact and polymath who read voraciously until the day he died. (If that's not a recommendation, I don't know what is!)

Flipping through the Pulitzer Prize for fiction list and picking the people who are unfamiliar or who didn't quite make it into the canon is very fruitful. Ditto the Nobel for Literature, although it's definitely heavy on the Scandinavians in the early period! (Sinclair Lewis is on both those lists and is criminally under-read, IMO.)

How about Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga? I have rarely been as emotionally engaged in a series of novels or in a set of hugely morally problematic characters -- TEAM SOAMES 4 LYFE, IRENE SUCKS.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:29 PM on December 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

"Honey In The Horn", by H.L. Davis, a Pulitzer Prize winner during the 1930s, is a great pioneer narrative, rather like Mark Twain, about early settlers in Oregon. Much humor and great story-telling.
posted by Agave at 7:17 PM on December 8, 2018

With all due respect to Arctostaphylos, I don't think you should write off The Scarlet Letter.
posted by baseballpajamas at 8:33 PM on December 8, 2018

The Group by Mary McCarthy
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford? Or is that too (spoiler) tragic? Has one of the best/saddest/weirdest last paragraphs ever.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:34 PM on December 8, 2018

NYRB Classics puts out an array of unusual fiction, some of it obscure work from famous writers, and some of it just obscure. All of it is fascinating.

2nding Cranford, Lady Audley's Secret. Have you read Ruth Hall?

Maybe you'd also enjoy the work of Stefan Zweig. Some of his work has been re-released by NYRB; I've been meaning to read The World of Yesterday, about literary Vienna pre-WWII, which you can find on Amazon and Abebooks.
posted by Miss T.Horn at 10:56 PM on December 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

Seconding Dawn Powell!

Invitation to a Beheading, Nabokov, maybe?
posted by DarlingBri at 10:56 PM on December 8, 2018

I recommend Elizabeth Von Arnim's work so often on AskMe that I feel like I need a disclaimer: I am not in the pocket of the Under-Appreciated 20th Century Novelist-Industrial Complex.

I think Von Arnim's book The Pastor's Wife (from 1914) would be a great choice. It isn't tremendously well known, but it deserves to be. It has the same wit and empathy as her more famous novel Enchanted April, but with a more pointed tone of social satire. There's plenty of grist for a book club discussion-- it burns with righteous anger over the status of women in the early 20th century, and I would personally love to have a discussion about what has changed and what hasn't since then. (Can I join your group if you read it?)
posted by yankeefog at 8:24 AM on December 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

I suspect Gaudy Night and The Blue Castle aren't going to meet the "none of us have read before" criteria, but if either of them do, they're both great. Trawling through the NYRB classics is also a good idea.

A couple of great works of early-mid 20thC Turkish literature have finally made it into English recently. Of those, my first recommendation would be Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar's The Time Regulation Institute, which is a wonderful dark comic novel. (Tanpınar's A Mind at Peace is probably more famous but is also a lot less funny). Sabahattin Ali's Madonna in a Fur Coat was published in 1943, so it might not qualify depending on how strict you're being about the time frame, but it's set in Weimar Berlin and early republican Turkey. It is somewhat tragic, but in the doomed romance rather than the grinding suffering way.
posted by karayel at 12:09 PM on December 9, 2018 [1 favorite]

Another thread today from literary Twitter-- @Jeffrey_Kessler: "Besides Waverly and Ivanhoe, what is your favorite Walter Scott novel and why?" ... Current leaders: The Bride of Lammermoor (4 recs); The Heart of Mid-Lothian (4 recs); and Redgauntlet (3 recs).
posted by Wobbuffet at 5:16 PM on December 17, 2018

« Older Best quiet desk fan (or other small fan)?   |   Podcasts and audiobooks about organized crime Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.