The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Love Peacock’

In Praise of Minor Literature

July 8, 2016 | by


Houseboats by the Thames.

Some of the writers and books I hold in the highest esteem were discovered en passant: buried in the archives of a little-read blog; mentioned in a thirty-year-old essay devoted to more prominent writers; planted near the end of a long list on Wikipedia. (Idleness and obsession are the impetus for most of my discoveries.) Most of these books are rare tastes, not even well known for not being well known. They are not likely to come up at dinner parties, and they are not part of any canon or curriculum. I don’t get any credit for having read them. They are what some people call minor. 

What does it mean to be minor? It’s not the same thing as being obscure. Leon Forrest’s oeuvre is a megalith, but there seem to be about six of us who have read him. Nor is a minor writer a bad writer. Guy Davenport proposed that Thomas Love Peacock, Colette, Simenon, and Michael Gilbert were all “impeccable stylists” but also, next to Tolstoy, Cervantes, Balzac, and Proust, incontrovertibly minor. Davenport, a self-described minor prose stylist who was great enough to be genuinely self-effacing, said that “the theme of a major work must be universal and time-defying.” When judged by this standard, he suggested, even Borges and Poe were minor, since “a Martian could not learn about human nature from either of them.” Read More »

What We’re Loving: Captain Kentucky, John Henry, Plagues

December 7, 2012 | by

I picked up Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead when it was first reissued in 2010 but then had to put it aside. I began it again—and finished it—last week, and I’m so glad I did. The novel, originally published in England in 1954, concerns the Willoweed family and their reactions to an outbreak of madness and suicide in their small village. Its humor is by turns black and light, its characters morbid and delightful. An aberrant pastoral as smart as this one could only come from someone with a biography as nutty and wonderful as Comyns’s. A painter by training—she exhibited with the London Group—Comyns married and had two children. To support them, “she dealt in antiques and vintage cars, renovated apartments, and bred poodles. She later lived in Spain for eighteen years.” —Nicole Rudick

Brain still humming with Elaine Blair’s brilliant essay on David Foster Wallace, I read his own long 1990 review of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, now reprinted in Both Flesh and Not. So much has been written about Infinite Jest, but for me these two essays together do the best job of describing what’s at stake in that novel—morally, philosophically, artistically. Among other things, Wallace reveals his debt to Stanley Cavell (a teacher whose influence he later played down) and his raw-nerved engagement with feminist criticism. At times, too, “The Empty Plenum” reads like a sort of preemptive rebuttal to Jonathan Franzen’s elegy in The New Yorker. Wallace may not have been the sage we wished for, but as Blair writes, he “worked a reverse-Promethean theft, taking our humble spoken idioms and delivering them to the gods.” —Lorin Stein

Read More »