The Seven Greatest Novels Unknown in America

09.20.2004 | Jonathan Leaf | Literature, Unfairly Forgotten | 4 Comments

Some time ago I got in a debate with a friend. The question was: What are the best novels that are nearly — or completely — unknown in America?

Each of us made a list. Then we read each read the other’s list. We agreed that the one who knew more great unknown novels would be the winner.

I lost. Big time. My friend, the very gifted (and also troublingly little known) poet Mark Justin had come up with a much better list — and all but the fifth of the books listed below were ones he exposed me to.

The ground rules for our contest were these:

It had to be virtually unknown in America, which meant we couldn’t list books that are was little read but widely acknowledged like, say, George Gissing’s New Grub Street. If it were a neglected work by a recognized master, then it couldn’t be one that you stood a decent chance of finding in a large used book store like The Strand or Powell’s.


  1. The Unknown Soldier by Vaino Linna. The appropriately named book may be the greatest novel of the 20th century, and of all the novels I’ve ever read that are influenced by Tolstoy, it comes the closest, I think, to not only equaling but often surpassing Tolstoy’s own work. Linna’s lack of greater renown mostly reflects the obscurity of the language he happened to write in: Finnish.

    A veteran of the Winter War between Finland and the Soviet Union, Linna provides a masterful depiction of the relations between a single company of men fighting on the Finnish side. His book is suspenseful, powerful, realistic, deeply psychological — and not too long.

    In Scandinavia, the book is widely recognized as among the greatest novels of the last century. In Finland alone it has sold over 450,000 copies — in a country of just five million people. Had its author been more prolific and not a Communist sympathizer, he probably would have won the Nobel — and might be known elsewhere.

    I would say “read it today” except that you can’t. Last time I checked you have to specially order the English translation from a publisher in the UK and then wait a couple of weeks for delivery, if they even have it in stock.

  2. The Revenge For Love by Wyndham Lewis. Like Linna, Lewis lost out in the nationality and politics sweepstakes. The lesser of these problems was that he was a Canadian who fled our northern neighbor, and he hated all Brits, leaving him with no national school of critics to promote him. More damaging to his reputation though is the pro-Hitler, entitled Hitler, he penned in 1932. Although he had disavowed the book and its contention that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was calculated and false by 1936, he continued to support Mussolini. Lewis also wrote in an often pretentious style. Moreover, his best known book, The Apes of God, is an overhyped piece of tripe that probably turns most people away from him.

    All that said, when you read The Revenge For Love you realize why Hemingway described Lewis in A Moveable Feast as having “the look of an unsuccessful rapist”. Hemingway had to slander him. I think it’s a very safe bet that Hemingway read The Revenge for Love and knew that he could never write a work of fiction on its level, and there’s a wealth of evidence, too, that Hemingway knew that he wasn’t really the giant tough guy that Lewis actually was. Hemingway’s awareness of his inferiority to Lewis must have been especially keen as The Revenge For Love is set during the Spanish Civil War — the subject and locale of Hemingway’s unintentionally amusing novel For Whom The Bell Tolls.

    The Revenge For Love is a grand and moving adventure which is also hilarious, bitterly funny and satirical, and it has some of the most real, recognizable and memorable characters ever created in literature. There are only a very few novels in English in the 20th century that stand as its equal.

  3. My Life by Anton Chekhov.

    Yes, Chekhov. What’s weird is that a great novella by Chekhov could be so little known that it frequently goes unmentioned in works about him written by leading critics and biographers. Yet it may be Chekhov’s greatest work not written for the stage.

  4. The Girls by Henry De Montherlant.

    Over and above Swann’s Way, it may be the best French novel of the 20th century — and in France it’s no secret. It’s just here in America that it seems to be almost unknown.

  5. Sauce For The Goose by Peter De Vries.

    Peter De Vries and John Updike had much in common. Both worked at The New Yorker. Both came from Dutch Calvinist backgrounds. Both had exceptionally wide-ranging tastes and interests wedded to an expansive knowledge of modern art and literature. Both were (in Updike’s case is) sex-obsessed. The only difference between them is that De Vries’ last five books are vastly funnier, easy to read and thoroughly unpretentious.

    Sauce For The Goose, a seemingly slight yarn taken from the point of view of a plucky young woman working in the New York magazine world, is both very funny and also subtly suggestive in its view of modern love and feminism. Men who like this book may also wish to try some of his sex farces taken from a male point of view. I would especially recommend Slouching Towards Kalamazoo, Consenting Adults, Peckham’s Marbles and The Prick of Noon. De Vries’ work improved throughout his life. He had the misfortune to gain popularity in the 1950’s and 1960’s when his best books was not yet written and to have fallen from notice when he had reached the top of his game.

  6. Yvette by Guy de Maupassant. Possibly the most moving story I’ve ever read. If you can read this novella by de Maupassant and reach the end without a lump in your throat, you have no heart. Read it — if you can find it.
And the seventh book? Well, that one hasn’t been published yet. But it was through my friend that I found out about that one, too. If I seem like a tease, I do promise that when — and if — that one comes out, I’ll write about it.

I would add "Age Wears" by the Belgian author Jan Shymy. Brilliant book about a disdainful man who reflects on the world in stream of conciousness fashion while recovering in bed following an unfortunate injury recieved while climbing a fence.
09.20.2004 | norman normal
This is a very bizarre piece. Can someone seriously recommend Maupassant en anglais? I am assuming that you read one of Maupassant's translators not Maupassant, since you also refer to "Swann's Way," which raises the very same question.

A mon (cher) avis, rien ne se traduit. Particularly when one is considering texts literarily, rather than with regard to the gross events of their plots. The very texture of a piece of literature is determined by the language in which it is written.

In addition, a minor logical point: Wouldn't the seven greatest novels unknown in America be unknown to you, Mr. Leaf? Or do you live abroad?
09.26.2004 | Yvan
Yvan, I do think it's possible to make judgments about novels - although not poetry - which were originally written in a foreign language and then translated. I found "Yvette" to be heartbreaking - and, yes, I read it in English. Would it have been better in the original? I'm sure. But, even so, I can't figure out what you find so odd about recommending the reading of Du Maupassant's work in English. I also read "Bel-Ami" in English, and I think it's one of the best novels I've ever read.
As to the title of the piece, obviously we're making a generalization.
If you have any better suggestions, I'd be eager to hear them. Many Thanks.
09.26.2004 | Jonathan Leaf
I'dd just like to add that the unkown soldier, though a great book, isn't even the best book by Linna; which is Here under the north star: A monumental epic trilogy about the lives of the Koskela (note Vilho Koskela, a character in the Unknown) family in late 19th and 20th century Finland.
05.18.2006 | joosua puu

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