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Lit-urday: NYRB Classics

Reissue series has some offbeat entries for the literary canon

By Amy Kamp, 11:00AM, Sat. Aug. 16

Lit-urday: NYRB Classics

It's been a long week, and now you deserve to have one day when you can curl up with a good book – let's call it Lit-urday. How about a selection of worthy reissues?

Even the most avid reader knows that it’s impossible to keep track of every worthwhile book, much less read all of them. First, there’s not enough time: Every hour spent reading In Search of Lost Time is one not spent on 2666 and vice versa. Second, it can be hard to separate the gold from the dross. Is that fat new coming-of-age novel any better or different than the one right next to it on the “New Releases” shelf?

That’s why it can be such a delight to let someone else winnow things down, provided that someone knows what they’re doing. The NYRB Classics series, published by New York Review Books, is a consistently surprising selection of both fiction and nonfiction reissues, each complemented by an essay discussing the work. As an additional bonus for those who enjoy buying books, the slim paperbacks are beautiful and brightly colored.

However, since at this point there are well over 200 books in the series, here are some recommendations for getting started:

Speedboat (177 pp., $14) and Pitch Dark (154 pp., $14) by Renata Adler: Originally published in 1971 and 1983, respectively, these books had long been out of print by the time they were reissued, but they feel entirely fresh. What makes them so exciting is Adler’s fierce commitment to recreating the jaggedness of lived experience. Each book has the faint outlines of plot and character, but their “angular brilliance” lies in “how deftly [they] sampled the sounds and rhythms of contemporary life,” as Guy Trebay writes in the afterword to Speedboat. A journalist for most of her career, Adler has always been a morally serious writer, and her two novels are no exception. For example, Kate, the protagonist of Pitch Dark, describes her encounter with a dying animal: “But in making more frightening and miserable, probably, the last moments of this raccoon, well, I made an error. I should have let him die, of course, upon the stove. A mistake, a series of errors, first of love, then of officiousness, finally of language. I should have known, I ought to have known, but how could I? what is meant by, what are the official duties of the wildlife commissioner in this town.”

Lucky Jim (265 pp., $14.95) by Kingsley Amis and The Dud Avocado (260 pp., $14.95) by Elaine Dundy: Two of the finest comic novels to come out of the 20th century. Amis’ misanthropic title character, Jim Dixon, a first-year professor at a second-rate college in Fifties England, is more than a little bit awful, but the perfectly engineered misadventures his equally misanthropic creator thrusts upon him are a joy to read about. Here is Dixon waking up with a hangover: “Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. [...] His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he’d somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad.”

The Dud Avocado, also set in the Fifties, follows young American Sally Jay Gorce as she travels through Europe. Sally, a basically decent person and total naif, constantly gets things wrong in this sharp, screwball comedy: “I remember a little later wondering why things always turn out to be diametrically opposed to what you expect them to be. It’s no good even trying to predict what this opposite will be because then it always fools you and turns out to be the opposite of that, if you see what I mean. If you think this is geometrically impossible all I can say is that you don’t know my life.” Dundy, who died in 2008, certainly doesn’t enjoy the same renown as Amis, and that’s a shame. Her writing is light, yet tart, making The Dud Avocado perfect for readers who like a little weight to their escapism.

In the Freud Archives (176 pp., $14.95) by Janet Malcolm: Malcolm writes with a rare depth of psychological insight, so this polished, amusing book about in-fighting among scholars for control of Freud’s legacy would be worth reading no matter what. However, the fact that Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, one of Malcolm’s principal subjects, took exception to some quotes of his in the New Yorker article upon which this book is based and sued Malcolm and the magazine for libel, makes for an all the more interesting reading experience. Of the trial, Malcolm has said, “It was not pleasant to be sued and it was painful to be pilloried by my fellow journalists, but it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed. It wasn’t life threatening, and it was deeply interesting. It took me out of a sheltered place and threw me into bracingly icy water. What more could a writer want?” This spirit of intellectual adventurousness pervades all of Malcolm's work; In the Freud Archives is further buoyed by the truly outsized personalities of its characters.

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