Five More Cult Classics: At Least I Think They Are!

Kristin Lavransdatter: a cult classic!

It is hard to define a cult classic.

In Friday’s post on Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, I struggled to define the idiom.  My own fuzzy sense is that cult classics are quirkier or more obscure than classics or the typical best-seller, though best-sellers can be cult classics. (Stranger in a Strange Land is an example.)  But perhaps the meaning of the term is changing in online discourse:  many lists of “cult classics” now include popular books from the canon, like Jane Eyre. Classic or cult classic? Can they be both?  Sometimes, but Jane Eyre is definitely not a cult classic.

The dictionary definitions are also nebulous.  The Oxford Dictionary vaguely opines: “Something, typically a film or book, that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society.” The Collins Dictionary elaborates on that: “Typically a movie or book that is popular or fashionable among a dedicated passionate fanbase creating an elaborate subculture that engage in repeated viewings quoting dialogue and audience participation.”  The writer of the Collins entry loses many, many points with me for omission of commas and writing “fanbase” as one word.

Onwards from schoolmarmdom…

Here is a list of five of my favorite books that probably are cult classics. At least one of them is in the canon, though I would argue it has been relegated to cult classic status. Do let me know what you think. Maybe they are too well-known, or too obscure.

And do recommend your own favorites.

Charles Archer’s translation.

1. Nobel Prize winnner’s Sigrid Undset’s medieval trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter These gorgeously-written historical novels, The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross, set in 14th-century Norway, chronicle Kristin Lavransdatter’s life and her experience of love: filial love, intense friendship, passionate first love, sex, a tumultuous marriage, maternal love, charity, religion, and spiritual love. And as time goes on, Kristin becomes aware that her greatest sin, pre-marital sex with the handsome older slacker, Erlend, has shaped her unhappiness and the fates of her sons. She is constantly pregnant and ill, but still must run the household, and her impetuous husband is imprisoned for treason after organizing a political plot. The church is Kristin’s refuge, and in the final book, Kristin embarks on a religious pilgrimage.

But this is all about the stye, even in translation, and not the plot.  I posted about this stunning trilogy here.  And, by the way, I would love to see the Folio Society publish this with gorgeous illustrations!

2.  Petronius’s Satyrica (often known as Satyricon).  We have only fragments left of this risque Roman novel. Only one manuscript (in very bad shape) survived to the ninth century.

This irreverent, sometimes obscene, masterpiece was written by Petronius Arbiter, Nero’s arbiter of taste. It is probably (so scholars hazard) a Menippean satire (a long work of prose mixed with verse) of the first century A.D. (Some are not sure that Petronius the author is the same as Nero’s Petronius.) The longest chapter extant, “Trimalchio’s Dinner Party,” inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Fellini’s movie Satyricon.  The Great Gatsby was originally entitled Trimalchio.

If you have time to read only a bit of this, I recommend “Trimalchio’s Dinner Party.” It requires the fewest footnotes. Trimalchio is a hilarious, kindly, vulgar millionaire, a freedman who started as an accountant. He pisses in gold chamber pots, washes his hands with wine, dries his hands in slaves’ hair, serves gourmet dishes shaped like the Signs of the Zodiac, and has acrobats jumping through flaming hoops during dinner. Yes, like Gatsby, he’s nouveau riche.

My favorite translation is by Frederic Raphael (only available through the Folio Society, and unfortunately out of print, but you can find used copies).

3.  Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women. Imagine a fusion of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, and you’ve got the readability index of this out-of-print novel.  A few years ago Dover planned to reissue it:  why they dropped it I don’t know.

Set between 1922 and 1940, this well-written novel vividly portrays three very different heroines. Leda March, the intellectual daughter of a well-to-do Boston family, is friendless and longs to fit in with other girls: she is victimized first at the Country Day School in Hampton and later at a girls’ schools in Boston. Her life changes when the Jekylls, a Southern family, move to Massachusetts because Mrs. Jekyll wants culture: the youngest daughter, Betsy, takes Leda under her wing, and both adore her lovely older sister, Maizie, who is surrounded by men.

In 2014 at The Toast, Caitlyn Keefe Moran wrote an essay about The Prodigal Women , “In Praise of Difficult Women: The Forgotten Work of Nancy Hale.”

And you can read my post on it here.

4.  Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Helena trilogy, of which An Avenue of Stone is the brilliant centerpiece, shows Johnson at the height of her powers. The first book in the trilogy, Too Dear for My Possessing (1940), is a coming-of-age novel: Claud, the narrator, bickers with and competes against his beautiful, controlling, often wicked stepmother Helena, a former chorus girl. After his father’s death, his life is inextricably intertwined with Helen’s, for better or worse.The second and the third novels, An Avenue of Stone and A Summer to Decide, published in 1947 and 1948 respectively, continue the story.

You can read the rest of my post here!

5.  In Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a fictional memoir published in 1968, the hero, also called Frederick Exley, cannot hold a job. Exley, an alcoholic, is in and out of mental hospitals, sponges off his parents, or lives at a bachelor friend’s apartment where flamboyant, sad characters drop in all day, including an Italian who sometimes believes he is a hit man.  Exley wittily delineates and skewers the customs and hypocrisy of the American middle class in a brilliant narrative akin to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road and Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife.

You can read the rest of my post here.

Cult classics or not? It’s all intuition.   Let me know!

What Is a Cult Classic? Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land & Other Favorites

This 1961 SF novel is a cult classic.

What exactly is a “cult classic”?

My brain tells me this saucy subgenre includes offbeat books like Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (a 1960s feminist comedy)  and Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet (a quartet of poetic sexy novels about a group of exotic writers, artists, mystics, expatriates, and a femme fatale in Alexandria, Egypt).  My brain tells me such books are appreciated by a limited audience.

If you peruse lists of cult classics, and there are hundreds, there is nothing very offbeat about the majority of the books.  They showcase mainstream classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, The Catcher in the Rye, and Jane Eyre.  And this is why we don’t trust categories.  I don’t want to snap my chewing gum in public and say “I told you so,”but are these cult classics?  You’ll find these on your high school English syllabi.  Yes, I agree that Naked Lunch and A Confederacy of Dunces belong, but Pride and Prejudice is not really a cult classic, is it?

So how do the dictionaries define the phrase?  The Oxford Dictionary vaguely opines:   “Something, typically a film or book, that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society.”  The more specific Collins dictionary struck a chord with me: ” typically a movie or book that is popular or fashionable among a dedicated passionate fanbase creating an elaborate subculture that engage in repeated viewings quoting dialogue and audience participation.”

The uncut version!

This summer, instead of perusing a huge tome like Tale of Genji, I plan to enjoy one or more cult classics.  I am thinking about cult classics because I have been reading Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land,  which is my first Heinlein, and was the first science fiction book to make the New York Times Best-Seller list. It is  literally a cult classic, in the sense that the hero, Valentine Michael Smith, a man from Mars, founds a church/cult on Earth based on a ’60s-style philosophy of brotherhood and free love. It actually influenced the counterculture philosophy of the ’60s.

Far-out, yes?  Are you in the groove?  The hero, Mike, a human raised by Martians on Mars, has returned with human astronauts to Earth, supposedly  as a Martian ambassador.  He is an innocent unused to Earth’s gravity who can barely walk and he knows very little English. He often shuts his body down for hours and is mistaken for dead, in order to process, or “grok” what is happening.  (Heinlein’s word “grok” is in  dictionaries and means “to understand profoundly, intuitively, or by empathy.”)  Mike takes everything literally and trusts everyone:  if you share a glass of water with him, you become his lifelong “water brother,” which is more binding that the relation of “blood brother.”

But Mike is in danger.  Ben, a journalist investigating the legality of the sequestration of the alien,  disappears, and his panicked girlfriend Jill, a nurse, takes his warnings seriously and breaks Mike out of the hospital and flees with him to the estate of Ben’s friend, Jubal Harshaw, an eccentric, rich, wily lawyer, doctor, and  writer of pop fiction, who manages through his contacts and experience to cut deals to ensure the freedom of Mike and Ben.

Neil Gaiman,  in his introduction to the lovely hardcover Penguin Galaxy edition, explains that this underground best-seller had “an enormous effect on the 1960s.”

Gaiman writes,

Stranger fed the counterculture.  People tried to put Heinlein’s precepts into action, with mixed results.  (The claims that Stranger is a book that inspired the Manson family seem entirely without basis, but the book certainly inspired its share of communes, and at least one church.)

I am fascinated by the premise of the stranger and his perceptions of our world, though, truth to tell, am bored by the orgy scenes. And there is an uncut version, published by Ace in 1991, which I would like to read, because he developed the characters more thoroughly in the original:  he had to cut 60,000 words to get it published.  (Does this remind you of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children? Which to read?  The original, or the uncut?)

Inspired by Heinlein, I plan to read more cult classics, if I “grok” what they are.  Any suggestions?   Somewhere  we have a book by Kathy Acker. I am quite sure it counts as a cult classic, because I find the postmodern Ms. Acker unreadable! Still,  this will be the summer I “grok” Acker.  I am looking at the cover of her Great Expectations and “grok” it. And a  stranger recommended a romance novel called Stormswept, which might be a bracing post-post-modern follow-up!

Do recommend some cult classics!