Life Sentences, Day 118: That Obscure Object of Desire

January 26th, 2011

I think that most of us clutch to our chests with special fervor the enthusiasms that virtually no one else shares.

I revealed my obsession with “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” a few days back, and while the responses were interesting, I don’t think I made many converts.

And that’s okay.  If you all liked “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses,” I’d have to find a new obscure favorite song. Maybe “Choctaw Bingo” by James McMurtry or “Carries On” by Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeroes.  Six months ago, it would have been something (almost anything) off Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs,” but now that the collection has made everybody’s 2010 top ten lists, it’s sullied by popularity.

Because obscure favorites are partly about snobbery.  It’s not enough to be discerning.  It’s also necessary to be more discerning than everybody else.

And I’ve earned a permanent condo on the Mount Olympus of Obscurity.  Examples:

Favorite novels: The Anti-Death League and The Green Man, Kingsley Amis; The Recognitions, William Gaddis; The Pallisers, Anthony Trollope; A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell; The Story of the Stone, Cao Xueqin.

Amis, now largely forgotten, was a big best-seller in the fifties and sixties and a dazzling entertainer, and I defy anyone not to like these books.  Gaddis was obscure throughout a long career, despite very tardy acknowledgment that his first novel was one of the most important and original books of the century.  Trollope outsold Dickens in his day, but that was many, many days ago, and now he’s a footnote to most people’s awareness of Victorian novels.  Powell also sold well, but the Dance is barely available in the U.S. now, and besides, only a few of us know that his last name is pronounced, “Pole,” although with a sort of quarter-note semiquaver on the “O”.  And Story of the Stone was written in China in the 1740s and probably 50s.  So obscure the ink should be fading.

And one other thing: four of these books — all of them but the Amis works — are really, really, really long. Forbiddingly long.  Snob-paradise long.

Favorite painters: Impressionist, Vuillard; Old Master, Jan Van Eyck, although I secretly love Rembrandt just as much, even though he’s so common; Post-Impressionist, John Sloan, whose work you saw here a week or two ago; Modernist, Joan Mitchell.  See? Not a dominant brand name in the lot.  I hate hate hate the Expressionists, though, and most snobs have a favorite Expressionist, so maybe there’s hope for me.  My favorite Expressionist is the one that’s turned to the wall.

Classical Music: I strike out completely here.  I might as well be a commentator on Fox News.  Beethoven and Mozart, I’m afraid, with Ravel in there somewhere.  Oh, and one good snob credential — the motets of Heinrich Schutz.  Years ago, as I’ve told everyone I’ve ever met, there was a New Yorker cartoon that depicted a small, barren planet: curved horizon, black sky, no foliage, a broken, slanting park bench and a couple of discarded tin cans.  The caption was Life without Mozart. I buy it completely.

Rock: In the sixties and seventies (yes, I’m that old), my favorite band was The Kinks, followed by Traffic.  Still love them both.  Robb Royer, whom you’ve all met here, earned my scorn by suggesting that something was going on with the Beach Boys.  Then “Pet Sounds” came out, and he won the argument.  These days?  Well, Arcade Fire, the Libertines, Sara Barielles, Tegan and Sara, Delbert McClinton, and a whole bunch of others, many of whom are not big names.  But none of the Britney/Miley school.  Gotta draw the line somewhere.

And on and on.  Favorite obscure source of beauty: moths and galaxies. Favorite (relatively) obscure country: Vietnam.  Favorite no-longer-extant American city: pre-Katrina New Orleans.  Favorite politician: Nixon, for pure hypnotic awfulness.  Favorite body of water: the Andaman Sea.

I really should say before I close that I actually do love all these things for what they give me, not because they’re obscure.  I spent months of enchantment inside the great, crumbling household that’s the setting of The Story of the Stone.  It doesn’t hurt, though, that they’re not at the top of — well, everybody’s list.

I’ve wondered off topic here.  What about you?  Obscure enthusiasms you want to expose to public scrutiny?

12 Responses to “Life Sentences, Day 118: That Obscure Object of Desire”

  1. fairyhedgehog Says:

    See most of my obscure enthusiasms are a bit less upmarket. I’ve always loved sci fi since I was a kid and that used to be even more pulpy than it is now.

    Music: Albatross and Elbow’s One Day Like This.
    Authors: Pratchett (no longer obscure at all) and Tanya Huff.
    Art: I like the impressionists better in reproduction than in real life. When I go to the National Gallery, it’s Campin’s A Woman that always draws me back and back. Oh and I rather like Rousseau’s picture of a tiger: Surprised!.

    I wish I could preview my comment to check all those links are properly sorted!

  2. suzanna Says:

    Favorite Obscure Singer/Songwriter: Katie Costello. No relation to Elvis. Only 18 and onto her second album. Lives in Brooklyn via Manhattan Beach.

    Favorite Obscure Novelist: Vendella Vida. Bay Area resident. Married to writer Dave Eggers. Co-founder of non profit writers workshop 826 Valencia.

    Favorite Obscure Filmmaker: Chris Brown. Bay Area native. Current movie: FANNY, ANNIE & DANNY. Has played in 20 film festivals across the country, won numerous awards. Still awaits distribution.

    Favorite Obscure Artist: Martin Puryear, sculptor. Primary medium wood, fine crafting, organic shapes, sometimes whimsical.

    I am not sure why you hate the abstract expressionists so much but I really would like to know. I do have a soft spot for abstract art but please don’t hold it against me : )

  3. Gary Says:

    Obscure enthusiasms exposed.

    [splurk!] Attack of the killer tomatoes
    Attack of the killer tomatoes
    They’ll eat you, bash you, split you, mash you
    Chew you up for brunch
    And finish you off for dinner or lunch.

    They’re marching down the halls [splurk!]
    They’re crawling up the walls
    They’re [splurk!] gooey, gushy, squishy, mushy
    Rotten to the core
    They’re standing outside your door. [splurk!]

    Remember Herbert Partage [splurk!]
    While taking out his garbage [splurk!]
    He turned around and he did see
    Tomatoes hiding in his tree
    Now he’s just a memory. [splurk!]

    I know [splurk!] I’m going to miss her
    A tomato ate my sister [splurk!]
    Sacramento fell today
    They’re marching into San Jose [splurk!]
    Tomatoes [splurk!] are on their way.

    The mayor is on vacation
    The Governor’s [splurk!] fled the nation
    The police have gone on strike today
    The National Guard has run away
    Tomatoes will have their day.

    Attack of the killer tomatoes [splurk!]
    Attack of the killer tomatoes [splurk!]
    They’ll eat you, bash you, split you, mash you
    Chew you up for brunch
    And finish you off for dinner or lunch, lunch, lunch
    Dinner or lunch, lunch, lunch
    Dinner or luuuuuunch.

    I sure hope I got all the splurks right. I’d hate to do the work an injustice.

  4. EverettK Says:

    My favorite obscure science fiction novel: Replay by Ken Grimwood.

    My favorite obscure mystery writer: T. Hallinan.

  5. Laren Bright Says:

    Less than household name mystery writers who should be on the NY Times Best Seller List (and every other book list): No names but initials are TH.

  6. EverettK Says:

    Boy, he set himself up for that one, didn’t he, Laren? 🙂

    By the way, Tim, not to push for additions to your work load, I’m just curious: are you still planning to put CRASHED out in epub? Is that something YOU have to work on, or is that something you just have to get Hitch to do?

    Enquiring (and obscure) minds want to know…

  7. EverettK Says:

    I also forgot to mention: The Anthony Trollope “Palliser novels” (all six of them) are available in a very nice omnibus edition for free at:

    Palliser Omnibus (.prc/kindle)

    and an omnibus of his Barsetshire stories is available at:

    Barsetshire Omnibus (.prc/kindle)

    The ePub versions of them are at:

    Palliser Omnibus (.epub)


    Barsetshire Omnibus (.epub)

  8. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Well, FHH — I also have downmarket obscure enthusiasms, but as a snob I rarely share them publicly. I’m not certain I could do better than yours, though. Although I think if anyone was feeling for bottom and found it, it’s Gary. And I don’t see Campin and Rousseau as downmarket. There’s something Indonesian/Balinese about Rousseau’s tiger and the Campin picture is a snob’s dream — by a relatively obscure artist and deliriously beautiful.

    I’m thinking of doing a blog of our favorite pictures, starting with yours. Will write about it tomorrow, unless I forget.

    Suzanna, really good — lots of obscure (to me) people I can check out and claim as my own when people have forgotten your response. Will look at them all in the near future. (I’ve seen Chris Brown’s movie.)

    Gary, where is RECAPTCHA when we need it? I can NOT believe that (a) you learned those words, and (b) that you actually sat there and keyed them all in, and (c) that you survived the experience. I have nothing to say but splork!

    Laren and Everett — Awwwww. In a book I read years ago, set in the future, the narrator thought back to the 20th century and especially that “obscure but oddly satisfying” band, the Kinks. I’m going to have “Obscure but oddly satisfying” chiseled into my tombstone.

    CRASHED will eventually be in epub, Everett — it involves my filling out an really onerous spreadsheet for the “publishing company” that Barnes and Noble insists upon, whose only functions are to relieve me of small amounts of money and make me fill out onerous spreadsheets. I currently sell more than 90% of all my e-books on AMZ anyway.

    And thanks for the links on the Pallisers and the Barsetshire books. Have DL’d both because I can’t carry them around with me when I travel. I really believe that the love story that runs through the Pallisers is one of the greatest ever written.

  9. Gary Says:

    Ah, Tim, Tim, you know much less than the half of it! The badness of the song is far exceeded by the badness of the movie.

    And I have to come clean: I didn’t remember the words. I lovingly transcribed them from the sound track. (Including all the splurks.)

  10. Debbi Says:

    Have you ever seen a Japanese film called “Ikiru”? It’s one of THE most moving and inspirational movies I’ve ever seen. It also manages to strike extremely cynical notes at the same time. I highly recommend it.

  11. Lil Gluckstern Says:

    I can’t lay claim to anything particularly obscure. Actually, I’ve been called a sponge-tell me about something, and I want to read it, or see it. Although I was raised in New York, I was too young to really appreciate it, and by the time, I knew that I wanted to “know” something, there was always someone who pointed me in the right direction. Some very good, and interesting, not so obscure writer is costing me a fortune in obscure books. I have also been lucky enough to hang out with some very bright people, so I have read some obscure books, but, if they are known, are they still obscure? Gary-I love that you did what you did. That kind of thing makes the world fun. Fairy Hedgehog-the painting of The Woman is throat catchingly beautiful. Maybe I’m a knowledge snob, and there will never be enough time to know enough.

  12. Leena Guyette Says:

    I would like to 10x you for 2012 posts and Happy New Year for 2013 !

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