6 rediscovered literary masterpieces that you need to read now

From the heartbreaking talent of Bette Howland to Mikhail Bulgakov's Russian triumph of magical realism, here Naomi Frisby shares five must-read literary masterpieces that have been rescued from obscurity.

13/08/2021
2 minutes to read
Three books in front of an old library background.

In 2015, Brigid Hughes, editor and publisher of the Brooklyn literary magazine A Public Space, was browsing through the $1 cast-offs at Manhattan’s Housing Works Bookstore when she found and purchased a copy of a book long out of print. W-3 was Bette Howland’s 1974 debut, a memoir about her time on a psychiatric ward and the people she encountered there. Over the following decade, Howland published two further books and won a MacArthur Fellowship Grant before retreating from her writing career and becoming one of the lost women of literature. 

W-3 is a remarkable book. In the aftermath of a suicide attempt, Howland rediscovers the voice that is ripped from her by ‘the coughing machine’ designed to clear her lungs. Alongside her own concerns, she creates vivid and sympathetic portraits of others on the ward. Whether she’s writing about Trudy, who demands constant attention; Zelda, a returnee who brings designer clothes, wigs, a portable TV and medical textbooks with her; or Simone who mothers the younger women including the unresponsive Cootie, Howland is clear-sighted about the day-to-day cost of their rehabilitation. In refusing to look away, Howland humanises their experiences and writes herself back into being. 

The republication of this rediscovered masterpiece invites the reader to bear witness to Howland’s life and work. 

Here, we share just a few of the rediscovered literary masterpieces that have been rescued from obscurity to become vital additions to your must-read list. 


W-3

by Bette Howland

Book cover for W-3

W-3 is a small psychiatric ward in a large university hospital, a world of disheveled, moment-to-moment existence on the edge of permanence. Bette Howland was one of the patients. In 1968, Howland was thirty-one, a single mother of two young sons, struggling to support her family on the part-time salary of a librarian, and labouring day and night at her typewriter to be a writer. One afternoon, while staying at her friend Saul Bellow’s apartment, she swallowed a bottle of pills. W-3 is both an extraordinary portrait of the community of Ward 3 and a record of a defining moment in a writer’s life. The book itself would be her salvation: she wrote herself out of the grave.

Read our interview with Brigid Hughes, the editor who rediscovered W-3, here.

Last Summer in the City

by Gianfranco Calligarich

Book cover for Last Summer in the City

Translated into English for the first time, Gianfranco Calligarich's Italian literary classic initially received rejection letter after rejection letter. It wasn't until fellow Italian author Natalia Ginzburg read the manuscript and sent it to the publisher Garzanti, that Last Summer in the City was finally published in 1973. Detailing a year in the life of Leo Gazzara, a self-proclaimed 'pretentious snob' who moves to Rome in order to be closer to the sea, Calligarich's intense debut evokes themes similar to The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye in this equally witty and devastating novel. 

The Master And Margarita

by Mikhail Bulgakov

Book cover for The Master And Margarita

‘Manuscripts don’t burn,’ says Woland to the Master in this much-loved novel. But, concerned he couldn’t see a future in a country where political opinions were being repressed, Mikhail Bulgakov did burn the original version of the story of the devil’s visit to an atheistic Soviet Union. He didn’t stop writing though. Four weeks prior to his death in 1940, Bulgakov finished the sixth version. However it would be 26 years before a censored edition was published in 1966, another seven before the final manuscript was published in full in 1973, and it was 1989, almost 50 years after its initial completion, that a version based on all the surviving manuscripts became available. 

The Trial

by Franz Kafka

Book cover for The Trial

Unpublished in Franz Kafka’s lifetime, this satirical masterpiece almost didn’t make it as far as publication. On his death, Kafka instructed his friend Max Brod to destroy The Trial, along with two further novels and several stories, ‘unread in their entirety.’ Brod ignored the request, and the story of Josef K’s arrest and subsequent embroilment in an unfathomable court system became one of the world’s best-known texts. The order of the chapters has been disputed and the abrupt ending is due to it being unfinished, but this only serves to heighten the tension in this legal labyrinth. 

A Manual for Cleaning Women

by Lucia Berlin

Book cover for A Manual for Cleaning Women

Until the posthumous publication of this collection of stories, Lucia Berlin was ‘one of America’s best kept secrets.’ Writing consistently from the 1960s to the late 90s, she published seventy-six stories during her lifetime and inspired a small but devoted literary following, including the writer Lydia Davis. Fame came in 2015, eleven years after her death, when her close friend, writer and editor Stephen Emerson compiled A Manual for Cleaning Women. These semi-autobiographical tales of working-class people and their everyday lives – in the laundromat, in the ER, in schools, in other people’s houses – are as relevant and fresh as they were when they were written. 

A Different Drummer

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Book cover for A Different Drummer

Like Bette Howland, William Melvin Kelley owes his literary renaissance to a chance find. The New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz bought a $1 hardback of Langston Hughes’ Ask Your Mama. Inside was a dedication to William Kelley. Schulz sought out his work and wrote about him, calling him ‘the lost giant of American literature.’ A Different Drummer tells the story of a small Southern town where all the Black people have taken their possessions and left. Told from the perspectives of the remaining white people, it provides a striking viewpoint which considers the damage white supremacy does to all who live within its systems.