8 Groundbreaking Experimental Novels That Are More than 100 Years Old

Writers have been bending rules and genres for longer than you might think

When I describe my novella Northwood to others, I always call it experimental — mostly in order to manage their expectations. I initially conceived of Northwood as a book of poems, and though it settled into being a short novel, it still contains elements of poetry and linked microfiction. I tell people it’s “experimental” so they won’t be confused when it’s not what they expect. But what does “experimental” literature really mean? Experimental in relation to what? Perhaps it’s more accurate to say, not that Northwood is a brand-new experiment, but that it’s part of a long-standing, well-established tradition of literature that pushes boundaries of genre and form.

We tend to forget that there has always been work that plays with form, style, content; work that is modernist before the modern era, or postmodernist before the postmodern age, or avant-garde ahead of its time. Work that anticipates modes and subjects and ideas and structures that would be put to use ubiquitously decades later. But if all of the things so-called experimental writers do now have been done — many times — before, sometimes centuries ago, then what is really experimental or unusual or deviant about these works? What are our our literary norms, and who decides, and defines, that which is perceived to stray from them? What prompts a writer to stray from the path set by an external notion of the mainstream, or one’s own self-imposed categories, habits, genres? And do truly experimental works always feel new?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but in my own struggle to figure out what the heck I was doing with Northwood, I looked to some books that are 100 or more years old but which still feel strange today, books by writers who informed my own experiments with form and voice and style.

Jakob von Gunten, Robert Walser, 1909

This novel, about a young man who attends a school for servants headed by a mysterious, possibly incestuous, pair of siblings, completely disregards any traditional notion of plot or narrative arc. Full of fanciful, obsessive digressions on the nature of objects, light, and smiles, Walser (whom Kafka cited as an early influence) proved that a satisfying narrative could be almost wholly internal, moving in meandering circles or not at all, much like Louise-Bennant’s recent (and brilliant) Pond.

The Lulu Plays, Frank Wedekind, 1894

Written in two parts, spanning five acts, Wedekind’s mammoth Lulu is a twisted, hyper-sexualized, astoundingly feminist exploration of a young, murderous prostitute longing for freedom. I can’t say enough about the final act, which features one of the most intensely bathetic, horrific, and moving murder scenes I have ever read. It is at once ridiculous and emotional, sympathetic and sneering; it’s a masterpiece of tone ahead of its time, or any time.

Telegrams of the Soul, Peter Altenberg, circa 1890

This collection of Altenberg’s mini-“essays” are, like Walser’s short pieces, largely plotless and charmingly surreal (and, in their darker moods, a lot like Lydia Davis’ fictions — flash before flash was a genre). Take this line from his piece “On Smells”: “even good books never stink, they are the distillation of all the malodorous sins one has committed of which one has finally managed to extract a drop of fragrant humanity!”

The Thief of Talant, Pierre Reverdy, 1917

A novel that looks like poetry, or a book of poetry that looks like a novel — whatever it is, The Thief of Talant is formally fascinating and emotionally engaging. Unlike some of the other works listed here, the idiosyncrasies of which are surprising but sometimes dated in tone, Reverdy’s work feels completely out of time; it could have been written yesterday, and yet it is more than 100 years old.

The Other House, Henry James, 1896

This novel, told almost entirely in dialogue and plotted at a furious pace, reads more like a film script than a novel; there are no interminable sentences or endless blocks of text as per the late Jamesian mode here. A masterclass in economy, it’s a surprisingly cinematic novel written long before the film scripts it so uncannily resembles.

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Death, Anna Croissant-Rust, 1893

The short works of Croissant-Rust (yes, that was her real name) are a mix of wild emotion and detachment, full of exclamation points and exhortations while retaining an eerie sense of distance. Morbid, sentimental, surreal, Rust breaks down narrative into patterns of feeling, abandoning any formal devices or logic. When someone describes a modern work as “dreamlike,” I think of Rust, who is, for me, the original dreamer; these are pieces written by ghosts, desperate to send a message to the living while at the same time utterly resigned to failure.

Mysteries, Knut Hamsun, 1892

Like much of Hamsun’s pre-Nobel work, Mysteries is remarkable in its defiance of plot and traditional character development; not much happens (and, as the title suggests, what does happen isn’t explained), and characters’ motives are entirely obscure, yet Hamsun manages to create an atmosphere as gripping as any pot-boiler. I return to this book every year, trying to figure out how Hamsun manages to make so much out of so little; but it is so subtle, its magic so recessive, I doubt I’ll ever figure it out.

La Bas, Joris-Karl Huysmans, 1891

This book just flat out messes with my head. Its style mimics the decadence of the social world it depicts; dense, wild, intoxicating, repugnant, surreal, more Lynchian than Chekovian, anticipating the excesses of writers like Dennis Cooper and Kathy Acker. For me, it’s fascinating more for its subject matter than its readability as a novel — the depiction of a psychotic Satanic mass alone is worth the price of admission, proving that there has always been an appetite for “edgy” work.

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