Many people like their fiction to be as realistic as possible -- a mirror traveling down a roadway. But the cult of realism is actually a fairly modern phenomenon. If you look at the world's great ocean of story, most of it could be loosely called fantastic -- Norse myths, Greek romances, Indian epics, medieval legends, Arabian Nights adventures, African folktales, contemporary science fiction and horror. What readers (and listeners) really want from a story is that it should be entertaining -- and that it should, in some way, illuminate the human condition.

Fiction like that of Lord Berners is often dismissed as "camp" or "kitsch" or "stylized" or "gay" or "for special tastes." None of these is an inappropriate description for a novel such as The Camel or, to mention some similar books, Ronald Firbanks's The Flower Beneath the Foot, E.F. Benson's Mapp and Lucia, and Saki's Chronicles of Clovis. Or John Collier's Fancies and Goodnights, Ivy Compton-Burnett's Bullivant and the Lambs, and Edward Gorey's The Curious Sofa. All of these possess a distinctively burnished style, eccentric characters, a sardonic, even malicious point of view, and a playful awareness of their fictive character. Such brilliant jeux d'esprit should be better known and appreciated in this era of the resolutely postmodern.

They are, of course, minor works, mainly because their reach never exceeds their grasp. Even the novels tend to be little more than novellas: They take one minute to do what they called to do. A Moby-Dick or a Gravity's Rainbow pounds away at its readers, determined to impose a vision of the world; such masterpieces seem, at times, not only total but totalitarian art works. Not so Berner's Count Omega or Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson -- here we happily linger in Calypso's cave, where we are seduced, not overpowered; amused by talent, not awestruck by genius. Such works represent the cocktail hour of literature -- witty, languorous, enticing. Read in that spirit, these "specialized" classics are as essential to life as flirting, dancing and sipping a gin-and-tonic on a summer's afternoon.