If Hopes Were Dupes, by Catherine York (Pseudonym of Ann Farrer) (1966)

Ann Farrer
Ann Farrer, from the “Ingenues” section of The Spotlight, Autumn 1939

Reading Jessica Mitford’s memoir of the critic, novelist, and poet Philip Toynbee, The Faces of Philip (1984), I stumbled across a mention of a book that turns out not only to be neglected but (at the moment) unattainable outside a couple dozen libraries: Ann Farrer’s 1966 memoir of her struggles with depression and the relatively ineffective attempts of a series of Freudian psychiatrists to help her with it, If Hopes Were Dupes, published under the pseudonym of Catherine York. A cousin of the famous Mitford sisters, Ann Farrer was known to her family as “Idden.” She became a moderately successful actress in London and married a fellow actor, David Horne, and together they ran a small theatre company in the 1940s and 1950s.

Mitford writes:

Cover of "If Hopes Were Dupes"

As background: Unknown to me (for I was in America at the time), Ann suffered the almost unimaginable torture of a severe nervous breakdown. Later, she wrote a book about the experience: If Hopes Were Dupes, published in July 1966. My sisters and I thought it the best book on this dire subject we had ever read. I was confident that it would be embraced by a large general readership for its intrinsic excellence, and by fellow sufferers for the light it shed on a shared malady.

These expectations did not materialize. Nancy, who thought very highly of If Hopes Were Dupes, faulted the title as too obscure. (It comes from a poem by Arthur Hugh Clough: “Tf hopes were dupes, fears may be liars.” Andrew Devonshire misheard this line as: “If hopes were dukes, peers may be liars.”) [Deborah Mitford, Andrew’s wife, wrote of the book years later, “This is by my first cousin, Ann Farrer, who wrote this sorrowful account of her nervous breakdown and total dependence on her psychoanalyst. It would send a shiver down any spine.”] She thought a title more directly describing the subject would have made for better sales. I happened to be in London a few months after Ann’s book was published. To my extreme disappointment, it seemed to have sunk without a trace.

Longing to revive it, I sent a copy to Philip, asking if he could review it in The Observer. As I had hoped, it struck an instant responsive chord; he liked it enormously, but explained that it was against The Observer policy to give a full-scale review to a book that had been out for some time [A policy shared by most book reviews and a major reason why many good books never stand a chance to be noticed–Ed.]. He would try to sneak in something under “Shorter Notices.” He wrote to Ann (28 October 1966): “I thought it extremely well done–dreadfully vivid . . . Decca tells me I was once sick on your floor. Quite enough to start anybody off on a neurosis! With best wishes, Philip.”

The Shorter Notice (The Observer, I December 1966) heaped praise: ‘She emerged from the darkness at last. Her courageous return to those appalling shadows will be read with great benefit by all lonely sufferers from mental and nervous affliction.

Of the few notices that If Hopes Were Dupes earned, not all were as positive. Sid Chaplin gave it a mixed review:

Catherine York gives a narrow, intense and often muddled account of the depression that propelled her to five psychoanalysts or psychiatrists in turn. The better part of the book is about the male consultants, to whom she ‘transferred’, for the most part with singularly distressing effects. The end is muted, but there is some hope in the full line from which the title is taken: ‘If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars’. The case history is necessarily incomplete, but it seems significant that Catherine York is a failed career woman, an unlucky actress with a hus- band evidently prospering in the same line of business. Fame is the spur, but it often draws only blood. Not only young Tolstoy could cry: ‘I felt the need to be known and loved of all the world; to name my name.’ The hope sustains a lot of us. It died in Catherine York. Yet none of the experts seemed to discern this. It caught my imagination on the raw. I have a feeling that the failed actress has the makings of a first-rate writer, once she learns to look outwards. That at least is some- thing to settle for.

Ten years later, after David Horne’s death in 1970, Farrer retired to Jordans, a Quaker hostel in Buckinghamshire. She began to write poetry, which Jessica Mitford shared with Toynbee. Toynbee and Farrer struck up a correspondence that Mitford quotes from extensively in The Faces of Philip. Among these are the following, in which Toynbee offers sober advice that every writer should take note of:

[12 August 1980:]
Believe me, dear Ann, I know those kind of feelings and have often experienced them in the past . . . In fact I have never written anything which was so much a projection of my inmost self that I regarded an attack on it as an attack on me. Nor do I believe that the process of creation is of this kind: there is always a necessary and inevitable distancing of the writer, painter etc from his work. The idea of pouring out one’s heart straight onto the paper is, I believe, a romantic illusion; and rather a dangerous one . . .

In the course of writing Pantaloon I had just such feelings of absolute rightness, glorious confidence, only to discover later that these feelings had utterly misled me. Sometimes I wrote for as much as six months as if inspired; then found that I had to scrap almost every word of what I had done and start all over again. This is one of the very hard facts about trying to write: nearly always it is a matter of hard slogging and constant revision, rather than the Muse suddenly touching one’s shoulder or receiving one’s words direct from heaven.

[15 October 1980:]
I think that when one writes burningly out of one’s own experience, still filled with the overflowing emotions of real life, one usually misses one’s aim. Who wrote about ’emotion recollected in tranquillity’? Anyway, I’m sure that in nearly all cases there has to be a real pause, a taking stock, however unconscious, a distancing . . . Then the emotions are still there all right, but they are just far enough away for one to be able to marshall them; order them about; then alter the whole emphasis of them for the sake of the poem. After all, a poem is always an artifact; indeed an artifice. Put another way, if the bleeding wounds still show then I think there is something wrong. (Except in very very rare cases).


If Hopes Were Dupes, by Catherine York
London: Hutchinson, 1966

Lord, I Was Afraid, by Nigel Balchin (1947)

Cover of "Lord, I Was Afraid"I have a mild fascination with unreadable books. Mild because I often lack the courage or persistence to take them on, fascination because I often have the nagging sense that I should. By “unreadable,” I don’t mean truly unreadable, like the book of Pi to the millionth digit or whatever length it is, but dauntingly difficult–the sort of book that refuses to fit itself to the molds that make books accessible. Finnegans Wake is perhaps the best known unreadable book, but there are also books like Gaddis’ JR, 725 pages of dialogue with no attribution to its speakers, or Leon Forrest’s 1138-page novel Divine Days, or John Hargraves’ nearly 900-page novel in verse, Summer Time Ends.

At a mere 320 pages, Nigel Balchin’s Lord, I Was Afraid is unreadable not because of length but because of sheer oddity. It is a 320 page play. Balchin’s publisher, Collins, waved off most potential readers with this fly-leaf warning:

This is not a Nigel Balchin novel in the ordinary sense. In fact it cannot be described technically as a novel at all. The subject is one on which the author has meditated and worked for ten years—the subject of his own generation, its nature, its faults, virtues, and direction if any. To say what he has to say Mr. Balchin has composed a kind of super-play, using the devices of the theatre on a scale that transcends the possibilities of any theatre.

Although Balchin provides stage directions and scene-settings along with his dialogue, he certainly never expected any director to follow them. Otherwise, he would have asked set designers to mimic everything from train stations and air raid shelters to mass rallies and the summit of Mount Ararat just before the next great flood, in a production that would easily require a cast of a hundred or more and take something like ten hours to perform.

I picked up my copy of Lord, I Was Afraid at the Strand Book Store while in New York City some years ago. Balchin’s name was, of course, familiar to me–his novels such as The Small Back Room, Darkness Falls from the Air, A Way through the Wood, and Mine Own Executioner often pop up on lists of neglected books–but not this title. The price–$5.50–was so low that I bought the book without taking much notice of its contents. When I did, I thought, “Well, I’ll probably never read this,” and shelved it away in the basement.

When I came across it again while looking for something else recently, I felt my fascination stirring again and thought, “Well, what the hell? If I don’t read and post about this book, who else will?” And here we are.

Balchin’s title comes from Matthew Chapter 25, where Jesus tells the parable of the landowner who gave his servants money before leaving on a long trip–five talents to one, two talents to another, one talent to a third. When the man returns, the last servant says to him, “Lord, I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strawed; And I was afraid, and went and hid thy talent in the earth: lo, there thou hast that is thine.”

Nigel Balchin, 1944
Nigel Balchin, 1944
Lord, I Was Afraid is, in a way, Balchin’s parable of his own generation, the one too young to fight in World War One and a bit older than the average man in uniform in World War Two. It was also an upper-middle-class generation: his boys went to public schools, his girls hovered in limbo–too wealthy to work, not wealthy enough to be independent of potential husbands or public opinion. As his core set of seven characters–four men and three women–sit atop Mount Ararat at the play’s end, Balchin passes judgment on his kind through the voice of Methuselah: “A race that cannot accept death, but merely refuses life. A race that carries snobbery so far that it prefers to die in its own company rather than to live in any other; and which carries conceit and self-esteem so far that it would rather make nothing than make a mistake.” Or, as the voice of one character’s conscience puts it earlier in the play, “The same old mistrust of everybody else, crowned by a complete mistrust of yourself.”

In his excellent essay on Balchin, “The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin”, Clive James described
Lord, I Was Afraid as “the kind of art-conscious, angst-ridden Forties novel that really belongs to the Thirties.” And in many ways, the strongest sections of the book are those set in the Thirties, when Balchin’s characters encounter the anger of organized labor and the unemployed (echoes of Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier), the rise of Mosley-like British fascism, religious zealotry (including a scene with a talking burning bush), and the ennui of endless, pointless cocktail parties:

The guests of Sheila and Raymond Murray have extracted the pleasure from three hundred cigarettes, but have not troubled to take with them a thick, blue haze and loaded ash-trays. Of some ten pounds worth of alcohol there remains enough to dirty three dozen glasses; a slight smell; and a sticky patch on the rug where that inimitable droll Punch Hopkins has spilt a glass of Martini.

Our point in time-space is the point at which the room is no longer habitable but is inhabited; at which the desire to move is rather a desire to be still in another place; at which the desire to smoke is merely the desire not to smoke, and at which the present discomfort of being too hot can only be replaced by the prospective discomfort of being too cold.

Yet Balchin’s treatment of the war and its aftermath is also rich in fantastic imagination. He sets one scene with his leading characters in the role of Roman legionnaires bewildered by the behavior of the savages they encounter in their conquest of Briton. It’s streaked with anger and bitterness, as in the scene where propagandists from the Ministry of Defence give a slide-show talk to women in a munitions factory, showing them the results of their work (“We were unfortunately unable to photograph these–er–men until some time after one of this factory’s mines had exploded beneath them as they sat at a meal: But there is little doubt that they are Germans.” And there are moments of absurdist comedy, as in a scene where a zoo is set up in Hyde Park to allow American G.I.s to examine the British public in its native habitat–and vice versa.

Perhaps the funniest moment in the book is the opening scene of the play’s last act, “1947–(i.e., Onward),” set in a department store run by the now-ruling Labour Party and constrained by rationing, lowered expectations, and lingering destruction:

ANNE (entering the lift): Woollen dresses, please.

LIFT GIRL: Woolen dresses, silk dresses, addresses, redresses, third floor new building.

ANNE (making to get out): Oh, I’m sorry. Where is the new building?

LIFT GIRL: It isn’t built yet.

On the other hand, the writing becomes strident and monotonous in an over-long scene set as an episode of The Brains Trust radio program, in which a series of stereotypes (Business Man, Politician, Socialist, Priest, Artist) offer their views of how the world should work. As stilted as their visions sound, there is little that Balchin’s characters can offer as an alternative.

Which points to the artistic problem that undermines the ultimate power of Lord, I Was Afraid. As a Fascist tells one of Balchin’s characters in a scene from the Thirties, “You would have a world without wonder–without imagination–without glorious madness–without fury and noise and colour. And then you wonder why the world rejects you and turns to me.” Balchin and his characters reject all the various dogmas they encounter over the decades and Balchin rejects their lack of beliefs in turn–which leaves us in the end with … what? One by one, in the final scene, they plunge into the rising waters, in a futile attempt to swim to the Ark slowly disappearing on the horizon. Nihilism is perhaps the weakest of all foundations to build a work of art upon.


Lord, I Was Afraid, by Nigel Balchin
London: Collins, 1947

Fido Couchant, by P. B. Abercrombie (1961)

Cover of 'Fido Couchant' by P. B. AbercrombieI’ve reached the point where I’m no longer surprised to find that even after decades of looking for neglected books, I can still stumble across completely unfamiliar books and authors. A perfect example is P. B. (short for Patricia Barnes) Abercrombie, who wrote about eight novels, most of them comedies, between the early 1950s and the early 1970s. Angus Wilson once called her “the most interesting of our young women novelists,” and one reviewer called her 1959 novel, The Little Difference, “As enjoyable as a glass of champagne in the middle of a sunny morning when you ought to be working” (which ranks among the nicest things any reviewer has ever written about a book). All of her books were critical, if not financial successes, but even before her last novel, The Brou-Ha-Ha (1972), was published, her name was being mentioned in “what ever happened to” lists, and today, she has no mention in Wikipedia and rates a single unreviewed entry on Goodreads.

I picked out Fido Couchant (published in the U.S. by Doubleday under the title The Grasshopper Heart) from a display of Victor Gollancz books in the window of one of the few used bookstores still doing business on Charing Cross Road. When it was published, the Illustrated London News described it as “a modern comedy of the best kind, involving two marriages and the interplay of infidelity and basic love.” The two couples are Bea and Darcy, childless and living a somewhat glamorous life in London, and Emma and Stanley, both university educated but living in a grim coastal town on Stanley’s meager wages as a librarian. Bea scurries around town running errands for her mysterious boss, Mr. Finger, whose business always seems to have a faintly illicit air about it, and squeezing in a casual affair here and there. But when Darcy convinces himself that he has fallen in love with Emma, both couples’ cosy complacency is upset.

On one hand, it’s very sophisticated and as effervescent as champagne, but there are recurring reminders that one doesn’t have to probe too far below the surface to hit a grim, hard layer underlying all the fun. Stanley–who “had become used to the natural deference which many people pay to a handsome appearance,” becomes infatuated with a local teenage girl. He isolates himself from his wife, haunts the local coffee bar where the girl hangs out, and goes to the girl’s home one night and comes close to assaulting her. And though Bea dismisses her own flings with a flick of the wrist, her whole sense of security crumbles when she suspects that Darcy has fallen out of love with her.

In the depths of her misery, however, she sees a reminder that puts her problems in perspective:

“And I have to get on a bus, go down to the office, then to the Piccadilly … buy coffee on the way home … in spite of my suffering,” she thought, feeling that self-pity was entirely justified. At that moment, however, she suddenly saw the object upon which her eyes had been unseeingly fixed. The figure descending the hill haltingly before her was one she had seen before: that of an old man, his splayed crutches blocking the narrow pavement, his single leg painfully thumping along in halting, awkward strides. As the word suffering entered her mind she was looking at the threadbare seat of his trousers upon which was roughly pinned the empty trouser-leg. She was suddenly overcome by a sense of the luxury of a sheltered existence. The margin of her own security was not perhaps very wide: her own ability to support herself, the possibility of a little legacy, the generosity of friends. But it was spacious compared to some–perhaps to most. With a pang, as though she was going to have to leave it, she thought of her own pretty house, of the narrow, warmly carpeted stairs. For him, probably, it would be a matter of luck or cunning, when he returned to the squat grey building behind the spiked railings, to get the warm corner of an institution room, its cream-painted walls and ceiling stained an ochre colour, soot flakes caught in the wrinkled paintwork.

Considering how silly the title of Fido Couchant (which refers to the neighborhood mutt who lusts after Stanley and Emma’s purebred French poodle), there is something reassuring to know that there is a solid backbone beneath P. B. Abercrombie’s adulterous fun. I look forward to discovering more of her work.

You can get a sample of it in her short story, “Dear Mr. Peterhouse,” which leads off the 1955 collection, Pick of Today’s Short Stories, Volume 6, edited by John Pudney, and is available on the Internet Archive (link).


Fido Couchant, by P. B. Abercrombie
London: Victor Gollancz, 1961

The Rat, by G. M. A. Hewett (1904)

An illustration from "the Rat," by G.M. A. Hewett
Mr. Samuel H. T.

It’s something of a guilty pleasure to come across a children’s book that doesn’t exactly seem to have been written with children in mind. Take The Rat, by G. M. A. (George Mottram Arthur) Hewett, the first in a series of “Animal Autobiographies” published by Adam and Charles Black in the early 1900s.

I give due credit to the Reverend Hewett, an Anglican priest who spent his life on the staff of Winchester College, Oxford–first as house master and finally as college chaplain–between 1878 and his death in 1927. Though his narrator, Samuel H. T. (the H. is for the one paw he lost, the T. to that half of tail he lost to a cat), speaks with the graceful and moderated tone of the gentry (“I cannot help feeling that I am a good fellow and a keen sportsman”), he does not pretend to be more than vermin in the eyes of his readers. And he’s willing to acknowledge that there are a few aspects in which rats lack something in refinement:

… fathers count for very little among us. Very few rats ever see their father, and a good thing too, for he is just as likely as not to eat one of his own children if food is scarce, and sometimes his wife helps him. Just fancy how you would feel if your dad strolled into the nursery or schoolroom one day, with his hands in his pockets, whistling a cheerful tune, and then, when you all ran up to him, hoping to be taken out for a nice safe walk, suddenly seized and devoured the tenderest and juiciest of you!

On the other hand, rats do treat the death of their own with a delicacy that can serve as instruction to Samuel H. T.’s young human readers:

We hardly ever use the word dead if we can possibly avoid it. It is too horrid, and so common and vulgar, too. You can always distinguish a really well-bred rat by the way in which he describes an accident. ‘Where’s Jimmy to-day?” asks somebody. “Feeding the hungry” is a nice answer when somebody has gobbled him up. “How’s your wife to-day?” he asks somebody else. “Dancing in the pig-sty” would mean “Caught by the leg in a trap.” “Singing in the larder” is a way of saying “Squeaking in a cage.” “Lying down with a bad pain in her back” can mean either “Killed by a stick” or “Nipped by a dog,” though we generally call the latter accident “Playing with the puppy.” You see, we are hardly ever ill, so that there is very little chance of people failing to understand. Perhaps you could now tell me how to say prettily and politely that your sister was dangling in the air with a noose round her neck, or that Billy was squashed quite flat under a large stone. Mind you make him quite flat. I could do that easily. I must tell you my answer: “Playing at being a pancake.” Now you make a better and politer answer if you can.

An illustration from "the Rat" by G. M. A. Hewett

Indeed, Hewett’s rat doesn’t just teach his readers about manners: he instructs them in an admirable school of philosophy built around the uncertainties inherent in the life of a rat:

What a lot of “perhapses”! I love perhapses: they are so much nicer than knowing for certain. That is partly the reason why it seems to me that a tramp ought to be a happier man than you. You know all about your breakfast to-morrow: porridge, bacon and eggs, muffins and strawberry jam, coffee or tea—you can hardly put “perhaps” in once. But very often the whole of a tramp’s breakfast is “perhaps”; and although I am very fond of perhapses, I should not care to have nothing else for breakfast, however nicely it was cooked, unless they put an awful lot of sauce and trimmings round the side. And a rat is better off still. He never says anything without beginning with “Perhaps.” His whole life is so very perhapsy, though he can generally find something to eat, if only he is alive to eat it. We are really very particular about our food, when we have the chance of being particular, but if it comes to the worst there is hardly anything that will not do, until something nicer turns up.

Five other “animal autobiographies” were published A & C Black after The Rat:

Each book features twelve beautiful color illustrations but appears to have had a different illustrator. The ones in The Rat appear to be signed by an “S. Bagnot De La Berg,” but I can’t find a record of an artist with this name. Hewett must have been quite the jolly old sport, as his other work available on the Internet Archive, The Pedagogue at Play, features a frontispiece photo of himself sitting up in the snow, skies cattywampus in front of him. “There may be many spills” while skiing downhill, he cautions his reader. “I have had as many as fifteen in twenty minutes; not trifling stoppages, but good honest rollings in the snow.”


Animal Autobiographies: The Rat, by G. M. A. Hewett
London: Alan and Charles Black, 1904

“Death at Teatime,” by K. Arnold Price, from Little Reviews Anthology 1945

Death at Teatime

That afternoon
when everything stopped at four o’clock
the houses suddenly looked old as fossils
cold in the rigid sunlight transfixed from prehistoric time.

Sound
raved up in spate from College Green,
released from utterance
for there was now no more to be said:
released from laughter
for there would be no more quips.

Faces were floating
blind facades shuttered upon nothingness,
sense and spirit having slipped apart for ever;
and the dreaming trams went reeling by me
fleeing to their last termini,
for now there would be no going and returning,
no returning at evening with flowers from the mountains,
for all the ragged streamers of roads from Dublin
were blowing out upon a wind of death
to nowhere.

But the cyclists in College Green kept up their mesmeric cycling
moved by a tic of to and fro called living.
And through all that heaving, maggot-seething
superfluous spume of a city,
young women in telephone booths were ringing up their lovers
not knowing that from four o’clock that afternoon
love had been discontinued.

from The New British Poets, edited by Denys Val Baker
London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1945

Available on the Internet Archive: Link.

This is one of a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

K. Arnold Price was an Irish writer who only published two books: New Perspectives (1980) and The Captain’s Paramours (1987). When invited to name his favorite neglected book by The Guardian back in 2007, Colm Toibin wrote of New Perspectives,

This is a short Irish novel which deals entirely with private life; it is a middle-aged woman’s most subtle and sensuous and intelligent study of her relationship with her husband. I found it haunting at the time and I am still haunted by its stillness and rich cadences and powerful distinctions between levels of feeling, but I have only ever met two other people who have read it and they are both writers. It does not read like a first novel and has some of the hallmarks of a Bergman movie. The author, I later learnt, was 84 when it was published. She published only one other novel.

Toibin inspired several bloggers to locate the book, and you can find their assessments here: The Mookse and the Gripse; Just William’s Luck; and Pechorin’s Journal. Price published poems and short stories in English and Irish literary magazines from the 1940s through the 1980s, but seems never to have gained much recognition aside from an entry in an encyclopedia of Irish literature.

Kenneth Fearing, Poet

If poetry didn’t have a bad rap in the eyes of American readers and publishers, the poems of Kenneth Fearing would never go out of print. They’d be shelved alongside the crime novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and read just as often. One of his novels–The Big Clock (1946)–has attained that status. It’s both an NYRB Classic (2006) and included in the Library of America Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s. And another of his novels, less noir than surrealist, Clark Gifford’s Body, is also available as an NYRB Classic.

Not that they’re out of print at the moment. Thanks to the Library of America’s American Poets Project, a fine collection edited by poet and biographer Robert Polito has been available, if somewhat sporadically, since 2004. In fact, you can grab a copy for half price ($10) now, which is partly why I’m deviating today from my usual practice of sticking to books that are out of print: Kenneth Fearing: Selected Poems.

If you’re cheap like me, you can also find a number of Fearing’s poetry collections online at the Internet Archive and the Open Library: Poems (1936), with an introduction by the also-sporadically-out-of-print Edward Dahlberg; Afternoon of a Pawnbroker (1943) (which is probably my favorite title of a book of poems); New and Selected Poems (1956), the last collection published before his death; and even the Library of America collection, Selected Poems (2004). The only complete collection, however, Complete Poems (1994), from the Phoenix Living Poet Series, is scarce and goes for over $40 a copy. His other collections, for those interested, are generally available used for less than the Complete Poems: Angel Arms (1929); Dead Reckoning (1938), Collected Poems of Kenneth Fearing (1940); and Stranger at Coney Island (1948).

Born in Oak Park, Illinois, outside Chicago, Fearing moved to New York City in 1924 and survived by working as a writer and reporter for any place that could pay his rent. His first attempts at fiction were knock-off stories for pulp magazines with names like Paris Nights and Snappy. He also got involved with radical organizations and often wrote movie and book reviews for New Masses. Between 1938 and 1943 he published a book a year. By the end of the 1930s, he’d worked his way into the mainstream of magazine work, spending time on the staff of both Newsweek and Time. The latter furnished much of his inspiration for The Big Clock, which is about the conspiracies and corruptions spun out by an ambitious publisher who might be mistaken for Time’s Henry Luce.

Something about the guy sparked the interest of other writers. At least three different novelists incorporated him into their novels: W. L. Rivers in Death of a Young Man (1927); Margery Latimer for This is My Body (1930); and Albert Halper for Union Square (1933). And in 1935, Joseph Mitchell, still working for the New York World-Telegraph, profiled him in a piece titled, “‘Drunken Poet’ of Greenwich Village is Not the Most Respected of Singers.”

The fact that Fearing was already known as the “Drunken Poet” at the age of 33, with just two books to his name, gives you a clue to one of the reasons his work fell into neglect. Like Delmore Schwartz and too many other fine writers of that hard-drinking time, Fearing tossed his life and talents on the pyre of alcohol, which happily consumed them and went on looking for victims. In his remarkable book, American Night: The Literary Left in the Era of the Cold War (which features Fearing on its cover), Alan Wald writes of Fearing: “… his sensational alcohol addition was evident from his college days, records in memoirs and the diary entries of his friends over forty years, a prevailing feature of autobiographical characters in his novels, and confirmed by his autopsy.” The one time he hit the jackpot in a big way, making the equivalent of half a million dollars in today’s terms for the film rights to The Big Clock, he quickly blew it on booze and bad business deals. As Nicholas Christopher writes in his introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of The Big Clock, “Eventually he became a fall-down drunk who suffered frequent blackouts and for long stretches might not bathes, wash his hair, brush his teeth, or change his clothes.” When he was dying of lung cancer and melanoma in a hotel room in New York City, he tried to dull the pain with cough syrup laced with codeine, the favorite over the counter narcotic of its day.

This kind of destruction not only takes its toll on the artist but on his family, friends, and fans. People find it easier to tune out than to hang in, particularly when the creative work dwindles and gets replaced by inertia or mania. It’s hard to look past the ranting tone of Fearing’s introduction to New and Selected Poems, titled “Reading, Writing, and the Rackets”:

The revolution that calls itself the Investigation had its rise in the theaters of communication, and now regularly parades its images across them, reiterates its gospel from them, daily and hourly marches through the corridors of every office, files into the livingroom of every home….

The only acts the Investigation does not perform in public are those intimate financial transactions by which each great and little Investigator reaps the just reward due his superior insight, virtue, and the grave responsibility of exercising so much power. There, the reticence is rarely broken, and then only in moments of awkward, but human, misunderstanding. Yet that reserve may stem logically enough from a cardinal tenet in the gospel advanced by every tribunal of the Investigation: The need for secrecy is great, and growing.

Today, however, it’s possible to read this and not necessarily pass it off as ravings. As Polito has noted, Fearing’s work in many ways anticipates the work of Gaddis, Pynchon, and De Lillo in its depiction of “the systems of corporate life, offices, business, technology, work, money, and desire.” In a Poetry in America interview with Polito on YouTube, Elisa New says that Fearing captured “the moment when Americans realized they lived inside of systems, and that makes Fearing the perfect poet. What’s terrible in a way, what’s existentially terrible, as well as being hungry and in fear of losing your house, is that you don’t control your life–the banks do.” Which is another reason why it’s worth taking a look again at Fearing.

But the primary reason to take a look at Fearing’s poetry is that it is like almost no other American poetry I know (not that I am an expert). Fearing’s poetry drew its inspiration not from Keats, Whitman, or Eliot but from talkies, radio, tabloids, comic strips, and street talk. Take what is perhaps his most famous poem, “St. Agnes’ Eve,” from Angel Arms:

The dramatis personae include a fly-specked Monday evening,
   A cigar store with stagnant windows,
   Two crooked streets,
   Six policemen and Louie Glatz.
Bass drums mumble and mutter an ominous portent
   As Louie Glatz holds up the cigar store and backs out with
$14.92.
Officer Dolan noticed something suspicious, it is supposed,
   And ordered him to halt,
   But dangerous, handsome, cross-eye’d Louie the rat
Spoke with his gat,
   Rat-a-tat-tat—
   Rat-a-tat-tat
   And Dolan was buried as quickly as possible.
But Louie didn’t give a good god damn,
   He ran like a crazy shadow on a shadowy street
   With five policemen off that beat
   Hot on his trail, going Blam! Blam!-blam!

It’s hard not to imagine Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney reading that. Just the titles of Fearing’s poems make me want to read them: “Jack Knuckles Falters But Reads Own Statement at His Execution While Wardens Watch”; “Lunch with the Sole Survivor”; “Agent No. 174 Resigns”; “Payday in the Morgue”; “Cracked Record Blues”; “Travelogue in a Shooting-Gallery”; “A Dollar’s Worth of Blood, Please”; “Love, 20¢ the First Quarter Mile”; “Confession Overhead in a Subway”; “The Juke-Box Spoke and the Juke-Box Said.” Open any of Fearing’s books of poetry and you are instantly carried back to a street in mid-century Manhattan, usually in the wee hours of the morning:

4 A. M.

It is early evening, still, in Honolulu, and in London,
   now, it must be well past dawn;
But here, in the Riviera Cafe, on a street that has been
   lost and forgotten very long ago, as the clock moves
   steadily toward closing time,
The spark of life is very low, if it burns at all—

And here we are, four lost and forgotten customers in
   this place that surely will never again be found,
Sitting, at ten-foot intervals, along this lost and
   forgotten bar,
(Wishing the space were further still, for we are still too
   close for comfort)
Knowing that the bartender, and the elk’s head, and the
   picture of some forgotten champion
(All gazing at something of interest beyond us and
   behind us, but very far away)
Must somehow be aware of us, too, as we stare at the
   cold interior of our lives, reflected in the mirror
   beneath and in back of them—

Hear how lonely the radio is, as its voice talks on, and
   on, unanswered;
Notice how futile is the nickel dropped in the juke-box
   by a customer,
How its music proves again that one’s life is either too
   humdrum or too exciting, too empty or too full,
   too this, too that;
Only the cat that has been sleeping in the window, now
   yawning and strecthing and trotting to the
   kitchen to sleep again—
Only this living toy knows what we feel, knows what we
   are, really knows what we only think we know.

And soon, too soon, it will be closing time, and the door will
   be locked;
Leaving each of us will be alone, then, with something
   too ravaging for a name
(Our golden, glorious futures, perhaps)—

Lock the door now and put out the lights, before some
   terrible stranger enters and gives, to each of us, a
   a question that must be answered with the truth—

They say the Matterhorn at dawn, and the Northern
   Lights of the Arctic, are things that should be
   seen;
They say, they say — in time, you will hear them
   say anything, and everything.
What would the elk’s head, or the remote bartender say,
   if they could speak?
The booth where last night’s love affair began, the spot
   where last year’s homicide occurred, are empty
   now, and still.

(No wonder that “4 A. M.” is often reprinted below a reproduction of Edward Hopper’s iconographic painting, Nighthawks.)

Fearing’s America has not an ounce of nostalgia in it. It’s a world of sleepless nights, hangovers, relentless capitalism at times indistinguishable from crime, and an unending sense of dread:

First you bite your fingernails. And then you comb your
   hair again. And then you wait. And wait.
(They say, you know, that first you lie. And then you
   steal, they say. And then, they say, you kill.)
from American Rhapsody (4)

And, in response, his Americans turn to their drugs of choice:

A La Carte
Some take to liquor, some turn to prayer,
Many prefer to dance, others to gamble, and a few
   resort to gas or the gun.
(Some are lucky, and some are not.)

Name your choice, any selection from one to twenty-five:
Music from Harlem? A Viennese waltz on the slot-
   machine phonograph at Jack’s Bard and Grill? Or a
   Brahm’s Concerto over WXV?
(Many like it wild, others sweet.)

Champagne for supper, murder for breakfast, romance
   for lunch and terror for tea,
This is not the first time, nor will it be the last time the
   world has gone to hell.
(Some can take it, and some cannot.)

Though Fearing’s work suffered in his last years, and no new poems were published after the handful that close New and Selected Poems, his anxiety burned brightly to the end. The last poem in that book, “Family Album (4),” subtitled “The Investigators” radiates with suspicion and the sense of a lost self:

Close your eyes tight, turn around three times, reach
   and pour and stir,
(It says in the rules, one wish per man)
Whatever it is, this is bound to be something final and
   big,
Open the valve, who’s got a match?—

HOW DO YOU, WHEN DO YOU, WHERE DO YOU WHAT?
WHO DO YOU WHO, WHO DO YOU WHO, WHO DO YOU WHO?

Kenneth Fearing died in Lennox Hill Hospital in Manhattan in 1961. He was 58. Another exhibit in the case for William Carlos Williams’ argument that the pure products of America go crazy (using the Merriam Webster definition (“full of cracks or flaws”)).

Obituaries, by William Saroyan (1979)

When he was a young man with aspirations to become a writer, William Saroyan set himself a daily task to write for at least an hour and produce at least a few pages, no matter how good, bad, or irrelevant the results. It established a discipline that served him well for over fifty years, helping produce dozens of books and plays and over a hundred short stories. It also, unfortunately, established a habit of writing whatever came to mind and calling it work. As Bob Secter wrote in his Los Angeles Times obituary, Saroyan approached writing and life in the same way–“spontaneously, impetuously and sometimes sloppily.”

As the decades past, this led to an increasing tendency of Saroyan’s writing to read like a random walk through his thoughts, particularly as his output shifted from fiction to autobiography. Between 1962 and 1978, he published ten books that were either memoirs or journals or a combination of both. A constant theme through many of them was death–the death of family and friends, and the approach of his own death (viz. Not Dying (1963)).

So it was not entirely unexpected that he would decide, in early 1977, to set death as the subject for his daily writing assignment. Specifically, he chose the “Necrology” list in the January 5, 1977 issue of Variety for his inspiration:

I am a subscriber to a weekly paper called Variety. The 71st Anniversary Edition, dated January 5, 1977, arrived a few days ago, and I examined with fascination–on the last page, 164–the names in alphabetical order in the annual feature entitled Necrology. I had predicted that among those listed would be 34 men or women that I had met. I was not far off the mark: there were 28. But many of the 200 or more others listed were of course people I knew about, for Variety is the paper, the Bible, as they say, of show business, celebrated in song by Irving Berlin. Well, I thought, I’m very well along into my 68th year, hadn’t I better write about the people I know in Variety’s Necrology of 1976? So that is what I am doing.

Saroyan proceeded to produce 135 pieces, each about 2-3 pages long, running through the list from Alessandro (Victor) to Zukor (Adolph). Names he recognized and those of acquaintances fortunately outnumbered those he didn’t know, but fairly often he had to admit ignorance and plow on regardless, hoping his thoughts might lead somewhere interesting:

The first name on the list is Victor Alessandro, but I never had the honor. I never met him, never saw him, and therefore cannot say anything about him that might be possible had I met him. What might that have been? Well, the fact of him, the reality of him, the reality of the substance of him, or if you choose the myth, his appearance, his face, his voice, his eyes, and anything else that was there.

In this case, it was a false hope. Saroyan wanders off into the thickets, stumbles across a memory that he was in the Army when Stalin met with Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta, speculates “Perhaps everybody is everybody, no matter who,” and ends by noting, “The third name is Geza Anda, a fine name for a fine variety of reasons, but I have no idea who Geza Anda was, male or female, actor, clown, or what.”

William Saroyan, late 1970s
I suspect that readers new to Saroyan usually give up at this point, and you can’t blame them. Kirkus Reviews called the book “often close to unreadable.” But for those who hang in, the voice grows mesmerizing, his run-on sentences and rambling thoughts drawing the reader along through life after life, flashing back to diverse moments and people from Saroyan’s life, all the while returning to the fact that the days draw on toward an unavoidable end. And as the pages and names accumulate, it becomes clear that Obituaries is, as Publishers Weekly’s review put it, “an astonishing book, a profound and even original meditation about death and our only possible answer to it: the way we live.”

Remembering Saroyan in a 2008 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, his long-time friend, the novelist Herbert Gold wrote of Obituaries:

For me, three short pages, Chapter 106 … the rhythm, sly humor and shrugged-off grief, the sad recapitulation of the pleasures of simple existence, the exalted awareness of mortality, an offhand but measured conviction of moral responsibility are a peak of Saroyan’s long meditation on the sense and responsibility of life. These three pages, which I’ve sometimes read aloud to would-be writers, remind me of “Euthyphro,” Plato’s dialogue on the responsibility of fathers and sons – but with Saroyan’s unique, wise-ass sideswipes at the whole deal. “Reader, take my advice, don’t die, just don’t die, that’s all, it doesn’t pay.”

It’s worth excerpting the closing passage of Chapter 106 to give a sense of just what Gold meant:

And then Johnny Mercer died, and I know him. I knew Johnny Mercer, I saw him sometimes at parties in Hollywood, and sometimes at Stanley Rose’s bookstore, and sometimes at various other places. He wrote the lyrics, the words, to many great songs, but he also sang those songs, and he sang them well. He made good money, but his father died broke and in debt, somewhere in the South, possibly in Atlanta, and quietly Johnny Mercer went to work and paid every one of his father’s debts, even though legally he was in no way obliged to do so, it was a simple matter of pride, of a son not wanting his father to have left anybody holding the bag, and once at a party I told him that I thought he was one of the great writers of words for songs, one of the really good singers of songs, but I had lately heard about what he had done for his father, and that was the thing I now admired about him above all other things, and I was glad that he had not been able to suppress the news of his devotion to his father, and to his own sense of family, as he had wanted to do, for it is necessary for all of us to hear about such news, and Johnny Mercer in his shy way smiled and thanked me, and we talked about the stuff people always talk about at parties, especially Hollywood parties, and that stuff is never without its comedy, that is the best thing about all talk at all parties, perhaps on account of the booze, and the fact that everybody is free again for a little while, and it is permissible and in order to talk about the funny stuff in the world, what somebody said to somebody else at a time when something else was expected of him traditionally har har har har har har. Christ, reader, take my advice, don’t die, Johnny Mercer died, but don’t you, and don’t get the kind of headaches that made Johnny Mercer agree to go to the highest branch of the medical profession for the latest kind of examination and then don’t be told yes, yes sir, yes Johnny Mercer, we’ve found it, you have a brain tumor, it has to come out, because it may be benign but also may not be, and in any case, it appears to be the thing that is hurting your soul by way of pain in your head, so Johnny Mercer agreed and they did their good work, and he died, a great artist, a great man, a great son, a great living member of the human race died, and he is gone, and don’t you do it, and don’t think you may have a brain tumor, too, because thinking about it may start a little one growing in your head, watch out for giving the mystery of cells any hint of fear, because those cells may be like dogs and if they sense you’re afraid of them, they’ll go to work and start multiplying in a kind of disorganized way and hurt you so badly you will risk dying on the operating table, and then lose your bet, and die. Don’t do it.

Not every page of Obituaries manages to squeeze so much into a few lines, but enough do to make it a surprisingly moving experience. Sometimes Saroyan wanders around aimlessly. Sometimes he wanders around and manages to sneak up on himself. And sometimes he manages to sneak up on us, too. I have moments when I have a sudden vision of contracting some devastating disease and shake it off with a shudder, but until I read this passage, I didn’t realize that I was afraid that these thoughts “may be like dogs and if they sense you’re afraid of them, they’ll go to work and start multiplying in a kind of disorganized way and hurt you so badly….”

“Why do I write? Why am I writing this book?” Saroyan asks at one point. His answer is simple: “To keep from dying, of course. That is why we get up in the morning.” And so he kept on getting up and working at his daily writing task, never quite knowing where it would lead but reassured by the thought that at least he was keeping death at bay. As Lawrence Lee and Barry Gifford relate in Saroyan: A Biography, In April 1981, just a few weeks before his death, Saroyan called the San Francisco bureau of the Associated Press to dictate what he wanted to appear in his obituary as his last words: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”

Obituaries is available free in e-book formats on the Open Library: Link.


Obituaries, by William Saroyan
Berkeley, California: Creative Arts Book Company

Herbert Gold’s memoir of Saroyan in the San Francisco Chronicle from 2008

“Lament,” by Brenda Chamberlain, from The New British Poets

Lament

My man is a bone ringed with weed.
Thus it was on my bridal night,
That the sea, risen to a green wall
At our window, quenching love’s new delight,
Stood curved between me and the midnight call
Of him who said I was so fair
He could drown for joy in the salt of my hair.
We sail, he said,
Like the placid dead
That have long forgotten the marriage bed.
On my bridal night
Brine stung the window.
Alas, in every night since then
These eyes have rained
For him who made my heart sing
At the lifting of the latch,
For him that will not come again
Weary from the sea.
The wave tore his bright flesh in her greed:
My man is a bone ringed with weed.

from The New British Poets, edited by Kenneth Rexroth
New York: New Directions, 1949

Available on the Internet Archive Link.

This is one of a series of neglected poems taken from the Internet Archive.

Free E-books of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage — and a technical note

dorothy_richardson_plaqueAlmost two years ago, I embarked upon my most ambitious and, it turned out, most rewarding reading task, working through the thirteen books of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. (Richardson referred to it as a single novel and each book as a chapter.) At the time I wrote:

… while a complete scholarly edition of Richardson’s work may become available ten years from now, today the situation is little better than it was fifty years ago, when Louise Bogan wrote, “Merely to get at Dorothy Richardson’s novels … has, of late, become so difficult that the waning of her reputation may be partly put down to the absence of her books themselves and data on their author.” The best complete edition, issued in four volumes by J. M. Dent in 1967, goes for $250 and more, if you can find it. For about $50, you can assemble the four paperback volumes issued as Virago Modern Classics in 1979, but they tend to be “well read” copies. There was also a cheap paperback set published by Popular Library in the U. S. in the 1970s, but it’s more of a wreck than a reference.

I also provided links to free electronic editions of the first seven books, courtesy of the Internet Archive. However, browsing through the archive recently, I discovered that twelve of the thirteen books are now available, thanks to the Digital Library of India, which scanned in the 1938 edition published by J. M. Dent:

If you want to undertake your own pilgrimage through Pilgrimage, you will still have to supplement these with Volume 4, either from the 1967 Dent hardback or from the Virago Modern Classics paperback editions, which includes the posthumously assembled thirteen novel, March Moonlight.

This is a good place, by the way, to mention that anyone who has benefited from the access to free electronic texts provided by the Internet Archive should take the opportunity to donate to its continued support.

Now for the technical note. On occasion, I get asked what e-reader I use, given the number of books I’ve covered from the Archive. I started out with a Nook not long after Barnes and Noble released the first one in 2009, primarily because it was the cheapest one, and then moved to a Kindle a year later because I was given one. Both had black and white displays, which were fine for books in EPUB/Kindle formats but lousy or useless for PDFs.

And this, for me, has always been the biggest drawback in using either to read material from the Internet Archive. Although virtually all texts on the Archive are available in formats compatible with e-readers, virtually all of these are also unedited outputs from optical character reader (OCR) scanners, which means they’re full of typos and page headers, footers, and other extraneous material. If the original text in the scanned book is clear and the person doing the scanning careful, these distractions are tolerable, but in too many cases, the output is just too difficult or tiresome to read in text format.

Because of this, I gave up on e-reading entirely for a while. But the thought that there were so many good books that I could access for free (and by now, the space that physical books take up is almost more of a concern than their cost) kept nagging me. When a friend showed me a PDF document on an iPad, I was tempted to go the Apple route, but cost and my concern for compatibility with my otherwise Windows-based household stopped me.

I finally found the happy solution after looking at a few Android tablets. I bought a used Lenovo 10″ tablet for about $110 and after trying out several different PDF readers settled on Xodo. I’ve been using this for over a year now and am completely content with it. The tablet is both big enough and small enough for comfortable reading, the display and size make most PDFs look much like the original printed page, and Xodo is very easy to use for annotation and highlighting. I’ve also moved my e-book files to Calibre which, when combined with a cloud-based storage service, gives me the ability to access my e-library from anywhere on the Internet. With the right plugin, Calibre also allows access to the locked PDF format used by the Open Library.

While I still prefer a real book to an e-book, the advantages of the 10″ tablet, a good PDF reader, and Calibre have definitely increased the proportion of e-books in my reading to a steady 25 to 30 percent, and I can highly recommend this solution to anyone who’s still on the fence about getting into e-reading.

The Collected Stories of Rhys Davies (1955)

Cover of 'The collected Stories of Rhys Davies'We spent our Christmas week in a cottage in north Wales and I could not pass the time without taking the opportunity to read a long out-of-print collection of stories by one of Wales’ finest writers of the 20th century, Rhys Davies. The Collected Stories of Rhys Davies is one of the many perhaps not entirely out of copyright books that have been added to the Internet Archive by the Public Library of India project.

Davies is one of the rare examples of a writer who let himself be driven almost wholly by his artistic instincts without going broke. He rarely sought work and even less often cared about popular taste. Davies was realistic about the consequences of his artistic choices. In his preface to The Collected Stories, he wrote that, “Short stories are a luxury which only those writers who fall in love with them can afford to cultivate.” Yet he was able to keep publishing steadily through a career of fifty years and, on occasion, get well paid for it. At one point in the early 1960s, his sales to The New Yorker alone earned him $3,881, which translates to nearly $32,000 by today’s standard.

Although Meic Stephens wrote a very interesting biography, Rhys Davies: A Writer’s Life (2014), Davies’ life was largely uneventful. He did manage to live relatively undisturbed as a homosexual at a time when that was not easy to do in England, but there were no great romances or dramas in his relationships. He had few close friends, but perhaps his closest was a fellow writer, Anna Kavan, whose struggles with heroin and mental illnesses perhaps provided enough drama to compensate for its lack in Davies’ life. In an obituary published anonymously in the Times, another friend and fellow writer, Kay Dick, described Davies as “a sweet-souled man of immense courtesy and loyalty … a gentle man, full of compassion, an artist in every fibre of his being….”

In the forty-three stories collected here are tales of comedy and tragedy, tales set in the hills and mining towns of Wales where Davies grew up, in the busy metropolis of London where he spent most of his adult life, and (a few) in France, where he spent some time in the last 1920s in the company of the ailing D. H. Lawrence and his wife. Of the comic stories, only a few, and those brief, come off as little more than yarns. The rest are human comedies in the best sense: the comedy that so often arises when people are simply themselves. In “A Death in the Family,” for example, the children of a near-penniless old man come together in part to be with him in his last moments but more importantly, to put their claims on what’s left of his furniture. It does not go well, as you can imagine, and from the day of the funeral on, “an eternal feud was maintained in the family.” In “The Dilemma of Catherine Fuchsias,” the women of the town rebel when a wealthy local man, fallen dead in the house of his mistress, turns out to have willed money to buy a new organ for the church: “Never would I use such an organ–no, not even with gloves on!”

Most of the stories, however, lean to the tragic side. In a study of Davies’ fiction, Wynn Thomas has described Davies as “a deeply troubled man”: “To read these stories in bulk is to wonder at their bleakness….” There is perhaps no more obvious example of this than “The Boy with the Trumpet,” a story set in London in the late days of World War Two. The protagonist forecasts a future far grimmer than even post-war England proved to be:

“I believe,” he said, “there’ll be big waves of crime after the war. You can’t have so much killing, so much teaching to destroy, and then stop it suddenly. . . . The old kinds of crime, and new crimes against the holiness in the heart. There’ll be fear, and shame, and guilt, guilt. People will be mad. There’s no such thing as victory in war. There’s only misery, chaos and suffering for everybody, and then the payment. . . . There’s only one victory–over the evil in the heart. And that’s a rare miracle.” His voice faltered in defeat. “I’ve been trying to make the attempt. But the air I breathe is full of poison.”

At the story’s end, his vision is of a world where all hope and possibility of spiritual relief was gone: “He saw himself the inhabitant of a wilderness where withered hands could lift in guidance no more. There were no more voices and all the paps of earth were dry.”

Davies had a gift for pulling tragedy out of comedy. In “The Dark World,” two Welsh boys develop a fascination with viewing corpses. They troll the nearby towns: “they would search through the endless rows houses for windows covered with white sheets, the sign that death was within, and when a house was found thus, they would knock at the door and respectfully ask if they might see the dead.” Although they act with great solemnity when with the family, once outside they scurry away in delight, comparing notes on the condition of each body. When, however, they come to see the body of a neighbor, a man with whom one of the boys has shared some experiences, the fun of the game falls away abruptly: “Something broke in him. He put up his arm, buried his head in it, and cried. He cried in terror, in fear and in grief. There was something horrible in the dark world.”

In the decades since his death in 1978, Davies has come to be celebrated in his native land. The Rhys Davies Trust, founded by Stephens, supports the publication of authoritative editions of his works and encourages the work of young Welsh writers. The Welsh Writers’ Trust and Literature Wales embrace his work and hold him up as inspiration. Davies’ own relationship was more complicated. He once remarked to an interviewer that,

Across the border, in Wales, books–and especially novels–are looked upon as frivolous unnecessary things that cost money to obtain, the frequently encourage sin and blasphemy and provoke indolence, that sometimes even date to criticise the purity of Welsh life.

In his preface to The Collected Stories, Davies offered a wonderful analogy from the difference between short stories and novels: “Compared with the novel, that great public park so often complete with draughty spaces, noisy brass band and unsightly litter, the enclosed and quiet short story garden is of small importance, and never has been much more.” And with this post, I close the gate on a very enjoyable year spent in this garden, which has given me just a glimpse of the wealth of fine short story writers whose work remains to be discovered. I plan on returning many times in future.


The Collected Stories of Rhys Davies
London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1955

Chrstimas Eve, by Alistair Cooke (1952)

Cover of Christmas Eve by Alistair Cooke

Christmas Eve collects three of Alistair Cooke’s Christmas-time stories from his legendary BBC “Letters from America” broadcast. I listened to the audiobook version of the collection, Letters from America, 1946-1004, recently, and saddened at the thought that his sublimely calm, balanced voice is no longer with us. But this last year would surely have been tough even for him.

Though Christmas Eve is packaged like a children’s book, neither Cooke’s stories nor the wonderful illustrations by Marc Simont are children’s fare. The first story is about an ex-banker, wiped out by the Great Depression and living in a flophouse in the Bowery, who takes a department store Santa job and then celebrates by commandeering a yellow cab and careening around Manhattan. The second is about a Hollywood screenwriter’s “epic” journey to get to his sister’s home in Connecticut by midnight Christmas Eve. What might have seemed epic to Cooke and his listeners in the early fifties seems pretty much like what one out of three people trying to fly home at Christmas experience every year now.

The third is a little fable about an olde New Amsterdammer named Van Dam and his three daughters and his present-day (1952) counterpart, and hinges on whether you think there’s something inherently funny about a name like Van Dam. Well, those were more innocent days in some ways.

The real pleasure in Christmas Eve is not the stories but the voice of the author and the spirit of the illustrations. Treat yourself this weekend: go to the BBC’s archive of “Letters from America” broadcasts and experience this mad world viewed through sane and tolerant eyes.


Christmas Eve, by Alistair Cooke
New York City: Knopf, 1952

The Collected Stories of T. O. Beachcroft (1946)

Graham Greene once wrote that T. O. (Thomas Owen) Beachcroft was “likely to become, after Mr. H. E. Bates, the most distinguished short-story writer in this country.”

Well, this wasn’t one of his best predictions. Beachcroft’s last collection of stories was published over sixty years ago and his work has vanished, aside from a rare story included in an anthology. It’s hard to put one’s finger on just what led to this neglect, but a quick comparison with Bates–with whom he had much in common when it came to his choice of social classes and settings–reveals two obvious deficiencies: a lack of bestsellers and a lack of film and television adaptations. One reason that so much of Bates’ work is still in print is that his books–and particularly several of his novels–were popular with both the reading public and producers looking for source material. Beachcroft’s novels, on the other hand, gained little notice even when they first came out, and I suspect that there was enough similarity with Bates’ work that Beachcroft’s stories were just too easily to overlook. An excellent sample, The Collected Stories of T. O. Beachcroft, however, can be found for free online at the Internet Archive (link).

Although Beachcroft came from a solidly middle-class background, attended Balliol, and worked in advertising and broadcasting, he was better at writing about the working class. He had a good ear for the dialogue of people used to pinching pennies and a different moral code from that of stolid Anglican churchgoers:

“Come on, Elsie,” said Phil, “don’t get behind. We’re nearly there.”
“I’ve dropped a parcel,” said Elsie.”
“Here,” said Phil, “give it me.”
He picked it up and took off the wrapping.
“Why,” he said, “it’s a kid’s motor, toy omnibus. What are all those parcels ? Can’t you leave ’em somewhere? What’s this motor for?”
“Why,” said Elsie, “I mustn’t lose that: that’s for my little Charlie–he’ll be ever so pleased to see that.”
“Your Charlie?” said Phil. “What do you—mean?”
“My little boy–I was taking all these toys home for him and the baby.
“You got two kids?”
“Yes–three years old, and ten months.”
“What the sweet hell?” began Phil, and stopped.
“Here,” he said, “take that glove off.” He snatched her hand.
“Oh, you’re hurting.”
“Hurtin’–you bitch: you ought to be killed. Look at that–married woman!”
from “A Glass of Stout”

He also knew that a life of work could be more than mere drudgery and mindless clock-punching. In “Busting Him One,” for example, his protagonist is a master mechanic with more respect for his machines than for the foreman who tries to maintain his authority through bullying and bravado:

He had a lathe in almost constant use, remaking, re-turning, regrinding, re-edging a number of the cutting and punching tools which shaped and stamped the tins as they went through. There were dozens of different patterns, and several sizes were needed on each machine, according to the thickness of the material and variations in speed and exact effect that was needed. This part of his work was highly skilled, and he had to know all the machines and all their tricks and habits backwards. It was his extra grasp of the complete work that all the machines in his shop were handling that had got him out of the line five years before: just as somewhere in an orchestra there’s one man who knows the whole score well enough to conduct a performance.

T. O. Beachcroft, 1947
Many of his stories take place at work, and the variety of jobs worked by Beachcroft’s characters demonstrates that his time in advertising had allowed him to get around to quite a number of settings, from white collar (doctor, cancer researcher, priest) to blue (publican, machinist, sailor, carpenter, farmer, soldier) and even to jobless (panhandler, homeless men). He knew the sight of men coming home from a day working in the fields: “… brown and yellow and gnarled. They looked like roots and tubers freshly taken from the ground, with the earth still clinging to them.”

And he knew the same England that Orwell described in The Road to Wigan Pier, the England of bleak economic and spiritual depression:

Then he saw the wheeling shadow of the hard times swing across his town and settle on men’s homes like a blight. The hungry thousands with sunken eyes and faces pressed round and called to him–from cheap dosses and cheerless wards and crypts that took in the destitute, from the open, from doorsteps and prison cells where they had been scattered. And he felt his own life merge into the lives of the many thousands of men like him: once whole, and now broken.

Perhaps what condemned Beachcroft to neglect was what he was best at: simple, undemonstrative stories told in subtle shades, rather than dramatic effects or social causes. As poet and novelist Stevie Smith wrote of one of his later collections, “Simplicity is the word for Mr. Beachcroft’s stories, but it is a poet’s simplicity, the most subtle in the world.” Such simplicity, sadly, may take infinite care to create, but can also be too easy to take any notice of. And so T. O. Beachcroft joins the ranks of such neglected masters as Anne Goodwin Winslow, Isabel Bolton, John Guest, Herbert Clyde Lewis, and dozens of others mentioned on this site.


The Collected Stories of T. O. Beachcroft
London: John Lane – The Bodley Head, 1946

Tomato Cain and Other Stories, by Nigel Kneale (1949)

Nigel Kneale is best known now for his novels and screenplays featuring the alien-battling scientist, Dr. Quartermass, but his first book, the collection Tomato Cain and Other Stories was considered remarkable enough to merit a foreword by Elizabeth Bowen:

Within the last few years, readers have become less shy of the short story. That this form of fiction is also a form of art had fairly long ago been recognised; what is more important, from the point of view of popular favour, is that the high potential of entertainment in a good collection of stories may now be seen. There exists, too, a growing body of people who no longer turn to a book in search of “escape” but are genuinely interested in writing—who value craftsmanship and react to originality. To such readers, the short story—in its present rather fascinating position half-way between tradition and experiment—must particularly appeal.

The experimentary story-writer, lately, has in fact been given a good deal of rope: that the best use has invariably been made of this I cannot say. There has been a danger that, because of its literary privilege, the short story might fall under a certain literary blight, and become an example of too much prose draped around an insufficiently vital feeling or a trumped-up, insufficiently strong idea. The declared reaction against plot —as constraining, rigid or artificial—was once good up to a point, but possibly went too far: the fact that a story must be a story was overlooked. There are now
signs of an equally strong (and, I think, healthy) reaction against plotlessness. Of this Nigel Kneale’s stories are symptomatic.

Indeed, in one sense, these tales in Tomato Cain show a return to the great main stream of the English story tradition—with which one associates Kipling, Wells, Saki, Somerset Maugham. When I say that Nigel Kneale’s stories have plot, I mean that they make their effect by the traditional elements of invention, tension, a certain amazement and, ultimately, surprise. Like his great predecessors, he is impersonal, not using his art either for self-expression or exhibition. His art is the art of narration—the world’s oldest. He knows how to rouse interest; and, which is still rarer, knows how to hold it. He is adept to giving a situation a ?nal twist. These Tomato Cain stories vary in quality, as stories in any collection must; but, personally, I ?nd the author guilty of not one single story which bogs down.

The writer of stories of this type must be bold; he disdains the shelter of ambiguity; it is essential that each of his pieces should come off. He is gambling—in an honourable sense, for are not Kipling, Wells, Saki, Somerset Maugham gamblers also?—on the originality of his imagination, on his power to grip, on the persuasiveness of his manner of story-telling. It might be too much to say that all the world’s classic stories have had an element of the preposterous about them; one might safely say that any memorable story carried something which had to be put across. A part of the fascination of Nigel Kneale’s story-telling is that he takes long chances ; a part of the satisfaction of it is that in almost all cases he justifies the risks.

This writer is a young Manxman. He has grown up in, and infuses into his stories, an atmosphere which one can cut with a knife. He is not dependent on regionalism—not all of his work has an Isle of Man setting—but it would appear that he draws strength from it: his work at its best has the ?avour, raciness, “body” that one associates with the best of the output from Ireland, Wales, Brittany, and the more remote, untouched and primitive of the States of America. He turns for his inspiration to creeks in which life runs deep, to pockets in which life accumulates, deeply queer. Is the Talking Mongoose a sore subject with the Isle of Man? That interesting animal—of which the investigations of the late Harry Price never entirely disposed—might well be the denizen of a Nigel Kneale story. Has he not made frogs avengers; has he not made a deformed duck a tragedian?

In far-of days [he says, at the opening of “The Tarroo-Ushtey”] before the preachers and the school-masters came, the island held a good many creatures besides people and beasts. The place swarmed with monsters. A man would think twice before answering his cottage door on a windy night, in dread of a visit from his own ghost. The high mountain roads rang in the darkness with the thunderous tiffs of the bugganes, which had unspeakable shapes and heads bigger than houses; while a walk along the seashore after the sun had set was to invite the misty appearance of a tarroo-ushtey, in the likeness of a monstrous bull. . . . At harvest-time the hairy trollman, the phynodderee, might come springing out of his elderberry tree to assist the reaping, to the farmer’s dismay; for the best-intentioned of the beings were no more helpful than interfering neighbours. . . .

This is the background atmosphere of one group of Kneale’s stories; call them the local pieces. “Tomato Cain” itself, “The Excursion,” and “The Putting-away of Uncle Quaggin” have (for instance) a naturalism not unworthy of Maupassant : the supernatural never raises its head, but eminent human queerness is at its height.

It is the function of every emerging writer to create, and stamp, his own universe. This Nigel Kneale has done. In his universe, love, in the sentimental or social sense, plays almost no part; but the passions stalk like those island monsters. Like the unfortunate bungalow in “Minuke,” his characters are wrenched and battered and heaved up. What is remarkable, given the themes of many of the stories, is that the writer so seldom—if, indeed, ever ?—crosses the bounds into extravagance; his forte is a sort of control, restraint. His Quiet Mr. Evans, tale of an injured husband’s revenge in a ?sh-and-chip shop, threatens at one point to approach in horror H. G. Wells’ “The Cone,” but the last twist gives a pathetic-ironic end. It would be fair to say that his children and animal stories, with their focus on suffering
(e.g. “The Photagraph,” “Oh, Mirror, Mirror,” “The Stocking,” Flo,” and the semi-fantastic “Curphey’s Follower”) most dangerously approach the unbearable. It may, however, be found that Nigel Kneale knows how to relax any too great realism at the saving moment.

To the sheer build, to the something better than ingenuity of the best of the stories, attention should be drawn. “Peg” and “Bini and Bettine” would seem to me to be masterpieces in a genre particularly this writer’s own. This is a ?rst book: Nigel Kneale is at the opening of his career ; he is still making a trial of his powers. To an older writer, the just not overcrowded effect of inventive richness, the suggestion of potentialities still to be explored, and of alternatives pending, cannot but be attractive. That the general reader will react to Nigel Kneale’s stories, and that the perceptive reader will relish
what in new in his contribution to ?ction, I feel sure.

Bowen’s comparison of Kneale and Maugham proved prophetic, as Tomato Cain went on to be selected as the Somerset Maugham Award winner for 1950. It’s been out of print for decades, but if you can read Scots Gaelic, you can find it in print as Paart Dy Skeealyn Elley in a translation published in 2014.


Tomato Cain and Other Stories, by Nigel Kneale
London: Collins, 1949

Selected Modern Short Stories, edited by Alan Steele (1937)

Selected Modern Short Stories–the first of several collections that editor Alan Steele compiled for Penguin in the late 1930s–offers a good illustration of the random nature of literary fate. Let’s take at look at the authors listed on the cover:

John Hampson

Hampson’s first-published novel, Saturday Night at the Greyhound (1931) was a surprise best-seller for Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and is back in print now, thanks to the ever-diligent Valancourt Books. It’s considerably harder to find his short stories, however. Only two were ever published i book form, and this in the very scarce Two Stories: The Mare’s Nest and The Long Shadow (1931), hand-printed in an edition of 250 by radical publisher Charles Lahr.

Helen Simpson

Simpson’s historical romances, such as Under Capricorn, were very popular during their time, but are now out of print outside her native Australia. You can, however, find her novel, Saraband for Dead Lovers (1935), available on the Internet Archive. She published just one collection, The Baseless Fabric (1925), well before this anthology. The one copy I could find for sale goes for $1000. When this was published, one reviewer wrote of it, “… eleven profoundly imagined creations here contained, each one, perfect in the exact balance and unfailing accuracy of its veiled suggestion, concerned with the potencies for good or evil latent in the invisible realm which separates the conscious senses from the surrounding world.”

H. E. Bates

Bates enjoyed a pretty consistent and happy balance of critical and popular esteem throughout his career and it has held on to this day. A good share of his novels and short story collections are in print, but you can also find his collection, The Enchantress (1961), for free on the Internet Archive.

Martin Armstrong

Armstrong’s work is long out of print, which is one reason why I wrote about his Selected Stories (1951) a few months ago. You can find a snippet of his work online in a throw-away compilation titled, What is Happiness? (1939), in which he and other English writers such as J. B. Priestley and Storm Jameson offered their answers to this question. I like Armstrong’s sly approach to avoiding an actual answer:

Before we can be truly happy we must gain control of our minds. How am I to do so?

The answer is simple: by obeying the Greek maxim, ‘Know thyself.’ Good! We are almost, it seems, at the end of our inquiry. Only one question remains: how am I to get to know myself? Ah! Now you’re asking. Saints and philosophers have been engaged on this simple question for some thousands of years but, unhappily, the answer is not yet to hand.

H. A. Manhood

H. A. Manhood was considered one of the best short story writers of the 1930s, but in the mid-1950s he gave up writing entirely and retired to an abandoned railway carriage in a field in West Sussex, where he spent the next decades brewing his own cider and attempting to get by as much as possible on a subsistence basis. Thanks to the Sundial Press, a collection of his stories, Life Be Still!, is now available, but you can also find his Selected Stories (1947)

T. O. Beachcroft

Reviewing Beachcroft’s second story collection, Graham Greene wrote that “Mr. Beachcroft is likely to become, after Mr. H. E. Bates, the most distinguished short-story writer in this country,” but unlike Bates, his work has disappeared without a trace. He didn’t even have a Wikipedia entry until I wrote one earlier today. Reviewing one of his later collections in The Spectator, Stevie Smith wrote:

Mr. Beachcroft’s talent is disarming. One thinks: thank heavens just a simple tale, with people one knows and bits of scenery and a bit of human feeling, not much more, but very agreeable. It is not difficult to put the reader in this pleasantly superior frame of mind, and having got the donkey where You want him, the creature is in your power…. Simplicity is the word for Mr. Beachcroft’s stories, but it is a poet’s simplicity, the most subtle in the world.

Thanks to the Internet Archive, you can enjoy The Collected Stories of T. O. Beachcroft (1946), which I will cover in more depth soon.

Liam O’Flaherty

Liam O’Flaherty will probably always have at least his classic novel, The Informer, in print, and his collection, The Wounded Cormorant was a feature of high school reading lists for decades. You can also find The Informer online at the Internet Archive, but for his stories, look for the exemplary collection, The Stories of Liam O’Flaherty (1956), at the Open Library.

L. A. G. Strong

Several of Strong’s novels are back in print thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing’s fine series of solid middlebrow novels and story collections from the 1930s-1960s. None of his numerous short story books are in print, but you can enjoy a healthy sample in his Travellers: Thirty-One Selected Stories (147), available from the Internet Archive.

Malachi Whitaker

As Malachi Whitaker, Yorkshire housewife Marjorie Whitaker became known as the “Bradford Chekhov” and was considered perhaps the finest woman writer of short stories between Katherine Mansfield and Elizabeth Bowen, but her work felt out of print for several decades until her collection, The Crystal Fountain, and autobiography, And So Did I, were released by Paladin Press in the 1990s. Unfortunately, they dropped from sight again after than. Just recently, however, Persephone Books added to their growing list of rediscovered by releasing Journey Home and Other Stories.

Frank O’Connor

O’Connor is safely ensconced as the leading Irish short story writer to follow Joyce–as demonstrated by the fact that the introduction to his Collected Stories (1981) was written by none other than famed Joyce biographer Richard Ellmann.

William Plomer

Plomer’s is one of those names that fans of neglected books will recognize, as one or other of his books–whether his South African novel Turbott Wolfe or his English novel Museum Pieces or his eccentric family memoir, Curious Relations–often shows up on lists such as those from Antaeus or Tin House. His short stories, however, vanished decades ago. Luckily, you can find a worthy sample on the Internet Archive in his collection Four Countries (1949), which includes stories set in Africa, Japan, Greece, and England. In his introduction, Plomer put himself solidly in the traditionalist camp when it came to short stories:

We rightly expect a story to have a point, and this generally means that we expect it to be dramatic. A short story must let us into the secrets of other people’s lives, and unless it lets us into their lives at a moment of crisis, it is unlikely to have much point or to be dramatic. The crisis may be a small one, but a crisis there must be. This crisis must engage the reader’s imagination, and it must illuminate some new or unfamiliar aspect of the human predicament, or some familiar aspect in a new way. As for the manner in which this is done, there are infinite possibilities, but it must be adroit.

Rhys Davies

Welsh writer Rhys Davies is still popular among his fellow countrymen thanks to the Library of Wales series, but mostly overlooked elsewhere. A large sample of his work can be found online, however, in The Collected Stories of Rhys Davies on the Internet Archive. Davies took a measured view of the lot of the short story writer:

Short stories are a luxury which only those writers who fall in love with them can afford to cultivate. To such a writer they yield the purest enjoyment; they become a privately elegant craft allowing, within very strict confines, a wealth of idiosyncrasies. Compared with the novel, that great public park so often complete with draughty spaces, noisy brass band and unsightly litter, the enclosed and quiet short story garden is of small importance, and never has been much more…. The short story gives the release of a day off, when something happened which one remembers with a smile or a start of interest, with a pang or a pause of fear.

The Door in the Wall, by Oliver La Farge (1966)

I picked out a yellow-jacketed copy of Oliver La Farge’s posthumous collection of short stories, The Door in the Wall, from a striking display in the window of Any Amount of Books, one of the few remaining used bookstores on Charing Cross Road, when in London recently. I’ve never learned just why so many British publishers put out books with bright yellow paper dust jackets in the 1950s and 1960s, but someone in the store had the bright (sorry) idea to collect a couple dozen of them and put them together on a display in one of their windows. Still on the hunt for short story collections, I spotted and quickly grabbed this book, La Farge’s third, published by Victor Gollancz in the U.K. and by Houghton Mifflin in the U.S..

The La Farge family’s contributions can be found all over the records of U. S. cultural history. His grandfather John La Farge was a distinguished painter and muralist; his father Christopher was part of one of the prominent architectural firms that shaped the face of American downtowns around the turn of the last century; his brother Christopher guaranteed his place in neglected American literature with a series of verse novels; and his son Peter was one of Dylan’s generation of American folksingers. And if that wasn’t enough, La Farge was named for his great-great-grandfather, the naval hero of the War of 1815, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.

Yet Oliver La Farge was never one to rest on his family laurels. Instead, he early on discovered a passion for anthropology, and in particular for the native Americans of the Southwest. In his foreword to this collection, La Farge’s New Yorker editor, recalls visiting the writer at his home in Santa Clara, New Mexico, where La Farge had immersed himself in Hopi and Navaho culture. La Farge’s first novel, Laughing Boy (1929), a Pulitzer Prize winner, was set in the Najaho territories in New Mexico, and he remained an advocate for their rights, even serving as president of the Association of American Indian Affairs in the mid-1950s. You can see a video clip of La Farge as spokesman for the Association from the Longines Chronoscope on YouTube (link). (Indeed, the first story in the collection, “The Creation of John Mandeville,” make a passing reference to the horrific experience that David Grann recently chronicled in his best-selling Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI: “Bill asked why the Indians wouldn’t sell their oil, and Applegate said it was partly that they knew what oil had done to some of the Oklahoma Indians….”)

Anthropology and the study of native peoples of the Americas is at the heart of The Door in the Wall. La Farge’s protagonists are almost all anthropologists and academics, drawn to field work and usually never less than half-frustrated when cooped up in a classroom or office. As such, the whole tone of this book could strike some readers as dry or even dessicated. They are men (exclusively) who are driven more by intellectual curiosity (and sometimes superiority) than by emotion, and not one of them would ever be likely to utter the words, “I feel …” unless they really meant to say, “I think ….”

But they were also men whose work depended upon their ability to keep their eyes and ears (and minds) open. Maxwell recalls La Farge telling him,

You can behave very much as you would anywhere else–with certain limitations. It goes without saying that you don’t ask questions about tribal customs and ceremonies. And since they don’t know you, I think it is probably a good idea not to ask questions at all. Keep your eyes open, and see what there is to see. And don’t try to charm them. It throws them off balance if you rush in and try to make friends with them immediately…. So you wait. You don’t do anything until they have had a chance to sense who you are, the aura around you.

For my part, I liked them and the book. It fed a certain nostalgia I have for a time when a show with a name like “Longines Chronoscope” could take up air time with a geeky guy in glasses like Oliver La Farge explaining and defending the interests of people with almost no political or economic power or influence whatsoever. La Farge was not naive, and he would never pretend that selflessness isn’t often a flimsy cover for selfishness and ego. And he was not blind to considerations that are just now getting the attention they deserve: “His tone made what he told of himself seem unusually intimate and she knew, as a woman can know, that there was only a narrow line between that intimacy and another that she did not want at all.” I mean–just how La Farge expressed this shows a combination of insight and discretion that makes me wish we had a few more grown-ups like him around today.


The Door in the Wall, by Oliver La Farge
New York City: Houghton Mifflin, 1966

Private Opinion: A Commonplace-Book, by Alan Pryce-Jones (1936)

There isn’t necessarily a template for a commonplace book, which Webster’s defines as “a book of memorabilia” and Wikipedia as “essentially a scrapbook.” But even if there were one, Alan Pryce-Jones’ Private Opinion wouldn’t follow it. Pryce-Jones, who is probably best known for editing the Time Literary Supplement from 1948 to 1959, was a precocious 28 when he published what he called a commonplace book but what today would more likely be labelled a biblio-memoir.

Although Pryce-Jones follows a roughly chronological path through his reading, he is not averse to occasional detours into fugues and fantasies, and ends the book with a what seems to be a fictional sketch about the visit of a merchant freighter and its small contingent of cruise passengers to a port along the Caribbean coast of South America. And there are more pages devoted to Pryce-Jones’ experiences of childhood, school, and visits to France, the Caribbean and Africa as a young man than there are to books. But he still manages to whet the reader’s appetite with his descriptions of a number of remarkable books:

A Narrative ofProceedings in Venezuela in South America in the years 1819 and 1820, by George Laval Chesterton

“… not only extremely readable, but gratifying in the highest degree to two snobberies : that of little-known events, and that of little-known places, Chesterton had lively reactions to circumstances and does not boggle at what he found: which was that the thousand men under Colonel English’s command—“From his extraordinary torpidity and supineness, I have often wondered how he could have summoned up sufficient resolution”–would have been better employed fighting for the Spaniards than against them. Their adventures were vivid, and their privations useless; except to give the Judge-Advocate that occasion to write a salt and fascinating book.

“Scraps of knowledge emerge–the kind of scraps that makes Southey’s Commonplace Book such excellent reading: such as that the people of Angostura fought all diseases alike by means of hot lemonade. Obscure names are used with familiarity: The Patriot General, Urdaneta ; the island of Margarita, celebrated for its cotton hammocks. The reader is warmed by a pleasant feeling of petty triumph over the next man. 1820 Venezuela is in a sense pocketed.”

Burton-Agnes Hall, from A series of picturesque views of seats of the noblemen and gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 1
A series of picturesque views of seats of the noblemen and gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland, by Reverend Francis Orpen Morris (1840)

“I bought the Reverend F. O. Morris’s Seats of the Noblemen and Gentry, in six volumes, on the Dublin quays. It was exactly the place for buying such a book, for Ireland is, in spite of itself, an island of country houses; and about them, more than elsewhere, clings the forlorn, yet still challenging, air in which the Reverend F. O. Morris’s pages are suffused. The day before, I had been to Rusborough, a very beautiful house, at that time uninhabited, in the Wicklow Hills. Lord Milltown’s trunks, and his hatboxes, stood in a dressing-room. His music was yellowing on the piano, and his writing-paper in the library. For Lord Milltown had been long dead and his peerage extinct; without the house admitting it. The ornamental plaster-work was crumbling ; and the garden terraces were indistinguishable; but we could still detect the authentic note: the Jennings sanitary fittings, encased in mahogany, with the essential pull-up handle instead of a chain; the assortment of expensive boot-jacks; the one bath, with brown tear-stains under the taps; and the heavily furnished writing-tables, with letterweights, little sponges, silver-handled brushes for wetting the envelopes, and boxes in dark-green leather for india-rubber bands. The fascination of views of country-houses lies not in their beauty but in the surprises they contain. In finding an enormous excruciating Italianate palace of which nobody has ever heard. In discovering that the families who now prefer living in a mews flat and spending their money at le Touquet, possessed a William Kent house until the other day. In picturing, says Caen Wood Tower, “a beautiful edifice … erected by its late proprietor … On either side of the dining-room chimney-piece are windows looking into a fernery, with fountains. The upper portion of the windows above the transom is fitted with stained glass of a geometrical pattern. In the windows of the billiard room are representations of various out-door sports and pastimes, as hunting, cricket, archery, etc., also in stained glass.”

London Promenade, by William Gaunt (1930)

“When I was up at Oxford, J. took me from de Beauvoir Town to the Elephant and Castle, from Hounslow to Greenwich, looking at churches, and obscure squares, and fragments of Regency town planning. But I was never again able to make any coherent picture of London by day; and probably the reason why I like London Promenade is that it moves in the London of bars and theatres and narrow streets which, even by day, lurk in a kind of private evening. That London has kept for me a little flutter of excitement. For years my home was in London, but my home life had no particular urban associations. I walked into London when I slammed the door in the evening, and I left London, exultantly late at night, when I went home; from the Lyons in New Oxford Street where the cashier sat in an octagonal aluminium font, or from Claridges, or from a basement far darker than D.’s and from people of more doubtful artistry. It is provoking to reflect that anything so commonplace can have been, and for so long, so exceedingly amusing.”

The Cuckoo Clock, by Mrs. Molesworth (1895)

“I hope Mrs. Molesworth is still read. A few years ago Herr Baby was out of print; but a good many nurseries seem still to be faithful to The Cuckoo Clock. Like all good children’s books, hers give an intense pleasure to grown-ups ; but they offer children what I take to be the harvest of surrealisme: the distillation of an object into an atmosphere. For queer events in themselves leave a child perfectly cold; exciting events also. Without what can be called a high dream-power, they only amuse grown-ups. The Cuckoo Clock has that power. It creates a secret untransmittable picture: the turn of an ancient staircase in the evening, a dark labyrinth of wainscoted corridors. I cannot remember any of the events in the book, but I can move in its atmosphere at will. Even when it first was read to me, the events were less important than their overtones; and I believe all imaginative children only use books as a lever to set their private world at work.”

The Season: A Satire, by Alfred Austin (1861)

“Short of very good books, I know nothing which gives as much pleasure as very bad books. Everyone has his pet bad book, therefore; and I have mine. But although it might be fairly easy game I never find anybody else to have read it except a few friends to whom, with all the emotion of entrusting a thousand pounds to a financier, I have entrusted it. Nor would my really bad book be much easier to replace than a thousand pounds. There is a disconcerting power of volatility about (say) the Book of the Month to be reckoned with. If you do not catch it during the Month it disappears. For example, I am in constant pursuit of a new work by Dr. Cronin. And always it was the book last month. Short of hiring a man to wait in Henrietta Street for the next moment of apparition I shall forever be deprived of a very real pleasure.

It was, however, upon The Season: A Satire by Alfred Austin, that I proposed to write. On considering it again, there can be no doubt that it is a very unusually bad book. It is supremely, mystically, bad. Most of it is not bad in the way of being funny. It
is just bad. Like this:

O blessed moment! … Duns! Detractors! Fate I
Hit me your hardest—but I dine at eight.
My thoughts are stolen? half my verses halt?
Well, very likely: please to pass the salt.
Jones won’t accept your bills: he funks the risk.
Does he? What matter? Potage a la bisque!

“There are, however, a few notably ridiculous passages. There are two passages I am particularly fond of:

Romantic boys! be still. Will angry names
Like “battered beast” annul an Earldom’s claims?
Life is not wholly sentiment and stars:
Venus wed Mercury as well as Mars.
Hush your lewd tattle ! seek your slighted beds!
A cornet waltzes, but a colonel weds.

“And another, which goes further to prove that Alfred Austin, like others of our Laureates, had some trouble in compelling the English language into verse:

What! … So they say … Bah! Nonsense … But it’s true:
True, sure enough–will lay you ten to two.
Jack saw the brief, Respondent’s name endorsed …
Great God in heaven ! Our Blanche to be divorced!

“But this badness is perhaps a little too showy. It is a greater feat to have kept up the solider badness of the remaining seventy pages. Or to have invented the bold retort, the English equivalent of Excelsior!, the exclamation at once practical and vigorous, Potage a la bisque!”

Pryce-Jones peppers his compilation with liberal doses of observation and opinion:

… in no country but England are children so strangely brought up. For the commonsense of their upbringing goes in inverse ratio to the means of their parents. Think of it. They are sent away from home as early as possible, yet buttoned back into home life as tightly as possible for observation during their weeks of freedom. They are segregated into sexes, and treated by paid supervisors as little beasts to be kept quiet, to be mechanized for the general convenience; in any case, to be ordered about, at the pain (even if it is only a constant threat) of birch and cane and strap and cuff. The aim of all this is clearly stated to be a prosperous position exactly on the inconspicuous average line of attainment. The typical parent hopes that his child will be as rich and as dull and as anonymous as may be. If you suggest that the child should learn foreign languages, discover its own tastes, knock about a bit, he will stretch out his hands to the gas-fire as though a fatal draught were in the room. If you regret that the eminently sensible Lycee-Gymnasium systems do not exist for the unfortunate Anglo-Saxon, he will not know what those systems imply. An English well-to-do child is first something pretty, handed over, almost absolutely, to a nurse; then something problematical, handed over to a group for solution; then promoted from group to group, until, at the age of eighteen, it is thought sufficiently house-trained to fall under the direct influence of its parents. And yet: there must be a great deal to be said for a system which induces such excellent results. The fittest survive; and their path is made considerably easier by the number who succumb to entire mediocrity.


Private Opinion: A Commonplace-Book, by Alan Pryce-Jones
London: Cobden and Sanderson, 1936

Rope Dancer, by M. J. Fitzgerald (1986)

Many of the stories in M. J. Fitzgerald’s collection, Rope Dancer, read like unsettling dreams: vivid enough to provoke deep feelings but too full of bizarre, illogical transitions and events to be part of waking life.

In “Mystery Story,” a woman finds herself returned, again and again, to the compartment of a passenger train, where strange, dreamlike things happen. She finds a book in the luggage rack, a purple volume with the title, “Mystery Story,” on the spine. She begins to read it: “Pero cant credan freshli speciel omana duet whore ass.” And thought passes through her mind and she senses something pass by in the corridor:

Ghennema dashed to the door and pulled it back: the passage was deserted, except for a black hat. It sat across the centre of the corridor, looking as if its owner had simply melted underneath it, and it was feeling guilty.–Napoleon’s hat–she thought stepping close to it, and picked it up. She wanted to throw it out, it did not belong in the train, but her struggle to open the ventilation panels above the windows was unsuccessful. With a shrug to dismiss her unease, she carried the hat back into the carriage, laid it on her lap and stretched her legs on to the opposite seat: the hat was a cat to the touch, and she continued to stroke it mechanically for a while.

In other cases, however, the experience described is more like a nightmare than a dream. “A man and a woman met and became lovers,” Fitzgerald’s first story, “Creases,” begins. The woman thrills to the man’s touch, and soon, “they found their love was magic.” But it’s also clearly an unequal relationship. She learns to transform herself to his changing wants: “When weary of her smallness, she grew large breasts into which he buried himself, and when that ceased to satisfy him she became a child and even a man.”

Inevitably, the man becomes tired of the woman. He dislikes “most the tacit assumption that because she loved him he must somehow love her too.” And so, when he has to go away on a long journey, he decides to put her away–literally, into a cardboard box. After some trying, he manages to fit her in. “Quickly and deftly, as if fixing a set of batteries to a transistor, he fitted the top and took a large elastic band from his desk to secure it shut.” He then goes out to celebrate, bringing back another woman to help him carry the box into the attic.

Years later, he returns, wealthy and successful. He decides to look for the box and the woman again, and eventually locates them in a warehouse, his house having been sold years before. He takes the box back to his big new house, takes the woman out, and wraps her in a blanket. Eventually, she is able to move, but her body is “bruised and permanently puckered and pleated.” Though he is able to walk with her in the park, “She did not open her eyes again.”

In the midst of the torrent of news about women coming forward about their abuse and harassment by men, “Crease,” seems more like a powerful metaphor for the tendency of many men to objectify women, even to the point of wanting to pack them away in boxes for years or even forever. Inside the box, the woman tries to accept her position and find comfort, but soon finds it impossible to find relief. As much as she wants to accommodate herself to the man’s wishes, she cannot avoid becoming permanently damaged. And, having forgotten her and his abuse for years, the man tries to take her out of storage and carry on as if nothing has happened.

The danger underlying the treatment of too many women by too many men runs like an invisible thread through many of Fitzgerald’s stories. In “A Landscape with Walls,” a woman finds herself irresistibly drawn to a man’s touch, and it leads her to sleep with hundreds of men. After a while, though, as she makes love with a man, she also finds that she is walking around, picking up bricks and laying them out, first into a line and then stacked up to form a wall.

This experience recurs, growing more intense and exaggerated. She finds herself running around in a landscape reminiscent of black-and-white horror films, wearing a mason’s apron of stiff dark leather, collecting and piling up the bricks. Soon, she seems to be surrounded by endless brick walls each time she goes to bed with a man: “But there were so many: thousands more than she had made, they extended and went on and seemed to multiply so that when Briony thought she has nearing the end, the next time the horizon seemed to have been pushed further back and countless more stood silent and black against the white set.”

Rope Dancer was the first work published by Fitzgerald, daughter of Robert Fitzgerald, whose translations of Homer were the most successful of their generation. She published one novel, Concertina, a year later, but has concentrated on poetry and translations since then. It’s our loss, as she has a remarkable talent for creating unforgettable and disturbing images, as well as a confidence in manipulating the interface between reader and writer in a way that reminds me at times of Italo Calvino.

This is most noticeable in the story, “The Fire Eater,” in which she begins by telling us that a friend’s description of “an American woman with two girl children and a man friend who is a fire-eater” leads her mind to think, “story possibility, story possibility.” She then proceeds to tell the story, while also telling us that she is writing the story: “At this moment, the pen is winning, but the war is not won.”

She weaves a tale about an American spinster, visiting Rome, who finds herself fascinated with the street performer doing fire-eating tricks for crowds in the Piazza Navona and accidentally befriends a young girl who seems to be wandering, perhaps homeless, around the square. But Fitzgerald also admits, “I am not interested in Barbara Grimes or the fire-eater: were I to meet the actual acquaintances of my friend who correspond to these labels, I would be, at best, indifferent.” What interests her is simply the experiment of putting them into a fiction: “There is some kind of mystery in that name and that action, and I want them together to see how they react to each other.”

And when the American woman meets and falls in love with the fire-eater and with the girl, Fitzgerald tells us that “the mystery lies in what you do, the mystery is reading, not writing: it is while you read that possibility is limitless and Barbara is real, though she may exist without you, like a collapsed puppet.” For then the woman finds that her imagined romance is, indeed, a fiction: the man and the girl turn out to live with a lively, blonde American woman–the real Barbara Grimes of her friend’s description?

All I know is that I wish M. J. Fitzgerald would continue performing such feats of fictional legerdemain.

Because I found “Creases” such a memorable piece, I took the liberty to scan it and have saved it here (Link). Its five short pages offer a profound perspective on the stories finally gaining the attention they deserve.


Rope Dancer, by M. J. Fitzgerald
London: Picador/Pan Books, 1986

Croatian Tales of Long Ago, by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić (1922)

From the cover of Croatian Tales of Long Ago


One day late, but in keeping with the spirit of Halloween, which reminds us each year of the didactic benefits of scaring the crap out of kids, I want to celebrate a fine example of fairy tales told with the gloves off. As Bruno Bettelheim (perhaps somewhat plagiaristically) reminded us, uniformly pleasant and positive stories have their place in children’s literature, but so do terror, violence, and horrible-looking monsters with sharp teeth: “‘Safe’ stories mention neither death nor aging, the limits to our existence, nor the wish for eternal life. The fairy tale, by contrast, confronts the child squarely with the basic human predicaments.” And while Bettelheim’s argument may have been weakened by the facts of his credentials and practices that have come to light since the publication of The Uses of Enchantment, there is an undeniable edge of terror in many folk tale traditions.

In an article in The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children’s Literature, David Boudinot wrote, “Teaching fear through fairy tales is a proven method of helping children learn about safety, and it can help improve a child’s judgement and critical thinking skills.” By this standard, Ivana Brlić-Mažurani&cacute deserves a posthumous plaque from the folks at the National Safety Council for her collection, Croatian Tales of Long Ago available in its English translation by F. S. Copeland on the Internet Archive (link). Here are a few excerpts to demonstrate how these tales can help spice up the endless flow of Paddington pablum:

“Come along, brother, let’s get rid of grandfather. You have weapons. Wait for him by the well and kill him.”

There was the poor little fairy Curlylocks caught in the bowels of the earth! She was buried alive in that vast grave, and perhaps would never again see those golden fields for which she had set out, and all because she would not go straight on by the way they had intended, but would loiter and turn aside to the right and to the left to pry into God’s secrets!

Through fog and twilight ran Reygoch with the children in his arms and the terrified flocks at his heels in frantic flight—all running towards the dyke. And out to meet them flowed the Black Banewater, killing and drowning as it flowed. It is terribly strong, is that water. Stronger than Reygoch? Who knows? Will it sweep away Reygoch, too? Will it drown those poor herd boys and girls also, and must the dear little Fairy Curlylocks die—and she as lovely as a star?

Already the soldiers were battering at the entrance. Heavy clubs hammered on the doors and portals, banging and clanging till all the courts and passages of the soot-blacked house rang again, as though a host from the nethermost Pit were beating on the gates of Oleg the Warden.

Suddenly the Mountain rang with the most awful noise, so that the branches swayed and the leaves trembled on the trees, and the rocks and cliffs re-echoed down to the deepest cavern. It was Belleroo roaring.

So now the Sun thundered forth his anger. All the land fell silent with fear; axes and clubs were dropped in terror as the Sun thundered.

Illustration by Vladimir Kirin from “Croatian Tales of Long Ago”

The Copeland translation, published in 1922 by Frederick A. Stokes Company, is further spiced up with intricate paintings and black-and-white illustrations by Croatian artist Vladimir Kirin. The painting of the lion, bear, and wolf attacking the dragon—speaking of educating through fear and violence—from the book’s cover, however, is by the American illustrator, M. M. Williams (and depicts an event that doesn’t occur in any of the tales).

 


Croatian Tales of Long Ago, by Ivana Brlić-Mažuranić, translated by F. S. Copeland
New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1922

“In Sleep,” by Robert Kotlowitz (1954)

Man Sleeping in Car - Vivian Maier -VM1955W02739 – New York, NY, 1955
Man Sleeping in Car — Vivian Maier, New York City, 1955

In Sleep

What do I see in my sleep?
A steady seepage of life
in dreams
that are of no use
to a practical body.

I awake like you,
sapped by a watchful reality,
defined by a soft-boiled egg.
Today’s newspaper
tucked under my arm,
swats invisible enemies on the fleeing subway.

Time, then, is transformed
from uptown to downtown,
and through its metamorphosis
I move into the material of life.
It catches fast,
holding in its swell
the sweating molecules of the morning,
the darting enzymes of eternity.

I watch, I wonder,
and wondering,
am caught in perpetual bombardments
of anxious demands, urgent moments,
that, like dreams after all,
streak the illumined air
with startling beauty:
the heart’s silhouette
of desire, sorrow and eager mortality.

This poem comes from Discovery no. 3, the third of the brief run of Discovery, a paperback magazine edited by Vance Bourjaily and published by Pocket Books between 1953 and 1955. Although Kotlowitz was, at the time, trying to write a novel, he ended up going into editing and, later and somewhat by accident, public broadcasting. He did, however, write four novels, beginning with Somewhere Else in 1972. His memoir of combat as a U.S. Army rifleman in World War Two, including the skirmish following the D-Day invasion in which virtually his entire platoon was killed—Before Their Time—was published in 1999 and is still in print. His son, Alex, is a journalist who wrote the award-winning account of life in the Chicago projects, There Are No Children Here (1992).

The Smoking Mountain, by Kay Boyle (1951; 1963)

Cover of 1963 edition of The Smoking Mountain
In 1948, the American writer Kay Boyle left France, where she had spent most of the previous 25 years to live in Germany. Germany was then an occupied country, split between the Soviets, French, British, and Americans into four zones of military administration. Whether she was making amends for sitting out France’s own time of occupation in the safety of America, or spurred by the call of The New Yorker editor Harold Ross for “fiction from Germany,” or just interested in a unique place in time, Boyle was to find in the experience the inspiration to write the dozen stories and articles collected in The Smoking Mountain.

Boyle took her title from a passage by the German novelist and anti-Nazi journalist, Theodor Plievier: “…the people ceased to exist as a people and became nothing but fuel for the monstrous, smoking mountain, the individual became nothing but wood, peat,
fuel oil, and finally a black flake spewed up out of the flames.” The Germany she witnessed was barely beginning to recover. Most city centers were still fields of rubble. Gaunt men, women, and children still tramped along the roads, either fleeing from the Soviet zone or trying to return to homes and families they left during the war. As William Shirer wrote in his foreword to the 1963 edition of The Smoking Mountain, the Germany of 1948 “is not a pretty place for human beings, either the conquered or the conquerors. The cities are largely a mass of ruins, the rubble piled high wherever you look. The Germans, who have lost another great war they expected to win, are understandably still in a daze.”

Frankfurt, 1947
Frankfurt, 1947

Many of the men, former soldiers often returning from POW camps outside Germany seemed more like ghosts than living beings. One of Boyle’s Americans describes an itinerant ex-POW digging up potatoes for a few pfennig as “a figure so eloquent in its suffering, so dramatically conceived, that it might have been a portrait done in sombre oils, the dark, despairing eyes, not of a living man but of an El Greco head, following him now from where the canvas was placed upon a museum’s shadowy wall.” Another finds it difficult to enjoy the folk dances being performed for a party of American occupation VIPs when he notices how close they are to starvation:

It seemed to him that the threads of their necks must snap in two, unable to bear the weight of the fleshless skulls they carried, and that their bones would pierce the carnival lace and tinsel of their disguise, and expose them for the skeletons they were. He could hear the girl’s hand striking the tambourine with which she danced, and he could not bring himself to turn his head and see again the bony stalks of her white arms lifted, like the arms of those who have already perished reaching from the grave. And the young man, in his matador’s suit and his cracked, black, patent-leather pumps, danced his desperate, intricate steps before her, his legs as brittle and thin as sticks of kindling in his cotton stockings, the brass coins jingling with avarice on his tricorner hat. And no one else looked at them, it seemed to Rod Murray; no one else dared watch them as they danced away across the parquet floor.

Frankfurt American Post Exchange, mid-1950s

In glaring contrast is the wealth and health of the Americans and their Post Exchanges, clubs, cocktail parties, and commissaries:

But once you stepped from the German city street, and into the Commissary, here, for better or worse, was the look of home. Metal push-wagons waited in a double row in the overheated entranceway, as they waited in the chain stores of any Stateside city you might name. Mrs. Furley showed her identification to the German girl seated at the desk, and picked up a meat number, and then she moved on with the others, as she had day after day of the year that had just elapsed—moved on with the young women in their saddleback shoes and bobby socks, pushing her wagon as they pushed theirs before them, moved into the thick of it with the matrons, the teen-age girls, the displaced grandmothers, some of them newly come from the States, who clung to the handles of their vehicles as if to the last remaining vestiges of a civilization they had always known….

On the shelves which lined and bisected the vast low hall were stacked the familiar cans and bottles—the names of Campbell, and Heinz, and Van Camp, and Fould, and Kellogg, to reassure the exiled, and beans and pancakes illustrated in color so that the fears of the lost and the bewildered might be allayed.

For some Americans, however, life on post in Germany was better than life back home. In “Home,” a black G.I. befriends a skinny Germany boy he spots shivering in the rain, takes him into the Post Exchange, and buys him a new set of clothes, including a warm coat and sturdy shoes. When the German clerk checking him out chastises the G.I. for spoiling the boy, he replies, “Well, at home … at home, ma’am, I never had much occasion to do for other people, so I was glad to have had this opportunity offered me,”

The best piece, however, is the introduction—at over seventy pages by far the longest in the book. In large part, it reprints Boyle’s account for The New Yorker of the trial of Heinrich Baab, a thuggish low-ranking member of the S.S. known as “The Terror of the Frankfurt Jews.” Unlike the Nuremberg Trials and other tribunals conducted by the Occupation forces, Baab’s trial took place in a German court, with German judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense attorney. And unlike most of the victims of the high-ranking Nazis tried in Nuremberg, many of Baab’s victims sat in court and watched their former persecutor as he sat in the dock. “If they were not actually the murdered,” Boyle writes, “they were those whose annihilation had been attempted, or they were of the flesh and blood of those who had died.”

As Boyle describes him, Baab seems more intent on snacking than on the proceedings:

He had a pallid, bloated face, this forty-one year-old Frankfurt citizen, and he wore a khaki shirt, the collar of which seemed tight around his fleshy neck. His broad rayon tie, which had apparently been striped in yellow and brown in its time, was now faded, and his heavy head, with the front half of the skull naked of hair, hung sideways. For, despite the fact that he was on trial for the murder of fifty-six other Frankfurt citizens, he was concerned with some kind of tidbit, some kind of nut, which his fingers kept shelling out of sight below the panels of the dock. With his head inclined at this angle, the polished area of his broad, flat skull was mercilessly exposed, and his blunt-fingered heavy hand could be seen only at those moments when he contrived to slip a nut into his mouth. As he prepared the next morsel of food for consumption, his sagging jowls went surreptitiously into motion, and his glance moved carefully around the courtroom as he chewed.

In Baab’s trial, Boyle saw “the pattern for a revolution which has not taken place, the outline for action which might spring not from an outraged national honor, but from the outrage of a deeper, wider honor.” At the time when The Smoking Mountain was first published by McGraw-Hill in 1951, her assessment was that Germany was still holding back from this revolution, not yet ready to “be brought to accept a national responsibility?” By the time the book was republished by Alfred A. Knopf in 1963, Shirer considered that Boyle’s Germany “is a Germany which no longer exists. The rubble has long since been cleared, the cities and factories rebuilt, the Germans become prosperous and independent and confident…” In reality, though, the wounds of war do not heal just from having the rubble cleared and shiny new buildings erected in its place. One thing I’ve come to appreciate from living in Europe for many years is that the experience of war, defeat, and occupation makes it much harder to look at the world in black and white terms like “good” and “bad”: survival usually involves more subtle nuances of grey. For anyone who’s forgotten that, Kay Boyle’s The Smoking Mountain offers an effective reminder.


The Smoking Mountain: Stories of Germany During the Occupation, by Kay Boyle
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963