The Department Store, by Margarete Böhme (1912)

Interior of Warenhaus Wertheim, Berlin 1910
Interior of Warenhaus Wertheim, Berlin 1910
The Department Store: A Novel of Today was German novelist Margarete Böhme’s magnum opus, five hundred pages long and stocked with nearly as many characters as flowed through the doors of the great Berlin store, Müllenmeister’s Emporium, around which the story centers. Böhme is remembered today for her novel, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen (The Diary of a Lost Girl) (1905), which purported to be the authentic journal of a young woman forced by circumstances into prostitution. A huge best-seller in its time, it was twice filmed, the second version (1929) directed by G. W. Pabst and starring the iconic American silent film actress, Louise Brooks.

Reviewing the novel in The Bookman, Frederick Taber Cooper found it hard to believe that, “with such a thoroughly virile grasp of the theme, and strong, bold, unflinching portrayal of its dramatic elements,” the book could have been written by a woman:

It contains the life history of a dozen families, in all the various social strata of the Prussian capital, a sweeping and comprehensive bird’s-eye view of German manners and customs, in the social world and half-world alike….

You are not merely made to see the surge and rush of bargain day, the disciplined army of clerks working, like the separate cogs and wheels in some monster machine, driven at full pressure, the eager crowds, pushing, jostling, laughing, frowning, catching the contagion of the hour, yielding to the shopping craze — you not only see all this, but you become actually part of it; you feel yourself caught and drawn along, gasping and breathless, in the very thick of the press, you almost start to take out your own pocket-book and buy recklessly of things that you in no wise want!

The Department Store, an electronic copy of which can be found on the Internet Archive (link), is something of the flip side of Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) (1883), in which the great Paris department store, modeled on Le Bon Marché, is portrayed as a symbol of the abundance and extravagance of the Industrial Age at its height, and in which the owner/entrepeneur is won over by the beauty and virtue of one of his shopgirls.

While Böhme’s emporium overflows with just as many goods as Zola’s, its celebration of capitalism is undermined by a sense of corruption and shoddiness. The store’s furniture shines as brilliantly as those in the most exclusive shops, but its manufacture and materials are cheap and unreliable. The underpaid salesgirls spend ten or twelve hours a day standing behind their counters, while shop chiefs keep the stock boys and warehousemen scurrying back and forth without relief. And the shopgirl with whom the young heir to the store falls in love proves craven and unfaithful. While not quite a radical novel, it’s not too many steps from the kind of stories of worker exploitation and organized labor that were just beginning to appear.

The Department Store was one of the very first books reviewed by the young Cicely Fairfield under her new pen name of Rebecca West, in The Freewoman. West made her opinion of department stores plain from the start: “A great department store is an offensive thing, because it pretends that trade is carried on in a dignified manner. The strong towers and wide façades of these immense shops make believe that Commerce has become a god, for whom it is meet to build a temple: whereas, in its present-day development, it is a vampire, to be buried at the cross-roads, with a stake through its heart.”

Margarete Böhme
Margarete Böhme
Unlike The Ladies’ Paradise, which she called “a miracle of sensuous perception,” Böhme’s won West’s respect as “the brooding of a masterful intellect over a social phenomenon.” Where Zola’s heroine is near saintliness in her virtue, Böhme’s leading female character, Agnes Matrei, is “the woman who is the kind of flower that grows in that hot-house: hardly a woman, rather some phantom formed from the unwholesome mist that rises from the marsh by moonlight.” In West’s estimation, the novel was “an absorbingly interesting book.”

Not everyone had such a high opinion of The Department Store, though. Borrowing his metaphor from the book’s subject, The New York Times’ reviewer dismissed it by writing that “In a shop one can get pretty nearly everything under the same roof and carry on a successful business; but the same tactics do not good in writing a novel.”

Having taken up writing as a way to make a living after she divorced her husband in 1900, Margarete Böhme went on to publish a total of forty novels over the space of the next twenty-some years. By the time of her death, however, none of her books were in print, her most famous novel, Tagebuch einer Verlorenen, having been banned from republication by the Nazi Party for its disreputable portrait of German womanhood. It was resurrected a few years ago in both German and English editions featuring stills from Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl.

The Department Store, by Margarete Böhme, translated by Ethel Colburn Mayne
New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1912

Two Sets of Three-Volume Memoirs

In the course of this year of devoting my time to reading and writing about neglected books by women, one genre that has particularly captivated me is the autobiography. Like many men, I find women a subject of endless fascination and every piece of autobiographical writing by a woman seems to be an opportunity to understand just a little better these extraordinary creatures who share my habitat. In my search for lost books, I’ve come across a rich trove of autobiographies and memoirs written by women over the last 150 years, assembling a list of titles that could easily keep me going for another couple of years.

A few women have found autobiography an especially fruitful form and carried on from a first volume for three, four, or even more. I’ve discussed Ethel Mannin’s six volumes of memoirs here earlier this year, and will have to find time soon to mention G. B. Stern’s equal number of … well, let’s call them logo-psycho-philosophic-autobiographical rambles for the lack of a precise label. Marie Belloc Lowndes, best remembered for the novel that was the basis of Hitchcock first great silent film, The Lodger, wrote four volumes of autobiography in the last years of her life, while Anthony Powell’s wife, Lady Violet Powell, wrote her four volumes over the span of more than fifty years. But here I want to mention two trilogies of memoirs, both out of print, and both well worth rediscovering.


• Janet Frame

It’s a little astonishing to see that New Zealand writer Janet Frame’s autobiographies are out of print. Frame’s life is a testament to the challenges and rewards of not fitting in. Her behavior as an adolescent was considered eccentric at the time, but in hindsight seems more understandable given what was going on around her (two sisters died of drowning, two brothers regularly suffered epileptic seizures). After a difficult time while attending college, she attempted suicide, and, not long after that, was committed to the psychiatric ward of her local hospital for observation. She spent much of the next eight years in mental hospitals, receiving 200 electroshock treatments. But she also began writing and publishing, starting with short stories, and was saved from a schedule lobotomy when it was announced that her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories (1951), had been selected for the Hubert Church Memorial Award.

Frame left New Zealand in 1956 and lived in England and Europe before returning home in 1963. She published numerous novels and short story collections and her reputation as one of the leading figures in contemporary fiction grew, particularly as she was able to grapple with issues about madness, loneliness, and the destruction of language and meaning. In the late 1970s, she began writing her autobiography, which was published in three volumes between 1982 and 1985: To the Is-Land (1982), Angel at My Table (1984), and Envoy from Mirror City (1985). Australian Nobel Prize winner Patrick White said the books ranked “amongst the wonders of the world.” When the trilogy was published in a single volumen in 1990, English biographer Michael Holroyd called them “One of the greatest autobiographies written this century.” In his Sunday Times review, Holroyd described the books as, “A journey from luminous childhood, through the dark experiences of supposed madness, to the renewal of her life through writing fiction. It is a heroic story, and told with such engaging tone, humorous perspective and imaginative power.” In the same year, Jane Campion directed a wonderful film, An Angel at My Table, and the two events brought Frame worldwide acclaim.



• Kate Simon

Simon was born Kaila Grobsmith in a poor Jewish neighborhood in Warsaw ghetto, came to the U. S. with her family in steerage at the age of 4, and grew up in the Tremont section of the Bronx. After graduating from Hunter College, she went to work as a journalist, and, beginning in the 1950s, as a travel writer. Her first memoir, which recalls in a vivid but utterly unnostalgic manner her experiences growing up, was titled Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood. It was selected as one of the twelve best books of 1982 by The New York Times Book Review and one of the five best of the year by Time. A Wider World: Portraits in an Adolescence, was published in 1986, and dealt frankly with her early sexual experiences, which included brushes with lesbian faculty members and living with a man outside of marriage–both of which were generally considered shocking and rarely discussed at the time. The last volume, Etchings in an Hourglass (1990), was written as she was suffering from the cancer that took her life, and described her travels and adventures–cultural and sexual–in places such as Mexico, India, Italy, and France. It also dealt with death of her first husband, her sister, her daughter (at the age of 19)–all of brain tumors–and her own, which she referred to as “The Bone Man.” Throughout all three books, Simon is candid, open-minded, self-deprecating, cosmopolitan, and a thoroughly engaging narrator.

Running Away From Myself, by Barbara Deming (1969)

runningawayfrommyselfWhen Barbara Deming published this study of the American dream as portrayed in American films of the 1940s, she had spent over a decade speaking, writing, organizing, marching, and being imprisoned for the causes of racial and sexual equality and non-violent resistance. The same “strange split in consciousness” she saw in some of the movies she had watched and written about twenty years before was now on display at the national and global level: the United States applying all its economic and military power to fight the North Vietnamese at the same time it proclaimed support for the average Joe. “Believe in me or I will have to destroy you!” is how she summed up the philosophy of the Hollywood stereotype she labelled “Success Boy” in the late 1940s. By 1969, she was watching Success Boy becoming a political predilection she felt compelled to resist.

Deming had written by book — subtitled “A Dream Portrait of America Drawn from the Films of the 40’s” — in the late 1940s, after working as a film analyst for the Library of Congress from 1942 to 1948, during which she estimates she watched a quarter of all Hollywood film features released. While viewing each film, she took extensive notes in shorthand, sometimes directly transcribing onscreen action and dialogue. As a result, her discussion of most films covered is deep and detailed. Unlike a lot of books devoted to films, particularly film noir, this is not a grazer’s guide. After reading her analysis of now well-worn classics such as Casablanca and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, you will not only want to see them again, but you will see them through Deming’s eyes–even if not always accepting her interpretation.

“All the characters whom I trace in Running Away From Myself can be seen to be products of a deep crisis of faith.” The 1940s are often seen as the golden age of Hollywood, when many of the mythic figures that came to epitomize American culture–Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, Bugs Bunny, Gary Cooper–had their heyday. Deming’s view is considerably less rosy: “Virgil describes Hell to Dante as that blind world in which the good of the intellect has been surrendered. His words could also be used to describe the darkened world of the movie theater.” The act of sitting in a darkened theater–“playing a more passive role than he does in relation to any other art”–makes the viewer more suggestible, more open to manipulation. In these chapters, Deming often reaches over to her fellow moviegoers and challenges them: “What’s really going on here?” she demands.

On the other hand, for someone who so immersed herself in film, Deming is quite removed from the actual business and process of film-making. The fact that there was a whole studio system, with armies of writers, stars often locked into pretty narrow boundaries of roles and images, the need to generate a constant stream of new material to keep people going to theaters two or three times a week, and a strong drive to make movies that set American life and values in contrast to those of Fascism and Communism, is rarely acknowledged. And I have to wonder, after reading Running Away From Myself, whether Deming actually knew anyone directly involved with film-making when she wrote this book. She’s also quite selective in what she does and doesn’t cover. It’s striking that neither of the huge classics from 1946–The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life–are mentioned.

Still, if you love films–and especially if you love to dig into films, to treat them as more than just escapism–Running Away From Myself is a satisfying read. Whether you always agree with Deming’s analysis or not, you cannot argue that she doesn’t consistently reveal how much more is going on than the simple story playing out onscreen.

Running Away From Myself: A Dream Portrait of America Drawn from the Films of the Forties, by Barbara Deming
New York City: Grossman Publishers, 1969

All That Seemed Final, by Joan Colebrook (1941)

all_that_seemed_finalReading All That Seemed Final, I was often reminded of another multi-player London novel I’ve listened to as audiobooks in the last year–John Lanchester’s Capital. Both books interweave the stories of a cast of characters over the space of roughly one year, switching from one to another from chapter to chapter, and drawing many links between the “Big H” history going around them and the immediate facts and issues of their own lives. And, as with Capital, throughout All That Seemed Final, I kept asking myself: “This is wonderfully entertaining, but is it more than that?”

I was perhaps jaded from having read several reviews that criticized Lanchester’s book for being somewhat superficial, for playing tried-and-true cards like death and bankruptcy for easy emotions. After listening to the book, however, I have to disagree, if only on by the simple litmus test of how much I still recall so much of its story and mood nearly a year later. And–with the exception of a few lightweight characters–I think I will be able to say the same of All That Seemed Final a year from now.

The story opens in the Spring of 1939, just as the flowers in St. James’ Park are beginning to bud and Hitler is invading Czechoslovakia. Colebrook introduces her cast in midstream–hosting a party for charity, heading home on a crowded bus, wondering whether to end an affair or a marriage. Quite a few are on the margins of society–a minor art critic, a shell-shocked veteran clerking in a tobacco firm. If they take note of the headlines about the possibility of war, it is, of course, only to wonder what inconveniences it might bring. “Will they intern my wonderful cook for being Austrian?” frets an aging femme fatale. Those most have memories of the last war, they are (the former soldier aside) as something fought “over there,” leading them to assume the next will also be somewhat distant from their own lives.

Colebrook takes her title from Proust: “Thus the face of things in life changes, the center of empires, the register of fortunes, the chart of positions, all that seemed final, are perpetually remoulded, and during his lifetime a man can witness the completest changes just where those seemed to him the least possible.” And, to the credit of her originality, not all of the changes that come to Colebrook’s characters result simply from the outbreak of war. While the slick and successful painter finds substance and moral fiber within when he joins the Army, the adulterous wife is forced to a decision for reasons quite apart from the events around her. Although all feel themselves to be in a sort of limbo, for some the uncertainty contains more promise than dread. But Colebrook also shows, with great skill, the crushing fear of pain and destruction felt by a few for whom the waiting is the worst ordeal of all.

All That Seemed Final received positive reviews went it came out in the fall of 1941. Writing in The New York Times, Marianne Hauser called it “a fine, clever book, well written and thoroughly convincing.” But timing was against its success: English readers were already caught up in the war and American readers soon had problems of their own to worry about. The book has never been reissued.

Colebrook, who was born and raised in Australia, emigrated to England in the mid-1930s, and felt moved to write the book in frustration with “this callous and rather hopeless disregard of the obvious fact that Europe was again drifting toward open conflict.” It was not until she moved to America in late 1940, however, that she was able to finish the novel. She wrote just one other work of fiction, The Northerner (1948), which was set in rural Australia. She worked as a journalist and, on occasion, as a social worker, in New York City. She published three works of nonfiction, including The Cross of Lassitude (1967), a study of juvenile delinquency. She died in 1991 at the age of 80.

All That Seemed Final, by Joan Colebrook
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company

Sibyl Sue Blue, by Rosel George Brown (1966)

nb_0499Sibyl Sue Blue is an undercover cop who wears chartreuse mini-skirts, rouges her knees, smokes cigars, and knows how to take the wind out of an obstreperous Centaurian with a quick sledge-hammer swing of her handbag. Nearing forty, she’s passing as the girlfriend of a high schooler, thanks to a wig, cheek pieces and an occasional dab of skin-tightening cream. Though she carries a torch for her husband Kenneth, who was lost on a failed expedition to the planet Radix some years ago, she’s ready to go after the right man, if she finds him attractive. She reads Thucydides in original Greek while grabbing a quick sandwich for lunch. And she’s a single mother trying to raise a high schooler herself while keeping the streets clear of benzale dealers.

Sibyl Sue Blue can be sold as a long-forgotten cross between Barbarella and Modesty Blaise. It’s fast, violent, sexy, and adventurous, the sort of thing that could easily be translated into a camp but savvy film. There are fights and plenty of them–Sibyl is a walking poster girl for proactive self-defense. There’s a wild ride through a spooky night, with Sibyl and a cohort clinging onto the roof rack of a speeding car. There’s a space ship trip to Radix, during which Sibyl falls in and out of love with its billionaire playboy captain.

And there is a relatively effective attempt to depict a planet-encircling organic intelligence, something Stanislaw Lem had already done in his as-yet (in 1966) untranslated masterpiece, Solaris. But the promise of the novel is undermined by too much scope stuffed into what is basically a whodunnit with exotic trappings. Brown rushes to bring her story to an end in under 200 pages and left out more story construction material than might be safe. Imagine watching Barbarella on fast forward and you might get the idea. A narrative shouldn’t go so fast that the reader is left somewhere between disoriented and disinterested.

Rosel George Brown, 1965
Rosel George Brown, 1965
Sibyl Sue Blue was Rosel George Brown’s first novel and was originally published as part of Doubleday’s science fiction series. At the time, Brown was living in New Orleans with her husband, Tulane history professor W. Burlie Brown, and their two boys. The couple had met while Rosel was studying Greek as an undergraduate at Sophie Newcomb College, which was associated with Tulane.

Brown began writing short stories in the late 1950s, publishing her first, “From an Unseen Censor,” in Galaxy magazine in 1958, and went on to publish nearly two dozen in similar SF magazines over the next six years. A selection of these were collected in A Handful of Time in 1963. She collaborated with Keith Laumer on Earthblood (1966), and followed soon after with her own Sibyl Sue Blue. Unfortunately, she died less than a year later of lymphoma. Her husband assembled material for a second Sibyl Sue Blue she had been working on prior to her death and sold it to Doubleday, which published it as The Waters Of Centaurus in 1970. One of Brown’s early short stories, “Step IV,” is available online at Project Gutenberg (link).

Sibyl Sue Blue (later reissued as Galatic Sibyl Sue Blue), by Rosel George Brown
Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1966

The Passions of Uxport, by Maxine Kumin (1968)


You’ve gotta love ’60s paperbacks.

This Dell edition of Maxine Kumin’s The Passions of Uxport, a “probing novel of marriages and matings,” features a man and woman moments before doing something unsuitable for supermarket shelf display. The back blurb compares it to Updike’s novel of group sex, Couples, and John Cheever’s novel of suburban obsessions and murder, Bullet Park. You can bet that lust, adultery, and who knows what other steamy, sweaty things will be found inside.

I knew Maxine Kumin as a poet and vaguely knew she had written some novels, and would never have picked up this book if not for her name on it.

But as Bo Diddley sang, you can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. Here is the opening sentence of The Passions of Uxport: “At the time of his arrest, Ernie Makkinen had just come upon a well-developed Irish setter, two or three days dead, lying on its side, eyes fixed on what must have been the last object it had seen–a beer can suspended in a clump of frost-blackened goldenrod.”

“Crows had cleaned the spilled guts up to the limits of the matted hair of the dog’s flanks,” Kumin goes on, and “A crew of beetles was busily at work under its tail.” Ernie, we quickly learn, is a holy fool convinced that God has assigned him the task of collecting all the roadkill from the highways of New England and giving it a proper burial.

We are a long way from a casual hop in the sack here.

Now, sex and its consequences is certainly an element in this novel. Although we start with poor, mad Ernie and his truck full of rotting carcasses, adultery does eventually wander in, as does an unwanted pregnancy and even an old man’s sexual fantasy. But Kumin might better have titled this The Frustrations of Uxport, because this is mostly a book about people struggling with some of the crappy things that come their way: the anger of teens trying to break away from parents, the arrest of someone they know and trust, the death of a child.

At the center of the book are two couples living in Uxport, a suburb somewhere on the northwest side of Boston. Hallie and Mellon got married in college when she got pregnant, and their twins are about to head off to college. Sukey and Martin met and fell in love while experiencing Europe on $5 a day and, despite their very different interests and personalities, have a cozy little family with their young daughter, Binky. By the time the book is ended, they will all have been raked over the coals in one way or another and have managed, for the most part, to survive.

But what’s most memorable about The Passions of Uxport is not so much the story as the detours. The book is of moderate length–about 350 pages–but it reads like something twice the length. Kumin is comfortable with wandering away from center stage to spend time exploring the odd corners of the set, discovering the lives of the bit players, as in this aside, which appears in the midst of the most dramatic scene in the book:

(Later, Joan Mixter, whose maiden name had been Shadwell–it was a Shadwell who had founded the Et Ux Club and died at the age of eighty-three, choking on a fishbone at the annual Dry Fly banquet–confessed to the same confusion of sounds that had confounded Hallie. She had been standing in the next aisle over between the Pepperidge Farm cookies and the sesame cocktail crunchies when Ernie erupted, and although she had always known Harriet Peake was of Jewish extraction, hence rendering the otherwise impeccable Mellon ineligible for club membership, she was rooted to the floor in horror. A can of Strongheart live had thereupon grazed her shin, raising an ugly lump, but she was not one of those who rushed forward to subdue the poor mad soul. Yet the Shadwells were not unaccustomed to such outbursts, for Joan had had a twin whose youthful hallucinations involving the Virgin Mary had been held responsible for her early decline. When she pined away and died at the age of nineteen, her name, which had been Agatha, died with her until this day, when it flew back into Joan Mixter’s head. Poor Agatha! she thought with charity–the Agatha she had killed in hundreds of adolescent dreams until death had kindly come and done its own murdering.)

I am just in awe of this paragraph, which wanders all over the place, is funny and bizarre and touching, has nothing whatsoever to do with the main scene, yet manages to be more striking than it.

And also illustrates the problem with The Passion of Uxport: what is best about the book–most interesting, most unexpected, most moving–is not the story but the things that happen in the margins. Ernie and his roadkill epiphanies. Iris, the aging secretary Mellon has a one-night stand with. John Ventury, the construction site supervisor whose prescription glasses constantly remind him of all he yearned for when he was a poor and hungry kid. Aram Ramabedian, the dry cleaner whose heart is breaking over his dead wife and his mentally handicapped son. Even Hallie and Mellon’s dreams and fantasies are more interesting than their lives.

In other words, while The Passion of Uxport is not a particularly good novel, it is full of particularly good reading. In the end, that’s what matters more, anyway, but that’s also what guarantees a book will be dismissed by reviewers and quickly forgotten.

Which is why we shouldn’t let the reviewers make our decisions for us. You can miss the heart-broken dry cleaner and the saintly collector of run-over Irish setters.

The Passions of Uxport, by Maxine Kumin
New York: Harper and Row, 1968

Small World, by Carol Deschere (1951)

Cover of first edition of 'Small World' by Carol DeschereA long time ago (by the Internet clock), I mentioned the efforts of Karen DeCrow, one-time president of the National Organization for Women, to get a publisher interested in reissuing Small World, a 1951 novel written by Carol Deschere. DeCrow sent a letter to dozens of publishers, urging them to take another look at Deschere’s book. As DeCrow wrote,

Twelve years before publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963), Carol Deschere wrote a novel which could have spurred the feminist revolution, had enough women read it. In Small World, a simply written and simply plotted novel, Deschere tells us the story of a bright, educated, and cultured woman who leads the life of a middle-class housewife. Her husband is kind and generous, her children are intelligent and obedient, her home is stylish and comfortable.

Her world, however, is so small that it revolves totally around food, clothing, furniture, and an occasional outreach of interest to music, art, and literature. The novel takes place during one of the critical periods in American history: World War II had just ended, the alliances of nations in the world were dramatically shifting, capitalism as an economic system was being seriously questioned for the first time in a century, and the seeds of the Cold War period were being developed in the United States. Yet Kay Hiller, the hero of the novel, does not deal with these issues, despite the fact that she is both bright and intellectual.

Given my decision to focus on books by women this year, I didn’t hesitate when I spotted a copy of Small World for a little less than the starting price of $48 that I found back in 2008.

I have to confess that I felt a bit mislead by DeCrow’s take on the book. Yes, it’s true that this is a book about the life of a housewife–her home, family, and neighbors–with little sense of the big world beyond, but DeCrow seems to have found the book more interesting as an example of the limitations experienced by women like Deschere than as a piece of writing. In reality, if there is any tone that prevails in Small World, it’s one of joy, not frustration.

Small World is a thinly-fictionalized account of about ten years in the life of Deschere and her husband, Ralph Berendt. It follows the couple from their decision to move from New York City to Ithaca (more centrally located for Ralph’s work as a salesman for his family’s shoe company) and then to Syracuse, through their starting a family and encountering all the typical mishaps and misadventures of 1950s suburban life. The Saturday Review summed up the plot, such as it is, nicely: “We moved from New York City to Ithaca, where we kept house for a year with my husband’s brother and his wife, Lois, then we moved to Syracuse and Lois and I each had a baby, and then in a couple of years I had another, and we lived in several apartments and then we bought a house and the children went to school.”

If anything, it’s far more in the spirit of The Egg and I–or Lesley Conger’s Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, another domestic comedy by a woman of intellectual aspirations mentioned here a few months. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine a decent 50s comedy film being based on the book. What distinguishes this book isn’t the story or the post-historical context but simply the delightful voice of its narrator. I love the way the Saturday Review reviewer put it: “I read somewhere that it is a test of a lively imagination and a glib tongue to be able to expatiate for fifteen minutes on the characteristics of a billiard ball without pause and without repetition and to hold one’s listeners spellbound in the process. This, in effect, is what Carol Deschere does with her Small World.”

Deschere’s approach to telling a story is never straightforward and, occasionally, wanders so far afield as to never arrive at its intended conclusion. But with the right story-teller, it’s the journey and not the destination that matters. Here, for example, is how she introduces an episode about the family dog bringing home its first piece of roadkill:

I was in the cellar sorting a load of wash and putting it through the machine, a process which occupied only the hands, leaving the brain free to drowse a little. The pulsing rotation of the machine, like the rocking of a cradle, added its soothing in?uence. Doing the laundry was one of the pleasantest of household chores, with a robot assistant which could be summoned, like a genie out of a bottle, at my command. Paul had tried to explain to me how the Bendix worked, but, losing itself somewhere among the thermostats and timing elements, my mind had wandered off to the old Victrola we had had when I was a child. A man lived inside of it; his name was Caruso; he sang music with words you couldn’t understand, and that made it all right, somehow, for him to stay in that cabinet all the time. My thinking still ran along those lines; it was so simple to pretend there was a human activator concealed within the washing machine, a perfect laundress, who turned the faucets with strong, bony ?ngers, and tested the temperature with a sharp, swift elbow. She had a personality too, but it was so unvaryingly eficient I didn’t care to contemplate it. . . .

The machine began to drain itself of suds. Next door, a child’s wagon clattered down the porch steps, and I heard my neighbor call out, “Micky, on your way home from the park, stop at the store and get me the things on this list, of, and a pack of Camels, too.” Micky grumbled and the clatter dwindled down the street. My mind still dozed. These sounds were part of my habitat; they barely touched the surface of my consciousness.

By the time the dog shows up, we’ve long forgotten it was a story about him. In fact, the mutt kind of gets in the way of an otherwise respectable meander.

Yet, in deference to Karen DeCrow, one must acknowledge that there is a consistently feminist note that now and again rises to make itself heard:

Evelyn felt that she always had to appear at her super-best for the simple reason that, plain and unvarnished, she mightn’t be able to compete with her husband’s other interests, while we felt no such compulsion. Keeping herself and her house well-groomed was part of Evelyn’s job, and Harold praised her for it to pay off his own conscience. It wasn’t vanity at all; it was insecurity . . . and maybe it wasn’t exactly insecurity but a kind of guilt-edged security! Oh, we had really hit on something this time. The women’s magazines, always harping on the idea that a girl must look fresh as a daisy even if she was feeling like a piece of stinkweed, had put this thing on a national basis. Then there was insufficiency to consider, too. You made a full-time job out of housekeeping because that was easier than looking for something else to do; it was an out that society handed you, and the busier you kept yourself with furniture polish — and nail polish — the less time you had to fret over the fact that you weren’t doing anything else.

Carol Deschere’s most profound influence as a writer was not on other women, however, but on her son, John Berendt. Forty-some years later, he saw a book he had worked on for years, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, achieve spectacular success, earning a Pulitzer Prize nomination and spending over four years on The New York Times bestseller list. As he told an interviewer, “The book sold about 2,000 copies and, although my mother never wrote another book, Small World was a life-changing experience for me, because in addition to making me enormously proud of her, it showed me for the first time how real life could be transformed into words and stories and published in a book for all to read. It also planted the first seed in my mind that I might become a writer one day.”

Carol Deschere
Carol Deschere
The following appears on the back cover of Small World:

A Letter from the Author of Small World

I was born in New York city, and although I see no reason why the date should appear on the jacket of my book, I’m perfectly willing to confide to your files that it was April 13, 1915. When I was six, my parents reluctantly acted on their belief (now shared by me) that the city was not the best place in which to bring up children, so we moved to the nearest available “country,” which happened to be Westchester. I went to school in New Rochelle, and the ink on my high-school diploma was hardly dry when, my childhood being officially over, we moved back to New York.

I went to Hunter College–which I loved–and was graduated in 1933, having been married the year before. I can highly recommend the combination of going to school while learning to keep house, as it give the bride the properly casual attitude toward housewifery. (Another effect, however, may not be quite so wholesome. After sixteen years, I find myself still taking courses.)

We left New York in 1936, and have been living in Syracuse for years. The children, aged thirteen and eleven, have always had an enormous amount of civic pride, and we have finally caught a mild form of it from them. At least, we now regard Syracuse as home.

From the Syracuse Post-Standard, 20 May 1951:


Finally, I must reproduce this early example of a publisher’s attempt to collect feedback, which was still securely nestled midway inside the immaculate copy of Small World that I received from thebooksend:


Small World, by Carol Deschere
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1951

Colours and Years, by Margit Kaffka (1912)

coloursandyearsOne of the best ways to guarantee a writer’s work will be overlooked is to write in a less-widely known language, especially if it’s thought difficult to translate. If, on top of that, the writer is a woman, the barrier to entry to a wider audience is even higher.

A good example is the work of Margit Kaffka, a Hungarian woman who published a number of novels before and during World War One that dealt with the constraints that her contemporary society–as with most Western societies at the time–placed on a woman’s ability to make her own life decisions. Her 1912 novel, Színek és évek, translated here by George F. Cushing as Colours and Years, is considered one of the great works of Hungarian fiction of the 20th century as well as a significant fiction of feminist fiction, yet it was only in 1999–eighty years after Kaffka’s death–that it was translated into English, and already it’s out of print. And so few non-Hungarians, occasional academics aside, are even aware of this fine novel.

Colours and Years is narrated by Magda, an “old” (early fifties) woman who looks back on a life marked by failures, tragedies, and countless reminders of the narrow set of roles and rights available to a woman of her time. The daughter of a family of waning gentility, Magda is barely eighteen when she is married to Jeno, a young lawyer from a family of some money and thought to have a promising career ahead of him. Having been raised with few skills aside from making decorative little things and reading romantic poetry, she quickly grows dependent upon Jeno but chafes as their domestic routine.

She dabbles in a bit of romantic fancy with a local cad, but mostly tries to be a faithful and supportive wife. Jeno runs for a local office, imagining it the start of the path to a post at the national level, but soon discovers that his naïveté is little better than Magda’s. He irritates a few local power brokers, is defeated, and finds his law practice evaporating before his eyes. He takes ill and dies, leaving Magda with a young son and debts, and she is forced to return to a family little able to care for her.

In fact, life is nothing but a series of setbacks for Magda, defeats made worse by her own lack of skills and her utter dependence upon the choices made for her by men. “I had no real understanding of the value of money or of the connection between life and work. While my husband was alive, no large sum was ever entrusted to me, but he provided me with everything; we never talked much about trifling material matters …. Small lovers’ tiffs and letters caused much more turmoil in me.” As her situation steadily deteriorates, she feels an ever-growing sense of weariness: “I lived a life, a miserably miniscule, creaking, dull, hard and grinding life.” It makes for some grim reading.

Although Magda is essentially a passive victim in her own life, the bleakness of her situation is relieved in the end by a spiritual, reflective outlook: “Life goes on at a great distance from me, problems, altercations, industry and application….” She achieves an almost-Buddhist sensibility. Old age, she announces, “is not as horrible as it may seem from a distance. You do not feel one state more acutely than another, nor do you feel the lack of things for which the desire has long since died in you.”

Published in 1912, Colours and Years is something of a novel of two centuries. With its rich set of characters and strong tragic narrative, Kaffka’s tale is one that could easily be placed alongside those classic 19th century novels of Balzac, Zola, or Perez Galdos. Yet Kaffka’s message about the fate of women assigned to negligible roles in a society controlled by men would soon find its echo in the work of Virginia Woolf and other 20th women writers.

Kaffka herself was something of a woman of her new century. She trained as a teacher, and although she married at the age of 25, she found she was not made for domesticity and separated from her husband after five years, taking her son with her to Budapest. There she was able to make a living as a writer, publishing poetry, short stories, and several novels, starting with Colours and Years. She divorced her first husband, took up with a man ten years her junior, a Jewish medical student, and married him. Her sales and critical reputation continued to grow with each book, and she had started on a historical novel when she contracted the Spanish flu and died on 1 December 1918. Her son died the day after. A few months before her death, Kaffka’s close friend, the poet Endre Ady, wrote of her, “Let us rejoice in Margit Kaffka because she has arrived and proves the triumph of Hungarian feminism: one need not be polite, pay false compliments to her. She is a strong person, an artist with an assured future: no criticism can hinder her true destiny, the path marked as her own.”

Colours and Years, by Margit Kaffka, translated by George F. Cushing
Budapest: Corvina Books, 1999

Blood Memory, by Martha Graham and Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, by Agnes De Mille (1991)

marthagrahamI am not a follower of ballet or dance, but when I started leafing through Martha Graham’s autobiography, Blood Memory: An Autobiography, I soon found I had to keep going and finish it. Now, this is hardly what one would call great writing. Indeed, there are some suggestions that it was more dictated, to her companion and assistant, Ron Protas. Protas himself cautioned Martha’s editor at Doubleday, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, “Jackie, this is a mix of Martha and me talking.” Kirkus Reviews said the book “feels as if it were dictated a few minutes at a time and left largely unedited,” and the Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote that it reminded one of the “rambling, disjunctive quality as the dangerously long, seemingly shapeless pre-curtain speeches she insisted upon making once she could no longer dance her own repertoire.” And toward the end, the names start dropping like bits of shrapnel.

But, at the same time, you’ve got to respect the kind of passion that could keep Graham going until she succumbed to pneumonia just a few weeks short of her 97th birthday. Graham doesn’t try to sugarcoat the fact that a double helping of ego tends to be part of the package when one is a creative genius, nor is she apologetic about the fact that she liked men and went after those she wanted. When it became clear that she had to stop dancing herself, it led to too much drinking, too much brooding, and a personal crisis: “A dancer, more than any other human being, dies two deaths: the first, the physical when the powerfully trained body will no longer respond as you would wish.”

And she would probably have agreed with Arnold Palmer that “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” “I believe that we learn by practice,” she declares in the second line in the book, and she goes on to describe just how much practice she would put herself and her dancers through, starting with intense drilling in basics–400 leaps in five minutes, as a start. Though Graham obviously didn’t aim for this to be a self-help book like Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, the pages are full of inspirational words that any dancer, artist, or other creative person could draw ideas and encouragement from. Graham recounts more than a few situations where it was only her “damn the torpedoes” attitude that got her through.

Blood Memory: An Autobiography was published about four months after Graham’s death. It was followed three weeks later by the publication of Agnes De Mille’s biography, Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, and I’d encourage anyone interested in Graham to check it out, too. De Mille and Graham had danced together and known each other as close friends for over fifty years, and De Mille had been working on the book for years, holding it back from publication out of respect. She approached it as a serious, almost scholarly work, despite her feelings for Graham, and in itself, is a remarkable book, particularly considering that De Mille was past 85 when it was finally published.

Blood Memory: An Autobiography, by Martha Graham
New York: Doubleday, 1991

Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham, by Agnes De Mille
New York: Random House, 1991

I Know What I’d Do, by Alice Beal Parsons (1946)

One has to wonder what the residents of Piermont, New York thought of Alice Beal Parsons. A writer and–for her day–a radical feminist, with a strong liberal tack to her politics, she bought a house–more like a cabin–on the slopes of Tallman Mountain (now a New York State Park in the late 1920s. Probably few had read or were even aware of her book, Woman’s Dilemma (1926), which argued for equal rights in work and sexual matters at a time when that was still a decidedly minority view.

Parsons commuted to New York City by ferry most days, working for The Nation and The Bookman as a book reviewer, but she had enough time to observe the residents of Piermont and their doings to become inspired. Within a year or so of settling near the town, she had fictionalized it as Pawlet-on-Hudson and made it the setting of her first novel, John Merrill’s Pleasant Life (1930), which told the story of an idealistic young engineer who has his life spirit drained from him even as he rises to great success running the town’s main factory. Two years later, she used the setting again in A Lady Who Lost (1932), which portrayed the place as a microcosm of the social disturbances caused by the Great Depression. In the book, an idle woman married to a wealthy man becomes involved with the case of a woman tried for the murder of a lover and then with a strike (also at the town’s big factory) organized by Communists.

Then, during the Second World War, she published The Mountain (1944), which was an autobiographical account of life in and around Piermont. She described how her attitude and relations with her neighbors evolved over the course of time, with her initial prejudices and stereotypes gradually giving way to more nuanced and sympathetic understanding and affection. She also rhapsodized about the beauties of the changing seasons on the mountain and offered some comic sketches of her own life and a few of her more colorful neighbors. The book was very favorably reviewed. Saturday Review called it, “… one of those books whose subject matter defies formal classification and whose charm depends partly, of course, on the style of its writing, but almost more on the intimate relationship the author manages to establish between you and her from the start. When you finish it you feel almost as if you had been the week-end guest of a delightful hostess.” One imagines her standing rose at least a little in the eyes of the Piermontese.


But then, a couple of years later, Parsons published I Know What I’d Do (1946), which made poor little Pawlet-on-Hudson a hotbed of adultery, racism, Xenophobia, and violence. The title comes from something several folks in town tell Al Miller, a returning vet, soon after he arrives back in town: “Yes, I know damn well what I’d do if I heard the sort of story some of youse fellow is agoin’ to hear now you’re back home. It ain’t no Sunday School story some of youse is goin’ to hear.” In other words, while Al was off training in England and fighting in Italy, his wife, Sally, had an affair with someone in town. Al’s friend, Jim Phelan, in fact.

At first, Al tries to be rational about things. He’d slept with an English girl himself while overseas. And it’s just innuendos at first, until Sally confesses to him one night. Only in her version, it wasn’t an affair–it was rape. And she got pregnant and now needs money for an illegal abortion. Oh, and just to ratchet up the melodramatic volume, the local Ku Klux Klan klaven burns a cross on their lawn–their version of a red letter A.

Things quickly spiral out of control. Al Miller hunts down and murders Jim Phelan. The scene instantly becomes the center of attraction in town:

In spite of the gas and rubber shortage, the traffic on Prospect Avenue out of which Penross Drive opened was greatly increased by the murder of Jim Phelan. Cars drove slowly by, obstructing north-bound traffic. Because of the jam, parking was forbidden on the Avenue. Sight-seers got around this difficulty by turning into abutting driveways and gazing their fill from these safe vantage points. Some determined individuals actually left their cars and strolled up Penross Drive, though everyone knew it was a one-way street. If they encountered anyone they pretended, according to sex and condition, to be looking for apartments, or stray dogs, or to be selling insurance.

The murder and the sordid details behind it split the community into factions like a prism. Much muck is shoveled up and raked over in the course of the subsequent trial. Fortunately for Al, his case is helped by a sympathetic woman writer living near the town–a fictional version of Parsons herself, one imagines–and civic rationalism prevails.

When I Know What I’d Do came out, critics divided into two camps. One saw the book as a soap opera and an opportunistic attempt to cash in on the very current topic of the struggles of returning veterans. The other applauded Parsons for her multi-faceted approach to her subject and characters. And it’s true that while there are bigots, bullies, and gossips a-plenty in Parsons’ Pawlet, there are others who demonstrate the same kind of depth and complexity of character that Parsons revealed among her neighbors in The Mountain. Grace Frank, writing in Saturday Review, easily spotted the parallels with Parsons’ earlier book:

Most of the portraits in the book, even the incidental ones, are admirable likenesses: the returned soldier, abstracted and uninterested until someone accidentally speaks his language; the young woman, a devoted wife and mother, who nevertheless yields to the excitement of an experienced seducer; a bullying sport, making another man pay for his fun; a worldly-wise writer, equating the effects of love and loneliness on Hawthorne, Emily Dickinson, Sally, and herself; the opposing lawyers, a woman of the man-eating type, a shrewdly cantankerous young doctor, a dowager aristocrat, and finally the different local characters, including the irreconcilable families of Sally and Al. Pawlet may be purely imaginary, as the author contends, but for all that it and its inhabitants are as real as Route 9W [Route 9W is the highway that runs through Piermont.–Ed.]

Parsons quickly followed up with a return to the subject of her most successful book. In The World Around the Mountain (1947), she carries on with her portrait of life around Piermont, including a comic and self-mocking account of her impassioned but quite unsuccessful attempt to get involved with local politics.

This was her last book, and other than a short story that was published in The American Mercury in 1950 (available at, Parsons appears to have published nothing after it. She died in a hospital in Nyack, just north of Piermont, in April, 1962.

I Know What I’d Do, by Alice Beal Parsons
New York: E. P. Dutton, Inc., 1946

A Matter of Time (1966) and The Woman Said Yes (1976), by Jessamyn West

west2A Matter of Time and The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death offer a reader the rare opportunity of seeing an author tell the same story in two different ways: one as a novel, the other–ten years later–as a memoir.

The story is about how Jessamyn West helped her sister, Carmen, in the terminal stage of bowel cancer, commit suicide in 1965. In A Matter of Time, Jessamyn’s character is named Tasmania, Carmen’s Blix. In the novel, Blix is able to kill herself with the help of a cache of pain-killers conveniently left her by her doctor over the preceding weeks. In the memoir, Jessamyn vaguely suggests that Carmen was able to buy them herself over the preceding months, while still able to drive herself to pharmacies around her area, but one suspects this is in the interest of protecting Carmen’s doctor, who would certainly have risked real, not fictional, prosecution in 1976.

For their time, both books were courageous. The right to die question was just becoming a very public issue in 1976 over the case of Karen Ann Quinlan, and even in her 1966 fictional version, West makes it clear that she aided her sister in the process. In neither book, however, does she attempt to make any generalizations or moral judgments. West simply responded to Carmen’s plea, which reached her by letter, while she was working in New York: “Sister, dear sister, come home and help me die.”

Revisiting the story as memoir ten years later, what changes is not the narrative but the perspective. Not to be too simplistic, but in A Matter of Time, the story is told from the inside looking out. Through Blix’s sleepless nights, the sisters sit together, reminiscing about their family, contrasting Tasmania’s older, more distant and intellectual outlook with Blix’s younger, more sensual responses. In The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death, West takes a big step back, devoting the first half of the book to the story of her own illness and care.

While working on her Ph.D., West was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and, through her mother’s swift intervention, quickly admitted to a sanatorium outside Los Angeles. First considered a terminal case, she was able to be moved where she could get more active treatment, again thanks to her mother’s hounding of the hospital management. For the better part of two years, her mother would visit her four times a week,

… driving the round trip of eighty miles through rain, through Santa Ana sandstorms, through fog so thick headlights were turned on at four in the afternoon. She came with brow anointed with Musterole, with varicose veins swathed in stretchable rubber bandages, with truss laced in place. What I suffered, in actual pain, dying though I might be, was a pinprick to her multiple aches. But she came. She came laughing. She came laden with things I had never dreamed of wanting, but which proved exactly what would give pleasure to a patient next door to a terminal ward.

Aided perhaps from the long, reflective spell alone in a trailer in the Arizona desert that she recounted in Hide and Seek, published a few years earlier than The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death, West new sees how much of her response to Carmen’s illness is rooted in her mother Grace’s response to Jessamyn’s tuberculosis. Not so much in approach–Grace recognized how much the weak and ill Jessamyn needed a strenuous advocate, while Carmen, worldlier and possessed of a self-confidence Jessamyn always envied, needed an accomplice she could trust to carry out her plan. Grace said “Yes” to life, nursing and coaxing Jessamyn back from death, and Jessamyn said “Yes” to Carmen’s wish to end her own life. But her memory of her mother’s care helps West set aside personal concerns and simply focus on Carmen’s needs, whether it was to talk into the night or to be left alone to struggle with her pain.

And this, in the end, is what makes both books–but particularly The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death–so effective. West tells us how three women dealt with the life-and-death crises they encountered together, and nothing more than that. There is no message but that of accepting and understanding a specific situation on its own. Carmen chose to end her life rather than endure what West calls “nature’s savage torture,” but there is no suggestion that any general principles can or should be derived from her example. There are only these two versions of what happened.

A Matter of Time, by Jessamyn West
New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966

The Woman Said Yes: Encounters with Life and Death
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976


Important to Me, by Pamela Hansford Johnson (1974)

importanttomeWhen I was in high school, I used to keep a copy of C. P. Snow’s Variety of Men, a collection of memoirs of his encounters with such men as Einstein, Churchill, and H. G. Wells, beside my bed. I had picked it up from a sale box at the base exchange, as I thought myself a very serious young man and was already in the habit of reading thick volumes about powerful dead white men. I was also in the habit of spending too many sleepless hours, laying in bed and agonizing over whether I had it in me to make my own great mark in the world.

There was something in Snow’s book that I found tremendously calming. I think it was his tone. Although Snow had, by the time he published the book in 1967, certainly made his mark on English literature as well as on then-contemporary thought (with his The Two Cultures), he was hardly in the same category as Einstein or Churchill. And yet there was such assurance in his treatment of these men. Snow was probably just another geek to Churchill, but that fact didn’t stop Snow from feeling that the world would want to share in his thoughts and memories of the great man. That self-confidence–so self-confident as to be effectively unconscious–was so reassuring to a boy with utterly none. And the fact that its short, self-contained chapters were conveniently packaged for reading before falling back to sleep helped, too.

Now, some forty years later, I still find myself awaking with self-doubts, although they tend to be over things such as paying for college, keeping old cars running, and whether reading about cancer (viz.) will give me cancer. And I have found myself a new bedside companion to provide some reassurance and coax sleep back. Interestingly, it’s a similar book of short reminiscences–but this time, by C. P. Snow’s wife, the novelist Pamela Hansford Johnson. Already a successful novelist at the time they married in 1950 (his first, her second), Johnson had grown up in an impoverished family of actors, gone to work as a typist, and began publishing poetry in her early twenties. She had over a dozen novels under her belt; he had three, plus a few mysteries.

Although the two kept on writing right up to their deaths (Snow in 1980, Johnson in 1981), it was soon Snow rather than Johnson who earned the lion’s share of the spotlight. She seems to have been quite content with the bargain. “He has been all I could wish. More might be said but it isn’t going to be,” she remarks at one point in this book. By the time she wrote
Important to Me, they had settled into a comfortable life with a country house, a London flat, and occasional all-expense-paid trips to America to teach and lecture on college campuses or to defend the realist stream in literature against the onslaughts of modernism at conferences in Europe and the Soviet Union.

In a recent review of Wendy Pollard’s 2014 biography, Pamela Hansford Johnson: Her Life, Works and Times, Hilary Spurling referred to Snow and Johnson as “Literature’s least attractive power couple.” She was Snow’s most fervent promoter; he, in turn, kept her hard at work, pumping out over twenty more books, to help maintain their lifestyle.

The strain took its toll on Johnson, who admits to battling migraines and depression in this book (and in Pollard’s biography is revealed to have other problems with pills and alcohol). Yet, in true Victorian fashion, she refuses to admit there are any cracks in the glass. “With Charles, I am always happy, if he is free from professional worries, or when any of the children are causing serious anxiety,” she writes. And if the black dog comes around, well, “I do not know what I should do without The Times.”

“This book is not a straight autobiography,” Johnson declares in her introduction. Instead, it is a collection of mostly short essays, “reflections upon things that have been important to me in my life.” Although she admits freely to many faults and deficiencies–no musical talent, little interest in food, idiosyncratic tastes in art–she feels “I am, perhaps, old enough now to write these things with some confidence.” And so we learn about her father, an administrator with a British railroad company in Africa, who died young and left his family nearly penniless; about an encounter with a ghost in the streets on London; her love of Shakespeare; her acquaintances and impressions of Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, and Ivy Compton-Burnett; her love of detective stories; her travels to America and Russia; her run-in with a man claiming to be Jesus Christ on the streets of Los Angeles.

It’s all written with care, selective in including a nice balance of descriptive details and personal assessments, discreet in avoiding too private or painful disclosures. And a comfortable foundation of self-confidence unperturbed by even the most gruesome aspects of modern life. Johnson wrote a short book about the Moors Murders (On Iniquity (1967)), she dismisses the notion of collective guilt for the violence of modern society: “We are ‘all guilty’–somehow–of the Moors Murders. I am not. I have never, by speech or writing, contributed to the ambience that could make such horrors possible.” Those who think otherwise are simply “totally permissive cretins.”

Better to focus on beautiful music, lovely paintings, pleasant scenery, and the love of husband and family. The “exquisite friendship,” the “absorbing unity of interests” of a successful marriage. And, of course, The Times crossword puzzle.

Some, like the anonymous review in Kirkus Reviews, may feel that Important to Me “will primarily attract those to whom Pamela Hansford Johnson is important.” A masterpiece, it certainly is not. A book you can dip into on a grim and restless night and quickly find something interesting, well-written, and filled with a voice well-grounded in its own sense of self and the rightness of its place in the world, however, it most certainly is.

Important to Me is back in print again as part of a series of her books–mainly novels–published by Bello Books, a line of Pan Macmillan, to celebrate her centenary in 2012.

Important to Me, by Pamela Hansford Johnson
New York City: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974

Intimations of Mortality, by Violet Weingarten (1978)

intimationsofmortality“Is life too short to be taking shit, or is life too short to mind it?” Violet Weingarten wonders after being told by an acquaintance–erroneously and spitefully–that her husband was having an affair while she is undergoing chemotherapy.

A few years later, Anne Lamott, watching as her father, writer Kenneth Lamott, was dying of cancer, went looking for books to help her understand what was happening. As she later wrote, “I found myself desperate for books that talked about cancer in a way that would both illuminate the experience and make me laugh.” The only one she found was Weingarten’s Intimations of Mortality. She was so struck by Weingarten’s candor and caustic humor that she used the question above as the epigraph to her book, in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994).

While many more books about the experience of being treated for cancer have been written since 1978, Intimations of Mortality remains worth rediscovering for the pleasures (and pains) of Violet Weingarten’s unique voice and perspective. Growing up in New York City, she spent over fifteen working as a reporter for the Brooklyn Eagle, where she met her husband, Victor. The two would later be named as members of the Communist Party by reporter Winston Burdett in testimony before a Senate committee. She quit the paper in the early 1950s, choosing to focus on raising their two daughters. As the nest emptied in the early 1960s, she went back to work–but this time as a novelist. Her first novel, Mrs. Beneker (1967) won a respectable amount of critical and popular acclaim, and she was working on her fourth book, Half a Marriage, when she was first diagnosed with cancer.

violetweingartenHer first reaction was surprise, followed quickly–and unexpectedly–by euphoria: “The shoe I had been listening for–unconsciously–all my life had dropped. The fear that makes me human, my knowledge of my own mortality, the fear I had hidden so resolutely and displayed so obviously (none of use see his own ostrich rump sticking up there in the air) was suddenly allowed to surface, and I felt an enormous sense of relief.” Leave it to Weingarten to put in such commonplace words the profound message of Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, The Denial of Death (1974).

After further tests and some surgery, Weingarten was given a clean bill of health. But from the very beginning, her instincts told her that any reprieve would be temporary, and by February 1975, she was preparing herself for her first round of chemotherapy. She set herself the task of keeping a journal of the experience, and quickly filled a dozen pages with an account of her thoughts on the prospect. “I have indeed become the long-winded lady,” she concludes: “It’s the switch from third to first person. I got drunk on it.”

Fortunately for the reader, writing remained something of a tonic over the next thirteen months. Her chemotherapy took its toll on her stamina, added enough pounds to leave her constantly anxious over her looks and the fit of her clothes, tested her patience, and brought on its share of secondary illnesses, but appears not to have been severely debilitating until the very end. And Weingarten is very selective in what she shares about her cancer directly. This is not a journal about cancer but about the thoughts and feelings of a woman being treated for it.

At times, it makes for difficult reading. Not because of the details of her treatment or her descriptions of any of its side effects.” What makes this painful to read at points is the extent to which Weingarten was willing to share her thoughts, even if they were often maddening in their relentlessness: “What succeeded that phase was an idée fixe–an unending undercurrent–‘I think I am well, I am sure I am well,’ and the thought of my not being well never leaves my mind.” And when the anxieties of cancer combined with the forebodings of an author with a new book about to be published, her thoughts machine-gun onto the page:

… this time it’s a little different. Partly because I really don’t know what I am going to write next (but I never did). Partly because it is so important for me to have something going on now (I think that was what saved me when I got out of the hospital in January–I had work to pick up right away). But most of all because of all the unknowns. Will I see it published? (Next spring.) How will I feel then? (Will I be another Cornelius Ryan [who died of prostate cancer just after his A Bridge Too Far was published in 1974]?) Will they push it (in part because)? How will I feel about that? Diffident if they do, angry if they don’t. Also, a whole lot of me went into it. I can’t retreat any more–write what Gottlieb calls “cutesy”–I can only write from my gut now. But what I have to write about now is, in a way, unwritable. Except here.

“This is a special journal,” Weingarten wrote about two months after starting it. “I shan’t end it, life will.” And life did, in April 1976. “Wouldn’t it be nice if it turned out to be a virus?” read the last line in her journal. She entered Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx, where she died on July 17th. Her husband and her daughters, Jan and Kathy, struggled over the decision to publish the journal. “To allow the death of our wife and mother, for us a very private event, to become public was disturbing.” But they decided that she had written it with the intent that it be read, and worked with Robert Gottlieb of Knopf to have it published: “Because she was a good writer, her journal should make her own experience significant to a great many people.” I can only hope that this article helps a few more people share in Violet Weingarten’s remarkable last experience.

Intimations of Mortality, by Violet Weingarten
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978

The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell, by Storm Jameson (1945)

I found this intriguing book on the Internet Archive (link), started reading it, and kept on and on, wondering where its meandering and, at times, mirage-like thread would lead. By the time I realized that it didn’t fully qualify as neglected (it’s been reissued, along with over a dozen other titles by Storm Jameson, as an e-book by Bloomsbury Publishing), it was too late.

Although Jameson presents it as the journal of the fictional Mary Hervey Russell, daughter of the domineering Sylvia (portrayed with both empathy and acidity in The Captain’s Wife) and her husband, captain of various small freighters, the intersections between the fictional Mary and the real-life Storm Jameson are too many to mistake this as anything but Jameson’s own journal, lightly disguised. It’s also not always a journal, as it includes a short play featuring Odysseus and a conversation about contemporary English poetry conducted by the corpses of several British soldiers killed during the German invasion of France in 1940.

Many of the entries are undated, but one can safely say that the journal covers the period between the Sudetenland crisis of 1938 and early 1943. Much of the first half of the book deals with the fears and trials of European intellectuals that Russell/Jameson encounters and assists in her role as president of the British branch of PEN, and the second half with her experiences during the first years of World War Two, including the Blitz and rationing. While I initially thought Jameson’s reflections on these contemporary events would be the most interesting parts of the book, there is often such a relentless seriousness that too much of it becomes tedious. (Or ridiculous: “Turning her back on us, France is bequeathing us a summer. Very kind. It would be kinder still if she sent us her Fleet.”)

Instead, perhaps the strongest connecting thread in the book is that of Russell/Jameson’s memories and emotions about her family. Her mother was imperious, selfish, unloving, and dismissive of her husband and children. Though seen from a distance of thirty years or more, her actions and words left wounds still raw. Jameson mourns the loss of her brother, a pilot killed in the First World War and then, just at the end, of her sister, killed in a German bombing raid. And she reflects upon the parallels between her family’s small dramas and the great changes she has witnessed in her lifetime:

Mine is the last generation brought up to know a great many hymns. And the last which remembers, as a thing felt, the Victorian certainties, hollow as these were, wormed inside, in 1900. Isolated, sarcastically indifferent to the rest of England, our Victorianism was almost of 1840. I rebelled against it, but it had formed and deformed me; even my revolt was filial. My deepest self, when I am conscious — you won’t expect me to answer for any sleeping or disinterested self — is patient, stubborn, a little cracked in its dislike of being told what to do. Anything which is repeated a great many times, a chair, a sentiment, words, repels it.

The lyricism of some of Russell/Jameson’s recollections are almost Proustian in their intensity, and I will have to excerpt one later to illustrate this.

While some parts of The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell are abstruce, dated, histrionic, or simply tedious, there are also some wonderful passages:

My landlady, a woman about forty, was in her room on the ground floor, the door open, while her hair was waved. Looking in the glass she could watch it as well as note who came in and out. In a monotonous voice she was telling the hairdresser that her husband had spent the night “with those women”, and was asleep in his room. “First thing when he wakes he’ll ask me to give him a clean shirt, and then what money I have in the drawer. What disillusion!”

The lines of her mouth formed a single word, of surprise and bitterness.

The streets here, behind their mask, unsmiling, of sunlight, are grey and hard with age. The life going on continuously, every inch occupied by it, in every room someone coughing, working, bartering, baking, or pressing offal into a cheap pate, ironing, giving birth, dying, was self-supported and self-devouring, completely cut off, by a hard membrane, from the soil.

This was the eighth book Jameson published during the war, and over the course of a sixty-year career, she published well over five dozen books. As with Ethel Mannin, Phyllis Bottome, and a number of her other contemporaries, Jameson’s work was a remarkable combination of the prolific, the popular, the psychological, and the political. It’s hard to imagine all of these qualities coexisting in a successful writer today.

The Journal of Mary Hervey Russell, by Storm Jameson
London: Macmillan, 1945

Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, by Lesley Conger (1963)

Cover of 'Adventures of an Ordinary Mind'Sitting in her kitchen nook, sipping her mid-morning cup of coffee–“the best part of being a housewife” — Lesley Conger decided one day in October 1961 that, “The shape my ambition has taken this year is this: I shall begin to read all the books I should have read by now….” Adventures of an Ordinary Mind is the diary of that year of reading.

Today, such books are becoming almost a micro-genre on their own, with such recent titles as Susan Hill’s Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, Phyllis Rose’s The Year of Reading Proust (not to mention her dive into neglected books, The Shelf). The only easily-found precedent to Conger’s book, however — which she does mention — was Bernard Berenson’s A Year’s Reading for Fun, an account of how he and his fellow inmates of I Tatti (hardly the worst place to get stuck) wiled away a year during World War Two mining Berenson’s priceless library.

Lesley Conger and her book are quite the contrasts to the refined taste and elevated atmosphere of Berenson and his book. Mother to six children ranging in age from five to fifteen, she squeezed her reading in between loads of laundry, stirred stewpots with a book in one hand, and found the energy to get through a canto or two of Dante before turning out the light. Instead of Renaissance masterpieces, her walls featured PTA notices, children’s crayon drawings, maps with vacation routes marked in red and “an oil painting by a nobody, left over from Greenwich Village days, which nobody likes but it has such a nice frame.” And Berenson probably never wondered, “If a child is going to drop a doughnut thickly crusted in powdered sugar, why does he do it at the top of a flight of stairs carpeted in dark red?”

Lesley Conger was the pen-name of Shirley Suttles — who. at the time, really was a housewife, living in Vancouver, B.C. and raising seven kids (the last one came after this book) with her husband, Wayne. Contrary to her title, though, Suttles was no ordinary mind. She and her husband studied at the University of Washington and Berkeley, and she spent at year at the New School for Social Research, sharing a room with the very young James Baldwin, before reuniting with Wayne back in Seattle (he was the UW’s first Ph.D. graduate in anthropology). Even as their family began to grow, she still found to write articles and short stories for magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and McCalls, and even published a humorous account of life in the Suttles house, Love and Peanut Butter (1961). Her husband went on to become a pioneering ethnographer and linguist of Indians of the Pacific Northwest, publishing such works as Musqueam Reference Grammar (still in print, by the way).

And her year’s reading included works that can challenge even the least distracted readers: Vergil; Euripides; the Bhagavad Gita; Bouvard et Pécuchet; Camus’ The Plague. She puts a remarkable effort into sticking with her program through its dryest spells. But then she is, she admits, addicted to reading:

I will read anything. I will even read it twice. And because I have a large house and six children and a cat and a dog, and can’t always find an uninterrupted hour or two to sit down peacefully with a book, I read on the fly, as it were. I read while stirring a pudding; I read while darning socks. There is always some book I am reading, and I carry it around with me, propping it open wherever I happen to be. I can, for example, read a page or two while the dirty water drains out of the washing machine, and a page of Maugham is more diverting than a view of mud from blue jeans under a scum of detergent suds.

When she goes to the library, it’s “in the mood of a logger hitting town after six weeks in the bush.” She does confess at one point, though, that Plato’s Dialogues “are not what a weary mother wants to read between bouts of caring for a small patient.” And I had to shout, “Amen!” when I read that she found “reading Faulkner like wading through waist-deep water thick with seaweed.”

Sadly, this book was seen as a mix of Erma Bombeck and the Great Books Program, didn’t please the fans of Love and Peanut Butter nor those looking for something a little more intellectual. Kirkus Reviews dismissed it as “a pleasant annotation of a full life and an eager mind — but no more.” The only printing was quickly shuffled to the remainder pile.

And though, late in the book, she celebrates carving out a room of her own (actually, just a closet) so she can concentrate on finishing a novella, Conger/Suttles did not publish another book for adult readers, aside from To Writers, with Love, a collection of her “Off the Cuff” columns, which appeared in The Writer for over fifteen years.

Shirley Suttles died in 2006, at the age of 88, a year after her husband Wayne’s passing, leaving behind a large family — and a few happy readers.

Adventures of an Ordinary Mind, by Lesley Conger
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1963

An American Journey, by Ethel Mannin (1967)

Cover of UK edition of 'An American Journey'
I’ll admit it: I bought this book because of its cover. That Day-glo orange and blue Manhattan skyline illustration is one of the most visually exciting dust jackets I’ve seen since Helen Ashton’s People in Cages.

But there was more to it. I was vaguely aware of Ethel Mannin as “a popular British novelist,” as her Wikipedia entry puts it, one of the generation of “middlebrows” celebrated on and Lesley Hall’s site. I didn’t realize, though, just how prolific a writer she was until I saw the list of book “By the Same Author”: two columns of densely packed titles in small print. In the course of a 50-plus year career starting in the early 1920s, Mannin published over 100 books–a half-dozen volumes of memoirs, some political tracts, a few on child education, over a dozen travel books, and 40-plus novels.

Having researched a little more into Mannin’s life and work, I find it rather astonishing that her work–particularly her novels–sold so well, since her political and sexual views were far from that of the average British book-buyer of her time. She had affairs with Yeats and Bertrand Russell, among others, organized for the Labour Party until she found it too corrupt and conservative for her taste, married a Quaker who channeled support to Gandhi while he was working against British rule, protested against torture of Mau Mau members in Kenya, and was a vocal supporter of Palestinian opposition to Israel. Ironically, though Mannin was an avowed atheist, one of her most popular novels, Late Have I Loved Thee, about the conversion of an Irish man to Catholicism, came to attention again last year after it appeared on a list of Pope Francis’ 11 favorite books.

An American Journey is the account of a trip Mannin took to the U.S. in 1965. The dust jacket states that, “The author insists that this is not a travel book about America but the story of a journey and that there is a difference.” I suspect this is the sort of hair-splitting that Mannin defiantly insisted upon throughout her life.

Mannin’s American journey reveals more about its author than its subject. Travelling around the U.S. by Greyhound bus, she finds a country bursting with economic and engineering excess–helicopters landing on the roof of the Pan Am building in New York; a radio talk show broadcast from a Chicago restaurant; six-lane freeways and fifty-car pile-ups in Los Angeles. She also tends to see a culture whose worth decreases in inverse proportion to the country’s wealth. She is far more impressed by Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers and Navaho pottery than by the fact that you can order a martini on an evening commuter train out of Manhattan.

And she is quick to spot the cracks in the American dream. A taxi driver taking her to visit a school in a black neighborhood in Washington D.C. tells her that he would rather see his daughter “dead in the river than at a nigger school.” She counters boosterism in Oklahoma City with the following quote from John Collier’s Indians of the Americas: “The local looting of Indians became a principal business in eastern Oklahoma, continuing with brazen openness until past 1925, and not wholly ended yet.” Of attempts by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to introduce small manufacturing enterprises on southwestern reservations, she remarks that, “Industrialisation is invariably the answer in the modern world to poverty and unemployment–whether it is or not.”

Through her many, many hours on the bus, she encounters dozens of Americans–black and white, male and female, young and old–but rarely seems to have made more than a cursory attempt to strike up conversations. Of those she mentions, the most common feature is the speaker’s utter ignorance of England or anything else outside the U.S.. On several occasions, she prefers to turn away and bury her nose in the Simenon novel she brought along. In any case, conversation was probably never her strongest suit. Waiting at the bus station in Los Angeles with a friend she had visited, she remarks that, “The grey early morning, when body and soul are only narrowly held together by a cup of coffee, is anyhow no time for conversation, anywhere, in any circumstance.”

For today’s reader, the pleasures of An American Journey are mostly incidental. Mannin saw the U.S. at a moment when you could still ride a Super Chief train from Chicago to L.A. and book its Turquoise Room for a private afternoon cocktail party, while passengers arriving at Eero Saarinen’s space age modernist Dulles Airport were carried direct from their planes to baggage claim in moving lounges that featured armchairs and tables with magazines and newspapers. (Sadly, neither luxury survived long after that.) The interstate highway system was complete, but you still arrived in most towns on a road studded with motels, diners, car lost, flashing signs, and what Mannin, in her stubborn Britishness, refers to as “hoardings” (billboards). If you were to retrace her journey today, you could probably spend every night in a Holiday Inn Express within 100 yards of a freeway after eating the same dinner at the nearby Appleby’s.

I did become intrigued to understand just how such an adamantly radical woman could exploit an adamantly capitalist publishing industry to finance her political, artistic, and personal interests and passions for over fifty years, and as part of this year’s program of reading works by women, I plan to read a few more of Ethel Mannin’s books and see what I can discover.

An American Journey, by Ethel Mannin
London: Hutchinson, 1967

Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma Lady Furness (1958)

doubleexposureYou don’t read Double Exposure, the dual-narrated memoir of identical twins and society dames Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt and Thelma Morgan, Lady (later Viscountess) Furness as literature, but as a combination of specimen and spectacle. And as the latter, it offers more nooks and crevices than a Mandelbrot set.

For those into abnormal psychology, there is their half-Irish, half-Chilean and 100% drama-queen mother, Laura Delphine Kilpatrick Morgan. Nora Ephron once wrote that, “If you give your kids a choice, your mother in the next room on the verge of suicide versus your mother in Hawaii in ecstasy, they’d choose suicide in the next room.” If you asked Gloria and Thelma, they’d go for the Hawaii option: anything to get away from that woman. Their daddy, on the other hand, the fine, dignified and long-suffering diplomat, Harry Hays Morgan (Senior), could do no wrong. Is it any wonder that both girls pretty much marry the first men who show any interest in them and who shared the outstanding attribute of being about the age of their father when they were born?

No matter, for each is quickly disposed with. Thelma’s first husband, Jimmy Vail Converse, grandson of AT&T co-founder Theodore Vail, turns out to be an abusive and bankrupt alcoholic. A quick trip to California produces a divorce, followed in about a year by marriage to Marmaduke Furness, British shipping magnate and member of the House of Lords … and also over twenty years her senior. His good manners and huge fortune could not hold a candle to the likes of Edward Prince of Wales, and Divorce Number Two followed within eight years of Divorce Number One. Sadly, Thelma lost out to another American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, and had to drown her sorrows in a quick fling with Prince Aly Khan (later husband to Rita Hayworth). She managed somehow to overlook the fact that, for once, she was the older one.

Meanwhile, Gloria fell for and married Reginald Claypoole Vanderbilt, heir to the fortune established by “Commodore” Vanderbilt. Gloria and Reggie got along famously (sorry), but sadly, Reggie had to go and ruin things by choking to death on his own blood due to a mysterious throat hemorrhage medical condition he had kept secret from her. A man whose chief accomplishment, according to his Wikipedia entry, was that, “He was the founder and president of many equestrian organizations,” Reggie left his widow and daughter (the Gloria Vanderbilt of fashion fame) comfortably off. Unfortunately, he and his lawyers left open a legal loophole through which his sister, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (yes, those Whitneys, swooped a few years later, making off with daughter Gloria and most of (mother) Gloria’s money. Nothing for it but a few more affairs. Oh, and a few years after that, daughter Gloria and lawyers swooped again, took mother Gloria’s annual allowance, and donated it to a charity for the blind. Had the expression been invented back then, one imagines (daughter) Gloria’s lawyers shouting, “BOO-YAH!”

But wait–there’s more! There are the rare and elusive Vanderbilt siblings–three of them. You have to keep a sharp eye out for them, though: no sooner than you spot one and it’s off into the mists for another decade or two. There are more transatlantic steamship trips than there are Washington-New York shuttle flights. There are their many close, intimate acquaintances–humble folk “such as Peggy Stout, who married dashing Lawrence Copley Thaw and later divorced him; Jimmy and Dorothy Fargo, whose name is associated with Pony Express fame; the two daughters of Mrs. Richard T. Wilson, Marion and Louise; Juan Trippe, now president of Pan-American Airways; the two Jimmys, Leary and O’Gorman; and Margaret Power, who had introduced us to Margaret Hennessy. They were both from Montana; their families at one time jointly owned the Anaconda copper mines.” And you: who do you watch polo with? Thought so.

Kirkus Reviews praised the twin authors for “sparing no detail no matter how unorthodox,” but half the fun of this book are the details they left out. Like, say, a moral and ethical framework. As Thelma is falling in love with Prince Edward, she and “Duke” Furness head off to Africa for a spot of safari and shooting. Lying in her tent one night, Thelma wails, “Why did I have to be the big white hunter?” A short ellipsis later, and she totes up her toll: “I shot an elephant, a lion, a rhino, and a water buffalo.” Even in those days, scruples were so passé. If you ever needed proof positive that the very rich are different from you and I, take a stroll through Double Exposure. For us proles, it’s available for free on the Internet Archive (Link).

from Double Exposure, by Gloria Vanderbilt and Thelma Lady Furness
New York: David McKay and Company, 1958

Mrs. Beneker, by Violet Weingarten (1967)

Cover of first US edition of 'Mrs. Beneker'Depending on your perspective, Violet Weingarten’s debut novel, Mrs. Beneker (1967) is outdated or timeless. Mr. and Mrs. Beneker could live next door to half of John Cheever’s characters or across the street from Rob and Laura Petrie. She picks up Mr. Beneker from the 6:23PM train to Westchester, takes an adult education class on comparative religions, worries about her son at Harvard and her daughter, pregnant and off to Egypt with her aid-organizer husband, and wishes she could land one of those highly-coveted volunteer jobs teaching reading to youngsters in Harlem. She did work, back in the late 1930s, when she was single, radical, and infatuated with her newspaper’s dashing red-headed star reporter, but now she is in something of a limbo, no longer in daily demand as a mother and too young to retire to Florida like her parents.

She spends much of her time watching and weighing the world around her–both refining her public persona and wondering at its ludicrousness:

She reached over and patted Mr. Beneker’s hand, perfectly aware she was doing so for the benefit of two women at an adjacent table who had been staring at them from the moment they sat down. Mrs. Beneker loathed them. Obviously they got their exercise circulating petitions against liberal school-board members. They rode in open cars in Memorial Day parades, paper poppies on their breasts and overseas caps spiked to their iron-grey heads with bobby pins.

What a devoted pair we must seem, thought Mrs. Beneker, adding a winning smile to her performance. The lobsters came, and Mr. Beneker, as usual, reached over and cracked her claws for her. And are, she concluded.

Oh so it seems under she picks up the phone one evening and hears her husband say, “Nothing. I just wanted to hear the sound of your voice.”

Left on her own while he flies off to California on business, she has the chance to exercise her role as a woman scorned to the fullest. “Coals of fire, she thought. Let him writhe under them.” She imagines prying a hefty settlement from Mr. Beneker and moving into a “new, bright, ultramodern” apartment overlooking the East River. But the more she thinks of the apartment, the more it “echoes with emptiness,” and the more she thinks of Mr. Beneker, the harder she finds it to accept this new identity of his: the adulterer. In the end, reality is more muddled and less stark, and a good healthy slap goes a long way toward clearing the air.

And this is typical of the crises in Mrs. Beneker’s life over the course of the year depicting in the book. Dangers seem most fearsome when they hover in the near future, her wits sharper and character stronger in the heat of contact. And her sense of humor intact. “Eskimos have the right idea,” she often jokes at the prospect of aging. “The only thing to do with old people is to abandon them on ice floes.”

Mrs. Beneker was the first of four novels Violet Weingarten published between 1967 and 1977, when she died of cancer at the age of sixty-one–an experience she recorded in a journal later published as Intimations of Mortality (1978). All are about women of roughly her own age, economic, and social status, liberal in outlook, well-educated, mothers of grown children, living in or around New York City. All of her novels received respectful reviews and sold well enough to come out in book club and paperback editions, and here and there around the Internet, you can find readers who remember them with fondness.

Are they outdated or timeless? Mrs. Beneker is certainly a work of its particular time and place, yet I often found myself finding scenes and comments that were still relevant. I began to form a theory that these four books by Violet Weingarten were, in their way, every bit as timeless as any of the Jeeves books by P. G. Wodehouse. I will have to read on to put that theory to test.

Mrs. Beneker, by Violet Weingarten
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1967

Risk, by Rachel MacKenzie (1971)

Cover of first US edition of "Risk"

Risk, Rachel MacKenzie’s brief account of her hospitalization and initial recovery from open-heart surgery to repair an aneurysm of the left ventricle of her heart is one of the shortest books covered on this site, just 59 pages in all.

Adapted from an article she published in The New Yorker in November, 1970 as “fiction,” it’s a model of the ultra-efficient narrative. There is nothing unnecessary in her account. A student of the progress of heart surgery could easily trace the entire course of her diagnosis, examinations, surgery, and post-operative difficulties, including the game of drug roulette her cardiologist plays until settling on Dilantin as the most effective treatment for arrhythmia, yet no individual element of her medical care gets more than a few lean paragraphs’ attention.

And her choice of the third person allows her to be ruthlessly selective in what she mentions of her own emotions and sensations. She notes pain–when it comes, where it stays, how long it takes to leave. The widely different abilities of doctors and nurses to insert catheters–quickly, barely noticeably or ineptly, leaving bruises and soreness from repeated assaults–gets special notice.

Risk takes its title from the fact that open-heart surgery was still a new field in 1970, one where full recovery could not yet be taken for granted. Her surgeon tells her,

“I have to tell you that we could get your chest opened up and I might decide the risk was too great to proceed. It’s large. The men who did the arteriogram figure between fifty and sixty. They think nearer sixty. I still think fifty. It will depend on our judgment of the strength of what’s left of the ventricle to carry on.”

Later, another doctor puts the situation in starker terms:

“Dr. Jamison,” she [MacKenzie] said, “I’ve been thinking. Are there particular risks and complications in this surgery I ought to know about? Do you really aprove of my having it?”

The expression of special pleasure that had been on Dr. Jamison’s face gave way to one of reserve. “Nobody’s rushing you into this,” he said. “It’s entirely your decision.”

“That isn’t what I mean. My decision was made before I ever came in here. But I would like to know what the risk is.”

“It makes no sense to talk about risks in a thing like this,” Dr. Jamison said. “Risks are statistics. Averages. So far as you’re concerned, they’re on hundred per cent or they’re zero.”

The surgery itself is successful, but MacKenzie experiences a number of post-operative complications that leave her variously frustrated, depressed, and impatient. But she progresses from ICU to Cardiac Care and finally to a normal recovery ward, and is able to return home.

Months later, discussing her case with her cardiologist, she is able to put the risks into human terms:

“How many of those operations have they done?” she asked.

“Between fifteen and twenty–seventeen is the exact number, I believe.”

Dr. Rudd had said the risk was thirty-five per cent or a little more. She figured. Had they lost six? Seven?

Looking back on her own experience, she thinks, “Dear God, the miracle.”
Rachel MacKenzie at The New Yorker
Rachel MacKenzie was a editor at The New Yorker from 1956 until just before her death in 1980, and worked with some of the magazine’s most intimidating contributors–Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer–and fostered the early work of Philip Roth, Muriel Spark, and Bernard Malamud. Born in a small town in Ohio in 1909, she spent over twenty years as a teacher, first at Ginling College in Nanjing, China, then at the College of Wooster, Radcliffe, Wellesley, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. The American Heart Association presented her with the Blakeslee Award “for lasting service to physicians as well as laymen” in honor of Risk. Her one novel, The Wine of Astonishment, published in 1974, tells the story of two spinster sisters and their lives in the tight-knit and strictly conventional community of a small upstate New York town.

Ironically, one of the earliest of her few published pieces was a short story titled, “The Thread,” which appeared in Harpers in September 1947. Relating the experience of Ellen, a young girl hospitalized for injuries that require some surgery, it greatly foreshadows Risk, even down to the constant refrain of doctors and nurses warning, “Just a pinprick” before giving another of her countless injections. Harpers subscribers can read “The Thread” on the Harpers Archive (link).

Risk, by Rachel MacKenzie
New York: The Viking Press, 1971

A Tower of Steel, by Josephine Lawrence (1943)

Cover of first US edition of 'Tower of Steel'
You probably couldn’t find a more resolutely practical novelist than Josephine Lawrence. In the 30-plus adult novels she wrote between 1932 and 1975, she consistently wrote about people coping with problems of everyday life: growing old, growing up, dealing with children and aging parents, trying to make ends meet, getting laid off, finding a decent house to live in, figuring out how to get along with annoying neighbors, figuring out whether the person you’ve been going with for the last two years is the one you’re supposed to marry.

Partly this may be due to the fact that she spent a few years writing “Question and Answer,” an early advice column ala “Dear Abby” that appeared in the Newark Sunday Call. Coming early in her career, this experience put her in touch with the dilemmas of her readers, and these became the vein she mined for over forty years at the rate of a book every fifteen months.

In the case of A Tower of Steel, the problems revolved around the fact that the United States had entered a war, enlisting or drafting millions of men, consuming precious resources, and leaving many of the non-combatants in an odd sort of limbo. Marsh Lyman, well into his seventies (his staff call him “the Old Man”), has to hold off on retirement while he keeps the law firm of Lyman, Lyman, Lyman, and Lyman going in the absence of his three nephews and partners, all serving in uniform.

… the silence of the room in which she and the Old Man sat had in it a curious quality of pressure or of waiting. That oppressive heaviness, suffocating, labored, shutting them away from reality, extended, she fancied, beyond the closed door. those other silent offices, empty except for shadows, pulled constantly at the Old Man’s thoughts. He looked in each one every morning, had instructed Mrs. Mullane to clean and dust them. The rooms waited, he waited, and it was the struggle not to let life stop, not to listen to the silence, that weighted the quiet atmosphere.

Supporting him is a staff of four women, each dealing with one or other of the challenges of life. Thalia, Marsh’s experienced and capable secretary, endures living with a rough-and-tumble extended family sharing a ramshackle house with just one bathroom. Frannie, the office manager, tries to stay ahead of a shopaholic mother coming out of her third marriage and on the hunt for a fourth, along with an uncle still suffering PTSD from the Spanish-American War. Leis, another secretary, worries about her husband, off at an Army camp in some dusty town in Texas. Bon, 17 and in her first full-time job, worries about just one thing: finding a boyfriend.

Reading A Tower of Steel is an immersion into life on the homefront during World War Two. Characters keep careful track of their meat and fat points, calculate whether they can afford to take a weekend trip with the remaining gas they have in the car, get crammed and jostled in over-crowded buses and trains, tip-toe past G.I.s on two-day passes sleeping on couches in their apartment house lobbies, shed a tear for their last pair of pre-war nylons, get married after three days’ acquaintance when orders come to ship out, and dread the sight of a Western Union messenger with a telegram from Washington.

Yet there is also much that seems strikingly contemporary. All the stories in A Tower of Steel pivot around the same axis: the office. A working woman herself, Lawrence recognizes the special place that work has in our lives. “This office,” says Thalia, “is all that keeps me from going completely out of my mind.” Frannie agrees. “In fact, Thalia, I’ve come to the conclusion that if a man needs two wives, it’s doubly true that a woman needs two lives. One in, and one out.”

Perhaps the most interesting perspective on work comes from Marsh Lyman’s wife, Caroline, who feels that, lacking this second life leaves her “unprotected and vulnerable” when her husband comes home “beset by the secret heaviness that cannot be shared”:

Office workers, Caroline believed, shared nothing, at least not honestly. There was always something left which belonged only to the single identity. The office might–might it not?–under these circumstances, furnish an escape, a sedative, or simply stabilize?

“Sooner or later there must be born a generation of women wise enough to balance their lives,” she hopes–a thought that still comes to many people today.

One has to call A Tower of Steel a work of craft, rather than art. Although Lawrence occasionally rises to some fine prose (a wedding party where laughter “spiraled above the voices and cracked into fragments like broken glass”), her primary goal is to move her characters through their trials and tribulations. While some critics have written that Lawrence’s characters tend toward the cardboard, I found them sketched convincingly enough to have distinct personalities. And while there is one case of love at first sight, most of the romances are moderated and believable. Bon becomes smitten with a likeable young sailor, certain they will share the rest of their lives together, and just as quickly realizes there are other fish in the sea moments before they say farewell at Grand Central. Leis decides to join her husband in Texas but dreads the fact that she will be nothing but an encumbrance in the eyes of the Army.

And, frankly, I thoroughly enjoyed, for a change, a story completely free of any symbolism, mannerism, pretense or artfulness. If filmed at the time it was published, A Tower of Steel would have been the second feature at the movie house–a good second feature, but one without award-winning directing, memorable cinematography, or lines that would get quoted decades later: just a good story with a cast of solid professionals, told well and without much fuss and muss. Not great art, but very good craft.

A Tower of Steel, by Josephine Lawrence
Boston: Little, Brown and Company

Van Zanten’s Happy Days, by Laurids Bruun – reviewed by Helen Bevington

vanzantenFrom Along Came the Witch: A Journal in the 1960s, by Helen Bevington:

June 1966

E. B. White says a favorite book of his is a novel by Laurids Bruun, Van Zanten’s Happy Days. Since my favorite book is anything Mr. White writes, I hurry to the library to share his delight.

Ball One for Mr. White. Every man to his own lotus eating, but he is wrong about Van Zanten’s Happy Days. Aside from a good title, it lacks persuasion. Van Zanten went native in a simpleminded manner on a South Sea island among black savages, convinced that Eden still exists and he had returned to it in a bamboo hut. After finding unmixed joy in the arms of a female savage, with her fears, superstitions, indolence, and lusts, then losing her in a typhoon, he hated thereafter all white women, who by contrast appeared civilized.

Mr. White used to dream in print about Dorothy Lamour wearing only a sarong and a hibiscus flower, rising up from a swamp to welcome him to Jungle madness. Or, as he said, to “amorous felicity.”

Van Zanten’s Happy Days: A Love Story From Pelli Island, by Laurids Bruun

New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922

Forsaking All Others, by Alice Duer Miller (1931)

forsakingallothersThe Golden Gate (1986), Vikram Seth’s novel in verse (to be precise, in Onegin stanzas) is one of my all-time favorite books, and there is something about a verse novel I find particularly attractive. Perhaps it’s the way the flow of the verse gives the narrative an added momentum. When I picked up Nazim Hikmet’s Human Landscapes from My Country in the Istanbul airport a couple of years ago, it read so fast that I felt like I was inhaling it.

Alice Duer Miller’s Forsaking All Others (1931) was probably the most successful verse novel in English since Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh or her husband Robert’s The Ring and the Book, and it got a second wind when Miller’s second verse novel, The White Cliffs, a salute to England’s defense against the Nazis, sold over a million copies and led to its reissue. Running just under 100 pages in its original hardback edition, it’s perhaps more accurate to call it a novella in verse.

aliceduermillerUnlike Vikram Seth, Miller mostly stuck to simple rhyming couplets and alternating rhymes (ABAB), and used a variety of foot lengths rather than sticking to one particular metre. However, the first couple parts of the poem may remember readers of the light, sophisticated, ever-so-slightly tongue-in cheek tone of much of the romance between Seth’s two protagonists. In this case, there is the added spice that the lovers are married–to other people. Lee Kent’s husband is locked away in an asylum, apparently a victim of combat fatigue from his time on the Western Front. Millionaire Jim Wayne (no relation to Bruce) has married his childhood sweetheart, the faithful but somewhat dreary Ruth.

The story in Forsaking All Others is played out in five parts. Part 1: Lee and Wayne meet at a dinner party and exchange some flirtatious banter. Part 2: Interested by Wayne, Lee wonders why he doesn’t contact her until they meet again at a art auction. Part 3: Lunches ensue. Part 4: The affair develops, and Wayne starts using the demands of business as an excuse to avoid joining Ruth at their summer place in Maine.

With Part 5, however, Miller takes her story on an express train from the Jazz Age to the heart of the Victorian era. Ruth, who knows that something is going on, dies tragically from a dramatically-convenient illness. “Is that you, Jim?” she murmurs in her fever before dying in a scene worthy of “Ten Nights in a Bar-room.” Stricken with grief and remorse, Wayne sails for the Mediterranean. The moral of the story? Vide the Seventh Commandment.

Personally, I’d have been happy to stop at the end of Part 4. Wayne is already struggling between attraction to Lee and loyalty to Ruth, but there are still plenty of bubbles in this champagne:

They would meet for luncheon every day
At a small unknown French cafe
Half-way up town and half-way down
With a chef deserving great renown.
And Pierre the waiter would smile and say:
Bonjour, Monsieur, dame,” and they
Would see by his smile discreet and sly
That he knew exactly the reason why
A couple so proud and rich should come
To eat each day in a squalid slum.
And nothing delighted his Gallic heart
More than to find he could play a part
And protect “ces amoureux foux d’ amour
And guide their choice through the carte du jour.

In its way, it could have been more conventional version of W. M. Spackman’s little classic of civilized adultery, An Armful of Warm Girl.

Nevertheless, Forsaking All Others still has something of a loyal following. One of Miller’s fans has brought her into the 21st century at, where Forsaking All Others can be read. It’s also available in Kindle, and I’ve provided a PDF version here for anyone who’s interested.

Forsaking All Others, by Alice Duer Miller
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1931

Enter, Sleeping, also published as The Sleepwalkers, by David Karp (1960)

entersleepingI picked up a copy of Enter, Sleeping in the £2 box outside a bookstore in London a few weeks back and enjoyed reading most of it on the Eurostar ride back. Karp, whose dystopic novel, One, was reissued a few years ago by Westholme Publishing (but appears to be out of print again), was usually serious, almost moralistic, in his approach, but this is an out-an-out farce. If you’re a fan of 1960s movies, I’d describe it as a blend of “The Producers,” “Lord Love a Duck,” and “The President’s Analyst”: Broadway, young love (er, sex), and Looney Tunes conspiracies. All in all, great fun.

Young Julius Schapiro, a play reader for an erstwhile Broadway producer (more Max Bialystok than David Merrick), meets the lovely, tender Daphne one evening and ends up walking her back to her home. At the door, she nearly lassos him into bed, but Julius is stopped on lift-off by her father, the uber-earnest Ernest Leydecker. Ernest quickly proves a granite stone-faced mind-fucker first class:

“What do you do?” her father asked as he sat opposite him. His manner, his posture were the same. Flat, calm, unassailable, impenetrable.

“I work for a stage producer,” he said.

“But what do you do?” he was asked again.

“I read plays.”

“To what end?”

“To inform the producer which plays are good.”

“Does he take your advice?”

“He reads what I recommend he read.”

“And does he produce what you recommend he produce?”

“Not very often.”

“Then why do you do it at all?”

“Because I need a job. I have to eat, to live.”

“You don’t have to live,” her father said with a voice that was almost kindly. “If you find life burdensome, I know a doctor who will provide you with a poison which is almost painless.”

Later, Ernest gives Julius his reassuring assessment: “I don’t understand what my daughter sees in you. I consider you a total imbecile.”

On his own home front, Julius has the comfort of living with a mother one character describes as, “… a triple-plyed monster of the old school of Jewish monsters. She’s not a monster. She’s a growth.” When he tries to make some connections to get his career as a budding songwriter going, he runs into the hyperbolic, hyperactive agents, Lou Cohen and Al Douglas:

“I got to find this guy Julius Schapiro, I yelled,” Al said, his face contorted with pain. “Lou, Lou, I yelled, we’ve got to find this guy! We’ve got to find him! I called the magazine! I called the Writers Guild! I called the papers! I called the Dramatists Guild! I called the Coast! I called all the networks! I called every agent in New York! I must’ve made a hundred calls. Right, Lou?”

“He spent nearly two days on the telephone,” Lou said, shaking his head in awe.

Poor, sane Julius, who wants only to woo Daphne and make a buck, is like a cork caught in a torrent of obsessions and conspiracies. Nowadays, we would call him clueless, but in the book’s terminology, he’s a sleepwalker.

In pursuit of Daphne, he winds up helping Ernest’s Truth-Seekers, whose primary occupation is writing letters of complaint over the slightest of wrongs. In support of a member who felt ripped off at the price of a lousy movie, they write to “the management of the theater … the producers of the motion picture, the Mayor of the City of New York, the Governor of the State of New York, Governor of the State of California, where the picture was manufactured, the Mayor of the City of Los Angeles, the place of manufacture, and, of course, the usual copy to the President of the United States and to the Secretary General of the United Nations for his information.”

In the real world, no one could take such letters seriously, but in Karp’s loony bin, it’s only natural that the Truth-Seekers soon attract the interest of the F. B. I. … or is it the Secret Service … or is it some dark, unacknowledged arm of the government?

Enter, Sleeping might have collapsed under the weight of such cartoonish exaggerations, but Karp’s touch with his broad brush is light and deft. Running under 180 pages, the book is too brief, the momentum too fast, to let anything bog down. Karp wraps up his story with a last-minute happy ending in the tradition of a good Shakespearian comedy, complete with matched pairs of lovers. All in all, a fast, fun farcical frolic with a nice blend of Sixties innocence and Cold War paranoia. Absolute worth the £2.

(Enter, Sleeping as also published as Sleepwalkers in the U. K.)

Enter, Sleeping, by David Karp
New York City: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1960

Imperial City, by Elmer Rice (1937)

imperialcityFull of cardboard characters, stereotypes, cariacatures, clichés, and hackneyed situations Elmer Rice’s 1937 novel, Imperial City is the most enjoyable read I’ve encountered in months. It’s got something for nearly everyone: a murder in a crowded night-club; a race riot; a raid on a high-class whore house; adultery (both hetero- and homosexual); a solo flight across the Atlantic that ends tragically; a protest by undergraduates at Columbia; an unsuccessful hold-up and high-speed getaway; a black-out that cripples Manhattan just as a sickly child is undergoing an emergency surgery. Something’s happening on nearly every page, and with close to 700 pages, that’s a lot of action.

I’ve had a copy of Imperial City for a few years but always shied away from reading it. I’m a sucker for city novels, particularly ones set in New York, but the few reviews of the book I’d been able to find were pretty lukewarm in their praise. The fact that its one reissue was as an abridged Avon paperback with a cheesy cover didn’t say much for its long-term literary merit, either.

But when I finally picked it up, I was 50 pages in before looking up again, and found myself reaching for it in every spare moment after that.

Not for Rice’s style, mind you. Probably the closest comparisons I could find to Imperial City would be The Bonfire of the Vanities or one of James Michener’s geographic doorstops like Hawaii or Centennial, and compared to Rice, Wolfe and Michener are poets. Here, for example, is how he handles a stressful period in his leading man’s romance:

These activities, together with his constant attendance at the trial, had left him almost no time for Judy. For more than a week he had hardly seen her, except for two or three brief visits to the hospital to which her father had again been removed. They talked listlessly and almost impersonally. Judy was preoccupied with her father’s illness, and Gay with his brother’s critical situation and his efforts to avert the strike. Emotionally neither was capable of sharing the other’s anxiety, and for no good reason, each was hurt by the other’s apparent lack of sympathy; so that an indefinable coolness sprang up between them and their parting had none of its accustomed warmth.

This is reporting, not writing.

And yet, it’s easy to look past such clunkiness and just keep stuffing oneself with pages like handfuls of potato chips or popcorn. Imperial City is the fictional equivalent of empty, addictive calories.

Although centered on the Colemans–one of the wealthiest families in Manhattan–the novel is a veritable solar system of characters, ranging from a couple dozen planets whose names gradually grow familiar to minor moons and satellites to asteroids that go screaming past in a few pages, never to appear again. I suspect Rice’s cast list would put Tolstoy’s biggest to shame, and given how superficial many of his characterizations are, even harder to keep straight. Names disappear for hundreds of pages only to pop up again with no re-introduction (“Arnold Rayford … is he the lawyer or the power company executive? Oh, no that’s Charles Albertin … or is it Livingston Ward?”). More than a few times, I just gave up and hoped to figure things out as I went along.

What redeems the book, however, is its tremendous momentum and enough telling details to make the stage sets convincing. An early highlight is a visit to Coney Island on a hot summer day:

Everyone’s jaws were moving; those who were not munching ice-cream cones and hot dogs or licking lolly-pops were industriously chewing gum. The air was thick with the smells of brine, pickles, sauerkraut, spiced sausage-meat, sizzling lard, and human exhalations. People shoved and trod on each other’s toes to reach the booths where stentorian vendors extolled the merits of pop-corn and pink spun sugar and Eskimo pies. Spectators stood five-deep behind the players of skee-ball, Japanese ping-pong, and coney races. There were long queues waiting to buy tickets for the Old Mill, the Love Ride, the jolting little electric auto-racers, the barrel in which the motor-cyclist risked death, the crèche where the pre-maturely born babies were displayed in incubators. In the swimming-pools of the large bathing establishments, the divers shouted and splashed.

The prose may be trite or awkward (particularly that last sentence), but despite Rice’s clumsiness with the brush, a lively and colorful picture emerges. As a portrait of Manhattan in the 1930s–one of the city’s most vibrant decades–Imperial City isn’t the most deftly painted, but it may be one of the richest and most fascinating. Great art it ain’t, but it is great entertainment. Summer is a long way off, but if you’re looking for a neglected beach book next year, remember this.

Best known as a playwright (“The Adding Machine” and “Street Scene”, among many others), Elmer Rice only published three novels. His first, A Voyage to Purilia (1930), was a satire of Hollywood set on a distant planet (Penguin reissued it in the 1950s as a science-fiction novel). His last, The Show Must Go On (1949), was epic-sized, like Imperial City, about the ups and downs of a young playwright’s career. His last book was an autobiography, Minority Report, published a few years before his death.

Imperial City, by Elmer Rice
New York City: Coward and McCann, 1937

The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, by Charles Neider (1956)

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones'I first mentioned The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, back in 2010, in a post about “Classics Lost and Found,” a feature in the Independent. In that post, I wrote that it was only book mentioned in the article that could be considered truly neglected.

It’s really quite remarkable, in fact, that such a good book could be so easily forgotten. In a short review on Amazon, record producer Russ Titelman wrote, “As far as I’m concerned, it is one of the great unsung American masterpieces on a par with A Death in the Family and So Long, See You Tomorrow. It is spare, poetic and honest.” In the Independent piece, Clive Sinclair called it “better than any other book on the subject of men, horses and death, except Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry.” And in his introduction to the 1972 Harrow Books paperback reissue, Wirt Williams wrote that it “may be the greatest ‘western’ ever written”:

Why? Well, certainly, it offers so many of those elements indispensable to the form as popular fiction: a supergunfighter as hero, a powerful story, a colorful background, great authenticity of detail. But Hendry Jones has more than these and is much greater than their sum. It is, quite simply, a first-rate work of literature.

Neider started out with the intent of writing a fictional account of the life of Billy the Kid, and his title pays tribute to Sheriff Pat Garrett’s own book, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid. But despite a long visit to New Mexico, during which he tracked down and interviewed a few of the surviving witnesses from Billy’s time, Neider was stuck until he decided to shift the setting to the central California coast and Baja Mexico, and cut any strong ties to the historical Billy.

Williams argues that what distinguishes the novel is “its mythic quality.” Neider certainly made a deliberate choice to make the story somewhat timeless. His hero has no name other than “the Kid.” His narrator, “Doc” Baker, a former member of the Kid’s gang, does say that his account is set “in that summer of 1883,” but he refuses to offer any biographical information:

Some people had told me I ought to tell about the Kid’s early life, who was his mother who his father, where he went to school, how he killed his first man, how he got to be so good with the gun, the great fighters he met and knew, the women he had, the men he killed, the way he cleaned out the faro bank in the Angels that time. But I see no point in going into all that.

But I have to differ with Williams. I think it’s the book’s specificity that makes it great. Every page shines with prose that’s clean, precise and poetic:

It was good to sit in that town after the hills and Punta, to sit in a plaza and listen. Cries on the bay; bark of a dog; rattle of carts’ clopping of hooves; voices laughing and shouting. It made us wonder how it would be to live in a place like that, with all the houses and faces and business and all the smells–grapes being pressed, eucalyptus trees, pine smoke, roses, meat curing, cheese drying, and the perfume you caught as you passed a lady on the street.

The book is told entirely in “Doc” Baker’s voice, and much of the reason the book works so well is due to Neider’s success in finding just the right tone, a combination of dry, matter-of-fact, life-hardened realism, a casual familiarity with violence, and a subtle touch of the poetic–enough to be effectively atmospheric, not so much as to become intrusive.

In fact, re-reading the novel recently, I suddenly realized why this prose seemed so familiar. Compare these two passages:

Jackson fired. He simply passed his left hand over the top of the revolver he was holding in a gesture brief as a flintspark and tripped the hammer. The big pistol jumped and a double handful of Owen’s brains went out the back of his skill and plopped in the floor behind him. He sank without a sound and lay crumpled up with his face in the floor and one eye open and the blood welling up out of the destruction at the back of his head. Jackson sat down. Brown rose and retrieved his pistol and let the hammer back down and put it in his belt. Most terrible nigger I ever seen, he said. Find some plates, Charlie.


It was at this point that Shotgun Smith fired a barrel into Modesto’s head. The boy dropped and Curly Bill dismounted and kicked his face with the high heel of his boot. Cal dismounted too, got a large rock and laid it under Modesto’s head for a pillow. Then Curly Bill, spotting Modesto’s piebald in the corral, roped her, led her close to the boy and shot her in the head. When she lay dead, steaming, the urine running out of her and the blood staining the ground, he got Modesto’s hat, which had fallen near the body, and put it under the mare’s head.

“You go and tell the Kid about this,” said Curly Bill to Modesto’s boss. “Tell him this is what he’s going to get too.”

The first is from Blood Meridian, the second from Hendry Jones. I don’t think I’m entirely off the mark in noting an awful lot of similarity between Cormac McCarthy’s Western voice and Charles Neider’s. Which is another reason why it’s hard to understand why The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones has fallen into neglect.


Finally, there is the reason why the book is most often mentioned these days–namely, that it was the inspiration for Marlon Brando’s one and only credit as a director, the 1961 film, One-Eyed Jacks. As you can read in more detail in the Wikipedia article, the screenplay took a tortuous path from source to screen and, other than being shot on the California coast and retaining some of the characters’ names, the film bares little resemblance to Neider’s book. If you wish to see it, though, there are several copies of the film available on YouTube.


There have been several reissues since the book was first published by Harper in 1956. It was released as Crest paperback (1960) aimed squarely at traditional readers of Westerns. In 1972, it was issued in the U. S. as a Harrow Books paperback and in the U.K. by Pan Books. Finally, University of Nevada Press issued it in 1993 as part of its “Western Literature Classic.”

Given that Cormac McCarthy’s books are the closest thing to the gold standard when it comes to best-selling serious fiction these days, I can only hope that some bright editor catches a clue and ushers a new release of The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones into print. Maybe even with an introduction by McCarthy … although that may be coming too close to home.

The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones, by Charles Neider
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1956

A Sample of Lost Sixties Fiction

In its 1981 tribute to R. V. Cassill, whose pulp fiction I’ve covered over the last year, December magazine included an extensive bibliography of Cassill’s works. I was intrigued by the list of titles reviewed by Cassill, primarily for the New York Times and Book World, between 1961 and 1974, as it provides a wide survey of the fiction of that time. There are now-well-established titles such as William Gass’s Omensetter’s Luck, Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City, and Donald Barthelme’s Come Back, Dr. Caligari, along with others from Kingsley Amis, Gore Vidal, Iris Murdoch, and Thomas Berger.

But there are also a fair number of books that have since been swepted under the rug and forgotten, and I wanted to take a few minutes to mention some of these, in hopes that one or more will catch the interest of a by-passer and be rediscovered.

A Married Man, by Benjamin DeMott

DeMott was best known during his lifetime as a cultural critic and prolific book-reviewer, but this, his second novel, was well-received when it came out. Writing in Saturday Review, James McConkey saw it as proof of the value of fiction in a time when its purpose was widely being questioned: “In A Married Man, DeMott takes as a fictional premise all the arguments that have been raised to prove that the novel as a genre has lost its relevance. Accepting that there may be no such thing as a clear human identity, he agrees with the view that human relationships are likely to be without point. The author raises no argument against the banality of middle-class activities, and emphasizes the degree to which words themselves can become but a series of cliches established by a person as protection against communication with self or another. He creates a character who is haunted by all the contemporary threats to human meaning, puts him into the most stereo-typed situation possible–and proceeds to demonstrate that his dilemma is the stuff of fiction.”

Racers to the Sun and Us He Devours, by James B. Hall

Somewhat like Cassill, James B. Hall’s influence was perhaps greater as a teacher than a writer himself. Ken Kesey once said that a comment by Hall about single line in a Hemingway short story, “unlocked for me the door to the resounding hall of real literature.” Us He Devours, a collection of short stories, was kept in print for decades by the New Directions press. Racers was Hall’s first novel, about a day in the life of a motorcycle mechanic and racer. The late D. G. Myers mentioned it earlier this year in his A Commonplace Blog, in words that speak to my heart: “Will … Racers to the Sun repay your time, or only waste it? Are you willing to accept the risk of recommending either of them to a friend? If you take seriously the adventure of reading you must involve yourself, sooner or later, in the romance of certain old books.” Amen.

Negatives, by Peter Everett

Written in the space of three weeks, Negatives received enthusiastic reviews in the U. K. and won Everett the 1965 Somerset Maugham Award. Depending upon your viewpoint, the book, which told about a couple whose peculiar fetish is to re-enact Dr. Crippen’s murder of his wife, was either black comedy or just plain gruesome. U. S. reviewers tended to the latter. Writing in Saturday Review (and obviously enjoying himself), Nicholas Samstag described Everett’s technique: “Mix in plenty of sex and squalor, and stir sluggishly. Then simmer in a prose thickly manured with unwashed old clothing from a sort of London Thrift Shop. Drench with whiskey, sprinkle heavily with vomit, and serve.” The novel was made into a film, directed by Peter Medak, which you can watch online on YouTube.

The Three Suitors, by Richard Jones

Originally published in the U. K. under the title, The Age of Wonder, The Three Suitors was the first of four novels published by Jones over the space of about ten years. As Jane Barnes wrote in a 1982 Virginia Quarterly Review article, “There is not enough sense in the rise and fall of commercial reputations to dwell on Jones” lack of reception. Suffice it to say, he has had a lot of bad luck, culminating in the publication of his most recent book, Living in the 25th Hour, during the 1978 newspaper strike in New York City. If there is no real way to account for the success of some authors and the frustration of others, there is still a special poignancy in the absence of a properly intelligent response to Jones” work.”

John Wain wrote of The Three Suitors in The New York Review of Books,

Mr. Jones writes out of a sense of the richness and variety of human beings and their history, and since this involves him in seeing every character and every incident in their full perspective, it would be difficult to say in one phrase what his book is “about.” In one sense, it is about Wales; in another, it is about old age; in another, about the nature of family life; in another, about the impact of the modern world with its formless emptiness on the last remains of a more ordered existence. But to say that it was “about” any one of these things, or all of them, would be to put too cramping a limit on one’s pleasure in the book’s vitality.

Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review, calling it, “a novel with presence, and a perfect collaboration between sympathy and intelligence.” Ironically, it may have been just such restraint that caused Jones’ work to be underappreciated when published and largely forgotten ever since. Jones himself, according to his Guardian obituary, was devastated by the death of his 12 year-old daughter in a road accident, and “came to see fiction writing as an irrelevance.”

Time Out, by David Ely

This is a collection of short stories, mostly on macabre themes, by a writer best known for his 1963 novel, Seconds, which was filmed by John Frankenheimer in 1966 and featured Rock Hudson’s best performance. Ely’s fiction deserves a serious re-look, as it’s very much about taking various aspects of conventional life in the 1960s and twisting it to a revealing extreme.

Farragan’s Retreat, by Tom McHale

When his first novel, Principato came out in 1971, followed within months by Farragan’s Retreat, Tom McHale became the hottest new name in American fiction. “Tom McHale has so much going for him it’s scary,” began a review in Life magazine; “McHale writes as if born to the craft.” Farragan’s Retreat was nominated for a National Book Award and for years thereafter, you saw the Bantam paperback editions of Principato and Farragan’s Retreat in every bookstore. Farragan’s Retreat, in particular, was a timely work, telling the story of a conservative Catholic so enraged with his son’s draft dodging that he undertakes to have him assassinated. McHale went on to write four more novels, earning a Guggenheim fellowship for Alinsky’s Diamond (1974), but, that first blast of critical acclaim faded and with it, so, apparently, did the notion that his work was something of lasting value. When McHale took his own life in 1982, the event received scarce notice. A few sites here and there pay tribute to his work, and one can safely argue that time has come for a serious reconsideration.

When the War is Over, by Stephen Becker

This, the sixth of Becker’s eleven novels, relates a small episode, just days after the surrender at Appomattox, in which a group of Northern soldiers execute a young Kentuckian who might or might not have been an actual member of a Confederate raiding party. Subtle, measured and nuanced in its perspectives, it “demonstrates beautifully,” in the words of the Saturday Review, “demonstrates just what the business of fiction is all about.” David Madden later told a reporter from the Orlando Sentinel, “I agree with George Garrett (novelist and critic) and many others that When the War is Over deserves its underground reputation as a distinctive, original Civil War novel.” All the same, it’s been out of print since 1970, and hardly anyone mentions Becker’s name as one of the better American writers of the sixties.

If you’re interested in other recommendations of lost Sixties fiction, I recommend taking time to read D. G. Myers’ post on “Fiction of the ‘sixties,”, which will quickly give you at least a dozen other titles to locate.

The Glory is Departed (The Standard), by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (1936)

I became interested in The Glory is Departed after finding it on the Modern Novel site (which you must go lose yourself in, if you haven’t yet). I read Count Luna, a later novel by Lernet-Holenia, last year and found it a brilliant black comedy, as grim and funny as Kafka’s best. And when I discovered that there are literally no copies of the English translation of Die Standarte available for sale on the Internet, interest turned to obsession. Fortunately, I was able to borrow a copy through the University of California Library system and enjoyed reading it on my trip back from the U. S. last week.


The glory that departs in this book is that of the Hapsburg dynasty and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Drawing upon Lernet-Holenia’s own experiences as a dragoon (a member of a light cavalry regiment) in the Austro-Hungarian Army, the story tells both of the collapse of the empire as a whole and one young man’s reactions to the end of the world he has always known. Most of the book is related in flashback, as Herbert Menis, a well-off married man in Vienna, tries to explain to a fellow veteran his outlook on the war and its aftermath.

Wounded on the Eastern front, Menis spends much of the war in rehabilitation, comfortable and safe from harm. But in October 1918, he is sent to Belgrade, Serbia, to serve at a headquarters there. On his first night, however, he becomes enraptured with a beautiful young woman accompanying the Archduchess, and his attempt to make her acquaintance ends up getting his orders changed to duty with a dragoon regiment near the front.

Although the signs of collapse grow more obvious with each day, Menis is too smitten to notice them, and we spend nearly half the book racing back and forth between his camp and Belgrade as he tries nightly to catch an hour with his beloved. Soon, however, the English and French forces begin pushing the Austrians back to Belgrade, and the awkward coalition of Poles, Ruthenians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Hungarians and other ethnic groups that formed the Austro-Hungarian Army quickly falls apart.

However much we had foreseen, we had never supposed that something so strange and incomprehensible to us, something so terrifyingly different, always kept down till now, had laid hidden beneath the exterior of these men. Now it was breaking out, as when a herd shakes off some mighty power that has till then restrained it; and though the men actually did nothing except give vent to their feelings by inarticulate yells, one felt that with these yells they and the Regiment were discarding everything that had made themselves and the Regiment what they were–that is to say, a mighty, significant, powerful engine, an organism charged with a historic mission, an instrument of world policy. It was as though the helmets and the uniforms, the badges of rank and the Imperial eagles on the cockades, dropped off the men, and the horses and the saddles disappeared into thin air, leaving nothing but a couple of hundred naked Polish, Roumanian and Ruthenian peasants, who were sick of helping to bear the burden of responsibility for the destiny of the world under the sceptre of the German race.

When his regiment refuses to cross a bridge into Belgrade, Menis watches in horror as his own men are shot down as mutineers, and takes up the regimental standard–the small pennant and battle ribbons carried into battles for over a hundred years. The standard becomes for him evidence of the strength and values of the Empire, even as he sees it falling apart around him. His love, Resa, struggles to understand his obsession with the standard:

“It’s of no importance. Why, people have quite forgotten what a standard is: I, for instance, have never seen one. I won’t allow you to risk your life for that. I tell you I love you: don’t you understand? I love you! You can’t go off and get yourself killed, because I should die too if something happened to you. You can’t give me up for a little piece of silk that has ceased to have any significance of purpose and no longer means anything to anybody.”

“It means everything to me,” I said quietly.

Menis smuggles the standard with him as he, Resa, and a few survivors manage to escape the English and work their way back to Vienna. There, he attempts to return the standard to the last Emperor, Karl I, but finds the Emperor and a small party rushing to leave the Schönbrunn Palace for a new life in exile. He sees some men tossing other battle flags into a fire, to prevent them from falling into the victors’ hands, and, finally, throws in his standard, too. He leaves with Resa, resigned to his own new life.

Among German readers, The Glory is Departed (published in England as The Standard) is considered on a par with the other great classic of the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. In his memoirs, Anthony Powell wrote that Lernet-Holenia was a writer on a level equal to that of his now-better-known countryman and contemporary, Robert Musil. He described The Glory is Departed as “a genre of novel of which I can recall no precise equivalent in British writing: romantic; realistic; satirical; moving.”


Although The Standard is in print in German, Spanish, Italian and French, and perhaps other languages as well, it’s been out of print in English for almost 80 years. Lernet-Holenia’s 1941 novel, Mars in Aries, was released by the Ariadne Press in 2003 as part of their Austrian literature series (which includes works by Stefan Zweig, Leo Perutz, Odon von Horvath, Hemito von Doderer, Arthur Schnitzler and other fine writers), and Pushkin Press released his thriller of mistaken identities, I Was Jack Mortimer, in 2013. However, two other volumes released by the Eridanos Library in 1989, The Resurrection of Maltravers and Baron Bagge/Count Luna (two novellas) are out of print, although used copies are still available.

I have to agree with the writer of the Modern Novel website, though, who called The Glory is Departed a good read but not a great book. While the narrative gallops along through 300 pages, the protagonist often seems more clueless than passionate. He has a gorgeous young woman madly in love with him and ready to risk life and limb for his sake, and yet his primary concern is for a scrap of fabric, even though he had spent most of his war as a complacent slacker far back from the front. However, if you manage to locate a copy yourself, like me you will probably find yourself closing the book before you’ve had the chance to think about that.

The Glory is Departed, translated by Alan Harris from the original Die Standarte by Alexander Lernet-Holenia
New York and London: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1936

My Sister’s Keeper, by R. V. Cassill (1960)

Cover of 'My Sister's Keeper' by R. V. Cassill
Winding down my tour through novelist R. V. Cassill’s decade-long excursion into pulp fiction, I come now to the hot mess of psychological confusion that is My Sister’s Keeper (1960).

The title offers us the unsubtle suggestion that the book’s subject is incest, but as has been the case in the rest of his pulp novels, Cassill prefers to take sex on a tangent rather than head-on. Yes, young Joe Haver is more than slightly obsessed with his sister, Corlis, but he’s less interested in having her than in keeping anyone else from doing it. Which is why the most intense scene in the book is closer to sadism than sex. This, of course, didn’t prevent Avon Books from excerpting just enough of this scene on the front endpaper to lead would-be buyers to think the opposite.

In poor Joe–nineteen going on infantile–Cassill crams a baker’s dozen disorders. His mother’s dead, his father’s a useless lecher living off a grand inheritance, his father’s alcoholic mistress spends most nights sacked up with dad just down the hall from Joe, he spent a requisite number of miserable years in expensive boarding schools, and, as the story opens, has taken up stalking and breaking-and-entering as a hobby. Still a virgin, he’s reached the point of dysfunction where his approach to chatting up a girl is to put her in terror of rape or murder or both.

The one bright spot in his life is his 15-year-old sister, Corlis, just returned from a year’s study in Europe. For Joe, Corlis is the last bastion of innocence in his world, and he’s ready to do anything to anyone–including Corlis–to keep it that way. For her part, Corlis appears to have run much the same gauntlet as Joe with nary a mark–aside from a few from Joe’s belt.

Life would be challenging enough for Joe, but Cassill decides to spice things up by tossing in Dr. A. T. Steele, a “lay analyst” and Mephistopheles stand-in. In a history that Cassill leaves suitably muddy, Steele has been a Hollywood actor, playboy aviator, private eye, and all-around man of mystery. Or, as Goodreads reviewer, Karla, puts it much better than I could have, “a parasitic mind-fucker who leeches off the largesse and warped privileged psyches of his rich marks.” I’ve noted before that Cassill seems to have used his pulp fiction to experiment with different techniques and subjects, and I strongly suspect that Dr. Steele was the prototype of the title character of Doctor Cobb’s Game (1970), his “serious” novel based on the Profumo affair.

The result is easily the most interesting, if not the most artistically, of all Cassill’s pulp novels. While his aspiration might have been to weave a complex psychological drama, his final product is more rat’s nest than tapestry. If Cassill had been a chef, this is one dish he certainly would have been accused of overthinking. At the same time, there are plenty of choice bits in this potpourri, and it’s a shame that there appear to be, according to, no more than two or three copies available for sale at the moment.

My Sister’s Keeper, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Books, 1960

The Old Indispensables: a Romance of Whitehall, by Edward Shanks

oldindispensablesI’ve been saving this one up for a rainy day. So, as I watch the grey drizzle blanketing our neighborhood, I have to share one of my favorite discoveries of the last few years: The Old Indispensables–not a romance, but a wonderful comedy of bureaucracy raised to the nth power.

Set in the Circumvention Branch of the Circumlocution Office, The Old Indispensables is a farce in which no one–not the reader and certainly not any of the characters–quite knows what’s going on. Working in dogged earnest in commandeered hotel rooms sometime toward the end of the first year of the World War One, the staff of the Circumvention Branch–a mix of veterans of the civil service wars, well-meaning but clueless young men down from university, and bright-eyed young women continually being sent off with great stacks of papers–labors away on a constant flow of requests of uncertain intent.

All they ever seem to do with these requests is to allow them to age in their in-baskets for a few days, after which they scribble down a brief note and send the package off to another part of the vast machine of the wartime government. And there is such a variety of offices to choose from: Derogation of Crown Appanages Office; the Controller of Tombstones; the Director of Delays and Evasions; the Divagation Commission; the Board of Interference.

The primary focus of the Branch’s civil servants is on advancement of their own careers–as long as it involves the minimal amount of effort. Mr Evans, for example, somewhat self-conscious of having taken his degree from the little-known University of Llangollen, constantly mulls over his chances:

His bath that morning had been disagreeably chilly; and, as he had stepped into it, he had reflected that he was nearly thirty-four and that he would be due for compulsory retirement at the age of sixty. This gave him only twenty-six years in which to reach the summit of his desires and he fancied that he had lost ground rather during the last three weeks. All through the day dark thoughts filled his mind and oppressed him with sinister suggestions. Perhaps he would never be Permanent Under-Secretary, never a K.C.B., perhaps not even a C.B.; and when his good angel whispered to him that the C.M.G. and the I.S.O. still existed, the mocking demons of melancholy arose and extinguished even this gleam of hope.

Meanwhile, the senior bureaucrats battles with rival departments to gain ever-larger numbers of staff–and then to evade the dreaded Towle Committee, which is busily rooting out examples of over-staffing in the government.

A junior member of the Branch, sent off with the vague instruction to “get some facts,” learns that another distant branch of the bureaucracy, the Manx Office, has managed to ensure its existence by disappearing almost entirely:

Here were no machine-guns in sight, no detachments of troops. There were not even any plain-clothes men loitering purposefully about, for, when the grocer had completed his mission by mbarking the empties, and had driven rapidly away, the street was quite empty. Cyril proceeded down it, looking for a brass plate; and at length on the railings outside a small and respectable house, in no other way distinguished from the rest, he saw a brass plate plainly inscribed with the words, “Manx Office.” He paused a moment, finding the appearance of the closed door a trifle unfamiliar in a Government department. At last he went up the steps and pushed at the door. It was locked; and another brass plate requested the visitor not to ring unless he required an answer.

Cyril therefore rang and waited. After several minutes, feeling his desire for an answer still undiminished, he rang again. A prodigious interval went by; and then he heard an uncertain shuffle of feet approaching the door from the inside. There followed the sound of bolts being pushed back and chains undone, mixed with the heavy groans of a lethargic person stirred to uncongenial activity. At last the door fell open and Cyril beheld an elderly man in shirt-sleeves, with no collar, who stood rubbing his eyes and blinking, presumably at the unaccustomed light.

“Is Mr. Choop in?” Cyril asked politely.

“Mr. Choop?” the porter repeated. “Mr. Choop? Is ‘e in? I’ll go and see. Just you wait there.” Cyril advanced into the semi-darkness of the hall and waited, while the porter lumbered into the complete darkness of the stairs and was lost to sight, though not to hearing. After several minutes he returned and said in a dull voice:

“Yes, Mr. Choop, ‘e’s in.” After this he seemed to expect that Cyril would go away.

He does finally get escorted up to the dark alcove from which Mr. Choop presides, and is warmly welcomed. After offering a cigarette and going into great detail about the many fine points of his new lighter, Mr. Choop then rises, saying, “Well, I’m sorry you must go,” and sends the young man off without disclosing a single fact about the Manx Office or its purpose.

In the end, the Circumvention Branch manages to earn a favorable report from the Towle Committee and various staff members earn various sorts of honors. The Armistice is signed–although whether with or without the contributions of the Branch remains a mystery.

For anyone who’s a fan of Yes, Minister, I heartily recommend taking a look at The Old Indispensables

Edward Shanks served on the Western Front until wounded in 1915 and went on to write over a dozen books of poetry and fiction, including the dystopian SF novel, The People of the Ruins. He received the very first Hawthornden Prize in 1919 for his book, The Queen of China and Other Poems.

The Old Indispensables is available online at the Internet Archive (link).

The Old Indispensables: a Romance of Whitehall, by Edward Shanks
London: Martin Secker, 1919

Complete Cheerful Cherub, by Rebecca McCann (1932)

cheerfulcherubThe first time I saw a copy of a Cheerful Cherub book was in an enormous antique mall that seemed to have swallowed my wife, leaving me to seek some meager distraction in the tiny handful of books that could be found there. As hours dragged on and I found myself beginning to think, “Hmm … Taylor Caldwell. Maybe I should try one of hers,” I finally picked up what I had taken to be the world’s oldest and fattest “Love Is” book.

My mistake was understandable. There is a certain similarity between the cartoon style of Kim Casali (creator of “Love Is …”) and Rebecca McCann (creator of the Cheerful Cherub). Both feature nude but genital-free homonculi with infantile bodies but engaging in adult activities. Both refine cuteness to near-lethal intensity. Casali always shows a male and a female character (we can tell only by the hair and eyelashes). McCann always showed an infant neither male nor female and an adoring little puppy.

If you were me, you’d probably have stopped reading already.

But stay with me, people.

Because as I took more time to read through that Cheerful Cherub book, I began to realize that Rebecca McCann’s little cartoons operated on a level of sophistication and yes, even wisdom, far beyond that of the “Love Is …” pieces.


Take “Masks” (above). “And yet sometimes I see/A prisoner behind their eyes.” That’s not “Love Is …” or “Family Circle”–that’s the existential attitude in four lines of iambic pentameter. Or “Innocence,” which could easily be read as a damning commentary on the detachment with which we view events going on in the world around us. “Oh, the dreadful business in Gaza. Well, nothing to do with me.”

Rebecca McCann began publishing Cheerful Cherub cartoons in the Chicago Evening Post around 1917, when she was just twenty, after editor Julian Mason took an interest in the little drawings and verses that dropped out of McCann’s portfolio as she tried to show him more serious work. The feature was soon picked up for syndication, and at its peak appeared in over 100 papers around the United States.

McCann also continued to work as an illustrator for magazine stories and wrote a childrens’ book, About Annabel (1922), about the fantastic adventures of a little girl–a slightly milder version of Windsor McCay’s “Little Nemo.” The first collection of Cheerful Cherub cartoons was published by Covici-McGee in 1923, and a second in 1927.


Meanwhile, McCann’s personal life was a series of disasters. She moved to New York City in late 1917, where she met, fell in love with and married Harold “Jimmie” Watson, an Army pilot, five days before he shipped out to France. Although he made it through the war, he died in an accident not long after. On the rebound, she married another officer, this time in the Naval Medical Corps, but the marriage soon ran into problems and the couple divorced. Around 1924, she met the novelist Harvey Fergusson (whose 1923 novel, Capitol Hill, was featured here back in 2006).
Fergusson was married at the time, but the two felt enough of a connection that Fergusson eventually divorced his wife and married McCann. Fergusson was working on perhaps his best-known book, Wolf Song (1927), and the couple spent happy weeks in the mountains outside Salt Lake City.

In December of 1927, Fergusson drove down to Albuquerque, where they planned to spend Christmas with his parents, while McCann took a quick shopping trip out to San Francisco. Never having a robust constitution, the trip and the winter weather brought on a cold. A few days after arriving in Albuquerque, it developed into pneumonia and McCann died soon after. She was just 32. Fergusson had her body cremated and scattered her ashes along the shore of Lake Michigan near Chicago.

Covici-Friede collected 1,001 Cheerful Cherub cartoons, along with a short memoir by McCann’s friend, Mary Graham Bonner, in Complete Cheerful Cherub, which was published in 1932. The book was a perennial favorite and was reprinted sixteen times between 1932 and 1945. They also posthumously published a collection of McCann’s poems, Bitter Sweet: Poems, in 1929.

“I’m not trying to reform the world or to make every one smile,” she once told Bonner. “I’m trying to make my little verses human; sometimes they’re sarcastic, sometimes they’re ‘flip.’ They’re cynical, too, and I like to make them about all subjects–including the frailties of the readers….” And of the author, too, as one quickly sees.


Complete Cheerful Cherub, by Rebecca McCann
New York: Covici-Friede Publishers, 1932

Night School, by R. V. Cassill (1961)

Cover of Dell original paperback edition of 'Night School'On the downhill slope of my scenic tour of the pulp fiction of novelist and short-story writer, R. V. Cassill, a tour begun back in March with his tale of wife-swapping in small town Iowa, The Wound of Love. Published in 1961, Night School was his next to last paperback original, with only Nurses’ Quarters (1962) to follow.

As with all his pulp novels, Night School draws upon Cassill’s own experiences. Cassill was one of the first to plant himself firmly in academia and teach writing while continuing to write and publish, and among his early gigs in the mid-1950s was a stint teaching an evening class at the New School of Social Research.

I’ve speculated before that Cassill used his pulp novels to experiment with various techniques and topics while weaving in enough sex and violence to satisfy his editors’ demands. If this was in fact the case, then the experiment in Night School was just the sort of thing one might expect as a night school writing class assignment: tell a story through the viewpoints of multiple characters.

It’s one of the oldest situations in the books, dating back to The Decameron and beyond. And in the case of Night School, it gave Cassill to explore the different sexual attitudes and experiences of the students in his class–as well as of its instructor.

Houston Parker, Cassill’s night school teacher, is a divorced writer with one critically successful novel and many years of writer’s block behind him. For him, the class is a turning point–the bottom from which he will rebound or the trap door to even greater failure. The class is equally a turning point for a number of its students, but their dilemmas have more to do about love than literature. One student is a shark, trolling his way through half the women in the class. Another is an ingenue trying to decide whether to become an adventuress or settle for married monogamy and the stifle fantasies of her mother. And two of them, middle-aged, with complicated lives behind them, find a happiness worth risking all the security they have.

All this confirms Parker’s suspicion “that some of these ladies and gentlemen were looking for more than instruction in writing fiction.” And the fact that it’s a night school class means that most of the students have been working and living on their own for some time. So when some of the students get together for a drink after class, it’s usually in one of their apartments, and the conversation tends to be a fix of war stories and regrets for past mistakes. Most of these people–including Parker himself–know they won’t be the great successes they once aspired to be, but haven’t given up on trying to achieve or create something.

The sex–what there is of it–in Night School is more often about what doesn’t happen. One quiet, otherwise pleasant, man is celibate because, as he reveals to everyone’s discomfort during one of the after-class session, he views most of humankind with just rabid hatred that he could never be attracted to another person. After the shark doesn’t sleep with one of the women, she turns into a vengeful demon who threatens to castrate him.

And so, despite what the editors at Dell paperbacks might have been hoping, Night School turns out to be more about life choices and consequences than sex–which is why it’s also one of the more interesting and satisfying of Cassill’s pulps. Admittedly, his protagonist is just as uninteresting as 95% of writers in fiction. (There seem to be only two models: the out-of-control wild man (ala Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan or Cassill’s Clem Anderson); and the angst-written clod. Cassill’s Houston Parker is one of the clods.) But Cassill did manage to create some convincingly grown-up characters among Parker’s students, and for that alone the book rates better than the average Cassill pulp.

Night School, by R. V. Cassill
New York City: Dell Publishing Inc., 1961


The Pork Butcher, by David Hughes (1984)

Cover of first U. K. edition of 'The Pork Butcher'The Pork Butcher is a book one can easily admire, but it’s hard to imagine anyone liking it. In this slender novel–barely 120 pages–Hughes pulls off a feat similar to that of Nabokov in Lolita–that is, allowing us to see the world through the eyes of a man who’s guilty of horrible things while neither repulsing us nor gaining our unguarded sympathy.

In Hughes case, the crime is both a war crime and a crime of love. Ernst Kestner, now a butcher in Lubeck, recently widowed and even more recently diagnosed with lung cancer, decides to head to France to confront memories he has tried to suppress for years. As a soldier in the Wermacht serving in France in 1944, he took part in the massacre of the entire population of a town, an incident based on the destruction of Oradour-sur-Glane. Among the town’s residents was a woman with whom Kestner was in love and was conducting an affair. The orders to attack the town comes, in fact, on the very day he was planning to desert and attempt to run away with her to neutral territory.

Hughes never identifies Ernst’s precise motivation for following these orders–fear, loyalty, hatred or simply the habit of obedience, and Ernst himself seems to lack the introspection to find out for himself. In fact, he appears, as one character puts it, to have “less and less ability to absorb what happened on that one day.” Even so, Ernst is certainly more nuanced in his moral reasoning than Major Kane, the protagonist of Hughes’ other portrait of evil, The Major. While he may never come to grips with his reason for doing what he did, he never pretends it was anything but wrong.

The Pork Butcher was easily Hughes’ most successful novel, both critically and commercially. It won the Welsh Arts Council fiction prize in 1984 and the W. H. Smith literary award in the following year. Hughes sold the film rights for the book, and the movie version, Souvenir, starring Christopher Plummer, was released in 1989. Hughes’ own verdict on the movie? “Terrible, just terrible.”

British critics were lavish in their praise–and still are. In The Guardian’s obituary, Giles Gordon called it one of “the novels that define our time and are metaphors for it.” U. S. reviewers were less enthusiastic. Kirkus Reviews wrote that it suffered from “talkiness throughout and an awkward bunching-up of developments in the busy yet ineffectual final pages.” Personally, I would put the book somewhere between the two extremes. I found its strongest points not related to the moral issues but Hughes’ ability to capture the sensual–sights, sounds, smells, feels–in a few choice, precisely drawn strokes. His description of a picnic of sausages, cheese and bread beside a little brook in France will get you checking on airfares. Overall, though, I rate The Major as a stronger and more convincing work.

One thing David Hughes could never be faulted for, however, is long-windedness. I’ve got copies of two other novels–Memories of Dying (1976) and The Little Book (1996) waiting to be read, and they, along with The Major and The Pork Butcher represent fewer than 500 pages total. At that length, I’d be silly not to give more of Hughes’ work a try.

The Pork Butcher, by David Hughes
London: Constable and Company, 1984

He Feeds the Birds, by Terence Ford (1950)


I stumbled onto this book while rooting around the Internet Archive, as I like to do from time to time, in search of interesting titles somewhere in the region between what’s in print and what’s been out there long enough to enter the public domain. He Feeds the Birds is one of those texts you can find in the Archive–but only for borrowing in Adobe Digital Edition format, which means for reading on a computer, which I can’t stand. (I don’t mind using a Kindle or Nook, but still prefer real books.)

So I went off to find a used copy, and quickly discovered this novel’s odd publication history. It was first published by the Dial Press, in hardback, in 1950. Then, two years later, Avon Books brought it out in paperback but decided for some reason (OK, the reason was to grab attention and sales) to change the title to The Drunk, the Damned and the Bedevilled. Seven years after that, Berkeley Medallion Books brought it out as a cheap paperback for a second time, only with yet another title: Easy Living. All three publishers learned that a dud by any other name is still a dud.

Well, like Billy Mumphrey, I’m a cock-eyed optimist–at least when it comes to looking for diamonds in the rough and dusty shelves, and I was determined to find out what got three different publishers to give this novel a shot, and ordered the cheapest copy I could find, which turned out to be a near-mint copy of The Drunk, the Damned and the Bedevilled. I’m easily awed when I find in excellent condition something that should be even more beat-up than me, and so I carefully opened its cover and began reading with some respect, not to say reverence.

It wasn’t the most promising beginning, I have to admit. The book opens with a fight between Rex Lannin and his wife, Betty, both in their cups, then introduces us to several other men and women of their acquaintance. The main thing that seems to bring them together is booze, time on their hands, and enough money to buy one to kill the other. Ford does make a point to specify that the story is set in the summer of 1939, but events in Europe affect their lives about as much as a termite infestion in a house on the other side of town. “A hell of a summer,” Rex grumbles a few weeks after Betty moves out on him:

Hot days, drunken nights and a crummy furnished room and Hitler in the headlines and in the back-buzz of barrooms and Hitler on the radio in the furnished room without Betty where getting drunk was the easiest thing to do and Hitler and Smigly-Ridz and Danzig and no Betty and Smigly-Ridz, Smigly-Ridz, Smigly Ridz. . . .

Gradually, though, Ford seems to gain confidence in himself and his story. Instead of just swirling around in some boozy imitation of a dance, his characters start to take directions. Some start heading on, some head out, and at least one, an heir to a small fortune starts spiraling down into self-destruction after the last of his money runs out:

Here was another day. Another day of living in the streets aglare with the hot sun and its cruel revealing light. Another day of walking without destination. Up one block, down another. Turn west for three blocks. Down four blocks. Across to the park. Now ten blocks north. Or ten blocks south. Across and up and down and across. No place to go. Public libraries. Toilets. Park benches. Streets. And always the ache of hunger chiseling inside him, driving him on and through the empty, timeless hours.

Rex, on the other hand, spends his time bar-hopping, moping around his little apartment, and pretending to write a play with one of his friends. A little monthly allowance from his mother is enough to keep his going and enough to keep him from wanting to make any great changes. He suggests that he could blame his stagnation “on the fact that I’m one of the half-generation that was a half-step behind the Lost Generation. Call it the Unclaimed Generation.”

The whole cast of characters appear to be unclaimed–unclaimed, that is, but any force or motivation strong enough or persuasive enough to ally with. Communism, fascism and capitalism are all equally unconvincing, at least compared to another round. Even love seems a dead-end street for most of them. But Rex is at least honest enough to admit that his problem is simple laziness: “Right now, I’m the laziest guy, pound for pound, in the world,” he jokes.

The book ends in early 1940, with war going on in Europe, newspapers speculating about Roosevelt running for a third term, and most of the characters having been forced to take some decision or action. One man attempts suicide. A woman who spends most of the book bouncing between lovers decides her salvation lies in staying with the husband she already has and having a baby. Rex, having been signed off on the divorce papers and sent them back to Reno, leaves New York to try writing away from his old haunts and drinking buddies. And one Joe Gould-like carries on as a bum and self-proclaimed poet.

Whether the reader or the characters really learns anything in the course of the story seems beside the point. Whatever reason Ford had for writing the book, it clearly wasn’t to deliver a moral lesson. He Feeds the Birds takes its title from a religious tract: “Live close to God, your faith renew, he feeds the birds and he’ll feed you” (which, in turn, comes from Matthew 6:26). Ford’s God takes care of some, seems to abandon others, has no effect at all on others.

My guess is that Ford wrote the book for no other reason that to try his hand at it. About a third of the way into it, he started to stretch out and give into his lyrical impulses, and my own assessment is that he was pretty successful at it. As an evocation of a particular time and place–America while it was standing outside the war in Europe–it’s far less successful than John P. Marquand’s So Little Time. But there are some great descriptions like the one above or another about waking up drunk and self-disgusted or a third about passing spots known in better days (“I wish I was as successful as I thought I was at twenty”). And he manages a multi-player cast in a multi-threaded story without getting either tangled up or lost. I think he rates a solid B and some extra marks for some of the passage. Not a diamond in the rough, but hardly a paste gem, either.

Terence Ford was in his early forties and working as a public relations man when he wrote the book. Before that, he had quite a varied resume:

I worked on a couple of newspapers, was an actor, an oiler on coastwise ships, a barker on Broadway for baseball batting cage, the manager of a Park Avenue antique shop, the maitre d’hotel of a 3rd Avenue bakery lunchroom, a barrel jockey in a shellac factory, the ultimate assistant editor of a trade journal, a barely perceptible contributor of satirical pieces to The Bookman and Vanity Fair. . . .

He Feeds the Birds was his first and only novel. He stuck with the PR business until he died of a heart attack in late 1958 at the age of 52.

He Feeds the Birds, by Terence Ford
New York: The Dial Press, 1950

also published as The Drunk, the Damned and the Bevilled
New York: Avon Books, 1952

also published as Easy Living
New York: Berkeley Medallion, 1959

It Was Like This, by Anne Goodwin Winslow (1949)

Cover of first US edition of 'It Was Like This'

Anne Goodwin Winslow’s subtle and fine novel, It Was Like This (1949), offers a remarkable contrast with another book I discussed recently, John T. McIntyre’s 1937 union novel, Ferment. At the core, both books share the same dilemma: two brothers both in love with the same woman. And, ironically, both Winslow’s and McIntyre’s woman is an orphan who was raised in the same household as the brothers.

That’s where the similarity ends, however. Where McIntyre slugs his way through his story with page after page of talk, one gets the sense that Winslow spent most of her time paring away her prose, taking away inessential details, replacing the direct with the indirect, until what was left was timeless in its simplicity and perfection. Where McIntyre pushes his trio into an inevitable confrontation, in which one brother wins over the other and gets the girl, Winslow respects the intelligence of her readers and her characters enough to realize that confrontation would only insult all.

The story is set in the late 1800s along the Mississippi coast. The Martins survived Reconstruction better than most, having lucked into a profitable business of growing pecans. Quiet, serious Lawrence Martin has taken charge of the plantation while his brother Hugh–shorter, softer, more of a reader–has moved to Richmond, where he writes editorials and essays for a newspaper. Lawrence has married Anna, left with Mrs. Martin as an orphan, and now renown for her beauty, if not her personality. “A lot of things must have been left out of Anna to start with–to make room for her looks,” a neighbor speculates.

When Hugh returns for a visit, a series of minor events–the worst of them the brief appearance of a threatening vagrant–puts him in the implausible role of Anna’s protector. And closer contact and memories of his own past interest in Anna leads … well, nowhere. These are all people of moderation, even Hugh, though he aspires to be a novelist, and people of moderation often benefit or suffer–or both–from the capacity to see things from several perspectives.

“It’s an old question–does love want to give everything, or take everything? … Arguments like that are never settled because as a rule nobody is talking about the same thing,” Hugh observes at one point. Though the two realize they have a connection that may be stronger than anything Anna will ever feel with Lawrence, Hugh understands that feeling could be just as destructive as it could be fulfilling. And so he leaves. Not suddenly, not dramatically. “Decently and in order; there was no danger of everything not being kept in its place, as usual.”

Hugh leaves as quietly, as familiarly as he arrived at the start of the book, and we know he will return again and that nothing more will happen between him and Anna.

Having put such an emphasis on the subtlety of Winslow’s touch, it’s difficult to reach for hyperbole to praise It Was Like This. If this book were a painting hanging in a gallery, it’s the one you wouldn’t notice until you’d visited a few times and grown tired of the big, bold works. But when you finally did, you’d think: “Yes, this is a fine and lovely piece.” I look forward to discovering and savoring more of Anne Goodwin Winslow’s fiction.


Incidentally, It Was Like This features a binding design by the pioneering book designer, William Addison Dwiggins. Similar bright two-color designs can be found on a few other Knopf books from around the same time. I know I’ve seen them on several novels by Angela Thirkell and perhaps one of P. H. Newby’s first novels as well, but not many more. It’s a shame the practice was discontinued so soon after it started.

It Was Like This, by Anne Goodwin Winslow
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949

In the Land of Pain, by Alphonse Daudet, translated by Julian Barnes (2002)

Cover of 'In the Land of Pain'

I first learned of Alphonse Daudet’s In the Land of Pain from references to it in Julian Barnes’ Nothing to Be Frightened Of. Barnes finds one passage from Daudet so moving that he quotes it twice:

It’s all going … Darkness is gathering me into its arms.
Farewell wife, children, family, the things of my heart …
Farewell me, cherished me, now so hazy, so indistinct

In the Land of Pain is Barnes’ own translation, with extensive annotations, introduction and afterword, of La Doulou (literally, The Painful), which was published in the 1920s, nearly three decades after Daudet’s death.

The book is merely a collection of notes, written over the course of over a decade, while Daudet suffered increasing pain and debility from the ravages taken on his body and mind by syphilis in its tertiary and terminal stage–or, as the Kirkus Reviews reviewer put it, “a 19th-century account of slow death by syphilis.”

One could hardly come up with a less attractive description.

And yet, In the Land of Pain almost radiates with Daudet’s humanity and good humor. Henry James once wrote that Daudet had “an extraordinary sensibility to all the impressions of life and a faculty of language which is in perfect harmony with his wonderful fineness of perception,” and these qualities are on ample display in this slender little book–small in format and under 100 pages long.

And in Julian Barnes, his text has the perfect guide. Barnes notes the unbalanced effect of pain on its sufferer: “… you discover that your pain, while always new to you, quickly becomes repetitive and banal to your intimates….” He provides footnotes that, in themselves, are often quite moving:

Edmond de Goncourt and his brother Jules were so inseparable that in twenty-two years after the death of their mother they were only twice apart for as much as twenty-four hours; so inseparable that they wrote their joint diary in the first person. They moved to Auteuil in 1868; Jules died from tertiary syphilis in 1870. During his final decline, Edmond asked him, “Where are you, my dear chap?” and after a few moments Jules replied, “Always in space, in empty space.” After Jules’ death, Daudet became Edmond’s closest friend, literary confidant and surrogate brother–whereupon Edmond had to witness a harrowing syphilitic decline for the second time. Daudet, for his part, used to quiz Goncourt about Jules’ symptoms, comparing them with his own.

Alphonse DaudetSyphilis took its toll upon Daudet in numerous ways, from random, intense and stabbing pains he could only stay for a few hours with frequent injections of morphine–which had their own unhappy consequences, to the erosion of his spine and the loss of his ability to balance himself and, ultimately, to walk at all. And the range and barbarity of treatments Daudet underwent, as some of them most renowned doctors of his time tried vainly to alleviate his symptoms, if not to effect a cure, are described by Barnes and Daudet in harrowing terms. One learns to value even more the discovery of penicillin.

The disease also attacked Daudet’s very abilities to be a writer:

Are words actually any use to describe what pain (or passion, for that matter) really feels like? Words only come when everything is over, when things have calmed down. They refer only to memory, and are either powerless or untruthful.

His notes became a refuge where he could hide the deterioration of his very ability to hold a pen: “I find it impossible to write an address on an envelope when I know that people will read and examine it; whereas in the intimacy of a notebook I can guide my pen as I choose.”

Nonetheless, the comic aspects of his situation are never too far away:

This resort for anaemics has its funny side. No one remembers anyone’s name; brains are racked all the time; there are great holes in the conversation. It took ten of us to come up with the word “industrial.”

Edmond de Goncourt, Marcel Proust, Zola and other acquaintances all noted that as the disease put Daudet in ever greater pain and invalidity, his patience with and concern for others grew to saint-like dimensions. And one of the strongest themes throughout the book is his concern for how his illness affected his family. His greatest regrets are not for himself but for them: “I only know one thing, and that is to shout to my children, ‘Long live Life!’ But it’s so hard to do, while I am ripped apart by pain.”

Daudet stopped writing his notes about three years before his death. He died on 16 December 1897 as he sat at dinner with his wife, children and mother-in-law, chatting about the playwright Edmond Rostand. He was 57.

In the Land of Pain, by Alphonse Daudet, edited and translated by Julian Barnes
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002

The Major, by David Hughes (1964)

Covers of first UK edition, Pan paperback edition, and Tower Books paperback edition of 'The Major'
David Hughes’ 1964 novel, The Major, is a perfect example of the gems one can find by picking through the rubbish heap of literature. Out of print, like Hughes’ nine other novels (including his W. H. Smith Award-winning The Pork Butcher (1984)), it would likely escape notice by even the most diligent book scavenger, given the ho-hum covers provided its various U.K. and U.S. editions.

Like a real gem, The Major is made of incredibly dense material. Just slightly more than novella length, it features one of the most vile characters I’ve come across in years, and packs into its short pages a remarkable amount of violence and malevolence.

Major Kane is a Royal Army officer whose best days were spent crashing through the Italian and French countryside in a tank, and whose most noteworthy combat exploit involved shooting three escaping German officers. Enjoying a cushy assignment as a liaison officer in Hamburg, he’s brought back to his regiment near Salisbury Plain for reasons unknown. A truly blood-thirsty man, he’s given his first quarry when his renters, an elderly knight and his lady, refuse–with the utmost grace and delicacy–to vacate and give him back his house. This launches the Major into a campaign of harassment through a variety of malicious schemes. He eventually gets rid of them by sabotaging their heating system, which leads Sir Austen to contract pneumonia.

Major Kane’s motivation for taking back the house is purely territorial. There is not the least bit of love or tenderness in his heart for his pregnant wife or their teen-age daughter, and, in fact, there are subtle clues that Kane could be capable of incestuous rape if he let his guard down. The battle for the house, though, is just the prelude to his fight to evict the few families living in a hamlet on the edge of the Army’s exercise range. “If you can keep the Jerries happy,” his General tells him, “you can certainly bash some sense into this lot of wets.” As it turns out, the General knows full well just how Major Kane will approach the problem and is careful to have distanced himself when the sordid affair finally blows up in the press.

Hughes is a meticulous writer, and many of his sentences are honed to a razor-sharp edge. At the same time, however, he is able to introduce dozens of different perspectives on the story, so that Major Kane’s narrow and vicious outlook is offset by that of everyone from his patient but bewildered wife to a group of young thugs who decide to interfere with his plans. And in the end, Hughes manages to draw from this story not just the portrait of a mean-hearted man made all the nastier by his experiences in–and since–the war, but of an institution–the Army–willing to use its people in the most cynical and cold-blooded manner, and of a Britain learning to step away from two centuries rich with battles and military memories. Major Kane himself would likely be impressed by its power and efficiency.

The Major, by David Hughes
London: Anthony Blond Ltd., 1964

The Wife Next Door, by R. V. Cassill (1959)

Cover of 'The Wife Next Door'
“They met like two comets in the night–the bored and restless man, the lush and willing woman.”

That line and the cleavage, pink nightgown and knowing look of the woman on the cover of The Wife Next Door are classic examples of Gold Medal Books at their sleazy best. Anyone buying the book knew that at least one commandment would be broken in the course of this story.

As usual with Cassill’s pulp novels, he gave himself the opportunity to explore material he was interested in while also providing the publisher with material that fit the desired formula. In this case, the story is set at Blackhawk University, Cassill’s fictional version of the University of Iowa, where he studied and taught, which was also the setting of an earlier pulp, Naked Morning. Cassill also drew upon his own experiences, as he, like the characters, lived in the former Army barracks on campus that served as housing for married students during the boom in attendance after the passing of the G. I. Bill.

The story opens with a preposterous incident in which Tom, a hard-partying pre-med student, spies Karen (the wife next door) through his bathroom window, develops a drunken infatuation, and invades her apartment later that night with the aim of consummating his lust. He strips naked and staggers toward Karen, only to have her react as any normal woman might–screaming and kicking and trying to force him out of the place. Somehow Tom manages to escape without either Karen or his own wife learning his identity, although running around naked and drunk does eventually land him in jail.

The entire episode serves no purpose and could have been dropped entirely, for Cassill then begins where we might expect it to–namely, with Tom and his wife becoming acquaintances with Karen and her husband, their new neighbors. Indeed, it’s as if Cassill changed his mind, and from Chapter 4 on, made this more of a story of the predatory wife than the predatory husband. Karen and Tom’s wife Amelia become good friends, although Karen does seem to be more than a little interested in Tom and Amelia’s love life. In short, Tom is a stud while Karen’s husband Willard is … well, not, and Karen soon wants to find out what she’s been missing.

What for Tom is just a lucky jump in the sack becomes an obsession for Karen, and while he appreciates the occasion bit on the side, she convinces herself that the two are in love and destined to be together. While not quite in the league with Glenn Close’s character in “Fatal Attraction,” Karen is an early prototype of the jilted lover stalker. Once again fascinated with unstable substances, Cassill goes overboard by introducing a sub-plot in which the sight of Tom and Karen steaming up the car windows in a deserted Iowa state park sends a respected member of the Blackhawk medical faculty into an erotic fugue state that eventually leads him to rape Tom’s wife and then force her to submit to sex with a taxi driver. Even by Gold Medal’s standard, Cassill delivered way more sex, alcohol, violence and weirdness than they asked for. Who knew such things went on in Iowa?

In a way, The Wife Next Door is the most effective pulp novel by Cassill that I’ve read so far. It’s not a very good novel, even if we forget the ridiculous opening of Naked Tom in the Night. But it is effective as pulp fiction along the lines of, say, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, where the characters are fast, loose and out of control. I read the thing in about two hours and felt like I needed to take a shower to clean off afterwards. Which I guess is some kind of benchmark.

The Wife Next Door, by R. V. Cassill
Greenwich, Connecticut: Gold Medal Books – Fawcett Publications, 1959

Dormitory Women, by R. V. Cassill (1954)

Dormitory Women was R. V. Cassill’s second novel. His first, The Eagle on the Coin (1950), had been a substantial, serious novel published by a substantial, serious firm, Random House. It would be a decade years before he published another one. In between, he wrote a dozen cheap paperback novels–most of them original works, a few of them novelizations of films like The Buccaneer (1958).

I’ve become fascinated with Cassill’s pulp novels after reading Wounds of Love a few months ago. In truth, they’re not great pulps, not in the way that, say, Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me is a great pulp novel: stripped to the narrative bone, full of rough men and tough dames, with no pretension and no apologies. Nor are they great as serious novels, worth proclaiming as undiscovered masterpieces.
What they are, I’ve decided, are experiments. We can appreciate the qualities of a good piece of pulp fiction now, but at the time, the criteria for getting something published by a company like Lion Books or Gold Medal had more to do with the writer’s ability to produce on time and to formula. Chances are that title of Dormitory Women existed before the book did (“Get the title in there and go to work,” to paraphrase Roger Corman’s instructions to the director of one of his sleaze films). The story had to involve women on a college campus and it had to be lurid. The rest was up to Cassill to fill in.

Cassill wasn’t the only writer to recognize that as long as he stayed within its simple limits, the pulp format offered him freedom to try out notions that were risky for mainstream fiction. In A Taste for Sin, he was able to work with sexual material–domination, rape, homosexuality–that would have been tough to get any hardback publisher to accept–material he would later revisit frequently in Doctor Cobb’s Game and other novels of the Sixties and Seventies. In Naked Morning, he tried out a story set in the campus environment he was familiar with from teaching at the University of Iowa, Columbia, and other schools. In The Wound of Love and The Wound of Love, he tossed sexual hand grenades into quiet small town settings and let the havoc ensue.

In Dormitory Women, the material Cassill experimented with was psychopathology. The men who picked it up in hopes of getting some steamy scenes of sophomoric sex did get a little taste of what they were looking for early in the book. Within the first two chapters, we are treated to that scandalous fifties fad, the panty raid. Soon after, Cassill offers up an attempted rape out on Lovers’ Lane.

But then the tale swerves wildly off track. The would-be rapist leaves the girl in the dust, blasts onto the highway back to town, and goes up in flames in a wreck. And we launch into the warped perspective of Millie, the girl. “I’ve got to go all the way through it again,” she says to herself. All the way through what?, the reader wonders. Well, we soon discover that Millie had some traumatic encounter with a man dressed in white in the barn behind her Grandpa’s house, and her attack by the aggressive frat boy sparks a series of psychotic episodes.

Although she convinces her roommates that her nightmares and ravings are just anxiety about getting into her college’s “good” sorority, Millie is actually in schizophrenic fugues in which another voice urges her to sink a butcher knife into the chest of her unwitting targets: “I knew how people could divide themselves and send one part outside time and space by a crooked path that let them sneak up on those they had to kill in order that those they loved be protected.” Twenty years later, Stephen King was able to take similar material and turn it into a best-seller, but in Dormitory Women, Cassill struggled–unsuccessfully–to put his agent of chaos to good use. Maybe readers in 1954 were naive enough to wonder about Millie’s flash-backs to Grandpa’s barn, but any adult today could figure out that she’d been raped by Grandpa (um, he worked in a bakery?). And, despite her violent fantasies, the murder of her favorite professor’s wife and children turn out to be entirely coincidental. In the end, the only thing Cassill can do with Millie is ship her off to an asylum.

For me, Dormitory Women was a failed experiment. Yet it was the only one of Cassill’s pulp novels to earn a review in a major paper, and Anthony Boucher’s praise in The New York Times was enough that his last phrase was quoted on many of his subsequent ones:

R. V. Cassill attempts (and successfully) an even more ambitious study in psycho-pathology in Dormitory Women (Lion, 25c). Disregard the lurid jacket copy (“an explosive novel of sex on the campus”) on this one: it’s a serious and completely terrifying account of the flight of a 17-year-old girl from almost-normal adolescent fantasy (“I am a princess … I can make things happen to people”) into full psychosis. The university background is admirably realized and the novel well-conceived and well-written. Previously known to readers of little magazines and Foley annuals, Cassill shows here that he can combine paperback storytelling at its strongest with subtle literary quality.

One might think that having the main character go mad is one of the cheapest and easiest tricks in the book, but Dormitory Women is proof that it’s harder than it looks.

Dormitory Women, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Lion Books (216), 1954
New York: Signet Books (1646), 1959

Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Stefan Zweig

erasmusThanks to reissues of his fiction by New York Review Classics and Pushkin Press, and, now, a new biography by George Prochnik, The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World and a Wes Anderson film, Grand Hotel Budapest, inspired by his works, Stefan Zweig can no longer be considered a neglected writer. Among English language readers, that is–his works have stayed popular in German, French and other languages.

Very few of Zweig’s non-fiction books have been reissued in English, however. I think this is partly due to the fact that tastes and standards in biography have fundamentally changed in the decades since World War Two. To be taken seriously now, a biography has to be based in a fair level of objective research backed up with proof in the form of footnotes or citations and an extensive biography. In Zweig’s time, it was assumed that the writer had done his or her homework and this left them free to focus on biography as an investigation into character or into the relationship between and individual and his time.

Yet the latter is exactly what makes Zweig’s biographies so interesting now. One cannot read them without being aware of the context in which they were wrote, which gives the books a double effect: one sees both the subject and the author in relation to their respective eras.

Zweig wrote Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1934, not long after Hitler came to power in Germany, but when he and others could already sense that the world he knew and loved, The World of Yesterday as he titled his memoir, was entering a “terrible moment of mass intoxication.” Erasmus’ life was also caught up in the conflicts that arose from the rise of the Protestant faiths. It’s hard not to read the following, for example, and not find oneself thinking simultaneously of the Reformation and the rise of Nazism:

In general, those events which we are wont to deem of great historical importance hardly enter the sphere of popular consciousness. Even the huge waves of the earlier wares merely touched the outside margin of folk-life and were confined within the borders of those nations or those provinces which happened to be engaged in them. Moreover, the intellectual part of the nation could usually hold aloof from social or religious disturbances, and with undivided mind contemplate the welter of passion on the political stage. Goethe was such a figure. Undisturbed amid the tumult of the Napoleonic campaigns, he quietly continued his work.

Sometimes, however, at rare intervals through the centuries, antagonisms reach such a pitch of tension that something is bound to snap. Then a veritable hurricane stampedes over the earth, rending humanity as though it were a flimsy cloth the hands could tear apart. The mighty cleft runs across every country, every town, every house, every family, every heart. From every side the individual is attacked by the overwhelming force of the masses, and there is no means of protection, no means of salvation from the collective madness. A wave of such magnitude allows no one to stand up firmly against it. Such all-encompassing cleavages may be brought about by social, religious, or any other problem of a spiritual and theoretical nature. But so far as bigotry is concerned, it matters little what fans the flames. The only essential is that the fire should blaze, that it should be able to discharge its accumulated store of hate; and precisely in such apocalyptic hours of human folly is the demon of war let loose to gallop madly and joyously throughout the lands.

In such terrible moments of mass intoxication and sundering of the world of mankind, the individual is utterly helpless. It is useless for the wise to try and withdraw into the isolation of passive contemplation. The times drag him willy-nilly into the fray, to right or to left, into one clique or into another, into this party or into that.

Zweig himself essentially suffered this fate, being forced, as a Jew and a liberal intellectual, into exile–an intolerable exile, as Prochnik puts it, during which he grew increasingly despondent. Less than three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he and his wife took their lives by drug overdose, feeling that a Nazi conquest of the Americas was inevitable. No doubt in the years leading up to that decision, he often felt himself dragged willy-nilly, utterly helpless.

Knowing where his despair eventually led him, the final sentences in this chapter have a bitter irony:

Fanaticism is fated to overreach its own powers. Reason is eternal and patient, and can afford to bide its time. Often, while the drunken orgy is at its highest, she needs must lie still and mute. But her day dawns, and ever and again she comes into her own anew.

How sad that Zweig was not able to hold onto this confident outlook.

You can read about Jules Romains’ tribute to Zweig in this post from 2008.

Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Stefan Zweig, translated by Eden and Cedar Paul
New York City: Viking Books, 1934

A Taste of Sin, by R. V. Cassill (1955)

Cover of first edition of 'A Taste of Sin'Continuing to scarf down R. V. Cassill’s pulp fiction like potato chips, my latest handful is A Taste of Sin (1955), his third paperback original and his second for Ace Books.

Of the four Cassill paperbacks I’ve read so far, A Taste of Sin most easily fits the stereotype of a cheesy, sleazy book whose contents deliver the “whirlpool of wild parties, illicit loves, and degeneration” promised on the cover blurb.

It’s a fascinating exhibit in the museum of 1950s sexuality. Worth Hudson, a thirty-something ad man married–well, if not happily, then at least conventionally–to the efficient Margaret. Both head off to work each morning and return to the apartment they’re devoting most of their spare cash to fix up smartly. Sex is off limits on work nights, and openness and honesty all the time. Worth is bored and a bit frustrated but afraid to say so to Margaret. And so their marriage percolates along, steadily losing all flavor and interest.

And so it might continue for years if not for an agent of chaos in the form of Worth’s friend Harold, a loud, boozy and lecherous artist. Harold recognizes a patsy when he sees one, and regularly leans on Worth for help, whether its a hand-out or a drinking buddy or someone to break the bad news to a girl Harold needs to dump.

As the book opens, Worth and Margaret are sitting in a bar, and Margaret is pressing Worth to cut Harold off for good. Then Harold comes reeling in, and Worth’s descent into the maelstrom begins with that fatal phrase, “Just one last time.”

Lying, deception, adultery, prostitution, alcoholism, bunko rackets, nymphomania, group sex, rape, sadism and masochism–even a fist-fight in a lesbian bar–Worth’s decision to help out his old buddy leads him into a downward spiral that leaves Worth without a wife, a job, or any self-respect. Cassill actually does quite an effective job of using the same reticence that kept Worth from talking about difficult subjects with Margaret to make him a failure as a sinner, too. In situation after situation, Worth’s dithering about whether to take the wrong step–to bed an alluring call girl or to seduce his wife’s best friend–leads something even worse.

Indeed, A Taste of Sin works best as a character study. After losing all his self-respect–and having what was left of it wrenched away from him, Worth gets together again with Margaret together, ready now to rebuild their relationship on a foundation of honesty. It’s such an implausible and ineptly introduced ending you can see the staples. The book would have been far better ended a chapter earlier, with Worth chasing in vain after a woman who’d already demonstrated that her greatest talent was for leaving ardent and horny men shamed and frustrated. Someone once described Cassill’s paperback fiction as “Dostoyevskian.” Happy endings and “Dostoveyskian” don’t go together.

The most I could say of A Taste of Sin is that it could hold its place on the shelf next to James M. Cain’s two great fables about the unpleasant consequences of men thinking with the wrong head, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. It’s cheap, sleazy, fast, rough, violent, and full of people you’re best off not knowing. Knock off the last chapter and it’s a great slice of pulp. If Jim Cain rates a spot in the Library of America, then someone ought to give a fair shot to Verlin Cassill as well.

A Taste of Sin, by R. V. Cassill
New York City: Ace Books, 1955

The Hungering Shame, by R. V. Cassill

Cover of original Avon paperback edition of 'The Hungering Shame'Continuing my journey through the pulp oeuvre of R. V. Cassill–a novelist and short-story writer whose mainstream fiction is nearly as forgotten as his more quotidian work–we come to The Hungering Shame (1956), his fifth novel and his first paperback original for Avon Publications.

One would have to be thick not to figure out that it’s a story about rape. “Four Men, A Lonely Road, and A Girl” is splashed under the title, on which we see an attractive woman examining the torn sleeve of her dress, her hair slightly mussed. These were the days before Avon became noteworthy as the publisher of Latin American and other innovative fiction, days when its marketing aim was not so high(brow).

But, as I found with The Wound of Love (1956), his second Avon original, and Naked Morning (1957), his third, the lurid cover and blurb of The Hungering Shame deceives by disguising the seriousness of Cassill’s purpose and his results.

The Hungering Shame is not actually a story about rape, but rather one about the effects of rape. Cassill uses a set of first-person narrators to play out his drama, which concocts an unstable mixture of characters and circumstances and then sets it alight.

rvcassill1955Unlike his next two books, The Hungering Shame is set not in Iowa but in a resort town in the Colorado Rockies. Late the summer before the story opens, a local girl, Joy Everest, was picked up by four visiting frat boys, taken up a deserted forest road, and raped. One of them was the son of Bob Horn, manager of one of the big resort hotels in the town. A divorced father with a weak heart and a guilty conscience, Horn had helped Joy get medical care after the crime and convinced her not to report it. Engaged to marry Al, a local boy, Joy had her own reasons to keep quiet.

Now, a year later, the marriage has disintegrated. Still traumatized by the rape, Joy has been unable to sleep with Al. Then several pieces of bad advice upset the precarious balance of Joy and Al’s psyches. Joy, we learn, has already been scarred from discovering, as a child, her father’s dead body after his suicide, and Al is a nascent sociopath. Add to these ingredients Bob Horn’s genetic predisposition to bad luck (his father tells him that just about anyone other than a Horn “has a better chance than you nor me when it comes time to do the right thing instead of the wrong thing”), a social climbing young woman, and the reappearance of one of the rapists, and it all explodes.

Men might have been hoping for some good old fashioned sleaze in The Hungering Shame, but I doubt they would have been prepared for the brutality of the finale. Al spirals down the path of a classic sociopath, cruising for women, contemplating molesting a young girl, caught masturbating in his car, taking Joy along as he shoots cornered animals, and finally, attacking a couple necking in a parked car. Cassill goes well beyond conventional literary psychology of the 1950s, revealing that Joy finds relief for her own pain by helping Al inflict it upon others.

Bob Horn also discovers unpleasant truths as his fragile world comes crashing down. I liked how Cassill captured the voice and sensibility of an ordinary man being forced to look past the limits of his comfortable notions of evil:

I guess there are, for unlucky men, those times when you are forced to look clear past the edge of what people ought to be asked to stand. It’s a mistake to think there’s nothing out there, a lucky mistake, because in the dark around us there’s a slop and muck and stink that’s stronger than all the daylight we’ll ever get. It moans at you through its stinking lips and says Help me and if you’ve been caught where you hear it you’re tempted to gather it up in your arms and pat it.

The savagery of The Hungering Shame‘s denouement is really quite shocking for its time. I speculated in my post on Naked Morning that Cassill may have used his pulp fiction as experiments where he could try out techniques for use in more serious works. In the case of The Hungering Shame, his ability to work with highly combustible materials proved short of the mark just at the book’s very end.

Q: How to end a story that’s already gone over the edge?

A: Put all your volatile characters in a car and send it careening off a cliff.

Effective–but crude.

The Hungering Shame, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Publications, 1956

Ambrosia and Small Beer, arranged by Christopher Hassall

The delight of reading John Guest’s Broken Images, which I posted about recently, led me to look for his other works. A short search, as his few other publications were collections of other people’s work.

ambrosiaandsmallbeerOne, for which he did not even claim credit, bears the odd title of Ambrosia and Small Beer. Subtitled “The Record of a Correspondence between Edward Marsh and Christopher Hassall, Arranged by Christopher Hassall,” the book was being prepared for publication by Hassall when he died suddenly at the age of 51. Guest, who had been a close friend of Hassall since the two served together in an anti-aircraft battery in 1940, was a senior editor at Longmans, Green and Company, Hassall’s publisher, and took over the final work on the book.

Christopher Hassall and Edward Marsh first met in March 1934. Hassall was 22, just graduated from Oxford, trying to pull together his first book of poetry, and working for Ivor Novello, the legendary singer, actor, composer and playwright. Marsh was 61, a senior Civil Servant nearing retirement, and already well-known as a mentor and patron to creative talents such as Novello, D. H. Lawrence, and Rupert Brooke. The four collections of Georgian Poetry he edited had been hugely successful–selling as many as 20,000 copies each–and Marsh was also known to have been responsible for editing and maturing the prose style of his minister/MP, Winston Churchill. Marsh’s Wikipedia entry categorizes him as a “polymath”–probably one of the few people to earn that label.

Marsh was also something of a cornerstone figure in the homosexual community of his time. At 22, Christopher Hassall was a beautiful young man, and that, combined with his poetic talents, certainly held a strong attraction for Marsh. Within days of their meeting, Marsh was writing long letters filled with detailed criticisms–word by word examinations in some cases–of Hassall’s poetry. Soon, however, the correspondence moved into the wider world of Marsh’s intellectual interests, artistic passions, and social contacts.

Marsh never married and appears never to have had any long-term intimate relationships. He lived alone and had the time and, apparently, tremendous energy to devote to those friendships he most valued. Hassall identifies this as an vital factor in their relationship: “As a solitary man, Marsh tended to live the private lives of other people. Some of his most intense experiences were lived vicariously.” While Hassall includes excerpts from many of his own letters and notes to Marsh, the bulk of Ambrosia and Small Beer comes from Marsh’s pen.

Fluent in a half-dozen languages, Marsh had a prodigious memory for facts, concepts, and poetry. His was a mind of both tremendous breadth and surgical precision. “Nothing seems to have got lost between the brain and the pen,” the writer George Moore once remarked of a letter calling for a civil list pension to be granted for James Joyce. But he was also a great lover of gossip and jokes. Hassall called him “an ornament of society with an inexhaustible fund of small talk,” and the title comes from his description of Marsh’s conversation: “an engaging blend of ambrosia and small beer.”

Marsh continued to write to Hassall as the young man became–in partnership with Novello–a successful librettist, as he married, served in the Army during the Second World War, and enjoyed success as an actor, poet, and producer after the war. Indeed, the correspondence continued right up to Marsh’s death in 1953. Ambrosia and Small Beer collects perhaps a third of the total material, but one suspects that what is omitted is hardly to be missed. As Hassall remarked in his preface, Marsh loved to indulge in gossip that had little lasting value.

What’s left, however, is great fun for anyone who loves literature, people and humor. Marsh knew almost everyone who was anyone in Britain of the 1930s and 1940s, and a healthy share of them invited him to dinner and country house weekends. He read a good share of the better and lesser books published during that period and is generous in devoting space to his personal reviews. I’ve discovered a fair number of neglected titles in the course of reading this book. And he delighted in sharing jokes. I suspect that one of the services Hassall performed on posterity’s behalf was to weed out the duds from the gems, because there are plenty of good laughs to be found here.

In many ways, Ambrosia and Small Beer reminds me of James Agate’s Ego–the nine volumes of diaries that he published between 1935 and 1946: it’s erudite, bitchy, and funny. I would give Ambrosia a slight edge, however, for the invaluable leavening effect of Hassall’s editing and his own contributions. While Agate was notorious for endlessly rewriting his own work, Hassall had a wonderful sense for what to include and what to delete.

We can be grateful, for example, that he chose to include the text Marsh enclosed to accompany the following comment, from a letter in April 1944:

Someone named Adrian Earle wrote to say he was writing a life of Lionel Johnson, and asked if I could contribute anything. I send you the rough copy of what I wrote for him–it’s inexpressibly slight.

Marsh’s piece is as follows:

I met Lionel Johnson only once, when we both stayed with the late Lord Russell for a night in the latter nineties at a little house near London. I forget who else was there, except Harry Marillier and Edmund Garrett. When Russell and the others went to bed, L. J. asked me to stay up with him: he was born with insomnia, he told me, and had never been able to sleep, in his cradle or since; so we settled down to talk. His conversation was enthralling, but alas very little of what he said has stuck in my memory. One topic was the novels of George Meredith, which he put very high; but he owned that after giving one week of his life to the first chapter of The Egoist he had come to the conclusion that it had no meaning whatever. Later in the night he discoursed with eloquence on the Summa of St. Thomas Aquinas, which he exalted as the most wonderful structure of thought that the world had produced; and–this is my last fragment–he said that he had never in his life been able to do a sum of any kind.

At about five or six in the morning he poured himself out a tumblerful of neat whisky, after drinking which he said that now he would be able to sleep; so I went to bed, leaving him curled under a rug in a big armchair.

For the justification to forego reading The Egoist alone, I am grateful that Hassall chose to include this.

After Marsh’s death, Hassall began collecting materials for a biography, which he published in 1959: Edward Marsh: Patron of the Arts. One reviewer called it, “The most entertaining biography since Boswell.” If Ambrosia and Small Beer is any indication, I am eager to make my own assessment of the biography.

Ambrosia and Small Beer: The Record of a Correspondence between Edward Marsh and Christopher Hassall, Arranged by Christopher Hassall
New York City: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965

Naked Morning, by R. V. Cassill

Cover of Avon paperback original of 'Naked Morning'After reading R. V. Cassill’s The Wound of Love (1956), which I discussed in a post a few weeks back, I’ve become intrigued by the rest of Cassill’s pulp oeuvre–eight or nine novels that he published as paperback originals between 1954 and 1963. One of the most influential writing instructors of his time, Cassill was also a prolific author in his own right, publishing around a dozen other novels as serious mainstream hardbacks and nearly ten times that number of short stories, several of which were included in O. Henry Prize and Best American Short Stories collections.

Born in Iowa, Cassill studied art at the University of Iowa and later became one of the mainstays of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. This experience is well reflected in Naked Morning (1957), which is set in the fictional town of Blackhawk, Iowa, home of Blackhawk University–Cassill’s stand-ins for Iowa City and his alma mater.

The novel’s actions play out over the course of about four days in early September, during the break between summer and fall sessions. One of the lead characters, a graduate instructor, “liked that time better than any other part of the year:

Then the campus lay ripe and vacant under a succession of fine days. It was a period when most of the human sounds vanished or were subdued by the heat. The noise of power-driven lawnmowers sham-battled through the afternoons and the shadow of campus trees was as blue as it could ever get.

Cassill knows this Midwestern university town well. He knows the upright but pallid character of the men in administration, the driven wives relentlessly fueling faculty politics, the frustrated cliques of artists and intellectuals feeling themselves exiled from the big time, and the townspeople always a bit bewildered or bemused by the university’s pretensions and eccentrics. He knows the great Victorian monstrosities–“like an oversized statue of two bisons and a wapiti”–now moldering away as faculty homes and student houses. And he knows the kind of bars that offer some of the few places where students and younger members of the faculty can cut loose:

The outrage of authority sprang from semi-public disclosures that liquor was being sold here to minors, that obscene movies had been shown on stag nights, that the ROTC staff was using it as an outlet for the French erotic supplies they imported from tours of duty at overseas posts, or that whores from Chicago and Kansas City occasionally based there during the football season or the annual state basketball tournament.

The cover of Naked Morning proclaims, “A young and innocent stray in a world of men.” In case that was too subtle, Avon Books plastered across the back:


“I have to get of in this here town unless I have some money. So if you want me to go with you….”

As was the case with Cassill’s The Wound of Love, a cheesy, come-on cover hides an otherwise serious work of fiction. In both books, there is a loose link between the cover and the contents. Naked Morning opens with a young man, a student returning to Blackhawk by bus, being approached by Sissie, a young girl somewhere in the vicinity of fifteen, who seems penniless, homeless, and ready to sell herself to survive.

The story revolves around the havoc her arrival in Blackhawk provokes. Sissie is something of a feral child, a corn-fed Lolita with no inhibitions, which, of course, means that she attracts a variety of abusers, exploiters and would-be saviours. A buyer hoping to find the salacious treats suggested by the cover would have been quite disappointed. Cassill only hints at Sissie’s sexual exploits–a glancing reference to a possible gang-bang in a frat house basement is as far as he goes.

Sissie really only serves as the spark to set off crises of character for the student on the bus, his girlfriend, and the graduate instructor. She is off-screen through most of the book, with much more space devoted to the others and their thoughts. And, as is too often the case with novels where the reader has to spend most of the time inside someone’s head, introspection is a poor substitute for action or description. The best parts of Naked Morning are not the result of Cassill’s ability as a story-teller or creator of characters but his ability to capture what Iowa City must have looked like, what it must have been like to live there, in the mid-1950s–as was the case for the small Iowa town setting of The Wound of Love.

Cassill’s superficial motivation for writing Naked Morning may have been money, but it’s clear that writing the book also had some artistic value for him–perhaps as a way to safely perfect his craft away from the harsh scrutiny of mainstream editors and critics. I suspect this was true for his other pulp novels, which is why I’ve ordered a few more to read over the coming months.

Naked Morning, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Books, 1957

Gog, by Giovanni Papini

Giovanni Papini’s 1931 satire, Gog, rates its own Wikipedia and is easily available in Italian, Spanish, French and German, but in English, it’s been out of print since its first publication. Barely noticed, what few reviews the English translation did get were negative. The American Mercury dismissed it for its “somewhat sophomoric and trashy cleverness.” Yet readers in other languages still praise the book, along with its sequel, Il libro nero (The Black Book, never translated into English, for its anarchic humor.

gogWith a short introduction, Papini places Gog as a packet of papers presented to him by Goggins, an eccentric American millionaire he encountered at a private insane asylum while visiting an acquaintance. Papini hesitates to call them “a book of memoirs nor, still less, a work of art,” but merely ” a peculiar and symptomatic document, perhaps startling but possessing a certain value for the study of mankind.”

Son of a member of the Hawaiian nobility and a white father, Gog signed on as a cook’s assistant on an American ship at the age of sixteen, and through a series of business deals, managed to become one of the richest men in America by the end of World War One. At that point, he decided to retire completely from business and devote himself to “enjoyment and journeys of discovery.” The rest of Gog collects about 90 entries, most under three pages long, from his subsequent years of travel and encounters with a wide variety of geniuses and idealists.

libroneroThese include some of the great names of the time–Freud, Edison, Einstein, Henry Ford, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Lenin–with whom Gog gains audiences and records their thoughts. Papini later caught some flack for this device, as when ,i>Life magazine–among others–mistakenly quoted an interview with Pablo Picasso from Il libro nero as if it were the real thing. In the case of the interview with Lenin, it very well could have been the real thing–in hindsight: “It is my ambition to convert Russia into a vast penitentiary…. [W]e should then be able to murder all the peasants as being of no further use. They will either have to turn into laborers or perish.”

The lesser-known men Gog encounters each harbors a unique mania. One proclaims that he has devised the perfect form of sculpture–carving smoke into shapes that dissolve as soon as they are created. Another asks him to endow a chair in phthiriology–the study of lice. He discovers the shop of Ben-Chusai in Amsterdam, devoted exclusively to products made from humans–shrunken heads, “cigar holders made from finger bones, incisors set in gold or platinum, penholders and necklaces of carved vertebrae.” His meeting with the architect Sulkas Perkunas foreshadows Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities: the City of Perfect Equality; the Polychromatic City; the Hanging City; the Titanic City; and, yes, the Invisible City. Cocardasse the poet declares he will revolutionize poetry by incorporating all the world’s vocabulary:

Beloved carinha, mein Weltschmerz
Egorge mon âme en estas soledades.
My tired heart, Raju presvétlyj
Muore di gioia, tel un démon au ciel.
Lieber Himmel, castillo de los Dioses
Quaris quot durerà this fun désespéré?
Λαμαδα Φηιξ, drevo zizni….

Liubanoff, on the other hand, gives Gog a book of poems consisting of nothing but titles: “‘The Siesta of the Forsaken Nightingale.’ It contains all the elements of poetic efflorescence.”

There is an understandable amount of humor to be found in taking a notion to its extreme, but the series of encounters with monomaniacs soon grows, well, monotonous. Every person in the book is a figure of ridicule and the end of the book leaves one no wiser than the start. At one point Gog notes, in fact, that there is “nothing more delightful than to be able to isolate oneself from one’s own odious kind.”

If one accepts experimental fiction as a legitimate form, Gog is more successful as experiment than fiction.

At the moment, there appears to be just one copy of Gog available online, but there are dozens available through public and university libraries, according to

Gog, by Giovanni Papini, translated by Mary Prichard Agnetti
New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1931

The Wound of Love, by R. V. Cassill

A prolific novelist and short story writer, as well as an influential teacher of other writers, R. V. Cassill spent most of the 1950s bouncing around the sort of jobs a writer could get–teaching, working on an encyclopedia, editing such noteworthy magazines as Dude and Gent. And writing pulp fiction.

Although he would go on to earn critical acclaim for such novels as Clem Anderson (1961) and Doctor Cobb’s Game (1970), Cassill produced an impressive series of novels for Ace, Avon, Gold Medal and Signet. The titles are evidence enough that Cassill might be called the Fifties’ equivalent of Tiffany Thayer:

The Wound of Love (1956) is one of these. “A respectable town and the iniquity seething underneath” proclaims the cover, which shows a Susan Hayward look-alike and a Mad Man making out in a corn field. Now, anyone who’s ever seen a corn field knows it’s a miserable make-out spot, but the story is set in Iowa and I suppose the editors asked the cover artist to tie that in somehow.
I came across The Wound of Love a couple of years ago in the stacks at Wonder Book in Frederick, Maryland–one of the dwindling number of bookstores in the U. S. where you can still find paperbacks from the 1950s and 1960s. I recognized Cassill’s name, but I also recognized the book as classic pulp fiction–a paperback original, under 200 pages long, with a lurid cover and plenty blurb promising sex within. At the time, I wasn’t aware of Cassill’s pulp career and picked the book up simply out of curiosity.

I finally got around to reading it recently, and I have to say that it wasn’t too bad. Set in Pinicon, a rural town somewhere between Des Moines and Omaha, the story centers on Dick Fletcher, who’s returned to his home town to work on his father’s newspaper after a few years as a journalist in New York and Chicago. Dick is finding it hard to get used to the slow pace of life in Pinicon, and his marriage to Marsie, a nervous girl from the East Coast is suffering under the strain of living under the same roof as Dick’s parents. He’s befriended by Vance Holland, a hard-drinking, hard-partying local entrepeneur, and soon things begin spinning out of control.

Vance’s farm is sort of the local hang-out for other restless young marrieds, and it only takes one party at Vance’s to find Dick in the backseat of his car with another man’s wife. Although Dick never strays again, Marsie takes to frequent visits to Vance’s, and Dick learns that Vance is also the facilitator of the local wife-swapping circle. Small-town sex intertwines with small-town politics, and Dick eventually gets caught up in a complex deal to buy the town’s co-op electric plant–an issue that Dick’s father has opposed for years.

Born and raised in Iowa, Cassill would return to the state a few years after publishing The Wound of Love, joining the faculty of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the book is full of small touches that reflect a writer very familiar with his story’s setting and people. Dick’s father is a good Midwest Lutheran, which means he disapproves of Dick’s drinking and his marital problems–but doesn’t feel it’s his place to say anything about it. Even Dick hasn’t lost all sense of propriety. Early on he cools on Vance Holland simply because “He didn’t like people who insisted on a demonstration that you liked them.” It’s a comment very characteristic of a certain outlook you find in the Midwest.

Cassill manages to fit a fair amount of scandal into 160 short pages–not just the swapping of house keys and wives but gambling, bribery, shooting, alcoholism, and even a climactic airplane crash. Although it’s neatly integrated into the story, I can’t help but wonder if Cassill received a letter from his editor at Avon Books–something along the lines of Roger Corman’s instructions to Jonathan Kaplan when he hired Kaplan to direct one of his legendary low-budget films, “Night Call Nurses”: “Frontal nudity from the waist up, total nudity from behind, no pubic hair, and get the title in the film somewhere and go to work.” What Cassill created, in and around the sex and booze, is a neat exercise about the crisis of character, about the transition from youth and idealism to middle-age and ugly compromises.

Is it deserving of reissue? No, probably not, but it was certainly good enough to make me want to try another of Cassill’s pulp works. He once remarked that he wrote one of his pot-boilers while on jury duty. If The Wound of Love was that book, I’m eager to see what he did when he gave his full attention to what he was writing.

The Wound of Love, by R. V. Cassill
New York: Avon Publications, Inc., 1956

The Simmons Papers, by Philipp Blom

The Simmons Papers“The Only Novel about the Letter P” proclaims the bright blue wrapper around the Faber and Faber original edition of Philipp Bloms’s odd little novel, The Simmons Papers (1995). Not the finest bit of marketing in the company’s history, certainly, but it’s hard to imagine what tag line would have been more enticing. “Kafka Meets the O.E.D.” is the best I can come up with.

Blom himself nearly manages to put off all but the most persistent reader with an introduction that treats the work as a manuscript discovered among the papers of the late P. E. H. Simmons, a fellow in Philosophy at Balliol College. An eccentric figure who spent most of his life in seclusion, Simmons attracted considerable academic interest with this posthumous piece, which is held by various critics to be a diary, “a coded account of masonic rituals,” or a translation of some ancient hymns. Blom includes numerous quotations from several of these exegeses as footnotes throughout the book, managing with every one of them to cloud the meaning of the passages they are meant to clarify. From all this, one could easily categorize The Simmons Papers as a satire on critical theory and similar movements whose interpretations are often more obscure than the original texts.

Myself, I would advise the reader to ignore the introduction, skip right to page 23 and dive into what I’d describe as a lexicographical soliloquoy. The nameless narrator is at work on “the Definitive Dictionary of our language,” a massive work that outreaches even the Oxford English Dictionary in its ambition. Its goal is to “finally define our language beyond the level of ambiguity and doubt.” “With an entry in the Dictionary all questions are settled, all uncertainties removed.”

NB305Such an enterprise involves a large team of contributors and editors. The narrator, who is responsible for the section devoted to words beginning with the letter P, knows almost none of his colleagues, and never met Dr. Javis, the editor-in-chief or even Mr. Lloyd, his personal assistant. He relies entirely upon Malakh, the ninety-three year-old porter who conveys the correspondence and papers from office to office.

Although he acknowledges that P “was a small and modest letter” for much of its history, he is proud to note that, thanks to the influx of words from other languages, it has grown to stand as the third largest section in the Dictionary (after S and C):

It is a letter of immigrants; the loving and attentive ear hears the buzzing of a hundred foreign tongues within it: hymns of the early church; the babble and yelling of Arabian bazaars; Latin precision, elegance and brutality; Germanic harshness; words sailing with William the Conqueror; words drowned with the Spanish Armada (some of which mysteriously drifted ashore); Arabic prose and philosophy; commands given by Hadrian; and psalms, all humming, bubbling and chattering, colorful and delightful.

He sees himself, though, as a liberator: “Once unchained from their heavy bond of syntax and strict grammaticality, they can do anything, start to dance, whirl and revolve, like a bunch of mad little devils.” For each word in the Dictionary, the narrator has to assemble as many known usages as he can find, and then sift and sort through them to eliminate any imprecision in definition that might allow a remnant of confusion to survive the Dictionary’s publication. “I am a mineworker of language,” he writes, “I inhale ambiguities and meanings like coal dust.”

Indeed, the task is so difficult that every day Malakh brings another editions of the Communications of the Great Academy, an endless series of instructions to the dictionary workers attempting to refine their methodology to such a level of perfection that there will be no risk of the Dictionary not achieving its objective. The narrator spends as much time reading and interpreting the Communications as he does working on the Dictionary itself, searching for their central argument: “First the ideal method must be found, and only then can detail and procedures be dealt with.”

Looking out of the one tiny window in his room one day, the narrator catches a glimpse of a woman in a brightly-flowered dress. She becomes a figure of mystery and fascination for him, and, eventually, the antithesis of his own world: “The free range of flowers on her dress defies every method and system, her beauty has no name.” And with this discovery, the narrator’s utility for the Great Academy comes to an abrupt end. The work ends as he is summoned to a final audience with Dr. Javis.

A dedicated reader has to be a lover of words, and I found The Simmons Papers a rhapsody–in words and to words. Let not the stiff academic introduction deter you: there is some wonderful writing in this book, intertwined with some delightful philosophical insights. Although it’s a somewhat uncategorizable book, I would venture to class it as what Ted Gioia has called “conceptual fiction“–“stories that delight in the freedom from ‘reality’ that storytelling allows”–and recommend shelving it alongside the works of Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, and Stanislaw Lem. And perhaps another odd novel that suffered from ham-fisted marketing, Raymond Cousse’s Death Sty.

Power to the Odd!

The Simmons Papers, by Philipp Blom
London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995

The Conquest of Rome, by Matilde Serao

If I were looking for an Amazon review headline for The Conquest of Rome, Mathilde Serao’s 1885 novel, I’d probably opt for “Zola Does the Italian Parliament.” For, like a number of Zola’s novels, such as The Belly of Paris, Money, or The Ladies’ Paradise, the story is really just the author’s excuse for a long, leisurely and meticulously detailed description of the workings of the behind-the-scenes world of some enterprise most people would have taken for granted.

conquestofromeIn this case, it’s the world of the Montecitorio, the Italian Parliament, as seen through the eyes of Francesco Sangiorgio, the newly-elected deputy from a remote rural area of Basilicata, one of the poorest parts of southern Italy. Intensely driven, with great ambition despite deep insecurity for his poverty and humble status, Sangiorgio has fought his way from school teacher to country lawyer to district advocate, and now heads to Rome to launch his political career.

A man with little in the way of personality, Sangiorgio soon learns how low is the position of an unknown deputy from a backward district in a parliament as large as the U. S. House of Representatives. Taking a cheap room in a dank and dirty boarding house, he makes almost no acquaintances until he is befriended by Tullio Giustini, a hunchbacked deputy from Tuscany. Shunned for his physical defects, Giustini uses his position as an outsider to act as an acerbic critic of the Montecitorio and its social strata.

“Why should it be concerned with you,” he asks Sangiorgio, “an infinitesimal atom, passing across the scene so quickly? It is indifferent; it is the great cosmopolitan city which has this universal character, which knows everything because it has seen everything.” To conquer Rome, he advises, one must have “a heart of brass, an inflexible, rigid will; he must be young, healthy, robust, and bold, without ties and without weaknesses; he must apply himself profoundly, intensely to that one idea of victory.” It’s obvious that Giustini considers this a fool’s goal, but instead, Sangiorgio is inspired and vows to become the next conqueror.

With no money and no social connections, Sangiorgio has little chance of being noticed, but Giustini takes him along to a reception hosted by Countess Fiammanti, whose salon is one of the true centers of power. Sangiorgio’s looks are nothing to speak of, but the Countess is attracted by his passion for political success, and spins an idle web to see if she can instigate an affair between him and Donna Angelica Vargas, the wife of a Cabinet member.

Although Donna Angelica never puts her position at risk, she encourages Sangiorgio just enough to fill him with a dangerous blend of romantic and political passion, supercharged by his utter naivety. He rushes headlong into a session of Parliament, at which Donna Angelica’s husband is giving a long and dull speech introducing the new budget. It is a predictable matter, and after droning on for an hour, the Minister concludes and begins accepting the congratulations of his colleagues when another speaker is announced: “Honourable colleagues, I beg for silence. The Honourable Sangiorgio has the floor.”

“‘Who ? Who ?’ was the universal inquiry.”

Taking advantage of the suprised silence, Sangiorgio plays the moment for its full dramatic value.

Hereupon the curious eyes of the members sought out that colleague of theirs, whom scarcely anyone knew. … No one thought him insignificant. And then divers speculations grew rife in the Chamber. Would this new deputy speak for or against the Minister? Was he one of those flatterers who, scarcely arrived, hastened to make a show of loyalty to the Government? Or was he some little impudent nobody who would stammer through a feeble attack before the House, and be suppressed by the ironical murmurs of the assembly? He was a Southerner and a lawyer — only that was known about him. Therefore he would deliver an oration, the usual rhetoric which the Piedmontese detested, the Milanese derided, and the Tuscans despised.

Instead, the Honourable Sangiorgio began to talk deliberately, but with such a resonant, commanding voice that it filled the hall and made the audience give a sigh of relief. The ladies, whom the warmth had half lulled to sleep, revived, and the press gallery, empty since the conclusion of the Minister’s discourse, began to refill with reporters, returning to their places.

Sangiorgio delivers a riveting speech that condemns the Government for its neglect of the very peasantry that elected him, and gains the attention of the press, opposition, and a few members of the Government.

matildeseraoIt is, however, just a flash in the pan. Sangiorgio’s only real agenda is to be accepted, and when Donna Angelica begins to take him a little more seriously, he quickly loses all interest in anything aside from having her accept him as a lover. He neglects the affairs of his electorate. He spends money he doesn’t have to create an elegant love nest to entice her. He succeeds only in annoying a better-placed would-be suitor, and the two end up fighting a duel. Sangiorgio wins, but in a manner that merely further alienates him from the people he would engratiate himself with. And so he climbs aboard the train back to the Basilicata, Rome having never really noticed his existence.

It’s a fairly predictable story pattern, one that could be found in dozens of other novels about an ambitious young man from the sticks trying to make it in the big city, and on its own would provide little incentive to read The Conquest of Rome.

What the book really is, though, is a rich and carefully observed journey through Rome as it existed in the 1880s. Serao started as a journalist, and The Conquest of Rome is probably more successful as descriptive rather than artistic work. Here, for example, is Serao’s sketch of the room in which constituents wait for hours on end in hope of an audience with their deputy:

It might have been the anteroom of a celebrated physician, where invalids came, one after another, waiting their turn, looking about with the indifferent gaze of people who have lost all interest in everything else, their thoughts for ever occupied with their malady. And as in such a lugubrious anteroom, which he who has once been there on his own behalf or for one dear to him can never forget, as in such a room are assembled people with all the infirmities that torment our poor, mortal body — the consumptive, with narrow, stooping shoulders, with lean neck, his eyes swimming with a noxious fluid; the victim of heart disease, with pallid face, large veins, yellowish, swollen hands; the anaemic, with violet lips and white gums; the neurotically affected, with protuberant jaws, bulging cheekbones, emaciated frame; and the sufferers from all other diseases, hideous or pitiful, which draw the lines of the face tight, which make the mouth twitch, and impart an unwelcome glow to the hand, that glow that terrifies the healthy — thus, in such a room, did the possessors of all the moral ills unite, oblivious of all complaints but their own. … Every one of those people has a grievance in his soul, an unfulfilled desire, an active, torturing delusion, a secret sorrow, a fierce ambition, a discontent. And in their faces may be seen a corresponding spasmodic twitching, a contraction of angry lips, a dilation of nostrils trembling with nervousness, a knitting of the brows which clouds the whole countenance, hands convulsively doubled in overcoat pockets, a melancholy furrow in the women’s smile, which deepens with every new disillusion. But all of them are completely self-centred, entirely oblivious of foreign interests, indulging in a single thought, a fixed idea, because of which they watch, meet, and conflict with one another, although seeming neither to hear nor to see each other.

There are several dozen such set-pieces in the book–the galleries in the Montecitorio, the grimy quarters of the poorer deputies, the teeming life in the slums along the banks of the Tiber. Like Zola, Serao sometimes forgets to come up for air when she dives into the details, but you just have to slip a page or so further to avoid suffocation. But if you appreciate the chance to step back into a world from 100-plus years ago and soak up the sights and sounds and smells, I can recommend taking a trip through Matilde Serao’s The Conquest of Rome.

You can find electronic editions of The Conquest of Rome on the Internet Archive (Link).

The Conquest of Rome, by Matilde Serao
New York City: Harpers, 1902
First published as La conquista di Roma, 1885

Philosopher’s Holiday, by Irwin Edman

irwinedmanDespite the fact that he was born and raised within a few blocks of Columbia University, graduated from it, and spent most of his professional life as a member of its faculty, Irwin Edman was very much a citizen of the world, and Philosopher’s Holiday (1938) is a delightful anecdotal account of some of his favorite places and people in that world. In fact, his outlook could be summed up in the words of a veterinarian in southern France who befriends him: “There is only one country–it is that of people of intelligence. Its citizens are few; they should be acquainted.”
“A professor of philosophy studies philosophy; a philosopher studies life,” Edman writes in this book, and there probably haven’t been many professional philosopher/academics who were as ready to jump feet-first into life. In one of the chapters in this book, Edman receives a fan letter from a sailor named Jewell V. Jones stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Respectful of an inquiring mind regardless of the social status of its holder, he corresponds with the young man and winds up taking him to his first encounter with classical music at Carnegie Hall. “Boy!, that Wagner certainly could whoop it up!” Jewell remarks after hearing the overture to Die Meistersinger. “Do you think we could get him to play it again?”

Edman is too curious to stick to a set itinerary, and the lack of a particular design to Philosopher’s Holiday shows it. There’s chapter on the role music has played in his life, another one recalling some of the teachers who most influenced him, and a third recalling a debate he had with a director of the I. G. Farben company–an ardent supporter of the Nazis–on the veranda of a hotel near the ancient Greek temples in Agrigento. He encounters the Islamic worldview in conversations with Syrian students during a stay at the American University in Beirut. And, in one of the most enjoyable chapters in the book, he recalls growing up in Manhattan–discovering the varieties of vaudeville, learning to love Childs’ Restaurant, figuring out how to avoid being mugged for his pocket change by neighborhood gangs.


Philosopher’s Holiday was something of a best-seller when it was published, so you can find dozens of copies for sale for less than five bucks. He wrote something of a sequel to it, Philosphers’ Quest (1947), which also easy to locate. You can also find his 1939 book, Candle in the Dark: A Postscript to Despair, on the Internet Archive.

Philosopher’s Holiday, by Irwin Edman
New York City: The Viking Press, 1938

In Search of Myself, by Hans Natonek

Hans Natonek, Paris 1939About a year ago, I posted a short item on Hans Natonek’s In Search of Myself, his account of his experiences as an exile from Nazi-occupied Europe coming to grips with a new life in America. At the time, there were no copies of this book to be found for sale on the Internet, and that’s still the case today.

However, thanks to my son and his access to the great resources of the University of California Library system, I was recently able to borrow a copy and can supplement the reviews I quoted on the original note.

In Search of Myself opens with Natonek and his fellow refugees awakening from their rude beds in the hold of a ship arriving in New York Harbor from neutral Lisbon. The time is somewhere in the fall of 1940.

As we learn, Natonek was one of a number of German and central European writers who fled to France in the late 1930s to escape Nazi persecution. Then, when France fell to Hitler in June 1940, they were uprooted again. Some of Natonek’s friends, such as Ernst Weiss, lost all hope and chose suicide as their escape. Natonek, like Lion Feuchtwanger, made it to Marseilles and were able to link up with Varian Fry, whose Emergency Rescue Committee was able to secure passages to America for over two thousand artists, writers, and others marked for capture by the Nazis.

Natonek did not regard America “as a kind of umbrella under which I may huddle until the storm is past.” He was convinced from the very beginning that it could only be a temporary refuge: it would either join the fight against Hitler or find itself another victim. His frustration with the isolationist view of America as a haven made safe by the Atlantic comes up again and again until the attack on Pearl Harbor brings the US into the war.

A street in lower Manhattan, 1942. From the Charles W. Cushman collection (Archive ID P02677)

He arrived with just four dollars in his pocket and a few vague references. He had no plan for how to survive, and the first fifty-some pages of the book, which describe his first two days in New York–walking around Manhattan, eating in a drugstore, encountering orthodox Jews on the Lower East Side, discovering the cheap hotels in the Bowery where a quarter bought one night in a bed in a room full of other dirty and drunken men–are the most vivid and exciting in the book.

He struggles with a language he knows very little of:

The business of making oneself understood with a minimum vocabulary has a charm of its own, particularly for a man who has made the use of words his métier. I had delighted in the splendor and the ornate richness of my native tongue. I reveled in its abundance, squandering it in intricate expression. Now I found a sober joy in economy, building what words I had into simple patterns solid with meaning. At first I tried self-consciously to carry out this feat. Then, as I embarked upon the vast sea of my subject, my few words began to fail. How could I bail the sea of sorrow with the thimble I had?

While Natonek was early on filled with admiration for the optimism and opportunities of America, he did not consider himself a candidate for a starting a new life from scratch. His counselor at the National Refugee Service quickly dismisses his hopes to continue working as a writer, surviving on the meager $18 weekly allowance provided by the service. “I hope you will not persist in your attitude. Writing is a hobby ….”

Natonek, however, considered it full-time job requiring the most intensive commitment of himself: “To learn a new language at fifty, to learn it intimately as a writer must know it, is, of itself, an almost superhuman undertaking. For only by making the language a part of myself shall I ever succeed in expressing not only what I am, but what I have seen.”

In the end, he is forced by circumstance into a rough compromise. He works a variety of small jobs, often getting fired for incompetence within the first few days, but making enough to eke out a survival and still find time to begin writing a new book in the Reading Room of the New York Public Library. He makes a few friends and eventually manages to speak with a literary agent who takes a sample of his new diary and encourages him to carry own.

He connects with Anna Grunwald, an acquaintance from his time in Paris, and through her is able to travel outside New York. The size and openness of America thrills him:

The road unwound like cotton from a spool. I imagined it leaping onward, Nebraska, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming. … It was not necessary to plan this trip or any trip within the confines of this country’s boundaries. You could cross a line and never know that you had entered a new state.

The money I had in my pocket would buy the necessities of living from the Atlantic to the Pacific. There was not a hot-dog stand, a soda fountain, or a tourist camp that would not welcome me. The political ideas in my head were my own business.

Will I ever become accustomed to the wonder of these things?

He continues to scrape by, however, stumbling from job to job, until he accepts, sight unseen, a position as porter working in the morgue of Harlem Hospital. It is while there that he finally hears back from his agent, who has managed to land a contract for his American diary: this book.

Natonek married Anna and took U. S. citizenship in 1946. Although he wrote, late in In Search of Myself, that, “One day, perhaps, if God grants me another year, I will stammer a book in English,” he never did. Nor did he ever publish a new book in German, despite attempts, after the war. He died in Tucson, Arizona, in 1963.

The novel he refers to working on throughout the book, about the life of Gilles des Rais, companion-in-arms of Joan of Arc and a notorious child killer, was published posthumously in 1988 as Blaubarts letze Liebe (Bluebeard’s Last Love). Just a few months ago, Lehmstedt, a German publisher, released a collection of Natonek’s short pieces, Letzter Tag in Europa: Gesammelte Publizistik 1933-1963, along with the first biography, by Steffi Böttger, Für immer fremd (Forever Foreign or Forever an Outsider).

At the Green Goose, by D. B. Wyndham Lewis

greengooseAt the Green Goose, by D. B Wyndham Lewis (“not to be confused with the novelist Wyndham Lewis,” as nearly every biographical sketch notes), is an utterly throw-away book that you will either love or wonder why anyone would have published it.

It’s nothing more than a collections of absurd philosophico-academic monologues–or rather, monologues with occasional interruptions–by one Professor Silas Plodsnitch, “great poet, philosopher, and neo-Pantagruelist.” The professor walks into the Green Goose, orders a coffee, lights up his pipe, and begins to talk. His subject may be bees and bee-keepers, celebrity, matrimony, the works of Ethel Biggs Delaney (writer of stories for women’s magazines) or the Sitwells (Edith, Osbert and Sacheverell), but he veers off into other topics, carries on erratically, and then exits, usually without reaching a point.

“For three pence you can buy the index to the Estimates for Civil Services for the year ending March 31, which I have been looking through with some interest,” starts one of his lectures:

I calculate, after reading under the index letter I that every third man in these islands is an inspector of something or other–agriculture, aliens, alkali works, ancient monuments, audits, bankruptcy, canal boats, explosives, fisheries, inebriates, milk, mines, prisons, town planning–heaven knows what beside! This does not include, I suppose, the hordes of sub-inspectors, assistant inspectors, and pupil-inspectors (at present taking a correspondence course), nor yet the Inspector of Inspectors and his staff.

This leads to an imagined dialogue between a harried Inspector of Bankruptcy and an Inspector of Ancient Monuments, whose schedule is considerably more relaxed, which ends in one biting the other on the leg. Then he cuts abruptly into a meditation on the various ways of pronouncing the line, “Bring in the body,” which he’s recently read in a contemporary poem, and the various meanings one might take from them. After detours into a couple of more topics, he breaks off abruptly and marches out of the pub.

These pieces came from Lewis’ humorous column, Beachcomber, which he started writing for the Daily Express starting in 1919. Equally worth finding, if not quite so anarchic in style, are two collections of Lewis’ “Blue Moon” pieces from the column he wrote after switching over to the Daily Mail: (At the Sign of the Blue Moon (1924) and At the Blue Moon Again (1925)). They are, arguably, the funniest and most surreal things to have been printed in a major newspaper until the Irish Times started publishing Flann O’Brien’s amazing Cruiskeen Lawn column.

If you’re a fan of shaggy-dog tales, Tristram Shandy, Professor Irwin Corey, or Monty Python, you’ll find At the Green Goose well worth a read. If, however, you prefer to get from Point A to Point B by the shortest path, keep moving. Nothing to see here.

At the Green Goose is available on the Internet Archive.

At the Sign of the Green Goose, by D. B. W. Lewis
London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1923

The Big Drag, by Mel Heimer

“Life along the Big Drag is a pinwheel, a rollercoaster, a fast-motion movie; everything is stepped up twenty times in tempo, and the Broadwayite, whether for better or worse, has at thirty-five lived four times as many lives as the Kansan at seventy.” That sentence tells you everything you need to know about Mel Heimer’s 1947 ode to Broadway, The Big Drag. Yeah, it’s a bucket-full of eyewash and a crystalline gem of the Big Apple myth. “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere”: you know how the number goes before you’ve finished the first line.

melheimerHeimer’s New York City is “a town full of thieves, touts, fanatics, pigeon-lovers, pigeon-haters, dreamers, schemers, professional bums, dancers, refugees and knife-throwers.” His man wears slacks with a razor-sharp crease–even if the seat is shiny with wear–and loud neckties: “Riotous colors, weird designs, lush batik prints, paintings of horses or ducks or geese the Broadway boy goes for them all.” His Broadway is “a winding path full of shooting galleries,
movie houses, shirt shops, pineapple juice stands and cafeterias.” His list of celebrities includes the still-remembered (Milton Berle, the somewhat-remembered (Tallulah Bankhead), and the hardly-remembered (Rags Ragland, Richard Maney, and Renee Carroll, the hat-check girl from Sardi’s who was once enough of a name in her own right to publish a book about her experiences in the club (In Your Hat (1933)).

This book is an express ticket to “Guys and Dolls” land:

Nine out of every ten guys along Broadway are betting men; they were when they came to the main stem, and if they weren’t, they soon were converted. They will bet on everything and anything on the respective speed of two raindrops skidding down a restaurant window, on the poker hands involved in automobile license-plate numbers, on which horse will finish last in a given race, on whether the next batter will walk or strike out.

In other words, if you’re a sucker for the New York you’ll never see again, except on a movie screen, The Big Drag is like a big bag of potato chips: empty calories that are utterly irresistible. If Damon Runyon’s work now rates being packaged as a Penguin Classic, then Mel Heimer’s The Big Drag rates at least an honorable mention as its postwar counterpart.

You can find The Big Drag in electronic format for free on the
Internet Archive (link).

The Big Drag, by Mel Heimer
New York City: Whittlesey House, 1947

The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime, by C. G. L. Du Cann

youngpersonsguidetocrimeLast month, I posted an item on The Toady’s Handbook by William Murrell, a satirical D. I. Y. guide on how to succeed through concerted obsequiousness. Murrell’s book was part of a trilogy of sly little self-help books published by Grant Richards and Humphrey Toulmin back in 1929. Of remaining two, Charles Duff’s A Handbook on Hanging was rescued a few years ago as a New York Review Classic. The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime, by Charles Garfield Lott Du Cann, however, shares a common state of neglect with Murrell’s book.

The three books take a contrarian view of their subjects. Murrell argues, quite convincingly, that toadying is not only an effective way to gain a secure and influential place, but the only sane way to approach life as a member of society. Duff disparages those who would abolish hanging as cruel and offers a defense of its merits as both deterrent and art-form. And Du Cann holds that “the real truth is that crime is a highly respectable, semi-skilled, sheltered occupation,” one “reasonably accessible to the ambitious” and to be commended to the young.

A barrister and member of Gray’s Inn, Du Cann clearly took an impish delight in his tongue-in-cheek argument. Perhaps a little too much–for the book quickly veers down a side street and Du Cann spends most of the work skewering the ways and players of the British system of justice rather than noting the advantages of a life of crime. One gets the sense that the profession Du Cann referred to in his expansive subtitle is that of the law, not crime.
In fact, one of the primary advantages to becoming a criminal, according to the book, is that prison isn’t such a bad place to end up if you do get caught. That’s a little like recommending a restaurants by saying, “If you do get food poisoning, it won’t be too bad.” Du Cann does score a point, however, in noting that, for older men without fortune or family–at least in the England before the time of social welfare–prison offered a safer and healthier alternative to anything else life could offer.

Aside from this Swiftian advocacy of life in prison, however, the main pleasures of The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime are the epigrams Du Cann tosses in as asides to his mocking commentary. “When a respectable Englishman is convinced that there is nothing more to be done he always writes to the Times. It is the last gesture of despair and disillusionment,” he observes in the midst of a discussion of whether all or just almost all persons brought before court are guilty. (Du Cann sides with the “all guilty” camp).

He also offers, at the end, his own variant on Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary:

  • ACCUSED (THE). Indispensable raw material of the industry. Often manufactured by the industry itself.
  • HEARING IN COURT. A talking match. Hence the name.
  • SEX-OFFENDER. A male.

Of the three books in Richards & Toulmin’s set, Du Cann’s has aged most poorly in terms of subject and is least suitable for export. Occasionally, though, a still-relevant observation leaps off the page:

Expert Witnesses are often highly-paid, and they are expected to be (and are) entirely unscrupulous. It is true that Expert Witnesses are more frequently employed in civil than criminal proceedings, but the world of crime has a great use for them in deciphering hand-writing, detecting poisoning, and the like. The expert witness is not (as his name seems to say) an expert in giving testimony (that is called a policeman) but a man who considers himself, and is put forward as being, an authority on the matter upon which he testifies. He speaks to opinions, not to facts, but of course he tries to make the Court accept his opinions as facts.

Although only a slight jest, The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime remains entertaining today on the merits of Du Cann’s amusing and self-deprecating commentary. Du Cann wrote at least a dozen other books, but most of them appear to have been taken up as escapes from the duties of his life as a working lawyer. He seems to have been quite adept at adapting his arguments to his clients and subjects–how else can you explain the same man writing Getting the Most Out of Life and Will You Rise From The Dead? An Enquiry Into the Evidence of Resurrection?

The Young Person’s Complete Guide to Crime, by C. G. L. Du Cann
London: Grant Richards and Humphrey Toulmin at the Cayme Press, 1929

The Toady’s Handbook, by William Murrell

toadyI discovered this book in a very roundabout way. A few months ago I posted the title essay from Alec Waugh’s 1926 book, On Doing What One Likes. I didn’t recognize the name of the publisher–Cayme Press–but admired the book’s construction and wondered what else Cayme might have published.

This quickly led me to Charles Duff’s A Handbook on Hanging, originally published in 1929 but reissued as one of the early NYRB Classics, with an introduction by the late Christopher Hitchens. Hanging is very much in the tradition of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,”–in this case, reflecting upon the many advantages of an aggressive policy of capital punishment. Duff advocates, for example, to reintroduce the practice of public hanging on the basis of the economic benefits (ticket sales, film rights, concession sales).

Hanging was one of three books published “Uniform with this volume,” as noted on the fly-leaf. The other two titles, one can easily deduce, are variations on Duff’s satirical tract: The ‘Young Person’s’ Complete Guide to Crime, by Charles Garfield Lott Du Cann, and The Toady’s Handbook, by William Murrell. The ‘Young Person’s’ Complete Guide to Crime took the format of an earnest guide to a worthy subject such as art (or, as Benjamin Britten did some years later, the orchestra) and turned it into tongue-in-cheek tour of the upside of crime–which has, throughout history, proved a profitable venture–at least for some.

The third book, The Toady’s Handbook is a celebration of the benefits of artful obsequiousness. “Toadyism,” Murrell writes, “may accurately be defined as that art which deals with life in terms of its own vanity.” The vanity he refers to is the vanity of others: “the Toady is he who most per-, con-, and insistently administers to our vanity”–and as such, he argues, “should be and is nearer to us and more fervently to be embraced than our own blood brothers.” Indeed, the English word “toady,” he notes, “comes from the Spanish mia todita, my servitor. And what more honourable function than that of service?” [My Spanish colleague tells me that mia todita actually means “my little whole” or “my humble share.”–Ed.]

Murrell’s great model of the toady is Talleyrand, who managed to hold influential positions under eleven different French regimes–Royalist, revolutionary, Republican, Imperial, Restoration and, again, Royalist. Talleyrand’s motto is a précis on the art of survival as a toady: “Be a lion in triumph, a fox in defeat, a snail in council, and a bird in the hour of action.” Talleyrand today has a reputation for intrigue, deviousness and manipulation, but Murrell argues that this assessment utterly misses because it’s rooted in the assumption that whatever regime was in place was, in its way, rightful and deserving of honest support.

Instead, the Toady is the one sane person in an otherwise mad world. “I have been faithful to individuals as long as they obeyed the dictates of common sense,” Talleyrand once said. Murrell holds that by ensuring that his lot endures through all the follies of life, love, art and politics, the Toady displays better sense than all the fools who throw themselves completely into their causes. “All our painfully developed notions of honour, loyalty, fraternity, et cetera, are nothing but hypocritical humbug,” he writes.

Of course, the irony of the Toady’s situation is that there is nothing to guarantee that survival is, in the end, any less of a folly than pursuit of some noble cause–as Murrell recognizes by ending his short tract with a verse that appears in Thomas Love Peacock’s comic dialogue novel, Crochet Castle:

After careful meditation,
And profound deliberation,
On the various pretty projects which have just been shown,
Not a scheme in agitation,
For the world’s amelioration,
Has a grain of common sense in it, except my own.

All three of these little books (each measures 4.5″ by 7″ and is under 150 pages long) deserve to be brought back to print, at least electronically, as they are wonderful examples of just how much we can learn about ourselves by taking a completely contrarian viewpoint for an hour or two.

The Toady’s Handbook, by William Murrell
London: Grant Richards & Humphrey Toulmin at the Cayme Press, 1929

Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling, by Madge Jenison

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Sunwise Turn'
“Separated from Fifth Avenue by about a hundred feet of sidewalk, but by an immeasurable difference in atmopshere, is the shop that most booklovers have dreamed of, a place in which to meet old friends in books and to discover new ones, to browse alone by an open fire, or to discuss your literary hobbies–and incidentally, but never obtrusively, to purchase books you really want.”

So opens a profile of the Sunwise Turn bookshop published in the Independent magazine in 1916. At the time, the shop had been open for just a few months, and though it was to close about ten years later, it had a significant impact on both American bookselling and American culture.

Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling, published in 1923, is an account of the shop’s first few years written by Madge Jenison, who founded it along with Mary Mowbray-Clarke, wife of the sculptor John Frederick Mowbray-Clarke.

Jenison and Mowbray-Clarke were, like many novice entrepreneurs, long on enthusiasm and short on common sense. They took an evangelical approach to bookselling. For them, the shop was more than an outlet for merchandise–it was a way to inform and expand the awareness of their customers. “Our function was to pass on what had been nobly created, to see that it circulated, instead of lying lost in a dust heap to keep the wind away.”

And they were not interested in mass marketing. Indeed, their first notion of a target customer base was “fifty patrons who bought $500 worth of books a year.” With this in mind, they started to build their collection: “The first day we went out to order our stock we bought everything that we liked and everything that we especially wanted people to read.” This included a hundred copies of Hunting Indians in a Taxcab, a slim 1911 comic piece by Kate Sanborn about collecting cigar-store Indians. It was an utter flop.

Sunwise Turn is something of an early forerunner of contemporary gospels of entrepreneurship such as Paul Hawken’s Growing a Business. She describes how the care they put into every aspect of the shop: not just the books it carried, but its location, its decor (“We intended the room to look like a place in which you could read a book,” not a “denaturalized warehouse room”), its packaging, and what today one would call its corporate image (although that statement probably sent Jenison spinning in her grave). They also published about a dozen or so books, most of which can now be found on the Internet Archive, under their own imprint, including a study of the sculptor Rodin written by Rainer Maria Rilke.

Were Jenison around today, she might be considered a subscriber to the tenet, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” In a discussion on advertising, she writes,

The chief factor in making a thing known, outside of the forced methods of advertising, seems to be to make it honest in the best sense–something of your own, and alive, and not drawn from the general vat of experience. Only give the world something with character to talk about, and it will carry your name to sunset.

On the other hand, toward the end of the book–written, to be precise, before the shop went out of business–Jenison discusses various practical and economic aspects of bookselling, but notes: “Nobody knows much about bookselling. It is a trade in which there has been little constructive research.” She advocates for an analytical approach to the business that would take more of the risk off the bookseller’s back. However, as even the experience of Amazon has shown, no matter how much data about customers’ interests and behavior you gather and crunch, reading and book-buying is still rife with failures and serendipitous successes.

The shop’s name, by the way, came from an anecdote that Amy Murray later included in Father Allan’s Island, her 1920 book about the people and culture of Eriskay, a small island in the Hebrides. “They do everything daesal (sunwise) here, for they believe that to follow the course of the sun is propitious. The sunwise turn is the lucky one.”

Sunwise Turn is still something of a dangerous book. Reading it will almost certainly lead to fantasies about opening one’s own version of the Sunwise Turn bookshop: Do not attempt this trick on your own, however.

Sunwise Turn: A Human Comedy of Bookselling, by Madge Jemison
New York City: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1923

The Cook, by Harry Kressing

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'The Cook'I am certainly not the first to acclaim Harry Kressing’s 1965 novel, The Cook as a neglected masterpiece. It rates seven five-star reviews on Amazon, and at least a handful of enthusiastic posts on other blogs (Wilson’s Pick; Hella D; Browser’s Bookstore; five o’clock teaspoon; and The Kind of Face You Hate). Still, something is out of whack when a book pops up so often as a forgotten favorite and commands upwards of $29.95 for what was originally a 75-cent paperback.

The Cook is a perfect fiction. It takes place in a stateless world. The characters seem American but could just as well fit in a dozen other countries. Kressing wastes nothing on anything but the story, and when he has achieved the effect he has been aiming at, he ties it off with a quick snip.

The story takes place in the town of Cobb, into which rides Conrad, an exceedingly tall thin man dressed in black. He is mesmerized by the Prominence, an enormous castle-like estate sitting high above the town on an almost inaccessible plateau. The people in the town work for one of the two great families that run its industries. The Hills and the Vales have something of a family curse that hangs over them from generations back, although it’s faded to the point that they manage to socialize on occasion. After quickly demonstrating to the townspeople that he is a chef of formidable knowledge and skill, Conrad insinuates himself onto the staff at the Hill’s mansion.

From then on, the plot of The Cook unreels through a series of episodes by which Conrad increasingly exerts his will upon all he encounters. Within days, his wonderful cooking wins the Hills’ gratitude, but his goal is not to feed them but to control them–indeed, to control the whole town.

Soon, he has not only convinced the Hills to fire most of their staff, but he has managed to subvert the Hills themselves to work as their own servants, under his increasingly forceful direction. The whole process is undertaken with just enough subtlety to make it seem inevitable:

The three Hills continued to stare at him silently. In appearance, Conrad was not quite the same as when he had arrived in Cobb. Most striking, he was no longer gaunt and starved-looking. Not that he was fat, but it was his size that would catch the eye rather than any want of proportion: before, he had only seemed very tall and thin; now he looked huge, which made his presence more powerfully felt. His face, too, was fuller and, consequently, less eagle-like in aspect. Yet, this impression remained quite evident: his nose, which really gave his face its cast, was still sharp and hooked, even though it was broader and not so pointed. Still, it was unmistakably a beak. Indeed, if anything it was a slightly larger and more forceful beak, as befitted the greater bulk of his figure. The eyes, of course, were as black as ever. That some of the lines around the corners had been smoothed didn’t seem to change their expression: they were still disconcertingly piercing.

It is as if he is consuming the Hills not just psychologically but physically as well. By playing with their minds and their diets, Conrad eventually rearranges lives of the Hills and the Vales in such a way that he becomes the all-controlling force over them, and ends up as master of the Prominence.

The Cook is a masterful diabolic fable, worked in elegant prose within the space of barely a hundred-some pages. Considering that we are living in a golden age of foodies, it’s crazy that this tale of gourmet wizardry (literally and metaphorically) hasn’t been republished with an intro by someone like Anthony Bourdain (who would certainly appreciate the book’s black humor).

Harry Kressing seems to have been a pseudonym, and although there have been a number of attempts to put a face to the name, so far the Internet has not revealed his secret. He (assuming someone else didn’t steal his pseudonym) published a second novel–or rather, a collection of two novellas–under the title of Married Lives in 1974. Married Lives is nothing like The Cook–instead of a fabulistic tale, we get two set-pieces that seem more like technical exercises than serious fiction. It’s best left neglected.

The Cook, by Harry Kressing
New York: Random House, 1965

Lord Bellinger: An Autobiography, by Harry Graham

Cover of first U. K. edition of 'Lord Bellinger'Imagine my delight, upon taking Lord Bellinger down from a shelf in one of the few remaining used book shops along Charing Cross Road and discovering that it was not some arthritic attempt at a ripping yarn or a petrified Edwardian romance novel, but a mocking pastiche on the life of the idle nobility. Visions of Augustus Carp, Esq. danced in my head as I took it up to the cashier. This could easily be one of my great finds.

Sadly, after devouring the book in the course of the next day or so, I had to conclude that Lord Bellinger is a good find, but not a great one. Unlike H. H. Bashford, who managed in Augustus Carp, Esq. to find a narrative voice that was both sincere in its allegiance to his subject’s smugness and withering in its comic mockery, Graham displays a restraint that often undermines his satirical intent.

Despite being just one generation away from his family’s roots in the brewery business, Richard de la Poer Tracy Bellinger, the third son of John, the first Baron Bellinger, is truly to the manor born. He prides himself that, like his father, he is “naturally disinclined to anything approaching effort.” When he succeeds his father to the House of Lords, he takes it as given that the peers of the upper chamber are the rightful rulers of England: “I feel sure that I am only voicing the unanimous opinion of my class when I say that it is essential for the maintenance of the Constitution that the affairs of Empire should be conducted by gentlemen who are prepared to consider the questions of the day with open minds, unbiased by any kind of commercial or business experience whatsoever.”

Although still a relatively young man, Lord Bellinger has chosen to write his autobiography as a protest against the effects of the Parliament Act of 1911, which removed many of the legislative powers of the House of Lords. He is proud to stand–or rather, sit–beside “able, brilliant, painstaking men, inspired by a strong sense of duty to themselves: the solid backbone upon which the House and the nation can always depend.” Among these luminaries are such men as:

Lord Slaugham, with whom divorce has become more of a habit than an event (his marriage with his fourth wife was quite one of the most interesting of last year’s society functions); Lord Thrapstone, who absentmindedly wrote a friend’s name on a cheque, was found guilty, and bound over to come up for judgment if called upon, it being rightly considered that the disgrace of being found out was a sufficient punishment for a man of his social standing; Lod Blissworth, who, on the strength of possessing an acre of land and two gum-trees in the West Indies, floated the Yumata River Company, whose collapse ruined so many domestic servants. Here, too, was Lord Lythe and Saythe (formerly Sir Benjamin Salmon), who so generously offered to subscribe £50,000 to the scheme for a National Opera House on condition that a thousand other people would do the same; old Lord Bletchley, who, though eighty-nine years of age and mentally deficient, is still able to touch his toes with his fingers without bending his knees; Lord Meopham, who shot his coachman in the back with a revolver because that domestic happened to take a wrong turn in Park Lane; Lord Swaffield, who as Sir Moses Hamilton earned a world-wide reputation by walking down the Duke of York’s steps on his hands for a wager; Lord Dunbridge, famous as the husband of Lady Dunbridge, whose enthusiasm for the cause of Woman’s Suffrage has caused her to cut her hair off, and to take her meals in a liquid form and exclusively through the nose; Lord Brancaster, who as Sir Thomas Tilling failed seven times to get into Parliament–though he stood impartially on both sides–but who, on the death of his uncle, at last earned the reward of patriotism and became a true representative of the people; and a host of others.

Richard Lord Bellinger’s preparation for a seat in the House follows a well-worn path: Eton, a stint in the Army, a bit of sports, a bit of travel, and marriage into greater wealth. His two elder brothers conveniently give way before him: one, a churchman, decapitated in the Boxer Rebellion; the other a con artist who disappears in the South Seas after scandalous detours at the gaming tables of Biarritz and Monte Carlo. He takes naturally to his peerage, and accepts the responsibilities that come with the position. He relates, for example, the heart-rending tale of Alfred, his family’s doorman, who is fired for being found asleep on the job (at 4 A. M.), and who ends up spending his last penny for his son’s Christmas present. Lord Bellinger is so moved by this glimpse into the lives of the lower classes that he is moved to undertake charitable work. “I found, however, that this would entail the sacrifices of more time than I could possible spare–and was consequently forced to relinquish the idea.” He is, however, proud to declare that each Christmas he presents a brace of rabbits to “Every labourer on the estate who has reached the age of ninety without receiving a ‘parish relief.'”

Lord Bellinger ends with a fond look back at his wedding, which has somewhat the effect of a hanging note. Having gently skewered his peer for the last two-hundred-some pages, Graham balks at a final thrust and, instead, leaves him to live happily ever after. Sixty years later, the Monty Python troupe dispatched with the grandchildren of Lord Bellinger’s counterparts in under five minutes in their memorable “Upper Class Twit of the Year” sketch. Not all forms of restraint are laudable.

The best part of Lord Bellinger isn’t the ending, in fact–it’s what comes after the ending. This is one of the few works of fictional autobiography to come with an index. It starts with this highly informative quartet:

Abergeldie. See Aberlochie
Aberladdie. See Abernethy
Aberlochie. See Abergeldie
Abernethy. See Aberladdie

And continues on to such gems as:

Banchory, Earl of, half-witted condition of, 221; unattractive nature of remaining half, 221


Cowan, Sir Simeon, 44; worth a million and a quarter, 45; not safe to kick his son, 45

and coming, finally, to words I will always prefer to remember as the true ending of Lord Bellinger:

Zinc, grandmother’s dental cavities stopped with, 172

Harry Graham, himself the son of a K. C. B. and former Guardsman, was a prolific writer of comic poems, stories and plays. He’s probably best remembered now for his very first book, Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes and More Ruthless Rhymes (Hilarious Stories), which can be considered the forerunner of Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, Edward Gorey’s macabre ABC books, and A Series of Unfortunate Events:

Making toast at fireside,
Nurse fell in the grate and died;
And, what makes it ten times worse,
All the toast was burned with nurse.

Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes and More Ruthless Rhymes (Hilarious Stories) is available in all sorts of forms: as a Dover Thrift paperback, as an Audible audiobook, in ebook formats on Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, and on its own website,

Lord Bellinger: An Autobiography, by Harry Graham
London: Edward Arnold, 1911

The Persians Are Coming, by Bruno Frank

The Persians Are Coming is a short novel set in Italy and on the French Riviera–something of an allegory about the death of liberalism and humanism and the rise of fascism. It starts with a German liberal politician taking leave of his favorite holiday spot in Italy–a place of classical beauty now being taken over by the blackshirts. Expecting to return to Germany and take a high office in a new government, he stops along the Riviera to meet a like-minded French politician, and the two have a dialogue about the possibility of redemption through the simple goodness of ordinary folk (c.f. 1984: “If there was hope, it must lie in the proles”).

In Marseilles on his way to Berlin, however, he finds his world unravelling with increasing speed. He sees newspapers announcing the collapse of his government and thinks he hears his name being whispered all around him. As the sun sets and the streets darken, his walk takes him from the modern streets into a nightmarish quarter full of Arabs, thieves, addicts and prostitutes. He leaves the light of the Marseilles founded by the ancient Greeks and descends into an Eastern world of sex, drugs and violence–violence that ultimately claims him. This final passage has more than a few reminders of Mann’s Death in Venice and the child sacrifice scene in The Magic Mountain.

Translated, coincidentally, by Mann’s regular English translator, the ham-fisted H. T. Lowe-Porter. But despite that, there is some elegance in the prose, and the story is profoundly sad, aside from the lurid ending. What’s interesting is that it was published in 1928, when Nazism was still just one of a number of competing ideologies, and yet Frank seems already to have conceded the defeat of liberal democracy.

The Persians are Coming, by Bruno Frank, translated from Politische Novelle by H. T. Lowe-Porter
New York City: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929

Hizzoner the Mayor, by Joel Sayre

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Hizzoner the Mayor'Zumphmeeeabmeeab!

Joel Sayre’s 1933 satire of machine politics, Hizzoner the Mayor, opens with the sound of a pesky mosquito attacking the big toe of John Norris (Jolly John) Holtsapple, four times Mayor of the Greater City of Malta, as he awakens from another wild night of drinking with the boys. “Barrelled again,” he thinks, and swears to get back on the wagon until his election is over.

In Hizzoner the Mayor, Sayre–who went on to work as a writer on such classic films of the 1930s as Gunga Din–revels in cariacatures and wise cracks every bit as much as his subject does in booze and babes. The City of Malta is obviously a stand-in for New York City and Jolly John a cartoonish take on James John (“Gentleman Jimmy”) Walker, who charmed the proles, indulged in all his favorite vices, and openly condoned bootlegging and other rackets.

Like Gentleman Jimmy, Jolly John considers himself quite the ladies’ man:

“Ladies,” the Mayor resumed, “I’m deligh’ed see you. I’m always deligh’ed to see a lady. Thass me alla time. I doan care if she’s white or black, Democrat or Repub’ican. It ain’t the race with me, friends, it’s the lady. I doan care if she’s Protes’ant or Cath’lic, I doan care if she’s a Jew or Gentile, I doan care if she’s Chinaman or Jap, I doan care if she’s rich or poor, I doan care if she’s drunk or sober. Just so long she’s 100 per cent American and a lady.”

Like Walker, Jolly John is more of an entertainer than a politician. He’s more than happy to shake hands, kiss babies, cut ribbons, and even wrestle with Waldo, the Wrassling Bear, while leaving the business of running the city to the operators of the Malta Democratic Club and gangsters like Jerry Gozo. With Holtsapple’s help, Gozo manages to rack up a total of 241 arrests and only two convictions:

… a suspended sentence (when he was twelve years of age) for possessing burglar’s tools and thirty days in the County Jail for getting behind in his alimony (imposed by a woman magistrate in Family Court). The other charges, all unsubstantiated, had run the gamut from disorderly conduct (61 times) and horse-poisoning (17 times) through carrying concealed weapons (54 times) and violation of the Eighteenth Amendment (83 times) to kidnapping (10 times) and murder (11 times). The remaining items were distributed pretty evenly over such offenses as felonious assault, grand larceny, arson, extortion and public nuisance (playing a radio after 11 p.m.).

Unfortunately for both of them, Gozo is discovered dead that morning, sitting in a men’s room stall with the imprint of a horseshoe on his forehead. And over the course of the following weeks, other notorious Malta figures and Holtsapple supporters suffer the same fate.

At the same time, a crusading reformer, Phillip Dorsey, is organizing a campaign to unseat Jolly John. Hizzoner the Mayor is the tale of the battle between virtue and corruption. The themes of the infiltration of unions, manipulation of black voters, contract fraud, and abuse of city construction projects will be familiar to anyone who has read Robert Caro’s classic, The Power Broker.

Sadly for Dorsey, however, Sayre’s heart is clearly on the side of the rogues. It’s hard to argue with his choice: the rogues are painted in brash, lurid colors and speak in pure Noo Yawk slang when the reformers dress and speak in proper Yankee grey. And the fun in Hizzoner the Mayor is all in the language:

What Al Smith christened “boloney pictures” the previous summer were posed for in profusion: the Mayor on one knee at the finals in the State-wide Marble Shooting Championship; Satchells in a Boy Scout hat being sworn as a Tenderfoot into Troop 16; the Mayor in the cab of the largest B. & O. engine at the Grand Union Depot with the far too small cap of the engineer on his great head; Satchells with his arm around the skinny shoulders of Micajah Hudgins, Malta’s oldest voter, who had first marched to the polls for William Henry Harrison. . . In every conceivable position the two were snapped: kissing babies, dandling gluey-mouthed children, laying wreathes, baking bread, tanning hides, throwing baseballs, kicking footballs, riding gang plows, shooting, swimming, waving at people. The Divine Cal himself had no more versatile a repertoire.

Both sides sent out their dirt-squirters, each carefully instructed never to squirt before more than one person at a time. The Mayor held a long conference over just what squirted on Satchells would do him the most harm. Mike Raffigan told him about Inge.

“Who is she?”

“She’s a massooze, John.”

“A what?”

“You know, she gives massadge to the society dames. Got a big jernt of her own on Federal

“Good Gawd,” said the Mayor, “do you want to elect the guy? Lay off that dame stuff or the people are li’ble to think it’s swell and vote for him!”

Hizzoner the Mayor was Sayre’s second novel. His first, Rackety Rax, was a similarly over-the-top satire, in this case of the intrusion of gambling interests in college sports–a topic that still comes up on a regular basis in the news. Rackety Rax gave Sayre his first screenwriting job, as he was hired by Fox to turn it into a 1932 film starring Victor McLagen. He published two more books in the 1940s: Persian Gulf Command (1945), a collection of his New Yorker articles on military operations in that region during the Second World War, and The House Without a Roof (1948), a novel about the experiences of an ordinary German family under Hitler. His daughter, Nora Sayre, was a writer and long-time film critic for The New York Times. He died in 1979.

Copies of Hizzoner the Mayor are rare and go for prices of $250 and up. Luckily, however, you can enjoy this delightful period piece for free thanks to the Internet Archive: Hizzoner the Mayor.

Hizzoner the Mayor, by Joel Sayre
New York: John Day Company, 1933

Blow the Man Down! A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, by James H. Williams

In his autobiography, Living Again, Felix Riesenberg mentions that, during his time as editor of Seafarer and Marine Pictorial magazine, “I printed what I believe to be one of the outstanding sea stories ever written, ‘The Passing of Pengelley,’ by a sailor named Williams, a protégé of Hamilton Holt, the editor of the Independent.”

blowthemandownGoogling “passing of pengelley” and “williams” produced just two hits: one to Living Again, the other to the Google Books page for Blow The Man Down: A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, subtitled “An autobiographical narrative based upon the writings of James H. Williams,” a 1959 book edited by Warren F. Kuehl.

In his preface to the book, Kuehl describes how he stumbled across a collection of Williams’ manuscripts while researching a biography on Holt:

In style and story, it held me spellbound. Here were daring adventures, heroic deeds, and colorful descriptive passages. And here was the lure of a romantic age now lost save in our imagination.

From reading the pieces, Kuehl soon learned more about the writer:

He called himself a common sailor, but he was a most uncommon man. With little formal education, he wrote in a style which would embarrass many polished scribes. Although a self-confessed murderer according to his own account, he possessed a high sense of moral virtue which like an unseen hand directed his actions. Although a practical man who survived innumerable storms and two major shipwrecks, he was a romantic soul who instinctively sought out the ships of masts and spars in an age in which the merchant marine was making its transition from sail to steam, from Wood to steel. Within him, too, burned a reforming fever so intense that he became an uncompromising enemy of crimps, jackals, avaricious shipowners, heartless masters, and all who preyed upon the common seaman. And he labored with some success to achieve through unions and legislation the humane treatment and legal rights which he felt his comrades of the sea deserved.

jameshwilliamsHe was, Kuehl continues,

James H. Williams, Negro seaman with reddish hair and light-brown skin. He was born in Fall River, Massachusetts, on May 21, 1864, the son of James C. and Margaret Crotty Williams and, as he narrates in describing his family background and childhood experiences, went to sea at an early age. It was in 1897 that he first began to write about life in the old merchant marine. He was then thirty-three years old and had been a sailor for twenty-one years. Hamilton Holt, then the managing editor of the Independent, a prominent national magazine, opened the columns of his journal to Williams and subsequently prints over thirty articles and editorials from Williams’ pen.

As Williams writes in the first piece, “A Son of Ishmael,” his father was a black sailor, whose mother had been a slave, and his mother a white working-class woman from Fall River. Williams’ father rose to the status of pilot for a Long Island Sound line, and had ambitions of a college education for his son, but these ended with his death in an accident in 1870. At the age of twelve, Williams took to sea, bound to a shipmaster as a cabin boy.

By the time Williams went to sea, the great age of sailing ships was already coming to an end. Steamships were rapidly replacing sailing ships, and three-masters were being elbowed out of the most profitable routes. Although Williams was quite clearly a highly perceptive and intelligent man, for some reason he chose to stick with the older ships–a decision that relegated him to a series of rough, dangerous, and poorly-paid posts on ships plying secondary routes to such places as Bombay and Buenos Aires. Most of his jobs were on British ships, although he considered this “entirely the result of chance and not of choice.”

“I am proud of my hard-earned distinction as a maritime A. B. and of my lifetime of intimate and fraternal association with the ‘common’ sailors of the old merchant marine. No nobler or braver or more loyal, devoted and self-sacrificing martyrs than the merchant seaman ever lived.”

“The Passing of Pengelley” offers a dramatic illustration of the risks taken by these seamen. It describes the death of one of Williams’ shipmates, Alfred Pengelley, on the British ship, Late Commander, on a transit from Southhampton to Calcutta. As they huddle together on deck, sheltering from a terrific storm while standing watch, Pengelley confides in Williams that he has a crippling fear of climbing the masts and believes that he is destined to die from a fall. Pengelley’s premonition comes true that night. Williams then recounts his burial at sea and how the ship’s captains and owners then attempt to cover up the cause of the accident–the lack of proper safety attachments–and put the blame on Pengelley’s own negligence. It’s a vivid story that not only demonstrates the dangers of shipboard work but also Williams’ own advocacy of better working conditions and pay for sailors–a cause he championed both while at sea and later through his articles and columns.

The story illustrates why Kuehl is apt in comparing Williams’ writings to Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s classic, Two Years Before the Mast. Both men were eloquent in conveying the drama and degradation of life as a working sailor, and both played important roles in organizing movements to improve their lot.

Ironically, though, at the same time that Williams began to write, the very organizations he was trying to support were making it more and more difficult for a black man to work as a merchant sailor. By the time he came ashore for good in 1910, it would have been difficult for him to get a posting as anything other than a cook or steward.

Williams’ time at sea took a considerable toll on his health. Although supported by Holt and others, he still had to rely on odd jobs on the Manhattan waterfront to get by. He collected his manuscripts and wrote an introductory foreword to them in 1922, hoping to publish them as a book. It was this collection that Kuehl discovered among Hamilton Holt’s papers.

In 1926, he retired to Sailor’s Snug Harbor a home founded in 1801 to give refuge to “aged, decrepit and worn-out” seamen. He died a year later after an operation to treat his throat cancer and was buried in the Sailor’s Snug Harbor cemetery.

A paperback reproduction of Blow The Man Down is available from Literary Licensing, LLC. for $32.95, but used copies of the original 1959 hardback can be found for a fraction of that price on Amazon and elsewhere.

Blow The Man Down: A Yankee Seaman’s Adventures Under Sail, based upon the writings of James H. Williams, edited by Warren F. Kuehl
New York City: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1959

The Prisoners, by Orhan Kemal

Business travel took me through the Istanbul Airport for the fifth time since the start of the year, and I had enough time to check the same bookshop where I found Nazim Hikmet’s wonderful Human Landscapes from My Country. In the small section of Turkish literature in English translation dominated, naturally enough, by Orhan Pahmuk, I found Orhan Kemal’s slim novel, The Prisoners (72. Ko?u? or Ward 72 in the original).

Kemal, a prolific and popular writer specializing in novels about the lower classes, was a contemporary of Hikmet and served time with him in the same jail–an experience he recounted in his 1947 book, In Jail with Nazim Hikmet“>In Jail with Nazim Hikmet. His most famous book, The Idle Years, now available from Peter Owen Ltd. with a preface by Pahmuk, is a semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman. Like Hikmet, he died in exile–in Bulgaria, in his case–and his works have since become recognized and accepted as some of the best Turkish literature of the 20th century. A substantial site, including an English language section, is available at, and Everest Publications, a Turkish press, has brought many of his books, including a few English translations, back to print.

The Prisoners tells a classic tale of human hopes and tragedy. Ahmet, known a “Captain” by his fellow inmates from his time as a merchant seaman, receives a little money from his mother while serving a sentence for the murder of two men who’d killed his father. Against his instincts, he’s talked into gambling it in the running crap grame controlled by another prisoner, Solezli. He wins some, and treats the other inmates of Ward 72, a filthy hole to which the lowest tier of prison society is resigned, to a little food, some beans and meat.

The taste of warm, filling food soon leads Captain to return to the crap game. He wins again, and soon is off on a winning streak. Ward 72 is transformed with his takings. He becomes a force in the prison. He begins to have hopes of a life after his sentence is up decades in the future.

Nothing good lasts forever, of course, and it all comes to a grim end. You know this from the moment Captain comes back to Ward 72 with cash in hand, but Kemal succeeds in making the story fresh and gripping. Despite the bleak and ruthless prison setting, The Prisoners is as simple and powerful as a classic short novel such as The Red Badge of Courage.

One copy of The Prisoners is available on Amazon for the ridiculous price of $231, but you can order it for much less at or from the Turkish bookstore chain, D&R.

The Prisoners, by Orhan Kemal, translated by Cengiz Lugal
Istanbul: Everest Publications, 2012

Kingdom on Earth, by Anne Brooks

In his story, “Just One More Time,” John Cheever portrayed the Beers, a couple hanging tenuously onto respectability, a pair of “pathetic grasshoppers of some gorgeous economic summer” who nevertheless possessed some enduring charm, the power “to remind one of good things–good places, games, food, and company.” Anne Brooks’ 1941 novel, Kingdom On Earth, we come to know the Randolfs, a family equally charming but whose parasitic nature is revealed when their fortunes collapse.

The book–Brooks’ first novel–takes place in seven snapshots between mid-1938 and Labor Day 1940. In the midst of a relaxing summer break at their Connecticut country home, the Randolfs’ banker arrives to break the news to the mother, Elaine, that what little capital her late husband had left the family has evaporated in the stock market. She has to sell off their heavily mortgaged country home and Manhattan apartment and move into a cheaper apartment with her two daughters and son-in-law, soon to be joined by her son Joel and his new wife, Harriet.

We watch the story unfold through Harriet’s eyes. The only daughter of an introverted and widowed professor, she is dazzled by the Randolf’s effortless grace. She confides to her brother-in-law, “We think they live life more completely, they feel things physically, because they act by instinct. We think they’re complete naturals. That charms us; they have more fun, we think, than the thoughtful people.” Harriet feels sorry about their plight only because “it wasn’t fair that people like the Randolfs should have to worry and think about money.”

At first, they take it in as a momentary inconvenience. Living on the remnants of their fortune is a comic bit of “roughing it,” the cramped apartment “a sort of camping place.” As time wears on and the money continues to evaporate, however, their charm wears as thin as the elbows in Joel’s old jackets. He gets a job with an advertising firm but his good looks and ingratiating manner fail to compensate for his utter incompetence. He loses the job and starts drinking earlier and earlier in the day. One daughter, Kit, gets a job in a fine department store and soon learns to get ahead through pure ruthlessness masked by a thin veneer of style. Pris, the youngest, is incapable of doing anything but attracting clueless men with her beauty.

And Elaine, utterly useless, does little but pine for her comfortable past. “The trouble with Elaine was that she was really stupid,” Harriet comes to realize. Her only assets were “a lovely, sensitive face, and excellent taste in dressing herself and arranging her home.”

Of all the family, it is Harriet who proves the most resourceful. She not only does all the cooking and housekeeping for the lot, but she teaches herself typing and gets a job when Joel gives up any pretence of looking for work. And the Randolfs appreciate it–in the way that a wealthy family might appreciate the work of a particularly good maid or butler. “You’re good at this sort of thing, aren’t you, Harriet?,” remarks Pris.

“This sort of thing” is a phrase that recurs throughout the book. It always refers to accommodation to the practical necessities of life–something the Randolfs seem to regard as either onerous or unthinkable. As Joel and Elaine grow more helpless and dependent, Harriet discovers her own strength and independence.

In the end, however, the Randolfs, like the Beers in Cheever’s story, manage to survive through a series of decisions that defy Harriet’s conventional reason:

The resilience of this family was almost immoral, she thought. In the books, weakness and irresponsibility fall when the props are taken away just as the Randolfs had fallen. But in the books weakness never picks itself up again, and here were the Randolfs bright as day and just as charming as ever. All because Pris has kidnaped a rich man into marrying her, Kit has booted out a poor husband and relentlessly cut a few throats, and Elaine is sponging off her son-in-law.

Although Kingdom On Earth was written when Brooks was just twenty-five, it displays a remarkably mature and well-rounded perspective. While showing the Randolfs with all their flaws, she is sympathetic rather than caustic, understanding rather than mocking.

Anne Brooks published a second novel, Hang My Heart, a year after Kingdom On Earth. The story of an ambitious woman starting her career in the magazine business, it received even better reviews, and Brooks was described as one of the more promising young American novelists. From that point on, however, she seems to have disappeared, at least from the world of publishing. I would be interested in finding out the rest of her story.

Although several direct-to-print publishers offer copies of Kingdom On Earth, you can download it for free from the Internet Archive at

Little Apple, by Leo Perutz

Cover of 'Little Apple' by Leo PerutzThe works of Leo Perutz have been praised by such diverse writers as Ian Fleming, Jorge Luis Borges, and Graham Greene, compared to the works of everyone from Franz Kafka to Victor Hugo to Agatha Christie, and utterly unlucky in gaining the lasting attention of English readers. Over the course of a forty-year career, Perutz wrote over a dozen novels, some of which were translated and published in English within a year or two of their first appearance in German, others that were published by Arcade (and Harvill in the U. K.) in a fine effort back in the early 1990s. Arcade is taking up the torch again later this year, promising to re-release three of Perutz’s novels later this year.

Perutz was a contemporary of Kafka and Stefan Zweig, one of that remarkable generation of secular Jews that grew up under the Austro-Hungarian empire and whose world was utterly wiped out by Hitler. Born in Prague like Kafka, Perutz, in fact, worked for the same insurance company as Kafka, Generali, although in Trieste. Recruited into the army during World War One, he served on the Russian Front and was wounded.

Perutz’s experiences during and immediately after the war are reflected in the pages of Little Apple (original title “Wohin rollst du, Äpfelchen…?”), which was originally published in 1928. The title comes from a Russian song popular just after the war, when Red and White forces were rolling back and forth across the land and territory changed hands as much as a dozen times in the course of a year.

Little Apple takes place during this period. Vittorin and a group of fellow Austrian soldiers are travelling back to Vienna after being released from a Russian prison camp. During the long, slow train ride home, they talk about life in the camp, and about its brutal commandant, Staff Captain Selyukov. They all agree that they must return to Russia, hunt down Selyukov, and make him pay for the pain and torture he inflicted upon the inmates.

Only Vittorin, however, holds onto this obsession after he returns to his family in Vienna. The other men refuse him when he tries to organize a revenge expedition, and he heads off on his own. Vittorin plunges headlong into the chaos of the Russian Civil War, and finds himself at various times a soldier, a prisoner, a refugee, an entertainer, a manual laborer, and a thief. In the fluctating circumstances of the Civil War, he can never be too sure of which side he’s on–geographically or politically.

Throughout it all, however, he never loses focus on his goal: to find and punish Selyukov. The comparisons between Perutz and Victor Hugo are not due solely to the fact that Perutz translated a number of Hugo’s novels into German. In his monomaniacal obsession to bring Selyukov to justice, Vittorin shares the same ability to tune out his surrounding circumstances, no matter how threatening to his survival, as Hugo’s Inspector Javert:

He no longer saw selyukov as an arrogant Russian officer who had insulted him. Selyukov was the evil personification of a degenerate age. He was the medium through which Vittorin hated everything sordid that met his eye–all the crooks, currency speculators and human predators that had shared out the world between them…. They haggled, they cheated, they supplied both Whites and Reds with saddlery, horseshoe nails, revolver holsters, cleaning rag, axle grease, cans of tainted bully beef. They belonged to the highest bidder, and champagne flowed wherever they did business.

They were numerous, invulnerable, and ubiquitous–in Paris, in Bucharest, in Vladivostock. Vittorin could avenge the humanity they were betraying, the world they had polluted, by exterminating just one of them, and his name was Selyukov.

wherewillyoufallLittle Apple was first published in English in 1930 as Where Will You Fall?, translated by Hedwig Singer, who also translated Perutz’s second novel published in English, The Master of the Day of Judgment. His first book published in English, From Nine to Nine, has recently been translated again, this time by Thomas Ahrens and Edward Larkin, and is available in print as Between Nine and Nine from Ariadne Press

There is a timeless quality to Perutz’s books. Some are set in the past–the Thirty Years’ War, the Renaissance–and some in his present, but all share one thing in common: the power and fascination of a pure narrative. There is always something pulling the reader along but not quite within reach–rather like the image of Selyukov in Vittorin’s mind. His prose–at least as translated–is clean, spare and full of momentum, and his books brief–usually under 200 pages. Perutz’s power as a storyteller can be seen by the number of his novels that remain in print in German, French, Italian and Spanish. I can only hope that more English readers will discover that power when Arcade releases Little Apple, Master of the Day of Judgment, and By Night Under the Stone Bridge in a few months.

Little Apple, by Leo Perutz, translated by John Brownjohn
New York: Arcade Publishing, 1992

Passing Strangers, by Felix Riesenberg

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Passing Strangers' by Felix RiesenbergIn his autobiography, Living Again, Felix Riesenberg mentions his 1932 novel, Passing Strangers, just once, calling it “a failure.” Riesenberg’s criticism is hardly any harsher than that of time itself, since the book has vanished along with most of his oeuvre and has apparently never even earned a mentioned in academic articles on literature of the Great Depression.

Yet Passing Strangers is a powerful specimen of the effect of the Depression on the creative mind. In the book, Riesenberg takes a cross-section of society and subjects it to the disruptive and erratic effects of a great economic collapse. As he put it in his preamble, “A group of people, caught in the mesh of cams and gears, are tossed about by the machinery of life.”

Riesenberg starts his story with “The Average Man,” Robert Millinger, a lowly elevator operator in the new and splendid Babel Building, the pride and envy of all Manhattan. Millinger is a perfectly working cog:

After a time people who entered and left the elevator, familiar or strange, no longer meant things to Mr. Millinger. They were merely presences. He responded to them without thought, or reason, but correctly. Clever as his car was, it was crude compared with that stranger flexible, self-oiling, economical machine, Robert Millinger, elevator operator No. 243, Imperial Holding Corporation. Residence 749 Taylo Street, Brooklyn. Married.

Millinger himself is a cipher, but he believes that makes him an invaluable source of insights into the common man, and fantasizes about being taken into the confidence of an important executive, such as Isidore Trauenbeck. Trauenbeck runs the Babel Building and dozens of other properties. “His day,” Riesenberg writes, “was marked by the grease spots of those completely squelched.” Even greater than Trauenbeck is his own boss, the mysterious tycoon, A. Thouron Clamson, an amalgam of Donald Trump, Howard Hughes, and John D. Rockefeller. Clamson puts Tom Wolfe’s “Masters of the Universe” to shame:

A. Thouron Clamson hadn’t a single title. He signed his name with a flourish, beginning with Clamson, weaving the A. Thouron into the device with a degree of skill grown from long practice. He owned in many things, almost endless things, holding control of such vast interlocking and intermeshing activities that great charts were prepared to keep the picture reasonably in hand. He always prepared to shift his money from one raft to another at a moment’s notice. He owned sixty percent of Mid-Continental Gas. Then he bought out the rival pipe line of Sioux Service, and suddenly dumped his M. C. G., pounding it down while booming Sioux. On the swing, he drew back all but five percent of the first company. These two were then combined and on the seventh day he rested from his labor. But the labor, of course, was done by others. He merely decided.

Riesenberg reaches down from Clamson to Millinger through a string of almost random connections, drawn in such a way that only a few of his characters share acquaintances. They are, as the title suggests, passing strangers, but they share one thing in common: all are affected in some profound way, by the stock market crash and the resulting depression. Millinger loses his job, is abandoned by his wife and daughter, and nearly dies of hunger and exposure on the streets of New York. Millinger’s wealthy cousin, Zekor, is forced to move from Park Avenue to a slum in Brooklyn and dies on a park bench, worn out by the relentless loss of property and self. Willy Jennings, the department store owner who takes Millinger’s wife, Launa, as his lover, finds his web of speculations and leveraged deals collapsing around him and jumps from his office window [Riesenberg recounts one of these supposedly apocryphal suicides in Living Again.] Millinger’s daughter, Diana, in turn, becomes Clamson’s mistress, until she sickens of his esthetic and moral excesses. Clamson experiences the it all as mild turbulence, not even bothering to buckle his seatbelt.

Riesenberg wraps everything up in a climactic disaster scene somewhat foreshadowing events at the World Trade Center, as radicals set off truck bombs and explosives in the subway system to protest the human destruction caused by capitalism. Clamson is assasinated as he sits in traffic in his limousine. Millinger’s daughter escapes from the chaos with a man who used to drive Zekor Millinger’s Packard. And, ironically, Millinger is rescued by a young woman who brings him to Clamson’s wife, a noted supporter of social causes.

While certainly less experimental than his previous novel, Endless River, Passing Strangers lacks nothing in comparison when it comes to ambition. Riesenberg didn’t have quite the technical mastery to bring off all he aspired to, but the book is never less than enthralling. I read it in just three days, sitting in cafes as my wife and daughter shopped around London during Thanksgiving. It demonstrates yet again that we need to find a place in our memories for the like of Felix Riesenberg, who may not always have succeeded in his literary attempts but deserves to be recognized as a bold American artistic adventurer.

Passing Strangers, by Felix Riesenberg
New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932

The Court of Charles IV, by Benito Pérez Galdós

The Court of Charles IV was the second of the forty-six historical novels, referred to as Episodios Nacionales, written by the great Spanish novelist, Benito Pérez Galdós, whose masterpiece, Fortunata and Jacinta, was the first title featured on this site in 2012. It’s a considerably lighter work–less than a fifth the length of Fortunata and Jacinta and told in first person by young Gabriel Araceli, a poor but amibitious lad whose backstage adventures in both the theaters and court of Madrid around the year 1807 make up the book.

Gabriel, son of a poor Cadiz fisherman, was first introduced in Trafalgar, Galdós first Episodios Nacionales novel, which depicted Nelson’s great victory from the eyes of a bystander on the losing side. Gabriel has made his way to Madrid and is now in the service of Pepita Gonzalez, one of the most successful actresses of her time. Among his duties, which he itemizes at the book’s start, are to hiss performances of “The Maiden’s Yes,” a play by Leandro Fernández de Moratín, whose work she despises.

Which leads to the first of several delightful set-pieces that are the book’s real highlights. In the company of a failed poet, Gabriel attends the play to make his obligatory interjections. Galdós weaves together Gabriel’s mocking account of the performance, his observations of the antics of the theatre’s audience, which is as busy talking and fighting among themselves as watching the play, and the poet’s non-stop commentary on the flaws of the writing and references to superior elements of his own work.

Indeed, the whole of The Court of Charles IV is something of a weaving demonstration by Galdós, with the threads of love, sex and politics as the raw materials. Gabriel’s mistress Pepita is in love with and insanely jealous of her director and leading man, Isidoro Maiquez–a real-life character from the time. Isidoro, in turn, is madly in love with Lesbia, the beautiful niece of a minor member of the Spanish nobility. And Lesbia, in her turn, is being watched and manipulated by Amarantha, another duchess with whom Gabriel becomes enthralled.

Gabriel’s experiences form the backing material against which Galdós winds and twists his fictional and historical characters. Some back the King, Charles (Carlos) IV; others support a coup by his son, Ferdinand, who favors the British. All despise the prime minister, Manuel de Godoy, known as “The Prince of Peace.” As the various intrigues of court and stage are being played out, the figure of Napoleon looms in the distance, utterly misinterpreted and misunderstood by all. Within a few months after the novel’s ending, he will invade Spain and drive them all into exile.

Typical of the clueness nobles is Lesbia’s uncle, a marquis and one-time diplomat, who has perfected obscurity as a tool for appearing to be all-knowing: “He always took care to maintain a studied reserve and utter himself in half-sentences, never expressing himself clearly on any subject, so that his hearers in their doubt and darkness should question him and insist on his being more explicit.” “What will Russia do?,” he often wonders aloud, to the perplexity of his listeners.

Gabriel is a Huck Finn-like character who maintains a healthy dose of skepticism about all he sees around him. Gabriel observes of the nobility at one point, “For my part, these typical specimens of human vanity have always been a delight to me as being beyond dispute those who amuse and teach us most.” One hears the voice of Galdós in these words. Though Lady Amarantha manages to lure him into acting as a spy, he wisens up before things get out of hand and lights out from the palace of El Escorial rather as Huck lit out from Widow Douglas’ house.

Galdós wraps up his story with a last bravura set-piece, in which the different love triangles come crashing together during a private performance of Othello–or rather, of Teodoro de la Calle’s translation of Othello, which was itself based on a French translation by Jean-François Ducis. And Gabriel manages to turn the tables on Lady Amarantha with a bit of dirty linen from her own past, allowing him to exit stage right with dignity intact and another boost up the ladder of success.

Overall, a fast and enjoyable tale–nothing too deep and certainly not a book that Galdós meant to be anything more than a historical entertainment, something like a precursor of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman series.

The Court of Charles IV was translated into English by Clara Bell (who also translated Ossip Schubin’s fine comedy, Our Own Set, another neglected gem) and published by W. S. Gottsberger in 1888. You can find electronic copies of this translation, full of usual OCR errors, on the Internet Archive at

Endless River, by Felix Riesenberg

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'Endless River'
Continuing my way through the works of Felix Riesenberg, the long-forgotten American merchant mariner-engineer-writer, I took up his most experimental work, Endless River (1931). I’ve yet to make up my mind whether Riesenberg was a great or merely a good writer, but he was, unquestionably, a remarkable one, and there is no better proof of that than this striking book.

On the epigraph page, Riesenberg quotes the critic Harry Hansen: “There is only one definition for a novel–it is the way the man who writes it looks at the world. And there are as many ways of writing a novel as there are ways of looking at the world.” As one reviewer, Robert Leavitt, wrote in The Saturday Review, “Accept Mr. Hansen, and Endless River is a novel. Reject him, and it is a formless pot pourri.

Well, even as a novel, it’s a formless pot pourri. Or rather, it has no more form than a river, which is why one of the very few critics to even notice the book compared it, not surprisingly, to Finnegans Wake. “Books–novels, treatises, tracts, and the like–are chopped into chapters. But you cannot cup up a river. You cannot stop it and let a little trickle out after filering impurities. The river keeps on, and so does this, until lost in the endless paths of time.”

Unlike Finnegans Wake, though, Riesenberg’s river is not one continuing stream of words but three-hundred-some pages of fragments. Some are little essays. Some are segments of short stories or character sketches that span a few pages. Many are, I assume, Riesenberg’s own musings. One after another they flow through the pages until the end is reached.

Unlike a real river, however, which at least has gravity as an identifiable driving force, Endless River appears to have no purpose behind it other than to satisfy Riesenberg’s fascination with the swirling currents of humanity he observes in the streets of Manhattan. In which case, a better parallel to Endless River than would be Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer, which is less a novel than a collage of narratives, popular songs, advertisements, and set pieces.

In Dos Passos’ case, however, as with his trilogy U.S.A., the stories are threads that run throughout the book, while Riesenberg’s characters are more like landmarks his river touches and then leaves behind for good.

There are some wonderful sketches in the book, such as the wealthy dandy who finds himself stranded in upper Manhattan late one night and finds himself slowly losing his identity on his long walk home. Or Major John Hollister Truetello, who writes out the same four letters every night (“My dear sir, may I not adress you so, you the happy father of a newborn babe…”) and sends them off to four addressees picked out from various directories. Or Old Mr. Kindleberry, who carefully records names in his notebook.

Each day he chose a letter, and for twenty lines, after the greatest care and consideration, he wrote euphonious words, one under the other, spelling them out with rare and discriminating joy. Mr. Kindleberry never made a mistake in spelling; it was a little joke of his own, for the words he wrote down were of his own invention…. Here are some of his words, beginning with the letter D: Dianop; Dathter; Dilldyle; Daggerhampton; Dopda.

While there is a little something Borgesian about Truetello, Kindleberry, and a few of the three or four dozen characters in the book, they are all more symbols than convincing personalities.

Integrated book marker ribbon from 'Endless River'

“Which character in Endless River are you?” reads the marker ribbon in the first–and so far, only–edition. “None,” I suspect most readers would answer. Riesenberg’s characters are, in fact, just bits of flotsam and jetsam caught up in this outpouring of words. They are there to serve his purpose, which seems mostly to be to argue that there is no point in trying to give any form to the lives and interactions of men. At least for some time to come. “If we are right today (I mean 1931 or thereabout), then in 256,789 we should be stabilized.”

Until then, Riesenberg seems to argue, billions more bits of humanity will be carried along in the endless river. “There was never a writer less literary in temperament than Felix,” wrote his friend Christopher Morley in a Saturday Review piece after his death in 1939. “His sheer lack of conscious technique makes him irresistible. Put him under a sudden gust of emotion and watch his penmanship.”

“Penmanship” is hardly a word that a writer would want his work described as, but I have to wonder if Endless River would have gained a publisher in the first place without the influence of friends like Morley. However, whether it ultimately comes to be judged a novel, a pot pourri, or just a unique flood of prose, it is certainly a testament of a writer with a powerful need to tell how he looked at the world.

Endless River, by Felix Riesenberg
New York City: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1931

The Man Who Carved Women from Wood, by Max White

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'The Man Who Carved Women from Wood'I found out about Max White’s 1949 novel, The Man Who Carved Women from Wood, in “The Pearls of Publishing,”, a Saturday Review feature I wrote about several months ago. In that piece, John Fischer, then an editor at Harper & Brothers, recommended it as a bit of a fringe favorite: “Admittedly not a book for every reading taste but those of us here who like it for its odd and spirited blend of fancy and humor are convinced that there are fifteen or twenty thousand readers in the country who would enjoy it.”

Set in an ante-bellum rooming house in New Orleans’ French Quarter, The Man Who Carved Women from Wood is itself a bit of a jambalaya. In the space of the first 20-some pages, Geneva Howard, a retired minor opera singer not averse to start Happy Hour at noon, manages to fill up all the rooms in her house with an odd assortment of characters just wandering in off the street.

The title character, Oleg Malin, is an anti-social sculptor who’s come ashore after a spell as a deckhand to work on a new piece. He’s accompanied by his brother, Elia, who spends his time repairing Oriental rugs and looking after Oleg’s moods. There’s a pair of young Cajun newlyweds, a physician working on a book titled, “What To Do After the Doctor Leaves,” a woman who owns a nearby gift shop and who might today be diagnosed with Asperger’s, a spectral man who slips in and out of the house at night (he turns out to be a gambler), and a handful of others. The most mysterious of the lot is Maria Weber, a middle-aged woman of vaguely Continental origin who arrives with a large travelling case that she claims is occupied by her mother, who has not been seen since 1910. The mother screams out whenever someone in the house tells a lie and, we soon learn, tends to wander around the house late at night, taking odd things from the other residents.

Having tossed his ingredients into the pot, White lets them simmer away, occasionally giving a stir, but mostly letting things mingle and mix as they will. Everyone puzzles over the old woman in the box. Most of the women find themselves attracted to the dark and temperamental sculptor. A hurricane comes along to shake things up, but does no permanent damage. Then, perhaps at a loss for how to finish off the dish, White confuses it for some showcase dessert and tries to flambé the whole thing with a couple of spectacular murders.

White once published a sort-of cookbook titled, How I Feed My Friends. In it, he wrote, “Cooking is not a dash of this and a dash of that nor is it using a wooden spoon. Something else it is not, is a jumble of ingredients and seasonings.” This might not have been true of White’s cooking, but it certainly was of his writing, at least in this case. The Man Who Carved Women from Wood is more melange than composition–which is, frankly, more in keeping with the book’s setting. There’s plenty of interesting talk, a fair amount of drinking, and some pretty good eating, mostly courtesy of Geneva’s housekeeper, Leontine, and all the comings and goings of the house. What matters is the atmosphere, not the ambition. After all, it is set in the “Big Easy.”

Max White–the pen-name of Charles William White–wrote about a half-dozen novels between the late 1930s and early 1950s, most of them dealing with artists: some real (In the Blazing Light, about Goya); some fictional (Tiger Tiger, about a modernist painter. He also hung out with the likes of Getrude Stein (to whom The Man Who Carved Women from Wood is dedicated) and Alice B. Toklas (who he once tried to assist with a real autobiography to match Stein’s). At the time The Man Who Carved Women from Wood, it must have seemed a pretty strange and exotic affair, but sixty-some years later, when cut-ups, mash-ups, fusion, and all sorts of other combinations of contrasting ingredients are a dime a dozen, we’re probably better prepared to appreciate it for what it is and not expect a higher purpose as some kind of redemptive reward.

The Man Who Carved Women from Wood, by Max White
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1949

In Search of In Search of Myself, by Hans Natonek

Hans NatonekI came across a review of this book in one of a dozen issues of the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review I found at a garage sale. Having just finished Fritz Schoenberner’s The Inside Story of an Outsider, which recounts the story of a German writer exiled from Nazi Germany who eventually escapes from France and settles in the United States, I was interested in comparing Natonek’s account of similar experiences.

Unfortunately, an exhaustive search of all the sources I know of turned up not a single copy of this book for sale. There are about a dozen copies held in various university and city libraries, but none available through an online source.

So, not being able to read the book for myself, I will make do by reprinting several of the reviews published when In Search of Myself first came out in 1943.

Louis Adamic, in the Saturday Review:

Natonek is that rarest of creatures, a terrific individualist to whom other people’s individualities have as much right to exist as his own. To him, human standardization, the concept of the ‘average man,’ is dangerous. It is only through being what each is meant to be, doing what each can do, that the individual contributes fully to the community….

“My minimum task is to start again from scratch … transform myself, not superficially, but completely, inside and out.”

It is this basic lack of vanity, this grasp of life as function and relationship rather than formula and mold, this perception that communal value accrues through the development of the unique, this acceptance of responsibility toward the group as toward oneself–it is this rare sense of balance that gives the book its richness and deep honesty…

“Tell me how you treat a refugee, and I will diagnose your political and moral health.”

Sober and profound, the book is also witty and imaginative, full of marvelous episodes and sketches: the landlady versus the briefcase locked in the closet; the art dealer driven into gluttony by the idea of Europe’s starving millions; the wonderful old Repairer of Fine Clock and Watches. The sense of fantasy is strong in Natonek’s dreams, and in the episode of the fur peddlers who sat on him when he said he was looking for the Wandering Jew….

Of Hans Natonek’s In Search of Myself, we might say that it records the first impressions of Americans, as observed by an intelligent foreigner during the first years of a questing adjustment. But we have had that before–this is different. The difference lies in the approach. It is that of a sensitive man without means, distinguished at home but unknown here, critical of the “successism” he finds here, stubbornly determined to have no part in it. Sensitized would be a better word, for this well known European writer (Prague his birthplace) has long trained himself to perceive real values in personal and social life and spurn the spurious. Urged to “get busy, forget the past, embrace the new,” and change himself overnight into the mere simulacrum of an American, he refuses. This book contains the reasons, and much besides, in pungent and penetrating comment.

New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, 7 November 1943:

When Hitler burned the books he garnered himself a little heap of gray ashes, but the sparks from that futile fire swirled over Europe and across the seas, kindling the creative fury and eloquence of men and women whose words will long outlive whatever oblivion awaits his ranting. Hans Natonek is one voice in that growing chorus, and In Search of Myself–an impressionistic autobiography, deeply moving in what it says and definitely captivating in its style–he has revealed himself, his reactions and his hopes with candor, detachment and wit. Here is a story that will make every American see his country a little more clearly and teach him to understand a little more profoundly what it represents to those driven out of Europe. At the same time, Mr. Natonek says a few things about this country, and about New York life in particular, which it will do us no harm to hear. He is a man of tact, but he is amused–and his thrusts are to the point.

Mr. Natonek was born in Prague, educated in Vienna and Berlin. He left Paris ahead of the German invaders and reached the United States two years ago. A journalist and writer of fiction, he naturally felt that being an exile did not automatically blot out his vocation, and he describes with gentle irony the desperate attempts which well meaning bureaus and individuals put forth to train him for industry or some line of business. The fact that he preferred the rigors of poverty to the stimulation of the lathe made him a problem, and he rather enjoyed the bewilderment he created.

And so Hans Natonek wandered about this strange city and saw it with fresh and sensitive eyes. There are many pages in this book which sing, and they will bring veteran dwellers of Manhattan refreshment of mind.

If anyone reading this happens to locate a copy of In Search of Myself, please let me know, as I’m still interested in reading it.

In Search of Myself, by Hans Natonek
New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1943

In Search of Myself

The Innocents at Cedro: A Memoir of Thorstein Veblen and Some Others, by R. L. Duffus

Cover from first U.S. edition of "The Innocents at Cedro"In 1906, R. L. Duffus and his older brother William started attending Stanford University. Believe it or not, there was a time when tuition at Stanford was so cheap that a young man could work his way through school with the most meagerly-paid jobs. R. L. and his brother needed to work because there was no money in their family. They had come to California with their father to help him recuperate from years of crippling exposure to granite dust in a Vermont quarry.

Not long before starting their second year, they found out that Thorstein Veblen, a professor at Stanford and one of the most influential economists and social critics of the early 20th century, needed a student to keep house for him. His wife had left him, and he’d moved into a run-down cottage at Cedro, a mile or so from the campus. The fact that his wife had left in protest over his philandering was just one aspect of Veblen, who tended to be blunt, rude, vocal in his opinions and not the least interested in social mores, that led the school to show him the door the next year. William Duffus told Veblen that he’d have to accept R. L. and their father as part of the deal, the three working for one salary. Veblen, who clearly tolerated a good deal of mess and disorder in his life, accepted. “He could have managed with about two-fifths of a student,” R. L. reflects.

R. L. Duffus at Stanford in 1908The Innocents at Cedro is R. L.’s memoir of the year they spent living and working at Veblen’s cottage. Despite the subtitle, though, the book is less about Veblen and more about how a couple of naive young men both learned a little of the ways of the world and managed to keep a sense of wonder about things.

What makes the book worth rediscovering, though, is not the story but Duffus’ way of telling it. Writing as World War Two was filling the papers with news of battles and casualties, Duffus appreciates the gentleness of the world and people he encountered nearly forty years earlier. But he also acknowledges that he remembers best the things that interested him at the time. Veblen was just some professor they worked for and who had some reputation for being a great thinker. And so, he admits, “most of what Veblen said to us is gone forever…. We were not Boswells.”

One thing R. L. did remember, however, from occasionally copying out Veblen’s lecture notes, was that his footnotes “sometimes ran to great lengths, and were very impressive.” “I have been fond of notes ever since. This is why there are so many of them in this book,” R. L. remarks in his own footnote to the first statement. The footnotes are, in many ways, the best part of the book. Duffus shares a little of Tristram Shandy in him. Throughout the book, he wanders off the narrative path to insert some observation into a wry and self-mocking footnote.

“Cedro Cottage also had an indefinite number of cats,” he recalls at one point, foot-noting this with the following:

My brother doubts the statement. He thinks the cats could easily have been counted and were therefore not indefinite in number. But it seems to me that they were numerous enough to be difficult to count, especially as some of them were always coming and going, and, the climate being mild, were not kept indoors at night. They had lives of their own, which intersected ours at only a few points. They were busy and preoccupied and, except for the yellow tom, didn’t give a damn about anything.

A couple of horses and a yard full of chickens also lived at the Cottage. This was also a time when most people got around by horse or bicycle, which kept the pace of life much slower than during the automobile age when R. L. wrote the book. Although, like many people at the time, R. L. and William had been raised around animals, in memory he recalls the animals as generally smarter and more practical than any of the people living there.

R. L. and William were both idealists. They were at an age and time when people–young men in particular–latched onto theories–sound, unproved and crackpot alike–and let them drive their lives. “William said he intended to devote his life to abolishing poverty,” R. L. writes, then notes at the bottom of the page, “He believes the idea was sound, and is sorry that the best he has been able to do to date is to keep himself and his family just above the hunger line.”

He also recalls a batch of his fellow students who adopted an early form of veganism:

I knew some young men who lived in Encina Hall, the men’s dormitory on the campus, subsisting for prolonged periods on nuts, dates, figs and other uncooked foods. These young men grew quite thin and would, I think, have disappeared entirely if they hadn’t occasionally been invited out to dinner. A few of them experimented with fasting for several days at a time. They grew soulful and some of them even broke into poetry. At Stanford in those days some people would try almost anything once.

“I wonder if this is the case today,” he muses.

In the course of the year at Cedro, R. L. and William’s father dies, passing quietly. Harry George, a consumptive self-taught radical and early member of the I. W. W., joins them at the cottage, and takes on the job of setting the boys straight about philosophy, capitalism and sex. An attractive young woman comes to the cottage, puts them in awe, and stays the night. When William later asks about Veblen about his niece, the Professor fixes him “with a cold and tranquil eye. ‘She is not my niece,’ he said.”

“And that was that,” R. L. concludes.

Although The Innocents at Cedro has been reissued as an economics classic, it is nothing more than a gentle and funny book that provides several hours of very pleasant and enjoyable reading. R. L. Duffus, who spent most of his life as a newspaper reporter before turning to writing novels in his fifties, made no great claims for what he was doing–which is probably why it turned out so well.

Other Reviews

  • “Duffus’ first and reluctant venture into autobiography held –for me — far greater quality than anything else he has written.”–Kirkus Reviews
  • “The book is not as deep as a very deep well and is not intended to be, but it is quite as refreshing as a spring, clear and bubbly.”–Phil Stong, Saturday Review
  • “What we were about to say of The Innocents at Cedro, by R. L. Duffus, is that it is not only delightful reading, by virtue of style and wit, but it will stand a lot of thinking over…. It is a genuine literary achievement to have made one rather irregular household, in a California small town, so fully representative of a period and a whole nation–like a view through a camera aperture.”–Isabel Paterson in her “Turns with a Bookworm” column in the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review

  • “A truly charming slide of autobiography of a year, 1907-1908, at Cedro Cottage, near Stanford University. Mr Duffus spent the year living in the household of Thorstein Veblen, of whom he has a great deal to say. But the book has value beyond that: it digs deeply into the heart of an idealistic youth of nineteen and into an era when America itself was going though adolescent pains.”–The American Mercury

The Innocents at Cedro, by R. L. Duffus
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1944

Lilly’s Story, by Ethel Wilson

  • Educated in seething back alleys

  • Abandoned by worthless parents

  • Waitress by day and lost woman by night

You gotta love ever-reliable smarminess of the guys who used to come up with the cover blurbs for old paperbacks. These lines are on the back of the copy of Lilly’s Story that I picked off the dollar cart sitting outside Magus Books while in Seattle last month.

Yes, at the start of the book, Lilly Waller is a waitress. But the rest is baseless or mostly baseless.

Well, whatever it takes to get the keisters in the seats–or the books into the hands of the keister owners.

In reality, Lilly’s Story is sensitive character study written by Ethel Wilson, a Canadian writer who didn’t publish her first book until she was almost 60, and for whom an annual prize for best work of fiction written in British Columbia is named. The story pivots on a single decision, made by a young, scared and extremely naive woman, that leads her to live most of her life in suspicion and fear.

From the battered condition of the paperback and its lurid cover and blurb, I didn’t expect much, so it was a pleasant surprise to find the writing so simple yet subtle. Most of the story takes place around the turn of the 20th century, when Victorian manners constrained people to dealing with such things as a child born out of wedlock tangentially. Lilly herself–a rather stupid, if hard-working girl–only makes matters worse by her own ignorance of others’ perspectives and meanings. Throughout the book, she often takes extreme decisions in response to the slightest indications of trouble.

As a character study, Lilly’s Story is well served by the short novel form. A full length novel could only have been achieved through liberal use of padding or extraneous detours into the lives and minds of other characters–something that would have been unfathomable given Lilly’s state of bewilderment when it came to understanding much of what was going on around her. Unfortunately, the book wasn’t quite short enough, and whether to pad out the story or to satisfy the public with a happy ending, Wilson stapled onto her fine sketch an implausible outcome completely contrary to the instincts reflected in Lilly’s choice throughout the preceding 30+ years.

My copy is too battered to provide a good scan of the cover, so I’ve used one of a more proper and serious paperback edition for this post. You can find the garish version at Consumed and Judged, which reviewed the book late last year. Lilly’s Story was later paired with another short novel, “Tuesday and Wednesday,” and published as The Equations of Love.

Most of Wilson’s books were reissued about 20 years ago as part of the New Canadian Library series, but it appears none of them is still in print, according to Amazon. However, Persephone Books, which reissued her first novel, Hetty Dorval, back in 2005, still reports that it has copies for sale.

Lilly’s Story, by Ethel Wilson
New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952

Events Leading Up to the Comedy, by Elliott Nugent

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'Events Leading Up to the Comedy'The first half of Elliott Nugent’s memoir, Events Leading Up to the Comedy, is pretty forgettable. Nugent, a classmate of James Thurber at Ohio State University, is probably best known for The Male Animal, the play he co-wrote with Thurber. The son of two professional actors, Nugent first hits the boards at the age of eight, and after his graduation from college, became an actor himself.

He soon expanded into writing, and quickly gained a hit on Broadway with Kempy, in which he co-starred with his father and sister. He married a fellow player, Norma Lee, and became a producer and director as well.

In 1929, MGM picked up an option to use him in their movies, and his first starring role was in “Wise Girls,” the film version of Kempy. Then, starting with “The Mouthpiece” in 1932, he became a film director as well. He went on to play in over twenty movies and direct over thirty–few of them much remembered today, however.
Elliott Nugent, 1947
Despite its rich potential for anecdotes, though, Nugent relates his story in an uninspired, “this happened, and then this happened” manner that would have led me to set the book aside after a few chapters had there not been a promise of something remarkable to come.

That something is an account of his battle with an illness he never actually labels, but which has all the signs of manic depression. Starting in the mid-1940s, Nugent’s pace of activities reached a frenzy. At one point, he watched in make-up the opening act of a play he was producing, then cut across the alley and took his first entrance in another play he was performing in. Aggravated by too much drinking and too little sleep, his few reserves of patience and perspective were exhausted and he began acting erratically.

He would go for days on end from work to parties to spur-of-the-moment trips, spending wildly, accosting strangers, and launching into angry tirades against long-standing friends. Then, days later, he found himself toying with the idea of suicide:

I scribbled a note to Norma, shoved it deep in a trouser pocket, got in my car, and drove to the Roosevelt Hotel. I remembered a certain fire escape on the tenth floor and in the back of the building, near the room my father used to occupy.

I checked my hat and coat downstairs, then rode up in the elevator, nodding to the operator as if I were one of the guests in the hotel. I pulled open the hall door to the fire-escape door, went outside, and closed it, then peered over the railing to the alley ten stories below. Instead of climbing the railing, I lighted a cigarette and sat on the railing, experimentally teetering a bit. In another moment, I might have toppled over backward, but the door opened and a stranger emerged. He gave me a curious look.

“It’s getting colder,” I said casually. “I don’t think I’ll stay out here very long.”

I offered the man a cigarette, bu he refused and went inside. I imagined that he could see me through the Venetian blinds of my father’s old room. Abruptly I rose and went downstairs, almost without thinking or making any decision.

Nugent’s behavior reached a point where his wife resorted to having him committed to a Connecticut mental hospital known as the Institute of the Living. There, he was subjected to most the known treatments of the day short of electric shock: drugs, wrapping in cold towels, spending nights in tepid baths, and insulin shock. The latter finally brought him to a level of self-control that convinced his wife and psychiatrist to release him.

Within months, however, he was back on a high. This time, he headed off on a cross-country tear that landed him in jails in Palm Springs and Hollywood and nearly got him drowned in riptides off Acapulco. His wife finally tracked him down after he returned to New York and checked into four different hotels under four different names–all in the course of one day. This time, he was sent to Bellevue Hospital and then a reputable facility upstate.

Nugent’s account of his bouts of manic depression reminded me very much of those of Washington Post publisher Phil Graham–as seen from the perspective of his wife, Katharine, in her memoir, Personal History. Except that Nugent survived where Graham took his life. Both men’s illness was ineptly treated, though they had access to the best care available, and endured by their bewildered family and friends.

Written in 1965, nearly twenty years after the start of Nugent’s illness, Events Leading Up to the Comedy comes to a rather abrupt end. Aside from the need to “try to forgive myself,” Nugent takes no great lesson from his experiences.

Perhaps, as a writer of light, comedic plays, Nugent lacked the darkness of imagination to really convey the terrors of his depressions. The passage above, for example, is utterly matter-of-fact–no different in tone, really, from that of the rest of the book. And so, in the end, Events Leading Up to the Comedy amounts to an interesting but not particularly moving account of mental illness.

Nugent, whose stage and film career ended by the late 1950s, wrote one other book after this memoir. Of Cheat and Charmer tells of the end of a Hollywood film director on a bout of drinking and fighting and womanizing that must draw heavily on Nugent’s own adventures while on manic highs. Nugent died in New York City in 1980.

Events Leading Up to the Comedy, by Elliott Nugent
New York City: Trident Press, 1965

P. A. L., by Felix Riesenberg

Cover of first U.S. edition of P. A. L. by Felix RiesenbergFelix Riesenberg (1879-1939) worked in the Merchant Marine, was part of two unsuccessful attempts to reach the North Pole by airship, served as a civil engineer for the state of New York, ran the New York Nautical School (now the State University of New York Maritime College), and was Chief Officer of the U. S. Shipping Board. He also wrote several books about the sea, including the manual, Standard Seamanship for the Merchant Service (1922).

And then, around the age of 44, he decided to write a novel.

P.A.L.–the resulting book–does start at sea, with the dramatic wreck of a beat-up Russian freighter carrying refugees in a storm off the coast of Washington State. The writing certainly demonstrates Riesenberg’s familiarity with the ways of ships and the sea.

By page 10, however, the sea is left behind, never to be revisited. Lieutenant Dimitri Marakoff, master of the ship at the time of its sinking, is washed ashore with other survivors, and, taken for an Englishman, listed as D. Markham. Given a new set of clothes, a few dollars, and a referral to a businessman named P. A. L. Tangerman, D. Markham is sent off to Seattle to make his way.

In Seattle, he learns that Tangerman is the entrepeneur responsible for introducing the Cudahy Vacuum Dome. Not knowing whether that’s “a mountain or a mine,” he goes to see Tangerman. A brash, cigar-puffing man clearly assured of his own ingenuity, Tangerman accepts Markham as an Englishman without a second thought, and takes an immediate liking to Markham. He offers him a job as some kind of private advisor and sends him out the door with referrals to a haberdasher and a boarding house.

Only then does Markham see the dome, being demonstrated in a downtown storefront: “an immense bulb of bright aluminum” with “the outlines of an exaggerated coal-scuttle helmet.” Copper pipes connect it to a vacuum motor: “The great invention was intended to cause hair to sprout on bald heads, by relieving the air pressure above the cranium.” In other words, an elaborate gimmick for curing baldness.

No one, however, doubts the genius of Tangerman or the certain success of the dome. And Tangerman has other enterprises: Vim Vigor V. V., a vitamin tonic; Glandula, a miracle elixir made from sheep glands; four different brands of cigars and cigarettes, all made from the same tobacco. Hailed as a titan of American industry, Tangerman works into the wee hours jotting down the secrets to success.

It’s all heady, exciting stuff for Markham and the many others in his orbit. Only no one ever sees much in the way of cash. And when the dome is accused of blowing up and injuring a customer, everyone from the haberdashers to the office furniture store start taking back their goods.

This proves a temporary set-back, though, and soon Tangerman and Markham are off to Chicago to make an even bigger splash. Tangerman founds a correspondence course school, a publishing house for cheap editions of the classics, and several magazines. One of them, Marcus and Aurelius, aims at being the most outrageous bundle of claims around–a precursor of the Weekly World News. It celebrates all of Tangerman’s gimmicks and more:

[F]ly traps, stills, liquor flavors, beer powders, trick sets, face lifting, jumping dice, depilatories, deodorizers, whirling sprays, installment diamonds, eye brighteners, nose straighteners, stammering cures, permanent curls, lip sticks, blush controllers, dimple makers, gallstone removers, self-bobbers, liquor agers, tape worm expellers, rubber underwear, hair restorers, finger print messages, sleuthing secrets, pyorrhoea, lucky rings, hypnotism, halitosis, pimple cures, lover’s secrets, pile removers, racing tips, dancing steps, etiquette, and short story courses.

“Print dirt, but don’t dose it with perfume,” is the editor’s maxim.

Tangerman buys land along Lake Michigan, builds an enormous mansion with its own power plant, buys a great yacht on which he throws wild parties with plenty of bootleg booze. He keeps surfing from one wave of speculation to another, all of based on little or no hard capital. And though he marries a sweet girl from Seattle for who Markham carries a torch, he keeps up a steady stream of mistresses, including the psychic, Countess Voluspa Balt-Zimmern.

Tangerman’s ventures also keep spiralling up from the ridiculous to the insane, culminating in a secret pact with a lunatic miner with a box full of gold in fine sand form. The miner claims to have found a huge deposit of the stuff off in some unnamed desert in the West, and Tangerman and all his fellow speculators become drunk on the possibilities of the world’s greatest gold find.

As one might expect, the bubble eventually pops, and with devastating–and in Tangerman’s case, fatal–results.

Felix Riesenberg, 1936 - Photo by Arnold Genthe courtesy of the Library of Congress
P.A.L. is reminiscent of two novels from twenty years earlier: Frank Norris’ The Octopus and The Pit, both of which attacked the blind destructiveness of speculation. But it’s also very much a novel of the 1920s and wild stock speculation, which ultimately led to the great market crash of 1929. Riesenberg’s work has less of Norris’ young man’s passion and more of the perspective and humor of a middle-aged man who’d already been through more than his share of adventures. Although Markham, his narrator, never seems to know what’s going to happen from moment to moment, the reader can’t help but catch the whiff of impending doom early on, and it’s no great surprise when it comes.

What I find most interesting about this book is simply the notion that a man with almost thirty years’ experience of working at sea, mastering the craft and sciences of navigation, sailing, propulsion, shipbuilding, and civil engineering, would pick up a pen and write this rollercoaster ride through the world of hype, gimmicks, and entrepeneurship. Riesenberg revels in the absurdity of Tangerman’s ventures and seems to have delighted in being able to pick the names of his characters: Punderwell Moore; Springer Platterly; Chauncey Wilber Tambey; Saxe Gubelstein; Jesspole McTwiller. (No one ever does find out what the initials P. A. L. stand for, though).

And then from this first novel, Riesenberg went on to write at least four others, all of them sweeping in scope, with dozens of characters up and down the social strata, and several (particularly Endless River) fairly experimental for their time.

While I don’t think P.A.L. should be considered a neglected masterpiece, it is a lively and self-confident novel than stands (in terms of literary merit) only a step or two back from Norris’ books (neither of which are really masterpieces, either, but better known for their historical importance). I’ve picked up three other Riesenberg novels, along with his 1937 autobiography, Living Again, and plan to spend some of the next months reviewing the fictional output of this remarkable man.

P. A. L.: A Novel of the American Scene, by Felix Riesenberg
New York City: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1925

A Sunset Touch, by Moira Pearce

Cover of US paperback edition of 'A Sunset Touch'I found A Sunset Touch in the Internet Archive, which is interesting, as the book was published in 1960 by Scribner’s, so you’d think its copyright would have been renewed. A cursory check of the online U. S. copyright catalog failed to locate any registrations for Moira Pearce or this book in particular, however, so it seems legit. It’s one of dozens entered into the archive from the collections of Osmania University in Hyderabad, India. These include titles such as Sinclair Lewis’s late novel, Cass Timberlane and John Hersey’s 1960 novel, The Child Buyer that certainly are still under copyright.

In any case, legal or not, here is a perfect example of a forgotten book. A Sunset Touch was published by a major mainstream house, earned favorable, if not exceptional, reviews in Kirkus Reviews and a few other national publications, and was reissued as a mass market paperback. Now, the paperback publisher, Macfadden Books, has also since become forgotten, but at the time it was putting out best sellers such as Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Pearce published one other novel, Upstairs at the Bull Run, in 1971. Kirkus placed this book “in Josephine Lawrence country” (no doubt comparing it to Remember When We Had a Doorman?) and was equally positive in its assessment. But her second book earned no paperback release and appears to have marked the end of her publishing career. Since then, if anyone took any note of her work in print, I’ve been unable to find it.

I probably wouldn’t have given A Sunset Touch a second look had the book’s first paragraph not seemed too likeable and eccentric to pass up:

The church in Leicester wasn’t an old one, having been built in the 1920s after the original had burnt down. Designed by an architect who soon afterwards turned to farming, it was constructed inexpensively out of the local stone, which, happening to be marble, lent it a certain dignity. Neither inside nor outside had it much beauty or grace. On this breathless July day the presence in a coffin of Medusa Nash gave the church a certain interest macabre perhaps it didn’t otherwise have.

Medusa’s friends note the contrast between the body in the open casket and the woman they had known, the result of the handiwork of Mrs. Greef, the undertaker’s wife and self-taught beautician:

…[T]he thick, wildly curling hair that was responsible for her name and that Medusa during her lifetime had seldom, if ever, submitted to a hairdresser, preferring the more individual look she achieved herself with a pair of nail scissors, this hair was now pressed flat to her skull and set with an iron in
tight, formal waves. She had been vain of her long eyelashes and customarily coated them heavily with mascara, outlining the lids with black pencil, but since the idea of eye makeup had never impinged on Mrs, Greeff’s consciousness Medusa’s face now appeared for the first and last time in public without it.

In the course of Medusa’s service and funeral, we are introduced to most of the major characters in the book. They are a mix of wealthy and middle-class–but all middle-aged–residents of an area of rural Massachussetts popular with weekend visitors and escapees from Boston. Together, they indulge in a heavy amount of drinking, a moderate amount of commentary on the local yokels, and an occasional venture into adultery.

In the course of two hundred-some pages, not much really happens. There is a weak attempt at an affair, and several attempts by Medusa’s sister-in-law to dump her brother, the surviving spouse and a partially-disabled stroke victim, on one of the group. And there are several parties where the idiosyncracies of the various friends are displayed:

Cora, though she loved all her dogs passionately, did not believe in ruining their figures by providing them with more than one sketchy meal a day, that is, if someone remembered to set it out. Aristocratically lean in the haunches they would sit at your feet and watch you gloomily as you ate canapes. Occasionally,
summoning up a burst of energy, one would slap a grimy paw onto your knee and pant up at you in a desperate plea for a handout before lapsing back into its anemia-induced torpor.

In one way or another, most of them spend some time contemplating what lies ahead on their lives’ downhill slopes. Throughout the book, there is a grim, grey backdrop to its otherwise lightly comic tone:

Where another woman might call on the vet for assistance in putting down the excess animal population, she took matters into her own hands. “After all,” she’d tell you briskly in her flute-like accents, “animals have no souls, what is the use of getting sentimental about them?” Also, the vet, with his fancy gas chambers and humanitarian injections, ran into money. So every so often Cora got out a certain sack,
filled it with puppies or kittens and descended, cheerfully humming a hymn tune, to finish them off in the brook below the house.

In the end, no one is much changed or much the wiser, and the story just sort of fades out.

So is this a justly or unjustly neglected book? I guess it depends on whether one decides based on literary merit or reading pleasure. On the first criterion, A Sunset Touch is certainly no milestone in the development of the novel. Aside from a certain post-Peyton Place relaxation of morals, it could have been written twenty or thirty years earlier. There are no stylistic risks taken and the omniscient narrator’s perspective is essentially the same as that taken by Tolstoy a hundred years earlier. And the book is weak from a structural standpoint, as Pearce constructs a promising opening around Medusa’s funeral and then dissipates its potential in following the various characters down a series of paths that lead nowhere in particular.

On the basis of reading pleasure, however, A Sunset Touch represents about four hours’ worth of intelligent, amusing observations of people and all their minor flaws and foibles. On the comic spectrum, it sits to the right of Wodehouse and to the left of Jane Austen–not quite ridiculous, not quite elegant. And perhaps its moderation is the reason A Sunset Touch has been forgotten.

After all, the economics of book-buying and book-reading hinge on perceptions of relative value. It’s rarely a question of, “To read or not to read?” Instead, it’s a question of “Do I read this or do I read that?” And mildly amusing and mildly thought-provoking books are just too easy to pass over. Moira Pearce had no prior work on which to base a reputation, as as the paperback cover above demonstrates, even her publishers didn’t know how to pitch this book. Had she written it thirty years before, she might have at least gained the critical support that the Saturday Review and other journals put behind the works of Humphrey Pakington (who?)–another writer of mildly comic novels I plan to feature sometime soon.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, then you’ve probably had enough of a taste of A Sunset Touch to make your own relative judgment. For my part, I can say that I enjoyed finding out just what kind of a book it was, and I will be happy to pick up a copy of Upstairs at the Bull Run if I ever stumble across one. On the other hand, I won’t just go right to Amazon and order it, as I have a great stack of other books that appear to have equal or higher relative value. But I’m sure that I’m not the only one who won’t regret setting aside a few hours to discover this fine but forgotten book.

A Sunset Touch, by Moira Pearce

New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960

Americans in Glasshouses, by Leslie James

“What’s so funny ’bout Peace, Love and Understanding?,” Nick Lowe once asked in a song. But there’s nothing funny about them, of course, which is why there are times in each of our lives when Hatred and Intolerance bust through our better selves like the Tasmanian Devil. Which is usually a mistake.

But there are rare times when giving in to our lower devils is as satisfying as picking at a scab and watching it come off clean. I suspect Leslie James felt that way throughout the entire process of writing this book.

Americans in Glasshouses is a straight-faced dissertation, written in the voice of a dispassionate scholar, on the subject of what is wrong with Americans and why. The situation, as James saw it back in 1950, when the book was first published, was, at the root, very simple:

    AMERICANS feel they are the most insecure people on earth. That is natural, because they have:

    1. A highly competitive culture in which no one can feel himself to be permanently successful.
    2. A compulsive need to consume.
    3. An unhealthy and woman-dominated family-structure.
    4. No culture.
    5. A political system which no mature people would tolerate.
    6. No souls.
    7. Much more than their just share of the world’s goods.

Ah, to have the confidence of such unadulterated prejudices.

Of course, sixty years later, this is still both stereotype and uncomfortably close to the truth.

James’ aim is “to standardize the diverse impressions about America in European minds.” There is such nonsense written and said about America in Europe, argues this serious-minded academic, and it leaves too many merely confused. If only Europeans could gain a real understanding of America, then they would be able to teach Americans to conduct themselves properly. And what is proper conduct? Why, “in the manner English gentlemen thought other Englishmen should conduct themselves, when England was the leading Power in the world,” of course.

James writes with the power of authority, authority gained from close study and painstaking analysis. He is familiar with all the latest research and an experienced traveler who has seen every corner of the country. This is why he can assure, as he does in one of the many scholarly asides footnoted on almost every page, that, “All people who do not read The New Yorker are forced to live in the suburban equivalent of city slums, referred to as ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’ Those who do not read the Reader’s Digest either, are forced to live on the tracks. Neither group is permitted to own a station-wagon or join a country club.”

This is, of course, utter nonsense, and if you’ve made it to this point in the book, you’ve already figured out that this is a book-length counterfeit, as fake as a three dollar bill. And as deft and successful as a hat trick.

It’s clear within a few pages that this is all tongue-in-cheek and artfully pompous. And if that’s all it were, this would have been better done as a three-page piece in Punch. What makes Americans in Glasshouses worth reading after sixty years is that it’s still a good old-fashioned hoot. James’ stereotypes are occasionally a bit long in the tooth (though I guess that cocktail parties are sort of coming back), but always so overblown that it’s hard not to smile:

As is well-known outside America, Americans lack souls. This makes them even simpler to understand. It makes them both simple and simple-minded. (Souls are notoriously correlated with complexity, and therefore with higher mental development.) It is therefore unnecessary to go below the surface to learn about Americans, because most of them only live on the surface.

And it’s impossible for James’ windbag scholar not to let more than a few equally amusing stereotypes about the English slip in:

Everyone in Europe knows that American children are badly brought up. This is because their parents bring them up themselves instead of using nannies and boarding schools.

Thus, reading Americans in Glasshouses comes to seem like a guilt-free vacation from tolerance and understanding.

Copies of Americans in Glasshouses are available on Amazon for as little as $1.98, but you can get electronic versions free at the Internet Archive:

Americans in Glasshouses, by Leslie James
New York City: Henry Schuman, Inc., 1950

A Dream of Treason, by Maurice Edelman

Cover of UK paperback edition of 'A Dream of Treason'Elected at the age of 34 as the member for Coventry in the Labour wave that swept Churchill out of as Prime Minister after VE Day, Maurice Edelman served in Parliament until his death 30 years later. And while he may not have enjoyed the historical fame of Disraeli or the sales of Jeffery Archer, he may be the supreme representative of that exclusive class, the British MP-slash-novelist. Between 1951 and 1974, he published over a dozen novels, along with a handful of non-fiction works.

While I wouldn’t call him a great writer, Edelman was certainly adept at producing novels that managed to be both entertaining and intelligent. His paperback publishers tended to slap racy covers on his books in blatant attempts to convince unsuspecting browsers into thinking them essentially indistinguishable from other shelf fodder. One can picture copies of A Dream of Treason or Shark Island or Disraeli in Love next to the finest works of Erle Stanley Gardner, Mac Bolan or Barbara Cartland. Had he been more of a publicity hound, he might even have been able to boost his numbers into Jeffery Archer’s range.

If you were to judge by their covers–and if they weren’t pandering, they were just boring–you’d think Edelman’s books fully deserve their fate today: utterly forgotten and disregarded. But good things sometimes hide behind terrible packaging. Flip past the title page of any of his novels, and you will find material far more subtle, sophisticated and intelligent that you’d have reason to suspect.

A Dream of Treason, his third novel (1955), is a perfect example. Its protagonist, Martin Lambert, is a mid-level civil servant in the Foreign Office who appears to be doomed to spend the rest of his career in mediocrity. Lambert is married to an alcoholic who’s spent her recent years hopping into Lambert’s colleague’s beds, spending months in institutions, or making scenes at embassy affairs–in other words, a frightful liaibility for an aspiring diplomat. Too unstable a property to risk putting her husband in more prominent positions.

Until he’s approached by Brangwyn, the brash and ambitious new Foreign Secretary, with a proposal to pass some controversial state papers to a radical French journalist. It is a patently treasonous act, and Brangwyn has marked Lambert as someone just desperate enough to do it, in return for a posting that will give his career a second wind. The deal is made, and Lambert makes the drop in a quiet room of the National Gallery, looking forward to a move to Tokyo.

And then Brangwyn dies in a plane crash, leaving Lambert with no posting, no protector, and no alibi. The leaked material makes the expected splash in the French press, and the Foreign Office security officers begin hunting for its source. Lambert is quickly suspected but the investigation is pursued with typical bureaucratic deliberation–which means he is allowed to spend days wondering about his fate and his options. Edelman is quite effective in portraying the plight of a man who is about to be caught and has no good way out.

But he is at his best in capturing the intricate interplay between politics and bureaucracy that defines the workings of British government. The permanence of the Civil Service and the transcience of part-led governments creates an environment where the leaders can often find themselves subordinated to the people who are meant to follow them. Lambert’s biggest mistake, the Permanent Undersecretary–the senior civil servant in the Foreign Office–points out to him, was to put his faith in a politician rather than in his own kind:

“I’ll tell you this, Martin. The politician’s never been born who in the long run can stand up to a determined Civil Servant. Oh, I know that some tough Minister can come along and throw his weight about. He’ll stir up the Department study the functional diagram say he wants this and that. And then he’ll have to go off to a dinner or a conference or to a Cabinet meeting. And in the meantime, the Civil Servant will be co-operating with his great ally inertia. Inertia: it’s eminent among the graces.”

Edelman is at his worst, however, when he wanders from office and club into the realm of sex. There is a romance, between Lambert and a girl of nineteen. It is veddy British and veddy icky: “He put his arm around her waist and from there, under her left armpit, and they walked together slowly and with out speaking towards the light of the postern-gate, while beneath his fingers, he felt her breast, firm and pendant in the rhythm of their motion.” This is low, not love.

If you can overlook the ham-fisted attempts at romance, A Dream of Treason is remarkably successful as a thinking person’s entertainment, the sort of thing you read as a nice break between weightier books. I’ve ordered a couple more of Edelman’s novels for just such occasions.

You can find electronic copies of A Dream of Treason online at the Internet Archive:

A Dream of Treason, by Maurice Edelman
New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1955

The Red Monarch, by Yuri Krotkov

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Red Monarch'In his 2002 book, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, Martin Amis wrote, “it has always been possible to joke about the Soviet Union, just as it has never been possible to joke about Nazi Germany.” When Penguin released the paperback edition of Yuri Krotkov’s 1979 novel, The Red Monarch: Scenes from the Life of Stalin, the cover featured a pencil sketch of Stalin topped by a big red clown’s nose, clearly demonstrating that the Soviet dictator had already reached the point where he could be treated with ridicule.

Krotkov’s purpose in writing The Red Monarch was not comic, though the book is full of moments of gallows humor, schadenfreude and even a few authentic jokes. Born within days of the October Revolution, Krotkov grew up surrounded by the image and impact of Stalin. “I never met Stalin and I never talked to him,” he writes in his introduction, “But for thirty-five years I lived with this man, day and night, voluntarily and involuntarily, thinking about him and knowing that my destiny depended on him and his personal reasoning.”

In The Red Monarch, combines historical fact and personal imagination to create a series of set pieces, each depicting an incident involving someone confronting Stalin at the height of his powers. The first date from the middle of the Second World War; the last deal with his death and its aftermath.

The famines, the first waves of the Great Terror, the show trials and the worst days of the German invasion are all behind him at this stage. Everyone who deals with Stalin–including men like Beria and Vlasek, who control much of the terror system and know the worst that it has carried out–come into his presence a bit like a lowly feeder into the cage of a great lion with violent instincts and hair-trigger reactions.

Krotkov does a marvelous job of conveying the ambient sense of terror that could turn a conversation about something as mundane as a pair of slippers into a veiled threat of being sent off to a firing squad or the gulag:

“And what is that on your feet, Comrade Shaposhnikov?”
“Night shoes … my wife brought them from Leningrad … as a gift.”
“Ah, that’s what they are … slippers.”
“No, Josif Vissarionovich, they are not slippers,” Shaposhnikov corrected Stalin, “they are night shoes. Slippers usually have no backs, but these …”
“No, Comrade Shaposhnikov, they are slippers, slippers.” Stalin repeated stubbornly, “and do not argue with me.”
“So they are slippers …”
“If I say they are slippers, Comrade Shaposhnikov, that means they are slippers. Right?”

But it is not enough to prove that night shoes can only be slippers. Stalin must draw out the most insidious intent from them:

“When she gave me these night shoes …”
“Slippers, slippers!”
“… she said, ‘Wear these in good health, so you will be comfortable when you are on guard, and so there will be no unnecessary noise when you walk up to Comrade Stalin at night to cover him or fix his pillow.”
“Thank your wife, Comrade Shaposhnikov, for her double consideration, for you and for me. How was it that Seraphima put it: ‘So that there will be no unnecessary noise when you walk up to him at night….’ Interesting. What had your wife in mind, Comrade Shaposhnikov?”
“Felt absorbs noise. That is, in these … slippers, it is possible to come up to a person and he will not hear you.”
“Will not?”
Stalin’s mustache twitched slightly and his right eye suddenly squinted. But Shaposhnikov did not notice this.
“You said, Comrade Shaposhnikov, that it is possible to come up to a person so that he will not even suspect it. Is that not so?”
“That is so,” Shaposhnikov answered.
“In other words, in these slippers it’s possible, in your view, to come up to a person from behind and kill him during his sleep. And, in your view, it’s quite easy to do. Right?”

Krotkov’s Stalin is almost feline in his pleasure in toying with his victims as they lay before him, paralyzed with terror. In a number of the episodes, he lets the victim go, confident that he can repeat the torture at a moment’s notice.

Krotkov, a writer with KGB links who defected to the West while in the UK on a tour in 1963, grew up in Georgia and had many Georgian friends, including the actor Mikhail Gelovani, who played Stalin in numerous films such as The Fall of Berlin. This gave him an advantage in portraying Stalin, and the book includes several pieces focusing on Stalin’s relationships with Georgian colleagues and friends–which were even more complicated than those with Russians. Even Gelovani features in a chapter titled, “The Two Stalins,” in which Stalin repeatedly teases the actor: should he be praised for the accuracy of his portrayal? Or attacked for caricaturing Stalin?

I’ve read a fair number of books about Stalin and the Soviet era, such as Orlando Figes’ Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, but The Red Monarch impresses me as the most succinct summation of the bizarre web of intrigue and fear that Stalin was able to create around him. It’s sharp as a razor, and like a razor, not to be picked up without due care and respect. I recommend it, as well as The Nobel Prize, Krotkov’s similar mediation of the experiences of Boris Pasternak following the international acclaim of Doctor Zhivago.

The Red Monarch: Scenes from the Life of Stalin, by Yuri Krotkov
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979

The First Bus Out, by Eugene Löhrke

One by one, an assortment of characters enter a bus station from the darkness of an early morning, and purchase tickets for their destinations: Bronxville, Greenwich, Siracusa, Salzburg, Washington, D.C. and the Newark airport. “The first bus out,” the ticket agent tells them.

This is the first tip-off that Eugene Löhrke’s 1935 novel, The First Bus Out, is not about the usual bus trip.

All the travellers climb up the rear entrance when the bus finally pulls in, and pile into seats in the back. Surrounded by fog and drizzle, with nothing but an occasional street light or the vague outline of buildings or hills, the bus seems to be lost in a world unto itself. “Thick shadows, gray and black, muffled the painted steel-arch of the ceiling like a dense upholstery. Rapt eyes gazed straight ahead at the blank, dull windshield or out of the leaden windows, seizing casually on each recognizable fragment of landmark, dropping it into the deep soothing vacuum of inertia and speed.”

It doesn’t take long, of course, to figure out what’s going on. The only way all these people could travel on a bus that would need to hit all points on the compass is if they’re really headed for the same destination. Löhrke was not the first to come up with this premise. Sutton Vane’s 1923 play, “Outward Bound,”, brought seven people together in the lounge of an ocean liner, and discover eventually that they’re in the waiting room for Heaven and Hell. It’s also a situation that allowed the writers of “Lost” to work their way out of the convoluted web of concidences they’d spent six seasons weaving.

To Löhrke’s credit, the gimmicks stop as soon as his cast is on board the bus. For the next two hundred pages, we wander through their thoughts, learning a little–but not too much–about them. Mrs. William Godfrey Horton, an imperious dowager who treats the meek Mrs. Harold Strong sitting beside her with contempt, turns out to have only transformed her drunken, abusive and unfaithful husband into the pillar of virtue she wanted when he did her the favor of dying. Myron Baxter, a liberal writer, comes to realize he has nothing to offer the masses he’s spent his time trying to lead into revolt. The only passenger who seems to have no regrets or misgivings is Schiavoni, a Mafia hitman with a gun nestled inside his jacket.

Every once in a while, one of them notices the white, terrified face of a young girl who rises up from behind the driver to scream, but the sound never penetrates his stream of thoughts.

And that’s all that happens, essentially. At the very end, we do follow the thoughts of Mr. Mole, a sad and lonely physics professor, in the last moments as he commits suicide and finds himself back at the beginning, waiting in the bus station. Oddly, however, the lack of action does nothing to detract from book’s enjoyment. Löhrke creates a mosaic from bits of memories from each character, but his touch is usually light and subtle and no one comes to any dramatic realization. The truth is always a little hard to bring into focus, much like the landscape seen through the bus’s window.

Taking a note from Graham Greene, I would class The First Bus Out as an entertainment rather than a novel. For me, it offered a couple evenings’ worth of interesting reading and belongs in a class with Herbert Clyde Lewis’ elegant and grimly comic Gentleman Overboard.

Löhrke was a veteran of World War One who’d worked as a newspaper reporter and translator when he took up fiction in the early 1930s. He wrote a total of four novels, but when he and his wife moved to England in the late 1930s, he focused on nonfiction, writing several books that dealt with events just before and after the outbreak of World War Two. It appears that his health was damaged during duty with the U.S. Army during the war, as he published little afterwards and died at the age of 56 in 1953.

The First Bus Out, by Eugene Löhrke
New York and London: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1935

My Life: or the Adventures of Geo. Thompson by George Thompson

If you’re in the mood for some cheap–heck, free–lowbrow reading, I can recommend George Thompson’s brief autobiography, My Life: or the Adventures of Geo. Thompson, which you can find at Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive. Thompson offers up a double murder plus suicide, blackmail, robbery, gambling, teenage drunkenness, prostitution, child abuse, and adultery–and that’s just in the first three chapters.

George Thompson’s name won’t be found in too many histories of American literature. That’s because his claim to fame was as perhaps our country’s first great writers of trash. Thompson wrote dozens, maybe hundreds of works with such titles as Venus in Boston, The Gay Girls of New-York, The Mysteries of Bond Street, Adventures of a Sofa, and The Amorous Adventures of Lola Montes, which were as popular and pandering in their day as, say, “Jersey Shore” or “Date My Ex” are today. As David S. Reynolds puts it in an entry on “Sensational Fiction”, “Among the kinds of sexual activity Thompson depicts are adultery, miscegenation, group sex, incest, child sex, and gay sex.” These books were sold by publishers advertising “Rich, Rare and Racy Reading,” and sold for 25 or 50 cents–equivalent to $50 to $100 today, if Internet inflation calculators are reliable.

No surprise, then, that he lays the melodrama on thick when it comes to telling his own life’s story. He runs away from home after knocking his uncle down a staircase and quickly meets up with one Jack Slack, a thief and swell barely older than him, who proceeds to introduce Thompson to beer and champagne. Before the night is over, they’ve met up with a prostitute and fallen into a card game. “What wonder is it that I became a reckless, dissipated individual, careless of myself, my interests, my fame and fortune?,” Thompson reflects.

Methinks he doth protest too much.

He gets a job working as a printer’s apprentice, but the work is, of course, merely the pretext for introducing us into the tangled affairs of the printer and his wife, both of whom are cheating on the other. This soon leads to one of the book’s many dramatic climaxes, as the enraged husband offers the wife one final choice:

With these words, Romaine cocked his pistol and approached his wife, saying, in a low, savage tone that evinced the desperate purpose of his heart—

“Take your choice, madam; do you prefer to die by lead or by steel?”

The miserable woman threw herself upon her knees, exclaiming—

“Mercy, husband—mercy! Do not kill me, for I am not prepared to die!”

“You call me husband now—you, who have so long refused to receive me as a husband. Come—I am impatient to shed your blood, and that of your paramour. Breathe a short prayer to Heaven, for mercy and forgiveness, and then resign your body to death and your soul to eternity!”

So saying the desperate and half-crazy man raised on high the glittering knife. Poor Mrs. Romaine uttered a shriek, and, before she could repeat it, the knife descended with the swiftness of lightning, and penetrated her heart. Her blood spouted all over her white dress, and she sank down at the murderer’s feet, a lifeless corpse!

Now that experience would have been enough for a lifetime for most folks, but it’s just the beginning in Thompson’s case.

Eventually, after a detour into acting, a jail break, a few dozen romantic entanglements and enough other scandals that one soon gives up keeping track, Thompson decides to head to the peace and civility of Brahmin Boston. Oddly, however, for a man who made his fortune on telling other people’s secrets, Thompson took great offense at the prying nature of Bostonians:

A stranger goes among them, and forthwith inquisitive whispers concerning him begin to float about like feathers in the air. “Who is he? What is he? Where did he come from? What’s his business? Has he got any money? (Great emphasis is laid on this question.) Is he married, or single? What are his habits? Is he a temperance man? Does he smoke—does he drink—does he chew? Does he go to meeting on Sundays? What religious denomination does he belong to? What are his politics? Does he use profane language? What time does he go to bed—and what time does he get up? Wonder what he had for dinner to-day?” &c., &c., &c.

Thompson spends just one year in Boston before heading back to the fleshpots of New York, which is where the book comes to an end. Not, however, before he has a chance to swear that “not one single word of fiction or exaggeration has been introduced into these pages.”

And I am Marie of Roumania.

My Life; or The Adventures of George Thompson, Being the Autobiography of an Author
Boston: Federhen, 1854

The Bachelors, by Henri de Montherlant

One could almost believe that Balzac wrote The Bachelors (Les Célibataires) in 1834, and not Henri de Montherlant in 1934. There are so many echoes of Balzac in Montherlant’s novels: the squalor of pretentious people falling deeper and deeper into debt; the meanness of relatives turning their backs on the spectacle of poverty; the unquenchable thirst for delusions to shelter one from the bitterness of reality. But it took a 20th century sensibility to take two miserable, useless characters such as the Baron Elie de Coëtquidan and Léon, comte de Coantré, his nephew–a couple of faded aristocrats living on the fumes of long-ago squandered fortunes–and grind them down to squalid, humiliating deaths.

That hardly makes this sound like a book you’d want to crawl in bed with, I admit, and it might seem crazy to suggest that The Bachelors could hold its own beside some of the best novels of the 19th century. It’s so rich in its characterizations, so full of wonderful details and mannerisms.

But imagine Dickens without the tiniest hint of sentimentality. Imagine David Copperfield dying cold, sick and hungry along the road to Dover instead of making it to the warmth of his aunt’s house, and you get a sense of how ruthless Montherlant can be toward his characters. “The tragic thing about anxious people is that they always have cause for anxiety,” he observes at one point, which illustrates the kind of cold, scientific objectivity with which he relates these sad, tragic stories.

What really distinguishes The Bachelors in my mind is that Montherlant manages to be pitiless without becoming cruel, to be grim but not bitter. This is not a satire. Montherlant doesn’t try to skew the story to make a point about the inadequacy of an older generation. This is just an unblinking look at failure. Which also makes it absolutely riveting. The experience of reading The Bachelors is a bit like the old saying about watching a car wreck: “It hurts to look, but you just can’t turn away.”

The Bachelors was originally translated into English by Thomas McGeevy and published as Lament for the Death of an Upper Class by John Miles in 1935. Terence Kilmartin, who translated several other works by Montherlant, released a second English translation, using a literal translation of the French title, in 1960. I picked up McGeevy’s translation and started it, thinking I’d found a long-forgotten work by Montherlant, until I realized it was actually The Bachelors. I thought McGeevy’s version was pretty good, but Kilmartin’s is far easier to locate, having been reissued several times, by Penguin and Quartet.

The Bachelors, by Henri de Montherlant, translated by Terence Kilmartin
London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960

Death Sty: A Pig’s Tale, by Raymond Cousse

Cover of first French edition of 'Death Sty' (original title, 'Strategie pour deux jambons')Cover of first US edition of 'Death Sty: A Pig's Tale'It would be hard to come up with a worse title for this novel than Death Sty. Regardless of whether it was the translator, Richard Miller, or the publisher, Grove Press, who chose the title, it’s an act of literary sabotage.

The French title of this 1978 novel by Raymond Cousse is Stratégie pour deux jambons–or, in English, Strategy for Two Hams. Admittedly, that’s still not the most appealing title one could imagine, but it’s certainly more cerebral than visceral, which is more in keeping with the book’s style.

The full English title–Death Sty: A Pig’s Tale–is, however, a case of truth in advertising, though that’s a bit like saying that KFC should be renamed “Hot Dead Chicken to Go.” This slim book, just 96 pages long, is the interior monologue of a male pig, living in one of the hundreds or thousands of pens in a finishing plant, waiting to be slaughtered.

But this is not a story of poor beasts being brutalized. The nameless narrator of Death Sty takes a very French approach to his situation. Rather than bemoan his fate, he uses his last hours to work out his raison d’être:

I am alone now, and all indications are that I will be until the end. Which will not, I can sense, be long in coming. However, I can’t complain. Indeed, do I have any reason to complain? Uneviable as I may find it, is my fate not being shared? I am forced to acknowledge that such comparisons have always somewhat escaped me. And I know some–even humans–who would readily trade places with me.

The area where I have been installed is sufficient to my needs and answers to my wants. I am unable to tell whether the premises are longer than they are wide, or vice versa. However, I like to think they are at least as wide as they are long. For some reason, the notion of being able to move freely within a square is a comfort to me.

This is a Stoic pig: “I will be slaughtered following accepted process, and consummatum est.” He does not intend to resist his fate. Instead, he spend much of his time constructing an elaborate mental image of the slaughterhouse, its systems, and the whole process by which his being will be transformed into food and then back again into waste:

The cycle of alimentation does not proceed only in one direction. If those in high places enjoy our products, can it be denied that we in turn profit from their castoffs, in the form of slops regularly sent down to the base. Any insinuation that these slops fall down of their own accord reveals a low mind. For that matter, there can be no argument about the efforts the authorities are always making to speed up production.

“One day, I tell myself, your slice of me will be wafted to the 82nd floor, up to the presidency itself,” he thinks, although he cautions himself: “Perhaps that’s bragging a bit too much.”

Cousse, whose few other works–none of them yet translated into English–reveal a sly satirical bent, manages to be both subversive and cynical in Death Sty. On the one hand, the book takes its place in a long line of works dating back to Swift, Kafka and Orwell, mocking the aspirations of people in an ever-expanding structure of systems and processes. Cousse’ narrator is a happy cog on a great big wheel of commerce. “I am a law-abiding hog,” the pig proclaims proudly. “So long as I control my merchandise, not one iota will be diverted from the legal market.”

In fact, he dreams of a future when the process will achieve its ultimate level of efficiency: “The time is not far distant when the hog will be able to forgo their assistance and take his factor into his own hands”: “A trajectory without any hitches, completely planned from womb to package.”

At the same time, Cousse translates Stoicism from the classical past to the technological present. It was Seneca, after all, who wrote that “Man’s ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he is born.” Cousse’s pig understands and accepts his purpose and derives a sense of peace from it. Indeed, Cousse draws a parallel between the pig and Christ at the Last Supper: “And joining action to words, I add: take, eat, this is my ham; and behold my tripes that are offered for you, and drink my blood before it coagulates, but only grant that we may lay aside our quarrels so that we can offer to the world the image of a body united in its purpose.”

So, despite its atrocious title, Death Sty turns out to be a work that’s far more likely to be a cause for reflection than revulsion. Those who can get past the cover will discover that rare thing, a mesmerizing philosophical piece.

I have to thank my colleague, Eric Lièvre, for recommending this book. In France, by the way, Stratégie pour deux jambons has been transformed into a monologue for the stage. You can find a clip from one production at

Death Sty: A Pig’s Tale, by Raymond Cousse, translated by Richard Miller
New York City: Grove Press, 1980

Diary of a Self-Made Convict, by Alfred Hassler

Cover of the first US edition of 'Diary of a Self-Made Convict'In the spring of 1944, nearly two and a half years after registering with the Selective Service as a conscientious objector, Alfred Hassler was sentenced to three years in Federal prison for refusing to accept the draft or participate in an approved civilian program. Had his hearing been held a week later, he would have been released, as the Selective Service stopped drafting men of his age (34). Instead, however, he spent almost a year in the Lewisburg, Pennsylvania penetentiary, until he was pardoned in March 1945.

Hassler assembled his Diary of a Self-Made Convict from his prison journal and letters to his wife and friends. The book wasn’t published until almost ten years after his sentencing. It’s a unique document, as Hassler was far from a typical prisoner. A member of the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest organization in the U.S. devoted to nonviolence, he was married, well-educated and, as his title indicates, something of a self-made convict in that he could have chosen to serve as a conscientious objector without going to prison.

Hassler wasn’t separated or isolated from other prisoners, and mixed freely with bank robbers, racketeers, rapists, and murderers. It’s clear he was an approachable guy who gained the trust of a wide variety of men–both prisoners and prison officials–easily, and he recorded the stories of dozens of his fellow inmates: from a black man busted for heroin use to “Nucky” Johnson, one-time political boss of Atlantic City. At the time, Federal prisons were full not just of “traditional” prisoners but also draft-dodgers, deserters, conscientious objectors and suspected spies such as members of the German Bund. As a result, Diary of a Self-Made Convict portrays a remarkable cross-section of 1940s American society, or at least a peculiar subset of it.

Although Hassler seems by nature to have been a discreet and gentle man, he is frank about the worst aspects of prison life. He notes that effeminate men are preyed upon and is approached at least once by a prisoner looking for a homosexual partner. Masturbation–or, as one of the prison’s psychologists refers to it, “learning to live with yourself”–he finds “widely–almost universally–practiced.” Racism is institutionalized, with blacks segregated from the white inmates through a variety of Jim Crow measures. He observes theft, brutality, and intimidation–and also despair:

Last night some wild geese passed overhead, flying low. Their honking was quite clear as they flew south, and for just a moment I caught a glimpse of the long “V” of their flight silhouetted against the patch of sky visible from my cubicle. At the very moment of their passage, from some other near-by cell I could barely hear the deep, almost silent sobs of one of my fellow convicts. It is no longer a novel sound, but it wrenches my whole spirit with wretchedness whenever I hear it. During the day, the men maintain the cloak of bravado in which they wrap their self-respect; at night, alone in the darkness, their grief and fright sometimes become too much for them to bear.

I suppose that the very unpopularity of their subject keeps prison books from staying in print for too long. Malcolm Braly’s classic, On the Yard, is out again as a New York Review Classic, but that’s something like the third or fourth time it’s been reissued over the course of the last forty-some years. Still, I’m surprised that Diary of a Self-Made Convict hasn’t attained at least an equal or better standing. It’s a simple, honest, objective and well-written account of prison life that makes it quite clear that even a man who made a deliberate choice to go–and then served less than a year–found it a soul-testing experience. If learning about prison is part of a basic education in life, and I think it is, then it would be tough to find a better basic text than Diary of a Self-Made Convict.

[Diary of a Self-Made Convict is, in fact, in print from a company that calls itself Literary Licensing, LLC. and appears to be a small-time operator in the direct-to-print, copyright-free publishing business. But I recommend finding a used copy instead via Amazon or AddAll.]

Diary of a Self-Made Convict, by Alfred Hassler
Chicago, Illinois: Henry Regnery Company, 1954

Worth Remembering: Books by Some of My UW Professors

Stumbling across the text of The Politics of Irish Literature, written by Malcolm Brown, who taught a survey of 20th century English novels I took in my sophomore year at the University of Washington, I was reminded of a number of my UW professors whose books qualify for a notice on this site.

My own copy of Politics has Dr. Brown’s autograph on the inside flap. Published by the University of Washington Press in 1972, it fared better than the average academic work. Reviewing for the London Evening Standard, Michael Foot wrote that, “Mr. Brown’s masterpiece has made me want to hire a nearby housetop and recite whole chunks to every passerby…,” and Sean O’Faolain called it, “A brilliant study … Reading it one feels about one the breath, warmth, and passions of the dead all come alive again.” You can find the full text of Politics and Brown’s equally well-regarded study of George Moore: A Reconsideration can be found online at, a site run by Brown’s son, Bruce.

I long ago devoted a Sources page to Roger Sales’ article, “Neglected Recent American Novels,”, from the Winter 1979 issue of The American Scholar. I took Sales’ nonfiction writing course in my junior year, and it remains the single most useful class I’ve ever had. Sales expected his students to turn in a piece of 3-5 pages on a set topic twice a week. His goal was, by sheer volume and frequency, to teach how to get from first to final draft in the shortest possible time. It’s a skill I rely upon almost every working day.

Sales’ most popular book–still in print after over 30 years–is Seattle: Past and Present, which has become the standard history of the city. His most influential book, Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White (Harvard Paperbacks) (1979), played a major role in bringing children’s literature into the academic curriculum and remains one of the best introductions to the subject.

Although he’d retired by the time I entered the University, Giovanni Costigan still occasionally delivered lecture series, and I had the privilege to attend one of his last, on “Makers of Modern History.” Costigan was something of a local legend for a famous 1971 debate he had with William F. Buckley on the Vietnam War. It filled the University’s Edmondson Pavilion to capacity and was broadcast on the UW’s PBS station. With his wild shock of snow-white hair, rich Irish brogue and feisty style, Costigan was quite a contrast to Buckley’s slicked-back hair and purring Eastern aristocratic tone, and even my deeply-Republican grandfather rated Costigan the winner in the end.

Costigan wrote several books, including a short biography of Freud that Colliers published in paperback in 1968 and a history of modern Ireland. Makers of Modern England: The Force of Individual Genius in History is probably the best example of Costigan’s writing. He was very much in the spirit of Thomas Carlyle and such masters of biographical sketches as Gamaliel Bradford and Stefan Zweig–perhaps not the style in favor today, but wonderful reading if you’re willing to have your historians pass judgment on their subject’s characters.

Another professor emeritus I had the honor to get to know was W. Stull Holt. I was taking a course on World War One from Dr. Donald Emerson, and for some reason my interest in the subject–and probably the fact that I was in officer training–led him to invite me to lunch with Holt one day. Holt–a former Chairman of the University’s History department and one-time head of the American Historical Assocation–had joined the American Ambulance Field Service in 1917 and served with John Dos Passos, e.e. cummings, and others on the Western Front. He enlisted in the American Army after the U.S. entered the war, trained as a pilot and bombardier, and flew with the 20th Aero Squadron.

Holt died in 1981. Almost 20 years later, his letters and diaries from the war were collected and published in The Great War at Home and Abroad: The World War I Diaries and Letters of W. Stull Holt, which is still in print from the Sunflower University Press. His best-known work as a historian, Treaties Defeated by the Senate: A Study of the Struggle Between President and Senate over the Conduct of Foreign Relations, is available as a reprint, but most of his other books, including a long series of histories of executive departments, are probably of limited interest.

Holt and Emerson first met in 1943, when Holt commanded a U.S. Army intelligence unit based in England that worked in liaison with the British M.I.9. Holt headed the team responsible for training American flight crews on escape and evasion, and worked to help Allied prisoners to escape from German P.O.W. camps. He once showed me some artifacts from that time, including playing cards with hidden maps and board games whose pieces could be assembled to form compasses and used to create forged identity documents.

While serving with Holt, Emerson was responsible for interrogating hundreds of Germans captured in fighting after D-Day, and became something of a specialist in dealing with former members of the S.S.. That experience may have helped years later when Emerson wrote his only published book, Metternich and the Political Police: Security and Subversion in the Hapsburg Monarchy (1815-1830). Although very much an academic work, it makes for chilling reading, as it demonstrates that the opening and censorship of private letters was routine–almost universal–and a primary instrument of state control back in Metternich’s time.

The last course in English I took at the UW was taught by Ivan Kolpacoff. At the time, I didn’t know much about his background, but several years later, I came across a copy of his 1967 novel, The Prisoners of Quai Dong, in the stacks of Moe’s bookstore in Berkeley. Prisoners deals with the interrogation and torture of Viet Cong prisoners by Americans in an isolated unit. Kolpacoff wrote the book without ever having set foot in Vietnam, but his account was effective and convincing, and earned the book prominent reviews in the New York Review of Books and New Republic. Irving Howe wrote of the novel, “It is completely absorbing; it focuses on a subject of large contemporary interest; it is compactly formed; and it is written with a verbal discipline that, in this moment of cultural yawp, seems remarkable.” Stanley Kauffmann found it, “The structure of the novel is simple, and therefore carefully designed. The artifice is not concealed: it is formal, innocent, classic. There is a purity in the form that perfectly fits the basic purpose of the book.” Although neither reviewer considered Prisoners to be on a par with The Red Badge of Courage, they both felt the book benefited from Kolpacoff’s lack of personal experience, in that it made his account all the more abstract and timeless. Given America’s recent experiences with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and water-boarding, there might be an audience to interest a publisher in reissuing The Prisoners of Quai Dong.

My first course in English, by the way, was a survey of best-sellers, taught by Dr. Elinor Yaggy. She was a wonderful lecturer who loved to read out favorite passages in a booming voice that seemed as if she hoped to jam her enthusiasms into us by its sheer force. She actually managed to find something worth liking in the gawd-awful Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. She may also hold the record for the most successful book published by any of my professors, though I wouldn’t recommend it to any casual reader: her How to Write Your Term Paper went through at least four editions from Harper and Row and provided a valuable crutch to at least a generation’s worth of college students–including me.

The Widowmaker, by M. Fagyas

Cover of Dell paperback edition of 'The Widowmaker'In the opening pages of M. Fagyas’ 1966 novel, The Widowmaker, Peter Kozma staggers into his hamlet of Ladany in Hungary after seven years of being away at the Russian front with the Austro-Hungarian army and then a prisoner of the Russians. Instead of the warm homecoming he had imagined thousands of times over those years, his wife eyes him coldy.

“‘It’s me–I’ve come back!’ he finally managed to squeeze out the words.

“‘So I see,’ she said as unemotionally as if he had been away only five minutes.”

While her husband has been away, his wife Tereza has had to manage their small farm on her own, and after some struggle, succeeded in doing better than Peter had–adding a few acres to their parcel. Some free labor–and later some company in bed–from a Russian prisoner, Nicolai, helped–and helped change her perspective on her marriage.

Within a few days of his return, Peter is found dead. The suspicions of a local constable are raised, particularly after he finds their cat buried in the yard, the apparent victim of arsenic poisoning.

He fails to find enough evidence to arrest her, but over the course of the next months, other men in Ladany and surrounding towns start dying in suspicious circumstances–many betraying signs of arsenic poisoning. He suspects the local abortionist of supplying the arsenic and also of instigating the murders. But he also runs into a wall of silence among the women.

Although The Widowmaker is on one level a straightforward detective story, if in an unusual setting, it’s also a somewhat gruesome twist on Aristophanes’ feminist satire, Lysistrata–only in this case, the women take revenge on their men for the pain and disruption caused to their lives through war, physical abuse, alcoholism, and laziness by something a little more ruthless than just withholding sex.

As other readers have noted (see the comments in this post on The Devil’s Lieutenant), Fagyas had a knack for writing the kinds of books that you pick up and don’t put down until you’ve finished it hours later. In my case, I had the advantage of a transatlantic flight, but reading The Widowmaker was a four-hour blur to me. Her prose is nothing out of the ordinary, but she was clearly at home in a world in which bloodlines ran back centuries, where the importance of the ownership of even the barest scraps of land could drive people insane, and and when layers of customs were only just beginning to be stripped away by the twentieth century, and the novel gains most of its power from her mastery of her setting.

Many thanks to Karen Ronan for passing along her copies of The Widowmaker and The Devil’s Lieutenant.

The Widowmaker, by M. Fagyas
New York City: Doubleday, 1966

Brown Face, Big Master, by Joyce Gladwell

Cover of first UK paperback edition of 'Brown Face, Big Master'Knowing I would have the chance to hear Malcolm Gladwell speak at the PMI Global Congress last week, I stuck the fairly beat-up paperback copy of his mother Joyce’s 1969 memoir, Brown Face, Big Master, in my backpack and read it on the plane from Amsterdam to Dallas.

Aside from the family connection, Joyce Gladwell’s book has little in common with her son’s best-sellers. Although Brown Face, Big Master has been reissued by MacMillan Caribbean as part of its series of Caribbean Classics, it was first published by InterVarsity Press, the publishing arm of the InterVarsity Fellowship, and its focus is very much on tracing the development of the author’s faith and relationship with God, with a lesser theme of coming to grips with racism in its overt–and more often, subtly covert–forms.

The child of the principal and one of the teachers of a rural Jamaican school, Joyce Gladwell (nee Nation) grew up relatively isolated from the society around her. Her schoolmates were cautious not to get too friendly with Joyce or her twin sister, fearing that any secrets shared would find their way back to the school’s master. She and her sister were then sent to St. Hilary’s, a strict, though integrated, girls’ school, where the students were instructed to avoid speaking with the school’s staff and where private screenings were arranged in the local cinema to ensure no “inappropriate” contact with local boys.

St. Hilary’s had high standards, high moral standards, high standards of social behavior. We learned to believe in these standards, to accept them as the best, to live by them and to pass them on without compromise. I gave my unquetioning loyalty to St. Hilary’s. This was what I wanted–to belong, to be identified, to be approved, and St. Hilary’s filled that need.

Adding to school’s artificial isolation was Joyce’s own severe inhibitions. “I made myself comfortable in the security of being told exactly what to do and I was pleased to abdicate responsibility for my actions.” The cocoon was further extended when, shortly after graduation, she was asked to return as a teacher, and stayed for three more years, until she was offered a partial scholarship to London University.

Although she joined her twin sister, who had started at the university two years before, Joyce knew she was ill-prepared for the move from a sheltered girls’ school in Jamaica to a major university in the heart of one of the world’s great cities. “The world of people–that was where the trouble lay,” she writes. She proved an excellent student, and gradually, with the help of acquaintances in the school’s InterVarsity chapter, came out of her shell.

She fell in love with a fellow student, Graham Gladwell, a mathematician and InterVarsity member. Graham’s parents were initially resistant to the idea of their marrying, but eventually softened (“All marriages are mixed,” a family friend quipped). Still …

The moments of embarrassment that we feared did come. On one of our early visits to my parents-in-law, an old friend of the family called after long absence. We stood together with Graham’s sisters as Dad identified each one of his now grown family. “And Joyce, Graham’s wife,” he ended.

The visitor searched the faces round him in silence, seeking and failing to find the extra one that suited that description. We were paralysed by the dread realized, caught unprepared in an aberrant social moment for which the rules did not prescribe.

The couple went through some tough years, with Joyce struggling simultaneously with motherhood (she had had little preparation in domestic matters), long dreary grey English winters, and an ever-present undercurrent of prejudice. Finally, after a number of years and the birth of her third child–Malcolm–she had a breakthrough when she turned to God after a local boy shouted “Nigger” at her one afternoon. Ironically, she found her prayers answered not in understanding but in a challenge: “He showed Himself to be not only love giving Himself for me even to death, but also jealous God making demands on me”–demands to which she was now ready to yield.

Brown Face, Big Master is a restrained, subdued memoir, marked more than anything by a pervasive sense of humility. It is not at all an evangelical account: Joyce Gladwell’s own faith came to her gradually, over the course of many years, and with more than a few set-backs, and she makes no claims or and sets no expectations for others. In that respect, it is an account of one person’s faith that even non-believers can appreciate.

Brown Face, Big Master, by Joyce Gladwell
London & Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1969

Fred Allen’s Letters

Fred Allen on the air for NBCFred Allen. To ninety-nine out of a hundred people under the age of sixty, that name means about as much as John Smith or Jane Doe. I recognize it because I was suckered into sending off for one of those old-time radio compilations they used to hawk at every other commercial break during the Saturday afternoon showing of old movies featuring W. C. Fields, Mae West and the Marx Brothers. One of the records included a routine from “Allen’s Alley,” Allen’s hit NBC radio comedy series from the 1940s, that was full of fine and horrible puns, barbed put-downs, and various other antics, all delivered at machine-gun speed.

Allen’s nervous energy seems not to have been just an act, and he burned himself out early, dropping dead of a heart attack on a New York street at the age of 61. He’d made the switch from radio to TV and was a regular on “What’s My Line?” but he’d also slipped from star to wise-cracking character on a show that, hit though it was, was still just a game show. Had he survived into the 1960s or 1970s, he might have been remembered as well as Jack Benny.

Cover of first US edition of 'Fred Allen's Letters'In 1965, Doubleday published a collection on Allen’s letters edited by Joe McCarthy (no relation to the Senator): Fred Allen’s Letters. I use the word “edited” because that’s what it says on the jacket. I suspect he just tossed a boxful of the letters down a staircase and let that determine his sequence. The book is divided into sections with titles such as “The Early Days,” “Old Friends,” and “Show Biz People,” but there’s no particular rhyme or reason to what goes where.

Not that it makes much of a difference. There’s a certain appropriateness in the randomness of the selections that fits with Allen’s sense of humor, and it guarantees you never know quite what’s coming next.

Allen composed at the typewriter and rarely bothered with the shift key, so these letters might remind some of Don Marquis’ The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel (which is a Penguin Classic now–wow). I’ve kept this book by the bedside, dipping into every few nights, and my wife is heartily sick of having me shake the bed with muffled chuckling.

Here are a couple of samples to whet your appetite:

To Mabel Dawson (a fan)

dear miss dawson …

thank you for your letter.

you will be glad to learn that the honey arrived in excellent condition. portland had some at breakfast yesterday and reported it was the best she had ever tasted.

we don’t get much honey here in new york. we have had one bee for some time. we have no flowers and have to let him out to sneak into the various floral shops in the neighborhood. i think our bee is nearsighted. it must spend a lot of time on artificial flowers, for the amount of honey it gives some months is negligible.

our bee has no comb. it carries the honey on its person. when we want honey we summon the bee, point to the biscuit, or whatever object we want honey on, the bee flies to the table, squats and buzzes a little and when it arises we have about enough honey to float a caraway seed.

we can imagine what a boon it is to us to have three large jars of honey. we are sending our bee down to florida for a good rest this winter. i am sure that when it returns, brown and healthy, it will be ready to pick up where it left off and keep us in honey for years to come.

we are having a difficult time finding guests to use on the program but i guess we will manage to keep going some way during the coming season. if not, some week, i may put our bee on the show and there will be a real b on n.b.c.

To Ed Simmons and Norman Lear (yes, that Norman Lear), two comedy writers who had sent Allen a joke letter asking his permission to start a polish fan club.

… for many years, i have been against fan clubs. i remember back in 1902 a group of girls got together in littleton, new hampshire, to form a guy kibbee fan club. mr. kibbee, even at that early age was as bald as a boy scout’s knee, and the girls all shaved their heads to look like their idol. all through the summer the little baldheaded girls had a jolly time. they had guy kibbee meetings, they talked like guy kibbee and when field days were held the fan club would rush out and spell guy kibbee in different formations and in different languages. with their little bald heads they were a shiny sight. when the cold weather arrived, however, it was another story. thirty of the baldheaded girls contracted penumonia and within three months the entire guy kibbee fan club was wiped out.

that is only one reason i hesitate to sponsor a fan club. if beri beri or scurvy breaks out in your group how is it going to look with little emaciated bodies lying around the streets of california wearing my fan club buttons.

Fred Allen’s Letters, edited by Joe McCarthy
New York City: Doubleday, 1965.

The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables, by Seumas O’Brien

Now I know where Samuel Beckett really got his inspiration.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Whale and the Grasshopper'Seumas O’Brien’s The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables is one of the most absurd books written before the rise of surrealism, full of tales tall as Paul Bunyan that serve as the backdrop for a series of philosophical debates that wrap nihilism in a cloak of old country weave.

At heart, it’s nothing more than a collection of Pat and Mike stories–except in this case, it’s Padna and Micus. “I want to tell you about the morning I walked along the beach at Ballysantamalo,” Padna says to Micus at the start of the title story.

So I ses to meself, Padna Dan, ses I, what kind of a fool of a man are you? Why don t you take a swim for yourself? So I did take a swim, and I swam to the rocks where the seals go to get their photographs taken, and while I was having a rest for myself I noticed a grasshopper sitting a short distance away and ‘pon my word, but he was the most sorrowful-looking grasshopper I ever saw before or since. Then all of a sudden a monster whale comes up from the sea and lies down beside him and ses: ‘Well, ses he, is that you? Who’d ever think of finding you here? Why there’s nothing strange under the sun but the ways of woman.”

“Tis me that’s here, then,” ses the grasshopper. “My grandmother died last night and she wasn’t insured either.”

“The practice of negligence is the curse of mankind and the root of sorrow.” ses the whale. “I suppose the poor old soul had her fill of days, and sure we all must die, and tis cheaper to be dead than alive at any time. A man never knows that he’s dead when he is dead, and he never knows he’s alive until he’s married.”

That’s a pretty good taste of the whole book. Each tale is nothing less than fantastic. The Czar of Russia comes to visit the Mayor of Cahermore. Johnny Moonlight meets up with the Devil and Oliver Cromwell on a lonely country road. The King of Montobewlo finally gives up cannabalism after an encounter with his first Irishman. Matty the Goat seeks the advice of the King of Spain on whether it would be better to commit suicide in New York or Boston. Shauno the Rover, feeling underappreciated by the world, dresses up as Henry the Eighth and cons a Royal Navy captain to take him on a royal cruise to Sperrispazuka, where he pays a visit on the Shah. (Shauno, by the way, is “a gentleman withal,” Padna assures Micus: “Never known to use his rare vocabulary in the presence of ladies, but would wait until their backs were turned, like a well-trained married man, and then curse and damn them one and all to perdition.”)

But the actual stories themselves, even at their most ridiculous, are just excuses for Padna and Micus to play games of platitudinous one-upmanship. In the first few pages of the book, it seems as if O’Brien is doing nothing more than using some wild tales as an odd way of celebrating naive folk philosophy. “Decency when you’re poor is extravagance, and bad example when you’re rich,” Micus counsels Padna at the start of “The Whale and the Grasshopper.”

OK. I’d accept that as a wee bit o’ wisdom from the Oud Sod. But take a close look at what follows:

“And why?” said Padna.

“Well,” said Micus, “because the poor imitate the rich and the rich give to the poor and when the poor give to each other they have nothing of their own.”

“That’s communism you’re talking,” said Padna, “and that always comes before education and enlightenment. Sure, if the poor weren’t decent they’d be rich, and if the rich were decent they’d be poor, and if every one had a conscience there’d be less millionaires.”

“But suppose a bird had a broken wing and couldn’t fly to where the pickings were?” said Micus.

“Well, then bring the pickings to him. That would be charity.”

“”But charity is decency,” Micus replies. At which point it becomes clear that Padna and Micus are less country sages than precursors of Vladimir and Estragon. Indeed, one could argue they have even less of an idea what’s going on than Beckett’s pair waiting for Godot.

I suspect that the whole book is nothing more than an attempt to pop the bubble of fuzzy nostalgia surrounding the softer-headed elements of the Irish Renaissance. In O’Brien’s view, Crazy Jane isn’t insightful–just crazy. Indeed, H. L. Mencken wrote in one review that the book, “saved the Irish Renaissance from its prevailing melancholy.”

Seamus O’Brien was born in Cork and trained as a sculptor and taught at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. He took up writing in his mid-twenties. His play, “Duty” (available with four other O’Brien comedies on Project Gutenberg) was first performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1913, and has been called the best Irish comedy every written. But soon after that he moved to America, where he remained for decades. The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables was published in 1916, after which he appears to have written nothing but an occasional article or short story. The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables is available in print from a number of direct-to-print republishers, but don’t pay their exorbitant prices: get it free and use your eReader or print out a copy. After all, as O’Brien writes, “Flies never frequent empty jam-pots, but money always brings friends.”

Whatever that means.

The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables, by Seumas O’Brien
Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1916.

Digging into the Popular Libary at the Montana Valley Book Store

Every summer for the last few years, our family has spent a good chunk of the summer in Missoula, Montana. Each time, I take a day and travel about thirty miles west on I-90 to the little one-street town of Alberton (pop. 418) to visit the Montana Valley Book Store. Housed in an old frame building with a store front straight out of the 1900s, the store holds over 100,000 books–mostly hardbacks upstairs, with paperbacks only in the basement. It’s also–amazingly–open 365 days a year.

There is a long set of trays with relatively recent books that leads from the door to the cash register, but in general the inventory dates from the 1920s to the 1960s. Its stacks run floor to ceiling and are always worth at least a few hours of careful browsing. My favorite section is the basement, which is a treasure trove of old paperback fiction. I find it’s harder and harder to find bookstores that have more than a handful of paperbacks from earlier than the mid-1980s, so it’s a real pleasure to pick through the basement, where there’s only a handful of paperbacks newer than that.

This time, I made a point of pulling many of the titles I didn’t recognize and comparing the publication dates of the original and the paperback edition. Back in the heyday of pocket-sized paperbacks, when Pocket Books, Dell, Avon, Signet, Bantam, and other publishers were pumping out a relentless flow of releases, grabbing a dusty title from the past and slapping a gaudy cover on it was a quick and cheap way to pad out a catalog. Perhaps no other company was as fond of this practice as Popular Library, which didn’t have the advantage of being tied to a major publisher with an active line of new hardcover titles to draw upon. And sure enough, my excavations dug up a number of interesting Popular Library artifacts.

Cover of Popular Library edition of 'Johnny Bogan'The earliest title, Johnny Bogan by Leonora Baccante, published by Popular Library in 1959 with a typically suggestive cover, dates from 1931. It’s the story of two young people struggling between their desires and social mores (this was a time when pre-marital sex was still a largely taboo subject) and ends with a rape and then a murder. When first published, by Vanguard, the book received pretty positive reviews. One reviewer called it, “the finest novel I have read this year,” and the New Republic’s reviewer wrote, “Her technical method is vigorous and sure, her projection of character, especially that of Johnny, is admirable in its honesty and veraciousness [veracity?], and there is no trafficking with sentiment in a theme in which opportunities for it are endless: she accomplishes, neatly and precisely, what she sets out to do.” Johnny Bogan appears to have been the only book she ever published, although there are notices that Vanguard was going to release a second novel, Women Must Love in 1932.

Cover of Popular Library edition of 'Dusk at the Grove'The next, going in chronological order, is Samuel Roger’s Dusk at the Grove, which won the Atlantic Monthly’s $10,000 Prize in 1934 for best English-language novel of year–the first American novel to do so. At the time, the award was the biggest in the publishing business, but the list of prize winners could easily be added as another of this site’s Sources (does anyone remember the 1936 winner, I am the Fox by Winifred Van Etten? Or 1940’s winner, The Family by Nina Fedorova (also reissued by Popular Library in the 1960s)?). Opinion among contemporary reviewers, however, was mostly unanimous that Roger’s book well deserved its prize. “There should be little complaint, however, with the judges who picked Dusk at The Grove for this year’s $10,000 Atlantic Prize Contest. The still waters of this quiet novel run deep. Author Rogers deals sparingly with what his people do, more with what they say, most with what they think,” wrote Time magazine’s reviewer. The New Frontier rated it “… too good a book to be known as “‘a prize novel.'”

Dusk at the Grove follows the lives of the Warings, a family of no great means, through a series of scenes set at “The Grove,” their summer house in Rhode Island, between the years 1909 and 1931. Rogers relies heavily but apparently effectively on use of the stream of consciousness technique–indeed, one reviewer wrote that he had taken the technique as far as anyone could go with it. The story ends with the sale of “The Grove” to avert a bankruptcy, but Rogers seems to have taken an open attitude toward such changes: “I cannot help having still faith in life,” thinks Linda, the Waring’s daughter, even as she reflects on how much she regretted leaving “The Grove” as the end of each summer neared. Dusk was Roger’s third novel. He went on to publish five more, of which Lucifer in Pine Lake (1937), a study of an egotistical college professor (Rogers taught French at the University of Wisconsin for many years) was the best received.

Cover of Popular Library edition of 'The Anointed'Next in line is Clyde Brion Davis’ The Annointed, from 1937. I wrote about Davis’s second book, The Great American Novel, in one of the earliest posts on this site. Davis was a pretty prolific novelist through the 1930s and 1940s, but his work has utterly dropped from site. This is a real shame, as he’s one of the most likeable writers you’ll ever come across. A veteran newspaper reporter, he’d seen enough by the time he took up fiction to have a very clear-eyed view of human nature, but he was just too generous and optimistic a soul to let his cynicism cut too deep. Reviewing The Annointed for the New York Times, Robert van Gelder called it one of the two best first novels he’d ever read (the other was Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory, which I see finally made it in the ranks of the Penguin Modern Classics last year). And the New Republic‘s reviewer wrote, “There is a Mother Goose-like combination of naivete and shrewdness to the book, a simplicity of style, an acuteness of characterization and observation”–a good summation of Davis’ approach in general. The Annointed was often compared to one of the 1930’s biggest best-sellers, Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse. While both books told the story of young men who got into a series of adventures at sea and on foreign shores, Davis managed to fit his into about one-sixth the number of pages.

Cover of Popular Library edition of 'Ceremony of Innocence'Last on the list is Elizabeth Charlotte Webster’s Ceremony of Innocence, which was first published in South Africa as Expiring Frog (not a title that even the folks at Popular Library would have taken on) in 1946. The book was selected for the Afrikaanse Pers prize (along with Daphne Rooke’s first novel, A Grove of Fever Trees). Webster was not South African, however: born in Scotland, she was living there for health reasons. To no avail, sadly–she died just two weeks after receiving the award and several months before the book actually found a publisher.

Popular Library’s cover for Ceremony of Innocence does show a nun–but it’s easily the most misleading of this batch. Ceremony, which uses the figure of a young novice, Sylvie, living in a convent outside Geldersburg (read Johannesburg), rather as Voltaire does Candide–to highlight the vanities and hypocrises of contemporary religion and society. Sylvie is found to having some kind of healing power, but this disturbs the quiet order of the Catholic church and she is smuggled out of sight while the church leaders figure out the right “spin” for her story. Unfortunately for them, she falls for one of the men hiding her and ends up bearing his child. As with Candide, Sylvie is an instrument rather than a character, and Webster uses her to cut deeply into her targets. “Several of her scenes are expert in her caustic malice,” Orville Prescott in the New York Times. Writing in 1948 for , novelist Alan Paton wrote, “I thought it was an extraordinary book. I have just read it again, and am still of the same opinion. It is not only written with a fine economy of words, but it is written with a fine economy of narrative as well; it moves on, and I do not find myself being impatient for any chapter to end.” Prescott differed, rating the book “diverting rather than moving. The rapturous acclaim which it has already received in this country seems wildly extravagant.” Nonetheless, it’s probably well worth discovering and assessing now from the distance of sixty-five years.

These Popular Library titles are just a sample of the armload I took away from this summer’s visit to Alberton. I expect at least a few of the rest to show up here in the course of the months between now and next year’s visit.

Life of Campestris ulm, the Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common, by Joseph Henry Curtis

Title Page of 'Life of Campestris Ulm'I’ve read the biography of a dog, of a cow, of an elephant, of a lion, and of a seagull (yeah, that one). But this is my first biography of a tree. Life of Campestris Ulm: Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common is a quirky tribute written by Joseph Henry Curtis, a Boston native, around the time of the 130th anniversary of the oldest living tree on Boston Common.

Campestris Ulm, the oldest tree on Boston Common, around 1910Campestris ulm is the scientific name for the English elm. Although a different elm–the Old Great Elm, an American elm sometimes known as the Liberty Tree–was better known until it fell in an enormous galestorm that hit Boston in 1876, this elm was one of a number planted at the behest of John Hancock, prominent signer of the Declaration of Independence (literally) and first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachussetts, around the time he took office in 1780 and outlasted it.

At the time, cows grazed on Boston Common. The Common itself survived only because it served practical concerns, although Hancock–very much a lover of fine clothes, fine living, and beautiful public spaces–was beginning to change things. Still, Massachussetts at the time was a state strongly under the Puritan influence. Curtis recalls Sundays in the early years after the tree’s planting:

From midnight Saturday to sunset Sunday was weekly a day of rest for Campestris. He hardly dared to stir a leaf; even the cows abstained in large measure from chewing their cuds and the Common was deserted. One Sunday, however, he was astonished and shocked to observe the Governor taking a turn in the mall on his way home from church. He was glad to learn the next day that the Governor was fined, and, much as he respected his sponsor, felt that it served him right.

As Curtis tells us, Hancock fell afoul of a relatively recent statute, that ruled that “travelling or other secular employments, unless for some purpose of necessity or humanity, was prohibited on the Lord’s day; and wardens, tithingmen, and other functionaries, were clothed with unusual powers to enforce its observance.”

As time passed, certain of the old time prohibitions lapsed and the beauty and benefits of the Common came to be increasingly accepted and protected–particularly after the return of Oliver Wendell Holmes and others from Paris, where, as David McCullough describes it in his new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, they marvelled at the Garden of the Tuileries and other public spaces. Yet not so fast that a few victims of pragmatism remained. In 1820, for example, a local bit of folklore was obliterated on the simple policy that a boulder takes up valuable productive soil:

One morning in 1820, in his fortieth year, Campestris observed a cluster of workmen around his old friend, the Wishing-Stone, one holding a drill, while another was swinging a heavy sledge-hammer. After a time this ceased, and another man seemed to be busy ramming and tamping something into a hole. Shortly after there was a great scampering of cows driven wildly at a distance and the cluster of men dispersed in various directions along the several paths, waving their hands as a warning. One man left behind lingered a short time, and then ran rapidly away. There was a flash, an explosion, the air was filled with smoke, and when it cleared, to the astonishment and grief of Campestris, his beloved boulder, the friend of his youth, was observed blown to fragments.

In the language of trees, Campestris exclaimed, as he shook his limbs, “What have you done, you stupid louts, you churls and sons of churls? Know ye not, that it was no common stone; that, hallowed as it was by the vows of countless swains and maids, it possessed a sentimental value which, translated into dollars and cents, the only measure of value your vulgar, commonplace lives can appreciate, would amount to a sum you could never replace by your labor, if your lives were prolonged beyond the age of Methuselah? Would that you were buried in the debris of your own blast. “Alas, alas!” he soliloquized, “a large part of the pleasure of my life has departed,” and sadly he watched the stupid, indifferent men load the fragments on a drag and carry them away.

In after years Campestris could never allude to the destruction of his old friend without manifesting his grief and sorrow.

The tree survived the great storm that felled the Liberty Tree, as well as some man-made cataclysms such as the construction of the MTA and of public restrooms in gloriously hideous late Victorian style within its eyeshot. Curtis writes of regular visits to converse with the elm and reports on some of its recent complaints. “He lately had been greatly disturbed by the borings for the new Cambridge Tunnel,” Curtis tells us.

I don’t know if this tree is still standing on the Common. Other than Curtis, no one seems to have taken particular notice of it within the last century. And though Life of Campestris Ulm: Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common is certainly no more than a pleasant bit of amusement, Curtis deserves some credit for having managed to organize an interesting social and historical panorama around the figure of a simple sturdy tree providing some shade to those walking along one of the paths through the Common.

Life of Campestris ulm, the oldest inhabitant of Boston Common is available free online through the Internet Archive in PDF, EPUB, Kindle, ASCII, and other formats.

Life of Campestris ulm, the oldest inhabitant of Boston Common, by Joseph Henry Curtis
Boston: W. B Clarke, 1910

Overlooked, by Maurice Baring

I need to catch up with a post on some of my recent reads, most of which have turned out to be among their authors’ lesser efforts, unfortunately.

Cover of House of Stratus reissue of "Overlooked"Of the lot, by far the most interesting and, within its limited range, successful was Maurice Baring’s slim 1922 novel Overlooked. Had the term been in use back then, Overlooked would have been called an experimental novel. For what Baring undertook was truly an experiment in fiction.

The first half of the book is titled, “The Papers of Anthony Kay.” A blind man sent by his doctor for two month’s rest at a seaside resort called Hareville, a fictional stand-in for Deauville or a similar society retreat of the early 20th century. There he encounters a sampling of international society–a scandalous Italian/French widow; a French/Russian princess; an ambiguously Slavic intellectual; an upright but neer-do-well English lady, Mrs. Lennox, and her beautiful niece, Miss Jean Brandon; and an English novelist named James Rudd.

Kay contemplates writing a novel as a way of relaxing, and he and Rudd fall into discussing Miss Brandon. Kay quickly gives up on his idea, but she inspires Rudd to begin sketching out his own story based on his imaginative speculations about her life:

“She talks, but she cannot express herself. Or rather, she has nothing to express. At least, I think she has nothing to express : or what she has got to express is not what we think it is. I imagine a story like Pygmalion and Galatea. Somebody waking her to life and then finding her quite different from what the stone image seemed to promise, from what it did promise.”

While Rudd sequesters himself to work on his book, Kay befriends a cross-section of his hotel’s residents. With each of them, the conversation eventually gets around to the topic of Miss Brandon–her belligerent late father, her apparently broken engagement with an heir dispatched to India, her beauty and air of mystery. Each conversation is a mix of fact, gossip, and rumor, and each creates, in effect, a portrait of her from a different perspective.

Late in this first section, Miss Brandon’s erstwhile fiancé arrives in Hareville, but he seems to spurn her for the attentions of one of the scandalous widows du jour. Miss Brandon turns for solace to the mysterious Slav, and for a moment, they become secretly engaged. Kay departs before learning the outcome of the story.

Much of the second half of the book is devoted to the text of Rudd’s long short story, “Overlooked,” which he published in a private edition of 500, sending a copy to Kay. In “Overlooked,” Miss Brandon has become “Kathleen Farrel,” and Hareville “Saint-Yves-les-Bains.” All the main characters Kay encountered reappear with different names and slightly altered back stories.

As promised, Rudd provides a fairy tale to explain Brandon/Farrell’s sense of evanescence:

Once, when she was a little girl, she had gone to pick flowers in the great dark wood near her home, where the trees had huge fantastic trunks, and gnarled boles, and where in the spring-time the blue-bells stretched beneath them like an unbroken blue sea. After she had been picking blue-bells for nearly an hour, she had felt sleepy. She lay down under the trunk of a tree. A gipsy passed her and asked to tell her fortune. She had waved her away, as she had no sympathy with gipsies. The gipsy had said that she would give her a piece of good advice unasked, and that was, not to go to sleep in the forest on the Eve of St. John, for if she did she would never wake. She paid no attention to this, and she dozed off to sleep and slept for about half-an-hour. She was an obstinate child, and not at all superstitious. When she got home, she asked the housekeeper when was the Eve of St. John. It happened to fall on that very day. She said to herself that this proved what nonsense the gipsies talked, as she had slept, woken up, come back to the house, and had high tea in the schoolroom as usual. She never gave the incident another thought ; but the housekeeper, who was superstitious, told one of the maids that Miss Kathleen had been overlooked by the fairy-folk and would never be quite the same again. When she was asked for further explanations, she would not give any. But to all outward appearances Kathleen was the same, and nobody noticed any difference in her, nor did she feel that she had suffered any change.

Rudd plays out his version, including the return of the fiance and the secret engagement, which is broken off as the two lovers realize the arrangement could only work in a fantasy world free of the constraints of class, money and prejudices.

The book then returns to the “Papers of Anthony Kay.” Kay describes his reaction to “Overlooked” and discusses the book and the story of the real-life Miss Brandon with several people he knew from his time at Hareville. Kay and his friend Doctor Sabran conclude that Rudd got it wrong … but aren’t sure what “right” is:

“I am convinced of one thing only, and that is that the novelist drew false deductions from facts which were perhaps sometimes correctly observed.” [Sabran]

I said I agreed with him. Rudd’s deductions were wrong ; his facts were probably right in some cases; Sabran’s deductions were right, I thought, as far as they went; but we either had not enough facts or not enough intuition to arrive at a solution of the problem.

To another acquaintance, Kay argues that, “Rudd had started with a theory about Miss Brandon, that she was such and such person, and he distorted the facts till they fitted with his theory. At least, that was what I imagined to have been the case.”

In the end, Miss Brandon is reunited with her fiancé, who appears never to have any other objective in mind, and the pair enjoy the most conventional of marriages. Kay, Rudd, and almost everyone else in the book(s), it seems, were all guilty of reading far more into her situation than ever existed.

Characterization is not Baring’s forté in Overlooked. Kay, Rudd, and the rest are sketched just as superficially as Miss Brandon. But for Baring’s purposes, little more than stick figures are needed. Years before it got its name, Baring was experimenting with the Rashomon effect. Rudd applies a fantastic interpretation on Miss Brandon’s story, but his is just the most overt form of fiction in the book. Every one puts his or her spin on her story, influenced by all sorts of factors–from the English sense of propriety to the Italian love of the game of romance. Baring puts the final seal on the artificiality and impermanence of the social affairs of Hareville by noting the date of his departure from the town: June 27, 1914.

Overlooked was Baring’s second novel, published soon after Passing By, which is also something of a play on the nature of a work of fiction. Although the books received warm if not enthusiastic reviews, neither sold well. His next novel, C, was far more conventional in approach–a Bildungsroman set in Edwardian England–and weighed in at a whopping 700-plus pages. C is in print from Faber Finds.

Overlooked was reissued about ten years ago by the House of Stratus, which appears to be a hybrid between a legitimate reissue house and one of the many print-on-demand open source publishers. Stratus reissued a good chunk of Baring’s better work, each with a relatively attractive cover, between 2001 and 2003, but none of these appears to be in print now and Stratus no longer lists Baring among their authors. And the quality of their cover art–and editing–seems to have dropped dramatically, if the Caustic Cover Critic’s example of their version of Brain Aldis(s)’ Dracula Unbound is any indication. But save your money and download a free copy from the Internet Archive: Overlooked, by Maurice Baring.

Overlooked, by Maurice Baring
London: William Heinemann

The Coin of Carthage, by Bryher

Cover of UK edition of "The Coin of Carthage"History with a capital “H” is happening throughout the twenty-some years spanned in the course of Bryher’s 1964 novel [amazon_link id=”B0013WK5BI” target=”_blank” ]The Coin of Carthage[/amazon_link]–the Second Punic War, to be specific, during which Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants, conquered much of the Italian peninsula, and then was forced to retreat and was defeated by Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Zama.

But Bryher’s subject is history writ small–the history that happens on the margins of capital “H” history. Her story starts with the Greek trader Zonas waking in a stable after being robbed and beaten by a couple of bandits and winds its way through a half-dozen other main characters–a fellow trader named Dasius; Karus and Orbius, two Roman soldiers and friends; Karus’ mother, Domina Sybilla; a slave named Verna and a Carthaginian ship captain named Mago. Each, in his or her own way, is a victim of war, even though none of them dies in battle and only Karus is actually wounded. Their losses are psychological less than physical, but for Bryher, they’re more profound and lasting.

The two great losses in the book, in fact, are friendships. Karus develops an intense attachment to Orbius, a platonic bond with strong homosexual undertones, that is broken when Karus is wounded and Orbius is taken prisoner in a minor skirmish with a Carthaginian reconnaissance party. When they are reunited years later, Karus finds that years of captivity has turned Orbius’ spark of life into a smouldering anger and thirst for revenge. Mago befriends Dasius and the two live together on Mago’s farm near Neapolis for several years until they are separated in an early Roman assault on Carthage. When, several years after, Dasius manages to return in search of his friend, he learns that Mago had killed himself in despair for the loss of all he valued–his farm, his ship, his hopes for his own country and people. Though handsomely rewarded for services to Rome, Dasius is left to spend out his days in mourning.

I have to confess that I didn’t really appreciate the book or what Bryher was doing until the final chapters. The story seems to wander along, the focus shifting from character to character, with no dramatic peaks. In terms of action, there are only two moments of real narrative tension–when Zonas runs into the midst of a Carthaginian parade to save his mule and accidentally meets Hannibal, and when Dasius helps Orbius escape from his prison–and neither is significant in its affect on any of the characters involved. Much of the book is devoted to casual conversations–over a fire, over a table at an inn, over a cup of bad wine, sitting in a courtyard as the suns goes down.

But this is, I think, what Bryher tried to show in [amazon_link id=”B0013WK5BI” target=”_blank” ]The Coin of Carthage[/amazon_link]. The lives of her characters are not marked by milestones or major events but by what happens in between them. Orbius isn’t wounded in battle but by years of degradation, squalor, and neglect as a prisoner. The material comforts Dasius gains by the book’s end do little to compensate for the many pleasant days he spent working with Mago in the fields and orchards. War–the big “H” history–is a great wave that scoops up little pebbles and scatters them over a beach, barely taking notice of them in process.

This sense of the insignificance of ordinary lives is heightened by something I found Bryher conveyed better than any other author writing about pre-Christian times, which is the perspective of a world where the only real divine power is Fate. Characters–particularly Zonas–make offerings to the gods in hopes of appeasing Fate, but Fate is clearly an enormous and impersonal force whose reasons are never expected to be understandable to mortals–rather like war. What with Fate and war lined up against them, no wonder Zonas and Bryher’s other characters focus on smaller and more intimate matters.

I read [amazon_link id=”B0013WK5BI” target=”_blank” ]The Coin of Carthage[/amazon_link] as the first few days of news from the devastation of Japan’s recent earthquakes and tsunami was filling the airwaves, and I kept thinking of Bryher’s characters. I don’t suppose the fact that friends and family members died in a once-a-century event provides the slightest comfort to any of the survivors. Only journalists and historians have a good reason to distinguish between big-H history and little-h history.

The Coin of Carthage, by Bryher
London: Collins, 1964

Death and the Good Life, by Richard Hugo

Sometimes my instincts for the neglected fail me. I picked a battered copy of the poet Richard Hugo’s 1980 murder mystery, Death and the Good Life out a discard pile in a thrift shop recently, and was so certain it was long out of print that I read the whole thing before bothering to check. Turns out that it’s been reissued twice–by the small Montana press, the Clark City Press, in 1991 and by the University of Idaho Press in 2003–and is still in print.Cover of first U.S. paperback edition of "Death and the Good Life" by Richard Hugo

Oh, well, it made for an entertaining evening in any case. Hugo’s sleuth, an ex-Seattle cop named Al Barnes now working as a deputy sheriff in Sanders County, Montana, investigates two cases where the victims both died from multiple axe blows to the head. They soon prove quite unrelated. One he manages to solve in just a few days–the other ultimately takes the better part of a year, and winds up involving cowboy-sized helpings of Freudian psychology–sexual jealousy, twins, incest, and sadism, just to name a few.

I’m not a big mystery fan, so I can’t speak with authority on this point, but it seems to me that there are only a couple of things that make a mystery worth reading: good characterization, good atmosphere, and intriguing twists–and in that order. By that standard, Hugo scores 66%. Al Barnes is an entertaining narrator. He’s an experienced cop but quite a softy at the core–he earned the nickname “Mush-Heart” for his tendency to let off speeders for the slimmest excuse. He’s living with Arlene, a local bartender and single mom, but his eyes haven’t stopped wandering: “What a nice world it is when you get old enough to see how attractive women are at all ages,” he comments at one point.

Hugo moved to Missoula, Montana in the mid-1960s and taught creative writing at the University of Montana for most of the rest of his life (he died of leukemia in 1982). Although Missoula is a decent-sized town of almost 70,000 people (probably closer to 50,000 back when Hugo lived there), it’s surrounded in all directions by lots and lots of sparsely populated forests, mountains, and high prairies. It’s a good place to get away from things, but being a good day’s drive from any big city, it can also seem like a prison. From what I’ve read of Hugo’s life, it took him a while to get the feeling that he had to be someplace else out of his system.

Al Barnes has certainly got the feeling out of his system: “I was sure it was smooth sailing from here on out. I put on twenty pounds in fourteen months or so in Plains and settled back into a life of peace and quiet.”

Until one–then two–people wind up with axe-holes in their skulls. Tapping into Barnes’ big-city detective experience, the sheriff appoints him chief investigator. He spends much of the rest of the book outside of Plains–first in Idaho and then in Portland, Oregon. I won’t attempt to summarize the plot, since it struck me as no better than anyone else’s convoluted puzzle of motives and long-hidden secrets.

What raises the book to the slightly-better-than-average murder mystery level is Barnes’ narrative voice, which manages to be both world-weary and naive at the same time. Hugo definitely managed to capture that special laconic tone of a true man of the West: “Yellow Bear and I sat in mutual depression and silence for half an hour. We said a lot to each other in that half hour, and we didn’t break the silence once.”

Death and the Good Life, by Richard Hugo
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981

The Violet Dots, by Michael Kernan

I first read The Violet Dots after finishing Prof. Donald Emerson’s course on the First World War as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. My research for that course had led me to my first neglected discovery, W. V. Tilsley’s Other Ranks, and I had kept on reading about the experience of combat on the Western Front, snatching up whatever new titles came out, such as John Ellis’ remarkable Eye-Deep in Hell.

Michael Kernan, a reporter with the Washington Post, was inspired by Martin Middlebrook’s 1972 book, The First Day on the Somme, which followed about ten different British soldiers through the lead-up, attack, and aftermath of one of the war’s greatest battles. Kernan wanted to focus in on the life of one veteran of the Somme and asked Middlebrook for a reference. Middlebrook happily suggested Tom Easton, a private with the 1st Tyneside Scottish, 34th Division who’d kept a diary throughout his time on the Front. Middlebrook had interviewed Easton and collected material on his wartime experiences, but had been forced to drop his story from the book for the sake of space.

Kernan travelled to meet Easton, who was now retired and living in a former mining town in Northumberland. As the reader quickly sees, Tom Easton was quite a remarkable man even without considering his experiences in the war. Born into a large and poor miner’s family, he followed his father and brothers into the pit. Perhaps he would have become just another working man had he not joined the Army in November 1914. But when he returned, he proved a natural leader, playing a large role in trade union and Labour Party organizing in his community. He married, raised a family, played in a local amateur orchestra, served on his local council, and in dozens of ways helped better the lives of the people in his town. Although soft-spoken, good-humored and humble, he was also a man of granite-hard strength and character.

While Kernan first saw in Tom Easton just a way to connect to a time over sixty years in the past, he soon comes to view him as a model of integrity and commitment, and it almost seems that the story is being pulled away from the war and transformed into a portrait of Tom. But Kernan gently insists on returning with Tom to the scene of the battle, and what follows is a stunning lesson in just how deep and long the scars of combat can run. As the pair walk through cemeteries and fields, retracing the events of the Somme, the calm, self-assured man of eighty is transformed into a fearful, shaking teenager sobbing with uncontrollable grief, remembering a friend last seen running toward the German line shouting, “Mother! Mother! Help me!”

Tom Easton died in 1980. Kernan retired from the Post in 1989 and published one other book, a novel titled The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals (which, from the looks of the reviews on Amazon, I will have to add to my list). He died in 2005. “He was a glorious writer who could make anything interesting,” recalled Mary Hadar, a colleague, for his obituary.

The Violet Dots, by Michael Kernan
New York: George Braziller, 1978

Twin Beds, by Edward Salisbury Field

Twin Beds was a book ahead of its time. Its time being somewhere between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s, the golden era of screwball comedies. For Twin Beds is just the sort of comedy of errors you’d expect to see in a Preston Sturges movies or an episode of “I Love Lucy.”

Blanche and her husband Henry live in a New York apartment. Looking to buy a new bed, she lets the salesman convince her to purchase that novelty, a set of twin beds, instead–they’re “stylish and everybody was using them.” Blanche and Henry are happy trend-followers, but Blanche’s ma, visiting from Centerville, finds the situation a little scandalous.

This would be the end of the matter but for the ensuing set of accidents. Henry heads out for a night of bowling and beer with the fellas–which puts Ma, already at odds with the new fangled ways of life in the big city:

Pa had never had a night out, so why should Henry! It wasn’t safe for married men to go gallivanting around alone nights; it gave them wrong ideas. What if Henry did work hard all week! Hadn’t Pa worked hard, too! Hard work was good for men; it kept them from getting too skittish. Besides, New York wasn’t like Centerville. New York was a wicked city, full of temptations. “And you needn’t tell me times has changed,” said Ma; “men are just the same as they always was.”

“Yes, Ma,” I said, “but women ain’t.”

“What did you say!”

“I said Henry has a perfect right to go out Saturday nights if I let him.”

“Well, it ain’t right,” declared Ma. “If Henry loved you the way he ought to, he wouldn’t want to leave you.”

Blanche and Ma retire for the night. Somewhere around midnight, a man staggers into the apartment, fumbles to get his clothes off, and climbs into Henry’s bed. Listening in the dark, Blanche thinks it’s Henry.

It’s not, of course. It’s one of their neighbors, who’s mistaken their place for his as he teeters home from his own night out. What are Blanche and Henry to do, particularly if they don’t want to upset Ma? Well, the whole affair ultimately involves a fire escape, an enormous clothes hamper, a policeman, an angry wife, slamming doors, thrown shoes and most of the other comic cliches short of a rolling pin.

In fact, Twin Beds was such prime material that Field made it into a play, co-written with Margaret Mayo, and Hollywood filmed it not once, not twice, but three times–in 1920 starring Carter and Flora Parker DeHaven (Pa and Ma of Gloria); in 1929 starring Jack Mulhall; and in 1942 with George Brent and Joan Bennett.

An interesting footnote to: Some years after Robert Lewis Stevenson’s death in 1894, Field went to work for his widow, Fanny. At the time, Field was 23 and Fanny was in her sixties. They grew very close, and when she died, he reported said she was “the only woman in the world worth dying for.” Which didn’t stop him from promptly marrying Stevenson’s daughter, Belle, who just 22 years older than him.

You can find digital versions of the book online at the Internet Archive:

In Morocco, by Edith Wharton

Title page of Edith Wharton's 'In Morocco'In anticipation of our trip to Morocco in a few days, I checked to see what guides and histories I could find in the Internet Archive. The most interesting was Edith Wharton’s 1920 book, In Morocco. The first two thirds of In Morocco recount a trip Wharton took there soon after the end of the First World War.

She went as the guest of the French Governor General of the protectorate, Hubert Lyautey, which entitled her to VIP privileges, including her own car and driver and ready access to military assistance when she needed it. Wharton sings his praises as a military genius and wise administrator, though her evidence for the former is a bit hard to swallow.

When the First World War broke out, Lyautey refused to abandon Morocco and return with his troops. In Wharton’s words, “The loss of Morocco would inevitably have been followed by that of the whole of French North Africa outright to Germany at a moment when what they could supply — meat and wheat — was exactly what the enemy most needed.” She trumpets his success in securing Morocco against what were, at most, minor attempts at incursions by Berbers and Mauritanian tribesmen with a little encouragement from Germany.

Lyautey’s support allowed Wharton to gain as much access as a Western woman could to the inner circle of Moroccan nobility, including spending a few hours in the family chambers of Sultan Yusef in the Imperial Palace in Rabat. And there is color aplenty for those who like their travelogues rich in description, such as this one of the busy passageways of Fes el Bali:

Then the populace closes in again, so quickly and densely that it seems impossible it could ever have been parted, and negro water-carriers, muffled women, beggars streaming with sores, sinewy and greasy “saints,” Soudanese sorcerers hung with amulets made of sardine-boxes and hares’-feet, longlashed boys of the Chleuh in clean embroidered caftans, Jews in black robes and skull-caps, university students carrying their prayer-carpets, bangled and spangled black women, scrofulous children with gazelle eyes and mangy skulls, and blind men tapping along with linked arms and howling out verses of the Koran, surge together in a mass drawn by irresistible suction to the point where the bazaars converge about the mosques of Moulay Idriss and El Kairouiyin.

Or this of the lavish parade of fealty to the Sultan, part of the celebration of Eid al-Adha:

The Sultan, pausing beneath his velvet dome, waited to receive the homage of the assembled tribes. An official, riding forward, drew bridle and called out a name. Instantly there came storming across the plain a wild cavalcade of tribesmen, with rifles slung across their shoulders, pistols and cutlasses in their belts, and twists of camel’s-hair bound about their turbans. Within a few feet of the Sultan they drew in, their leader uttered a cry and sprang forward, bending to the saddle-bow, and with a great shout the tribe galloped by, each man bowed over his horse’s neck as he flew past the hieratic figure on the grey horse.

Again and again this ceremony was repeated, the Sultan advancing a few feet as each new group thundered toward him. There were more than ten thousand horsemen and chieftains from the Atlas and the wilderness, and as the ceremony continued the dust-clouds grew denser and more fiery-golden, till at last the forward-surging lines showed through them like blurred images in a tarnished mirror.

The last third of the book is devoted to long and dull chapters on Moroccan history and Moroccan art and architecture. While Wharton displays considerable empathy, an essential ingredient in her success as a novelist, as well as a deep knowledge of Western and Arab art, it’s only too apparent that little she saw truly inspired her. In every city she visits she notes the many signs of the neglect and decay of much of Morocco’s cultural heritage, despite attempts at restoration by the French government. In her eyes, Morocco in 1919 was a civilization that had been in decline for centuries and only the intercession of France could prevent that from becoming irreversible.

There are, as one would expect, many aspects of In Morocco that show its age and the limitations of the privileged perspective of its author. But, as Laila Lalami noted in a short item about In Morocco in her blog earlier this year, “What strikes me about these contrasts [between the degraded Moroccans and the virtues of their French occupiers] is not that they are outmoded, but rather the opposite: the same images, the same tropes are still to be found in travel writing or reportage about Morocco today.”

There are numerous editions of In Moroccoavailable from publishers specializing in print-on-demand editions of books in the public domain, but spare a tree and CO2 emissions and just download a copy from the Internet Archive:

In Morocco, by Edith Wharton
New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920

Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching, by Henry C. Barkley

Covers of "Rat-Catching" by Crispin Glover (1999) and "Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching" by Henry C. Barkley (1896)If anyone has heard of Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching in the last ten years, it’s undoubtedly due to Crispin Glover’s 1999 reconstruction of the book, Rat Catching. Most mentions of Glover’s book identify Barkley’s work as “a 19th-century non-fiction book” or a handbook on how to catch rats.

Which it is. On one level, at least. Studies purports to be the recollections of one Bill Joy, master rat-catcher, who was enticed into putting them down in print after regaling a country house full of young people with them one weekend. Much of the first two-thirds of the book takes the reader step-by-step through the process of ridding farms and houses of rats for profit, starting with picking the right ferrets, dogs, and shovels and continuing into stories of memorable hunts. There is also a chapter on rabbit-catching, reminding us that, in the days before Beatrix Potter, farmers like Mr. McGregor looked on them as pests, not pets.

But how then to take Barkley/Joy’s introduction to the book?

Ever since I was a boy, and ah! long, long before that, I fancy, the one great anxiety of parents of the upper and middle classes blessed with large families has been, ” What are we to do with our boys ? ” and the cry goes on increasing, being intensified by the depreciation in the value of land, and by our distant colonies getting a little overstocked with young gentlemen, who have been banished to them by thousands, to struggle and strive, sink or swim, as fate wills it. At home, all professions are full and everything has been tried ; and, go where you will, even the children of the noble may be found wrestling with those of the middle and working classes for every piece of bread that falls in the gutter. Nothing is infra dig that brings in a shilling, and all has been and is being tried.

Rat-catching, it appears, is Barkley/Joy’s solution to the problem of upper class unemployment:

I believe kind Dame Nature during the last summer has stepped in and opened out an honourable path for many gentlemen’s sons, that I think will be their salvation, and at all events, if it does not make them all rich, will, if they only follow it, make them most useful members of society and keep them out of mischief and out of their mammas’ snug drawing-rooms.

Thus, he dedicates the book to “the Head Masters of Eton, Harrow, Westminster, Rugby, and all other schools,” Old Joy is no rube, but the son of a country parson, and not completely out of touch with the mores and manners of the upper classes. He is careful to advise his young readers, for example, to “show your respect by not taking ferrets or dead rats in your pockets into her drawing-room, and by washing your hands a little between fondling them and cuddling her.” And he takes pride in his humble but honest and worthy profession. He expresses his hope that his book will serve as a more practical alternative to learning Greek and Latin, which only equips boys to become “such scourges of society as M.P.s who make speeches when Parliament is not sitting.”

So there is clearly more going on here than a simple handbook on rat-catching. Barkley is taking a sly shot at public school education. Most chapters end with Joy instructing his young Etonian readers: “There, young gentlemen, if you have well digested that chapter and forgotten the story at the end, you can put up your books and form up for your usual walk to the second milestone and back again”–or admonishing Croker minor, the trouble-maker of the class: “The top part of Jones’ leg was not made to stick pins into!”

But then, in Chapter VIII, “A Trip to the Seaside,” Joy meanders his way from telling about his annual excursions to a seaside town for hunting rats on “the Denes” to a long-winded story about the rescue of a child from the wreck of a ship smuggling arms to Irish separatists–a story that has nothing to do with rats or educating public school boys. “Oh, dear! oh, dear! What a muddle, what a hodge-podge I have made of this pen work! I sat down thinking it would be quite easy to write a book on ‘Rat-catching for the Use of Schools,’ and I have drifted off the line here,” he laments. “I had hoped to have opened up a great career to many young gentlemen, but have failed,” he concludes, abruptly ending the book.

Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching is, then, a practical guide to rat-catching, as its title claims; and an attempt to mock the education and employment prospects of the upper class; and a collection of quaint tales of life and adventures in rural England. It’s certainly not wholly successful in being any one of these, but I’d argue that Barkley managed to create something of an 19th century cut-up–which itself makes the book quite a bit more than just some dull old book Crispin Glover reworked a hundred years later.

Studies in the Art of Rat-Catching, by Henry C. Barkley
London: John Murray, 1896

The Private Twilight of Jacko Tate, by Eugene George

Cover of "The Private Twilight of Jacko Tate"I learned of The Private Twilight of Jacko Tate from the wonderful site, Trash Fiction, and I won’t attempt here to repeat what is already well covered on the review of the book on that site.

The narrative curve of Jacko Tate has a swift rise, as we discover the force of Tate’s presence and the grubby corruption of his character, followed by a slow and sour descent that ends with him being dragged away by the police howling like a whipped dog. What makes this book much more than a character sketch is George’s choice to tell the story through the eyes and voice of Ray Gifford, who becomes far more involved in Tate’s slow-motion crash than he should.

The two men meet when Tate is hired into the small London advertising firm where Gifford works. This is the world of print advertising that looks so antiquated when we see it on Mad Men, and it’s every bit as small change and exhausted imaginations as it seems from a distance of forty-plus years. Tate and Gifford are closer to Willy Loman than Don Draper.

Tate, an ex-Army Regular with no pretenses to public school education or manners, turns out to be a satyr of the bed-sit scene who loves to share his accounts of slipping in on wives on weekday afternoons. And Gifford proves an eager audience, ready to sin second-hand.

But the relationship quickly demands more than just listening from Gifford, as he becomes involved in Tate’s deceptions, which include a long-standing mistress for whom he develops an increasingly dangerous dependency. The situation grows more and more uncomfortable, compromising, sad, and sleazy. Tates sucks in Gifford–and the reader–into his self-destructive whirlpool.

For what appears to have been published as a throw-away bit of salacious popular fiction, The Private Twilight of Jacko Tate is a remarkably well-structured and precisely-observed work. And as Alwyn Turner, the creator of Trash Fiction notes in his review, it’s also rich in mid-60s British atmosphere. Eugene George appears to have published just one other book, I Can See You But You Can’t See Me, which came out the year before Tate. Its description in one review–“Emerson, a rich and successful man, sets out systematically and viciously to destroy a marriage”–makes it sound worth seeking out as well.

The Private Twilight of Jacko Tate, by Eugene George
London: Pan Books, 1969

I Travel by Train, by Rollo Walter Brown

Heading for a Train, from "I Travel by Train"In 1939, Rollo Walter Brown was 59, a former Harvard professor of literature, a popular lecturer, and a dangerous man. In I Travel by Train, he recalls some of his many trips across the United States through the depths of the Depression. His work as a lecturer on literature, politics, and history took him to all corners of the country, from San Francisco to New Orleans and Atlanta, from the industrial towns of Michigan and Ohio to the Dust Bowl of Oklahoma and north Texas. Wherever he went, he made a point of venturing out and trying to understand what was going on and why.

On more than a few of these trips, he seems to have found himself in conversation with some businessman, industrialist, clergyman, or other establishment figure. As Brown recounts it, at some point in each of these exchanges, he found himself accused of being a trouble-maker:

The other four smoked and looked toward the floor out in the center of the room, but their spokesman squinted at me, turned his cigar over in his mouth a time or two, and then demanded: “Say, are you a socialist?”

“Why? Does a man who believes that people ought not to starve have to be a socialist?”

“Well,” and he squinted his eyes and the whole of his big face into deeper lines as if he were trying to think and to be amiable at the same time, “it always looks a little suspicious, doesn’t it?”

Three capitalists in the smoking car, from "I Travel by Train"

Brown was born in Crooksville, a small town in the coal country of Southwestern Ohio, and though he went on to teach at Harvard and serve on the board of the MacDowell Colony, his allegiance remained with the working poor, who were hit hardest by the Depression. In many ways, I Travel by Train is a travelogue of the Depression. Brown visited coal miners in Kentucky and Ohio, striking auto workers in Flint, and share-croppers in Georgia; tight-lipped Lutheran farmers in Iowa, and boisterous oil speculators in Norman, Oklahoma. And he ventured deep into the heart of Dust Bowl country several times, offering descriptions of the relentless dust storms that bring this hard time back to life:

When I reached over to turn on the light I had a sudden taste of earth that was not unlike the taste of clay I had known since youth. I sneezed. Then I noticed a strange furry feeling in my ears.

It was eight-thirty.

I walked in bare feet to the southeast window and looked out. In the east there was not so much as a place for the sun. The reddish-gray wall was everywhere, though apparently thinner, more nearly translucent, when one looked straight up toward a sky that might be clear. Off to the south there seemed to be a stream of water in a mist, with reddish flat-land just beyond. In the stiff wind, the clouds of thick dust and thinner dust followed one another slowly. At a moment when visibility was fairly high I saw that my stream was a low, white stucco building, and that the flatland was the long red roof of another just beyond.

I happened to put my hand to my head. My hair was as gritty as if I had been turning somersaults in a sandpile. I lifted a bare foot. The bottom of it was covered with clean-looking dust. I touched a protected window-sill. It was so thick with dust that I could have made a topographical map on it. I walked over to the dresser where a bell-boy had put a pitcher of ice-water when I arrived. Red dust had been sliding down the inner sides of the pitcher until there was a stretch of land entirely around the body of water.

Unemployment Line, from "I Travel by Train"
Even though I Travel by Train depicts a rough time and more than a few scenes of grim conditions, Brown’s outlook is fundamentally optimistic. He’s always pointing out someone refusing to give up, whether it’s a woman who works nine months a year on cotton farms to pay for one quarter’s study at a small Oklahoma college or Ben Cable, an Illinois farmer and sculptor, or a young Texas coed he catches a ride with:

The driver confessed that she herself had been awake all night, but for a different reason. Her fiance had been rushed to the hospital for an emergency operation. She had been unable to sleep at all. And now that she knew he was going to live, she did not want to sleep. It was so good to be alive that she had to stay awake and enjoy the experience. She had invented the necessity of this trip just to participate in the great brightness of the day and the easy rhythm of gliding over low rolling hills that afforded long vistas. In a world where so many people give the wrong reasons for everything they do, her profound joy and unaffected frankness were so startling and so beautiful that I sat in a kind of enraptured amazement and listened all the way.

I Travel by Train is also worth reading if you have any sense of nostalgia for the era of train travel, for every chapter offers a slice of the experience of Pullman coaches, smoking lounges, dining cars, and people jumbled together for long hours:

A man can put in a lot of time in a dining-car if he is experienced. He can order item by item as he eats, and then eat very slowly, with full pauses now and then to read two or three consecutive pages in some interesting book, and with other pauses for the passing landscape. So for an hour and a half I sat and ate lettuce salad, and belated blueberry pie, and ice-cream, and read a little, and reordered coffee that was hot, and looked out at the sea, and heard, without trying, the conversation of the two youths at the other side of the table who professed ardently to believe that their prep school had more class than either Groton or St. Mark’s.

One of them had just bought a yacht for which he had paid more than I in an entire lifetime had ever earned or at least had ever received. He felt sure that his father would be able to stampede somebody into buying several blocks of stock at a good fat advance and by so doing pay for the boat without any drain whatever upon the established treasury.

Back in the sleeping-car I grew weary of the rhythmic jungle cries, and decided to seek out a place in the observation-car. I have made the test through a dozen years, but I made it yet again with the same result: on these Boston-New York trains, as one walks through, there are more people reading books than on any other trains in the United States. It must be said also that there are more feet stuck out in the aisle, more people who glance up in disgust at you when you wish to put the aisle to other use.

Driving across Texas in the night, from "I Travel by Train"
I Travel by Train is available from the Internet Archive, but make sure to read it in a version that allows you to enjoy Grant Reynard’s illustrations as well.

Don’t bother to read the last chapter, “Panorama,” though. Brown launches into a poeto-philosophical fugue about America, progress, goodwill among good people, and other nonsense. I was reminded of the infamous last chapter of War and Peace, which has the same effect of having to sit through a lecture at the end of a memorable and delicious meal.

The Job Hunter

Cover of paperback edition of "The Job Hunter"Allen R. Dodd, Jr.’s The Job Hunter is the flip-side of “Mad Men”. This is what the world of 1960’s advertising–of the white-collar workplace in general–looks like from the outside looking in. Subtitled “The Diary of a ‘Lost’ Year,” The Job Hunter began as an article in the 30 November 1962 issue Printer’s Ink–at the time one of the leading trade journals of the advertising business. Although Dodd acknowledges in his introduction that his first-person narrator is “a composite figure, a typical white-collar job-seeker, created from a variety of sources,” he fully succeeds in creating a believable character from what could easily be a stereotype of one of John Cheever’s middle-aged train-catching commuters.

“It’s going to be tough on the company, of course, but the last thing in the world we’d want to do is to stand in your way,” Dodd’s nameless narrator is told one July afternoon by one of his higher-ups in a mid-sized ad firm. And so he is evicted from the world of the working and left to find another position, a process that takes him the better part of a year. Although many of the practical aspects of job-hunting have changed–Dodd’s narrator has little else besides the help wanted ads and a few business directories to go on–The Job Hunter is very effective in conveying the sense of being a social outcast that inevitably clings to a man without a job, particularly a white-collar professional.

Almost 50 years later, many Americans are still in the same position as Dodd’s job hunter, walking a tightrope on which the combined financial burden of a mortgage, two cars, middle-class social expectations, and limited savings mean just a few months without a job can send a family crashing to the ground. Dodd’s narrator has the added tension of being a child of the Great Depression, having grown up in a time when fathers went years without a job.

One of the biggest challenges Dodd’s man has to confront is that of having so much time to kill:

It all added up to two or perhaps three interviews a week, but I still rode the train almost every day. The cost was acutely painful now; handing a dollar through the ticket window was like pulling a hangnail off and for what? To prowl the train, looking for familiar faces; to nurse a beer at lunch time under Philippe’s contemptuous eye; to sit in the phone booth; to “drop in,” at calculated intervals, to offices where I had long since worn out my welcome; to eat a sandwich at the Automat. Each week I would pick an absolutely blank day–there would be at least a couple–and stay home to get “caught up on the paper work.” There wasn’t much of it–a letter or two to write, shots in the dark at some remote target; or, perhaps, still another reworking of my resume. I was saving the fare, but there was small consolation in that, for I was wasting the day. At home, there was not even the remote chance of running into someone “accidentally” and I was acutely conscious of the time ticking away. Perhaps, if I’d gone into the city, this could have been the day. Sometimes I was hit by a hunch so strong that I wanted to jump into the car and drive in–except that Janet had our one car and I couldn’t drive anyplace.

Although practical circumstances may differ now, The Job Hunter does, in the end, prove a useful handbook to the art of finding a white-collar job. While he suffers from regular bouts of depression, hopelessness, and loss of self-respect, Dodd’s narrator never stops working his connections, chasing the slightest leads, sending off hale letters about “batting around some ideas I have for your company,” and applying and applying and applying. In the end, he does find a job–not as well paid, outside the ad business, and requiring a move to New Jersey.

And his outlook on work has changed fundamentally:

Something seems to have happened to my ability to believe, for example. I like my job, but I have no faith in its permanence of the permanence of any relationship between a man and an organization. No matter how well I do, no matter hose close this relationship becomes, I still expect them to walk in one day and say, “The water cooler’s been fixed and you’re fired.”…. Common sense tells me this is foolish, but I still keep very little personal stuff in my desk. It could all be carried away in an attache case

The Job Hunter: The Diary of a “Lost” Year, by Allen R. Dodd, Jr.
New York City: McGraw-Hill, 1965

The History and Social Influence of the Potato, by Redcliffe N. Salaman

Cover of 'The History and Social Influence of the Potato, by Redcliffe N. Salaman'

The people were famished; to sow their usual crops, was but to invite their destruction. Every seed crop, be it oats or barley, rye or wheat, might be trampled over and ruined in a day; if it escaped that hazard, the garnered harvest might be raided or burnt overnight. The vegetable crops, cabbage and parsnip, were no less vulnerable, at best they were but auxiliary foods, and there was never much of either. It was under such conditions that the potato made its entry into Ireland. Its greedy acceptance by the people was no mere accident, for it satisfied their needs as efficiently as it symbolized their helpless destruction….

In the potato, the weary and harassed cultivator had to his hand a food which was easier to prepare than any of which he had had experience; one which would feed him, his children and his livestock, out of the same cauldron, cooked on his open hearth of burning turves. There was, I believe, a still greater advantage which it offered: the potato could both be cultivated and stored in a manner which might outwit the spirit of destruction, and the malevolence of his enemy.

Weighing it at nearly 700 pages, Redcliffe Salaman’s The History and Social Influence of the Potato, first published in 1949 and updated with corrections and an introduction by J. G. Hawkes in 1985, is truly, as one reviewer put it, “the Epic of the potato.” Salaman, a Fellow of the Royal Society who ran a botanical research center near Cambridge for decades, put a life’s worth of passion for his subject into this polymathic book. Published when Salaman was seventy-five, it was his only book intended for other than an audience of fellow scientists.

Although I doubt that Salaman was aware of their work as he was writing his book, it represents one of the earliest substantial examples of the multi-dimensional approaches to history advocated by the Annales School and its proponents such as Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel. Its pages examine the potato from the standpoint of many different disciplines: archaeology, botany, economics, folklore, religion, cuisine, politics, agronomy, and art–with history providing the narrative spine of his account. And I am sure that more than of the few writers who have attempted similar broad studies of narrow subjects, particularly foodstuffs–such as Mark Kurlansky’s Cod and Salt, Dan Koeppel’s Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, and Sophie and Michael Coe’s The True History of Chocolate–have taken a lesson or two from it. Larry Zuckerman, author of The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World, and John Reader, who published Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent in 2009 certainly did. Indeed one reviewer of Reader’s book commented that it cites Salaman “so frequently, and leans on Salaman’s research so heavily, that it is sometimes difficult to imagine why he felt the need to write his own book on the subject at all.”

While, as Hawkes acknowledges in his introduction, many specific conclusions reached by Salaman in the course of his survey have been disproved by subsequent research, The History and Social Influence of the Potato remains, after sixty years, a work that surrounds its subject so comprehensively that there is no way for others to launch an assault on the subject without encountering it in one way or another.

Wait for Mrs. Willard, by Dorothy Langley

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Wait for Mrs. Willard'After enjoying Dorothy Langley’s third novel, Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, I was pleased to find that her first, Wait for Mrs. Willard is available as a free text on the Internet Archive. I quickly downloaded a copy and read it a few days ago on my Nook.

In many ways the two novels form a matched set. In Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, a weak man with a rich imagination finds refuge from an unhappy marriage in fantasies that include conversations with God. In Wait for Mrs. Willard, a gentle woman searches for ways to escape her husband’s stifling controls upon her life. Henry Bremble finds himself constantly on trial for his failings with his wife, Amelia, and her mother as judge and jury. Edith Willard’s husband, Charles, thinks so little of her judgment that Charles refuses to allow her to keep her own library card for fear of the fines she might incur from overdue books. But Bremble does at least acknowledge that while Amelia’s efforts towards her various charitable causes lacked empathy, they were usually successful. Charles Willard is nothing but a pusillanimous petty tyrant.

When he loses his job as a professor of archaeology at the start of the Depression, Charles’ response is to retire to his bedroom. His self-absorbed despair gradually drains Edith’s will to fight for the family:

Mrs. Willard had formed a bleak habit of making a daily definite report of the state of the larder to Charles, who groaned. It had become a dreary routine; at five o’clock in the afternoon Mrs. Willard would appear at his bedroom door and announce that there was only enough food left for six days, or five days, or four days; Charles would groan, and Mrs. Willard would go down to the kitchen to cook dinner. She did not know what her purpose was in pursuing this course; she no longer really hoped to rouse him. Her mind was like a sailing vessel becalmed for years in some impossible sea and beginning to decay.

Finally, there comes a day when there is nothing left for supper and the children will go to bed hungry. While Charles hibernates in self-pity, Edith rouses herself and manages to sell an encyclopedia to an equally destitute family. It’s a hauntingly memorable scene, as Edith struggles between her awareness that the family cannot afford the book and her will to see her children fed.

Charles and Edith eventually manage to find jobs and maintain a household, but Charles concedes nothing to Edith’s ability to keep the family afloat. Indeed, he deeply resents the short time he has to look after their two children before she returns from work. One evening, she finds him raging at them for bouncing on a bed and she resolves to take them and leave Charles for good the next day. As she walks with the children to the elevated station the next day, however, she is surprised to find them disraught: “Poor Daddy!,” they wail, and her plan is soon aborted.

As difficult as Charles alone is, when he combines forces with his Aunt Gertrude, who comes to live with them, the atmosphere becomes almost unbearable:

She was a firmly corseted fat woman with a paradoxically hatchetlike face surmounting a medley of graduated chins. She greeted Charles with warmth, Mrs. Willard with resignation, and the children with open dislike. Her eyes, bright, black, and penetrating, darted like roaches toward the corners of the baseboard in whatever room she entered. Mrs. Willard, a casual housekeeper, told herself with dismal conviction that within three days Aunt Gertrude would be down on her knees digging at these comers with a hairpin and displaying the results to Charles.

This was a too-conservative estimate. Within twenty-four hours Mrs. Schnabel had virtually taken over the house-keeping. She lived from morning to night with a dusting cloth in her hand, and Mrs. Willard and the children were literally hounded from room to room as she urged them out of the way of her passionate cleansings.

Edith suppresses her revulsion for the sake of the children, but after years of bearing with Charles’ and Gertrude’s judgment and belittling (compounded when her supervisor, Miss Motherhead, turns out to be a good friend of Gertrude’s), her patience snaps one day and she decides to run away, taking the first bus out of Chicago.

The bus is involved in a serious accident before it even reaches the city limits, though, and Charles appears at her bedside full of tender concern:

“Not only have you forced me into the dishonor of misrepresenting the facts to your employers and to my own children,” continued Charles, “not only have you flouted my authority as head of the family by proposing to go on a trip without consulting me; not only have you insulted me as your husband, forgotten your duty to your home and your children, humiliated me before Aunt Gertrude, and made yourself ridiculous by flying off the handle like a half-baked schoolgirl, but you have actually been guilty of a criminal act. You took money that did not belong to you, money from our common fund, which should have been sacred to you. Do you know what that is called, my dear?” He smiled, showing his teeth. “That is called theft. Theft.”

Fortunately, Edith is rescued by doctor’s orders that she spent two months recuperating at a small resort in the Indiana dunes. Charles confines himself to an occasion nasty letter, and she soon responds to the fresh air, hearty food, and freedom. And, most conveniently, to the care of Dr. Alec Maclane, who shows an unusual level of interest in her case.

At this point, Wait for Mrs. Willard falls into a fairly familiar formula of two wounded souls finding solace in the sanctuary of a place apart from their everyday lives (viz. the 1975 film “A Brief Vacation”, among others). Edith wins the love and acceptance she has long deserved and Charles, we are left to assume, carries on with Aunt Gertrude in smug superiority until they both crawl up their rears and die.

Despite its final surrender to a predictable happy ending, Wait for Mrs. Willard is, overall, a far better-crafted and successful work than Mr. Bremble’s Buttons. While it’s pleasant to watch as Edith and Dr. Maclane fall in love, the story is much more interesting and entertaining in the trials and miseries of the first two-thirds of the book. Langley pulls out her best adjectives to deal with Charles, Gertrude, and other monsters such as Miss Motherhead (who, “… like some slit-lidded saurian of the wild, oozed up over the edges of her littered desk and across to some other desk, bearing disaster and swollen with punctual venom”).

A masterpiece Wait for Mrs. Willard is not. A well-written, quick-reading, and enjoyable piece blending drama and comedy without overdoing either, it certainly is, and considering its going price if you download it from the Internet Archive–free–an excellent bargain.

Find a Copy

Wait for Mrs. Willard, by Dorothy Langley
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1944

Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, by Dorothy Langley

Henry Bremble has “been helplessly gardening ever since the day when, early in their marriage, he had learned to his astonishment from her lips that he adored it.” “Henry simply adores gardening,” his wife had declared to a neighbor, and that was that.

Mr. Bremble’s Buttons starts out as a fairly predictable portrait of a hen-pecked husband, complete with controlling wife and dismissive live-in mother-in-law (Mrs. Corey) and her nasty little dog (Queenie). He keeps the peace by keeping his thoughts to himself, doing crossword puzzles and word games, and occasionally admiring the collection of unusual buttons he hides in the bedroom. He lives much of his life “below the surface, whatever the surface was.” On the rare occasions when he does speak up, he usually regrets it:

Mr. Bremble, who talked as little as possible when they were present, was nevertheless impelled occasionally, sometimes by desperation, sometimes by mere civility, to say a few words on whatever subject occupied the group at the moment; and on each and every occasion, after he had done so, there was a silence during which the eyes of Queenie and Mrs. Corey dwelt upon his face, then sought each other with a dry surmise, then returned as if by clockwork to Mr. Bremble; and at the conclusion of another prolonged stare they sniffed.

But he has an even bigger secret than the button collection: God comes and talks with him, almost every night:

It was the one real mitigation of his lot that almost every night, after he had gone to bed, God came and sat with him. They did not usually talk much, but nearly every time, though the only sound in the room was Amelia’s gently whistling snore, Mr. Bremble went to sleep cradled in God’s love like a child held close in its mother’s arms.

Together, they attempt to understand the world’s problems. When Bremble reads about a child found in a closet, abused and abandoned, he asks why God allows it. “You don’t think I like this sort of thing, do you?,” God replies. God blames himself for letting Satan talk him into giving men and women free will then he created mankind: “Of course, I know now that it was just some more of his finagling. He knew that if I gave the idiots free will he’d be able to make plenty of use of it. But he sold Me on it; he sold Me. A bargain’s a bargain.” God offers no easy consolation for his companion, though. “It will be all right some day, for this child–and others?” Bremble asks. God gives him a stern look, then departs.

This story might have gone somewhere on its own, but Langley introduces several twists in an attempt to force Bremble to surface from his private fantasies. A young woman at his office, pregnant by a married man, asks for his help. A woman who matches his boyhood ideal–“a bright and different being, willowy yet heroic, flowerlike, mysterious, and indomitable”–moves into his neighborhood, and ends up providing a refuge for the wayward. He befriends a young girl who shows an appetite for reading and is enlisted into a good cause by an energetic pastor. His wife begins to wonder about his sanity and arranges for him to consult a psychiatrist.

It all becomes a bit too much like a game of last straw. When the inevitable collapse comes, Langley has only two choices: let Bremble escape all the constraints that have bound up his life, or destroy him. Having such a convenient device at hand throughout the book, should it be any surprise that she reaches for a Deus ex machina–literally?

Despite this weakness, Mr. Bremble’s Buttons is, overall, a light and entertaining read. Langley frequently highlights the limitations of the so-called ideals of his wife and her friends in the “League for Democracy” and other ladies’ clubs, as in this exchange about the purchase of score cards for an upcoming bridge game:

“And try to pick out nice ones, even if they do cost a little more. Something suggestive of democracy. Mrs. Cable had such pretty ones when the ladies met with her: children dancing around a Maypole, really charming.”

Mr. Bremble admitted that this was a charming idea. “How many of them were Negro children?” he inquired curiously after a moment.

Amelia stared at him. “What are you talking about?”

“You said something suggestive of ….”

Amelia compressed her lips. “Really, Henry, there are times when it seems to me you’re not quite bright.”

Dorothy Langley published three novels between 1944 and 1947: Wait for Mrs. Willard (1944), about a woman trying to escape from an oppressive marriage; Dark Medallion (1945), about a poor family in southern Missouri, which won a Friends of American Writers award as the best novel by a Midwestern writer; and Mr. Bremble’s Buttons. According to her biography in American Novelists of Today (1951), she was a mother of two who grew up in the Ozarks, lived in Chicago and worked on the editorial staff of several professional journals. She died in 1969 at the age of 65.

In 1982, Academy Chicago published Swamp Angel. According to the publisher’s press release, Swamp Angel was “originally accepted for publication by Simon & Schuster on condition it be heavily revised… It was so largely revised it became another book, Mr. Bramble’s Buttons [sic], with the original manuscript’s tone entirely changed and former central characters relegated to minor roles… This book is original manuscript rescued from oblivion and published for the first time … presents a fascinating picture of primitive rural Missouri society of 60 years ago in which everything (including) transcribed dialogue rings true.” I don’t have access to a copy of Swamp Angel to check its introduction by Helen Bugbee, but I suspect that the transformed book was Dark Medallion, not Mr. Bremble’s Buttons. “Swamp angels,” by the way, is Missouri slang for what most of the rest of the country calls “hillbillies.”

Find a Copy

Mr. Bremble’s Buttons, by Dorothy Langley
New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1947