D. G. Myers recommends Perry Miller’s “The Raven and the Whale”

Regular visitor Texas A&M professor D. G. Myers recently posted a thoughtful and appreciative review of Perry Miller’s 1956 book, The Raven and the Whale: Poe, Melville, and the New York Literary Scene. He compares it to Louis Menand’s Puliter Prize-winning 2002 book on James, Holmes, and Pierce, The Metaphysical Club, writing that, “The result is a human comedy, a collection of lively anecdote and a war-memorial to men who cared passionately about raising up from scratch what Miller calls “an independent, a completely native and unique, literature” in America.”

Myers also rightly notes that not all neglected books are ones that fade from the spotlight, like Yates’ Revolutionary Road. Some are, in his words, “books that are even more likely to be neglected, because they were not widely bought and read to begin with.” Such books have certainly become more and more my focus as this site matures.

Neglected No More: Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road

Although it was a National Book Award finalist when first published in 1961, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road has been a perennial on lists of neglected books, starting with David Madden’s first Rediscoveries compilation in 1971.

As the old joke goes, death was a good career move for Yates. Slowly but steadily, his star has been rising since his passing in 1992, despite the fact that as late as 1999, Stewart O’Nan was writing in the Boston Review of “The Lost World of Richard Yates: How the great writer of the Age of Anxiety disappeared from print.” However, it’s safe to say that it’s now reaching its apogee with the impending release of the Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio.

In anticipation, two of America’s biggest literary magazines, the Atlantic and the New Yorker published feature reviews of the book by two “first call” critics–Christopher Hitchens for the Atlanticand James Wood for the New Yorker. Of the two, Wood’s is the must read, as his often are–respecting, insightful, but cutting when necessary, as in this comment:

That first novel was Revolutionary Road (1961)—the basis of a new movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet— and it could be said to have dissolved its creator’s career even as it founded it, because Yates never published a novel half as good again. To put it brutally, he had about ten good years. His later fiction was compulsive but not compelling, necessary to him but not to his readers, who would always chase the fire of his first novel in the embers of its successors.

Having read all of his novels short of Cold Spring Harbor and most of his short stories, my experience of reading Yates was very much one of chasing the fire.

Thirty years after first reading Revolutionary Road, I can still remember the amazing scene in the hospital, where Yates subtly shifts the point of view to that of Shep Campbell so that he can land the narrative punch with maximum impact. After locking us into April Wheeler’s perspective, we wander off with Shep to grab a cup of coffee only to come back and find that April is dead. It remains one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever experienced in reading.

After that, I went on to read most of Yates’ work over the next year, and although he often succeeds in drawing the reader into the world of failure, disappointment, and desparate dreams, The Easter Parade aside, he never quite manages to bring the pieces together as well.

In further recognition of Yates’ ascendancy, Everyman’s Library is releasing in January 2009 a one-volume edition collecting his three best books: Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade , and his first short story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.

Reading Hitchens’ and Wood’s reviews reminded me of one aspect of Revolutionary Road‘s story of the disillusioned young couple, Frank and April Wheeler. Their dream for escaping the conventional suburban Connecticut life they believe they should abhor is to run off to Paris, where April will get a job working at NATO Headquarters (then still in Paris) and Frank will work in his writing. Ironically, this is very nearly what Fred Holland and Sally White do in George Goodman’s A Time for Paris, recently reviewed on this site. And after Fred and Sally have their European adventure and lived Frank and April’s dream, what do they end up doing?

Getting married and settling down in the suburbs outside New York City.

Mary Astor, Author

Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart in 'The Maltese Falcon'Film and theater director Lindsay Anderson once said, “… when two or three who love the cinema are gathered together, the name of Mary Astor always comes up.” “She was an actress of special attraction”, he went on, “whose qualities of depth and reality always seemed to illuminate the parts she played.” Between 1921 and 1965, she appeared in over 100 films, dozens of plays, and plenty of television dramas, but looking through her list of credits, what strikes us today is that we remember Mary Astor despite the fact that most of her films, aside from The Maltese Falcon and a few others, are pretty forgettable.

What almost no one remembers today, however, is that Mary Astor also had a respectable career as a writer. In her 1971 memoir, A Life on Film, Astor implies that it started “as a sort of assignment to help me during a short period of psychotherapy,” but the version that appears in the book that resulted from this assignment, Mary Astor: My Story, is a little more vivid.

Astor repeats an old joke in A Life on Film about the five stages of an actor’s career:

  1. “Who is Mary Astor?”
  2. “Get me Mary Astor.”
  3. “Get me a Mary Astor type.”
  4. “Get me a younger Mary Astor.”
  5. “Who is Mary Astor?”

Somewhere between stages 4 and 5, Astor became depressed over her declining career and ever less-interesting roles, developed a fondness for the bottle, and may have attempted suicide. During her recovery, she was in the care of a Catholic priest and practicing psychologist, Father Peter Ciklic, who encouraged her to write about her life and experiences. According to Astor, the result “was not meant for public eyes, but someone convinced me it should be a book.” She lucked into the support of a fine editor, Lee Barker, at Doubleday, who helped her shape the raw material into finished shape–remarkably, for a celebrity memoir, without the aid of a ghost writer.

Published in 1959, Mary Astor: My Story was one of the first confessional autobiographies to come out of Hollywood. Astor was candid, within the limits of her generation’s standards of discretion, about her affairs, emotional turmoils, and alcoholism. At the time when Donna Reed was still a leading role model, it was a real scorcher and became a best-seller.

For most celebrities, this would have been the end of the story, but Barker then suggested Astor try her hand at fiction, “…and I’ve been hooked ever since.” A year later, Doubleday released her first novel, The Incredible Charlie Carewe.

Cover of Dell paperback reissue of 'The Incredible Charlie Carewe'Although it suffers some of the typical construction problems of a first novel, The Incredible Charlie Carewe is a remarkable work that demonstrates “qualities of depth and reality” equal to those Anderson noted in Astor’s acting. Charlie Carewe is the handsome, charming, charismatic son of a wealthy East Coast Establishment family with impeccable bloodlines. On the surface, it seems as if the sky is the limit–no doors are closed to Charlie Carewe.

Unfortunately, something is a bit, well, odd, about Charlie. At first, there is just a sense that his behavior is a bit hard to explain, but given his class and status, his parents, his sister, the help–everyone writes it off to quirks in his character. But then his sister comes across Charlie in the rocks along the shore of their country estate–bashing a playmate’s head into the rocks:

There was absolutely no savagery in the action, no passion or hatred, no viciousness, He looked up briefly as he saw Virginia and Jeff and called out a smiling “Hi!” and then went back to his task. Firmly, purposefully, as though he were occupied in cracking a coconut. In the seconds before movement came back to the paralyzed observers another wave whispered up to the two boys and receded with pink in its foam.

Charlie’s victim is rushed off to the hospital with permanent brain damage and the Carewe’s social finesse is put to the test as they graciously usher out their guests as if nothing more than an unfortunate accident had taken place. The next morning, as he tucks into his breakfast, he asks chattily, “What’s the news on Roger? Did he die?”

The Carewes can recognize that they have something of a ticking time bomb on their hands, but their upbringing and lack of psychological awareness (the incident above takes place in the early 1920s) leaves them helpless when it comes to dealing with it. They shuttle Charlie through a series of elite prep schools, smoothing over matters when he’s quietly asked to leave due to thefts, attacks on other students, or other indiscretions. For a long time, the only person who seems remotely able to accept that Charlie’s actions are more than a little abnormal is his sister Virginia, and even she is at a loss to explain it:

As usual, she thought, she was making a fuss, putting too much importance on Charlie’s behavior. She should be used to it now. Wearily she thought, at least there was one consistency; in any given situation, Charlie could be counted on to do the wrong thing, the inappropriate thing. Nobody, but nobody, could be more charming when he wanted to be. He had, it seemed, a full command of the social graces, and in any gathering, especially of people who were strangers to him, could attract attention with no effort. People would gravitate toward him, toward the sound of his pleasant voice, his contagious laugh; but always he seemed to want to destroy it….

Schools could expel him, friends were quickly made and quickly lost, his contact with any kind of social life was brief, and none of it seemed to matter to him. Nor did it matter that the cumulative effect was destroying a family.

Astor displays a clinical objectivity in leading us through every step along the way as Charlie spreads havoc into the lives of almost everyone he meets. In each situation, the pattern is the same: glittering, showy success followed by abrupt failure due to some or other act of willful brutality. His forms a company, makes a great splash, achieves fame as a tycoon and philanthropist, and within a couple of years is being escorted out by his nearly bankrupted partners. He makes a show of joining the Navy after Pearl Harbor, then weasels his way out by pretending to be a bed-wetter. He drives his wife to divorce and alcoholism, borrows and loses money from friends, seduces wives and ruins friendships.

Not even the incredibly strong defenses of family fortune and status, though, can withstand the destructive force of Charlie’s will, however, and only an unlucky trip on a staircase keeps Charlie from standing alone in a wasteland of his own fallout. What Charlie is, we can now see in a glance with the benefit of much greater awareness, is, of course, a psychopath. The psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley recognized this, citing Astor’s book in the 1964 edition of his classic work on psychopathology, The Mask of Sanity:

In many respects the most realistic and successful of all portrayals of the psychopath is that presented by Mary Astor in The Incredible Charlie Carewe. The rendition is so effective that even those unfamiliar with the psychopath in actual experience are likely to sense the reality of what is disclosed. The subject is superbly dealt with, and the book constitutes a faithful and arresting study of a puzzling and infinitely complex subject. Charlie Carewe emerges as an exquisite example of the psychopath – the best, I believe, to be found in any work of fiction.

The Incredible Charlie Carewe should be read not only by every psychiatrist but also by every physician. It will hold the attention of all intelligent readers, and I believe it will be of great value in helping the families of psychopaths to gain insight into the nature of the tragic problem with which they are dealing, usually in blindness and confusion.

By this point, anyone reading this review who’s been in a bookstore in the last decade can’t help but think of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. If asked to sum up the book in a single catchphrase, I would have to say, “Imagine American Psycho written by Louis Auchincloss (or Edith Wharton).” Where Ellis writes to shock, Astor writes to show how people of refinement and elaborate rules of conduct respond when faced with pure irrational violence.

The Incredible Charlie Carewe is a remarkable novel not just in the detail and accuracy of its portrayal of a psychopath but in the “depth and reality” of its portrayal of the society in which this particular psychopath operates. Astor is very much in the territory of Wharton and Auchincloss, and she’s clearly deeply familiar with it. This is a novel that has more than a few parallels with the story of the 20th century as a whole, which is one reason it’s a genuine shame that it vanished after a single Dell paperback release in 1963.

Astor went on to write four more novels: The O’Conners (1964); Goodbye Darling, Be Happy (1965); The Image of Kate (1966); and A Place Called Saturday (1968). The last opens with a rape and goes on to tell about the victim’s decision to bear and raise the child that results. Clearly, Astor’s imagination ranged beyond the walls of the senior citizen apartment of which a visitor commented, “My, isn’t this nice! You can sit here and watch the cars go by!”

In her last book, A Life on Film, Astor revisited her life, but this time dealing almost exclusively with her experiences as a working actor, starting with a 1921 two-reeler, “The Beggar Maid”. Astor didn’t come to film: she was shoved into with both hands by her parents, particularly her father, Otto Langhanke, who was summed up by the great director D. W. Griffith as “a walking cash register.” Her first agent changed Lucile Langhanke into Mary Astor. Lucile was too young to understand much of the insidious nature of her father’s actions at the time, and by the time she was able to take some control of her life, she was in her early twenties and a veteran of over thirty films. So she writes:

As well as I know the actress, Mary Astor–every movement, every shade of voice, and I learned to manipulate her into many different kinds of women–she is still not “me.” A year or so ago I flipped on the TV set and then went into another room for a moment. I heard some familiar words and said, “Hey, that’s Mary Astor!” not “Hey, that’s me.”

Astor survived the transition from silents to sound. She recounts in the book all the troubles associated with the early sound recording techniques, which forced actors into behaviors more stilted and artificial than anything seen in the silents. By the start of the 1930s, she was a legitimate star, if not one of the first magnitude. Her life was regularly covered in Photoplay and a dozen other fan magazines, but as likely to be cast in a B-picture like “Red Hot Tires” as in a A-film like “Dodsworth”.

Then, in 1936, her private life became headline news as her husband’s attorneys attempted to introduce her diary as evidence. Although the studio execs managed to get it suppressed, gossip held that its contents were full of lurid sexual details of her affair with the playwright George S. Kauffman and dozens of male film stars. Astor consistently maintained that this was all hogwash, but forever after she was considered as dangerous material: a solid, consistent, and reliable performer but not safe to make a first-rate star of.

Although she gained some of her best parts in the years after the scandal, including her Oscar-winning supporting role in “The Great Lie” (1941), by 1944 she was, at 38, playing the mother of 22 year old Judy Garland in “Meet Me in St. Louis”. She began to think, she writes,

“What’s so damned important about being an actress?” I saw my little world, insulated, self-absorbed, limited. And all the twenty years of hard work seemed sour and futile. It was a partial acceptance of reality, but it was still a bit like a child saying, “You mean there isn’t any Santa Claus?” I wasn’t aware of, nor ready to accept, the fact that the mere doing, the achieving, was the point. Not what I had achieved. For what I had achieved would in due time be forgotten. The doing was important, it was part of my being–of what and who I am.

Ironically, as Mary Astor got less and less to work with in her roles, she made more and more of them. In his forward to A Life on Film, writer Sumner Locke Elliott recalls working with her on a ridiculous 1950s television play intended to showcase the talents of the latest Miss America. She spoke, he writes, in “the voice of the actress who has been through it all; this is the calm of the veteran who can get you through even if the set falls down.” By her last film, “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), her reputation as a professional had reached the point where Bette Davis could turn to director Robert Aldrich and say, “Turn her loose, Robert, you might learn something!”

A Life on Film is a terrific book and it’s entirely due to Mary Astor’s intelligent, ruthlessly honest, and ever ironic voice. This may be the least ego-filled book ever to come out of Hollywood. Astor makes no bones about the creature comforts that one can enjoy as the perks of stardom, but she never confuses film-making as a business of making money by creating distractions. This is a book about craft, about learning to build a character out of two-minute takes and hours and hours and hour of sitting around and waiting, written by a woman who was among the best craftspersons of her era.

If I had to pick just one of Mary Astor’s books for reissue, it would definitely be A Life on Film. As much as I admire and marvel at her accomplishment in The Incredible Charlie Carewe, I have to say I preferred her final memoir. I not only admired it–but I thoroughly enjoyed it and regretted at the end that I was closing the cover on Mary Astor’s last words as a writer.

Tributes to Two Neglected Gay Writers: George Baxt and Irving Rosenthal

George Baxt

Brooks Peters, who writes some of the most interesting and thoughtful pieces on literary, celebrity, and cultural figures of the past, recently posted a a href=”http://www.brookspeters.com/?p=838″>long review of the diverse career and works of George Baxt. Although Baxt worked in theater, film, television, magazines, and just about every other medium requiring written words, he will probably be best remembered as the creator of a pioneering series of mysteries featuring the first openly gay detective, Pharoah Love, starting with A Queer Kind of Death in 1966. Baxt also wrote a popular series of mysteries based on celebrities from the 1930s, including The Dorothy Parker Murder Case and The Mae West Murder Case, in the 1980s and early 1990s. Brooks quotes from Wendy Werris’ memoir, An Alphabetical Life, who recalls Baxt as,

If you can imagine a swish, fey and girlish Phil Silvers, you’ll have a picture of George Baxt. He was hilarious and irreverent. He batted his eyelashes to make a point when telling a dirty joke. His Brooklyn accent was delicious, and he had stories to tell about every great star from the Golden Age of Hollywood and beyond. You never heard dirt dished until you heard it from the mouth of George Baxt.

Irving Rosenthal

Earlier this year, Dennis Cooper reposted an article from a previous blog on Irving Rosenthal, whose 1967 novel/memoir/cut-up assemblage, Sheeper, was one of the most outrageous and unashamed celebrations of gay life to emerge from the Sixties’ wave of sexual liberation. Although Sheeper is currently out of print, its name often pops up in discussions of favorite forgotten books.

Two Recommendations from Kevin Michael Derby

Kevin Michael Derby, about the only person, it seems to have noticed my post about the works of historian Kenneth S. Davis, wrote with two recommendations for books worthy of rediscovery:

• The Age of the French Revolution, by Claude Manceron, consisting of the following five volumes:

        • Volume 1: Twilight of the Old Order, 1774-1778

        • Volume 2: The Wind from America, 1778-1781

        • Volume 3: Their Gracious Pleasure, 1782-1785

        • Volume 4: Toward the Brink, 1785-1787

        • Volume 5: Blood of the Bastille, 1787-1789

“Manceron was a unique historian who decided to chart the French Revolution through a hundred lives of key individuals. This leads to a vivid and often over the top narrative which offers little in the way of analysis and often proved incoherent in the way of descriptions. Manceron is all over the place and his narrative reminds me of Eliot’s “heap of shattered images.” Now he takes us to Rome for a papal election. Next stop is outside Philadelphia where General Washington retreats from Howe’s redcoats. Now to Versailles where Marie Antoinette is dancing. Meanwhile in the country, Robespierre studies law. Manceron makes no secret of his biases. He is a fan of the revolution and even dedicates volumes to modern day leftists like Allende and Mitterrand. Manceron also felt the need to jump out from behind the curtains and interrupt his narration with odd asides and comments, often shaking his fist at the leaders of the Church and other reactionaries. Still other times, he smugly asserts that the lead players of the Revolution were more heroic and had more dynamic adventurers than nomads and explorers. Manceron promised there would be at least ten volumes. He died after writing five, just as the Bastille was captured. While I can not claim to know more about why the Revolution occurred, I know the lead characters and their various motivations better having read the five volumes. These books really deserved better than to be forgotten despite the flaws. They make the French Revolution accessible.”

Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne: Misadventures of an English General in the Revolution, by Francis J. Huddleston.

“Perhaps the strangest biography that I have ever read. While attempting to offer a life of the losing commander of the battle of Saratoga and a celebrated playwright of his times, Huddleston makes a number of asides including all of the following: there are too many scholars attempting to prove Shakespeare did not write his plays; whether or not actresses should take to the stage in skimpy night attire; what happened to French soldiers after the Great War; why they should not sell snacks on trains despite the declining quality of full meals served on trains; how horses from Spain are overrated by gamblers and equestrians alike; why the Prince of Wales both then and now-both George IV and the future Duke of Windsor-needed to find better mentors; why the British needed to adapt khaki uniforms sometime in the 1870s or 1880s; thoughts on what an Irish military museum should include; speculations on the exact nature of the Gulf stream; advice that if you are going to recite a limerick at the table with old friends and the first line is sexually suggestive, make sure the second line is too otherwise it will be a severe letdown for your companions; yelling “Are we downhearted?” is not a good way to convince your boss that your team does not have low morale; and many more comments, all of which have nothing to do with the life of General Burgoyne.”

Thanks for the recommendations, Kevin–I’ve already sent off for the first of Manceron’s volumes and am looking forward to reading it.

As always, readers are encouraged to provide their own recommendations–especially when they’re as interesting as these.

Khufu’s Wisdom, by Naguib Mahfouz

Cover of hardback edition of 'Khufu's Wisdom'I just got back from a visit to Egypt to see the see the Pyramids and the other major ancient sites, and while there, I was impressed to see in many of the hotel and airport bookstores and gift shops a respectable sample of works of Arab literature, virtually all of them part of a fine series from the American University in Cairo Press. The largest portion of these books, understandably, was the work of Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s 1988 Nobel Prize winner for literature. In the spirit of all the tombs and temples we were visiting, I decided to give Khufu’s Wisdom, one of Mahfouz’s few books set in ancient Egypt, a try.

First published as a special supplement to a small Cairo literary journal, al-Majalla al-jadida in 1939, Khufu’s Wisdom is, in fact, Mahfouz’s first novel. Although it received several positive reviews, it quickly vanished until his Nobel win inspired a rediscovery of his complete oeuvre. In truth, completeness is probably the single best reason for bringing Khufu’s Wisdom back to print and for its able translation into English by Raymond Stock in 2003.

The story in Khufu’s Wisdom is like something out of an opera: a switch of infants, mistaken identities, a stalwart young man rising to shining excellence against all odds, and love overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The writing, on the other hand, is a long way from the realism that characterizes Mahfouz’s works in more modern settings. Take this passage, in which cadets at the Pharaoh’s military academy compete in games of skill:

Suddenly there raced out from among them a rider who sped past them all with preternatural power, who moved so quickly that they seemed to be standing still. He was headed for victory right until the end, when the trainer again announced the name of the winner–“Djedef son of Bisharu.” Again, the cheers rose for him, and this time the clapping was even stronger.

Next the crier proclaimed that it was time for the steeplechase. Once more the officers mounted their horses, as wooden benches, whose height gradually increased one after another, were set up in the midst of the long field. With the blast of the horn, the horses bounded forward abruptly, flying over the first obstacle like attacking eagles. They leapt over the second like the waves of a ferocious waterfall, clear victory seeming to crown them as they progressed. But fortune betrayed most of them. … Only one horseman cleared all the hurdles as though he were an inexorable Fate, the embodiment of conquest. The crier called out his name, “Djedef son of Bisharu,” to the crowd’s huge praise and applause.

Our hero, Djedef, goes on to win all the contests and is appointed by the Pharaoh’s crown prince to a trusted post in the palace guards. Soon after, Djedef, Algy, and Ginger fend off a Nazi plot to bomb the … sorry, I got my one-dimensional heroes a little mixed up there.

Mahfouz was 28 when he published Khufu’s Wisdom, so we can’t consider it as juvenilia, but I personally find it hard to consider it literature, either. The narrative, it’s true, has plenty of momentum: it took me about two hours to finish this book, and I’m usually a slow reader. Mahfouz did have to sacrifice characterization and atmosphere for speed, though. Rambo is positively nuanced compared to anyone in this novel. What Khufu’s Wisdom most reminded me of was the Stalinist epic, “The Fall of Berlin”, in which the stalwart Stakhanovite worker, Alexei, beats all steel production records, wins the “All-Soviet Worker” award from gentle, wise Comrade Stalin, then single-handedly defeats the Nazis and wins the hand of his beloved Natasha. Only in Khufu’s Wisdom, our hero winds up Pharaoh in the end. I don’t think Stalin would have let ol’Alexei take over as Party Chairman.

Despite these shortcomings, Khufu’s Wisdom is now readily available in three different editions: in hardback from the American University in Cairo Press; in paperback from Anchor Books; and in a fine compilation with Mahfouz’s two other early novels set in ancient Egypt, Rhadopis of Nubia and Thebes at War, from Everyman’s Library.

Khufu’s Wisdom, by Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Raymond Stock
Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2003.

A Time for Paris, by George Goodman

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'A Time for Paris'Marshmallows have more substance than this book. Stalwart Yale-grad and Korean War vet Fred Holland sails off to serve in the American Embassy in London. He and his chum spot pretty Sally White, also of good WASP stock, boarding their ocean liner. Fred chats up Sally, who turns out to be an old but distant acquaintance from summers on the island in Maine.

They flirt during the voyage and Fred accompanies Sally for a few days’ idyll in Paris before joining his post in London. Thanks to cheap flights and trains, they see each other occasionally over the next few months. Sally amuses herself with an avant-garde lover and then one of Fred’s old Army buddies. Fred establishes himself as a sturdy right-hand man to one of the Foreign Service’s rising stars. Fred and Sally wonder to themselves: is this love? Is this friendship? Is this a mistake?

Despite detours into romances with an English earl (Sally) and a worldly older woman (Fred), true love reigns in the end, with stalwart Fred flying an ailing Sally to a hospital, saving her life and winning her heart.

So why read this book? Isn’t this just a fancy variation on a Harlequin novel?

For me, the attractions of A Time for Paris are nostalgia and good, if ultralight, writing. Author George Goodman would later become much better known as Adam Smith, author of the best-selling The Money Game and host of a long-running PBS show. Goodman spent a year as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, and he brings many of his impressions of England and France from that time into A Time for Paris.

In some ways, the world of A Time for Paris is as mannered and archaic as anything in Henry James: the schools one went to, the cut of one’s suit, the slant of one’s politics all still matter and are used like litmus tests by many of the characters. This is world where parties are still for drinking cocktails and smoking is obligatory. On the other hand, this is not quite your grandmother’s world. Both Fred and Sally have sex with several other people before finding their way to bed together.

Sexual liberation aside, though, the line between male and female is drawn in big, bold strokes. Though Sally runs to Europe to escape marriage to a conventional suburb-residing, daily-commuting, WASP male, by the end of the book she is destined to marry Fred, settle down to raise 2.5 children, and drive a station wagon, as we all know is only right and just.

Yes, it’s all out-dated, two-dimensional, and ridiculous. But fun. After all, even marshmallows deserve their spot on our kitchen shelves.

A Time for Paris, by George Goodman
Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1957

The Age of Reason, by Harold Nicolson

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Review
· Find Out More
· Locate a Copy


In the early years of his reign the King lived mainly at the Tuilleries in Paris, but in 1722 he moved to Versailles. Officially he occupied the gorgeous rooms which his great-grandfather had tenanted and slept in the monumental bed in which the Great King had died. But in fact these majestic apartments were too grand and cold for a man who, however promiscuous may have been his love-affairs, was essentially of a domestic temperament. He thus, with the help of ingenious architects, constructed a suite of private rooms communicating by a secret staircase with the state apartments. There were in the first place what were called les cabinets, namely, bedroom, bathroom, dining room, library, and study looking out into an interior courtyard. Above them was an even more private suite, known as les petits appartements, situated as a penthouse under the leads and surmounted by a private roof garden containing macaws, parrots, canaries, monkeys, and pleached trees of box, or myrtle or bay in blue and white tubs. It was here that the King would play with his children or exercise his fat angora cat.

The rigor and symbolism of court etiquette can be assessed by the strange fact that, although it was in his private flate that the King flirted and pretended to work, the state apartments below retained their old hierographical significance. Louis XV, like his great-grandfather, would undergo the slow, elaborate, and unbearably pompous parade of going to bed. Still would the dukes and marquises compete with each other to be accorded the honor of holding the candle or helping the King to get out of his shirt. When the last rites had been accomplished, when the carved and gilded barrier that separated the bed from the rest of the room had been ceremoniously closed, when the last courtier, bowing profoundly, had backed out of the bedroom into the adjoining oeil-de-boeuf, then Louis XV would leap out of bed again, put on his dressing gown, and, accompanied by a personal page carrying a light, would skip up the secret staircase and slip into his own comfortable bed in his own comfortable room. Then in the morning the ceremony had again to be performed in reverse. It never seems to have occurred, to either Louis XV, his family, or his courtiers that these cumbrous parades were absurdly unreal. The monarch was King by divine right, and his accustomed actions must be distinguished from those of ordinary mortals, as it were liturgically.

Editor’s Comments

The Age of Reason was the first of a half-dozen or so books in a series published by Doubleday in the early 1960s. Edited by the veteran reporter John Gunther, author of the popular “Inside” books of the 1940s and 1950s, the series had the impressive title of “The Mainstream of the Modern World.” Although works of history, the books were all written by authors better known for fiction (Alec Waugh), reportage (Edmond Taylor), or miscellany (Nicolson), and all focused more on personalities than movements, politics, and larger issues.

Although Nicolson declares his subtitle to be, “A study of the mutability of ideas and the variety of human temperament,” his emphasis is on the latter. As with his classic, The Congress of Vienna, Nicolson is an unapologetic popular historian, in the vein of Andre Maurois, Stefan Zweig, and others of his generation, writers who never felt their amateur status disqualified them from using history as a canvas of characters every bit as intriguing as any they might make up.

Of the twenty-one chapters in the book, nineteen are miniatures of a representative figure from the 18th century. Most are very well known: Peter the Great, Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin, Rousseau. Making no claims to scholarship, Nicolson is unlikely to have uncovered any remarkable new material about them, so one could ask what makes such a book worth a bother forty-plus years after it was written.

The answer is simple: because it’s superbly entertaining. Nicolson gives us the basic facts of each life, but these are just a frame within which he weaves a tapestry of observations and anecdotes. Most of his material comes from the letters and memoirs of contemporaries: other historians are absent from the text. What doesn’t come first-hand sources comes instead from Nicolson’s keen eye for character and decades of experience in politics and diplomacy.

“Reason,” he quotes Herbert Read in his introduction, “is a very difficult word to use without confusion.” Nicolson acknowledges his skeptical view of the aspirations held out for reasoned discourse and rational thinking during the 18th century. We learn relatively little about the philosophical ideas any figure held or propounded, except as theory reveals something of the man who has it.

Instead, we learn of the merits and faults of each man and woman, of their eccentric habits and money problems, of their vanities and miseries. And we find out things more sober history books leave out. Take the opening of the chapter on Peter the Great, for example:

Walking in the royal park at Brussels, the inquiring traveler, if he diverge but a few yards from the graveled alleys of pleached lime, will come across a hollow among the shrubberies which is now used as a midden in which the gathered leaves are rotted down for leaf mold. In this declivity there is a small stone bearing a Latin inscription. It tells the traveler that on this spot the Duke of Muscovy, having drunk heavily, was violently sick. What is interesting about this memorial is that the Belgians at that date should have regarded the public vomiting of a reigning, even if barbarous, prince as so odd as to merit being recorded for posterity.

Considering how exhaustively documented the lives of most of his characters have been, it’s striking how often Nicolson introduces something like this–odd, trivial perhaps, but telling. As another example, take the ending of his chapter on Tom Paine:

William Cobbett … was shocked by the fact that the godfather of the United States should be shunned by all decent Americans. He therefore exhumed Paine’s body from the graveyard at New Rochelle and brought it back with him to Liverpool. For many years Cobbett preserved Paine’s skeleton in his house at Botley in Hampshire and on his death he bequeathed it to his son. The son, shortly afterward, went bankrupt and his possessions were sold by auction. Nobody has discovered who bought the bones of Paine. They have disappeared. And his works, which at the time created so prodigious an effect, are today unread.

This anecdote manages to be bizarre, tragic, and symbolic at the same time, which illustrates how, for all the novelty of the facts that Nicolson digs up, he never chooses them for novelty alone.

His lack of scholarly ambitions also allows Nicolson to inject his opinions where he feels the judgment is deserved. Thus, of Grand Duke Peter, husband of Catherine the Great, he writes, “He possessed a childish character, an incurable taste for low company, marked aversion from any form of study, and a violent temper. If not a certifiable lunatic, he was certainly a clinical specimen of arrested development.” After crediting Joseph Addison with “spreading to many dull and unenlightened homes the blessed habit of reading,” he passes a harsh sentence: “Addison’s complacency and optimism are as insipid as a vanilla puff.”

Such subjectivity is refreshing when dealing with historical figures. In too many works of history, maintaining the illusion of objectivity becomes an excuse for suppressing all sense of the writer’s own character. In Harold Nicolson, the Age of Reason had a chronicler with the erudition to deal with a broad and diverse span of time, ideas, and people with ease and skill, the political experience to make shrewd judgments of men, and the confidence to speak his opinions bluntly. The result is a tremendously enjoyable and satisfying work of history.


· Time magazine, 5 May 1961

The age was often out of character but never out of characters. That is what fascinates Harold Nicolson, who scants history for personality, and arranges his book as a gallery of portraits bathed in the warm glow of idiosyncrasy rather than the cold light of 100% accuracy. The result is an “entertainment” written in the witty and amusing fashion of a male Nancy Mitford.

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The Age of Reason: The Eighteenth Century, by Harold Nicolson
Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1961

Jane White

Cover of UK paperback edition of 'Quarry'Brooks Peters wrote with a recommendation of Quarry, a 1967 novel by Jane White. As Brooks describes Quarry,

It’s a British novel from 1960s about three adolescent boys who kidnap a boy and keep him in a cave in a quarry. It’s been compared to Lord of the Flies. It got great reviews when it came out. I’ve just finished it and thought it was extremely well done. But a real enigma. I can’t figure out what it is really about except perhaps the breakdown of society.

Richard Freeman, in the Saturday Review, wrote that Quarry,

… is an allegory with a variety of more or less cosmic overtones. The action takes place not in a normal, pastoral English summer, but in an arid wasteland during a fierce heat wave. Images of darkness and light are strewn about and the cave is philosophically associated with the one in Plato’s Republic. The victim, especially, is given much symbolic weight to bear as a universal scapegoat…. [U]ltimately, the book is about the complex symbiosis between prosecutor and prey. If Quarry is less richly imagined than Lord of the Flies and lacks its verbal distinction, it is nevertheless an extraordinarily assured first novel, and is even superior to Golding’s in its control of allegory, the bare bones of which are less frequently allowed to obtrude.

Other reviewers compared White favorably with Iris Murdoch. Her second novel, Proxy, received mostly positive reviews in the U.K. but was uniformly panned in the U.S.. From what I can determine, White went on to publish four more novels:

She also published a memoir, Norfolk Child, in 1973. Despite the fact that reviewers of her later works offered such praise as “Miss Young writes well of marriages and the forces that mold them”; “a haunting, macabre quality reminiscent of Iris Murdoch”; and “an abundant mixture of lyrical and symbolic”, White seems to have disappeared from the publishing scene entirely after 1976. I haven’t had a chance to sample White’s work, but on the surface at least, she appears to be a worthy candidate for reconsideration.

Added 22 November 2009

Jane White, autho of QuarryBrooks Peters added the following biographical information, along with a photo of Jane White, from the dust jacket of Quarry:

“Jane White was born in Cambridge in 1934, and her family moved soon afterwards to a remote farmhouse in Norfolk. Her father is an historian and University Lecturer at Downing College, Cambridge. Jane White was educated at home by a governess until the age of nine, then at a Convent boarding school. At eighteen she won a State Scholarship to Girton College, Cambridge. She read for an honours Degree in English and graduated with an upper second Degree. She worked as an assistant in a large public library for nine months prior to Cambridge and took various vacation jobs as a waitress — also as general help in a Maternity Hospital.

She was employed for five years with the B.B.C. World Service as a News Clerk in the News Information Department. In 1961 she married a lecturer in German at Birkbeck College, London University. She has one small son, and lives at Godalming Surrey.

Jane White has written plays, poetry, verse dramas for as long as she can remember. Her first novel was completed at the age of nine. She is much interested in acting, and took part in various amateur productions at Cambridge, once venturing as far as the Edinburgh ‘Fringe’.

Her interests include theatre-going, films, both good and bad, music of all kinds, and reading.”

Thanks, Brooks!

UW Press to Reissue “Two Kinds of Time”–Forgotten Classic China Travel Book

Cover of UW Press reissue of 'Two Kinds of Time'On the rare occasions when I’m back in the U.S., I always try to take time to stop by a public library and do some browsing through back issues of Book Review Digest. This evening, flipping through the 1950 volume, my eye was caught by the entry for Graham Peck’s Two Kinds of Time. Here is what Robert Payne had to say about it in the Saturday Review:

The present work, jam-packed with anecdotes, incidents, observations, theories, portraits, drawings, obscene jokes, quiet jokes, terrifying jokes, even ordinary jokes, has everything to commend it. It bursts at the seams, but so does Gargantua and Pantagruel. He has not written the modern Chinese Gargantua and Pantagruel, but he has done the nearest thing to it.

I took down the title, of course, and when I got back to the hotel, quickly googled it. To my surprise and pleasure, I found that this book, cited by numerous writers as one of the best books ever written about China by a Westerner, is about to be reissued in full, unabridged form for the first time in nearly sixty years–and from my alma mater, the University of Washington Press.

Peck, a Yale graduate, artist, and heir to a small hairpin fortune, first arrived in China in January 1936 while on a round-the-world trip. He ended up spending the better part of a year there before returning to Derby, Connecticut, where he then spent two years writing up his notes and collecting dozens of drawings into his first book, Through China’s Wall, which was published by Houghton in 1940. The book’s critical reception was superlative: “… the most important, the most fascinating travel book on China”; “remarkably unadulterated travel writing, transmitting observation and experiences close to the sensations of the moments when they occurred to a man of unusually balanced and sensitive intelligence”; “a better characterization in a paragraph than most venerable sinologists could achieve in a volume.” And, as Time‘s reviewer put it, “It is part exquisite travel book, part exciting history, part exotic philosophy.”

Peck returned to China in 1939 and remained there for the next six and a half years, surviving Japanese air raids, accompanying Mao’s Communist forces, and working for the U.S. Office of Information. He then left China for good and returned to his family home in Derby, Connecticut. Although he wrote several children’s books and collaborated with the veteran “China hand” John K. Fairbanks on China: The Remembered Life, it appears that Peck spent most of the rest of his life after 1946 looking backward, not forward. He died in 1968 at the age of 54.

Two Kinds of Time will be published on 30 October 2008 by the University of Washington Press.

Nobel Committee Salutes Neglected Books

In an indirect tribute to neglected books, the selection committee awarded the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature to the French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, who has managed to be successfully ignored by most of the English-speaking reading public for the last forty-some years. But this neglect is understandable, at least in the eyes of Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, who told an Associated Press reporter, “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature …That ignorance is restraining.”

For a quick and admittedly crude assessment of where the US and UK stand with respect to other countries in the recognition of Monsieur Le Clézio’s work, I checked a variety of online bookstores to see how many of his books were currently in print and available for sale. Here are the results:

Overall, this rough survey suggests that U.S. publishers are not doing too bad in keeping up with Le Clézio’s work, at least compared to other countries. And though his novels have never rated very high with any but a small circle of academics and fans of the avant-garde, the fact is that the Atheneum Press was a faithful supporter, issuing fine hardback editions of most of his major novels until the mid-1970s. With the celebrity of a Nobel on his side, Le Clézio is certainly back in demand, and there is a good chance that at least some of these now out-of-print English translations will be coming back. So, in spite of Mr. Engdahl’s assessment, the American publishing industry and reading public tends to be pretty responsive to the Nobel Committee’s championing of a neglected writer–certainly more than they are to this site’s!

Atlantic Crossing, by G. Wilson Knight

G. Wilson Knight, 1936, Photography by Howard CosterG. Wilson Knight subtitled this 1936 book “An Autobiographical Design,” and had he stuck to the autobiography and left the design out, I might have been less resentful about the several hours I devoted to assaulting its slopes. Perhaps I lack the mountaineering skills to attempt such a tower of intellect. But Atlantic Crossing struck me as one of the most grandiose failures I’ve tried to read in a long time.

Knight made his name as a critic and director of Shakespeare and other English dramatists. His lifelong immersion in Renaissance poetry and prose left him with a weakness for an intricacy at times beyond his own dexterity:

It was then I watched in twilight where up-piled clouds in rugged Alpine ranges towered and caught the morning and glowed with it, black rocks and giant crags fire-fringed, stained with a gilden glory. Shafts of burning mist, spear-points of the assaulting dawn, slanted angular upward splendours. Watch those breaking palisades, that rock-pinnacle flaming to its ruin, those tufts of red smoke, that heaving, billowing, crumbling, conglomerated mass–was ever such chaos so musically blended?–while the artillery of advancing day fumes the air with its cordite, rolling attar of roses in wave on wave.

Phew! Imagine 300-plus pages of this hyperventilating.

In Atlantic Crossing, Knight hangs on the slender frame of six days’ voyage on a 1930s ocean liner from Montreal to Southhampton enough ornaments and appendages to sink even the most sea-worthy narrative.

There are some promising bits. A fleeting, glancing romance with a lively American ingenue. Some fine purely autobiographical passages in which Knight recalls his experiences as a dispatch rider with British forces in Iraq and Persia during World War One. And enough tastes of luxury liner travel to leave us envious of the past:

Now what to do after breakfast? A pipe in the lounge; a walk on the promenade deck; watch the people; perhaps get to know some of them; shuffleboard and deck-tennis. This is to be unadulterated leisured aristocracy, free from beggars, telephones, letters, money, and all complex interrelations of modern civilization, yet with its best luxury at hand; in a world beyond richness and poverty, for one week.

Unfortunately for the reader, however, Knight can’t wait to hurl in great shovel-fulls of aduleration and complex interrelations:

It is often hard to day whether man’s passionate unrest is a matter of volcanic flame or turbulent ocean. The opposition of Thales and Heraclitus is profound. Fire must be liquid in us, coursing like quicksilver in our veins: that is, man’s fiery ascent drags ocean up mountains through fields of air. I suppose fire is ultimately the Alpha and Omega, earth-centre and empyrean.

OK, folks–a show of hands. Man’s passionate unrest: volcanic flame or turbulent ocean? I know my mind is often torn between these two choices. On the other hand, I have no second thoughts about what category Atlantic Crossing belong in.

Atlantic Crossing, by G. Wilson Knight
London: J. W. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1936

William Blake in This World, by Harold Bruce

William Blake, a portrait sketch by John Flaxman“In 1757 William Blake was born in London; in 1827 he died there; where he has been since 1827 I do not know.” This wonderful line opens Harold Bruce’s William Blake in This World, and that spirit of cheerful skepticism permeates the whole book.

“I doubt if a soul is to be understood, or a ghost to be saved by whitewashing,” Bruce writes in response to a century’s worth of attempts to fit Blake’s wildly original imagination into a more conventional and Victorian form. Instead of following tradition, laying out the story of Blake’s life in chronological order and drawing lessons from its successes and failures, Bruce takes what was, at the time, a very novel, Modernist approach:

To try to sift fact from romance, to try to erase the details of Blake’s life not backed by competent, material, and relevant evidence, will be to blur a smooth and highly-finished portrait, and to substitute a flawed and imperfect one, with lines sometimes dim, wavering, or blotted out. But this portrait, traced by Blake’s own words and by the memories of those who knew him, however flawed and imperfect it turns out to be, has certain sharply clear lines, and is at least a partial likeness of him as he was.

William Blake in This World is a collage, a view of Blake’s life and work from a variety of perspective, studded with quotations from his poems, letters, and the recollections of his contemporaries. He looks at Blake in terms of his view of religion and revolution, of the early signs of the Industrial Age and the mundane demands on his energy of politics and commerce. Bruce addresses the question of Blake’s mental health: was he locked up in Bedlam as a madman at one point?

Today, the book would probably be classed as criticism, but Bruce’s interest is strictly biographical. If Bruce has any particular message, it is that, however ethereal and visionary Blake’s spirit was, it resided in the breast of a man very much of his own time and place. Although I found the author’s own prose at times too elliptical and tangential to follow, there is no doubt that in William Blake in This World, Harold Bruce is a vigorous defender of his subject’s right to be himself.

William Blake in This World, by Harold Bruce
New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1925

If Everybody Did, by Jo Ann Stover

I vividly remember a few of the first books I encountered as a child. Though I never knew the names of their authors until I had kids of my own and started taking them to the library, I know I was fascinated by Ingri and Edgar d’Aulaire’s George Washington and Norse Myths. I don’t know if it was Wotan or Odin, but one of those Norse gods set in my mind as the father in “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and I never could quite accept what they taught us in Sunday School about God being Love. I thought Jesus was the nice, gentle guy who protected the little childred from getting smote by God, all wrathful over something we did wrong.

Fortunately, the image that stuck with me the most was something a lot funnier:
Squeezed Cat
My family had one or more cats pretty much the whole time I was growing up, and a few of them endured hours of being picked up by the middle and lugged around by one of us adoring little boys–the way it seems all little kids carry cats:
Squeeze the Cat
After having this book read to me and looking through it over and over, I started to consider if maybe there were gentler ways to pick up the cat. See, the message of the book, as I understood it at least, was that if everybody did something like pick the cat up by the stomach and carry them all around the house, well, then, kitties would end up all pinched up in the middle. Which does look pretty uncomfortable, though funny.

Every once in a while in recent years, the image of that pinched kitty would come to me again and I would rack my brain to try to remember what the name of that book was. But I always drew a blank. I know I never came across it in trips to the library with my own kids, so it struck me recently that whatever it was, it might be a candidate for a mention on this site.

Out of the blue, it occurred to me to do a search on “What If Everybody Did?” It came up blank. So I tried, “If Everybody Did”, and lo and behold, there it was on Amazon:
Squeeze the Cat
And it was in print.

If Everybody Did is nothing more than a collection of illustrations of what might happen if everybody did what kids often tend to do: track in mud, leave toys on the staircase, leave water running in the sink, or wipe dirty hands on the wall or window. Some of the extreme results are pretty comical, but in my view, nothing tops the pinched kitty.

Jo Ann Stover wrote and illustrated a few other children’s books, including They Didn’t Use Their Heads, which, like If Everybody Did, has been brought back in print by Bob Jones University Press. Yes, the fundamentalist Christian college that seems from the outside, at least, a little Stepford Wives-like. Apparently these two books are popular with home schoolers.

Still, I’d highly recommend If Everybody Did for any parent trying to foster some manners in a two-to-five year old. At least one of their bad habits is in here, and I can offer personal testimony that seeing the exaggerated consequences is a good way to turn it around. I know there are a few kitties lounging around Cat Heaven now who owe Jo Ann Stover a bit of gratitude for not having to walk around our house looking like an A-frame.

If Everybody Did, by Jo Ann Stover
New York City: David McKay, 1960
Greenville, South Carolina: Journey Forth Press, 1989

Harper Perennial reissue of “The Moonflower Vine” by Jetta Carleton Confirmed

Cover of new Harper Perennial reissue of 'The Moonflower Vine'Easily the most popular neglected book on this site, Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine is now firmly planted in Harper Perennial’s release schedule for the first quarter of 2009. In fact, you can pre-order it on Amazon today–if you’re willing to wait about six months to get the book, that is. A sneak peak at the cover is shown to the left. Jane Smiley, who wrote about the novel in her 2005 book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, will provide the foreword for this new edition.

The Problem of Kenneth S. Davis

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Experience of War'A very long time ago, I checked a book titled The Experience of War out of my high school library. It didn’t look too inviting–the cover is a photo of small black figures–soldiers–walking across a dark gray field, silhouetted against a light gray sky. The pages were filled with long, dense paragraphs of small print. But it was two inches thick, and at the time, I thought size mattered–at least when it came to impressing my classmates with my seriousness.

I only got about 200 pages into the book before I had to return it, and for whatever reason, I didn’t check it out again. But I can remember being profoundly impressed by how … well, I guess I would say, cinematic the book was. It wasn’t like other history books I’d read–setting aside things like The Great Escape as adventure rather than history, that is. It wasn’t a sequence of “this happened and then this happened” facts, with an occasional bit of analysis. It was a series of scenes. Wendell Willkie in the Commodore Hotel in Manhattan, listening to the returns from the 1940 Presidential election. General Jonathan Wainwright waiting for the end in a tunnel on Corregidor. Navy pilots spotting and attacking the Japanese carrier Kaga just as they reach the very limit of their range, opening the battle of Midway. Harry Hopkins, already suffering from stomach cancer, flying from Washington to London and then on to Moscow to meet with Stalin in the early days after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union–and then back to Scotland to meet up with Churchill and travel to the first Atlantic conference:

For twenty-four hours he is in troubled air, his sick body tossed and buffeted. He has barely strength enough to jump from the plane to the slippery deck of an admiral’s launch, at Scapa Flow, when at last the flying boat comes down. A sailor with a boat hook hauls him sprawling across the deck to the safety of the cabin. But he laughs! He laughs at this undignified arrival of the President’s personal envoy upon a British boat. He laughs at his sickness, his weakness. He waves a cheery farewell to the crew of the PBY, whose captain will later speak in awestruck tones of his passenger’s “unbelievable courage,” his “splendid devotion to duty.”

Almost twenty years later, I pulled down a copy of The Experience of War from a bookstore shelf and began thumbing through it. My first reaction was much the same as before: “Hmm … looks very thick, slow, and dry.” But then I hit that passage about Hopkins again, and I suddenly remembered, and decided right there to buy the book and immediately begin reading it again. At the time, I was flying regularly from Washington to Denver and back, usually in the same day, and a good, thick book I could sink into was something I really needed.

But then, around 300 pages into it, I ran into the following at the start of chapter ten: “Let George do it, the saying goes. So call him George.” George is a Marine, and Davis leads us through his enlistment, his basic training, his transport to Hawaii, his transport to a ship off an island in the Southwest Pacific, to George’s part in the island’s assault and bitter conquest.

George is a fictional character.

I found this quite disconcerting. Was this whole thing just a crock, I wondered? Was Davis just toying with the reader?

But eight pages later, we were back in real history, travelling around the world with Wendell Willkie on his 1942 propaganda tour at FDR’s request, and for the rest of the book, we stayed in what I considered safe territory. Edmund Morris’ Dutch was still ten years in the future and I thought mixing fact and fiction was like adding even and odd numbers–in the end, the result would always be fiction.

In his prefatory note to The Experience of War, Davis wrote,

This is a book about the American experience of World War II. It is not designed to be a formal academic history, though every effort has been made to assure its factual accuracy. Rather, its essential purpose is literary in that it attempts to rescue from the erosions and abstractions of Time something of what Webster’s Dictionary, in the definition of “experience,” calls the “actual living through an event or events; actual enjoyment or suffering.”

Looking through the reviews that greeted the publication of The Experience of War, you can see that the majority of reviewers stumbled over exactly the same point I did. Most praise the work’s overall breadth and richness of detail, but caution the buyer to beware that the whole package could be considered tainted by the one detour into creative writing. Almost three decades later, the fine historian David Hackett Fisher could still sniff that the book “promiscuously mixes fiction and fact.” Eric Goldman, writing in the New York Times was one of the very to express unqualified praise, calling it, “…[H]istory in the grand manner, broad and powerful in its themes, eloquent in style …,” and noting its “sharply etched vignettes of people and scenes.”

Soon after publishing The Experience of War, Davis began work on the project that consumed the rest of his life–over thirty years–and ultimately end unfinished: his massive five-volume, nearly 4,000-page biography of Franklin Roosevelt. His first volume, FDR: The Beckoning of Destiny, 1882-1928 published in 1972, was a critical and commercial success, earning him the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians.

From there on, however, it was a long downhill slide. Walter Goodman’s Times review of the second volume, FDR: The New York Years 1928-1933 (1985), ended with this litany of faint praises: “He is an assiduous researcher, a creditable psychologist, a fair-minded analyst and, when he isn’t trying too hard, an inviting chronicler of the most fascinating political personality of our age.” Irving Howe was much more enthusiastic about the third volume, FDR: The New Deal Years, 1933-1937 (1986), calling it an “admirably rich book – rich in historical substance, political thought and character portraiture.”

He did note, however, that, “Sentence by sentence, Mr. Davis is not a bewitching writer: he has a curious weakness for stiff syntax and cumbersome phrasing.” And it must be said that the significant obstacle for Davis’ readers is less an occasional dalliance with fiction but his almost nineteenth century prose style.

At times, it can be completely over the top, as in this passage from The Experience of War:

High hopes. Bright hopes …

But then, abruptly, deep disappointments. Dark disappointments, and even despairs …

The bright and the dark ran side by side in a rush of contrasting events through the weeks after Yalta; they thrust against one another and tumbled over one another as if struggling for the minds of men …

I can only imagine what Professor Sale would have written if I’d turned in a paper with that tempestuous bit of prose. It’s Bulwer-Lytton grade stuff.

Throughout Davis’ long career, which began with a wartime biography of Eisenhower in 1944 and continued through over a dozen works of biography and history and three novels for over fifty years, reviewers took exception to his stylistic foibles: thousand-word paragraphs composed from sixty-word sentences, topped off with telegraphic exclamation points for dramatic effect: “It made a great stir. Of course it would.” And, yes, those bits of poetic excess no self-respecting dispassionate historian would attempt today:

With decision came liberation. A heavy weight was lifted from Roosevelt’s mind: his long-oppressed spirits could again rise.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'FDR: Into the Storm 1937-1940'Despite the fact that Random House gave the fourth volume, FDR: Into the Storm 1937-1940 (1993), the biggest publicity push of the whole series, Davis’ reputation continued to decline. Although Robert Dallek acknowledged that the work would “take its place in the Roosevelt literature,” he found the most distinctive aspect of the book “the mass of detail on all the major and many minor events of Roosevelt’s second term.” Boy, ain’t that the kind of acclaim that sells a book: “‘A Mass of Details’ says the New York Times!”

Davis died in 1999, leaving the fifth and final volume unfinished. Mary Ellen, Ralph Titus, and Robert Loomis collaborated to shape the completed portion of the book and Davis’ notes into FDR: The War President, 1940-1943, which was published in 2000. Even so, the book ends in the middle of the war, with Roosevelt screening Casablanca at the White House.

Davis was spared the indignity of the book’s reception, which reminds one of the old joke, “The food here’s terrible–and the portions are so small.” Here is Michael Lind, again from the Times:

FDR: The War President, 1940-1943 is not history. It is sensationalistic historical fiction of the kind associated with Oliver Stone and the Edmund Morris of Dutch. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reputation as a historical figure will survive this book. Kenneth S. Davis’s reputation as a historian will not.

One pictures Lind spiking his copy of the book into Davis’ grave and dancing a little touchdown jig.

Kenneth S. Davis in 1993So is that the fate of Kenneth S. Davis? To have steadily and diligently written himself into oblivion? At the moment, all but his history of Kansas are out of print. While his FDR books have been referenced by dozens of historians since their publication, as a quick Google Book search reveals, most of the time it’s for their details of color and character than the historical insights. And for readers unprepared for the task, the prospect of lugging a few pounds of a Davis book or sticking with his long, dense paragraphs probably seems like that of reading Proust without the payoff of being able to brag about it at parties.

For a few persistent and diligent readers, though, there are considerable rewards. I said early on that I remembered The Experience of War as a cinematic book. Irving Howe, on the other hand, saw the parallel for Davis’ approach in an earlier century: “… [T]he total effect of his book is strongly dramatic, reminding one of those naturalistic novels that marshal lumbering sentences in behalf of narrative drive.” Yes, there are plenty of lumbering sentences. But there are also such vivid, memorable scenes: Eisenhower pacing up and down the runway in Gibraltar, anxiously wondering how successful (or costly) the American Army’s landing in North Africa would be. John Hersey encountering the realities of combat in Guadalcanal. Oppenheimer torn between hope and dread at the first atomic bomb test. David Lillienthal wresting control of the Tennessee Valley Authority from the powerful electric utilities. An ordinary visitor experiencing the marvels of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Or FDR’s first fireside chat:

There was nothing fake about the hearty, laughing good humor, the optimistic faith (he knew everything would come out right in the end!), the indomitable courage, the incessant, stupendous joie de vivre which he exuded and which others, needful of it, soaked up as parched earth does water.

If what Davis set out to do in his books was, as he wrote in his prefatory note to Experience, to “rescue from the erosions and abstractions of Time” experience–“the actual living through an event or events,” I think we can say he succeeded, even if it was counter to critical preferences.

For the past umpteen years, I’ve usually had one or another of Davis’ books in my nightstand. In between books, I’ll pick it up, open a page at random, and dip in. And almost always, I find myself carried away through the next dozen pages by the power of his story-telling. And for that, I am grateful.

Happy Moscow, by Andrey Platonov


A dark man with a burning torch was running down the street on a bleak night in late autumn. The little girl saw him through a window of her home as she woke from a bleak dream. Then she heard a powerful shot from a rifle and a poor, sad cry–the man running with the torch had probably been killed. Soon afterwards came the sound of distant, repeated shots and of uproar from the nearby prison. The little girl went back to sleep and everything she saw during the following days got forgotten: she was too small, and the memory and mind of early childhood became overgrown for ever in her body by subsequent life. But until her last years the nameless running man would appear unexpectedly and sadly inside her–in the pale light of memory–and perish once again in the dark of the past, in the heart of a grown-up child. Amid hunger or sleep at a moment of love or some youthful joy–suddenly, the sad cry of the dead man was there again in the distance, deep in her body, and the young woman would immediately change her life: if she was dancing, she would stop dancing; if she was working, she would work more surely, with more concentration; if she was alone, she would cover her face with her hands. On that rainy night in late autumn the October Revolution had begun–in the city where Moscow Ivanovna Chestnova was living.

Editor’s Comments

Cover of Harvill Press edition of 'Happy Moscow'When I read the above opening passage of Happy Moscow, standing in an Oxford bookstore, I knew I had to buy the book and immediately go find a quiet place to sit and read it through to the end. Although quite different in subject and mood, Happy Moscow reminded me of Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things: a dream-like book, where the characters are drawn along by some kind of irresistible force, taking actions that would seem irrational out of this context but that we and they go along with, caught up as if in a trance.

Happy Moscow is an unfinished novel first published in Russian in 1991. From what I could tell, “unfinished” in this case means “without finishing touches” rather than “without an ending.” The title refers to the woman, Moscow Chestnova, so named when tragedy leaves her orphaned and nearly amnesic, but it also refers ironically to the city, in which much of the novel takes place. I gather that this double entendre is typical of Platonov, and one of the reasons that some Russians believe his writing to be untranslatable. That should not be taken, though, to suggest that Platonov’s prose is at all difficult. On the contrary, as you can see from the excerpt above, this is simple, limpid prose–at least on the surface.

There is no real plot to speak of–just as in a dream. Moscow becomes a Soviet heroine as a daring experimental parachutist, but after an injury, turns her back on the state and spends the rest of the book wandering through a series of relationships with people who have also decided to become outcasts and marginal characters. Stalin is said to have written “Scum” in the margins of one of Platonov’s works, and you can see how the writer’s subtle rejection of Soviet idealism must have irritated him. In Happy Moscow, Platonov celebrates not the new and clean and heroic, but the second-hand and cast-off:

And there were people trading things which had lost all reason for their existence–house-coats that had belonged to enormous women, priest’s cassocks, ornamented basins for baptising children, the frock-coats of deceased gentlemen, charms on waistcoat chains, and so on–but which still circulated among people as symbols of a strict evaluation of quality. There were also many items of clothing worn by people who had died recently–there truly was such a thing as death–as well as clothes that had been got ready for children who had been conceived but whose mothers must have changed their minds about giving birth and had abortions instead, and now they were selling the tiny wept-over garments of an unborn child together with a rattle they had bought in advance.

I dog-eared the page on which this passage appears when I first read the book, but now that I type it out I can see how many chinks Platonov points out in the fine facade of the Soviet state in just two sentences: the remnants from the Tsarist days that still circulate “as symbols of a strict evaluation of quality”; the notion of women changing their minds about giving birth–bringing a child into the bright future of Stalinism–and having abortions instead; that fact that even in this best of all possible worlds “there truly was such a thing as death”. It seems hard to believe that publication of Happy Moscow wouldn’t have earned Platonov and his editors a trip to the gulag.

A reviewer once wrote that, “”In Platonov’s prose, it is impossible to find a single inelegant sentence”, and another that, “Rarely does literature come this close to music.” Happy Moscow is rich with examples of such writing. Yet he also embraces the crude, the dirty, the obscene. One character, a surgeon, gets wrapped up in a search for the place in the body where the soul resides and becomes convinced that it lies in the intestines. Grabbing a handful of the excrement from a corpse, he exclaims, “This really is the very best, ordinary soul. There’s no other soul anywhere.”

Platonov’s star is finally on the rise, some fifty-plus years after his death. Harvill, which published Happy Moscow, also has two other Platonov works–Soul and Return–in print. Northwestern University Press released Mirra Ginsburg’s translation of The Foundation Pit in its European Classics series, and New York Review Books has released its own volumes of Soul and The Fierce and Beautiful World. NYRB has also announced the release of a new translation of The Foundation Pit in April 2009.

Find a copy

Happy Moscow, by Andrey Platonov, translated by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler with Angela Livingstone, Nadya Bourova, and Eric Naiman
London: The Harvill Press, 1999

Neglected Books and Movie Tie-ins

As I read Nicholas Lezard’s review of the new Pushkin Press edition of Stefan Zweig’s novel, The Burning Secret, I thought, “I think I saw this movie.” And sure enough, thanks to IMDB, I quickly confirmed my suspicion: it was filmed in 1988, under the same title, starring Klaus Maria Brandauer and Faye Dunaway.

About a month, ago, my wife and I watched the DVD of “Separate Lies”, starring Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson. It’s a perfect sort of movie for tired married people to watch on a quiet weeknight: human drama, a bit of tension, a murder, good acting, and well-dressed characters. Not great art, but certainly fine craft. But one credit caught my end at the opening: “Based on the novel, ‘A Way through the Woods’, by Nigel Balchin.

I recognized Balchin’s name from this page–his World War Two novel, The Small Back Room, is mentioned a number of times. Its story was also, incidentally, filmed in 1949, a Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger production. A Way through the Woods proved, upon a bit of research, to be a 1951 novel motivated, according to Clive James in what is perhaps the most extensive work on Balchin easily acccessible, “The Effective Intelligence of Nigel Balchin“, in part by the break-up of Balchin’s own marriage due to infidelity.

Just this year, Persephone Classics , a model publisher of neglected books, had the biggest break in its history when Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, a novel by Winifred Watson that Persephone rescued from oblivion, was made into a film starring Frances McDormand and Amy Adams, thereby raising the book’s visibility and sales considerably.

I won’t start excavating the many other examples available of film versions of neglected books–but I will recommend paying close attention to the writing credits: you never know when a good (or even bad) movie will lead you to discover an even better book.

What People Said, by William L. White

Editor’s Comments

Hardly anyone outside Emporia, Kansas today remembers William Allen White, but a hundred years ago, this editor of the town’s leading paper, the Emporia Gazette, was a figure of national renown, a major influence within the more liberal wing of the Republican Party, a man consulted by governors, senators, even Presidents. His columns were reprinted in hundreds of papers. He was considered one of American’s wise men. “The Sage of Emporia” some called him. Teddy Roosevelt usually stopped off at White’s home when crossing the country. He wrote Coolidge’s biography, advised Hoover, helped other Republicans do damage control during the Harding years. Writing from a small town at the heart of America, William Allen White was a symbol of much that was right and just.

William Allen and William Lindsay WhiteWhat People Said was written by his son, William L. White–a Harvard graduate, a highly-respected foreign correspondent and, eventually, successor to his father as editor of the the Gazette. It was his first and only novel.

“This book is fiction” states the epigraph. The assurance was necessary because, at the time, it told a story that was still familiar to most of its readers: the Kansas Bond Scandal. In 1933, a Kansas business man, Ronald Finney, was arrested, accused of numerous counts of fraud. That alone would hardly have made it national news, however, had it not been for the circumstances of his frauds. Finney’s schemes involved forging public bonds–for school construction, for sewer work, for country roads and bridges–and using them as security for substantial loans. The paper trail in this case led to some interesting places, including the office of the Kansas State Treasurer, and, just possibly, the governor himself–Alf Landon, that is, FDR’s Republican opponent in the 1936 Presidential election.

It led to the impeachment of the state’s attorney general and auditor and conviction of the Treasurer. It also led to the doorstep of the Emporia bank owned by Warren W. Finney–Ronald’s father … and a close friend and neighbor of William Allen White, the Sage of Emporia. Ronald Finney was convicted and sentenced to a whopping term of 30 to 600 years in the Kansas State Penitentiary. Soon after, bank examiners shut down the bank. Implications about improper loans, check kiting, and, yes, forgery. Warren Finney was tried and convicted, but as the county sheriff waited on the front porch to take him to prison, he went out the back door, drove off into the countryside, and shot himself.

There was never the slightest suggestion or indication that William Allen White was involved in any of this. But the mere fact that for decades he had lived with, supped with, sat in church alongside, and vacationed with Warren Finney without ever inquiring about Finney’s affairs or the recurring rumors of questionable activities led many people to wonder just how sagacious and upright was the Sage of Emporia. And to wonder what that then said about some basic American home town beliefs.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'What People Said'In What People Said, William L. White recounts the intertwined histories of two families–the Carroughs (the Whites) and the Norssexes (the Finneys)–and plays out the trail that led from the Norssexes’ arrival in Athena, Oklarada (Emporia, Kansas) to the frauds of father and son: the downfall of one family and the loss of faith in the other. Charles Aldington Carrough (William Allen White), editor of the Athena Sun is a man of national repute, a leader of the Progressive. Isaac Norssex (Warren Finney) buys the Athena Power and Light Company, moves to town, then sells the company and settles into a life of banking and various business ventures.

The families become friends. They attend the same church, visit each other when sick, spend summers together at the lake. Lee Norssex (Ronald Finney) and Junior Carrough (William L. White) grow up, fishing and hunting, going to parties, playing games. Junior goes to Oxford; Lee to Oklarada State, but they stay in touch, returning to Athena and starting careers and families as their fathers sit together in church, pillars of the town establishment.

Except that Isaac Norssex is never quite as well accepted by the people of Athena as he is by Charles Aldington Carrough. A murmur of suspicion and distrust runs throughout their talk:

The substantial people in Athena accepted the Norssexes slowly. They felt it was a little presumptuous for them to buy on Federal Street as soon as they came to town. Just because you lived on Federal Street didn’t mean you immediately became intimate with Athena’s first families, whose fathers had organized the first stores in the sixties, and had saved their money and invested it in big pastures and ranches in the seventies and eighties.

The older men had a feeling that you Isaac Norssex was tricky in business. They agreed he was smart. But what did he have back of him? He had started as a trader in the equities of small light companies–buying, developing, consolidating, selling only to buy again.

The power business was probably all right. But it was new. Probably it was going to be permanent–maybe it was going to expand. Yet in the early twentieth century it was not so respectable as running a bank or a general store.

The people of Athena represent the third point in What People Said‘s dramatic triangle. Throughout the book, through every twist and turn of the narrative, through the good times of the Twenties and the bad times of the Depression, their commentary reflects upon events and characters. WPS is an apt title, for people serve as the chorus in White’s tragedy, and what they say throughout the book constitutes perhaps the most significant aspect that makes it worth rediscovery.

White’s chorus does not speak in unison. We hear different sides–from the store owners and day-labourers, from the farmers and the city folk, from the Progressives and the Stand-patters:

Oklarada’s Progressives favored child-labor legislation and safety guards over whirring gears in factories and compulsory accident insurance and couches in each women’s rest room so girl workers could lie down, and paper drinking cups. In these objectives they were opposed by the Standpatters, who found the world quite satisfactory as it was, who believed unshakably that man’s function on earth was to acquire as much as possible of its rich surface for himself and his children, and that these ends could best be served by keeping soft-headed cranks out of the Oklarada State House.

But like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, the people of Athena also pass moral judgments on the characters in the drama and their actions. Suspicions of Isaac Norssex are fed by rumors, and rumors become more and more explicit about the nature of his misdeeds:

After a few years an occasional disquieting rumor began to drift into Athena from out of town. It seemed that Mr. Norssex had a reputation for kiting checks with other bankers. It was never anything definite–just Sos-and-so said he heard it from Such-and-such, that Norssex was running a lot of checks through the Clearing House to Old Man Perky’s bank in Toluca, that Perky was a notorious old kiter, and they guessed Norssex and Perky between them must have a thirty- or forty-thousand-dollar kite floating most of the time.

When Lee graduates from Oklarada State, his father sets him up with a small bank to run. Lee soon finds it something of a dead end, less a stepping stone than a millstone around his neck. But he also learns his father’s purpose in putting him in charge–to help out with the floating of an occasional big check or two. Purely a matter of convenience, just a matter of avoiding some unpleasantness due to mistiming of intake and outflow. Unfortunately, a bank examiner eventually detects a hint or two of what’s going on in Lee’s bank and confronts Isaac. Purely a matter of inexperience, Norssex assures him. Youth and poor judgment. Lee quietly leaves the bank and goes into the insurance business. There are rumors, of course, more murmurs of suspicion. But nothing’s proved. No charges are filed. Perhaps the rumors are just spiteful.

Soon, Lee’s fortunes begin to turn. From insurance he moves into bonds, and bonds expand into speculation into stocks and commodities. No one quite understands how he manages to make money. He tells people he’s a bond broker, but just what that involves isn’t quite clear to anyone. He seems to get access to some of the top men in the state–the treasurer, legislators, maybe even the governor. But still ….

And the intermittent rumors about his father keep popping up. Charles Aldington Carrough remains far above the hub-bub and whispering, an ivory tower of rectitude. But his son Junior struggles to remain objective. He resists attempts to publish stories about questions from auditors and examiners in the Sun, going to extraordinary lengths to give the Finneys the benefit of the doubt. Even up to the point that a warrant for Lee’s arrest is issued, Junior finds it difficult to see him as anything but a life-long friend:

A guy you had always known–who you knew liked books about travel and adventures and hunting, and liked his hamburgers not rare but medium rare, liked pickled beets with cloves in them, and did not like tapioca pudding very much or dogs at all.

Yet now he was something else. He was headlines in the morning paper, he was a public newsprint figure who had a “whereabouts” which “had not been ascertained” by the morning papers. He was the “daring speculator,” he was a lot of other things besides being a guy who watched to see that they took the hamburger off when it was just medium rare.

The people’s chorus, however, is ready to pass judgment:

All that week everybody in Athena was awfully sorry for Mr. and Mrs. Norssex. People who had never liked them were sorriest of all, could imagine most vividly how awful it must be to have your boy accused of a penitentiary offense, how broken the Norssexes must be under the blow!

People who did not like Lee could now say that they had always thought something like this would happen and that they were sure sorry for Henny and the kids.

Those who liked neither the Norssexes nor the Carroughs were of course sorry for Mr. and Mrs. Norssex, but to Junior they would say, looking cynically off into space: “Oh, he’ll get out of it! You’ll see! Lee Norssex’ll never go to the penitentiary, his friends will get him off!”

In the end, Lee Norssex is convicted and sentenced, and as in the real-life Kansas Bond Scandal, the investigators carry on to indict and try his father for similar frauds. And as Warren Finney did, Isaac Norssex quietly slips out the back door of his house for a last drive, out to the family’s vacation house by the lake. Despite the fact that Isaac seems a pretty wooden figure through most of the novel, White pulls out some of the book’s best descriptive prose for his last moments:

He lifted the oak-framed kitchen mirror from the nail where it hung by a picture wire on its back. He walked out onto the screened porch, his footsteps again echoing on the wooden floor as he went evenly about what was to be done–slipping the shiny cartridges into the black holes of the chamber, which clicked as it revolved.

The springs of the long porch swing creaked familiarly as he sat down on its gaily striped cushion. The surface of the kitchen mirror was wavy, but by holding at arm’s length he could see that the slender black barrel pointed at the proper angle into the neatly trimmed iron-gray hair. When he was sure it did, he met the gaze of the calm and determined eyes that looked at him from the wavy mirror.

Afterward it was very still again except for a breeze which now and then rustled the awning outside the screened-in porch, and the car engine, which ticked away the last of its heat on the hilltop, at the end of the long, straight road.

What People Said betrays some of the weaknesses of many other first novels–a narrative thread or two that wanders off, never again to be seen; characters that exist purely to fill in a gap in the story; and a protagonist (Junior) who manages to see and hear more than anyone else but himself lacks any solid characteristc. It’s a long book, over 600 pages, that could easily lose a hundred without much disadvantage.

But it’s also a remarkable novel with a very strong narrative momentum. I devoured the book in under six days, usually gulping down a hundred or more pages at a sitting. You know from the very beginning that something is going to go very wrong with the Norssexes, but White manages to sustain the reader’s morbid fascination in seeing it all unfold, step by step.

It’s also substantial portrait–in large scale and small–of small town, middle America in the first third of the 20th century. Hardly anyone in town owns a car at the start of the book. Roads peter out a mile or so out of town. Everyone knows in fine grain the stratification of the Protestant churches–Presbyterian on top, Methodists in the middle, Baptists on the other side of the tracks, Lutherans for the Germans and Swedes. Athena sends some of its boys off to France in 1917. After the war, some of them revive the Ku Klux Klan to “protect the working man.” Publicly, the town supports Prohibition. Privately, you know who to call if you want a bottle of “gin” brought round the kitchen door once a month.

As a town built around agriculture, Athena feels the effects of the Depression early and deeply. Farmers default on mortgages. Hoovervilles rise up beside the city dumps. The proud businessmen who were optimistic boosters during the Harding years grow “hopeless, staring out of empty stores with a hopeless little stubble on their chins, hopless bags in the knees of their once natty gray worsted suits.”

And, throughout the book, there is that chorus–wonderfully catty, hypocritical, Puritanical, earthy, cynical, altruistic, bitter, hopeful, but always ready with something to say:

That winter, people were afraid to grumble much about Lee Norssex’s success. You could see plainly he was making a lot of money. And nobody else was. He was into all kinds of things. Probably some of them would not turn out so well.

But if you said this, people would say you were jealous, picking on some little detail, just because your business was bad. Because you hadn’t been smart enough to think up things which would make money, as Lee Norssex had.

People would be right, too, because you were jealous. But you tried not to be. Every time you heard that Lee had made some money on a deal, or heard that he had bought something which you would like to own but probably never could, you would smile and say, “Well, by George, that’s fine. I’m awfully glad to hear that!” You would try to be glad, too. Even though your business was going to pieces before your eyes in spite of everything you could do, you did not want to become a bitter little man.

It would be unfair to label What People Said a “regional” novel. I think it deserves a place on the shelf alongside and perhaps ahead of Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt and Main Street. It’s a rich tapestry of American life well worth rediscovery.

Find a copy

What People Said, by William Lindsay White
New York: Viking, 1938

The Horrors of Love, by Jean Dutuord

Rabbi David Wolpe writes to recommend a favorite title that’s now long out of print and largely forgotten: Jean Dutourd’s 1963 novel, Les Horreurs de l’amour, released in English in 1967 as The Horrors of Love. This description of the book and its plot comes from Time magazine’s original review:

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Horrors of Love'The Horrors of Love is an often ridiculous, sometimes funny tale of a middle-aged member of the French Chamber of Deputies who becomes tragically involved with his young mistress. At first glance, the story seems to be as obviously and simply French as a pair of lovers sneaking off to a bedsitter in the Square St.-Lambert. Yet it is not only the Gallic spirit that intrigues Dutourd, but the human spirit as well.

The rambling story unfolds in a dialogue between Dutourd and a friend. As they stroll in Paris, they discuss the unhappy case of Edouard Roberti, the 52-year-old Deputy who has been sent to prison for killing his mistress’ brother. It is apparent that Roberti, a respectable, loving father and husband, was all too ordinary—not so much evil as weak, not so much stupid as pitifully vain. By way of examining how it was that such a commonplace, decent man could become trapped in a senseless and sordid mess, Dutourd’s dialogue ranges through all sorts of philosophical detours. Courage and cowardice, honor and honesty, art, letters, manners, politics and morals become way stations as the two friends chat and argue.

This is not the first mention of The Horrors of Love in these pages. In the Los Angeles Times’ 1999 feature, Forgotten Treasures: A Symposium, John Lukacs called it a “stunning exception” to the overall decline of the novel. Lukacs wrote,

One oddity about it is that it is written in the second-person singular; it is a long dialogue between two super-intelligent Frenchmen (both sides of Dutourd’s own character) walking through Paris, ambling in and out restaurants, reconstructing the pride and fall of a Parisian politician who gradually falls in love with his younger mistress and ends up in jail. It is a delicious and profound work of art, from beginning to end. Andre Maurois likened it to Proust; but in some ways it is better than Proust, sprightlier and more imaginative. The language itself is superb.

And in nosing around the Net, I found a third strong thumbs-up from the fine novelist, Diane Johnson, in an issue of Archipelago from a few years back:

My first choice would be Jean Dutourd’s The Horrors of Love, which is translated into English and was published in the sixties. It is an incredible tour de force — a dialogue running to more than 600 pages, between two men who are walking through Paris, talking about the fate of a politician friend of theirs who was brought down by an erotic entanglement. Urbane, wise, humane, funny, even suspenseful — this is a worthy successor, as someone said, to Proust. Dutourd is the greatest living French novelist, and the only witty one since Proust; and before that? Voltaire? Laclos?

Jean DutourdPraise such as this makes me want to hang my head in shame for not having read it yet, even after skipping past used copies in bookstore stacks perhaps a hundred times over the year (I think it was a Literary Guild selection, so there are plenty of cheap used copies out there in the U.S.).

Dutuord, who’s managed to put out nearly a book a year since 1946, is still living and, I assume, writing. His 1950 satirical fantasy, A Dog’s Head, was reissued by the University of Chicago Press as part of its Phoenix Fiction series in 1998 and is still in print. His other novel of that year, Au bon beurre, scenes de la vie sous lâ Occupation, translated as The Best Butter has been called the best French novel to come out of World War Two.

The Actor’s Life: Journals 1956-1976, by Charlton Heston


July 19, 1967
Another long day sloshing around inside that space capsule, gargling my lines through torrents of water spraying in from off camera. It occurs to me that there’s hardly been a scene in this bloody film [“Planet of the Apes“] in which I’ve not been dragged, choked, netted, chased, doused, whipped, poked, shot, gagged, stoned, leaped on, or generally mistreated. As Joe Canutt[son of the legendary Yakima Canutt–Ed.] said, setting up one of the fight shots, “You know, Chuck, I can remember when we used to win these things.”

Editor’s Comments

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'The Actor's Life'This book has stuck in my head ever since I heard Wallace Shawn (the character, not the actor) say, in the 1981 film “My Dinner with Andre”,

I’m just trying to survive, you know. I mean, I’m just trying to earn a living, just trying to pay my rents and my bills. I mean, uh…ahhh. I live my life, I enjoy staying home with Debby. I’m reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, and that’s that! I mean, you know, I mean, occasionally maybe Debby and I will step outside, we’ll go to a party or something, and if I can occasionally get my little talent together and write a little play, well then that’s just wonderful. And I mean, I enjoy reading about other little plays that other people have written, and reading the reviews of those plays, and what people said about them, and what people said about what people said, and…. And I mean, I have a list of errands and responsibilities that I keep in a notebook; I enjoy going through the notebook, carrying out the responsibilities, doing the errands, then crossing them off the list!

I just don’t know how anybody could enjoy anything more than I enjoy reading Charlton Heston’s autobiography, or, you know, getting up in the morning and having the cup of cold coffee that’s been waiting for me all night, still there for me to drink in the morning!

If Charlton Heston’s autobiography (or journal, to get picky about it) was worth mentioning in “My Dinner with Andre”, I figured, it must be worth checking out. So when Heston died earlier this year, I decided it was time to give it a try.

By the time he died, Charlton Heston had become a figure it was tough to take a truly objective look at. Although a vocal and visible supporter of civil rights and other liberal causes in the early 1960s, he came out as in favor of Richard Nixon in 1968, and for this and other political stands, especially his stint as president and chairman of the National Rifle Association, Heston got dragged, choked, netted, chased, doused, whipped, poked, shot, gagged, stoned, leaped on, or generally mistreated all the way to his grave. Or, if you were of a different political viewpoint, he got exactly what he deserved.

Whether you agreed with his politics or not, however, credit is due to his body of work as a serious film actor. For some, his seriousness can get a bit relentless at times. Imagine sitting through a marathon of “Ben Hur”, “El Cid”, “The War Lord”, “The Agony and the Ecstacy”, “Khartoum”, “55 Days in Peking”, and “Soylent Green”, just to name a few of his big movies. In all of these and more, Charlton Heston was the archetypal Stoic hero. Heston’s character never trembled in fear, screamed in pain, or whined about his hardships. Hell, he almost never smiled or laughed–a serious man didn’t lighten up. When your Dad told you to, “Be a man!”, this is what he meant.

The Actor’s Life is a generous selection of entries from the journals Heston kept through his most active and successful years as a major star. As he explains in his introduction, Heston began keeping a journal because a yearly agenda book his wife gave him had space at the bottom of each page for a hundred words of diary notes for the day. Heston stuck with these books and this regime for at least twenty years, publishing this collection in 1978, as his career was beginning to wane.

The constraint of space at the bottom of the agenda page gives this book a somewhat odd feeling. There are no long, introspective entries or rambling meditations or verbose descriptions. Rather, this is a collection of 480 pages of life-bites. To be perfectly crude, this is an excellent bathroom book. Just leave a copy by the fixture, catch up on progress toward getting a backer for “The War Lord” or the many Roman dinner parties held during “Ben Hur” or “Agony”. Read about Charlton playing tennis with Rod Laver. Or dining at the White House. Or taking innumerable flights between L.A., London, Rome, or New York–all in first class, of course.

Heston makes no great bones about the trappings of celebrity, of course–it came with the job, in his view. If you enjoy reading about lifestyles of the rich and famous, The Actor’s Life provides plenty of material.

But there is also a wealth of information about all the details and steps involved in getting a movie conceived, produced, and distributed. And about the problems and considerations of acting on film (and on stage–Heston kept up a steady stream of stage work throughout this period). Shooting “The Greatest Story Ever Told” at Cinecitta in Rome, Heston recognizes costumes from “Ben Hur” among the extras. Days are lost on “Hur” thanks to Stephen Boyd’s blue contact lenses (because, as we all know, real Romans had blue eyes). A scriptwriter comes in and makes a hash of things; another (Robert Ardrey) hands in a first draft that proves to be almost verbatim what they end up shooting on “Khartoum”. You learn about some heroic stuntmen, some asinine producers, and, yes, some temperamental actresses.

And you learn that Charlton Heston truly was a serious actor–meaning, an actor serious about his craft, his profession, his technical and artistic skills. The one consistent motif throughout his entries about film-making is his analysis of his own work.He criticizes himself for not achieving the effect he wanted, or for forcing a shot to taken and retaken. He considers what he might have done better. He gives himself credit for getting it right sometimes.

The Actor’s Life could never be considered great literature. A hundred words or so a day cannot lead to art unless you’ve been trained in haiku. But it is a book of undeniable interest and merit if you want to know something about acting, film-making, and life in the public eye. And if you don’t come away from reading it without some measure of respect for Charlton Heston as a man who took his work and his life seriously–well, then I’d have to say that you’re better off sticking with comic books. There are certainly worse role models if you’re trying to “Be a man.”

The Actor’s Life: Journals 1956-1976, by Charlton Heston
New York: Henry Robbins/ E.P. Dutton, 1978

Old Street Books publishes Max Blecher’s “Scarred Hearts”

UK publisher Old Street Books has just released the first English translation of Scarred Hearts, a 1937 novel written by the Romanian-Jewish novelist, Max Blecher. The publisher provides the following precis on the novel:

It is Paris in the 1930s and Emanuel, a young Romanian student, finds himself dangerously ill with spinal tuberculosis. He is sent to a sanatorium near the French coast where for a year he remains wrapped in a plaster body cast – the conventional treatment for his disease in the thirties.

In the eerie, isolated world of the sanatorium Emanuel discovers that life goes on. He suffers his horrendous cure and his body slowly deteriorates – but, unexpectedly, he falls in love. This tender, doomed love affair between two patients is at the emotional core of an rare, unforgettable novel that leaves the reader with a fresh understanding of what it means to be human.

In his introduction to the book, Paul Bailey calls it, “… a masterpiece, and all the more poignant for being so beadily accurate about human behaviour in extremis. It is a book to live with, to read again and again, as only great literature demands us to.” Its recent German translation has sold well and been cited as a notable work by several papers.

Writing in the The Independent, on the other hand, Mark Thwaite rates it, “… a weak pastiche of Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Sadly, this is a lost classic that did not need to be found.” The Financial Times reviewer found it, “an elegant and powerful rejoinder to Emmanuel’s despair at life’s futility.” The always fair-minded Complete Review takes a more balanced view:

Like many books in the briefly flourishing sanatorium-genre (think The Magic Mountain), Inimi cicatrizate [the original Romanian title] describes an isolated world standing almost still, full of longueurs and the frustration of not being able to move towards a future, many of the patients almost completely immobilized in a body-armour that keeps the world even more at bay. Blecher conveys this atmosphere more convincingly than most: presumably writing from experience helps, though occasionally he seems almost too close to his material, trying but unable to maintain the distance that he’s trying to achieve in this fiction.

A site visitor alerted me to another work by Blecher now available in English–in this case for free, from www.maxblecher.org. Titled Adventures in Immediate Unreality (from the Romanian original ÃŽntâmplări în irealitate imediată ), it’s translated by Jeanie Han and available in an easy-to-read 97-page PDF file.

Looking for reader recommendations: Great city novels

I am in the process of watching the fifth and last season of the remarkable HBO series, The Wire. For me, it’s one of the best things ever done in the medium, and knowing there are no more to follow leaves me looking for a great big messy jaded city novel to sink myself into. Others have already made this comparison, but The Wire was really like a novel in David Simon’s willingness to take time to let the story unfold through detours into minor and major characters, to move up and down the social strata, to delve into intrigues high and low.

But what can one novels compare to The Wire? I can think of a few: Bleak House, at least in its span of social class and its unforgettable opening description of London; some of Zola’s Paris novels, such as Money. Mark Smith’s loose baggy monster Chicago novel, The Death of the Detective. I recently devoured a pretty good novel, William L. White’s What People Said, with a similar range but in the far tamer setting of several Kansas towns of the early 20th century.

But I’m putting out a call to other readers: can you offer some other suggestions? There must be a few more juicy word-packed book that can compete with the likes of The Wire.

Terry Teachout on Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

In Commentary magazine “Contentions” blog, critic Terry Teachout salutes the fine series of reissues from New York Review Books and reflects on one of its titles, Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes:

Originally published in 1956, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes was a deliberate attempt to write a novel in the style of Dickens and Trollope whose subject matter was unambiguously contemporary. It tells the tale of Gerald Middleton, a wealthy, washed-up historian who at the age of sixty upends his comfortable but unsatisfying life by investigating a Piltdown Man-like archaeological fraud for which the great friend of his schooldays turns out to have been responsible. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is at once deeply felt, brilliantly witty and morally serious to the highest degree, a combination of traits rarely to be found in a single novel.

This is a far more generous view than Time magazine’s reviewer took when the book was first published in 1956:

Angus Wilson is a social satirist with an itchy trigger finger. The novel is his shooting gallery, and the characters he sets up as targets not only have clay feet but clay minds and clay hearts as well. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is his longest, cleverest and most annihilating display of literary marksmanship to date, and after it is all over, what hangs in the air is the acrid odor of an unrelenting misanthropy.

Wilson’s renown may be back on the rise again. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes is back in print on both sides of the Atlantic–from NYRB in the US and Faber Finds in the UK. His work is certainly worth a look for anyone who wants the richness of a 19th century novel combined with the moral complexity of a 20th century work.

Catching Up

I wanted to take a quick moment to note some items of interest to neglected books fans:

Reviews of two novels by Vance Bourjaily

Malaysian blogger Raj Dronamraju recently posted reviews of two novels by Vance Bourjaily. Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Man Who Knew Kennedy'Bourjaily’s is among the names most often mentioned in the emails I receive from site visitors. Dronamraju covers the two Bourjaily novels I’ve always been most intrigued by: The Hound of the Earth (1955) and The Man Who Knew Kennedy (1967). Hound is about a scientist involved in the construction of the first atomic bomb who deserts the Army in disgust with the results of his work and spends seven years as a fugitive. Kennedy is about a man of the same generation who briefly comes into contact with John F. Kennedy in the war and is more elegaic in tone. Dronamraju describes Bourjaily’s writing as, “… a cross between Nelson Algren and Dostoevsky ….Like Dostoevsky, he is a master psychiatrist and shows motivation very well without being too transparent….Like Algren, he speaks in a hard boiled voice with a lot of similes and metaphors.”
[Editor’s note: Kennedy takes its title from another neglected book, Sinclair Lewis’ 1928 short fiction, The Man Who Knew Coolidge (subtitled “Being the soul of Lowell Schnaltz, constructive and Nordic citizen”) is a set of monologues by a Babbitt-like character that one reader summed up as, “… all voice, a very long-winded voice that won’t shut up, even long after ceasing to amuse readers (at least this one).”]

Release of Strange Harbors, its 15th annual anthology of international writing in translation

Each year, the Center for the Art of Translation, based in San Francisco, releases a compilation of poetry and prose translations, often of writing little-known in the English-speaking world. This year’s anthology includes an excerpt from a 1986 Spanish novel, Beatus ille, by Antonio Muñoz Molina, translated by the renown Edith Grossman as A Manuscript of Ashes, along with pieces from over two dozen other writers.

Forgotten Book Fridays

I finally came across Forgotten Book Fridays a tag-team blogging effort launched by Patti Abbott, aimed at garnering “recommendations of books we love but might have forgotten over the years” from a group of fellow book bloggers. In the course of a little over four months, a growing army of bloggers have provided recommendations, both on Patti’s site and their own. The majority of titles proposed and discussed so far have been mysteries and thrillers, but with such a diverse group, everything from Peter Beagle’s lovely fantasy, A Fine and Private Place, to Dumbo the Flying Elephant has popped up. There’s no simple way to keep track of all these posts, although the search string, “forgotten books Friday” works pretty well.

Across Paris, by Marcel Aymé

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Across Paris'
I’m always amazed that, in the English-speaking world, the works of Marcel Aymé aren’t given a smidgen of the critical and popular attention paid to Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, and even Queneau. There certainly seems to be some preset filter that blocks the passage of any French writer with at least a 50/50 ratio of theory to art.

Against such a filter, Aymé couldn’t stand a chance. “People will be people” is probably as much of a philosophy as he ever bothered with. And people, in all their quirks, prejudices, bad habits and good, their love for food, wine, sex, and politics, their dreams and nightmares, were something he found endlessly fascinating.

Across Paris comprises a dozen of Aymé’s short stories culled by translator Norman Denny from a half-dozen collections published in France between 1932 and 1950. (Denny published another collection, The Proverb, in 1961). It’s an excellent introduction to Aymé’s unique approach, which manages to juggle earthy humor, wild fantasy, tender affection, and wry skepticism without too many slips or collisions.

Marcel Aymé'The title story Across Paris was made into a highly successful comedy starring Jean Gabin, La Traversée de Paris, in 1956. In Aymé’s original, however, the story of two men smuggling 200 pounds of black market pork through Nazi-occupied Paris ends in murder, and illustrates the violent tension between existentialism and the older world of tradition, rules, and manners. At least, that’s the underlying conflict that drives the story. Aymé would never have bothered to be so crude as to drag a message into his writing.

Aymé’s most famous story, “Le Passe-Muraille”, here translated as “The Walker-Through-Walls” also appears in Across Paris. This tale is an example of Aymé’s gift for fantasy. A middle-aged clerk suddenly discovers one day that he can pass through walls, doors, and other solid matter with little effort. At first he merely attempts it for the novelty, but soon he uses it to indulge his vices. A theft here and there leads to sneaking into bank vaults and jewelry stores. In the end, as he leaves the bed of a woman he has seduced, his powers suddenly fail, trapping him forever inside a wall.

Jean Marais' statue of Marcel Aymé as 'Le Passe Muraille' in Place Marcel Aymé in Montmartre, Paris'The sculptor Jean Marais paid tribute to this story with a statue that can be found in the Place Marcel Aymé in Montmartre. The statue captures Aymé emerging from the wall just like his character.

Another story, “Martin the Novelist” may remind some readers of the work of Raymond Queneau. Martin’s formula, through a dozen or more successful novels, has been to have his lead character die some tragic death near the end. No matter how he tries, each protagonist winds up dead. As he starts his newest book, however, the protagonist’s wife pays a call on him to plea for her husband’s life. The situation quickly gets more complicated as Martin’s publisher falls in love with the woman. Suddenly, the publisher tries to conspire to have Martin eliminate the husband. Martin and we both find it increasingly difficult to tell fiction from reality. It’s a sign of Aymé’s skill that everything flows smoothly along despite the fact that we all left disbelief behind somewhere around the story’s second or third paragraph.

Hardly anything by Aymé remains in print in English today. His children’s story, The Wonderful Farm, is available, probably due as much to its illustrations by Maurice Sendak. And very recently, Pushkin Press released a new translation of “La belle image”, Beautiful Image, which has variously been issued in the past as The Second Face and The Grand Seduction.

Karen Reshkin has published her own translations of “Le Passe Muraille” (“The Man Who Could Walk Through Walls”) and several other Aymé stories on her StressCafe website.

Locate a Copy

Across Paris, by Marcel Aymé
New York: Harper, 1950

Afterwords on a few neglected books, from BookSlut

Source: BookSlut.com

Michael Antman passed along links to a short series of articles he wrote for BookSlut.com back in 2006. Titled “Afterwords,” the series focussed on “… some unfairly neglected books of the past century that may not survive much longer in this one.”

Unfortunately, only 5 articles were posted, and even these can only be located by searching for Antman’s contributions to the site. But the essays are eloquent, personal, and insightful, and well worth savoring.

The titles he covered were:

· All the Little Live Things, by Wallace Stegner

“… one of those novels that, from the standpoint of the official arbiters of culture, has very little to recommend it except for its near perfection.”

· The Collected Poems of Conrad Aiken

“But it is sometimes hard to remember that not very long ago, poetry was, if nothing else (and, admittedly, sometimes there was nothing else) a pleasure to read in an almost physical, sensuous way, in the rush and the rhythm of its words. And there were few poets in the twentieth century more purely pleasurable to read in this regard than Conrad Aiken, who possessed a quality of musicality not only greater than any current poets but greater, I think, than nearly any of his contemporaries.”

· The Log from the Sea of Cortez, by John Steinbeck

“… Steinbeck took the world on its own terms then, as he would do if he were alive and writing today…. And it is this clear-eyed view of the world in both its fecundity and its ongoing destruction that makes Steinbeck’s worksuch an absorbing account of a time long past. In an age when ocean-dwelling, and for that matter, land-dwelling, creatures are being depleted at an ever-increasing rate, Log from the Sea of Cortez remains an enriching and indelible document.”

· The Night Country, by Loren Eiseley

“Read The Night Country for its beautiful prose and its scientist’s eye. But read it, as well, for its calm assurance that we are part of something much bigger than us, that we cannot know the future with absolute certainty, and that we should proceed with a little less dread of what unknown or self-created terrors may some day desecrate “the very heart of the human kingdom,” and with a little more open-mindedness and, perhaps, playfulness even as we walk into the uncertain dark.”

· The Power of the Dog, by Thomas Savage

“… when a novel succeeds (as Anna Karenina of course does) in creating a character that at least begins to approach the unfathomable complexity of an actual flesh-and-blood human, we consider it to be at least in some degree a great work….

By that measure, Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel The Power of the Dog, set on a Montana ranch some time in the 1920s, is a great, and greatly neglected, work of art, because it contains one of the most complex and fully realized, if utterly loathsome, characters I have ever encountered in a work of fiction.”

[Editor’s note: The Power of the Dog was also cited as an unfairly neglected book by Roger Sale way back in 1979 in his American Scholar article on “Neglected Recent American Novels”.]

The Right to Heresy: Castellio Against Calvin, by Stefan Zweig

Cover of the first U. S. edition of 'The Right to Heresy'

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Locate a Copy


The town had assumed a morose visage like Big Brother’s own, and by degrees had grown as sour as he, and, either from fear or through unconscious imitation of his sternness, as sinister and reserved. People no longer roamed freely and light-heartedly hither and thither; their eyes could not flash gladly; and their glances betrayed nothing but fear, since merriment might be mistaken for sensuality. They no longer knew unconstraint, being afraid of the terrible man who himself was never cheerful. Even in the privacy of family life, they learned to whisper, for beyond the doors, listening at the keyholes, might be their serving men and maids. When fear has become second nature, the terror-stricken are perpetually on the look-out for spies. The great thing was–not to be conspicuous. Not to do anything that might arouse attention, either by one’s dress or hasty word, or by a cheerful countenance. Avoid attracting attention; remain forgotten. The people, in the latter years of Big Brother’s rule, sat at home as much as possible, for at home the walls of their houses and the bolts and bars on their doors might preserve them to some extent from prying eyes and from suspicion. But if, when they were looking out of the window, they saw some of the agents of Big Brother coming along the street, they would draw back in alarm, for who could tell what neighbour might not have denounced them? When they had to go out, the citizens crept along furtively with downcast eyes and wrapped in their drab cloaks, as if they were going to a sermon or a funeral. Even the children, who had grown up amid this new discipline, and were vigorously intimidated during the “lessons of edification,” no longer played in the debonair way natural to healthy and happy youngsters, but shrank as a cur shrinks in expectation of a blow. They flagged as do flowers which have never known sufficient sunlight, but have been kept in semi-darkness.

Editor’s Comments

No, this is not a passage from 1984. I did replace three words–“Calvin’s” and “the Consistory”–to confuse things, but aside from that, one could believe the time and place described was that of 1984 or of Poland under Soviet occupation. In fact, Zweig is describing Geneva in 1553, under the rule of John Calvin.

Raised a Roman Catholic, Calvin underwent a spiritual conversion as a young adult and took up the emergent reformist (Protestant) faith. His book, Institutio Christiane Religionis, was the first serious attempt at a Protestant theology and proved enormously successful and influential. Stopping in Geneva one night in 1536 on his way out of France, he was convinced to stay by a fellow reformist, Guillaume Farel, and he soon became the leading spiritual leader in the city. Although exiled for several years due to a dispute with the city fathers, he was eventually invited back.

Calvin seized the invitation as an opportunity to exert political as well as spiritual control. Within a short amount of time, he was able to establish a religious state to parallel the civil one, with officers, rules, and enforcers–wardens and the Consistory mentioned above. Calvin’s state quickly eclipsed that of the Genevese city government, and his rule was uniform and severe:

Two burghers played skittles: prison. Two others diced for a quarter-bottle of wine: prison. A man refused to allow his son to be christened Abraham: prison. A blind fiddler played a dance: expelled from the city. Another praised Castellio’s translation of the Bible: expelled from Geneva. A girl was caught skating, a widow threw herself on the grave of her husband, a burgher offered his neighbour a pinch of snuff during divine service: they were summoned before the Consistory, exhorted, and ordered to do penance. And so on, and so on, without end. Some cheerful fellows at Epiphany stuck a bean into the cake: twenty-four hours on bread and water. A burger said “Monsieur” Calvin instead of “Maître” Calvin; a couple of peasants, following ancient custom, talked about business matters on coming out of church: prison, prison, prison.

“Most savagely of all were punished any offenders whose behaviour challenged Calvin’s political and spiritual infallibility,” Zweig continues. Calvin resorted to punishments equal to the Inquisition’s worst to maintain his supremacy over all religious matters: flogging, pilloring, racking, red-hot irons stabbed through tongues. So when Michael Servetus, a Spanish physician and theologian living in France, wrote a tract questioning the principle of predestination, one of the pillars of Calvinist belief, Calvin vowed that if Servetus ever set foot in Geneva, he would not leave alive.

Unfortunately for Servetus, his escape route after being jailed for heresy in France took him right through Geneva, where he was spotted, thrown into prison, and quickly tried and convicted of “execrable blasphemies.” The only point of debate was just how he should be killed: Calvin called for chopping his head off; his council held out for burning at the stake. On October 27, 1553, he was put to flames with a copy of his book chained to his leg.

In itself, given the times, the event might have gone relatively unnoticed. As Zweig writes,

In a century disfigured by innumerable acts of violence, the execution of one man more might have seemed a trifling incident. Between the coasts of Spain and those of the lands bordering the North Sea (not excepting the British Isles), Christians burned countless heretics for the greater glory of Christ. By thousands and tens of thousands, in the name of the “true Church” (the names were legion), defenceless human beings were haled to the place of execution, there to be burned, decapitated, strangled, or drowned.

Servetus’ killing, though, was, in the words of Voltaire, the Reformation’s first “religious murder.” It demonstrated that Protestantism was just as susceptible as Catholicism to dogmatism and orthodoxy. Which, Zweig points out, illogical at least: “In and by itself, the very notion of ‘heretic’ is absurd as far as a Protestant Church is concerned, since Protestants demand that everyone shall have the right of interpretation.” Calvin, however, tried to show that his act could be justified with the same cold logic by which he structured his theology, writing a “Defence of the True Faith and of the Trinity against the Dreadful Errors of Servetus”. To eradicate all those who held opinions subversive to authority was a “sacred duty,” Calvin argued; only those who, for the sake of doctrine, are willing to suppress “tout regard humain“–all regard for things human–that can be considered truly pious.

Calvin’s attempt to establish his right to act as an agent of divine judgment that moved Sebastian Castellio, a Reformist theologian and teacher in nearby Basle, to write an eloquent rebuttal, “De haereticis”, which cut it to shreds with a logic even colder and sharper than Calvin’s. The very notion of heresy was not only contrary to Protestantism, but wholly absent from Bible. Heresy is man’s invention, not God’s: a relative, not absolute concept: “When I reflect on what a heretic really is, I can find no other criterion than that we are all heretics in the eyes of those who do not share our views.” Given that this one statement effectively condemned “a whole era, its leaders, princes, and priests, Catholics and Lutherans alike,” it demonstrated “immense moral courage.”

But Castellio not only punctured the pretense of heresy as an excuse for authoritarianism, he went on to claim that “freedom of thought had a sacred right of asylum in Europe.” “De haereticis”, Zweig shows, stands as a milestone for civilization for not just defending the right to think and speak freely, but for asserting that tolerance is the state to which we should all aspire: “We can live together peacefully only when we control our intolerance. Even though there will always be differences of opinion from time to time, we can at any rate come to general understandings, can love one another, and can enter the bonds of peace….”

Perhaps those words seem mild today, but they inflamed not just Calvin but many others who understood how directly Castellio’s argument undermined the very basis of their political and religious power. Although nominally protected as a citizen of the free city of Basle, Castellio was forced from his university post, ostracized, and driven into poverty and sickness. His death in 1563 prevented Calvin from orchestrating his return to Geneva (Castellio had lived there and even worked alongside Calvin for a time) and trial. Still, Calvin’s followers dug up Castellio’s body, burned it on a bonfire, and scattered the ashes as a post-mortem retribution.

Today, Calvin’s name is far better known and remembered than Castellio’s. Yet it is Castellio, not Calvin, Zweig argues, whose views were ultimately to win the greater number of converts. Both the American and French revolutions recognized freedom of religion and speech as fundamental rights, and “the notion of liberty–the liberty of nations, of individuals, of thoughts–had been accepted as an inalienable maxim by the civilized world.”

Controversies such as those over Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Danish cartoons, wear of the hijab in French schools, and the political power of the religious Right in America all show that this acceptance may be inalienable, but it’s hardly unshakable. The words Zweig wrote in 1936, when stories of Nazi book-burnings, Stalinist mock trials, and Mussolini’s bombing of Ethiopian tribesmen were everyday news, are just as worth repeating now:

Since, in every age, violence renews itself in changed forms, the struggle against it must continually be renewed by those who cling to the things of the spirit. They must never take refuge behind the pretext that at the moment force is too strong for them. For what is necessary to say cannot be said too often, and truth can never be uttered in vain. Even when the word is not victorious, it manifests its eternal presence and one who serves it at such an hour fas given proof that no terror holds sway over a free spirit, but that even in the most cruel of centuries there is still a place for the voice of humaneness.

Locate a Copy

The Right to Heresy, by Stefan Zweig
New York: The Viking Press, 1936

Amazon’s Kindle brings a few neglected books back to e-life

I’m still a die-hard, old-wave real-book reader, but I was pleasantly surprised and impressed to find that there are a few titles still out of print but now available in e-print thanks to Amazon’s Kindle. And I’m not counting the many freely-available public domain texts Amazon repackages at a mark-up.

Robert Silverberg’s Dying Inside, for example, which is consistently recognized as one of the finest SF novels of the 20th century–and is actually, if we can be so adult as to free ourselves from the bounds of genre apartheid, one of the finest novels of the last century, period. Thirty-some years after I first read it, Dying Inside remains one of the most touching human tragedies I’ve ever read. Yet it’s been out of print for years and doesn’t show up that often in the SF shelves of your local used bookstores.

It’s a classic tale: a man with extraordinary gifts wastes them for most of his life and only begins to appreciate his error when those gifts are clearly and rapidly on the wane. The fact that the gift is telepathy in no way diminishes the power of Silverberg’s narrative. Indeed, it gives the story an elegant and ironic twist: David Selig’s tragedy is that he must come to grips with life as an ordinary human.

So, if you’re a Kindler, I encourage you to download a copy for a mere $5.75. Or you can make do with a used paperback edition for a little as 96 cents plus shipping.

Harper Perennial to reissue Jetta Carleton’s “The Moonflower Vine” in 2009

Robert Nedelkoff just passed along the news that Jetta Carleton’s The Moonflower Vine, which has easily generated more responses from readers of this site than all other featured books combined, will be reissued by Harper Collins under their Harper Perennial label in April 2009. I’m sure there are many who hope that this time Carleton’s fine novel will get the critical and popular attention it deserves.

Michael Frayn’s “Sweet Dreams” on OneBook

Gary Smailes invited me to nominate a neglected book for his OneBook blog. Gary set up OneBook as a living project to which he invites a variety of writers to discuss the book they’d recommend to others–the desert island book, if you will–if they could only recommend one.

It was easy for me to pick my OneBook: Michael Frayn’s Sweet Dreams (featured here on this site). There are so many delightful and wise things to be found there that I find myself turning to it again and again–reading it five times now since I first discovered it back around 1978. Sadly, it remains out of print in the U.S., but Gary’s graciously included links to the UK paperback edition still available through Amazon.co.uk.

The Prophets of Israel, by Edith Hamilton

Cover of the first U. S. edition of 'The Prophets of Israel'

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Other Comments
· Locate a Copy


In the eighth century before Christ, all over the civilized world form had taken the place of substance in men’s creeds. The splendors of worship grew more splendid, the multitudes of priests and devotees perpetually greater; ceremony followed upon ceremony; but the spirit that had informed the temples and the shrines was gone. The old terror was dying and all but dead. Behind the magnificence was emptiness. And then something happened, one of the most important events that ever happened, which was to result in nothing less than a completely new idea of religion, an altogether different relation of men to God. In a little country of no consequence whatever to the ruling powers, to the two-thousand-year-old mother of civilization, Egypt, to the fearful, irresistible war-machine, Nineveh, to the caravans and fleets of Babylon the great, a man arose, one man, all alone, to set himself against the force of the whole world’s conviction; and after him another and then another, each always by himself against the nations, in all a mere handful of men, who had a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, a new motive-power for mankind and a new road to God, and who proclaimed this strange conception with a passion and a power never surpassed in the three thousand years that stretch out between their day and ours.

Editor’s Comments

Edith Hamilton’s books on classical Greece and Rome and their mythologies–particularly The Greek Way–have remained in print and are still used as basic texts in hundreds of high school and college courses each year. Far less well known are the three books she wrote about Biblical history–The Prophets of Israel, Spokesmen for God, and Witness to the Truth: Christ and His Interpreters. This is unfortunate, because as fine as her more popular books are, they are about cultures and religions of the past. Prophets, Spokesmen, and Witness deal with religions and issues that have remained active and current for almost 3,000 years now, and deal with them in a manner that brushes away so many cobwebs of history and interpretation that, for me at least, it is like seeing them clearly for the first time.

The Prophets of Israel was the first of the three books to be published, in 1936, and unlike the others, is out of print today. In contrast to the Greek and Roman books, for which she was deeply familiar with the source languages and texts, Hamilton’s Biblical books relied on various English translations, and principally on the King James version. She does not apologize for this, however, arguing that the leading English translations have not only proved largely faithful to the source texts but are the basis for the practice of Christianity in the English-speaking world.

Even in English, though, the prophets of the Old Testament, she acknowledges, “are really exceedingly difficult reading.” Their relentless exhortations and denunciations leave the mind “deafened and dulled”, their invocations against “the treachery of Edom”, the pridefulness of “Rabbah of the Ammonites”, or the other hundreds or thousands of utterly forgotten people cause many of us to see great swaths of the Old Testament as monotonous bouts of who smote who. And leads us to miss something truly wonderful:

They [the prophets] must not be allowed to become the possession of the few. They are not only men of towering genius, they are unique: there is nothing resembling them in all the literature of the world. They were prophets, but in a sense peculiar to themselves: their words still embody men’s ideals. They say, What out to be shall be, and the assertion seems not an expression of an unreal optimism, a dream of happy impossibilities, but a prophecy, a demand which commands our allegiance, an obligation we must struggle to fulfill.

Hamilton begins with the prophet Amos. Amos is one of the shortest books in the whole Bible, and seems a most unpromising one at first. By line four we see God threatening, “I will send a fire into the house of Hazael, which shall devour the palaces of Ben-hadad,” and the text soon becomes a litany of places and peoples He promises to “send fire into.” But Amos, she argues, is the first book in the Bible that can be dated with any accuracy, to around 750 B. C..

At that time, religion, as it was practiced by the Jews, Egyptians, Assyrians, and pretty much everyone else we have record of, had become highly dogmatic and ritualized: “Codes of complicated performance grew up…. Ritual became fixed; it could not any more be used to express this or that immediate need. Life means change, and ritual ceased to keep step with life.” It came, in fact, to be “seen as something altogether superior to life.” “Fear of the gods begets favour,” she quotes from a Babylonian text of the time; “Offering increases life.”

Into this world of rituals, priests, and offerings steps Amos. Steps right into it, in fact, interrupting an elaborate ceremony in the town of Bethel. An otherwise ordinary shepherd, he has heard God speak and is compelled to bring God’s message. “Come to Bethel, and transgress;” he tells the priests and pilgrims there. “Bring your sacrifices every morning, and your tithes after three years.” What God wants of man is not rituals and offerings, says Amos: “Though ye offer me burnt offerings and your meat offerings, I will not accept them: neither will I regard the peace offerings of your fat beasts. Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols.”

No, what God wants of us, Amos says, is something much simpler–and much harder: to “let judgment [justice] run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Amos, as Hamilton describes it, was the first to distinguish ritual from righteousness, to tell his people that it was less important to follow the right steps in making an offering or reciting a chant or prayer and more important to demonstrate righteousness through one’s actions towards others. “The worship of God,” Amos was saying, “had no connection with pilgrimages and sacrifices, but only with what men did to each other.”

With Amos and the other prophets who followed him–Micah, Hosea, and Isaiah–religion appears for the first time split between two paths: “worship desirable for its own sake, an end in itself, and worship as a means, good only when it results in practical good, its aim to do away with evil.” “His worship,” in fact, “had no connection whatever with anything done in a temple. It had to do entirely with men’s actions toward each other.”

I am always extremely reluctant to say or write anything about religion. I consider myself a Christian, but perhaps with just a small “c”. I see Jesus Christ as the most remarkable human to have ever lived on this planet, someone who set the highest ideals we can ever attempt to reach, but no more or less miraculous than the sun rising each morning. Not everyone shares this belief or any other that I might write down, which is why writing anything about religion is just asking for trouble.

And while I find just about everything Edith Hamilton wrote about the Old and New Testaments rings deeply true to me, I know there are others for whom virtually every sentence in The Prophets of Israel probably seems like a willful poke in the eye.

Take her view of fundamentalism, for example. For her, the Bible is very much the word of man–of many men, in fact, adding, subtracting, adapting, and reinterpreting over the course of many years:

There was no idea in those days that a piece of writing should remain as the original author had composed it. The author was always anonymous; he did not matter at all. It was a reviser’s duty to make improvements if he could, especially to introduce a moral or point one more sharply. The process of growth of the Old Testament, with pious men perpetually striving to make it more edifying, is a curious contrast to its later condition when it became inviolably fixed, each letter holy and never to be altered.

This view enables her to brush past much of what leaves many readers of the Bible scratching their heads: “Direct contradictions in the prophets which occasionally trouble the reader can be so explained,” Hamilton argues. Witness to the Truth: Christ and His Interpreters is even more willing to ascribe inconsistencies in some of the things Christ is recounted to have done or said to the need of later writers to shape the text to meet the needs of the early Church.

This is not at all because Hamilton plays fast and loose with the truth. She is utterly undogmatic and her loyalty lies only with the message she finds in the text. If anything, she has far too much respect for the truth to believe it can be found in fixed formulae. Early in The Prophets of Israel, she writes something that resonates so deeply with me as a person who values knowledge as a limitless quest that I’m amazed it is not etched over the entrance to every school, library, and laboratory:

There is no foe so deadly to the truth as complete intellectual assurance. It substitutes an easy and shallow certainty for the deep loyalties of faith. It puts an end to thought, which can live only if it is free to change. Uncertainty is the prerequisite to gaining knowledge and frequently the result as well. Greater knowledge does not mean greater certainty. Oftenest the very reverse is true. We are certain in proportion as we do not know. We seem, indeed, so made that intellectual certainty is not good for us. We grow arrogant, intolerant, unable to learn and to attain to better grounds of certainty precisely because we are certain. The right attitude for the mind would seem to be humility.

For this quote alone, I would place The Prophets of Israel on the shelf of books I hope to keep with me for the rest of my life. But I would recommend it and Witness to the Truth: Christ and His Interpreters highly to anyone with a Judeo-Christian upbringing who is interested in being reminded of what we can most prize and respect in our teachings. It’s like that line from Eliot’s “Little Gidding”: “… to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” After reading Hamilton’s books about the Bible, I feel like I am finally beginning to understand what I learned in Sunday school.

Other Comments

Alfred Kazin, The New York Times, 19 April 1936

Mrs. Hamilton has seized the core of the prophet’s thought; from Amos to Malachi the yea-sayers exemplify the Hebrew mind in its blend of earthiness and lyricism…. For the most part, her book carries an excitement that is communicated to the reader. One feels the intensity that once shook a narrow earth.

Locate a Copy

The Prophets of Israel, by Edith Hamilton
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1936

One Neglected Writer on Another: Stefan Zweig, Great European, by Jules Romains

Cover of U.S. edition of 'Stefan Zweig Great European'Stefan Zweig: Great European reprints a lecture given by Jules Romains, poet, dramatist, and author of the lengthy series of novels, Men of Good Will, a few months before the start of World War Two. For the book, Romains added a preface, written in exile in New York in 1941. This book’s timing, therefore, is exceptionally poignant. As Romains delivers his original lecture, Europe is still at peace–if barely. A few threads of hope remain intact in the cultural fabric of Europe as he, Zweig, and others had come to know and define it: “I was going to say: ‘All that is over and done with,'” Romains writes of this cosmopolitan era, “but it would be an exaggeration. Rather: ‘All that is completely changed–greatly endangered.'”

When he writes his preface some months later, that hope has been shattered by blitzkrieg and the relentless stream of German victories and conquests that began in September 1939 and continued till Stalingrad in early 1943.

At the moment Romains wrote his preface, though, Zweig still lived, and that was enough for him to hold on to a slim faith in the future:

We who since 1914 have passed through one of the worst periods in human history can say to one another that we shall perhaps know a better, a slightly better period, if we get through this one and live long enough. It will last as long as it can. May it last longer than we do!

He did not know that Zweig was already descending into a black depression that would lead, in early 1942, to his committing suicide, along with his wife, in a small town in Brazil. “…[T]he world of my own language having disappeared for me and my spiritual home, Europe, having destroyed itself…. I think it better to conclude in good time and in erect bearing a life in which intellectual labor meant the purest joy and personal freedom the highest good on earth,” Zweig wrote in his last note. How this knowledge might have altered Romains’ outlook, we cannot say. But in saluting a contemporary he greatly admired and respected, Romains was, in effect, writing an obituary of a unique generation. These men saw themselves as Europeans–advocates of western culture and the faith of Enlightenment and human progress rather than as French, German, Austrian, or Italian. Despite the inevitable bumps along the way, the jolts and jags from xenophobes, racists, and fundamentalists, the progress of progress itself was, or so they thought, destined to plow forward.

Above all, they were believers in what Romains calls “the critical sense,” which was the antithesis of the political movements then reaching their crescendos:

Of what does human misfortune now consist, and above all what horrible things are threatening mankind? What is the chief danger? Is it an excess of composure, of reason, or the critical sense? God knows it is not! On the contrary, it is the rapid development throughout the masses of the new fanaticisms: fascism, racism, nationalism, and communism, or mixtures of them in different proportions…. [I]t is the unbridled proscription of all critical sense, all lucid play of reason….

No wonder that men such as Zweig were the first to be singled out and sent into exile. It was a technique dating back to the days of the Tsars (viz. E. H. Carr’s The Romantic Exiles). Lenin adopted it early in his revolution (viz. Lenin’s Private War), and Hitler applied it to both artists (viz. Exiled in Paradise) and scientists (viz. Hitler’s Gift). The result, as Romains notes, is that,

…[O]ne of the extraordinary things about the days we are living through is that undoubtedly for the first time in the history of civilization more than half of the great men of the present, of those who have done the most for the honour of their respective countries, of Europe, or humanity, are fugitives and exiles. And the majority of them were in no way involved in politics, Yes, this will be the subject of hundreds of essays in the schools of the future, an inexhaustibl theme for orators: the disgrace of an epoch–our own–when Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Sigmund Freud, Guglielmo Ferrero, Stefan Zweig, Emil Ludwig, Ivan Bunin, and others were all of them at once exiles, men driven from their countries.

Thanks in large part to NYRB Classics, Stefan Zweig’s work seems to be emerging finally from decades of neglect, at least in the English language. Clive James recently summed Zweig up as “The Incarnation of Humanism” in the final biographical essay in his wonderful collection, Cultural Amnesia. Whether Romains will have the same good fortune has yet to be seen (I was going to write remains, but that looked like a pun). The whole idea of Europe and humanism has itself been taking a bit of a beating lately, so it’s worth taking a moment to consider this little book and remind oneself of what that idea has meant to others when it was under a much greater threat.

Stefan Zweig: Great European, by Jules Romains
New York City: Viking Press, 1941

An Interview with John Seaton, editor of Faber Finds

Serendipity has always played a large role in my experiences with neglected books, and serendipity today led me to pass a very interesting and enjoyable hour with John Seaton, editor of the new Faber Finds series. When I learned of Faber’s new venture into republishing a large and diverse list of out-of-print titles, I took up their public invitation and sent them an email offering my perennial nominee, W. V. Tilsley’s Other Ranks. A few days later, I got a reply from John himself, expressing interest and asking for help in locating a copy.

As it happened, I was scheduled to come to London for a project management conference a few weeks later, so I offered to drop off a copy of my own photocopy while in the city. John invited me to stop by for a chat. So after a day full of project management methods and practices, I headed to Faber and Faber’s offices on Queens Square. Along with discussing Tilsley’s book, I took the opportunity to interview John about the series in general.

Faber Finds is both bucking a trend and setting one. Most mainstream British publishers, John explained, have become focused on their front list (the new releases) and near backlist–the recent releases–and allowed much of their deep backlist–the titles that sell a few copies a year for a decade or more–to evaporate. In the same way, most major booksellers devote their shelf space to these titles, leading to something of a tunnel vision effect.

At the same time, however, print-on-demand technology has matured to the point where new models of production and distribution become possible. Faber Finds is among the most innovative applications of print-on-demand to emerge to date. The idea came from Stephen Page, CEO of Faber and Faber, who brought John into the firm specifically to launch the venture. Faber’s target is not the High Street retail customer, but what Chris Anderson referred to as “the long tail.” Publishers with extensive backlists have long been challenged to balance the steady, if undramatic revenue from sales of older titles with the expensive of storing and managing the physical stock. With print-on-demand, publishers now have the opportunity to continue offering their backlists while limiting their costs to the initial “capture” and as-ordered printing of the books.

Part of the “long tail” argument is based on the diminishing unit costs of involved in digital production. Although it costs Faber roughly £4 pounds to print a book of some 300 pages, this is considerably less than that of printing and holding a physical stock of several hundred or several thousand copies for years or decades. And the print-on-demand unit cost is, if anything, bound to go down, while the warehousing costs can only go up.

At the same time, the Internet has opened up a sales channel that makes it far easier for customers to locate and buy lesser-known titles. I can remember, for example, looking up the publishing information about Michael Frayn’s slim book of philosophy, Constructions; going information in hand to my local bookstore and submitting the special order; then waiting months for my copy to arrive. If Constructions were available through print-on-demand, on the other hand, I could find it, order it like any in-print title, and have a copy delivered to me in about the same time as any in-print title. The availability of a new discovery and ordering capability courtesy of the Internet, combined with print-on-demand, is a perfect example of the “long tail” effect.

Print-on-demand has been around for years. Companies such as Kesslinger offer a rich catalog of out-of-copyright titles on this basis. But most of these companies merely scan in and reprint images taken from old editions. Faber and Faber has always been a press known for its high standards of culture and style, and Faber Finds is very much in keeping with this tradition. They scan to text, proofread the result, and then integrate any black-and-white images into the text. Then they print the text on good-quality stock in an attractive typeface, and bind it into a sturdy trade paperback format featuring a unique computer-generated graphic for each title. John was somewhat apologetic for the design of the books, but I think he should be proud. There is a big difference between minimalist and generic. And there is nothing generic about the look of Faber Finds titles.

In keeping with the “long tail” model, Faber Finds is not starting out with a modest list, gingerly testing the waters. Instead, the series debuted with 100 titles and John has managed to clear the rights to another 300 titles. Faber plans to announce 20 to 30 new titles each month. If the business case proves sound, the list could grow into a thousand or more, which would easily surpass any other venture into republication of neglected books to date.

John and I discussed some of the potential effects of this new approach to publishing titles well in the margins from the standard canon of great books. I’ve long felt that the tendency to view literature as the exclusive domain of a few great authors and books rather than a broad, varied, and wonderfully unpredictable melange of the great, the good, the respectable, the near-misses and glancing hits, and even the occasional utter failure is reinforced by the tendency of non-“great book” titles to go out of print. A professor can hardly teach a lesser-known book if a student can’t buy a copy in the college bookstore or check out copy 23 of 37 from the library. With the Faber Finds model, Angus Wilson has a chance of keeping a spot on a modern English novelists syllabus alongside William Golding and Doris Lessing

Angus Wilson, in fact, is one of the authors John takes some personal satisfaction in having rescued. John came to Faber after spending three decades at Penguin. Penguin had stood by Wilson, keeping many of his novels in print through the 1970s and 1980s, when realistic novels were languishing in the critical doldrums, but they finally tossed in the towel over a decade along. Ever since, Wilson, inarguably one of the most significant English writers since World War Two, has been essentially out of print and out of circulation. Faber Finds will bring all of Wilson’s novels back in print–as it will those of P.H. Newby and, if negotiations go well, Joyce Cary.

At the far end of the spectrum from Angus Wilson and Joyce Cary stands another writer Faber Finds will bring back to print in August 2008. Roy Horniman’s novel Israel Rank has kept a small place in history for being the inspiration for one of the finest of all British comedies, the 1949 film, “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” Even though the novel sold a respectable number of copies when first published in 1907 and was republished in 1948 while Graham Greene was working for Eyre and Spotiswoode, printed copies have become as hard to find as skeletons of the dodo. John was finally able to locate a copy though a distant relative of Horniman’s, and this sly satire of Edwardian mores and anti-Semitism will finally be available for a price quite a bit less than that of a mid-sized car.

Not that Israel Rank is a lost masterpiece. The point of Faber Finds is not to rescue a few great books that have become forgotten, but to make available–at a reasonable price for both consumer and publisher–a large number of fine books that merely fell victim of a bad business case for a few decades. Children’s books are coming as well, says John, as well as color images in a year or two. Altogether, Faber’s expedition into the “long tail” of the publishing business is one of the most exciting “mash-ups” I’ve heard of, and it was a genuine pleasure to get a chance to get an insider’s view of what I hope will be history in the making.

SUNY Press added to Publishers List

Susan Petrie from the SUNY Press kindly pointed out a number of little-known and forgotten titles they’ve released in recent years. In particular, their Women Writers in Translation series has brought out such books as:

The Ravine, by Nivaria Tejera

“Set in the Canary Islands at the outset of the Spanish Civil War, The Ravine is the provocative, disturbing account of a child’s experience with war.”

Become Who You Are

“… [A]bout a woman, Agnes Schmidt, whose husband has died and who is grappling with finding an identity for herself as an aging widow—reflecting the restrictions imposed especially on aging, widowed women who often yearn for a life and identity of their own.”

The Education of Fanny Lewald

” … [T]he autobiography of the most popular and prolific German woman writer of her period (1811-1889). The author of more than fifty books of fiction, travel memoirs, and articles about current events, Lewald was a friend or acquaintance of many of the prominent intellectual, artistic, and political figures of nineteenth-century Europe.”

And, for you James Fenimore Cooper fans, if there are any, there’s also a dozen-plus of his books, including such long-forgotten titles as Lionel Lincoln: or, The Leaguer of Boston, which the SUNY website tells us was, “… [A] radically new experiment in historical fiction. To recreate its events with the utmost accuracy, Cooper visited Boston in person in 1824 to study buildings and terrain, examine battlefields, read affidavits, consult records of the weather, and compare primary sources. George Bancroft declared in 1852 that Cooper had ‘described the battle of Bunker Hill better than it is described in any other work.'”

Lee Sandlin on “Ten Novels That Not Enough People Have Read”

I stumbled across writer Lee Sandlin’s website (www.leesandlin.com) and was delighted to find, on his “Enthusiasms” page, a list titled, “Ten Novels That Not Enough People Have Read.” Lee is one of the finest essayists working in America today. His remarkable piece on the mythology of World War Two, “Losing the War,” is included in the recent compilation, The New Kings of Nonfiction (and also available online on his website). I couldn’t resist writing him to express my interest in the list and to ask for a few words about the books. I figured he would get back to me eventually, but a couple of hours later, back came an email with the following comments.

· Armed With Madness, Mary Butts

A deliriously unstable version of an English country-house story, about summer guests at an estate who think they’ve found the Holy Grail–something like a Virginia Woolf novel spiralling frantically out of control and throwing off startling ideas and images in all directions.
[Editor’s note: Armed With Madness and a companion novel, Death of Felicity Taverner, have been reissued in a one-volume edition by McPherson & Company.]

· Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrlees

A unique fantasy novel from the 1920s, light-years away from Tolkien and his imitators, about a stodgy provincial country infiltrated by a sinister fairyland.
[Lud-in-the-Mist is in print from Cold Spring Press, with a foreward by novelist Neil Gaiman.]

· Memoirs of a Midget, Walter de la Mare

De la Mare was a conservative British poet who’s fallen into unjust obscurity; this is his longest and best novel, which treats a fairytale premise with fantastic intensity –as though a Hans Christian Andersen story had been rewritten by Conrad.
[In print from Paul Dry Books.]

· The Asiatics, Frederic Prokosch

The first novel of a young American writer, published in the late 1920s, highly praised by the likes of Camus, Gide and Mann, about a hitchhiker travelling across Asia; hallucinatorily vivid, even though you suspect (and Prokosch later admitted) that the author had never actually set foot in Asia.
[The Asiatics is in print from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, with an introduction by Pico Iyer.]

· The Curlew’s Cry, Mildred Walker

A slow, evocative, and beautiful novel by a forgotten American regionalist, published in the 1950s, about the lifelong friendship between two women in Montana.
[The Curlew’s Cry is in print, as are all of Walker’s books, from the University of Nebraska Press.]

· A Legacy, Sybille Bedford

A richly imagined and elegantly told autobiographical novel about the intertwined lives of three European families at the end of the 19th century, which slowly turns into an understated parable about what the legacy of European culture really means; the sequel, Jigsaw, about a young woman’s sexual awakening on the French Riviera in the 1920s, is just as good.
[In print, as are a number of Bedford’s books, in attractive editions from Counterpoint.]

· The Stone Book Quartet, Alan Garner

This series by a British writer, ostensibly for children, is a stunningly beautiful evocation of the author’s family history, told through a succession of small, emblematic, fervently re-imagined moments of daily life.
[Currently out of print in the U.S., but it’s available as a Harper Perennial Modern Classic from Amazon.co.uk.]

· The Dead of the House, Hannah Green

I’ve never read anything like this book. What appears at first to be a shapeless and garrulous memoir of suburban America in the middle of the 20th century gradually reveals itself to be a visionary prose poem about the way time and history are interfused in the American landscape.
[In print from Turtle Point Press. Of the book, the normally-subdued Publishers Weekly wrote, “Green is known for being a perfectionist in her writing, and this long-out-of-print work is absolute proof. The characterizations are flawless, the descriptions excellent and the overall effect sublime.”]

· Peace, Gene Wolfe

An old man recalls his life in small-town Illinois, and his memories open up into a weird carnival of dreams and reveries; the best book I know of about the surreal underside of the American heartland.
[In print, although in an utterly unappealing edition, from Orb Books.]

· The Fortunate Fall, Raphael Carter

A garish, dark, exhilaratingly original take on 1990s sci-fi cyberpunk, by a writer who seems to have since disappeared without a trace.
[Out of print and selling for as little as two cents on Amazon.]

Many thanks, Lee!

Mortal Leap, by MacDonald Harris

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Mortal Leap'

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Find Out More

· Locate a Copy


On top there were some flannel slacks and a pair of tailored Bermuda shorts. A half-dozen handkerchiefs, monogrammed “BD.” A pair of tan loafers, some sports shirts in conservative solid colors. Sunglasses, underwear, an electric razor with its cord, socks inArgyll plaids. Strapped into the top of the lid was a carefully folded sports jacket, a soft tweed in a dark bluish gray. Everything was expensive, conservative, and carefully packed. These things were mine now, I thought, or rather I belonged to tem. I wondered whether something would change in me when I put them on and I would feel different, or whether it would be the other way around, my essence that would sink into the clothes, gradually wearing away their strangeness and making them familiar. For that, of course, you would have to have an essence. On the whole I would have preferred to stay as I was in the anonymous hospital pajamas. But the clothes were mine now for better or worse; I had passed the point where I could choose or reject.

I lowered the lid carefully and latched it. On the long and precarious journey back to the bed I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. It was the face of a stranger, a patchwork in various shades of red, expressionless except for the left side of the mouth still pulled a little upward by the shrunken muscle. The leanness was skull-like; growing out of the scalp there were meager tufts of brown hair. You’re an ugly brute whoever you are, I told the face in the glass. But I knew who he was; he was the owner of the clothes in the suitcase. For a few seconds that afternoon I had balanced on the razor edge, and then I had chosen and now the clothes were mine, or rather they were myself, a new human being I would have to study and master. For an instant I felt the vertigo of empty space: where was I going? I realized I was still sick and I got back in bed.

Editor’s Comments

Mortal Leap tells a story it seems as if we’ve seen on TV a dozen times: a man takes on another’s identity, abandoning his own, and lives out a new life. But have we?

There are plenty of stories of mistaken identity, and plenty more, like the Kevin Kline comedy, “Dave”, where one person pretends to be another (in that case, the President of the United States) to deceive others. In Mortal Leap, however, we are led, with careful attention to detail, motivation, and effect, through a man’s decision to utterly abandon the life he’s lived, the person he’s become in twenty-some years since birth, and become another man. Another man with a history, possessions, relationships, traits, habits. Another man with a wife, a family, a life already being lived. Have we ever really heard this story before?

In this book, his second novel, MacDonald Harris takes us, as if in freeze-frame, through a salto mortale–literally, a mortal leap–the circus acrobat’s mid-air vault from one trapeze to another. We follow the nameless protagonist as he swings back and forth through a life as a merchant seaman in the 1930s and early 1940s. Running away from a strict Mormon family, he makes his way to Oakland, where he gets a berth on a tramp freighter. He’s befriended by a veteran hand, a former Russian anarchist, who teaches him how to survive–but also uses him to escape from arrest for smuggling drugs. The man spends time in San Quentin prison, then returns to the sea. He learns enough to gain a third-class officer’s cap, but other than that, his life is an endless routine of watches, ports, whores, and booze. He realizes that his shipmates care a little for him and he for them: that when his time comes, they will watch him die “without sympathy, without curiosity, simply indifferent.”

Then, his freighter is sent to take a load of fuel and supplies to a nameless southwest Pacific island–probably Guadalcanal. Ambushed along with its escort by a group of Japanese ships, the ship is hit and sunk. The man survives and makes it to an unhabited atoll. There he encounters and kills a downed Japanese pilot. He takes the pilot’s life raft and attempts to cross the channel one night to rejoin the Americans. His crossing, however, takes him into the direct path of a skirmish between the U.S. and Japanese navies. The raft is lost and the man is caught in the swirl of debris and burning oil around a sinking U.S. frigate. His face and hands are severely burned, but a sailor rescues him just before he drowns.

In Harris’ narrative, this is the moment when the acrobat lets go of the first bar:

What happened was simple, even banal: I became naked, died, lost parts of my flesh and most of my ego along with a few illusions such as a belief in the uniqueness of my personal scrap of consciousness and the cosmic importance thereof, and went on from there. All that was left was something inside that I don’t know what to call–a soul?

He is evacuated to a Navy hospital in Hawaii. “There,” Harris writes,

I lay for three months in a hospital bed, an inert network of pains, discomfort, smells. Inside was nobody. There was only a nexus of existence, buried very deep and only gradually working to the surface. Out of habit the body went on breathing, eating, excreting, being awake and connected to its eyes and ears. Inside lay the awareness, and was magnificently uninterested in everything that went on outside.

When the doctors and hospital staff attempt to determine his identity, he tells them nothing. He has let go and is in free fall. The only thing he knows for certain is that he cannot go back.

From the circumstances of his rescue, his apparent age and physical features, Navy investigators finally speculate that the man is Lieutenant Ben Davenant, an officer on the U.S.S. Marcus, one of the ships lost in the night battle. They send a photo of the man’s scarred face to Davenant’s parents, who do not recognize him. Davenant’s wife, however, comes to Hawaii to see for herself.

The man still has no intention of doing anything, of merely plunging forward into oblivion. But then the wife comes into the hospital room and another trapeze appears before him:

A moment later she was bending over the bed and I felt the light touch of her lips on my forehead; I caught an elusive scent of linen and perfume. Even then I was not fully awake. And yet in those few seconds when everything hung on a knife edge I committed myself by my silence. I felt words forming in my mouth, but I couldn’t arrange them properly; the time passed when I might have spoken and still I said nothing.

One could say that the salto mortale analogy–which Harris himself introduces later in the book–misses the point somewhat. The man doesn’t grab for the other bar. He merely says nothing–he allows the woman to say that he is Davenant. And at first, though he goes along with the deceit, he’s in many ways just as passive as he was in free fall. Ary, the wife, takes charge. She gets them back to the U.S., arranges for man/Davenant’s discharge, and settles them in her father’s large seaside house in Laguna Beach.

Becoming another person, as Harris shows us, is much harder than it ever seems in the movies. There are so many little practical hurdles. The man, after all, was a rough merchant sailor before, and now he is in the midst of a wealthy, cultured family. He has to learn not to dig wax out of his ear with his pinky, not to ask for ketchup when eating a steak, how to mix a cocktail.

When I began to grasp the complexity of what I had to do I felt like a trained baboon trying to play a cello. At every turn it seemed there was a new decision, probably crucial, although I could never be sure. What did I want for dinner? Which necktie should I put on? Did you wear a necktie at all to go to the Coast Inn at eight o’clock for drinks? Before a rack of neckties I was in a cold sweat.

I first read Mortal Leap almost thirty years ago, and I remember how the narrative seized my attention. It was one of those books you begrudge the rest of your life for taking you away from. When you don’t know how it’s going to turn out, you feel as if you are hurtling forward along with the protagonist.

When I reread the book recently, it seemed even more powerful and affecting. I knew how it would turn out, but now the suspense was in seeing how Harris could make it plausible. What I saw this time around was how he manages to make this wildly improbable situation into a very basic lesson about being. So the man learns how to imitate Ben Davenant without getting caught–or at least, so he thinks. The man has made the leap and a new bar is in his hands. But he still has to confront the question, “Now what?”

It wasn’t a matter of convincing these people or anybody else that I was something I was not, or even of trying to make myself into something they wanted me to be. It was a matter of making myself into something I would decide; of asking myself what was the best I had and what I could make with it and then working as hard as I could to make it.

“In order for it to be a life you had to make something, even if it wasn’t something very important,” the man concludes. What was wrong with the life he’d led before being caught in the battle and burned “had not been dishonesty or embezzlement or cowardice or even murder,” he concludes. “My real sin had been apathy, the kind of cockeyed contempt for everything I had learned from the others on all the bad ships I had sailed on in all those pointless wandering years.”

Ironically, MacDonald Harris was, himself, an invention. His real name was Donald Heiney, a merchant sailor and naval officer who’d gone to college on the G.I. Bill after World War Two and become a professor of literature. MacDonald Harris was his pen name, which he used first for short stories he wrote for magazines and then, beginning in the early 1960s, for a total sixteen novels, a non-fiction book, and one short story collection published before his death in 1993. His work often received strong critical praise, and C.P. Snow once said of him, “Harris is a real writer, and I don’t use that phrase except of someone who ought to be cherished and encouraged.”

Since his death, his son, Paul Heiney, has maintained a set of web pages (http://www.physics.upenn.edu/~heiney/harris) about Harris/Heiney’s life and work. Although his most popular book, The Balloonist, was nominated for the National Book Award, none of his works are now in print. Mortal Leap was barely even noticed by critics when first published and never even rated a paperback reissue. Among the few items you’ll find about MacDonald Harris now is an admiring tribute by the highly-successful author, Philip Pullman. Pullman writes of Harris’s work that,

… there is a consistency despite the huge variety in setting and subject matter, and that lies in the intelligence, the quietness, the subtle astringency of manner; in a sensibility and temperament that is experienced rather than innocent, ironic rather than emotional, sceptical rather than credulous; if I wanted to be mischievous, I might say European rather than American. And there is a constant preoccupation with the mystery of identity.

And in none of his books does Harris confront this mystery better than in Mortal Leap. You can find at least thirty copies of this novel for sale on the Internet, most of them under $10. Get one and see if you don’t find yourself asking a question or two about your own identity.

Locate a Copy

John Banville on “the Simenons”, from the L. A. Weekly

Covers from a collection of paperback Simenons

Source: “The Escape Artist: John Banville on Georges Simenon,” L. A. Weekly, 28 May 2008, http://www.laweekly.com/art+books/wls/the-escape-artist-john-banville-on-georges-simenon/18984/

A couple of weeks ago, the L. A. Weekly published a long piece by Irish novelist John Banville on the non-Maigret novels of Georges Simenon. Although best known for the 70-plus detective novels he wrote featuring the unflappable Inspector Maigret, Simenon published a nearly-equal number of masterful psychological dramas. These romans durs, or “hard” novels, are, in Banville’s estimation, “his finest work.”

Banville admits that when he first read one of Simenon’s novels, “I was really blown away by this extraordinary writer. I had never known this kind of thing was possible, to create such work in that kind of simple — well, apparently simple — direct style.” Nine of these novels have been reissued as part of the excellent NYRB Classics series. The typical roman dur is fast, intense, and brief–rarely more than 120 pages. The protagonist–almost always a man who has led a quiet, conventional life–is jolted out of his routine by an act of violence, a momentary lapse of judgment, a flash of passion, or an instant of craven selfishness or greed. A Dutch G.P. murders his wife; a Parisian fonctionnaire finds a briefcase full of cash on a train. A Belgian cafe owner finds himself separated from his family as they flee the blitzkrieg. Or, as in the opening lines of The Accomplices, a wealthy dairy owner causes a school bus to crash, killing and maiming the children inside:

It was brutal, instantaneous. And yet he was neither surprised nor resentful, as if he had always been expecting it. He realized in a flash, as soon as the horn started screaming behind him, that the catastrophe was inevitable and that it was his fault.

It was not an ordinary horn that was pursuing him with a kind of anger and terror, but a mournful, agonizing howl such as one hears in a port on a foggy night.

At the same time, he saw in his mirror the red and black bulk of a huge bus bearing down on him and the contracted face of a man with grizzled hair, and he realized that he was driving in the middle of the road.

It did not occur to him to free his hand which Edmonde continued to press between her thighs.

Here we have all the classic ingredients of a superb Simenon: a trick of fate, an already-guilty hero (his hand between his mistress’ thighs), and a sense “that the catastrophe was inevitable and that it was his fault.” Banville writes that, “Henri Cartier-Bresson used to speak of the ‘decisive moment’ when reality is caught in its unguarded essence, and it is on such moments that Simenon builds his fictions.”

For years now, I’ve been picking up Simenons when I find them in cheap paperback editions–which has become harder and harder. It rarely takes more than a night or two to finish them, but each is a headlong plunge into the dark side of otherwise ordinary characters. Andre Gide thought Simenon possessed enormous talent but frittered it away on these melodramas. “Gide,” writes Banville, “felt that he had not achieved his full potential as an artist, which may be true: If he had tackled his obsessiveness and found a way of slowing himself down, he might have written the leisurely and long-fermented work that Gide apparently expected of him.” But as Banville rightly concludes, “[T]hat book would not have been a ‘Simenon’, and it is in the ‘Simenons’,surely, that Simenon displayed his prodigious and protean genius.”

Some ‘Simenons’ to get started with

The Man Who Watched Trains Go By

In print from NYRB Classics. A self-satisfied middle manager suddenly discovers that his boss has driven the company into bankruptcy. And then ….

Monsieur Monde Vanishes

In print from NYRB Classics. One morning, Monsieur Monde, a comfortable Parisian business man, walks out of his house as his wife is sleeping … and vanishes. And then ….

The Venice Train

Still out of print. A man finds a suitcase full of money belonging to a mysterious stranger. And then ….

The Murderer

Still out of print. A Dutch G.P. plots and carries out the perfect murder of his aging wife and gets away with it. And then ….

Al Young’s Musical Memoirs


Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Drowning in the Sea of Love'from “Body and Soul”:
When the record came out, saxophonists all over the world, hearing it and sensing that things would never be the same, started woodshedding Hawkins’s impassioned licks in their closets and on the stand. Why’d he have to go and do that? Of course, everybody fell in love with it. My father would play it, take it off, play something else, then put it back on. This went on for years. What was he listening for? What were we listening to? What did it mean? What were all those funny, throaty squawks and sighs and cries all about? I knew what a body was, but what was a soul? You kept hearing people say, “Well, bless his soul!” You thought you knew what they meant, but really, you could only imagine as you must now. You knew what they meant when they said, “Bless her heart!” because you could put your hand to your heart and feel the beat, and your Aunt Ethel sometimes fried up chicken hearts along with gizzards, livers and feet. But a soul was unseeable. did animals have souls, too? Did birds, dogs, cows, mules, pigs, snakes, bees? And what about other stuff, like corn, okra, creeks, rivers, moonlight, sunshine, trees, the ground, the rain, the sky? Did white folks have souls?

… Thirty-nine, forty, fifty, a hundred, thousands–who’s to say how many rosy-chilled Octobers have befallen us, each one engraved in micro-moments of this innocent utterance, electrically notated but, like light in a photograph, never quite captured in detail, only in essence. Essence in this instance is private song, is you hearing your secret sorrow and joy blown back through Coleman Hawkins, invisibly connected to you and played back through countless bodies, each one an embodiment of the same soul force.

All poetry is about silent music, invisible art and the clothing of time for the ages.

Editor’s Comments

Not long after moving to the Bay Area in 1981, I picked up a copy of Al Young’s first book of “musical memoirs”, Bodies and Soul, and devoured it. Full of short, lyrical essays no longer than it took to spin a good 45, it was the perfect book for the moment. With money to spend, nights and weekends free, and no homework for the first time in 18 years, I was reveling in the wonders of live and recorded musical to be found within an hour’s drive from Sunnyvale. Max Roach at the Keystone Korner; Elvis Costello at the Paramount; Anita O’Day at the Great American Musical Hall; King Sunny Ade in Santa Cruz; UB40 in Palo Alto; the SF Symphony at Stern Grove; Rasputin’s and Amoeba Music in Berkeley; and the world treasure of Village Music in Mill Valley. And a Tower Records store just fifteen minutes from my house.

Where, about a year later, I saw a tall black man with a distinctive streak of white hair browsing in the racks. I immediately recognized him as Al Young, and went over to offer my praise for his book. He was helping a friend decide how to spend a gift certificate, and the three of us talked for a few minutes about some albums they’d picked out. Then we all went back to fingering through the trays of LPs. It was the only time I met Young–the only time I’ve ever met the writer of a book I liked, in fact–but it seemed proof that I was living in a magical place.

Al Young in performance with bassist Dan RobbinsYoung published three more collections of musical essays after that: Kinds of Blue in 1984; Things Ain’t What They Used to Be in 1987; and Drowning in the Sea of Love, which included pieces from the three earlier books, in 1995. All four books are unforgiveably but understandably out of print now. Understandably, because Young had the misfortune to sign up with two different publishers–Creative Arts in Berkeley and the Ecco Press–that since went out of business. Unforgiveably because nobody beats Al Young when it comes to capturing the mood and rhythm of good pop, jazz, and blues music in prose.

You can get a taste of Young’s writing from reading his essay on Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” on Salon, taken from Drowning in the Sea of Love. And thanks to their utter neglect, you can pick up used and remaindered copies of all four books for not much more than a buck total plus shipping. Until someone rights this wrong and puts at least a sampler back in print, this is what you’ll have to do if you want to experience a master at his instrument. As James Brown would have told us: “Give the writer some!”

Al Young’s Musical Memoirs:

Ramsay Wood recommends a Neglected Writer: George Borrow

In passing along news of a new edition of his Kalila and Dimna: Selected Fables of Bidpai, writer Ramsay Wood shared his own recommendation:

My candidate for the two most neglected books would be Lavengro (1851) and The Romany Rye (1857) by George Borrow. In a way he was the first ordinary, modern English travel writer. But it takes a good 50 pages to tune into his language, which is obviously quite removed from English usage today.

150 years ago, Borrow was one of the most popular writers in the English language: one of his first books, The Bible in Spain, even outsold Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. His novels and non-fiction books, especially those about the Gypsies of Spain and elsewhere, were considered masterpieces of their time: dramatic, colorful, and comic. And for a good hundred years afterward, you could count on finding at least one or two titles by Borrow in any good collection of classics (Everyman’s, the Modern Library). Now, you have a choice between over-priced e-publisher editions or free downloads from Project Gutenberg.

It’s true that Borrow’s prose can, at times, be at least one or two removes from today’s language:

But to return to my own history. I had now attained the age of six: shall I state what intellectual progress I had been making up to this period? Alas! upon this point I have little to say calculated to afford either pleasure or edification. I had increased rapidly in size and in strength: the growth of the mind, however, had by no means corresponded with that of the body. It is true, I had acquired my letters, and was by this time able to read imperfectly; but this was all: and even this poor triumph over absolute ignorance would never have been effected but for the unremitting attention of my parents, who, sometimes by threats, sometimes by entreaties, endeavoured to rouse the dormant energies of my nature, and to bend my wishes to the acquisition of the rudiments of knowledge; but in influencing the wish lay the difficulty.

But scan through The Romany Rye, for example, and you’ll find much dialogue, some narrative, but little in the way of heavy-lifting prose. As Anthony Campbell argues, “In fact, he is a penny plain writer, not a tuppence coloured one; you don’t find those purple passages of description that were thought to be the mark of “style” at the time. In other words, he is closer to Defoe than to De Quincy.” And you’ll also find, from a man who was employed by the Bible Society, a remarkable share of irreverence:

“One thing,” said I, “connected with you, I cannot understand; you call yourself a thorough-going Papist, yet are continually saying the most pungent things against Popery, and turning to unbounded ridicule those who show any inclination to embrace it.”

“Rome is a very sensible old body,” said the man in black, “and little cares what her children say, provided they do her bidding. She knows several things, and amongst others, that no servants work so hard and faithfully as those who curse their masters at every stroke they do. She
was not fool enough to be angry with the Miquelets of Alba, who renounced her, and called her ‘puta’ all the time they were cutting the throats of the Netherlanders. Now, if she allowed her faithful soldiers the latitude of renouncing her, and calling her ‘puta’ in the market-place, think not she is so unreasonable as to object to her faithful priests occasionally calling her ‘puta’ in the dingle.”

New from NYRB Classics: First English translation of Stefan Zweig novel

NYRB Classics continues to set the standard for publishing long-lost treasures. Its latest release is of particular note: The Post-Office Girl is the first English translation (by Joel Rotenberg) of Rausch der Verwandlung (trans: “The Ecstasy of Transformation”). This novel was found among Zweig’s papers after he and his wife committed suicide in Brazil during World War Two and only published in the original German in 1982.

The novel tells the story of Christine Hoflehner, a postal clerk in a small Austrian town: 25, but already on her way to become a career fonctionnaire:

Her hand with its pale fingers will raise and lower the same rattly wicket thousands upon thousands of times more, will toss hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of letters onto the cancelling desk with the same swiveling motion, will slam the blackened brass canceller onto hundreds of thousands or millions of stamps with the same brief thump.

Then, out of the blue, she gets an invitation to join a wealthy aunt in Switzerland. She’s exposed to money, glamor, fashion, society … and then sent back home. As an old tune from World War One put it, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm, After They’ve Seen Paree?” Well, as Zweig shows with his typically bitterly realistic touch, you can’t … but neither can Christine just leap over the walls of income, expenses, class boundaries, social mores. You’ll have to buy a copy of the book yourself to find out how it ends. And you probably don’t even need the publisher’s cheap-shot description of the novel as “Cinderella meets Bonnie and Clyde” to entice you, if you’re a fellow lover of fine neglected books.

The Village Voice polls writers on favorite obscure books

Source: “Our Favorite Writers Pick Their Favorite Obscure Books”, the Village Voice, 13 May 2008

In an attempt to get folks thinking about something other than best-sellers for their summer reading lists, the Village Voice polled sixteen writers to name their favorite obscure book. At least one suggestion is utterly cryptic: of Jim Dodge’s Fup, which has been in print forever and had its steady stream of fans, Colum McCann writes, “The less said about it, the better.”

On the other hand, Jennifer Egan got me interested in Harold Q. Masur’s detective novels from the 1940s and 1950s with these opening lines from You Can’t Live Forever:

It started with a summons, a brunette, and a Turk.

The summons was in my pocket, the brunette was in trouble, and the Turk was dead.

Egan writes, “In his savvy, stylish novels of the ’40s and ’50s, Masur manages to wink continuously at the detective genre even as he revels in it.”

Novelist Donna Tartt offers Blood in the Parlor, by Dorothy Dunbar, commenting that, “Each of the 12 stories is an account of a 19th-century murder told with a light, macabre sense of humor. I’d love to see it back in print with illustrations by Edward Gorey.” Ed Park names an early novel by Harry Stephen Keeler, whose goofily bizarre mysteries have been rediscovered lately and who now has his own society of fans. Jonathan Ames nominates The Lunatic at Large, one of several of the prolific Scots comic writer J. Storer Clouston you can read or download online from Project Gutenberg. Between this article and this site, we may be able to put a dent in the sales from Oprah’s book club.

“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” brings Neglected Writer Winifred Watson to Screen

Released by Focus Films in March 2008, “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” brings to the big screen the novel of the same name by Winifred Watson, one of a generation of British women writers sometimes referred to as “the middlebrows”.

The film probably owes its existence to the fine work of Persephone Books, which reissued the book in 2000 and has devoted itself to rediscovering writers such as Watson, E. M. Delafield, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and others. And thanks to the film, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day has sold over 23,000 copies, by far the press’ best seller to date.

Watson lacks a Wikipedia entry so far, but you can read her Independent obituary online at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/winifred-watson-640426.html.

Faber Finds: a Major Neglected Books Series Launches

Debuting June 2008: Faber Finds, the biggest venture into republication of neglected books since the start of NYRB Classics. In the words of the publisher, the aim of the series “is to restore to print for future generations a wealth of lost classics.”

With an initial list of 100 titles, Faber Finds will already be well on its way to keeping pace with NYRB Classics. The first set includes a few books that appear on a number of lists on this site–Keith Douglas’ Alamein to Zem Zem, which Faber reissued back in 1992 and Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, for example–but some other previously unmentioned ones, such as A Sword for Mr. Fitton, the first of a series of novels along the lines of the Patrick O’Brien’s popular Jack Aubrey stories, and Miss Willmott of Warley Place, a biography of one of the first woman landscape gardeners that currently fetches over $100 in first edition.

Faber promises that the list “will grow and embrace fiction, thrillers, sci-fi, memoirs, biographies, history, poetry, travel books, popular science and books for younger readers.” The publisher also invites readers “to let us know what you’d like to see back in print” by emailing suggestions to [email protected]. You can even enter a prize drawing for a free copy of P. H. Newby’s Something to Answer For, which won the very first Booker Prize back in 1969.

A most welcome addition to the bookshelves.

Sincerely, Willis Wayde, by John P. Marquand

· Excerpt
· Editor’s Comments
· Other Comments
· Find Out More

· Locate a Copy


Cover of first edition of 'Sincerely, Willis Wayde'
When he had come under Mr. Henry Harcourt’s personal supervision, Willis could not help see that he was regarded in a new light by everyone in the plant. The workmen he had always known were as friendly to him as ever. Labor, he was to learn later, seldom could be made to take an interest in management; but is was different in the office, where people he had known through many summers now gave him appraising, suspicious looks. Willis could sympathize, because he had been pushed forward above the heads of many who had been working there for years. He knew that Mr. Briggs in the sales department disapproved of his promotion. Mr. Briggs had told him that he had worked at Harcourt for fifteen years before he had been pulled off the road to be assistant sales manager. You worked your way up from the bottom in those days, and the way to learn business was doing business, instead of studying at some school. Mr.Hewett had a more generous attitude, perhaps because he knew that his days at the mill were almost over. Mr. Hewett often told Willis to watch this or that, because Willis might be in his shoes some day. He spoke only half seriously, and Willis was under no illusions, since it would obviously be years before he could ever manage Harcourt’s.

His father’s attitude was what disturbed Willis most.

“Son,” his father said on evening, “I had a friend once, out in San Francisco. We’d been working together building dams for Pacific Gas and Electric, and then he joined up with Standard Oil. I remember when he took the boat to China. We had quite a lot of drinks the night before, telling each other what we were going to do, because we were pretty young then, and kids all want to be American heroes. Now I suppose you want to be one, too, but I don’t any more. It’s hard enough to try to be what you are. Well, anyway, I stood on the pier seeing Bill off, and I had quite a head that morning. I was there quite a while watching the ship pull out, seeing it get smaller, and I knew Bill was going somewhere I wasn’t ever. Well, it’s the same with you. Only just remember this one thing. Every now and then take a look at yourself, and try to be sure where the hell you’re going. I can’t tell you because I wouldn’t know.

Editor’s Comments

For a while in the middle of the last century, John P. Marquand was the most successful novelist in America–successful in consistently hitting the top of the best seller lists as well as in earning critical recognition, including the Pulitzer Prize for his 1937 novel, The Late George Apley. By the time he published Sincerely, Willis Wayde, however, both his sales and literary reputation were on a decline–one that’s continued till today. Aside from his early magazine fiction and his Mr. Moto series of detective novels, Marquand’s books had been subtle satires of East Coast–and particularly Boston–society. His approach and subject matter probably seemed a bit soft and a bit stale compared to that of Grace Metalious or Norman Mailer.

Ironically, as Millicent Bell writes in her authoritative biography, John P. Marquand: An American Life:

Marquand first thought of Sincerely, Willis Wayde as a novel that would firmly put behind him the lost world of early twentieth century America. He planned to depict a hero “swatting it out with life, strictly in the urban world of today–somebody on the down-wind side of the point of no return.”

C. Hugh Holman called Sincerely, Willis Wayde Marquand’s “least typical book,” and several prominent features do separate this novel from his other serious works. Many of Marquand’s narratives rely heavily on the use of flashbacks to tell the story; here, he looks relentlessly forward as we follow Willis Wayde’s rise from being the son of a factory engineer to the CEO of a major industrial conglomerate. Unlike other Marquand protagonists, Willis never puts up seriously struggle with his own doubts. He takes quick note of them and then moves on. And Sincerely, Willis Wayde is more a novel of business than society.

In this case, the business is that of industrial belting. Marquand shrewdly chose a product that had no consumers but other businesses–manufacturers, supply companies, supermarket chains. This allows his character to stay immersed in a world where rational choices based on bottom lines, rather than that of individual purchases influenced by unpredictable psychological factors. Which is fortunate for Willis, for whom psychology is never his best subject: “It was a relief to meet someone like Mrs. Jacoby, who did not have the Harcourt’s sentiments, because anyone with common sense knew that sentiment had no place in industrial transactions.”

Starting out as a protégée of Mr. Henry Harcourt, the aging head of Harcourt Mill, a family business rooted in Marquand’s favorite fictional town of Clyde, Massachusetts, Willis might have stayed with the firm, slowing working his way up the ladder like Mr. Briggs or Mr. Hewett. But he has also grown up in an ambiguous relationship with Harcourt’s son and grandchildren, sort of an unofficial foster child or poor cousin. Bess Harcourt, the , flirts with Willis at times as they become adults, but sticks with convention in the end, marrying a dull but wealthy heir.

A different man–a traditional Marquand hero, perhaps–would have shrugged and soldiered on, sadder but wiser. Willis’ father, a better judge of human nature, counsels him to be realistic:

“You’re trying to be something you aren’t,” he said. “You watch it, Willis. You keep on trying to be something you aren’t, and you’ll end up a son of a bitch. You can’t help it, if you live off other people.”

“I don’t get your point. I honestly don’t,” Willis said.

And he truly doesn’t. Instead, he lands a job with a high-priced New York consulting firm. And from that point on, Willis never looks back. He comes across a struggling belting factory and insinuates his way into a position with the firm. Through hard work and dedicated boosterism, he not only saves the company but takes it to a position from which he orchestrates a merger with Harcourt Mills.

Willis strives to be the very model of a modern major businessman of the late Industrial Age. He rises early every morning, does twenty push-ups, and reads fifteen minutes from Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf. He joins the Rotary, fancies himself a fine speaker, and moves through a series of bigger and better houses and cars. And he comes to hold model opinions of where American culture was going:

They did not like their country in spite of all the fine things America had done for them, such as the education it had given them and the chance to sell their books and motion-picture rights for enormous prices. They did not like America in spite of the opportunity America gave them to acquire lovely homes and have their pictures in Life and Time. These people were constantly sneering at solid institutions, snapping at the very hand that fed them. When they wrote about business, they looked upon people who earned an honest dollar by selling products, running banks or production lines as crass materialists, devoid of ideals and social conscience. Businessmen in all these novels were ruthless and very dumb. Willis often wished that he might have a talk with some of these writers. He wished that he could show them that men who ran factories and sold the products and dickered with bankers, tax examiners and labor union organizers were not as dumb as a lot of novelists who always seemed to be at Palm Beach with some blonde.

Eventually, Willis’ earnest pursuit of profit and efficiency lead him to sacrifice Harcourt Mill itself. Its aging plant and workforce can’t compete with newer, larger factories, despite his promise to the Harcourts–and himself–that “He certainly would do everything he could–within reason–to keep it open.”
Time magazine cover portrait of John P. Marquand

That “within reason” is a wonderful and telling touch by Marquand. One reason his reputation with critics and readers has suffered in the last half century is that, despite a sometimes wooden prose style, he is often too subtle and wise for his own good. Time’s reviewer compared Willis to George Babbitt, but Marquand was never one for stereotypes. No one really goes through life without self-reflection. Even with his strong drive for success, Marquand shows Willis constantly checking himself–checking if he’s wearing the right clothes, saying the right things, making the right choices.

The problem is that these are all glances. Genuine doubts penetrate to one’s core, and these would just slow Willis down. So when he stops to search his soul, it’s more in the way you pat your pockets to reassure yourself that the car keys are still there. Marquand deftly conveys this conscientious moral blindness in the following passage as Willis prepares to tell the Harcourts that he’s going to close their family business:

The art of persuasion, Willis believed, was the very keystone of American business and the basis of American industrial prestige, and he was never more convinced of its importance than during his talk with Bill and Bess. Without exaggeration, never in his life had he so keenly wanted two people to understand and sympathize with his point of view and to agree with his conclusions. It would have been unthinkable to have quarreled after so many years. It was a time for a sincere interchange of reaction, a time when every question must be answered.

The strength of his approach, as he talked to Bill and Bess, lay in his sincere sympathy.

Capitalism, as Marquand portrays it, is not evil. Rather, it is more like a parallel universe, one with laws that are simply incompatible with the world of emotions, art, and traditions. When Willis finds himself in the latter world, as in the novel’s final scenes, where he struggles to enjoy (as a model successful tourist) a long-awaited vacation in Paris with his wife, Marquand shows what a sad and dull refugee he is. Away from the office and boardroom, Willis is like an actor without a part. He just moves around the stage getting in everyone’s way. You could say that the novelist of society ultimately wins out over the novelist of business in Sincerely, Willis Wayde. No one gets to stay in the office forever.

I consider Marquand one of the very few 20th century American novelists who writes like a grown-up, and I don’t want to close this review without noting that Sincerely, Willis Wayde also features one of the better portraits of a marriage since that other classic novel of business colliding with society, William Dean Howells’ The Rise of Silas Lapham. Willis’ wife, Sylvia, sees him more clearly and realistically than he ever does himself. Yet she also understands that she wants the comforts and luxuries that his ambition brings to their marriage and respects his talents too much to skewer him. In that way, she exemplifies maturity in Marquand’s eyes. “Mature people,” he once said, “are happier. At least they can rationalize the world in such a way that they are not going to beat their heads against a wall.”

The critic Maxwell Geismar wrote that, “Mr. Marquand knows all the little answers. He avoids the larger questions.” I think this insults Marquand’s intelligence–and Marquand’s respect for ours. Large questions about how one can reconcile business demands with human needs can be seen throughout Sincerely, Willis Wayde. It’s to Marquand’s credit that he knows most readers are smart enough to know there no simple answers.

Other Comments

· Harlan Ellison, who wrote on his website:

That Marquand continues to be overlooked is nothing less than criminal. He’s one of the few authors I’ve read that’s skewered institutions without mocking the troubled plights of his protagonists. Truly the harder road to travel. His characters are all too human in the foolish decisions they make. His married couples are astutely observed, steeped in the worst of compromises. Remarkably, Marquand was criticized for chronicling flatline heroes, but I can’t think of another author that’s dared to display the harsh undertow of comfy middle class life quite like him. Too many people trundle through life without even the inkling of an inner revelation. And the delicate decision of whether to watch haplessly as someone destroys herself or to intervene and scare them straight becomes a tricky ethical tightrope.

· Terry Teachout, on his About Last Night blog:

Babbitt with a backstory. This undeservedly forgotten 1955 blockbuster follows a New England businessman along the twisty road that leads from youthful idealism to mature vengefulness. Less subtle than Point of No Return, Marquand’s masterpiece, it offers a harsher, explicitly satirical view of life among the capitalists, and though Marquand’s Lewis-like portrayal of his anti-hero’s philistinism is a bit heavy-handed, I can’t think of a more convincing fictional description of the high price of getting what you think you want.

· John Kenneth Galbraith, in the New York Times, from 1984:

Neglected also is the modern corporate executive, the university-trained managerial type, wherever he lives. Thirty years ago – in 1955 – John Marquand made a brilliant beginning on this task with Sincerely, Willis Wayde, a novel that did not receive the attention it deserved from being, I think, too fully abreast of its time. Willis is a highly competent, soundly schooled, relentlessly ambitious, deeply offensive graduate of the Harvard Business School; he brings the best in modern management techniques to bear on the Harcourt Mill in Clyde, Mass., an old and distinguished manufacturer of industrial belting. He also brings off a greatly advantageous merger, moves the headquarters to the Middle West and, eventually, as part of a very intelligent strategy – strategic planning even then – abandons the original New England operation.

· Time, 28 February 1955

…. Marquand manages a highly skillful double-switch with the reader’s emotions. Early in the book, he smoothly turns the nice youngster into a glossy horror; later on he turns the horror into a rather sad character who compels sympathy. Novelist Marquand’s plot may sag at points, but the caricature of his hero is fascinating, down to the last page, when wise and forbearing Sylvia tucks in her husband with a kiss and a Nembutal. Perhaps the most pathetic thing about Willis Wayde is that, in his own peculiar way, he believes in what he is doing, is sincere even in the dreadful, calculating little social-business notes he always signs: Sincerely, Willis Wayde.

· F. H. Guidry, Christian Science Monitor, 24 February 1955

Mr Marquand’s masterful ability to delineate mood-creating detail in both setting and character is widely acknowledged. One can “walk in imagination” with his people, not only with a pleasing sense of compassion but with an agreeable awareness of irony as well.

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Sincerely, Willis Wayde, by John P. Marquand
Boston: Little, Brown, 1955

Small World, by Carol Deschere

The fact that Carol Deschere Berendt, mother of John Berendt, author of the best-selling Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and The City of Falling Angels, once published a novel, Small World, under her maiden name, would not in itself qualify the book for mention here.

But, as Syracure Post-Standard writer Laura T. Ryan noted two years ago in her blog, Karen DeCrow, a pioneering feminist and one-time president of the National Organization for Women, was passed along a copy back in the late 1970s. DeCrow was so moved by the book that, “… she typed up a 5-page letter and sent it to everyone she knew in the publishing world, hoping to get it re-released.” Ryan quotes from the letter:

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….

… For women who dream of art, music, literature, and affairs of state there are few alternatives — lovers, suicide, or worst of all, resignation. With the broadening of the small world for women, hopefully novels about Emma (Bovary), about Kay, will become historical documents.

As Berendt himself describes the book in an interview on Barnes & Noble’s website,

The story concerns a family of four living in upstate New York. It’s charming and beautifully written. Carol Deschere, the author, happens to be my mother, and the family depicted in her novel closely resembles our own. 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.

Deschere died last year at the age of 92. Small World remains out of print–in fact, a quick search of AddAll.com located a grand total of three copies, at $48, $200, and almost $1,000, respectively. Two reviewers on Amazon remembered it fondly enough to post 5-star reviews of the book, so Karen DeCrow is not alone in hoping that this book may someday find its way to republication.

The Invisible Flag, by Peter Bamm

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A man–a human being–is wounded. In the split second in which he is hit he is hurled out of the fighting machine and has become, in an instant, utterly helpless. Up to that moment all his energy was directed forward, against an enemy army stretching across the landscape like an imaginary line, its exact position unknown. So engrossed was he in what went on round him that he was left with no conscious thought about himself. but now he is thrown back on himself: the sight of his own blood restores him to full self-awareness. At one moment he was helping to change the course of history: at the next he cannot do anything for himself.

Hours afterwards night falls. Gray fear envelopes him. Will he bleed to death? Will he be found? Is he going to be hit again? Are the Germans retreating? Will he be captured by the Russians?

An eternity passes before a couple of soldiers drag him a short way back. There, in a shell crater or some primitive dugout, the first outpost of medicine, sits the regimental medical officer. The wounded man is given a bandage, a splint, a tourniquet, an injection to ease his pain. Then he is left to lie around somewhere, wondering again if he will ever be moved. At last he is carried further and eventually put into an ambulance. He finishes up among a multitude of other wounded men, lying in semi-darkness and a fearful silence broken only by the groans of those around him. At long last his stretcher is lifted again. From the moment he comes into the bright circle of light under the theater lamp he ceases to be a mere lump of animate matter and becomes a patient, a man who is suffering. When he leaves the operating theater, the pitiful, dirty, bloodstained creature is once again a human being, cared and provided for.

This small miracle is accomplished with a piece of thin steel which weighs less than a couple of ounces–a scalpel. At its tip converge years of skill and training; a technique developed through centuries of experiment; the immense and complicated organization of a modern army’s medical service. And above it, as it cuts deep to heal, above that little tent in the wood by the Dniester, there flutters beneath the wide Ukrainian sky a small dauntless flag: an invisible flag: the flag of humanity.

Editor’s Comments

Cover of first U.S. paperback edition of 'The Invisible Flag'Peter Bamm’s The Invisible Flag is an extraordinarily well-written semi-fictional memoir of his experiences as a field surgeon with the German Army on the Eastern Front in World War Two. When it was first published in 1956, the Times Literary Supplement called it “a masterpiece,” and the book is studded with passages of stunning prose equal to and even better than that quoted above. Bamm fell in love with the Russian landscape even as he saw it torn up in brutal fighting. One imagines him in company with Konstantin Paustovsky, sharing a drink outside a dacha while they took in the beauty of a summer twilight in the Ukraine.

In the course of the book, Bamm’s duties take him rolling forward across the steppes in the blazing summer of 1941; enduring bitter winters that threaten lives even more immediately than combat; into the hills of the Crimea and the mountains of northern Georgia; and then, with the long retreat beginning with Stalingrad, back through the Ukraine and into Poland and Eastern Prussia. In each place, Bamm notes how nature carries on oblivious of man’s activities around her. He makes us feel the sweat blinding him as he operates under a blazing sun and the bitter winds biting his skin as he trudges through deep snow to reach a rear command post.

He also brings a gallery of characters alive: rugged and ingenious NCOs who regularly manage to locate food, supplies, horses, or wagons for Bamm’s unit, a Wermacht equivalent to the U.S. Army portable surgical hospital; a Russian POW who staggers into the unit’s camp one morning and remains as a helper for the next four years; civilians who display exceptional compassion and generosity even when they’ve lost everything and others who begrudge the slightest favor to their own; and veteran officers who struggle on despite the hopeless of inevitable defeat and the insanity of the Nazi regime.

In real life, Bamm was one Curt Emmrich, a surgeon who had served with the German Army in World War One–a highly educated and cultured man who had traveled the world, spoke French, and quoted Homer and Virgil. His deep pride in his own professionalism as a doctor and soldier is evident throughout the book. He allies himself with other experienced officers and medical men and contrasts his views and actions with those of the S.S. and other Nazi party members. In fact, he refers to Nazis in general as “the others” throughout the book. Bamm and his fellow officers and men appear to hold themselves to a higher moral standard: “The orgy of revenge in which the Dictator was indulging was complemented by an orgy of servility among his creatures. To the soldiers all this was repugnant.”

He does not deny in anyway the atrocities that were going on around him throughout the campaign on the Eastern Front. He recalls Jews being led away to the outskirts of a village, forced to dig a trench, then shot and bulldozed into it. He cites the case of one officer who was imprisoned for taking photos of such an event. He knows that Jews were taken into vans and gassed. He knows that Communists were hunted down and executed. His justification for remaining silent in the face of these actions is merely that it would have been futile to protest. Instead, his focus is on doing his duty as a surgeon, trying to save the lives that pass through his tent–regardless of whether they are German or Russian, Christian or atheist. One presumes no Jew ever made it to his operating table.

Bamm made a conscious moral compromise that weighed his ability to save lives and spare suffering over his ability to interfere with the gross outrages going on around his. One must accept this fact to read The Invisible Flag. Some may not be able to. Within the boundaries of Bamm’s choice, the book is rich in superb descriptive writing:

The whole crawling mass has meandered twenty yards onto the open field to by-pass a dud bomb that lies unexploded in the middle of the road. To left and right the fields are strewn with a weird assortment of stoves, milking stools, bedsteads, radio sets, munition boxes, lamps. It is like the aftermath of a flood. Every few hundred yards is a broken-down vehicle; or a dead horse with a swollen belly; or a corpse. Crows rise with a heavy flapping of wings. Tattered gray clouds chase without pause high above the living and the dead; high above beast and man.

The Invisible Flag received enthusiastic reviews and sold well, both in Germany and in numerous translations, but has been out of print in English since the late 1950s. If another powerful semi-fictional memoir of war on the Eastern Front, Guy Sajer’s The Forgotten Soldier, deserves reprinting and notice despite continuing controversies over its veracity, then there is no excuse for Peter Bamm’s remarkable book being left in the shadows.

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The Invisible Flag, by Peter Bamm (pseudonym of Curt Emmrich)
London: Faber, 1956
New York: John Day, 1956; Signet (paperback), 1958

Six Lives and a Book, by Claude Houghton

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Editor’s Comments

Even though I found his I am Jonathan Scrivener only a partial success, Claude Houghton’s approach the question of identity was so unusual that I wanted to explore his work further. A few weeks ago, I received a copy of his 1943 novel, Six Lives and a Book, which I had quite honestly ordered for no reason but that I thought the title promised something interesting.

Six Lives and a Book is much more more experimental in its structure than I am Jonathan Scrivener. The first sixty-some pages of the novel are actually excerpts from a fictional work titled The House Not Made With Hands by an author named Oldfield. This novel is set in a residential hotel in London. The narrator, a man named Mavers, encounters the different inhabitants of the house, who range from a good-time, perhaps gold-digging girl to an aging miser. As in I am Jonathan Scrivener, these encounters are usually long conversations in which the two characters seem to probe each other to detect his or her true character, beliefs, or values. But it is on a London bus one evening that Mavers suddenly sees through another man’s public image–literally:

Opposite was an old man leaning forward on a short thick walking stick, who was gazing at me with eyes which might have been concerned with any one of a number of far-away things, but which certainly were not concerned with me. He was a heavy, shabby, lugubrious figure with wisps of dirty white hair escaping under a scarecrow hat. His attitude implied immense fatigue, the face was a record of disasters rather than a human countenance, but, nevertheless, there were hints of stunted grandeur about him–hints which compelled you speculate about this derelict man who leaned on his stick, staring at nothing.

Then–suddenly–I saw this man as he would have been if all his possibilities had been realised. It was as if another man were sitting by his side–the men he would have been if all his stunted qualities had attained maximum growth. And, which was terrifying, there was no doubt whatever that the wreck of a man in the scarecrow hat and the transcendent being by his side were one and the same.

From this moment on, Mavers finds these visions of a person’s potential coming to him again, until he sees the other of six other people in the house he shares. “Every one,” he concludes,

… lives in a strange and haunted house, for our essential lives are concerned with principalities and powers, and our human relationships are a reflection of our combat with those powers and principalities.

And with that, Houghton abruptly switches to the Public Library at Marleham, a small port in Devonshire, where Olga Purvis, during the time of the Blitz. Olga Purvis, a London woman made homeless by the bombing, is staying in Marleham and decides to check out The House Not Made With Hands.

Although a newcomer to Marleham, she has already come to know a number of other temporary residents: a rugged veteran merchant sailor waiting for a new ship after having his last torpedoed; an heiress grieving her lover, an RAF ace recently killed in combat; a radical; a charity organizer also displaced by the Blitz–six in all, just as in the novel.

And just as in the novel, these characters meet, talk, clash and find common bonds. The borrowed copy of The House Not Made With Hands circulates among them. Each has some revelation about his or her true desires or concerns while killing time in this sort-of limbo. In the end, each leaves Marleham for a new destination or undertaking–with a truer understanding of himself.

Or at least I assume so. Frankly, as in Jonathan Scrivener, I found that Houghton is either too subtle in his dialogue for a clod like me to pick up his nuances or just plain obtuse. At the end of Six Lives and a Book, the most interesting character, a nameless, brutish man (not one of the six) who haunts Olga, playing an erotic cat-and-mouse game with her,is about to return the The House Not Made With Hands to the library when he thumbs through the book and comes across the two passages above. He recalls Olga reading them to him. “But then,” Houghton adds, “there had been another entry [in her diary] which she had not read. She had exclaimed: “No, It’s not that! I know that’s nonsense!”

When I read this, I began to wonder if Six Lives and a Book wasn’t just some great shaggy dog tale. I have to admit that I had been hooked early on and kept reading, expecting to come to a climax in which connections among the characters or some event lead to a dramatic revelation … only to wind up with “I know that’s nonsense!” Even now, as I run through the book again for this piece, I half-believe the joke was on me. I find it a little hard to believe, when as reliable a source as the critic and lexicographer Eric Partridge considered it one of Houghton’s best.

But then … having compared Jonathan Scrivener to the works of Paul Auster, particularly his New York Trilogy, it occurs to me that some people think those novels are shaggy dog tales, too. It takes a good storyteller to carry off an effective shaggy dog tale, because the key is to draw the reader or listener along to the point that the narrative pull overrides one’s better judgments.

So is Six Lives and a Book a glimpse into men’s true souls? Or just a bait-and-switch?

Read it and draw your own conclusion.

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Six Lives and a Book, by Claude Houghton
London: Collins Publishers, 1943

The Shadow Riders, by Isabel Paterson

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Editor’s Comments

Cover of first edition of 'The Shadow Riders'
When H. L. Mencken reviewed Isabel Paterson’s first novel, The Shadow Riders, he concluded that despite “a certain readableness”, it would soon be “dead and forgotten.” And so it has remained, along with all the rest of Paterson’s novels, even with her rediscovery as a Libertarian icon. Frankly, in comparison to her masterpiece, Never Ask the End or even The Golden Vanity, The Shadow Riders is easy for anyone but a completist to neglect.

Yet despite its limitations–wooden characters and sometimes even stiffer prose–The Shadow Riders has a few rewards for the reader who pulls it off the shelf every decade or so.

Paterson’s wit, for one. The book’s epigraph deserves a place alongside any of Dorothy Parker’s best quips:

There is an old proverb which says that one can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. It is doubtless a true saying; I only wonder what one does with the flies after having caught them.

Lesley Johns, who wins the prize of protagonist after a neck-and-neck race with several characters through much of the book, is clearly Paterson’s avatar. Raised on farm by a long-suffering mother and ne’er-do-well father, Lesley works her way up from clerk to journalist at one of the local papers in the fictional version of Calgary, Alberta, where the novel takes place. Like Paterson, Lesley is clear-eyed about social hypocrites and always keeps a pin handy for bursting bubbles:

“Mrs. McConach this afternoon was almost in tears of ecstasy because the Duke of Inverarie is buying an estate somewhere hereabouts. Her grandfather was a crofter, turned out to make more room for deer on the Duke’s grandfather’s Scotch estate…. [B]ut then the Duke’s great-grandfather’s grandfather was simply the most successful cattle thief on the border.”

“Society,” Paterson writes, “is run on the Berkeleian theory that everything exists only in the imagination. What could be more comfortable?”

“Everything,” she adds, “in this sense includes everything but money. There is something so grossly material about money as to resist the strongest doses of philosophy.” Paterson’s hard-nosed view of money and its importance in a capitalist world comes from her many years of living from payday to payday, earning every step of her own way. This economic realism makes it hard not to notice how artificial Paterson’s attempts to at romanticism are. For over 350 pages, she leads her audience along through the on-again, off-again relationship between Lesley and Chan Herrick, the millionaire’s nephew who gradually evolves from lounge lizard to stalwart entrepreneur. They wind up, of course, in each other’s arms. We don’t buy it and I doubt Paterson did, either. “I want freedom, not power,” Lesley remarks at one point. Why, then, would this woman saddle herself with this future Rotary Club officer?

After all, early on in the book, she reads Chan’s true nature:

“I shouldn’t have guessed,” she said, “that you are a shadow rider.”

“A what?” he asked. When she fell into her own vernacular he was always interested. “What is a shadow rider? Sounds rather poetic.”

“It isn’t,” she retorted cruelly. “You watched your own shadow for a long time back there. If you did that on the rodeo, and the range-boss saw you–you’d be looking for a new job. It’s the lazy ones, the indifferent ones, do that.”

When Chan and Lesley unite at the book’s end, she is about to head to Chicago, for a job with a big newspaper there–which is pretty close to what Paterson did in real life herself. It’s a shame she didn’t let the best character in The Shadow Riders escape, too.

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The Shadow Riders, by Isabel Paterson
Toronto: S. B. Gundy, 1916
New York: John Lane Company,1916

Fortune is a Woman, by Hermes Nye

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Cover of first edition of 'Fortune is a Woman'
I had been sitting all afternoon in the office alone, with my feet on the desk, reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Building up a law practice in a depression is a slow way to get rich, but it’s a fine chance to improve the mind, learn card tricks or take up the five-string banjo. Well, here I was with my mind on red hair and high heels, and I went down the elevator in the Santa Fe Building and came out into Commerce Street. I was passing the Waldorf Hotel Bar. This bar was usually full of whores, horse players, and the vendors of razor blades and rubber goods who made the offices in those days. I saw Gail Lindquist at one of the tables just inside the door; she had a tall brew in front of her and was looking out into the street with the enraptured stare seen commonly on the faces of seasoned beer drinkers and Botticelli madonnas. Gail was not the redhead. In fact, I had thought very little of Gail Lindquist up to that time; and if I had just walked off into the Commerce Street traffic and broken a leg or two, or gone upstairs and picked up a dose–anyhow, I looked in and there was Gail.

Gail Lindquist, college graduate, only not of Texas University, but of some place in Southern California, some hick school you never heard of, one of those places where the head of the English department coaches girls’ basketball, heads up dramatics (As You Like It and Charley’s Aunt), and spends his summer vacations on his father-in-law’s farm. A rangy, limed-oak blonde, negligently dressed, sometimes with a delicate white pimple or two on her face (when she had had a fighting letter from her mother as I was later to find out), a small pointed chin, not much jaw to speak of, but with (as I was also to find out) knots of formidable Calvinist muscles along the jaw line, a small wart on one cheek, the loveliest gray eyes you have ever seen, and a fine mind. All this, together with a light, soaring, I’ve-saved-the-last-dance-for-you voice, if you can still say that sort of thing without having people compare you to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Editor’s Comments

Hermes NyeHermes Nye was born in Chicago, but became a legendary East Texas character: a lawyer, folksinger, folklorist, novelist, humorist, and local liberal activist. Nye clearly never took anything, including himself, too seriously. When, in the midst of the 1960s folk boom, he published a guide to folk songs, he gave it a triply-redundant title that included its own punchline: How to be a folksinger; How to sing and present folksongs; or, The folksinger’s guide; or, Eggs I have laid.

Fortune is a Woman is a genuinely neglected book. First published as a paperback original in 1958, it passed unreviewed out of print and most copies have long since disappeared. The half-dozen or so copies to be found for sale on the Internet run as high as $50 a copy. About its only notice in the last 50 years was its inclusion in James Ward Lee’s 1987 survey, Classics of Texas Fiction.

The novel is narrated by Paul Cotton, a young lawyer getting his start under the wing of a wise and patient veteran of Dallas courts, Harry Alderson, known as “the Chief.” He’s living on an allowance from his father, sharing a room at the YMCA, lusting after a cute waitress at his usual diner, and hoping to hang out his own shingle in a year or two. And he’s depressed: too educated not to have ambitions and too lazy to hold out much hope of realizing them. For him to make a fortune, it will have to land in his lap.

Which is what happens, in a very roundabout and unexpected way–rather as Nye approaches the story himself. Paul and Gail agree to pair up with his roommate on a double date, only to find out the fourth party is the coveted waitress. Paul finds consolation of a sort in Gail’s company and over the next week or so, becomes convinced he’s deeply in love with her.

Gail, unfortunately, is not. She seems to have a complicated relationship or two going in addition to her bemused flirtation with Paul. She also has a taste for exotic forms of rot-gut:
“At the apartment, she had some Mexican liqueur made up out of one part brimstone, eight parts of alcohol and two parts crankcase drippings from Monterrey taxi cabs.” A former lover shows up, as do Gail’s parents, and eventually she’s found, smoking gun in hand, over a man’s body.

In the meantime, Paul has a real case or two, and before he knows it, this boy has more complications going on than his poor little soul can handle. Heart-broken, afraid his short-lived legal career is about to go down in flames, he finds himself leaning out the window of his 11th story office, contemplating a quick way out.

Fortunately for Paul and the reader, Nye is far too amused by life’s comedy to let things get too far out of hand. Most of the loose threads get wound in and haphazardly fastened, leaving Paul with his suddenly-deceased boss’ practice, a win or two under his belt, and enough perspective not to head for the window again.

Frankly, though, the story is the least of this book. What makes this novel a delight to read is Nye’s wry, knowing, and unpretentious voice:

We had a settlement pending in a will case with his firm, Bamberg and Callahan. It was a bastard of a case, the legatees as contentious and stiff-necked as a group of Lutheran schismatics, and money as thick as flies around a boarding-house syrup pitcher. I went up to the sixteenth floor, and into the door with all the names on it; it was a big firm, they had enough lawyers around to make up two football teams including the line coaches and waterboys. The receptionists here had sculptured hair and big breasts and sat at electric typewriters that double-spaced whenever you cleared your throat. Some senior member on his Grand Tour had paid too much money for a lot of seventeenth century Neapolitan oils and these were on every wall, softly lighted; and with the wine-colored carpets and deep leather divans, the place looked like a fifty-dollar whorehouse. Except for the library. The library had everything but the original Magna Carta and the stone tablets of Hammurabi. “Looking up the law at Bam and Call” was a favorite expression among the young lawyers, since it saved you a trip to the courthouse; and there were always those typewriters to look at….

You can tell that Nye must have been a hell of a guy to while away a night in a Dallas bar in. He knows all the town’s streets, offices, taverns, and all its characters–the old money, the new money, the just-getting-by, and the down-and-out. And as the novel takes place in the midst of the Depression, not much separates any of them:

An air swept over me, sour with the smell of home dry-cleaning; the worst air in the world, the air of failure. And not just spiritual or moral failure; but financial failure. There was a secondhand reek to it, blowing off used-car lots and across seas of dependency. You may recognize this failure, amigo, it has its own signature: the eyes of the brave little woman who has to “make do”; the seven o’clock bus; the whiff of rubber cement as you stick the dime shoe-soles onto your Thom McAns, the ping of twelve-year-old Chevrolet doors; the voice that will let you know when there is an opening, or that the truck will be around at three for the bedroom suite.

Another writer gifted with Nye’s narrative voice might have invented a wise-cracking detective like Gregory Macdonald’s Fletch. But I suspect that would have required more design than Nye cared to put into this book. Instead, he manages to pull off two worthy feats. First, he writes a gently comic ballad celebrating his beloved city without glossing over any of her flaws or vices. And second, he manages to take on the Bildungsroman–a form that has been the ruin of many a more ambitious writer–without leaving the reader ready to wring the writer’s or protagonist’s neck–or both–by the book’s end. In its own way, Fortune is a Woman has a lot in common with that now-canonized 20th century masterpiece, The Adventures of Augie March. I have a feeling, though, that if he’d ever found himself sharing a drink with Hermes Nye, Bellow would be the one doing the listening.

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Fortune is a Woman, by Hermes Nye
New York: Signet Books, December 1958

Catching Up: The Dogs by Ivan Nazhivin; Mary’s Country, by Harold Mead; My Hey-Day, by Virginia Faulkner

Life does get in the way of one’s hobbies at times. NeglectedBooks.com has had to suffer the fate of its subjects since mid-December, and even now I fear this post will have to be more telegraphic than usual–if I can manage that. I have to side with Pascal in believing that it takes longer to write less.

Here, at least, is a recap of recent rediscoveries:

Cover of first U.K. edition of 'Mary's Country'

Mary’s Country, by Harold Mead
London: Michael Joseph, 1957

I learned of Mary’s Country when browsing through the archive of Ken Slater’s “Something to Read” columns from Nebula Science Fiction. Slater gave the novel a big thumbs-up, writing, “All in all, whilst this may not be the happiest book of the moment, it is by far the most interesting and the most powerful. Highly recommended for a one-sitting reading. Don’t start it until you have the time to finish it . . . it is dangerous!”

Had 1984 and Lord of the Flies not been published within the decade prior to Mary’s Country, Slater might have been justified by adding that it was the most original novel of the moment. Unfortunately, anyone familiar with them would find it hard not to view Mead’s work as a mash-up of the two books. The novel opens in a state not unlike that in 1984, in which a ruling class keeps a prole-like population in check through drink, prostitution, and cheap entertainment while waging war against the hated “Dems”. As part of its master plan, the state is practicing a form of eugenics, separating out the finest physical specimens at birth and raising them to be future rulers.

Mary’s Country follows a group of such children as they watch the state collapse around them through the effects of biological warfare. After all their masters and many of their classmates have died, they band together and trek to an unknown paradise that Mary, one of the older children, has described to them. Unfortunately, as disease and chaos has destroyed their civilization, they are forced to arm themselves and fight off other bands of survivors. As they trek into the countryside, their means and moraes grow more primitive, and they adopt a totem they dub “the Watchman”. Here shades of Lord of the Flies can be seen as a new, more violent, tribal culture emerges.

Mary’s Country is certainly a powerfully-written book, and I found myself drawn by its strong narrative. But I would be hard-pressed to recommend the book for republication when ignorance of Golding and Orwell would have to be a pre-requisite for any reader hoping to experience its full effect.

The Dogs, by Ivan Nazhivin
Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co, 1931

Nazhivin’s novel is a panorama of Russia from before World War One to the height of the Russian revolution as seen through the eyes and minds of dogs. The dogs mirror society, ranging from a pair of noble Borzois and the pampered lapdog of the Grand Duke Nicholas’ mistress to Siedoi, a mutt. Despite his questionable pedigree, Siedoi is the novel’s protagonist, and manages to travel from Moscow to the country estate of a family of Russian gentry to the trenches on the Eastern Front and a prisoner-of-war camp in Austria and then back again to the estate as the human society around him progressively collapses.

Time magazine’s review of The Dogs called it, “one of the most articulate books of Russia, of human and other natures, yet written in the Tolstoi vein,” and like Tolstoi, Nazhivin displays a remarkable ability to portray his characters–both dog and human–in all their faults without passing judgment. With one exception: Peter, whom we first see as a lax and cruel kennel keeper, then as a thief, liar, coward, cheat, rapist, and, finally, Bolshevik rabble-rouser. Though Nazhivin doesn’t gloss over the problems and corruptions of Tsarist Russia, it’s clear that Peter symbolizes all the evils brought by the Communists, and the only thing lacking in the caricature are horns and a tail.

Still, The Dogs is moving account of the destruction experienced at all levels of Russian society enhanced by the novelty and humor of being told from animal perspectives. And in the much-travelled Siedoi, a flea-ridden survivor with a romantic soul, Nazhivin creates one of most memorable characters I’ve come across recently.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'My Hey-Day'

My Hey-Day, or The Crack-up of the International Set, by Princess Tulip Murphy, as told to Virginia Faulkner
New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1940

This book is pure froth–but it’s premium-quality froth. These are the purported memoirs of Princess Tulip Murphy, whose nobility is not the only thing about her of questionable provenance. After leaving her husband, “Brick-a-minute” Murphy, she manages through a combination of theft, seduction, and blackmail–though none of these offenses is so crudely named by their culprit–to elbow her way into “the International Set.” She then circulates among this amorphous band of royalty, heirs, heiresses, and hangers-on from Bajden-Baden to Cucamonga.

Each chapter recounts her adventures in a new place–Stockholm, where she meets Xerxes IX, Crown Prince of Jugo-ourway and his mother, Queen Carmen-Veranda; England, where she spents a dreary week at Sneers, the Spiltshire seat of the Earls of Quinsy; Pompei, where she takes her turn watching the famous painter, Pablo Paolo Pali at work on his prize-winning composition, “There Are More Ways of Choking a Cat than by Swallowing It With Butter, Horatio”; Mazatlan, where her friends Peter Frenzy Fripp and Olga Ostrogoth are tossed in jail for photographing an execution (“Nobody we knew,” the Princess hastens to add). Each spot offers her a chance to air yet more of her remarkable wardrobe:

I was wearing an original DeClassé of spaghetti-colored cambric, handsomely trimmed in gum-drop green duvetyn with shoulder-knots of solid tinsel. My hat was a saucy beret no bigger than an aspirin tablet, which was held to my head by a specially trained family of matching chameleons. My only jewelry, square-cut cultured emerald cuff-links, matched the duvetyn, and I carried a fish-net parasol which could also be used for water-divining.

As the world edges closer to the outbreak of World War Two, her trek eventually leads her to a yurt in forbidden Tibet, where despite the company of Lulu Alabaster, Lady Crystal Scum, and Count Udo von und zu Vonundzu, and heated political debates (“You know as well as I that Germany is dictated–but not red,” observes the Count), she finds herself bored: “But to the teeth!” Even though “there are so many armies wandering around that trains and ships are said to be unpleasantly crowded,” she resolves to head off in search of the “European belligerents”: after all, she notes, “Everyone’s going.”

As Time magazine wrote of Faulkner’s first novel, Friends and Romans, My Hey-Day “… breaks nobody’s bones or butterflies, lets no threatening skeletons loose on a frightened world, hurls no manifesto, literary or political.” What it does is offer a steady stream of wise-cracks, puns, and other comic material that holds up remarkably well considering the many decades passed since it last saw the light of day.